How Obama Lost His Way
President Barack Obama spent his first year in office trying to reassure the Washington/New York establishments that he was not going to upset their apple carts too much, that they shouldn’t panic, that he would – despite all the speeches – be more about continuity than change.
And he succeeded. The big banks were pulled back from the brink; the auto industry survived; the stock markets rebounded; a new Great Depression was averted; the national security elites praised Obama’s more nuanced rhetoric as he continued many of George W. Bush’s war policies; even the Washington Post’s neoconservative editorial page editor Fred Hiatt gave Obama mostly high marks for his first year.
“I’d like to interrupt the anniversary-bash-Obama-fest with a simple proposition: Obama has done a good job so far,” Hiatt wrote in a Jan. 19 column entitled “Obama’s first-year success.”
Yet the first major political judgment on Obama’s “responsible” behavior came later that same day in Massachusetts when a little-known right-wing Republican state senator, Scott Brown, defeated Attorney General Martha Coakley by five percentage points to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat.
It turned out that what Obama had accomplished politically in his first year was to associate himself and the Democratic Party with the widely despised national establishments.
For instance, Obama staffed his economic team with Wall Street friendlies, like Timothy Geithner who got promoted from head of the New York Federal Reserve to Treasury Secretary despite failing to have stopped the reckless bank gambles that caused the 2008 financial collapse. Geithner’s appointment calendar showed that his time as the chief regulator of Wall Street banks had included cozy lunches with bank CEOs at New York's swanky Four Seasons.
And, whether the huge bank bailouts were necessary or not, Geithner annoyed the public because he seemed to view the crisis through the eyes of the bankers. He opposed any harsh medicine, like temporarily nationalizing some of the banks or at least demanding that they accept tough new rules on their behavior before they were nursed back to health with trillions of dollars in public monies.
So, by selecting Geithner along with a number of ex-Wall Streeters who had gotten rich giving advice to banks and hedge funds, Obama positioned himself as the protector-in-chief of a corrupt financial elite – albeit with a few finger-wagging lectures tossed in. And, despite Obama’s explanation about Wall Street being saved so it could help out Main Street, the struggling American people saw little in the bank bailouts for themselves.
Simply put, Obama failed to persuade the American people that he would deploy a reenergized federal government to fight their battles against well-entrenched financial interests. Instead, he was viewed as helping the elites shore up their comfortable trenches.
Similarly, on foreign policy, Obama moved quickly to quiet the fears of the national security establishment. He pleased neocon and mainstream opinion leaders by keeping on one of their favorites, Republican Robert Gates, as Defense Secretary. The move was hailed as a wise gesture of bipartisanship.
Obama did make some cosmetic changes, such as dumping the phrase “war on terror” and vowing not to waterboard prisoners, but he embraced Bush’s gradual withdrawal from Iraq and escalated the war in Afghanistan.
Obama also rebuffed demands that he hold the Bush administration accountable for its approval of torture and other war crimes. That won him plaudits from Washington pundits but it antagonized his own “base.”
Obama made a number of tactical errors, too, particularly around his top domestic priority: health-care reform. He needed to move the legislation quickly through Congress, as he initially understood when he set an August 2009 deadline for the two houses to pass legislation.
Even though he knew that the Republicans were determined to defeat any significant reform – early on Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina had explained that stopping the health-care bill would be the political “Waterloo” that would “break” Obama – the President still allowed the process to bog down.
Pursuing the phantom of bipartisanship, Obama let Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus enter into desultory negotiations with three Republicans – including Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley – who slow-walked the bill past the August deadline and into the fall.
Ultimately, the Baucus negotiations and the many one-on-one conversations between Obama and Snowe earned the support of not a single Senate Republican, but the delay bought the GOP precious time to organize opposition and focus attention on the messy legislative process.
"As I look back, it was a waste of time dealing with” Snowe, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the New York Times, "because she had no intention of ever working anything out."
Although many of her demands were met – such as dropping the “public option” from the initial “insurance exchange” – Snowe ultimately justified her support for the Republican filibuster against health-care reform by saying she wanted to continue talking.
The unified GOP opposition to the bill put Democrats at the mercy of their most conservative members – as well as Connecticut’s Independent Joe Lieberman, a neocon who opposed Obama’s election and seemed to delight in bedeviling the Senate leadership.
As Reid labored to craft a compromise bill – which was tailored to please Lieberman by replacing the “public option” with an earlier Lieberman-backed plan to expand Medicare coverage to people 55 to 64 – Lieberman then went on the Sunday talk shows to announce that he would join a Republican filibuster if his own Medicare expansion plan weren’t dropped, too.
After watching Lieberman on TV, Reid reportedly told aides “he double-crossed me.” However, desperate for a Senate bill, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel informed Reid that he had no choice but to abandon his compromise and accede to Lieberman’s new position.
As the health-care reform was reshaped in ways increasingly favorable to the insurance industry, Obama got the worst of both worlds. His supporters were demoralized and angry, while his opponents got to portray the legislation as an overly complicated “government takeover” of health care.
The Populist Banner
Citing the Wall Street bailouts and the convoluted health-reform bill, Republicans and their Tea Party allies swooped in to claim the banner of populism, with the help of right-wing demagogues like Fox News’ Glenn Beck and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
Meanwhile, the American Left remained the marginal force that it has been for decades, heaping blame on Obama but doing little to build a media/think tank infrastructure that could make a sustained case to the American people or come close to competing with the well-oiled right-wing machine.
So, what can Obama do now to salvage his presidency? Here are some of the hard facts and his hard choices ahead:
Losing the Massachusetts Senate seat means that Obama’s notion of some “responsible” governing coalition is dead. Obama’s dream of ushering in a post-partisan era that could reach across party lines to address the pressing needs of the United States was always naïve at best.
The GOP knows that its political fortunes rest on the destruction of Obama and his presidency. As was obvious a year ago, the Republicans simply dusted off the strategy they used against Bill Clinton in 1993-94, obstructing what they could and relying on the powerful right-wing media to demonize the new President and rally their “base.”
In 1994, the GOP’s scorched-earth strategy led to a Republican takeover of Congress. And the GOP victory in Massachusetts confirms the efficacy of this approach, again.
Whether he likes it or not, Barack Obama is in a political war – and he is losing.
Though the time is late, the President must toughen his rhetoric if he hopes to recover. He will have to convince average Americans that he is on their side and that the Republicans are the ones on the side of the rich and powerful, that they are the real defenders of the elites.
Obama also will have to demand discipline within his own party, instilling a sense of urgency that clearly wasn’t there in the early stages of the health-care debate. He will have to make clear that endless Republican obstructionism in the Senate will be met with more aggressive tactics that employ majority-rule “reconciliation,” which Bush used to pass his tax cuts.
Most importantly, if Obama is to turn the current mess around, he must shift from the cerebral college professor who can appreciate all points of view to a fierce advocate for the American people. He also must challenge the legacy of Ronald Reagan, who espoused the idea that “government is the problem.”
The core fallacy of the Tea Party populists is that they embrace the Reagan fiction that the American people can take back control of their lives by hamstringing the federal government, by getting government out of the way, when all that would do is give big corporations and the rich unchallenged control of U.S. society.
If Reaganism in its ultimate form ever prevails, average Americans would be left alone to face job losses, down-sized pay, no health care, a degraded environment, bad schools, and endless fees and penalties on everything from credit cards to mortgages to cable TV service.
Tea Party populism does nothing to address these assaults on the middle class and working people because the Tea Partiers want to hobble the only force powerful enough to counter corporate abuses, an energized and democratized federal government.
What Obama must do, if he wishes to change the dynamic, is to convince Americans that Reagan was wrong, that government – when it is the expression of the public will – is not the problem, but a key part of any solution.
Obama must make the case that higher taxes on the wealthy are a must, that he was right during the campaign when he told “Joe the Plumber” that the economy works best when money is not concentrated at the top but rather when the benefits of technology and productivity are spread around in a more equitable way.
In the wake of the health-care disaster, Obama also needs to take stock of who his friends are and who they’re not. When Joe Lieberman sinks a health-care compromise and damages the administration, Obama should make clear that such political betrayals have consequences.
The Republicans understand this principle. When three Republican senators – Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins – broke ranks to support Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan, the GOP essentially drummed Specter out of the party. That harsh response was enough to scare Snowe and Collins back into line on health care and set the stage for the Massachusetts victory.
Yet, beyond what Obama must do, there is what American progressives must do. They must disabuse themselves of their long-standing role as bystanders. Already, some left-wing critics are churning out opinion pieces that argue that Obama’s big mistake was not taking a purely leftist approach to all problems, as if most Americans are closet Marxists waiting for a call to the barricades.
If the Left wants politicians to act with more courage on behalf of popular reforms, then progressives must get serious about building media and other institutions to make the case to the American people. It’s not enough to demand that Obama do all this heavy lifting.
In many ways, Obama’s current predicament was predictable – and indeed it was predicted. But the problem is not just Obama and his accommodationist strategies. It is that he and others must present a strong argument to the American people for real change – and then must fight for it, hard.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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