One Year of Obama and the Democrats’ Debacle

—David Finkel

Delivered to the Solidarity National Committee in February 2010

WHEN BARACK OBAMA was elected in November 2008, we understood that he was propelled both from below, by mass revulsion against the disasters of the Bush regime, and from above, by the corporate elites’ fears that a continuation of Bush-Cheney policies under McCain and Palin would produce a global financial meltdown and a collapse of U.S. prestige and power.

Last fall, in the NC discussion that produced our analysis of “Obama After 200 Days,” we said it would be premature to speak of a “crisis” for the administration. A year after the euphoric 2009 inauguration, it no longer looks premature. People who looked to Obama and the Democrats for leadership are bitterly disappointed, and a very peculiar brand of rightwing politics has seized the initiative. It doesn’t have an enormous mass base – a turnout of 500 people to the Tea Party Convention, with all the funding and advance publicity it received, is not overwhelming – but it has the power to set much of the agenda. It has particularly succeeded in branding Barack Obama and his policies as radical leftist – while the real Obama, as we know, is far from the “left wing” of the Democratic Party let alone the socialist left.

The Massachusetts voters weren’t necessarily thinking Scripturally on January 19, but they certainly acted out the meaning of that Biblical verse: “Because you are lukewarm I will vomit you from my mouth.” (Thanks to Dianne for reminding me.) We’ve all seen the various polls and analyses: The Democrats lost their safest Senate seat because the Democratic campaign was complacent and arrogant, and more broadly because people are demoralized and sickened by the vacuum of the “change” they voted for, by the bank and Wall Street bailouts while unemployment grows, and by their general sense that their own lives as well as the country are stuck in the mud, from the economy to health care to Afghanistan.

The electorate hasn’t turned dramatically right, hence a resurgence of the Republicans doesn’t imply a huge wave of social reaction. But it’s a serious mistake to understate the significance of this event and other recent developments. There is a new political situation, and it’s not a favorable one. We don’t want to project a sense of unrelieved pessimism, obviously – the eruption of activism around the California education crisis, for example, is hugely significant. There’s also, if less visible, reform and rank and file labor activism we need to closely follow. The focus here, however, will be how and why the administration and Congressional Democrats fumbled so badly.

What follows is a preliminary view of the elements of the new political situation, in which I’ll try to address the Democrats’ failures, the monstrous growth of corporate power, and the politics of fear. There’s another issue I want to raise, which I certainly don’t want to over-theorize but I think we should think about, having to do with the nature of “capitalist discipline” over politics.

How Democrats’ Agenda Failed

To start with what’s most visible, the Democrats as presently constituted have proven to be the most bumbling and incompetent governing party in the recent history of any major bourgeois democracy. It’s not that the Democratic Congress and Obama administration failed to implement a genuinely progressive social agenda – to end the current imperialist wars, fight for single-payer national health insurance, implement the Employee Free Choice Act, etc. The Democrats never had such an agenda, of course, and the notion that they had any serious elements of one is part of the left’s self-delusion.

The point, rather, is that the Democrats’ own centrist corporate agenda has blown up in their face: They succeeded in the bailouts and subsidies to corporate America and the financial sector – the ruling class’s option for stopping a complete economic meltdown – but failed to deliver changes that would give people hope for improvements in their own lives, especially jobs. (When president Obama came out with his too-late quasi-populist rhetoric demanding major banking reform – which from the beginning obviously should have been tied to the emergency bailouts – the stock market responded with a 500-point decline, which probably dooms that effort.)

The Democrats deserve all the contempt and ridicule they get, but we should try to go a little deeper. Part of their crisis, I think, relates to a peculiar and ironic weakening of the “capitalist discipline” I just mentioned, the discipline that safeguards the interests of capital – at least, U.S. capital – as a whole. As examples of this discipline, recall the North American Free Trade debate of 1993. NAFTA was very unpopular with the voting base of Republicans and Democrats, and disliked by most of the Congressional politicians, but it was pushed through by overwhelming ruling class pressure. More recently of course there was the Wall Street and banking bailout – “we all hated it but we voted for it,” as the president reminded Congress in the recent State of the Union speech.

A really good example is Bernanke’s reappointment as Federal Reserve chair. There were rumblings against him from both right and left, but when the possibility arose that he might be defeated led to severe tremors in the European banks and in the markets, the opposition to Bernanke quickly receded. In the end 30 Senators could vote against him, perfectly confident that the confirmation was safe.

Despite these examples, however, it strikes me that the spectacular power of corporate money in politics – now ratified and accelerated by the Supreme Court – may actually be weakening the systemic “capitalist discipline.” The Democrats’ success as a governing party depends on channeling the aspirations of their voting base, especially of course labor, into policies that protect the system as a whole. The Democrats are trying to act out that script (that’s the appeal for “bipartisanship”) but the Republicans currently are not.

I don’t want to overstate the case. There is bipartisanship on some issues, such as the drive to charterize public education and cripple teacher unionism. On Iraq, Afghanistan and the Iranian nuclear issue, Obama is pursuing the same goals as Bush with less foolish reliance on overwhelming U.S. firepower alone. (A few remarks on Palestine will be offered in conclusion below.) We will see “consensus” manufactured in the next few years on cuts in social security and other social programs.

But the current crisis of the U.S. political system is not just normal “partisanship.”

The gridlock of the health care bill illustrates both the Democrats’ disaster and the growing dysfunction of the political system.The congressional Democrats as well as president Obama obviously have a huge crisis on the health care bill, largely of their own making – and neither the House or Senate bills are remotely supportable from the standpoint of what people really need. The insurance industry, knowing after all how “insurance” works, simultaneously financed the Tea Party town hall mobs and wrote the “reform” bills in the Congress. Call this an “inside-outside” strategy that works.

But U.S. capitalism needs reform of some sort, to prevent health care costs from virtually eating up the economy all by themselves. There’s been an absence of “discipline” to put the needs of the system ahead of the sectoral greed of the insurance industry. It’s true that there is an alternative for capitalism, as some comrades have pointed out here – to let employer-covered health care erode so that people are pretty much on their own and those without money simply go uncovered – but the potential public health implications are fairly catastrophic. The combination of the Republican filibuster and the power of the insurance lobby over both parties (and the “independent” Senator Joseph Lieberman) has created a total blockage.

Because of the enormous stakes that the administration and the Congressional Democrats put on the health care effort, and because of what it portends for any other initiatives, this has become a monumental debacle for the Democrats and Obama. It has helped trigger a rush for the exits by some cowardly Democratic politicians who see a possible midterm election bloodbath. The possible maneuvers that were floated to bypass the Republican Senate filibuster – trying to get the House to pass the Senate bill, or using the “budget reconciliation” ploy to force a vote on whatever emerges from the House-Senate conference – are in the former case politically very risky, and in the latter of dubious legality, and anyway seem to be off the table.

(Speaking of legality, I suspect that the Senate bill’s “individual mandate” requiring people to purchase private insurance may be subject to Constitutional challenges from both the right and left, but leave that aside here.)

The Pelosi-Reid leadership has been strong and resolute only when it comes to suppressing their left wing, such as it is. Advocates of single-payer national health insurance were pretty much blocked from even presenting their case. Rather than waging and losing an honorable fight for real health reform, thus possibly leaving some mark on the legislative end product and certainly building potential for future struggle, they were mostly forced to shut up in the name of “political realism” (with some honorable but maverick exceptions like Dennis Kucinich). The result of all this is only to empower the mangy “Blue Dog” rightwing Democrats who oppose everything from the public option to women’s right to abortion -- many of whom were recruited to run by the miserable party chairman Howard Dean in what was thought to be a clever political move at the time.

Problematic Implications

However, this gridlock is not only a Democratic disaster. A severely weakened presidency, just one year in, cannot be a good thing for U.S. capitalism as a whole, at a time when the economic recovery and the global financial system are still extremely fragile, when the budget deficits of the next two decades look terrifying, when the country’s physical infrastructure is severely deteriorated and when there are major international challenges -- relations with China and Russia, multiple ongoing wars, the scale of the environmental crisis which is recognized almost everywhere except in the USA -- that threaten U.S. supremacy and “leadership.” (Various political commentators – Paul Krugman on economic policy, Bob Herbert on the social catastrophe, Thomas Friedman in his own dishonest and sleazy fashion – are pointing to the crisis caused by the political system being overwhelmed by short-term narrow interests. The rightwing pundits like to spin vapid theories that it’s some kind of cultural problem, generally tracing back to the fact that WASP males aren’t in charge anymore. That’s for another discussion.)

There are serious international implications if the weakening of Obama develops into a full-fledged crisis of his presidency. Before turning to those, it’s important even though obvious that the shattered state of organized labor is a big factor in politics. Juxtaposed with of overwhelming corporate influence, the Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported that for the first time, a majority of unionized workers are in the public sector – so great is the decline in manufacturing and other private-sector unionism. And as one comrade has put it in this discussion – contrary to our previous assumptions – “facing the choice between struggle and going out of existence, much of the top labor leadership will choose nonexistence, at least if their own retirement is preserved.”

A positive though limited sign of hope is that the Congressional Black Caucus is finally showing some serious anger over how little has trickled down for African Americans from the Obama presidency – not because they expected the president to be a crusader for Black Power or anything of the sort, but simply because the African American economic and social emergency is so terrifying. The reality of “race matters” is as powerful as ever in American politics today. While the official ideology of white supremacy is gone, and African Americans have obviously made huge advances in various professions, the bedrock of Black economic progress has always been in two key areas: manufacturing and public employment. Those are the sectors hit most severely by the Great Recession and the fiscal crisis of the state. (The Post Office wasn’t getting downsized when it employed almost all white people.) And at the same time, substantial layers of white people hit by the crisis, the failure of reform and the nearly-jobless “recovery” are turning toward the kind of lunatic rightwing answers that they rejected in the 2008 election – not all white people, obviously, but enough to change the political momentum.

At the January 23 national autoworker gathering in Detroit, John Conyers requested to speak and told the meeting that he would continue the single-payer struggle, even though president Obama had personally lobbied him to get on board with the administration’s program. All this categorically does not mean that the Caucus or the African American community will “break with Obama.” They will remain fiercely loyal, but will no longer remain silent and subordinate.

Politics of Fear

Another major factor in the political climate is a kind of generalized insecurity that amalgamates the fear of joblessness, decay, decline – and yes, the fear of a Black president whose father was (nominally) Muslim – that contributes to what is mainly a white flight to irrational reactionary politics.

Suppose we pose the following question. There are now 45-50 million people in the United States who lack health insurance. Millions more will lose their insurance through job loss. What is the greater threat to them: a medical crisis that financially wipes out them and their families – or being hit by a terrorist attack?

Both threats exist, including the “terrorist” one so long as it is kept in proper perspective. But no rational person will seriously think that terrorism is the greater threat to people who don’t have or may lose health insurance. For that matter, no informed person will rationally calculate that terrorism is a greater danger to her/himself than driving over thousands of bridges in this country that are in urgent or critical need of repair. (And the incidence of “international terrorism” on U.S. soil is considerably lower than that of violent assaults on abortion clinics and providers, hate crimes against gay and transgendered people, and racially motivated murders.)

But such questions are hardly ever posed in rational real-life terms. Quite the contrary, the “threat of extremist attacks on America” is the Obama team’s pretext for escalating the war in Afghanistan, which no serious person – military or civilian, whether left, right or center – thinks can be “won;” for launching a new military intervention in the three-way civil war in Yemen; for declaring permanent detention without trial of 47 prisoners at the Guantanamo prison that the new president had boldly promised would be closed by now, not to mention others held beyond the reach of law at Bagram and other semi-secret facilities; and for continuing the cynical and criminal siege of Gaza and the brutalities of the Israeli occupation.

Close to 90 Yemeni prisoners, already checked and cleared for release from Guantanamo, have had their release suspended because of the alleged that some “might return to the battlefield.” So much for “restoring human rights and the rule of law.” All these policies simply embolden the militarist right wing, while demoralizing the Democrats’ popular base and especially Obama’s army of young supporters in particular, and generally weaken the administration both morally and politically.

As suggested above, a weakened or crippled Obama presidency has global implications that feed back into the U.S. political system as well. From the outset, much of the elite support for Obama came because the Bush gang had been so completely discredited in the world. Obama came in with such enormous international authority and credibility that he received the Nobel Peace Prize for doing nothing at all.

Obama’s weakened position at home certainly affects the chances of strongarming allies into extending their commitments in Afghanistan. It affects the complex problems of relations with China, where U.S. imperialism simultaneously needs to enlist Chinese assistance in dealing with Iran, pressure the Chinese to revalue their currency, but also resist domestic U.S. pressure for protectionist measures that would have disastrous consequences. Obama’s standing also affects U.S. dealings with Russia and Iran. The U.S. ruling class cannot afford a crippled presidency, but at the same time it will withdraw its support if his position seems to be unsalvageable.

Implications for 2010

Leaving aside unpredictable events such as a major terrorist attack, a Middle East or India-Pakistan war, a sudden massive economic shock, etc. – any of which are possible but not calculable in advance – we can broadly guess where the political situation will lead The Democrats’ hopes for the midterm election depend first and foremost on the economic recovery, but the change in political momentum makes it very difficult to enact the second stimulus that’s needed to avert the double-dip-recession danger and particularly to prop up public employment by helping stabilize many states’ budget crises.

Obama’s initial response to the Massachusetts defeat was to “promise to fight” for this, that and the other (health care, banking reform, etc.) This has come across as stilted and forced, but the president can probably improve his rhetorical delivery. What he can’t improve are the prospects for political success: The threat of a market meltdown or bankers’ strike in response to reform legislation is terrifying to the Democrats. The bankers could have been forced to accept reform and re-regulation when they were on government life support, but that opportunity was essentially lost.

Obama’s other response has been a “bipartisan commission” (seeing how well that approach has worked already) to tackle the budget deficit. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong priority: This process is likely to reopen corporate America’s dream of killing social security by privatizing much of it and leaving behind a weak means-tested public system that can then be destroyed. This can only be done through “bipartisanship,” as any political party killing social security on its own would be finished. In any case, the real budget crisis cannot be seriously addressed without restoring a progressive tax system and slashing military spending – neither of which are remotely contemplated.

It’s also difficult to see how meaningful climate change or “green jobs” stimulus legislation can be advanced now – not because the Democrats don’t have a big majority, but because they are afraid to use it (not to mention how many of them depend on the existing petro-industrial complex). This, however, is not only a domestic issue but also has global political implications, to say nothing of the threat to the survival of human civilization. President Obama’s international standing depends on the perception that he can meet the commitments (weak as they are) that he made at Copenhagen. Failure to do so will damage the administration’s global credibility -- which is, at the same time, a big part of his political value to domestic elites.

The Republican party at this point is not exactly “fit to rule” for the ruling class – but it doesn’t yet need to be. A tea-party takeover with unpredictable policies isn’t the kind of political dispensation that’s useful at a time of continuing deep uncertainty in the global financial system. But if the irrationalist-populist fuel at the base can be contained with a leadership that’s ultimately “responsible” to the economic powers that really run the world, the Republicans might be rehabilitated as a party of savage budget-cutting sooner than we had anticipated.

The Democrats’ legislative emphasis is likely to be on a second jobs-and-stimulus bill – inadequate, but a political necessity – and salvaging some kind of stripped-down health insurance reform. There is no reason to expect the Republicans to suddenly become all reasonable, compromising and bipartisan now (except when the ruling class speaks really loudly, as on the Bernanke renomination). If the Democrats are not prepared to wage real political war against the Senate filibuster, they will suffer one blockage after another – with devastating consequences for them in November, and just possibly, a real backlash among African Americans who see the white Democratic leadership feeding Obama to the Blue Dogs and the wolves.

Socialists of course already knew that real answers will not come from the morass of the two capitalist parties. Our challenge is to help the movements at large face that reality and its implications.

I wanted to say a few concluding words on Palestine, because it’s an issue that matters intensely to us. It’s clear that the fate of Palestine matters very little to the ruling class except as it may relate to incorporating Arab regimes into the anti-Iran coalition. We can see here an example of true bipartisanship at its most destructive – on condemning the Goldstone Report, on the starvation of Gaza and authorizing the Egyptian regime’s blockage of the Gaza Freedom March.

Whether the Obama administration’s early, feeble attempts to stop Israeli settlement construction and demolition of Palestinian homes were intended seriously is not clear, but it no longer matters – it is now too weakened at home to exert real pressure on Israel even if it wanted to. The policy on Palestine now is simply the Iron Fist, made worse by the cynical cover of meaningless rhetoric about “renewing the peace process.” Nothing of substance will change until Israel’s status as an imperial asset is degraded by international isolation. This is why the BDS (“boycott/divestment/sanctions”) campaign in all its diversity, internationally and here, is now so important as a focus for Palestine solidarity activism.