Obama: A Tale of Betrayal
Crossposted on Tikkun Dailyby Harold Jacobs There recently has been a wave of commentary in the established media depicting Obama as being concerned more with appearance than specific substantive accomplishments, craving acceptance by the economic and political establishment, and unwilling to fight for what he professes to believe in. Some commentators point to Obama’s personality as the problem: he is viewed as far more peculiar and strange than envisioned by those who voted for him. But whatever Obama’s quirks or insecurities, they do not appear to be more acute than those of previous presidents, such as Nixon and George W. Bush, who nevertheless, for better or worse, governed with vigorous determination.
Supporters of Obama claim that given the political forces at play (the blanket opposition of the Republicans, the splits inside the Democratic Party, the power of outside vested interests, etc.), he has done the best he could, that is, he has acted in good faith in attempting to implement his campaign agenda. After the Democratic Party’s overwhelming defeat in the recent Congressional elections, Obama is said by his supporters to be in “learning” mode.
Another rationalization for Obama’s political behavior is that he is at heart a “pragmatist”. But pragmatists, rightly understood, have a moral center, a line that they will not cross. Even in the latter case, one has to critically examine the substantive nature of that line. If Obama is a pragmatist, he often has shown himself to be a morally vacuous one.
Many who voted for Obama hoped for a democratic renewal. They view him today as fundamentally a servant of corporate and financial interests. Although he projected himself as a liberal Democrat during the presidential campaign, he has governed as a moderate Republican. The appointments he made to key positions on his economic team, such as Summers and Geithner, powerful advocates of the radical deregulation policies that helped create the economic meltdown, support the notion that Obama is Wall Street’s president.
And it goes on from there: Obama expanded, in increasingly insidious ways, the national security state and, as a consequence, he broadened the legal foundation for fascism begun by Bush. For example, if Obama deems an American citizen to be a terrorist, he claims the right as President to order that person killed. No need for any due process of law. As for military spending, the Obama administration has far exceeded that of its hawkish predecessor.
On the domestic front, Obama signed a health care bill without a public option that will provide more than 30 million new “customers” to the private insurance companies but that does nothing to control the cost of insurance premiums. For most Americans, access to the bill’s positive provisions will remain dependent on the soaring cost of private health insurance.
Obama, once a professor of constitutional law, elected to make a mockery of the rule of law by not holding members of the Bush administration and the CIA responsible for such war crimes as murder and torture, and by not criminally prosecuting those corporate insiders responsible for the toxic mortgages and other financial instruments that led to the global economic collapse.
While the list of Obama’s betrayals could be extended, the Republican right-wing agenda is far more reactionary than most of Obama’s foreign and domestic policy initiatives. Consequently, those who once supported him are faced with a classic lesser-of-two-evils situation. If, as is likely, Obama runs again in 2012, it is unclear how many voters who once enthusiastically supported him will reluctantly vote for him again. Most likely those who do, will vote free of illusions about “change you can believe in,” knowing instead that they are lending legitimacy to the mere facade of democracy. For most Democrats, “hope” has turned into a defensive holding action.
But Obama’s credibility with even these voters is being further eroded for having negotiated a deal with the Republicans that allows for the Bush tax cuts to be extended for a further two years for the wealthiest Americans. That will exacerbate the exceedingly high rate of social inequality in the U.S., provide little or no stimulus to the economy, and add 700 billion dollars to the deficit over the next ten years. Most importantly, Obama has almost guaranteed that in the future the Bush tax cuts will become permanent and that pressure will grow for deficit reduction to come from significant cuts to Social Security, Medicare, or other social programs that the neediest Americans depend upon.
Obama’s mantra that he needs bipartisan support to get legislation passed is disingenuous. Given the Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House during the first two years of his presidency, what stands out is how little of his campaign mandate Obama implemented in a principled manner. Instead of keeping his word to the electorate, Obama operated as follows: for example, with regard to health care reform, he rhetorically claimed to support the public option, which had enormous public support, while at the same time making a deal behind closed doors with the insurance companies to scrap the public option. He never engaged in anything but a token attempt to mobilize the public and the Congress to support his rhetorical alternative. On this and other important issues Obama hid behind the claim that he needed a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate to combat Republican obstruction, but he did next to nothing to pressure the Democratic majority in the Senate to change its rules of operation so that a simple majority could prevail.
In short, Obama failed to put up a real fight on a slew of vital issues he passionately supported as a candidate. This was not owing to a lack of political experience, but to a failure of political will. It has resulted in a loss of credibility with his base and much of the larger public. He appears so transparently weak and opportunistic that his presidential stature has been diminished, perhaps beyond repair.
Today, the political structure of the United States can most accurately be described as oligarchic rather than democratic. From 2002 to 2007, more than half of the nation’s income gains went to the richest 1 percent of households. This is a country of, by and for the rich, with a militaristic foreign policy based on permanent war and a corporate-dominated political duopoly gradually moving in a fascist direction. Obama, contrary to the expectations he raised as a candidate, has willingly collaborated in accelerating these tendencies. Tragically, Obama’s lasting legacy will have been to create a wave of cynicism and disillusionment and to have squandered a genuine opportunity for progressive social change.
Harold Jacobs taught sociology at SUNY New Paltz from 1971 to 2002, when he retired as Professor Emeritus. He has published extensively on the New Left, including a book on the Weather Underground. He has written for Tikkun since the very first issue, when he contributed “The Lesson of the Vietnam War” ( download as pdf). He specializes in social movements, political sociology, social psychology, and sociological theory. He presently teaches “Great Books” classes at the University of California, Riverside campus extension in Palm Desert, CA.For more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Daily’s email digest or visit us online.