From “Yes we can” to “No we won’t”

December 18, 2009

Many people who were Barack Obama's most enthusiastic supporters a year ago have grown disillusioned and angry. Alan Maass looks at the differences between President Obama and Candidate Obama--and where the hope for real change lies.

AS THE first year of Barack Obama's presidency drew to a close, one event symbolized the gap between the promise he represented to so many people and the frustrating reality: A war president accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.

Here was the man who owed his electoral success, at least during the Democratic primaries, to the perception that he was the main antiwar candidate--and he accepted the Nobel in Oslo a week after announcing he would escalate the already-eight-year-old U.S. war on Afghanistan, with a second troop surge that brought to more than 50,000 the total number of soldiers he had committed to the war since taking office.

Sure, Obama's Nobel speech started with the usual claims of "great humility" to be receiving such an honor--right before he delivered as ugly an example of American imperial arrogance as anything George W. Bush could have managed:

Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea.

Barack Obama

Underwritten global security? Tell it to the relatives of the innocent Afghans torn to pieces by U.S. bombs dropped on wedding parties. Promoted peace and prosperity? Ask the people of East Timor trying to rebuild a ruined nation after a quarter century of a U.S.-sanctioned occupation and genocide by Indonesia. Blood of our citizens? An Iraqi could tell you about the blood of their citizens, spilled to protect the U.S. government's control of Middle East oil.

If Obama's goal was to win the approval of right-wing Republicans--the ones who accuse him of "paling around with terrorists" and pander to the crazies who think Obama was born in Kenya--he did succeed on that count. "I liked what he said," Sarah Palin chirped. Newt Gingrich praised "a very historic speech."

Walter Russell Mead--whose title of Henry Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations tells you everything you need to know about him--couldn't contain his delight:

There are no flies on our President. He could sell shoes to a snake.

Barack Obama's acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize was a carefully reasoned defense of a foreign policy that differs very little from George Bush's. He is winding down one war, escalating a second, and stepping up the pressure on Iran. He is asserting America's sovereign right to unilateral action in self-defense, while expressing the hope that this right will not need to be exercised.

If Bush had said these things, the world would be filled with violent denunciations. When Obama says them, people purr. That is fine by me...I've waxed lyrical about Obama's ability to sell our foreign policy to the world. He didn't just put lipstick on the pig; he gave it a makeover and sent it to charm school.

Meanwhile, among the people who actually wanted Barack Obama to become president, there was bitter disappointment. As author Garry Wills wrote:

Although he talked of a larger commitment to Afghanistan during his campaign, he has now officially adopted his very own war, one with all the disqualifications that he attacked in the Iraq engagement...I cannot vote for any Republican. But Obama will not get another penny from me, or another word of praise, after this betrayal.

Obama's surge to Afghanistan was a turning point for others who supported him in 2008. But it's worth noting that many leading liberals weren't nearly as put off as Wills. Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, speaking to National Public Radio, claimed that Obama's Nobel speech--the very same one admired by Sarah Palin--"had a humility and grace while confronting the paradoxes."

When Obama announced his Afghanistan escalation a week earlier, the liberal antiwar group urged its members not to protest Obama, but to call on Congress to support "a binding military exit strategy and firm benchmarks so we can bring our troops home safely and quickly."

So the president of the United States doubles the number of U.S. troops committed to a war that even some conservatives now considered a disaster, and all could ask for was "benchmarks"? That tepid response goes a long way in explaining why the Obama administration wasn't concerned about an antiwar backlash when it approved the Pentagon's proposal for a further surge.

LAST YEAR at this time, millions of people were basking in the glow of Barack Obama's historic election victory. As and other left voices pointed out, the new president's actual policies were more conservative than his rhetoric. But in spite of that, the Obama campaign stirred more popular enthusiasm for change and higher expectations than anything to happen in mainstream politics in more than a generation. It was an invigorating climate after years of conservative domination in Washington politics.

Twelve months later, the reality has proved very different. For those who put their hopes in Obama, every month and week--sometimes every day--brings greater disillusionment and growing anger.

Over the summer, The Onion managed to capture the situation better than most media outlets. "In a slight shift from his campaign trail promise," went a front-page story, "President Barack Obama announced that his administration's message of 'Change' has been modified to the somewhat more restrained slogan 'Relatively Minor Readjustments in Certain Favorable Policy Areas.'"

Now, though, it seems like "relatively minor readjustments" would be better than what we got. On every issue, the Obama administration has acted like its hated Republican predecessors far more often than anyone would have guessed.

For the bailout of Wall Street, the administration adopted wholesale the policies put in place by the Bush administration in its final months in office. Nothing about nationalization, no more than a toothless executive pay policy, not even new regulations on the banks.

On health care reform, the White House started by opening negotiations with "stakeholders"--translation: the medical-insurance-pharmaceutical complex--and bargained away even half-measures like the "public option" for the uninsured.

Even on an issue like civil liberties, where it seemed impossible that it could sink to the depths of the Bush administration, the number of times the Obama White House upheld policies from the Bush years--indefinite detention in U.S. prisons overseas, trial by military commissions, rendition of prisoners to regimes where torture is legal, warrantless wiretapping, use of executive powers to hinder the prosecution of U.S. officials--far outnumber the times it changed course.

True, Obama hasn't been a carbon copy of Bush. In June, for example, he marked LGBT Pride Month with a powerful statement decrying oppression and harassment that remained "all too common for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community"--surely words that no one could imagine George W. Bush uttering.

But within days of this declaration, the Obama Justice Department was in court defending both the Defense of Marriage Act and the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy--two antigay measures Obama the candidate promised to overturn--against legal challenges.

The Employee Free Choice Act, immigration raids, climate change legislation, racial profiling, education "reform"--the list of issues where Barack Obama has disappointed his most enthusiastic supporters goes on and on.

What it shows is that Barack Obama was never the crusader for change he claimed to be on the campaign trail, but a much more conventional politician--as committed to the priorities of protecting the status quo as any other member of the two-party political establishment that runs Washington.

A CENTURY ago, another Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, explained the reality of the two-party Washington system as well as any radical:

Suppose you go to Washington and try to get at your government. You will always find that while you are politely listened to, the men really consulted are the men who have the big stake--the big bankers, the big manufacturers and the big masters of commerce...The masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States.

Barack Obama's campaign last year was built around a carefully crafted image of a candidate who came from outside the Washington establishment, and would set a new direction for the country--in a way that the Republicans obviously wouldn't, and fellow Democrats like Hillary Clinton, bound up for so many years in Beltway politics, couldn't.

But the image conflicted with the reality of a politician who "really consulted" with the big bankers and masters of commerce.

Check the phone directory of the senior staff at the Obama Treasury Department--the men and women overseeing the multi-trillion-dollar bailout of Wall Street--and you'll search in vain for any figure associated with liberal policies. No one from the unions, no one from liberal think tanks, no community organizers or progressive bloggers.

What you will find are plenty of former employees of Goldman Sachs--the mega-bank that presided over the Wall Street bubble, and then got its hooks into the government's bailout program.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, while not a Goldman alumnus, is perfectly representative of the brand of people that makes up the Obama administration--someone whose political views are shaped by with the narrow world of the financial and political elite, within which he has operated his entire professional life.

A few months ago, the Associated Press used a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain Geithner's phone records and calendar during his time as Treasury Secretary. What they showed, AP reported, was that the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase were among a small core of "Wall Street executives who have known Geithner for years, whose multibillion-dollar companies survived the economic crisis with his help, and who can pick up the phone and reach the nation's most powerful economic official...Goldman, Citi and JPMorgan can get Geithner on the phone several times a day if necessary, giving them an unmatched opportunity to influence policy."

It would be hard to find a better example of how the U.S. political system really works. Ordinary people are supposed to be able to have an effect on their government by voting for candidates they support every two or four years. But if you run Goldman Sachs or Citigroup, you can have a far more direct effect on government policy every two or four hours, just by picking up the phone.

Many people who voted for Obama disdain Geithner, but don't always apply their criticisms to Obama himself, in part because they think he is being led astray from his correct instincts--the ones he expressed during the campaign--by bad advisers like Geithner.

But after a year in office--during which Obama made concessions time and again on promised policies and programs, and hired no one but mainstream advisers straight out of the political and corporate establishment--this rings hollow. It makes much more sense, in light of the record, to recognize that Obama is a part of the same corporate money-soaked system he claimed in his campaign speeches that he wanted to change.

On this point, it helps to remember that Obama and the Democrats displaced the Republicans as the primary recipients of political donations from a number of industries in 2008, the financial sector among them. As a New York University finance professor told the Washington Post, the threat of re-regulation on Wall Street meant that hedge funds "have a strong interest in becoming involved in the political process, and that is really the whole story behind their support of Obama...[I]t is very much in their advantage to have a strong voice with him."

Seen in this light, the Obama administration's generous bailout terms for Wall Street, reluctance to restrict pay for financial executives and hesitation to push for stronger rules to regulate the banks are easier to understand. The hedge funds did, indeed, buy "a strong voice" in the new administration.

THE POINT isn't that Barack Obama is unique in being influenced by corporate power, but how much he has in common with business as usual in the Washington system. He isn't a reformer or a maverick, but the leader of one of the two mainstream political parties that dominate American politics.

Both parties have a long history, whatever their rhetoric to win votes, of running that system in the interests of the corporate and political elite. Unless forced to by pressure from below, they instinctively lean to the conservative option in any given situation.

Of course, winning elections means getting ordinary people to vote for you, and no one would do that if the politicians were honest about how they really operate, and who they really listen to. All candidates--even the most dyed-in-the-wool Republican tools of big business--talk about "serving the people" and giving ordinary Americans a better deal.

But this is a fraud--a fraud that reflects the basic nature of government under capitalism. The politicians are the public face of a system that's set up to serve the ruling class. Their job is to say one thing to the majority of people to win their votes--while doing another in office. For all his powerful speeches, Barack Obama isn't an exception, but the rule.

Keep in mind something else, though: Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn't an exception either back in the 1930s.

When Obama first took office, the media delighted in drawing parallels between them--two liberals prepared to come to the rescue of working people in times of severe economic crisis. It's a telling statement about the record of the Obama administration that those comparisons have disappeared.

Roosevelt gets the credit for Depression-era "New Deal" reforms like Social Security and unemployment insurance. But the blue-blooded Roosevelt didn't come into office promoting workers' rights and government jobs programs. He was pressured to break with a much more conventional economic program by a tide of protest and revolt brewing throughout society as a result of the Great Depression. It took grassroots action to give a pro-worker content to the New Deal.

Whatever the other differences, Obama hasn't faced the same scale of social struggle--and so the main pressure to shape his agenda has been the pressure from Wall Street, Corporate America and the mainstream political establishment.

At the same time, the discontent with Wall Street greed and the disasters of capitalism is deeper than it was on Election Day a year ago--working-class people in the U.S. are still bearing the brunt of a painful economic crisis caused by Wall Street, while the banks and speculators are celebrating a return to prosperity.

The question is when and how this discontent will take the form of struggle and political action.

On this score, the Obama campaign could still loom large in ways its leaders never intended. For millions of people, Obama's presidential race offered a first glimpse that something different from the status quo was possible. Among them was a smaller core that got a taste of organizing for the first time. Now, they are facing the questions that come inevitably with the reality of a Democratic Party administration that does the opposite of what it promised to win votes.

The anger with the system--and increasingly with Barack Obama as the face of that system--needs to be turned into concrete action. The struggles of the future depend on more and more people recognizing what the historian Howard Zinn once said: "[T]he really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in--in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating--those are the things that determine what happens."

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