By Stephen Gowans
The view of the New York Times and its columnist Paul Krugman is that the Obama presidency isn’t proceeding the way it was supposed to. The president has failed his liberal Democratic supporters and capitulated to the Republicans.
Here’s their charge sheet:
Obama failed to end the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, failed to create a government-run health insurance system, and failed in his negotiations with Congress on raising the debt-ceiling to shelter Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
And in a yet-to-be approved deal to avoid default of the US government’s debt, Obama agreed to automatic cuts in social programs and defense spending if a bipartisan panel fails to agree on a deficit-reduction package, or its recommendations are rejected by Congress. Conspicuously missing are tax increases on the wealthy as one of the automatic triggers.
The ultra-wealthy will continue to avoid paying their share of taxes, loaning their spare cash, instead, to Washington, to be repaid in full with interest — an attractive deal for the rich, a swindle for everyone else. The upward redistribution of wealth continues as strongly as it ever did under Bush, the only difference being that Bush admitted the ultra-wealthy were his “base,” while Obama doesn’t.
On foreign policy, Obama’s record is no better. He has failed to close Guantanamo Bay, stepped up the war in Afghanistan, extended the war to Yemen, and wages war in Libya without Congressional authorization — which is only slightly worse than the fact that he’s waging war on Libya. What’s more, he has failed to prosecute his predecessor for authorizing the use of torture, arguing pathetically that he prefers to look forward, not backward.
All this means that for liberal Democrats, Obama is a clear disappointment. But that sure doesn’t mean they won’t vote for him. And Obama knows it. Liberal Democrats, progressives and even Communists are so terrified of the Republican Party right-wing, that they’ll vote for anyone to the left of it, even if “to the left”, means a long way toward right.
Which leaves Obama plenty of room to manoeuvre to advance the agenda of his ultra-wealthy backers. Michael Moore and others lambasted Ralph Nader for his third party presidential bid. It allowed Bush and his pro-war, pro-wealthy agenda to come to power, they charged. Okay, so now that a Democrat has succeeded him, what’s different?
To be fair, this kind of political dynamic isn’t unique to the United States. In Canada, a left-wing party with Marxist-Leninist roots greets every election campaign with the same rallying cry: Let’s stop the Conservatives. By which is meant: Vote for whoever can stop the Tories, even if it means a vote for the Liberals, whose record, policies, and class affinities are virtually indistinguishable from those of the Conservative bogeymen.
And in Britain, the Communist Party of Britain backs Labour against the Conservatives.
Which means that the parties of the nominally liberal wing of the business establishment can count on the support of everyone to left of conservatives, even while trampling all over them.
That liberal Democrats in the United States would quickly become disappointed with Obama can hardly be a surprise except to the politically naive and to those who put their brains in park and let wishful thinking take the wheel.
It was always clear that a president backed by corporate money and surrounded by a cabinet of ruling class partisans was going to advance the corporate agenda and champion the privileges of the ultra-wealthy. After all, that’s who bankrolled his presidential bid, and is bankrolling his re-election bid.
Trouble is, desperate for some kind of respite from the depressing string of defeats the left has endured (or inflicted upon itself) no one on the left wanted to hear this.
Neither did anyone else for that matter. The day after Obama was elected, a TV news crew showed up at my son’s school. A small group of students, my son included, was assembled and asked what they thought of Obama’s election. All gushed about how inspired they were and how relieved they were that the Bush era had come to a close, to be succeeded by a new, more hopeful, day. Except my son. He pointed out that it was unlikely that an Obama presidency would be much different from a McCain one. Obama was backed massively by corporate money, and he would depend on Wall Street to get re-elected. The piece aired with comments from all the students …but one.
“Oh sure,” it will be said, “Obama’s just a handmaiden of the establishment, but even if he’s only a little better than a Republican president, he’s still a little better.” And a little better can, as Noam Chomsky once said, make a big difference. I guess that’s true, depending on what your goal is. If your goal is to keep public pensions intact for another three years instead of one, little differences do count.
But there’s a point at which goals can go from difficult to reach but achievable to so modest that setting them amounts to capitulation. What’s more, it’s doubtful that the Democrats are even a little better.
The view on the left that they are comes from the belief that the Democrats and Republicans differ only in the degree to which they’re willing to make concessions to labor to buy social peace. Democrats will go further, we’re told.
But there’s another view, which liberals, progressives and timid radicals impatiently dismiss as “ultra-left.” It says that because they’re widely but erroneously supposed to be the party of the common man, the Democrats can go further in advancing the agenda of the ultra-wealthy—and do. The reason why is that once in office the common man goes to sleep.
Ultra-left or not, this view seems to more closely fit the facts than the competing view that the Democrats are friendlier to the average person (if only to serve ruling class purposes) compared to the Republicans.
Commenting on the difference between Labour and Conservative governments in Britain, the radical sociologist Albert Szymanski once remarked that Labour “followed the same sort of conservative economic policies vis-a-vis balancing the budget, reducing the trade deficit and resisting workers’ demands for wage increases as the Conservative and Liberal governments that came before and after.” But the “main difference between the two types of governments was that a Labour prime minister was better able to get the working class to accept” sacrifices that benefited banks, investors and corporations. (1)
In other words, if you want to pacify labor and the left while ramming through measures that advance the interests of capital at the expense of everyone else, bring in a Labour or Democrat or (in Canada) NDP government. Sure, they’re more apt to guarantee social peace, but only because voters think they’re in their corner.
So, what did Bush do that Obama hasn’t done?
Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, escalated Bush’s war agenda, but faced no concerted public opposition. Parts of the antiwar movement have been in hibernation since Obama stepped over the White House threshold. The Communists are heartened that Obama initiated a troop withdrawal from Iraq (seemingly oblivious to the reality that he needed to transfer troops from Iraq to Afghanistan where the occupation was going badly.)
While Guantanamo Bay was an embarrassment under Bush, its continued operation is not even remarked upon under Obama. And nowadays, the United States is prepared to carry out extra-judicial assassinations of its own citizens. Even Bush didn’t go that far.
Bush was scorned for lying about WMDs to justify an illegal war on Iraq, but Obama lies about the reasons for war on Libya. No one even maintains the pretence it’s about protecting civilians anymore—except when NATO covers up the war crime of bombing civilian infrastructure, claiming the heinous deed was necessary to protect civilians. There has hardly been a peep of protest. On the contrary, liberals, progressives and many leftists have fallen into step with the peace president on Libya.
Of course, in reality, Obama isn’t the peace president. He’s the pacifying president. And it seems a great injustice, to consistency at least, that the Nobel committee didn’t award its peace prize to Bush. After all, Obama’s contribution to peace is no greater than Bush’s was. Indeed, it’s marginally worse.
Today, 25 million US citizens want full time jobs but can’t find them. By agreeing to cut spending when the US economy is stagnant (its annualized rate of growth for the first half of the year is no better than US population growth), Obama will add to the Himalaya of idleness that has gripped his country, courtesy of capitalism, but exacerbated by a lack of political will to significantly palliate the problem.
And why palliate it? There’s no restiveness on the streets and an expanding reserve army of labor offers the welcome promise (to Obama’s real base) of downward pressure on wages, benefits and working conditions. Profits will soar – as they have been.
True, it can always be said that McCain would have encroached even further on working class interests, and that the Tea Party’s strength is a factor, but as Krugman points out, Obama has staked out positions even further to the right than the average Republican is comfortable with. And it’s doubtful that McCain could have got even half as far as Obama in stepping up the war and agreeing to budget positions that are indulgent to the wealthy and harsh to the poor without provoking pressure from below.
Obama is a failure? For the vast majority of US citizens, yes. But not for an elite of owners and high level managers of income producing property. Which is the way it was always supposed to be.
Albert Szymanksi, The Capitalist State and the Politics of Class, Winthrop Publishers Incorporated, 1978. P. 268.