Would President Obama be More Clintonian than Rooseveltian?
People all over the world - and certainly no less progressive Americans - are trying to take the measure of Barack Obama. The previous and coming few weeks will be a good, though not perfect, moment for doing so.
I have long believed that the winner of the Democratic nomination in 2008 would be the winner of the presidency. With an average six-point polling spread between Obama and McCain, that is looking more and more true. Moreover, my guess is that this year, like most, the Electoral College math will magnify that gap even further. I have contended for some time that Democrats are going to have a giant year (or, more precisely, Republicans are going to be fiercely spanked), all down the ballot, ranging from dogcatchers up to senators and governors. I expected that the presidential race might be a bit closer than those others, but even that may not be true.
Of course, everything can change in a day, let alone four months. Just ask Mike Dukakis, who entered his year's summer with 12-point advantage over George Bush the Elder, and proceeded to get stomped. Dukakis was one of the earliest Swiftboat victims, back before there even were swiftboater political assassins, per se, and of course the Atwater/Rove machine destroyed him mercilessly. He never seemed to know what hit him, and he certainly never fought back.
Neither condition seems likely to apply to Obama, however -- particularly the latter. That great hissing sound you've been hearing for some time now is the energy going out of the regressive right movement, including the funding and support from the hired guns. Not only do these people see the freight train headed their way, but they can't even get remotely excited about their standard-bearer, John McCain. If your politics suck in America, it's getting harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning.
Moreover, there hasn't been a Democrat like Barack Obama in the thirty years since the Faux Cowboy rode into town and sent them all scurrying for cover. Whatever else one can say about Obama, he doesn't stand around like Dukakis or Kerry getting punch drunk, watching his prospects go down the drain as scumbags relentlessly punk him with the crassest of tactics. Obama may yet lose this election, but it's highly unlikely that he'll do so while being a hapless observer of his own demise. For the pathetic creature known as the Democratic Party, that alone is actually a giant leap of progress.
Given that the presidency is within his reach, the question of who he really is now comes into sharper relief. As I see it, there are basically two options to choose from, with a host of permutations and degrees of variation between and around them. President Obama can either be an FDR, or he can be a Bill Clinton. He can either be a bold leader who leverages crisis and a sweeping electoral mandate into transformational policy and historical leadership, or he can be a caretaker who cravenly seeks to make no mistakes and therefore realizes no accomplishments. He can be a progressive who comes to the rescue of a country badly in need, or he can be Republican-Lite, putting corporate interests ahead of the nation's.
Many people are wondering which model we'll get with Obama. Some don't really care, as long as he is simply President Not Bush. Others have simply gone ahead and made the leap, assured that he is the Second Coming. As he once said, himself, for some reason people seem to project all their hopes and aspirations on this man.
But which is he? My guess, sadly, is that his instincts are more Clinton than FDR, at least when it comes to the cautious inaction aspect. That I can (barely) bear; the corporate shilling I cannot.
It's very much worth remembering, however, that both FDR and Clinton were presidents of their time. Without serious crises, FDR would likely have been Clintonesque. Meanwhile, with them, Clinton could have arguably risen into the pantheon of great presidents. Indeed, he supposedly once lamented that he got through eight years without such a crisis on his watch, a comment which for me always summed up the priorities of Clintonism better than any other single notion. Quick pop-quiz question: What kind of person is so incredibly self-absorbed that they would wish a deadly national crisis on their own country because of the positive effect it might have on their personal legacy? Answer: A Clinton.
Right now, Obama looks to inherit a situation rather in-between the 1930s and the 1990s, which, ironically, is in many ways probably more unfortunate than if things were palpably much worse. On so many fronts, now and into the foreseeable future, America is a slow-motion train wreck. That means it's coming apart fast enough to do truly catastrophic fiscal, environmental, economic, moral, political and international damage over a decade or two, but not fast enough to overwhelm the public's fear of change and thus generate support for bold action. This could well be the worst of all worlds.
Nor, unfortunately, is Obama likely to be compelled to do the right thing on most any of these fronts. Indeed, he will not only run into resistance from a public that claims to want change but probably really only wants the kind that makes their pockets jingle a little more, but he will also certainly inherit a Congress run by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid that is deeply devoted to doing nothing other than serving corporate interests. We progressives can try to pressure him, but if history is any guide, we tend not to have much relative influence. Moreover, almost anything that follows George W. Bush is going to be such a dramatic improvement, and so deeply welcomed, that - especially someone like Obama - will benefit from deep reservoirs of public patience and good will. Finally, the regressive movement which so successfully hobbled Clinton is likely to be in a complete crisis melt-down mode after the American public has had a little Come-to-Jesus conversation with them on November 4th. I don't expect them to be very adept at pressuring Obama at least during the early part of his administration, and I doubt he would allow them to anyhow.
The long and the short of this is that the contextual conditions don't bode well for Obama to run a truly transformational presidency, nor does much of anything in his past suggest that that is his ambition. By my count, that leaves only one remaining potential major motivating factor, which is the question of legacy, the factor that seemed to motivate Lyndon Johnson, for instance, to go to the wall for civil rights. But Obama is a walking legacy. Thirty seconds after he is sworn in next January he will already have fulfilled what could conceivably become the bulk of his historical significance. And it's no small thing, either. American politics have been the provenance of elites for so long now, just having a black man living in that White House is alone pretty huge.
But it is not enough. If Obama defaults to being a Clintonesque caretaker, he'll get away with it for a while, but not forever. Forget about history. In the here-and-now there is mounting impatience with the state of this country, particularly on the economic front. Unfortunately, this is the major area where Obama has offered his least compelling vision, and where he would face probably the greatest of resistance. I'm not convinced, for example, that it would necessarily be politically more difficult to withdraw from Iraq than to raise taxes on the wealthy.
Recent events in the Obama campaign may have been disheartening to progressives, perhaps signaling his centrist tendencies, perhaps suggesting that the extent of the real change he is offering is simply to not be Bush, perhaps inferring - worst of all - that it will be Wall Street which will have his ear. The most recent and prominent example of this sort of stuff was Obama's choice to opt out of his prior repeated promise to accept public financing of his campaign and the limitations that go with it. That is, in some respects, disheartening. And perhaps will be much more so if it convinces him that he can lie with impunity.
And there have been other signs as well. His choice of Jim Johnson as his lead advisor in vetting vice presidential nominees was about as Washington old school establishment as you can get, and that was even before it blew up in his face because of Johnson's skanky personal finances. Much more ominous have been the presumptive nominee's selection of Wall Street-leaning Jason Furman as the campaign's chief economic advisor, and his denunciation of the Supreme Court's decision this week to prohibit the application of the death penalty for raping a child.
As horrifyingly noxious as that latter crime certainly is, few Americans are better positioned than Obama, the African American constitutional law scholar, to understand just how twisted is the use of the death penalty in any case. His criticism of the Court's majority suggests the worst sort of pandering to a bloodthirsty public, not unlike Governor Bill Clinton's nauseating decision to personally preside over the execution of mentally retarded Ricky Ray Rector in order to attract centrist voters in 1992.
But the Furman choice may be the worst indicator yet of this guy's intentions. Furman is closely associated with Robert Rubin, who is closely associated with conservative economic principles within the Democratic Party, those favoring Wall Street over Main Street. What makes that act especially disheartening is that it was essentially a free choice for Obama. He's not going to win or lose a lot of votes from a voting public amongst whom almost none could distinguish Furman from, say, Joseph Stiglitz, as an alternative. Using the death penalty to pander for votes is truly sickening, but at least if we know it is pandering we can excuse (I don't) it as perhaps necessary to be able to achieve a greater good in the America of the 21st century. On the other hand, choosing a corporate-leaning economic advisor when almost no one is looking at what you're doing may well signal the candidate's true politics.
To an extent, this can all be excused - possibly - as pre-election necessity. It's crucial to win this year. It's crucial for Obama not to allow himself to be swiftboated. It's clear that he well understands these principles. Frankly, I don't want him to advertise any unpopular, left-of-center politics he might have during the campaign, whether or not he would pursue those policies in office. They won't help him now, and they'll very likely hurt him. It does none of us any good for John McCain to become America's 44th president of the United States, and after watching the pathetic performances of Dukakis, Gore and Kerry in (not) fighting for the presidency, I for one am not going to hold Obama's feet to the political purity bonfire of ideological self-immolation.
On the other hand, there are limits to what is tolerable, even in an election as crucial as this one. While I don't expect the guy to be a socialist, I'm going to be powerfully disappointed if he repeats Clinton's economic policies, notwithstanding that they're marginally better than McCain's or Bush's. And I have to admit that I find the death penalty comments revolting, especially when he could have just chosen to be silent on the issue.
What makes all of this even more troubling is that Obama is already killing McCain in the polls, and therefore doesn't appear to need to use the most egregious of these tactics. To be sure, he should be highly cautious about believing the election is all sewn up. And he gives every appearance of understanding - as any Democrat long ago should have - that these guys are going to try to smear him mercilessly, and therefore nothing should be taken for granted - eh, Mr. Kerry? That fifteen point lead - even assuming that it is accurate - could potentially disappear rapidly - eh, Mr. Dukakis? Still, is it really necessary to favor the expansion of the use of the death penalty in America?
What Obama appears to be doing is following the standard American presidential script, which is to run to your left (if you're a Democrat) during the primaries, and then to the center after securing the nomination. Obama never got very far to the left of the public at any point, but you can see him repositioning now. Perhaps after the election we'll see yet a third version, and perhaps that will be more progressive than not. Perhaps.
I don't think anyone knows, which is why so many of us are watching this guy so closely. It's easy enough to be disappointed, especially for progressives, but mostly if you're so unrealistic that you'd rather be one hundred percent politically pure than have a chance to govern. Some issues are worth that extremely high price. Many are not. What I can say for myself is just this: I'm looking for someone with sufficient courage and vision to be able to govern at the left edge of what is realistically possible. While I'd certainly prefer more than that in a perfect world, in the real one I'm stuck in, I'll generally take that over nothing at all. And I'll certainly take that over the rampant destruction of all things precious that will continue if the GOP is allowed to govern another four years. Let's face it. If we're honest we'll admit that the only difference between voting for Ralph Nader versus demanding that Obama take electorally impossible stands is that the latter is an even surer path to political suicide.
Everyone has to make their own choices, of course. But, me? I generally recommend against suicide.
When it comes to Obama, we have to wait and see. What I can say is that he used to be closer to that realistically possible progressive edge in prior months than he has been over the last couple weeks. I might be happy if this is the low point for him and it just gets better from here on out. But let's be honest, he's had better stretches than this last one.
And it matters, too. To choose but one example, in the last week top NASA scientist James Hansen told Congress regarding global warming that "We're toast if we don't get on a very different path. This is the last chance." He predicted mass extinction, ecosystem collapse, and dramatic sea level rises if we don't take steps to save the planet, and fast.
The same is true across so many domains of American and global society, even if the crises aren't quite that stunningly acute. We are in very deep trouble, in so many ways.
For sure, it will be wonderful to remove from the body politic the cancer currently occupying the White House.
But it will not be enough.