Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Coming Obama Shipwreck

By Eli Zaretsky Tikkun Daily

The dramatic downturn in Obama’s poll numbers, the growing support for rightist positions, the unbelievably close Senate race in Massachusetts, and the upcoming losses in the 2010 election all point to a Democratic disaster. Obama may yet save his Presidency by moving dramatically to the left, but barring that we have to look failure in the face. Whenever any great effort in which popular hopes have been invested goes down, there is an inevitable period of finger pointing and blame. It might be better now, before the shipwreck, to try to assess the causes.

We all know the dominant narrative. Expectations for Obama’s Presidency were unrealistically high. In a country that is fundamentally conservative, dubious about the role of government, deeply committed to markets, he encouraged a new New Deal. He went too far too fast. From the ground up, people revolted against big government, big spending and intrusive bureaucracies. A correction was inevitable.

This narrative is more or less shared by the right and the left. The right blames Obama for being a socialist, the liberals praise him for all he got done given how dysfunctional the system is. It is also a narrative shared by Obama. He won the nomination by promising “change we can believe in;” after becoming President he talked about how long a time it will take to bring change (“turning a tanker”); and now he and his followers talk about how a dysfunctional system prevents change at all.

I reject this narrative completely. In its place, I identify three causes of the failure that were far more important than the putative conservatism of the American people, or dysfunctionality of the system: Obama, the Democratic Party and the left.

Undoubtedly the lion’s share of the blame goes personally to Obama who spent most of the first year of his Presidency sycophantically cultivating his right wing enemies, whose essential mantra (cost-cutting) he channeled. The reason it is important to understand Obama’s personal responsibility for this has nothing to do with him as an individual. It is because this responsibility goes to the heart of the so-called “system.” From its inception, the American Constitution has been a carefully calibrated machine for preserving private wealth, elite status and power. Everything in it aims to keep genuinely serious issues out of politics, and especially to make sure there is never a challenge to capital. There is only one democratic aspect to the American system, one moment when the grip of money can be loosened: the Presidency. Obama’s failure to use the President’s power — especially to reach out to the American people after he became President — sealed his fate.

Way down the list, but still bearing responsibility is the Democratic Party. Beginning in the eighties, the Party abandoned its historic role as the champion of the middle or working classes and became nothing more than the instrument of the corporations. Obama reached office with huge obligations to the rich which he more than fulfilled, handing the US checkbook to the banks, and giving the insurance companies, the private hospitals and the drug companies the bonanzas of their life in response to a very few societal gains, some real, most symbolic.

Finally, the left has to face its own failure. Understandably unwilling to criticize the first black President, it enabled Obama and the corporate Democrats to hand a popular victory over to the corporations. In the only two occasions in American history when the government acted in the interests of lower-class Americans — Reconstruction and the New Deal — it was only because a left (the abolitionists, and the Popular Front) was willing to criticize the President. Should Obama recover his footing by moving in a Populist direction, it will be the left’s job to make sure that that movement is real, and not as phony as we have come to expect.