Obama’s Dilemmas



Bill Resnick for the Old Mole Variety Hour, August 31, 2009
Obama has surely disappointed progressives; even his most fervent supporters are perplexed.
·      Promising to leave Iraq; he actually just shifted army locations.
·      Afghanistan - he’s increasing US forces and intensifying the war.
·      Honduras - he’s supporting a military coup, giving them money, and emboldening military plotters all over the Americas.
·      Guantanamo - it’s not closed down
·      Torture - he’s spoken against even investigating the big criminals who gave the orders; he says why open old wounds, he wants to look forward.
·      Extraordinary rendition - it continues but Obama says under more "supervision"
As to domestic policy he is championing energy and health care bills that start with huge subsidies to the most predatory and dirty companies on earth - the health insurers and drug industry, and the oil, coal, and nuclear companies too. As to reconstructing health care, he refused to even consider single-payer and dumped the public insurance alternative.
All his former inspirational talk of change, and yes we can, it all appears canny manipulative campaign talk. Obama has made it really easy to write a damning indictment of his Presidency
But I think it’s a mistake to single out and blame Obama. Blaming Obama, as if he’s the problem shifts attention from the real problem – which is the degree to which right-wingers, conservative interests, big profiteers, have taken over nearly all the power positions in US politics. My sense is that these – the energy companies, especially big oil, the drug and insurance profiteers, the military and its industries, the huge intelligence establishment, agribusiness, not to mention banking and finance, and then there’s the rising police/prison complex – that these have so much power that a President can get nothing done except by feeding and cajoling them and keeping them happy, at least buying off their upper managers and major decision makers.
Buying them off, giving them what they want short term, while trying to squeeze out some controls and reforms, maybe changing investment patterns – that, I think, explains Obama strategy. Blaming Obama, calling him spineless and the rest, that explains nothing and contributes to thinking that progressive change is easily possible, and by electing a good President and other good men and women.
The fact is Obama’s character and commitments hardly matter. For Obama, and most of the Democrats, they realize, that no politician wanting to survive can offend the big interests. The unfortunate reality of US politics today, that near everybody avoids acknowledging, the reality is that Democrats can win election and govern only with corporate support and considerable corporate forbearance. That’s because in all but the safest liberal areas, a determined campaign by big business, by the big local employers, and the local "growth coalition" including developers, retail, and local media can destroy any liberal or progressive or vaguely left candidate. How does business do it? Easy: just organize the community’s business leadership, including spokespeople from the big employers, to contend, and to keep saying, that the liberal candidate is too extreme –– not just a big taxer and spender, but bad for business, forcing its companies to consider leaving the community.
That works every time, and in fact inflicted on Bill Clinton his only real electoral defeat, in 1978, a long time ago, in his first reelection bid for Arkansas governor. And losing that way, when all business leaders said he was driving them out of state, Clinton saw the writing on the wall, and changed his tune and whole political identity, and became a "good business climate" Democrat. Forming the conservative DLC, Clinton took leadership of the Democratic party by instructing other very worried Democrats about how to keep the community business elite on their side. The fact is that by the late 1970s the movements of the 1930s and 1960s were in retreat, the people were petrified and had no defense. Business has become completely agile and mobile, every US North American has seen pictures of rusting factories, and in their community too. When business threatens to leave any community, or even to stop investing, the people became petrified, and no candidate can survive the attack.
That didn’t start yesterday; it was visible in the late 1970s and has been the big political story for 30 years, of increasingly conservative government. And over the years corporate Democrats and Republicans have cooperated to empower the most predatory companies and interests. And all legislators have become more and more dependent on the companies not for campaign money, but dependent on them to not attack them in their home district, and all have become very chummy with their home state companies, and also the companies with business before the legislative committees they sit on. The political process in the US has basically become a battle between competing companies, and industries, to see which ones could rip off the sweetest deals.
And that gets us back to the Obama Presidency. Let’s say he made good on his campaign hints and suggestions, that he would champion alternative policies for energy, health care, the military, and foreign policy. They would be dead on arrival, attacked by nearly the entire Congress, by nearly all the pundits and industry. And if he actually changed foreign policy and lets’s say announced plans to withdraw from the middle-east wars and arrange a settlement, dramatically cut aid to Israel, and cooperate with the left in Latin America, the attack would be furious and unrelenting, with the whole Congress, the whole army, the Isreali bloc, the whole of the foreign policy establishment and State Department and all the newspapers and media denouncing the policy as dangerous to the country, as appeasement, disaster, giving in to terrorism. Utterly isolated he’d be lucky to escape impeachment.
The fact is that Obama is without the power to offend the major power positions of US politics, and surely not several of them at once. The best he can do is assemble coalitions of the powerful that might be ready to consider reforms. And yes, many are ready for some change. Why, because they are not blind and are all worried. Because they all feel public hostility. Because they all see their profits imperiled by both environmental problems and economic decline. All know things must change, are likely ready to accept reforms that stabilize the system, and that reduce the dangers and uncertainties of doing business, including some compromises by all the big predators. Further the top dogs, the top executives of every industry, they just want to make big money for another few years – 50 a 100 hundred million a year for five years -- before they retire. So they may be ready to make deals, as long as the deals don’t undermine their near term income. And so dear listeners, there is some room for "reform." And that is what Obama is trying – to maneuver, to not offend any major interest, to make deals of many kinds, that’s my guess about the course he has taken in every area.
That is of course very troubling for lots of reasons. Particularly, the planetary environment is deeply endangered, and we don‘t have much time. But as Gramsci should have said, optimism of the will and intellect. There’s lots that can be done, even within current struggles in the Obama era, to revive the movements, and around a real radical program.
I’d love to tell you my ideas. But that’s the stuff for other essays. Next Monday, it’s Labor day, and I’ll talk about health care and labor law too, and how we can work in the current health care struggle, and labor law reform struggles too, to challenge corporate power and domination, that by strengthening the movements, and building popular confidence and sense of possibility.
This was Bill Resnick for the Old Mole Variety Hour.


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