Does Obama want to fight for us?

November 17, 2010

Do Barack Obama and the Democrats have the interests of the working-class majority at heart? Or are they devoted to priorities of Corporate America.

IN THE wake of the Democrats' disastrous showing on November 2, politicians and political commentators have been busy debating What Went Wrong. How could Barack Obama and the Democrats go from the enthusiastic support they enjoyed when Obama took office in January 2009 to the miserable drubbing they suffered in the midterm elections less than two years later?

Republicans and conservative pundits, of course, think Obama went "too far" with his "socialist" program. But as we at have been insistent in pointing out, it's a strange kind of socialist who commits trillions of dollars to rescuing Wall Street's banks from a crisis they caused, who lets those banks' executives pay themselves however many billions they want, and who won't devote even 1 percent of the money spent on saving Wall Street to rescuing millions of people facing foreclosure.

Some liberals, on the other hand, rightly believe that Obama didn't go far enough--and that the Democrats' defeat earlier this month was the result of disappointing their supporters and letting their opponents gain the upper hand.

President Barack Obama

But why did it happen that way? For many supporters of the Democrats, it comes down to bad strategy--Obama was too nice to fight, he didn't control his message, he was naïve in expecting cooperation from the Republicans, he wasn't savvy to the ways of Washington.

They won't consider that there are deeper reasons for Obama's behavior--that for all his soaring rhetoric on the campaign trail, he was always a conventional politician from the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and that he therefore acted the way all Democrats do when they take office: Putting the priorities of Corporate America first, and working people last.

NEW YORK Times columnist Paul Krugman is a good example of a liberal commentator who has been critical of the Obama administration, but who continues to hope that the "real Obama" will emerge if the bad advisers and timid strategists are cleared away.

In a recent column, Krugman put Obama's problems down to too much Mr. Nice Guy, and not enough willingness to fight for his own agenda. Obama's promise to overcome Washington's partisan politics, wrote Krugman, "may have been good general election politics...But the real question was whether Mr. Obama could change his tune when he ran into the partisan firestorm everyone who remembered the 1990s knew was coming. He could do uplift--but could he fight? So far, the answer has been no."

Krugman isn't alone. William Greider of the liberal Nation magazine wrote: "What's missing with this president is power--a strong grasp of the powers he possesses and the willingness to govern the country with them...Such a governing style is too nice for real-life politics, where Boy Scouts get their heads handed to them."

Muckracking filmmaker Michael Moore put it more bluntly, pleading on Real Time with Bill Mahrer for Obama to "please take off your pink tutu, because it's time to put on the boxing gloves and go fighting for the people."

But does Obama want to "go fighting for the people"? Do he and the Democrats have the interests of the working-class majority at heart, but continually stumble because of their incompetence? has always argued that the answer is no. Neither Obama nor anyone else who rises into the leadership of one of the two dominant political parties in the most powerful capitalist nation on earth will champion the interests of workers over those of business and the U.S. political and military establishment.

Democrats, like Republicans, can be driven to implement reforms that make working people's lives better--but only if they face substantial pressure from below that counteracts the ever-present pressure from above. And that's something Obama hasn't faced.

The record of the Obama administration in its first two years bears out this case--and on every political issue, though none more obviously than the bailout of Wall Street. Obama's economics team was made up entirely of figures who came from the world of Wall Street and Corporate America--from the former bank executives to the academics and government bureaucrats who spent their careers cooperating with them.

So it was no surprise that the Obama administration adopted the Wall Street bailout plan of the Bush administration almost without alteration. Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner resisted measures to hold the bankers accountable, even when they would have been overwhelmingly popular, like reining in compensation for Wall Street executives.

In an unusually candid interview with Real Clear Politics, Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia--by no means a "progressive"--described what happened when he tried to push for a one-time windfall profits tax on Wall Street's record bonuses:

I couldn't even get a vote. And it wasn't because of the Republicans. I mean, they obviously weren't going to vote for it. But I got so much froth from Democrats saying that any vote like that was going to screw up fundraising.

People look up and say, what's the difference between these two parties? Neither of them is really going to take on Wall Street. If they don't have the guts to take them on, and they've got all these other programs that exclude me, well, to hell with them.

The fate of health care reform is another good example of the Democrats' real priorities.

The Obama administration started out with widespread public support for fixing a system where the interests of private corporations--in particular, the insurance companies--wreak havoc on the lives of millions. Yet from the beginning, the option of a single-payer national health care system that would eliminate private insurers and provided coverage for everyone was "off the table."

Instead, from the first White House summit on health care, the emphasis was on getting the health care industry to the table--which meant the very companies that were the source of the problem had effective veto power over what went into the legislation.

Last month, former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle confirmed what most people had guessed--that the Democrats gave up even the half-measure of a "public option" for the uninsured as a sop to the industry. As Daschle explained in an interview with Think Progress:

It was taken off the table as a result of the understanding that people had with the hospital association, with the insurance [industry], and others. I mean, I think that part of the whole effort was based on a premise. That premise was you had to have the stakeholders in the room and at the table...They wanted to keep those stakeholders in the room, and this was the price some thought they had to pay.

But the millions of ordinary American "stakeholders"--those too poor to afford insurance, or those who have coverage, but discover when they get sick that it's totally inadequate--weren't invited "in the room." For the Democrats, bringing the insurance industry "on board" came first.

The result of all this was that the reforms that survived in the final law--mainly in the form of new, though limited, regulations on the insurance industry--were far outweighed by provisions that strengthen the power and profits of the industry.

EARLIER THIS year, Obama defended himself from charges that he was anti-business in an interview with BusinessWeek magazine: "You would be hard-pressed to identify a piece of legislation that [Democrats] have proposed out there that, net, is not good for businesses. We are pro-growth. We are fierce advocates for a thriving, dynamic free market."

Judging from his administration's record, there's no reason not to take him at his word--and it's important for those who want real change to recognize it. Obama and the Democrats are fierce advocates for the free market, and that means putting the interests of business first.

The current crop of Democrats isn't unique in being influenced by corporate power--the former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips accurately referred to the Democrats as the world's second-most enthusiastic capitalist party.

This is business as usual in the Washington system. Obama isn't a reformer or 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 act otherwise by pressure from below.

Over the coming months, as the new Republican majority in the House takes its seats, the Democrats are likely to start telling us that we need to be "patient" and "pragmatic" in our expectations. But after the experience of the last two years, what would we be waiting "patiently" for, but more broken promises and betrayals?

The Republicans need to be challenged--but that challenge won't come from within Washington. It has to come from outside.

When they swept to power in the 1994 midterm elections during the Clinton presidency, Republicans expected to ram through their "Contract on America" without opposition. Instead, in cities across the country, they faced a fight--from unionists, students, single mothers and supporters of justice who were willing to take a stand--that stopped the Contract.

We need to do the same today.

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