Bigger Than Obama

Blaming the president for the slow pace of reform is too simplistic.

Richard Flacks

On December 1, President Barack Obama commits 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan at the United States Military Academy at West Point in West Point, N.Y.(Photo by:Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images )

The one-year anniversary of the presidential election provides a hook for all kinds of venting.

People on the left make a serious mistake by blaming Obama for the slow pace of reform, and becoming disillusioned. Disillusionment leads to demoralization, not action.

Now, today, the Big Hope president has virtually nothing of import to show for nearly a year in office,” David Michael Green, a Hofstra University professor, writes on his website, The Regressive Antidote. He then offers a stream of vituperation about Obama’s failure to lead, capitulation to the right, and lack of political sense and vision. Green doesn’t analyze these alleged failures; he simply savages the president’s personal qualities.

Ironically, Green’s attack came as the House of Representatives made history by passing national health insurance reform legislation. Of course, the House bill doesn’t live up to everything the president promised, and the final version that gets through the Senate and reconciliation and then lands on his desk is likely to be even further from ideal. But we have been waiting 70 years to witness any movement toward universal healthcare and are now on the cusp of seeing it.

Many critics correctly question Obama’s reliance on Wall Street enablers for key economic advice, and doubt the Obama team can reverse the rising tide of unemployment and underemployment. There is deep anxiety about the president’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, despite growing evidence that this war is as foolish, futile and feckless as any military adventure the United States has previously undertaken. And Obama has not consistently taken the high road on global warming, workers’ rights, gay rights and civil liberties.

Blaming Obama, however, is simplistic. Yes, he has to be held to the promises he articulated and the hope he inspired. But the first question we must ask is why those hopes and promises are so elusive.

Is it really because Obama and his administration have betrayed us, or demonstrated their weakness or cowardice, or were tricksters from the start? A more accurate diagnosis would start instead with the fact that all of the major reforms promised have been fiercely resisted by the main centers of power in society – the corporate elite and the military industrial complex.

People on the left typically use a power structure analysis to explain the limits of democracy in the United States. Yet, for some reason, many people seem to have hoped that Obama would override all that, and do so in less than a year. 

Obama, however, knew from the start that his stated goals would be powerfully resisted. Accordingly, he has spent his first year in office devising compromises to help overcome some of that resistance, so that a semblance of reform might happen.

To understand this, consider the positions of the corporate and bureaucratic power centers:

Key representatives and senators are financed by the very corporate interests that need to be reformed. If a piece of proposed legislation would harm those corporate interests, those legislators can be counted on to block it and propose more lenient rules. Corporate lobbyists actually write many of the laws that are supposed to regulate their clients. 

Corporate and military interests have access and influence in the mass media. Any progressive change the president proposes can trigger charges that his administration is weak on national security matters. When JFK contemplated aborting the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he was warned that former President Dwight Eisenhower would publicly campaign against him. Today, we hear rumors in the press that if Obama fails to follow the demands of General McChrystal for a troop buildup in Afghanistan, General Petraeus will resign and run for president against him.

Corporate and financial decision-makers – the investment class” – have a huge influence over markets and the economy as a whole, precisely because they control the flow and pace of investment. Because the most rational healthcare reform, a type of Medicare for all,’ would wipe out the giant health insurance corporations and shift power away from the pharmaceutical industry, fears of an investor revolt make single payer politically impossible.” If the president were to push for true health reform, he would risk the wrath of the investment class.

In the face of resistance, President Obama formulated a strategy to deliver needed reforms. He reassured Wall Street by appointing Tim Geithner and Larry Summers to run economic policy and financial reform; he forced key congresspersons to own” healthcare reform by giving them responsibility for shaping the legislation, and he compromised with drug and hospital lobbies; he moved slowly with reforms affecting the CIA and Pentagon; and he backed a cap and trade” approach to carbon emission control.

We remember FDR, JFK and LBJ as bold reformist presidents, forgetting their actual records. FDR made major and harmful compromises on social security, the Wagner Act and civil rights. Kennedy tried mightily to contain the civil rights movement and ordered FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King. He launched a huge arms race with the USSR, was afraid to recognize Communist China and invaded Cuba. Johnson could not figure out how to end the Vietnam War, even though he believed it would destroy his legacy. And his great healthcare reform, Medicare, was itself a compromise, covering only those over 65.

The entire history of successful reform emanating from the White House is replete with corporate and political compromises. Always ingrained in the thought process of successful politicians is the mantra we now hear channeled through Rahm Emanuel, who says, in effect: We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We need to pass something even if it is quite flawed. We can work to improve it down the line.’ Such maxims summarize the limits of presidential power in the face of power elite resistance.

People on the left make a serious mistake by blaming the president for the slow pace of reform, and becoming disillusioned. Disillusionment leads to demoralization, not action. On the other hand, the leaders of progressive organizations on the national level have so far been making an even bigger mistake: spending their resources on mobilizing support for the White House agenda. What we need from here on in is a national coalition aimed at mobilizing grassroots support for keeping the promises” – a coalition that aims beyond what is immediately possible, and makes strategic demands that challenge the agenda of the president and his party.

Right now, such demands could include:

a real jobs program that builds in the green economy but seeks more rapid expansion of employment opportunity than anything now on the agenda;

carbon control targets more far-reaching than current legislation contemplates;

a binding timetable for ending U.S. troop involvement in Afghanistan as well as Iraq, emphasizing that the massive war budget endangers any hope for change.

These goals are interrelated. A massive investment in renewable energy, conservation and alternative transportation will create jobs. Investment funding can come from reducing the war budgets. Energy alternatives will reduce the obsession with Middle East oil that drives our international policy.

A revitalized progressive coalition at the national level, independent of the Obama administration but embracing its original goals, would be a counterweight to the corporate, financial and military sectors that currently hold sway. Indeed, such a coalition should aim to encourage divisions in the power elite – a vibrant, green economy would benefit businesses, and relief from the wars would be welcomed by many in the military.

During the campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly said that change was up to us. He can be a great president, if and when we make him one. 

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Richard Flacks, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of Cultural Politics and Social Movements (co-editor, 1995); Beyond the Barricades: The 60s Generation Grows Up (1989); Making History: The American Left and the American Mind (1988), and many articles on social movements, left culture and strategy.
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