Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Reservations on the newly liberal Obama

I am happy, encouraged, even optimistic about the more progressive tone President Obama set in his Second Inaugural Address this past Monday.

But he does have a four-year record as President. So he and his most unquestioning supporters will have to forgive the rest of us for being cautious about how much of a policy shift that speech is actually signaling.

For one thing, just after the speech he formalized his nomination of torture advocate John Brennan to head the CIA, thus reinforcing his Look Forward Not Backward approach to crimes committed by government officials and financial robber barons. Scott Lemieux writes in Embracing the Legacy of Torture The American Prospect 01/14/2013:

I do not mean to suggest that the nomination of Brennan means that there are no differences between the Bush and Obama administrations on civil liberties. Obama did ban torture and extraordinary rendition by executive order upon taking office, and that matters. Where Obama has failed, however, is in creating the institutional incentives that will inhibit torture on the part of future administrations. His failure to prosecute even the most egregious instances of torture under the previous administration sends an unmistakable message that torturers can expect not to be held accountable. Nor has the administration (or the Democratic leadership in Congress) shown any interest in hearings that would at least shine a public light on post -9/11 security abuses. The Brennan nomination fits in all too well with this pattern of denying accountability. One would think that at a minimum being a defender of arbitrary detention and torture would exclude someone from consideration from a job as important as head of the CIA.

Sadly, the nomination of John Brennan probably does not signal any significant changes in policy; it is but another hum-drum example of the Beltway's increasingly debased sense of accountability. A consensual affair may cost a prominent public official his or her job and trigger a major investigation, privacy be damned. But abusing human rights has no consequence.
The torture cases are particularly important because torture represents such a fundamental breakdown of the rule of law in itself. And because Obama's obligation under the Torture Convention to prosecute known cases of torture is so clear. Whatever his reasons for this, they are no excuse.

The flip side of Obama's politicization of the rule of law for torturers, renegade federal prosecutors and wealthy banksters is represented by his extreme policy on prosecuting leakers and whistleblowers and by his aggressive arrests of alleged undocumented immigrants. His policy on government secrecy is the most extreme of any Administration ever. And his round-ups of alleged illegal immigrants has gone far beyond those of the Cheney-Bush Administration.

In all these cases, Obama can down on the conservative side: protecting torturers, immunizing major financial criminals from prosecution, government secrecy and anti-immigrant law enforcement. The torture crimes aren't going away. There will be a real public reckoning for them someday, hopefully sooner than later.

We've also seen this Administration make a four-year push for a Grand Bargain to cut benefits on what I recently heard Congressman Keith Ellison call "the Big Three" social programs: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. This is a really bad policy and really bad politics for the Democratic Party. Yet he pursued this destructive goal for four years, most recently just this past month (December 2012) proposed first increasing the Medicare eligibility age and then a significant cut via the "chained CPI" scam in Social Security benefits. Digby recaps the sad history of Obama's pursuit of this awful Grand Bargain in Villager pap Hullabaloo 01/21/2013.

Apart from the noxious Grand Bargain, Obama pursued compromise with the intransigent Republicans long after it was clear that their were pursuing a course of fundamental opposition, determined to block as much of his domestic legislation as they could. We saw it early on in his pre-compromised stimulus and health-care reform proposals. And we saw it continue, even though by the latest in the Tea Party summer of 2009, it was clear that a "post-partisan", end-of-ideology state was going to be impossible with the real exiting Republican Party. And yet he continued that policy well into December 2012.

One thing that Obama did not emphasize in his Inaugural Address was the urgency of job creation. And his has largely pursued the "left" neoliberal approach during his first Administration: bail out the big banks, minimize regulation and legal culpability for major businesses and financial institutions, emphasize tolerant social policies on issues like gay rights, pursue antilabor international trade agreements, emphasize "fiscal responsibility" on spending even during a depression, rely on private business to address social needs (e.g., Obamacare without a public insurance option), and generally limit the role of the state in the economy to vaguely-defined concepts like "education" and "infrastructure". Will he significantly change direction during the second term? Mike Konczal warns in How Has the Liberal Project Fared Under President Obama? Rortybomb 01/22/2013:

In addition to managing the short-term economy, there's also the issue of setting the stage for longer-term growth. This is necessarily a grab-bag category, overlapping with the other categories, but it is useful to distinguish it from short-term unemployment. Michael Grunwald's excellent book The New New Deal revived the extensive investment in energy and other innovations that were part of the stimulus. Preventing the mass firesale and collapse of the auto industry were crucial as well.

But there's been a decline in primary and secondary education investment driven by the states, as well as a large decrease in the number of government employees. That's largely the focus of states. At the federal level, investments in infrastructure, research and development, and education, all crucial to building longer-term prosperity, are at risk. Through the Budget Control Act and upcoming sequestration, President Obama and Congress have cut non-defense discretionary spending in order to balance the medium-term debt-to-GDP ratio. As EPI's Ethan Pollack notes, it is difficult to cut here without threatening long-term prosperity.

The stimulus brought a large wave of investment, but that could be more than cancelled out by both collapsing state budgets and long-term austerity and cuts.
For all that, I like the kind of pragmatic optimism that Robert Perry strikes in What to Make of Barack Obama? Consortium News 01/22/2013:

Even though his speech on Monday was the most ringing defense of liberal government that the American people have heard in decades, there will still be those on the Left who doubt his sincerity and will surely find evidence of inconsistencies in his compromises.

But the truth may be that Obama actually does believe in progressive governance, that he saw his Second Inaugural as his last big opportunity to make that case to the American public. In his heart, he appears to be a reformer, yet also a pragmatist, recognizing the many impediments and obstacles in the political terrain where he finds himself.

Yet, after a first term in which he seemed to cede too much ground, Obama took the rhetorical fight to right-wingers in his Second Inaugural, challenging their claim to be the true protectors of America's Founding principles ...
Tags: , , , , , ,

No comments: