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Glenn Greenwald: Why Do We Assume Obama's Actually Trying to Enact a Progressive Agenda?

What evidence is there that Obama truly wants progressive outcomes?

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Obama's most loyal supporters often mock the notion that a President's greatest power is his "bully pulpit," but there's no question that this is true. Reagan was able to transform how Americans perceived numerous political issues because he relentlessly argued for his ideological and especially economic world-view: a rising tide lifts all boats, government is not the solution but is the problem, etc. -- a whole slew of platitudes and slogans that convinced Americans that conservative economic policy was optimal despite how much it undermined their own economic interests. Reagan was "transformational" because he changed conventional wisdom and those premises continue to pervade our political discourse.

When has Obama ever done any of that? When does he offer stirring, impassioned defenses of the Democrats' vision on anything, or attempt to transform (rather than dutifully follow) how Americans think about anything? It's not that he lacks the ability to do that. Americans responded to him as an inspirational figure and his skills of oratory are as effective as any politician in our lifetime. It's that he evinces no interest in it. He doesn't try because those aren't his goals. It's not that he or the office of the Presidency are powerless to engender other outcomes; it's that he doesn't use the power he has to achieve them because, quite obviously, achieving them is not his priority or even desire.

Whether in economic policy, national security, civil liberties, or the permanent consortium of corporate power that runs Washington, Obama, above all else, is content to be (one could even say eager to be) guardian of the status quo. And the forces of the status quo want tax cuts for the rich, serious cuts in government spending that don't benefit them (social programs and progressive regulatory schemes), and entitlement "reform" -- so that's what Obama will do. He won't advocate, and will actually oppose, steps as extreme as the ones Paul Ryan is proposing: that's how he will retain his "centrist" political identity and keep the fear levels high among his voting base. He'll pay lip service to some Democratic economic dogma and defend some financially inconsequential culture war positions: that's how he will signal to the base that he's still on their side. But the direction will be the same as the GOP desires and, most importantly, how the most powerful economic factions demand: not because he can't figure out how to change that dynamic, but because that's what benefits him and thus what he wants.

Ironically, Obama is turning out to be "transformational" in his own way -- by taking what was once the defining GOP approach to numerous policy areas and converting them into Democratic ones, and thus ensconcing them in the invulnerable protective shield of "bipartisan consensus." As Digby put it: "Reagan was a hard-core ideologue who didn't just tweak some processes but radically changed the prevailing conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, Obama is actually extending the Reagan consensus, even as he pursues his own agenda of creating a Grand Bargain that will bring peace among the dueling parties (a dubious goal in itself.)" That has been one of the most consequential outcomes of the first two years of his presidency in terms of Terrorism and civil liberties, and is now being consecrated in the realm of economic policy as well.

 

UPDATE: Obama gave a speech today on the budget that many liberals seemed to like -- some more than others.  It was a fine speech as far as it goes -- advocating, among other things, defense cuts and a repeal of the Bush tax cuts and vowing to protect the poor from the pain of deep entitlement reductions -- but I've long ago ceased caring about what Obama says in individual, isolated speeches: especially an Obama now formally in re-election mode.  As I said above, he can be expected to oppose Paul Ryan's plan and "pay lip service to some Democratic economic dogma."  If this becomes a sustained bully pulpit campaign to rhetorically sell these principles to the citizenry accompanied by real action to defend them, that will be one thing:  I'll be pleasantly surprised and will be happy to say so.  But what matters is actions and outcomes.

 
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