Barack Obama's Trials and Battles with the DC Political Establishment


The following is an excerpt from Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama by Eric Alterman. Available from Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.

Don’t Know What I Want But I Know How to Get It

“The self-critical element of the progressive mind is probably a healthy thing, but it can also be debilitating,” Barack Obama told Rolling Stone magazine in the fall of 2010. Progressives need to keep this in mind, particularly in light of the amazing series of interlocking challenges that faced Obama’s presidency in merely restoring some sensible form of equilibrium to the governance of the United States. What’s more, he was attempting to work with a minority party with no strategic stake whatever in sensible governance.

When, for instance, the unemployment figure reached 9.5 percent—or, more accurately, 16.5 percent if we include the people who had given up looking—in the summer of 2010, some of the lost jobs could be attributed to the failure of Congress to appropriate funds to replace lost state and local revenue in time for localities to retain their needed staffing levels of police, firefighters, schoolteachers, and the like; a legislative package was purposely delayed in the Senate by a combination of single-senator holds and party-line obstructionist votes. But bad employment numbers were actually good news for Republicans, as they were roundly interpreted as evidence of the failure of the Obama administration’s economic policies and therefore increased the likelihood of strong Republican showings in the coming November midterm elections.

As a matter of fact, the worse things got for the country, the better they looked for Republican candidates. And given that Republicans can plausibly claim to be ideologically in sync with just about any nonmilitary budget cut no matter what the ultimate effect, what possible incentive do the Republicans have to cooperate with the Democratic majority to pass legislation that will actually improve economic conditions? The two parties are demonstrably different in this respect. Democrats, even in the minority, participate in solutions designed to improve governance. They cannot help themselves. A commitment to the principle of good governance is the primary reason most Democrats tend toward politics in the first place.

One might argue that this faith in government’s ability to improve people’s lives is misplaced, or that it becomes easily corrupted over time by the temptations of power and privilege, but few serious political observers would deny its initial presence. This is rarely true of Republicans, who are suspicious of government on principle and opposed to successful programs in practice and therefore happy to see government programs fail and, ideally, disappear entirely.

Ironically, given the deeply contested manner in which George W. Bush ascended to the presidency in 2000 despite his second-place finish in the popular vote and a transparent power grab on his behalf by the U.S. Supreme Court, it is Obama’s, not Bush’s, legitimacy that has come under attack by mainstream Republicans. As environmental reporter Dave Roberts describes it, “At the federal Congressional level, the Republican Party has become tight in its discipline, extreme in its ideology, and utterly unprincipled in its tactics.”

To be fair to the Democrats, they are a far more ideologically diverse party than the Republicans and contain many moderates, many of who, in past Congresses, would easily have been conservatives. To further complicate matters, the more conservative or “centrist” representatives are almost always the most vulnerable because they do not represent reliably liberal districts (many were recently recruited for the purposes of winning in “purple” districts). As NPR’s Ron Elving observed following the publication of yet another poll predicting a Republican landslide, House Democrats were divided between their safe “sitting pretty faction” and “the more fragile ‘scaredy cat’ faction that could be carried off by even the gentlest of anti-incumbent breezes.” As a result, the Democratic leadership in both houses is forever forced to compromise with its own side rather than its opposition.

Now add to this the fact that, as Roberts rightly notes, “Congressional Republicans exercise far more party discipline, are far more extreme ideologically, and are far more willing to twist and abuse procedure than are Congressional Democrats.” It’s true, as pundits like to claim, that both sides “do it,” but Republican conservatives do it better, more often, and to far greater effect. As New York congressman Anthony Weiner wryly observes, too often Democrats arrive at “knife fights carrying library books.”

Again, to offer just one relatively insignificant example, when Democratic congressman Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii announced his plans to leave Congress to run for governor, he picked as his date of departure February 28, just before the big make-’em-or-break-’em series of votes on health care reform. Barely a week later, Republican congressman Nathan Deal of Georgia made the same announcement regarding his ambition to occupy his state’s governor’s chair, but his Republican colleagues prevailed upon him to stick around long enough to vote against health care.

Meanwhile, and I wish I were making this up, Abercrombie’s Democratic colleagues not only let him run away from the fight but also gave him a going-away party. Too bad Abercrombie was already gone. (And in an almost too-fitting ending, the Democrats lost this bluest of blue seats—temporarily at least—in the May special election, owing to their inability to settle on a single candidate in time for the vote.)

Take the example of health care reform, for instance. Clearly, the American health care system demanded an overhaul for reasons of both equity and efficiency. Per capita health spending in the United States had been increasing at nearly twice the rate as that in other wealthy countries; by 2004 U.S. health care spending was two and a half times per citizen that of the median amount for its competitors and far more than any other country as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). And what do we get for all our money? Given that about one-third of the spending went into wasteful and counterproductive bureaucratic shuffling and endlessly redundant layers of administration, not nearly as much as one would have had a right to expect.

Going into 2009, the United States and South Africa were the only two developed countries in the world that did not provide health care for all of their citizens. Nationally, roughly 30 percent of American children were without health insurance, and it was not unusual for them to receive no checkups or vaccinations for the entire year. The United States ranked eighty-fourth in the world for measles immunizations and eighty-ninth for polio. Childhood-immunization rates in the United States were lower than average. Infant-mortality rates were in the nineteenth percentile of industrialized nations. And children were hardly the only problem. American life expectancy was lower than the Western average. According to the World Health Organization, the United States ranked twenty-eighth in the years its citizens could expect to live healthy lives.

Republicans never bothered to come up with an alternative proposal to Obama’s health care plan. Actually addressing these issues could hardly have been less relevant to their political agenda. All they needed were the words “socialism,” “government takeover,” “death panels,” and, most of all, “no.” (“We’re the party of ‘Hell, no!’” cried Sarah Palin to a crowd of cheering southern Republicans in April 2010.) When Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) introduced a GOP stimulus plan, authored by the Heritage Foundation, it consisted in its entirety of making the Bush tax cuts permanent and adding to them additional tax breaks for corporations and wealthy Americans. If enacted—never a serious possibility—this plan would have cost roughly three times what Obama’s plan is estimated to cost over the next ten years. Even DeMint found it necessary to admit that the plan was “not innovative or particularly clever. In fact, it’s only eleven pages.”

Republicans stuck to this line throughout Obama’s first two years in office, deriding the impact of the stimulus, complaining of out-of-control deficit spending, and yet demanding the retention of the enormously costly Bush tax cuts aimed primarily at the extremely wealthy. They did so despite the fact that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analyzed the short-term effects of eleven potential options for dealing with the present unemployment crisis and found that retaining the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy offered the least powerful “bang for the buck,” owing to wealthy people’s proclivity to save, rather than spend, additional income.

But when on a Fox News Sunday program in late July 2010 Chris Wallace inquired of then-GOP House minority leader, now House Speaker, John Boehner as to whether he was aware that “a number of top economists say what we need is more economic stimulus,” the Republican leader replied with apparent pride in his ignorance, “Well, I don’t need to see GDP numbers or to listen to economists. All I need to do is listen to the American people, because they’ve been asking the question now for eighteen months, ‘Where are the jobs?’”

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