3. Obama's Domestic Policies

Obama Playing the Violin

Former Clinton administration official David Rothkopf mused that Obama’s political style follows “the violin model:” you hold power with the left hand but you play it with the right. Obama has come to power and hopes to keep power in Congress through the support of the left while clearly governing as a moderate centrist domestically, and a conservative internationally. Obama’s appointments to both his foreign policy and economic teams indicate that he is not even liberal in the way that’s usually understood in this country.

Obama’s Economic Policies

The Washington Post notes, “Obama’s economic team isn’t particularly liberal, either. Lawrence H. Summers, who––as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury––opposed regulating the new-fangled financial instruments that greased the way to the subprime meltdown, will chair Obama’s National Economic Council. To head the Treasury, Obama has chose Timothy F. Geithner, the president of the New York Federal Reserve, who helped oversee the financial system as it collapsed. Each is close to Robert Rubin, another former Clinton Treasury Secretary, a director of bailed-out Citigroup and a poster boy for both the corporate wing of the Democratic Party and discredited Big Finance. Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board will be guided by Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman whose controversial tight-money policies ended the stagflation crisis of the 1970s but led to a nasty recession.”

The Obama administration talked about cooperating across the aisle with Republicans in Congress. However, the Democrats have been forced to pass their principal legislation almost all alone, with few votes from the opposition party—for which Obama was willing to water down the stimulus part of the bill. The $775 billion in stimulus spending––involving tax cuts ($300 billion), infrastructure construction, and other projects––received the votes of most Democratic legislators, but almost all Republicans stood firmly against it. The economic stimulus plan, intended to put money in the hands of consumers in order to get the economy moving again, represents very much a traditional measure if on a grand scale.

Obama and his Treasury Secretary Geithner have dealt with the financial crisis so far by throwing trillions of dollars to the banks and other financial institutions. In economic terms, this is Keynesian deficit spending with a vengeance, but, in social terms, it has nothing to do with the kind of Keynesianism that promoted public works employment and social welfare programs. We should remember that the Keynesianism of the 1930s which created the Works Progress Administration and Social Security was succeeded by the military Keynesianism of the post-war period of the 1950s to the 1980s, and now we appear to be experiencing financial Keynesianism, deficit spending aimed as refinancing the banks and corporations by socializing their failure.

The first step has been to save the banks by buying them. While Obama and his team would have preferred ideologically to avoid buy the banks they have in fact had to buy Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, and Citibank among others. To other financial institutions they have offered billions in loans and financial guarantees. Whether or not this massive infusion of taxpayer money into the financial system will save it from collapse remains to be seen.

Obama has acted similarly with industry, putting up billions in loans and eventually purchasing the stock of General Motors and Chrysler, while forcing them to reorganize through bankruptcy. The U.S. has in effect nationalized GM and become a major partner in Chrysler, though the Obama administration claims that it will function as owner but not as manager, and will get out of the auto business as soon as possible. In this way Obama hopes to keep Congress and the public from making demands on how the government administers its auto business, demands that might harm corporate profits. He has called on bondholders, the corporations and the union to make sacrifices. The Obama administration, together with the GM and Chrysler corporations and the UAW has shifted the problems of the corporation on to the autoworkers and retirees.

The goal of everything that the Obama administration has done both with the banks and with the corporations is intended to return them to profitability in order to make possible the continued accumulation of capital. The goal is to make these corporations capable of competing in the world market, which means above all reducing labor costs and thus strengthening capital’s hand over labor.

Labor Policies

While Obama wishes to strengthen capital, he has not pursued, as he might have in this crisis, a policy of smashing unions in either the private or the public sector. Like Clinton before him, he pursues the “third way,” or the “middle path,” that is, the view that capital must live with labor, so long as labor remains docile and subordinate. The way that Clinton and now Obama pursue this is by promoting “partnership” between management and union, or between government and public employee unions. This “partnership” is typified by the no-strike language in the GM and Chrysler bailouts. Meanwhile, unions remain weak with only 12.4 percent of all workers in unions (with 36.8 in the public sector, but only 7.6 percent in the private sector).

As with so many issue, Obama made an important and symbolic statement early on. Obama’s first presidential act was the signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which makes it easier for workers to challenge unlawful pay discrimination based on gender, race, age, and disability. That act, however, may never be complemented by action on the rest of labor’s platform.

The unions’ primary demand of Obama and the Democratic Party is the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), introduced to both houses on March 10. Under EFCA, rather than holding a representation election, workers could indicate their desire to join a union by simply presenting a majority of signed cards in any given workplace. While Obama says that he continues to support the act, AFL-CIO and Change to Win leaders fear that many Democratic Party legislators will knuckle under to the pressure of both the corporations and the small business lobby, mindful of the potential campaign contributions that might be lost. Meanwhile, three big retailers—Costco, Starbucks. and Whole Foods Market—are putting forward a compromise that could divide Congress. Under the retailers’ proposal, workers will need 70 percent (rather than a simple majority of 50% + 1) to unionize. This proposal may be enough to slice off a group of Democrats and moderate Republicans to kill EFCA.

Health Care

Obama plans to deal with the country’s health care problems, the 45 million uninsured and the rising cost of health care, by entering into an arrangement with the major health business groups—insurance companies, health and hospital corporations, pharmaceuticals industry—which will force everyone who can to purchase private insurance while allowing those companies to avoid fully insuring those who have the highest risks. At his mid-May Health Care Summit, Obama announced that his administration and these health care industries and corporations had come up with a plan that would save two trillion dollars over the next ten years and save U.S. families as much as $2,500 per year. This purely voluntary plan, with no government oversight, represented a first step toward the creation of a two-tier health care system.

This most recent development should be seen in the context of Obama’s on-going expansion of the government’s role and its relationship with business. Some of this, of course, represents a dramatic break with the Bush administration, but not necessarily a progressive step toward comprehensive national health care. On February 4, 2008, for example, Obama signed the Children’s Health Insurance Act, an expansion of State Children’s Health Insurance Programs that would extend its coverage to approximately four million of the eight million uninsured children in the country. President Bush had twice vetoed the bill. Obama argued that it represented the first step to health care for all. A single payer system, however, appears to be dead during this presidential term. Single payer advocates were only permitted to attend Obama’s major health care policy meeting after Physicians for a National Health Program threatened to picket the White House, but even then were ignored.

American Health Industry Plans, Inc., the insurance lobby, has spent $4.3 million in the last six months to advocate for their position. The Obama-insurance company plan has three planks, all mandates: 1) everyone must be covered (the “guarantee issue”); 2) customers would be charged the same rates (called “community rating”); 3) everyone must buy health insurance (called “the individual mandate”). The insurance companies want the government to subsidize the cost of health insurance, perhaps for all with serious health problems.

As Timothy P. Carney wrote in a column titled “Why insurers will win in Obama’s health reform”:

    President Barack Obama and Sen. Ted Kennedy look likely to give the health insurance industry exactly what it wants on health care reform. This would be an ironic outcome, considering how activists on the Left have demonized the insurers, and how crucial health care reform is to liberals who care about policy.

    While Obama and congressional Democrats will claim the insurers’ victory as a win for the forces of equality and progress, the more hard-core Left — the progressives who formed much of Obama’s base — will swallow this as a bitter pill or even a deal with the devil.

The Obama health care plan seems destined to make the government the guarantor of insurance company profits by forcing everyone who can to buy insurance.

Obama’s Immigration Policy

President Barack Obama announced on April 8 that he would make immigration one of his legislative priorities this year, after health care and energy. Obama’s plan represents a refurbishing of the Kennedy-McCain Comprehensive Immigration Reform Proposal of the last years of the Bush administration. That is, it aims to legalize many of the undocumented immigrants now in the country, but within a larger plan which sees a place for guest workers, albeit guest workers with routes to residency and possibly citizenship. Obama says his plan will:

  • Bring “illegal immigrants” into the legal immigration system after they have recognized that they violated the law and paid fines and penalties.
  • Prevent future illegal immigration by strengthening border enforcement and cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
  • Establish a national system for verifying the legal immigration status of new workers.

Missing from the initial announcement by Obama was any statement about guest worker programs, which have been a particularly controversial immigration issue. Employers generally seek an expansion while unions generally oppose any expansion.

Labor’s Immigration Plan

The leaderships of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win have also come together to make their own policy proposal, not so different from the president’s. Shortly after Obama announced that he was making immigration a priority for this term, they announced their position on April 13. In 2008, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win were divided, with several major unions in the latter allied with employer associations. The new united labor position calls for:

  • An independent commission to assess and manage future flows, based on labor market shortages.
  • Secure and effective worker authorization mechanism.
  • Rational operational control of the border.
  • Adjustment of status for the current undocumented population.
  • Improvement, not expansion of temporary worker (guest worker) programs.

The united labor position is meant to support President Obama’s initiative as well as to pressure him to adopt something close to the labor position.

Meanwhile, mass arrests and raids have continued apace throughout the U.S., and the Obama administration has stated that it intends to expand immigration checks to local jails (such practices already exist on the federal and state level), another extension of a Bush-era policy.

Republicans and Democratic Party conservatives are hostile to the Obama proposal in that it offers “amnesty” to undocumented workers. They can be expected to mount a strong opposition to proposals for “comprehensive immigration reform,” as the Obama package is labeled.

The Obama administration has encouraged Representative Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) to travel throughout the country speaking on the issue of immigration reform and to build support among Latino voters. The Roman Catholic Bishops Council appears to support the Obama position. In early June 2009 Democratic Party politicians, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions, churches, and immigrant organizations in forty cities launched the Campaign to Reform Immigration for America. This campaign, it appears, will be the principal vehicle for mobilizing public support for what will once again, as it was in the last Congress, be called “comprehensive immigration reform.”

Some immigrant organizations will criticize the fines and penalties and others will object to the border enforcement and to more pressure on employers to deny employment or to fire workers whose documents don’t check out. Nevertheless most immigrant groups will support the measure. Legalization of 12 million undocumented immigrants would mean, at least potentially, more Democratic Party voters and more union members. Passing the reforms as drafted is unlikely and more negative elements may well be grafted onto it. Immigration reform will be a test for this administration as it was for the last one.

Education Policy

Despite the strong backing of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association, many of whose local affiliates and members worked on his campaign, Obama has taken a social liberal position on education, one that does not necessarily support traditional public education or teachers unions. With public education seen as failing, many will no doubt support his policies. Over the unions’ objections, Obama has come out strongly for national standards, charter schools and merit pay.

Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was once Richard Daley’s CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Duncan’s program of school reform, imposed against the will of the Chicago Teachers Union, relied heavily on closing failing schools and opening others to replace them, many of those charter schools. He also supported the alternative of military schools. Critics argue that under his leadership, schools cut culturally relevant curricula and critical pedagogies and encourage teaching to the test.

Organizations such as the National Center on Education and the Economy with its report “Tough Choices for Tough Times,” suggest that the education system should be fundamentally reorganized along Japanese or European lines with a critical examination in the 10th grade that would sort out vocational or technical students from those going on to colleges and universities. Such reforms are premised on the notion that education should serve corporations as they struggle win achieve supremacy in international economic competition. Obama and Duncan share a commitment to the social liberal school reform program advocated by corporations and their foundations, which encourage the partial privatization of education, the results of which would be a multi-tiered educational system reflecting social class structure.

Environmental Issues

The Obama’s environmental policy represents a break with the Bush administration, but it does not in any way represent a fundamental break with the overall approach of past administrations. The Obama administration has adopted a series of measures which will reduce auto emissions and energy industry greenhouse gases, but which will not dramatically change the country’s policy and practices. These measures represent a partial fulfillment of campaign promises and the on-going pressure of liberal environmental organizations.

In the area of automobile standards, Obama ordered the EPA and Transportation Department to take action which would, in effect, allow California’s higher emissions standards to set the national standard (since Californians buy so many cars). California’s standards would require manufacturers to raise average miles per gallon from 27 to 35 by 2016. Obama has pushed these administrative measures so that auto companies can begin retooling for the 2011 model year with the new standards in mind. Since cars produce one-fifth of all greenhouse gases, this is an important measure, but obviously it does not represent a fundamental break with past policy. The administration continues to put the internal combustion engine automobile at the center of the national transportation system, rather than to promote a national alternative based on some combination of rail, light-rail, trolley and buses, electric cars, and bicycles.

With regard to greenhouse gas emissions from energy production and industry, the Federal government will create a so-called “cap and trade” system. The federal government will set a national limit on greenhouse gas pollution, a limit which will be reduced over time. Corporations which pollute will be allowed to buy pollution credits, from the government or from others, to cover their emissions. The bill now before Congress calls for a 17 percent reduction by 2020. States would also be required to get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. These standards were reduced from the original proposals, allow a more gradual transition for coal-fired plants.

Some environmental groups have also expressed concern about Obama’s choice of Ignacia Moreno to head the Department of Justice Environmental Division. Moreno, a former Clinton Justice Department official, is now counsel for environmental programs at General Electric, a corporation that has been called the country’s biggest polluter.

Obama’s ‘violin method’ operates clearly with respect to mountaintop removal mining. On the campaign trail, Obama pledged stronger review of proposed projects by the Environmental Protection Agency and more enforcement to protect threatened communities and polluted streams and lands in Appalachia. All the major enviro and conservation organizations unconditionally supported Obama. But after meetings in May between Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, and pro-mining lobbyists and politicians, the EPA quietly gave the go-ahead for two dozen mountaintop removal projects, included in the 42 of 48 mining projects the EPA has approved during Obama’s tenure.

On other environmental issues, such as genetically modified organisms, cloning, and biotechnology, Obama’s choice former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture worries some. The Organic Consumers Association writes of him:

    While Vilsack has promoted respectable policies with respect to restraining livestock monopolies, his overall record is one of aiding and abetting Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or factory farms and promoting genetically engineered crops and animal cloning. Equally troubling is Vilsack’s support for unsustainable industrial ethanol production, which has already caused global corn and grain prices to skyrocket, literally taking food off the table for a billion people in the developing world.

As Philip Brasher wrote in late April in his DesMoinesRegister.com blog:

    If there was any question about how the Obama administration would get behind agricultural biotechnology, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is removing any doubt. In fact, he says he’s going to do a better job than the Bush administration.

    Just back from the G8 summit in Italy, Vilsack pledged today to bring a “more comprehensive and integrated” approach to promoting ag biotech overseas.

    That will be good news to biotech companies such as Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto but it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Vilsack was a vocal backer of the biotech industry as governor, and President Barack Obama has been a supporter as well.

Whatever one’s position on genetically modified foods, what is clear is that big agriculture and corporate science and technology will be well represented by the Obama administration.

Reproductive Rights

Obama, under the watchful eyes of NOW, Planned Parenthood and NARAL, has moved to reverse the Bush policies on reproductive rights, taking us back to the Clinton years. National Organization of Women President Kim Gandy issued a statement saying, “It goes without saying that the combination of war, economic collapse, piracy and a potential pandemic may have removed many important items from the top of the president’s legislative agenda, including the Freedom of Choice Act. But I urge President Obama to maintain his public support for this critical legislation, which he enthusiastically endorsed during the campaign.”

Obama has acted to meet the immediate demands of women’s organizations regarding reproductive rights issues. In January, he ended the “Mexico City Policy,” which forbade the U.S. government from funding clinics or groups that offered abortion-related services overseas. The “global gag rule” had barred foreign aid recipients from promoting or even discussing abortion as a method of family planning.

In April, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made it easier for women to purchase Plan B, a morning after drug that can prevent conception if taken within 72 hours of intercourse. The Obama administration will also end the practice of funding “abstinence only” sex education programs, and will instead fund sex education programs that actually work.

NOW and NARAL have also been pleased to see the nomination and confirmation of former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Their central preoccupation now is to see Obama nominate a pro-abortion rights candidate, preferably a woman, nominated for the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice David Souter.

Some reproductive rights organizations are, however, concerned because Obama has not dealt with the Hyde Amendment in the proposed 2010 budget. The Hyde Amendment restricts government funding of abortions. Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Rights, stated on May 1, “President Obama made clear during the election that he opposes the Hyde Amendment. And for good reason—over a third of women who rely on Medicaid and are seeking an abortion have been prevented from exercising their constitutional right to an abortion. Hyde unjustly impedes women’s access to timely, quality healthcare and disproportionately harms those women who already face significant barriers to obtaining services. Sound public health policy means protecting the wellbeing of all women.” As socialists, we oppose Hyde and demand that all women have, together with access to fee contraception and sex education, access to free abortion on demand.

GLBTQ Issues

Obama had strong backing from GLBTQ voters who look to him for leadership on issues of concern to them, but while he will advance elements of their agenda, he draws the line at gay marriage. While in the Illinois State Senate, Obama supported gay rights and a law that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Human Rights Campaign rated him as having a voting record of 89% on issues of importance to gay and lesbian citizens in 2006. Obama has committed to passing the Matthew Sheppard Act which would expand hate crimes protection, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act which would expand existing anti-discrimination legislation to include sexual orientation and gender identity and help make possible domestic partner benefits. The new president also supports gay and lesbian adoption rights. Obama opposes the U.S. Military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, though it is not clear if he will make a fight over this with military commanders.

Obama and his GLBTQ backers fall out over the question of gay marriage. While Obama voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment and opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, and supports civil unions with full partner rights (accompaniment in emergency, equal health insurance, employment benefits and property rights), still he opposes gay marriage. Obama said in an interview with the Chicago Daily Tribune, “I’m a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.” The problem for Obama and for the GLBTQ community is that gay marriage has become the touchstone issue on all GLBTQ issues. While we as socialists are supporters of full civil, political, social and economic rights for the GLBTQ community and opponents of hetero-normal standards, we are not necessarily advocates of marriage; still, we do support the civil right to gay marriage as a matter of simple equality and support the gay and lesbian movement in its fight on this issue.

Communities of Color

The economic crisis has fallen hardest on communities of color, particularly on African Americans and Latinos, who have higher rates of unemployment and poverty. Whether one talks about the closing of auto plants or cutbacks in construction, Black and Latino workers have born more than their share of the suffering. In April 2009, the national unemployment rate reached 11.3% for Latinos and 15.0% for African Americans. In 2007, 18 percent of all children were growing up in poverty, and 7.8% in extreme poverty, but with today’s much higher unemployment rates that figure must also have grown substantially. A disproportionate percentage of poor children will be found in Latino and African American homes because of their parents’ unemployment, under-employment or lower wages.

Like other areas of American life, our society’s structural racism adversely affects people of color in terms of homeownership. In 2007, 68.1% of all families owned homes, and for whites, the figure was 72%, while for Latinos it was 49.7% and for African Americans only 47.2%. Home foreclosures have also hit Latinos and African Americans harder than whites, according to a study by ACORN published last year. African Americans and Latinos have lost more homes during the current crisis both because of their higher unemployment and because of high cost of their home loans. Subsequent news reports in various cities have confirmed ACORN’s research, with Black and Latino neighborhoods in many cities being affected.

Throughout the United States, as homeowners can’t pay mortgages and renters can’t pay their rent, cities and suburbs are experiencing a rise in homelessness. While most homeless people are white, Blacks and Latinos represent a disproportionate percentage of the homeless as they face rising unemployment and poverty. A study by the National Center on Family Homelessness, analyzed data from 2005-06 and found that more than 1.5 million children were without a home. That is, one in fifty U.S. children will be homeless. African American and Native American children were disproportionately represented. Naturally, homeless children are less likely to graduate from school and more likely to have health problems.

The crisis may have the most detrimental affect on undocumented immigrants. Undocumented immigrants, an estimated 12 million people in the U.S., suffer more than others during this economic crisis because they are not legally entitled to many of the social welfare programs, whether unemployment compensation, state welfare, or many public health programs. Rightwing groups also make undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for the problems of “American society,” blaming them, rather than the corporations or government, for lost jobs, low wages, crime and other problems.

Scapegoating provides the climate in which hate crimes flourish—with such crimes rising almost 50 percent since 2000. In December 2008, seven teenagers attacked and killed Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrants in Patchogue, N.Y. The gang of youths who attacked and killed Lucero were also accused of attacking another eight Latino men. Less than a month later three men shouting anti-Latino and anti-gay epithets, beat and killed Jose Sucuzhañay, another Ecuadorian immigrant, in Brooklyn. An FBI report on hate crimes indicated that there had been a 40 percent surge in anti-Latino violence since 2003. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that it tracks 888 organizations, among them the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which it classifies as hate groups.

African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and other people of color in American society continue to deal with the abuses of the criminal justice system, among them such issues as racial profiling and police abuse. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer killing of Oscar Grant represents just one of the most recent such acts so typical of police forces around the country. Or, then there is the case of Bernard Monroe, the retired electrical utility worker, age 73, who was hosting a cookout at home when police, with no motive, shot and killed him and then planted a gun on his body.