A left turn in the second term?

January 30, 2013

Anyone who hopes Barack Obama has a "real" progressive agenda should think again.

"THE ERA of liberalism is back," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned on the day after President Barack Obama's inauguration address. "We the government" was the headline of the Wall Street Journal editorial that sounded the alarm about the president "laying down a marker that he has no intention of letting debt or deficits or lagging economic growth slow his plans for activist, expansive government."

But if the fear factor was high among conservatives, the corresponding jubilation among many liberal commentators was even higher about a speech that took a swipe at social-safety-net-shredder Paul Ryan's complaints about a "nation of takers" and that invoked key struggles for justice of the past, including the LGBT rights movement, with the phrase "through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall."

The official start of Obama's second term in office, and especially his address on the steps of the Capitol, brought an old myth back to the surface--that Barack Obama is really a progressive at heart, even a radical. Now that he doesn't have to worry about re-election, goes the argument, Obama has nothing to lose, and so he'll finally get to work on his real agenda.

Barack Obama gives his second inaugural address

But the stark truth is that we know Barack Obama's "real agenda" well--because he's been pursuing it relentlessly during four long years of cutbacks and one-way compromises with Republicans. Hoping Obama will transform into a fighting progressive during his next four years is wishful thinking--pure and simple.

The only way to challenge austerity and conservatism in mainstream politics is a political mobilization from outside official Washington.

WAS OBAMA finally revealing his true radical self on Inauguration Day?

Referring to rumors that superstar Beyoncé mouthed the words to a pre-recorded "Star-Spangled Banner," Salon's Andrew O'Hehir wrote of Obama, "The star of last Monday's big show was also lip-synching, in a sense, mouthing the lyrics to greatest hits from the songbook of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. It sounded great, especially to those of us who voted for him despite grave misgivings. But was it real?"

An even better question: Was it even that radical?

"Obama's address was firmly in the mainstream--of both the country and the Democratic Party, which has absorbed the lessons of its post-1968 defeats and synthesized into its core the New Democratic values of the Clinton era," Kenneth Baer, a former Obama administration official, wrote in the Washington Post.

"The speech sounded so robustly liberal not because the president or his party has changed but because the Republican Party has, moving far outside the norms of American political thought...Defending the idea of a social safety net to guard against the vagaries of life is hardly radical."

Consider one of Obama's most talked-about sound bites: Referring to former Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's statements, Obama argued that so-called "entitlement programs" like Social Security and Medicare "do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."

That's hardly a radical concept. Opinion polls have consistently showed that a majority of people oppose cutting or "reforming" programs like Social Security and Medicare. In an August 2012 Associated Press-GfK poll, 53 percent of respondents said they would rather see taxes raised to stop Social Security benefits from being cut for future generations, compared to 36 percent who said they would want benefits cut instead.

If it seemed like a refreshing change of pace for Obama to go after the right-wing policies of Republicans like Paul Ryan, that's because he barely ever did during his first four years in the White House, and then only when he was running for re-election.

When it really mattered--during the debate over the health care law a few years ago, or raising the debt ceiling in 2011, or the deal on the fiscal cliff at the beginning of January--Obama and the Democrats compromised and compromised again, allowing Republicans to shift the mainstream debate further and further to the right.

The net result is that working-class Americans are facing worse austerity and declining living standards--and it was the Obama administration that made it all possible, despite the president's occasional speeches to the contrary.

Another example of the gap between rhetoric and reality: Obama's much-talked-about commitment to "respond to the threat of climate change." But during its first four years, the Obama administration did the opposite--it adopted policies that will lead to further ecological devastation, such as expanding oil drilling and promoting the use of coal and nuclear power.

Then there's immigrant rights. Obama promised in his speech to "find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity." Yet the deportation of undocumented immigrants increased over the record of the previous Republican administration.

Some issues weren't mentioned in Obama's address, just as they haven't been for the last four years. The fact that the first Black president could give his inaugural speech on Martin Luther King Day and say nothing about the racism that is rife in U.S. society--from the resegregation of public schools to the mass incarceration of African Americans to acts of racist violence like the murder of Trayvon Martin--says a lot about what to expect out of the next four years.

THE COMMENTATORS who speculate about whether Obama has an opportunity to push a progressive agenda in his second term are asking the wrong question. The fact is that Obama doesn't have such an agenda now, nor has he ever had one.

Obama is a leader of the Democratic Party--"history's second-most enthusiastic capitalist party," to quote conservative author Kevin Phillips. The Democrats' highest priority has always been to fulfill the agenda of Corporate America, but all the more so under Obama, who sees an opportunity for his party to elbow aside the Republican's right-wing fanatics and crackpots and become the main party of big business.

There has to be some differences between the two parties in a two-party system, or no one would bother to vote in the "world's greatest democracy." But the difference are narrow, when they exist at all--and typically more about style than substance. Thus, the Republican claim that "entitlement" programs enable poor people to take advantage of the rest of us--while the Democrats claim that we all need to join in the "shared sacrifice" and "tighten our belts."

In the end, the goals of the two parties are much closer than they seem to be at face value--make workers pay for the crisis--and the differences between them are usually about how to accomplish them.

Obama isn't unique among Democrats. In 1992, Bill Clinton swept into the White House with promises of "change" after 12 years of Republican rule. During his first term, he left behind a trail of broken promises--but claimed that his hands were tied by Republican bullies like Newt Gingrich. That was the excuse for Clinton to sign "compromise" legislation that gutted the welfare system for poor families in 1996.

Clinton won re-election to a second term, thanks to the support of organized labor and women's and civil rights organizations. We heard the same hopes back then that Clinton would show his true progressive leanings in a second term--but he did even less to meet the demands of the Democrats' liberal base than the first four years.

Any concessions Barack Obama has made to that base--like finally "changing his mind" and declaring his support for marriage equality, or issuing an executive order that established some of the provisions of the DREAM Act for immigrant youth--have been the result of protest. The dedicated organizing of immigrant rights and LGBT activists deserve the credit for shifting public sentiment against discriminatory laws, not anything Obama did.

Now, we have turn up the heat on a number of fronts.

After winning his first term four years ago, Obama told his supporters, "For 18 long months, you have stood up, one by one, and said, 'Enough,' to the politics of the past...You 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."

Over the last few years, struggles from below--from the uprising against Scott Walker in Wisconsin to the Occupy Wall Street movement across the country, and from the strikes and struggles of teachers and activists to save our schools to the protests against low-wage employers like Wal-Mart and McDonalds--have shown the potential for a fightback to erupt quickly and sometimes unexpectedly.

All these struggles underline the importance of building a left-wing opposition for the long haul--and the kind of independent political organizing that can challenge the bipartisan assault on working people.

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