|Obama, Straight Down the Middle|
After his first year in office, many commentators suggest that President Obama has fallen short of achieving a progressive agenda for change. Three reviews explore the performance of the US administration in economic, social and foreign policy.
27th January 2010
January 2010 - Serge Halimi, Le Monde Diplomatique
Political combat sometimes stresses personal antagonisms and obsessive antipathies too much. The need for an all-out attack on an opponent makes for diverse alliances motivated solely by the desire to destroy the common enemy. But once that enemy has been brought down, the problems begin. What next? To make political decisions, the grey areas which in opposition had made an alliance possible have to be dispelled, and that brings disenchantment. Before you know it, the hated adversary is back in power, made no more appealing by his time in opposition.
That scenario has already been played out in Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy. Berlusconi was defeated in 1995 by an insipid ragtag left that lacked a plan, only to be returned to power six years later. In Sarkozy’s France, marriages of convenience have been made between parties (ecologists, centrists and socialists) and also between individuals (Dominique de Villepin, prime minister under Jacques Chirac, has made common cause with the revolutionary socialist Olivier Besancenot, with whom he has almost nothing in common, long enough to attack the government). Their common target is Sarkozy; but what comes next?
The combination of casual coalitions, uncertain policies and then disappointment also describes the current US political landscape. A year ago the rout of the Republicans and the end of George W Bush’s presidency brought a moment of jubilation.
Even if some of the electorate whose lot has not improved continue to put their faith in Obama (see report on Detroit), their jubilation seems to have evaporated. Pacifists despair over the intensification of the war in Afghanistan, health reform has fallen short of reasonable expectations, as has environmental policy. The general verdict is less than great, but better than nothing. That contributes to a mood of despondency. Political passion is once again changing sides.
Such a stalemate strengthens the power of the lobbies and raises questions about the real power of the US president. Obama isn’t Bush; Romano Prodi wasn’t Silvio Berlusconi either. But not being Bush isn’t enough to tell you where Obama is heading, or to make you want to follow him. The US is suffering: the unemployment rate has risen sharply, there are whole neighbourhoods of repossessions. The president is not short on talk and explanations, and the desire to convince. But what does it add up to? In Cairo he condemned Israeli settlements then resigned himself to the fact that they continue to expand. He backed an ambitious health care reform, but when Congress watered it down, he put up with it.
One day he tells West Point cadets he is sending reinforcements to Afghanistan, the next he accepts the Nobel peace prize. But there is a remedy for this dissonance: a stream of words to balance each pronouncement with its opposite. The refrain almost always turns out to be “my progressive friends say this; my Republican friends reply that. The first are demanding too much and the second aren’t conceding enough. Therefore, I’m opting for the middle course.”
Obama encouraged the West Point cadets to “show restraint in the use of force”. And he told the Oslo jury that the fact that “force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism: it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason”. The jury members were also invited to ponder the example of President Nixon who, despite the “Cultural Revolution’s horrors”, agreed to meet Mao in Beijing in 1972. Being so very particular on the question of human rights, Nixon had to get over the experience by ordering the bombing of Vietnamese cities shortly after, and backing General Pinochet’s putsch in Chile… Obama made no mention of this in his speech. Ever the impeccable centrist, he preferred to pay tribute to Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan.
Yet it all began so well. In November 2008 nearly two-thirds of the US voting age population (and 89.7% of registered voters) took part in the election. The man they voted into the White House was a candidate whose trajectory suggested the scale of the change to come: “I don’t fit the typical pedigree, and I haven’t spent my career in the halls of Washington.” For precisely that reason he was able to mobilise young and black and Hispanic voters as well as an unprecedented proportion of the white vote (43%).
Achieving a higher share of the vote than Reagan in his 1980 victory (52.9% compared with 50.7%), Obama could rightly pride himself on having a genuine mandate. There was no one to challenge it. The Republicans had been utterly routed. Their neoliberal philosophy, which was concisely summed up by the new president (“we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else”), was in tatters. And the Democrats had a large majority in both houses of Congress.
Three months before his election, Obama had warned: “The greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result. You [grassroots supporters] have shown what history teaches us – that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens because the American people demand it – because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time.”
Grassroots activism would, one might assume, make it possible to shake the conservative inertia of the capital, where all the lobbyists are based. One year on, while there’s no trace of a popular movement, there are innumerable examples of planned legislation that has been blocked, diluted or neutered by the “same old politics with the same old players”.
It’s true that Obama’s pedigree is different from those of his predecessors, not just for the obvious visible reason, but also because it’s unusual for a White House incumbent to have decided as a young man to pass up the chance to get rich practising law in New York, and instead help the people of Chicago’s poor neighbourhoods. But when one looks at Obama’s choices for his cabinet, the novelty is less striking.
For every minister such as Hilda Solis (Obama’s labour secretary, who has close links with the unions and promises a break with old policies), there is a Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose diplomatic position is little different from the past. Then there’s the defence secretary, Robert Gates, a direct holdover from the Bush administration. Or the finance minister, Timothy Geithner, who’s too close to Wall Street to want or be able to reform it, or economic adviser Lawrence Summers, architect of the financial deregulation that brought his country close to meltdown. And the diversity of his team turns out to be not so diverse after all: 22 of Obama’s 35 top nominations hold a degree from an elite American or British university.
Since the early 20th century, the Democrats have been particularly susceptible to the technocratic illusion of competence, pragmatism, government by “the best and the brightest”, excellence, and expertise which seeks to impose its will on a political world they suspect of permanent demagogy. This philosophy views mass mobilisation and populism with distrust. It’s one Obama subscribes to, which is paradoxical given his trajectory (perhaps it’s to avoid any confusion with Afro-American activism).
At the outset Obama hoped that the most reasonable part of the Republican Party would go along with him to get the country out of its present predicament. But he reached out to them in vain. He recently commented on this rebuff: “We were forced to take those steps largely without the help of an opposition party, which, unfortunately, after having presided over the decision-making that had led to the crisis, decided to hand it over to others to solve” (1). This is an odd, but revealing, way of putting it. It overlooks the fact that after the 2008 presidential election, the Republicans didn’t decide to hand over the reins of power to the Democrats: the people voted them out of office.
Republicans find this intolerable, hence their strength of feeling. Already back in June 1951, there had been a Democrat in the White House, Harry Truman. As president, he had devoted himself to the fight against communism and the Soviet Union, the defence of the empire and the profits of General Electric.
But in the eyes of a significant part of the Republican electorate, he was a traitor no matter what he did. Senator Joseph McCarthy asked: “How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principal shall be forever deserving of the malediction of all honest men.” For four years, McCarthy terrorised US progressives, artists and trade unionists, and also high officials, including the military.
We haven’t reached that point yet. But the atmosphere is again being poisoned by the paranoia of rightwing activists whipped into a frenzy by the radio talk shows, the rolling “news” from Fox News, the editorials of the Wall Street Journal, the fundamentalist churches and the crazy rumours spread by the internet. These invade the mind and block out thought about other things. Millions of Americans who are passionate about politics are convinced that their president lied about his birth and is ineligible to occupy the White House because he was born abroad. They are adamant that his victory, won by 8,500,000 votes, was the result of fraud, a “conspiracy on a scale so immense”...
They loathe the idea of having a leader who spent two years in a Muslim school in Indonesia, a former leftwing activist and cosmopolitan intellectual (2). They have an unshakeable belief that health reform is just the precursor to the creation of death panels, tribunals that will decide which patients will receive treatment. These cohorts form the hard core of the Republican Party. They rule with a rod of iron over the representatives with whom the good centrist Obama reckoned on negotiating his stimulus package, his health insurance reforms and financial regulation.
The vanity of such a hope quickly became apparent. Less than a month after Obama arrived in the White House, his plan to increase public expenditure failed to receive the support of any of the 177 Republicans in the House of Representatives. In November came health reform; just one opposition member voted with the Democrat majority. In December legislation designed to protect consumers from abusive practices by credit companies was also passed by the House of Representatives without a single Republican supporter. On every occasion, however, the bills put to the vote were amended in the hope that the president could present them as bipartisan.
High Price to Pay
In finance reform, no one can tell what the law he will eventually sign will be like. If less than 60 of the 100 senators demand a vote, the discussions could go on indefinitely. As there are 40 Republican senators, each of them – and any refractory Democrats – can exact a high price for their support. One such Democrat, Joseph Lieberman (who endorsed John McCain, the Republican candidate in the 2008 election), has already obstructed the creation of a public option for Americans without medical cover. Private medical insurance companies are among Senator Lieberman’s main funders.
On 28 September 2008, when a $700bn rescue package for the banks approved by candidate Obama was being discussed, a representative on the left, Dennis Kucinich, asked: “Is this the US Congress or the board of directors of Goldman Sachs?” The question is still pertinent, as Obama recently found it necessary to point out that “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street”. Nonetheless, in 2008 Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JPMorgan, UBS and Morgan Stanley were among his top 20 campaign funders (3). Journalist William Greider summed the situation up: “The Democrats face a dilemma: can they serve the public interest without discomforting the bankers who help fund their campaigns?” (4).
So can the US be reformed? Its system is supposed to be characterised by checks and balances. But really it consists of different centres of powers all governed by the dollar. In 2008 millions of young people threw themselves into the political struggle, reckoning that with Obama as president, nothing would be as it was before. But now he too is engaged in horse-trading, buying a vote that he needs, courting a figure he despises.
Could he do otherwise? The personality of a single individual doesn’t count for all that much weighed against the tyranny of the whole system, especially when the opposition has turned hysterical and the grassroots movement boils down to some crumbling unions, black activists co-opted by the executive and bloggers who think that activism can be spread from their keyboards. For things to take a progressive turn in the US would require an almost perfect alignment of the planets. In contrast, in order massively to reduce the tax burden on the rich, Ronald Reagan didn’t even need a majority in Congress.
Some of the misunderstanding may stem from Obama’s biography. First, because it has concentrated all the fire and all the expectations on him as an individual. And second, because it’s been a long time since the president resembled the radical adolescent described in his memoirs – the Obama who attended socialist lectures; who was shocked by the anti-communist coup in Indonesia in 1965; and who worked in Harlem for an association with links to Ralph Nader.
Nor does there remain a trace of the Afro-American activist who, “to avoid being mistaken for a sellout, chose [his] friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets. We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets. At night, in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy” (5).
For Republicans, this journey is all the proof they need that the man is dangerous – alien to the individualist culture of the US, indulgent towards the enemies of liberty and disposed “to socialise the US health system”. Democratic activists are hoping their president, who has disappointed them thus far, will put into action more progressive policies as soon as he can, and that such is his intention. The fears of one group stir up the hopes of the other. To paraphrase the journalist Alexander Cockburn, the left that pokes among the entrails of bills presented to Congress to divine the smallest evidence of mini-victories knows that its days are numbered: next November’s legislative elections, likely to take place in a gloomy economic climate, will thin the Democratic ranks.
There is too much talk about Obama. The man has taken on the aspect of a demi-god believed to be capable of taming a range of social forces, institutions and interests. This immature personalisation of power is also characteristic of France and Italy, but there the devil is on the other side (if only Berlusconi and Sarkozy were to fall, the thinking goes, then the left would be saved). Half a century ago, the US historian Richard Hofstadter popularised the expression “paranoid style” to capture this political mood. What he had in mind was the McCarthyite right and its immediate successors, but he claimed that his ideal type would find other applications in the course of time.
So it has proved. Today the rise of individualism, intellectual laziness, the hysterical direction of debate, the harmful role of the media and the decline of Marxism have made widespread the illusion according to which, as Hofstadter explained in 1963, “unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself the victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent.
He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself, or deflects the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depression, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced” (6). Rush Limbaugh, the neocon radio host, accuses some of Obama’s supporters of taking him for the Messiah. Maybe so, but then why does he persist in denouncing Obama as the Antichrist?
Ultimately, the miracle of the election in November 2008 could be to remind us that there’s no such thing as a miracle. And that the destiny of the US, like that of other countries, mustn’t be confused with the personality of one man or the will of a president.
(1) Address to the Brookings Institution, 8 December 2009.
(2) See “US: phoney culture wars”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, June 2006.
(4) William Greider, “The money man’s best friend”, The Nation, New York, 11 November 2009.
(5) Barack Obama, Dreams from my Father, Crown Books, New York, 2004.
(6) Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1966.
Translated by George Miller
January 2010 - Institute for Policy Studies
After the first 100 days of the Obama administration, the Institute for Policy Studies introduced our Change Index to evaluate the policies and performance of the new president. Did the candidate who promised change deliver on his promises?
Back in April, we gave the administration a score of 7 out of 10. "In other words, President Obama has certainly raised the level of U.S. foreign and domestic policy," we wrote in our report "Thirsting for Change." "But honestly it wouldn't have taken much to improve on the legacy left by the previous administration. We're still a long way off from reaching the top and earning a wholehearted 'cheers' from our Change Index contributors."
Nine months later, the president has had more time to act on his agenda. And the result has been mixed. He has spent a lot of time and energy to get a health care plan to Congress, but the final product is flawed in many ways. The stock market has regained much of its lost value, but the unemployment rate remains a staggering 10 percent and average Americans are still hurting. The president received his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, but was simultaneously increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and ordering air strikes in Pakistan. After his first year in office, Obama emerged as the "have it both ways" president: hawk and dove, populist and pragmatist, principled and political.
Obama's balancing act is reflected in his approval rating, which crested at 65 percent in March and dropped to 50 percent by December. Like the public at large, we're looking at the glass of water that is the Obama administration and trying to decide whether it's half full or half empty. It's certainly half full when compared to what might have been if John McCain had won and continued, uninterrupted, the policies of his predecessor.
The unemployment rate would likely be higher, health care reform further from implementation, and America involved in yet another major war in Iran or North Korea. But the glass is half empty when compared to what Obama the candidate promised and what other presidents, like Lyndon Johnson or even Jimmy Carter, accomplished in their first year, at least on the domestic front.
After the first year in office, Obama fell short of what he outlined as a candidate and what we had hoped for during the campaign. As a result, we lowered our mark from 7 to 6.5. In our Change Index, the middle figure of 5 represents no change from the Bush administration. So, there has been change, but it's been modest. The new team squeaked by with a C- and a note in the margin: needs improvement.
27th January 2010 - Mark Leon Goldberg, UN Dispatch
As President Obama heads to Capitol Hill tonight to deliver the State of the Union address, one thing is clear: in both rhetoric and deed, President Obama has fundamentally shifted the direction of American foreign policy. He has summoned bedrock progressive principals to re-calibrate America’s role in the world. Through a policy of engagement with international institutions and cooperation abroad, the administration has racked up an impressive set of foreign policy achievements after just one year. Oh -- and in the process, Obama has shown the uselessness of an arrogant go-it-alone foreign policy that was the hallmark of American foreign policy just a couple of years ago.
Some of these achievements have been relatively high profile, others behind the scenes. On the non-proliferation front, the Obama administration “reset” American policy with Russia and is engaging in a new round of nuclear arms reduction. When North Korea launched a nuclear test in May, the Obama administration led the Security Council in passing the strongest set of sanctions in Council history. In September, Obama chaired a Security Council meeting on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation—the first time in history that an American president has done so. The meeting resulted in the unanimous adoption of a resolution that imposed new provisions to deter countries from withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the endorsement of stricter export controls and safeguards, among other measures. The Bulletin of Atomic Sciences cited these efforts in its decision this month to move back the “Doomsday Clock” to six minutes to midnight.
On climate change, the United States reversed eight years of American indifference to international efforts to curb global warming. President Obama joined other heads of state at a UN summit on Climate Change in September. And then, in December, he became personally involved in negotiations at the Copenhagen Climate Summit.
On some less high profile issues, the administration has also made some significant headway. The administration reversed Bush administration’s policy to support a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the outlaw of homosexuality. The administration is also supporting the International Criminal Court’s action against Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who is accused of genocide in Darfur. And, for the first time in eight years, the United States participated (as an observer) at a meeting of the ICC.
President Obama has done more to support UN peacekeeping than any American president in recent history. Over 100,000 peacekeepers, only a handful of which are American, are deployed to 17 global hotspots. These peacekeepers share the burden of maintaining global peace and security and are sent to places (like Darfur, the Congo) where the United States cannot or will not deploy. UN peacekeepers were in Haiti long before U.S. Marines arrived last week and will remain there long after in Haiti long after the marines depart. To its credit, the administration has made strengthening UN peacekeeping a centerpiece of its work at the UN. Back in Washington, this means putting our money where our mouth is and Obama has pressed congress to pay back America’s arrears to the UN and restore full funding to UN peacekeeping and the United Nations as a whole.
The administration has also supported international women’s issues and international family planning. The Secretary of State convened a Security Council meeting that resulted in the unanimous adoption of a resolution on sexual violence in armed conflict, which called on the Secretary General to appoint a high level representative to lead international efforts to combat this scourge. And immediately upon taking office, President Obama reversed the so-called global gag rule that prevented American assistance to NGOs doing important international family planning work. On top of that administration restored American funding to the UN Population Fund, which provides family planning and health services to assistance to women in the developing world.
There are a number of other examples, big and small, that show the extent to which the Obama administration has demonstrated a committment to the premise of constructive global enagement. Individually, each of these steps -- and others -- have helped to restore the United States to its rightful place as a global power that is respected not only for its military might, but for its moral leadership. To be sure, the administration’s record is not perfect; the future of Afghanistan remains unclear and the process of closing Guantanamo has taken longer than expected. But that should not obscure that in one year, the Obama administration has marshaled progressive foreign policy principals to deliver tangeable gains for the United States.
It has has shown that a little global cooperation can go a long way.
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