Sunday, December 31, 2017

Cautionary lessons of Obama's centrism

"Obama didn't play the hand that history dealt him. He didn't play it exactly right, and the Republicans did play the game very, very well." - Thomas Frank on why the Obama Administration was a disappointment to present-day New Deal-minded Democrats, aka, progressives. (Clinton and Obama Helped Make the Dems a Wall Street Party just after 4:25)

With the pollsters now talking about a good possibility of a "wave" election favoring the Democrats in 2018, I've started to worry how Democrats will approach such a political moment. And, if they do gain control of the Senate and/or House, how they will use that strengthened position against Trump and the Republicans.

Recent history gives the Democratic base good reason for concern. One of the things the Democratic Party did right during the Bush II ascendancy was Howard Dean's 50 state strategy as head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). That involved building the party infrastructure in all states, including ones considered safely "red" (Republican). Because the Democrats were to a point where they were letting Republicans run unopposed in Congressional elections, and not even trying to seriously compete in others. This allowed Republican candidates in safe states to send money from their campaign funds to other Republicans in more actively contested districts or states.

The successful result was that the Democrats retook a majority the House and the Senate and won a majority of governorships in the 2006 elections. But their general strategy was to play it safe, i.e., not aggressively challenging the Cheney-Bush Administration on policy, hoping to cruise to a Presidential victory in 2008. Which in retrospect seems like a pragmatic approach. But only in retrospect.

John McCain, the 2008 Republican Presidential candidate, was the darling of the mainstream press and widely considered to be a strong candidate, which of course he was. The fact that a black candidate running on a seemingly strongly reformist program defeated him could be taken as a validation of the play-it-safe strategy. An argument that the corporate Democrats will no doubt be eagerly making after any 2018 "wave."

But there was also the beginning of the Great Recession, punctuated by the dramatic financial crisis of 2008. Obama's vote was also in very significant part a vote for serious progressive change, as Thomas Frank argues. After the radicalism of the Cheney-Bush Administration and the numerous disasters clustering around it - the Iraq War, the Katrina response, the financial crisis - people wanted a real change at the national level.

Obama took office with Democratic majorities in both Houses, and for a while during the first half of his first term, even a two-thirds majority in the Senate. And Obama's Administration had some substantive accomplishments in those first two years: a significant stimulus package, which is now widely credited by realistic economists with providing enough of a boost to give the US a notably more healthy recovery than the austerity-burdened EU. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), now generally known as Obamacare, was passed. And it has so far proved durable enough to withstand the Republican onslaught during the Trump Administration. The auto industry was bailed out. The financial sector was stabilized and the moderate Dodd-Frank law approved. And, of course, Democratic judges got appointed.

And the entire eight years were plagued by Obama's still difficult-to-explain obsession with bipartisanship, seemingly for its own sake. Even the accomplishments noted above were limited by restraint at least partially due to the obsession with Bipartisanship.

But once the Republicans took back a majority in the House in the 2010 elections, they were largely able to block major initiatives by the Administration. And to go wild on investigations of Hillary Clinton pseudoscandals. The dynamic and innovative phase of Obama domestic legislation was heavily concentrated in those first two years. The chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer, advised going for a much larger stimulus, echoed by outside economists like Paul Krugman. The dropping of the public option from Obamacare not only deprived the program of an important restraint on private insurance costs. It may still prove a decisive factor in the program's surviving the current Republican rule. The auto industry bailout extracted major concessions from labor, very unlike the obscenely generous terms of the bank bailouts. Millions of people lost their homes to foreclosure, a very large number of them due to lender misconduct, and Obama's efforts to help them could be very generously described as nominal.

Obama often seemed to follow the cynical advice long ago attributed to Richard Nixon of giving liberals the rhetoric and giving conservatives the substance. The maddening obsession with budget deficit and "fiscal responsibility" involved the ridiculous Simpson-Bowles Commission with its recommendations for cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which Obama repeatedly attempted to enact. The whole mess about the "fiscal cliff" and making permanent most of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy were clear signs of Obama's commitment to Wall Street economics. And repeatedly using that kind of conservative framing constantly reinforced the Republican narrative.

The result was that while reinforcing the Republicans narrative on many issues, the limits of his policies meant that the recovery's benefits were very disproportionately enjoyed by the wealthiest. The economic metaphor on which the Democrats have long depended, the rising tide that lifts all boats, is leaving more and more people foundering in the water as the decades roll on.

Thomas Frank has done a series of interviews with The Real News over the last few months dealing with the effects of Obama-style corporate-Democratic thinking that I've assembled into a playlist, Thomas Frank on Obama-Clinton Wall Street Orientation. Chapter 8 hits some of the high points, Obama Chose Wall St. Over Main St. - Thomas Frank on RAI 12/28/2017:

Almost any engaged Democratic activist could list several more examples from Obama's Presidency: the Firing of Shirley Sherrod (2010); the eloquent rhetoric against the Citizen's United decision followed by a half-hearted political response and a de facto embrace of it. The war in Libya (2011).

But this isn't just carping after the fact. In 2010, Democracy Journal 16 (Spring 2010) did a symposium on the alarming signs of opportunities being squandered, introduced by Michael Tomasky in What Happened?, half a year before the 2010 "wave" elections benefiting the Republicans. Michael Sandel (Obama and Civic Idealism) encouraged the Democrats to engage in class issues with the goal of restricting corporate power:
Unlike the anti-bigness liberalism of the progressive era and early New Deal, the social-welfare liberalism of FDR in 1944 is recognizable as the liberalism of our time. The great liberal causes of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s — civil rights, Medicare and Medicaid, racial and gender equality, federal support for education, a more generous welfare state — were about using government to provide equal opportunity and a social safety net, not about using government to rein in the political influence of big banks and corporations.

Social-welfare liberalism seems a more practical doctrine than the anti-bigness version of earlier progressives. It is hard to imagine how to break up the large financial institutions and corporations that dominate modern economic life. And yet I believe it’s a mistake for contemporary liberals to give up on the old progressive project of exerting democratic control over economic institutions. In fact, it’s a mistake that has backfired on the Obama presidency. The initial reluctance of Barack Obama and his economic advisers to take a tougher line on the banks has led to a populist backlash that now threatens his agenda. [my emphasis]
I would note that Obama's fight to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - even while he was trying to expand access to health insurance - showed a considerable distancing of the Democrats even from what Sandel calls "social-welfare liberalism."

Bob Reich (Principles Before Heroes) also criticized the essential timidity of Obama's reform positions:
If anything, the Great Recession has accelerated the trend toward greater concentration. Under its pressure, more firms have discovered how easily they can increase profits by shrinking their payrolls and laying off their workers, and how cheaply jobs can be done using computers and advanced software or using the Internet to outsource jobs to foreign workers who have become nearly as productive as Americans, but charge far less. This means many more Americans are facing the Hobson’s choice of joblessness or lower wages. At the other end of the income ladder, top corporate and Wall Street executives and traders with reputed “talent” and connections–those charged with discovering more ways to increase profits–are commanding ever higher salaries and bonuses.

Meanwhile, the political power that comes with wealth has shown no sign of abating. ...

Obama might have had more success if he had framed the challenge in broader terms. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson saw and described the economic and political challenge the nation then faced in structural and historic language: to use the power of the federal government to reduce poverty among the elderly and the chronically poor, to widen the circle of prosperity, and thereby to complete the agenda begun by Franklin Roosevelt and taken up by John Kennedy.

But Obama defined the economic crisis he inherited not in structural or large historic terms but, rather, as a cyclical downturn – albeit an especially deep one – after which, he assured Americans, the economy would return to normal. [my emphasis]
Social theorist Martha Nussbaum observed that "in the United States, the progress of liberalism is hampered by a mistrust of government and the legacy of Reagan-era policies." (Learning from the World)

This was in 2010, real-time criticisms of the dangers of Obama's Bipartisan ways. There was still time for a course correction. The costs for not doing so has been high.

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