This morning, my Facebook page exploded. It all started when I posted this excellent piece by Glenn Greenwald about Obama and the debt-ceiling deal. Greenwald says that those who think Obama is weak and lacks backbone, or that he got suckered by the Republicans or is somehow being held hostage, are full of shit. With a few exceptions, Obama got what he wanted.
Greenwald has a lot of evidence to back up his claims, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. So I put the question to my FB friends. Is Obama politically inept or does he want these massive cuts? And if he wants them, is it because of political calculation? Is he a true believer in neoliberal economics? A hostage of Wall Street?
To my surprise, lots of people weighed in, many of them leading voices and scholars on the left: Katha Pollitt, Adolph Reed, Josh Cohen, Tom Sugrue, Rick Perlstein, and more. With their permission, I’ve reprinted the discussion, almost verbatim (I had to leave out a few comments from people who didn’t get back to me, and I edited some comments for context and flow).
Corey Robin: What do you guys think of this Greenwald piece? I think it’s excellent, but I’m not convinced. Obama didn’t get the tax cuts he wanted. It’s not clear this will help him electorally (the state of the economy in the fall of 2012 will matter much more than his pose of bipartisanship now; there is zero evidence to suggest this deal will help the economy and lots of reasons to think it will hurt.) Though it’s true that Obama has wanted cuts to entitlement programs for some time, he doesn’t get them in the first phase of the deal, and in the second phase, assuming the trigger mechanism kicks in, Social Security remains off-limits.
What’s your sense of why Obama wants these cuts? We know why the GOP wants them. But what are the ideological underpinnings or economic/political interests of Obama’s position? Even within the framework of neoliberalism, I’m not sure I get the motivation. Have the financial markets really been pushing for these cuts? My anecdotal sense was that people like Summers — I know, now out of the administration, but I took him to be a fairly good representative of that sector — thought this wasn’t the way to go. My assumption is that the reason Obama has taken this route is that he thinks it’s a good way to position himself electorally, and that this is coming less from the money people than the politicos. But I am more than happy to be told otherwise.
So what do you guys think: Weak president? Moderate right president? Shrewd negotiator? What?
The “he’s weak” line mystifies me
Doug Henwood: He’s going to position himself as the “reasonable” alternative to extremists, the man who can compromise where they can’t, etc. His partisan selling point will be his bipartisanship, unlike the other guys, who are just rigid ideologues. He’ll have to do this subtly, so he doesn’t sound too partisan.
Corey: Doug, so is your position that the motivation for this is electoral or do you also see pressure for this coming from the bond markets, the money men, etc?
Rick Perlstein: “The people hate partisan gridlock”; “I defeated partisan gridlock”; “The people will hail me as a hero, bearing me aloft on their shoulders.” The fellow’s not quite well.
Doug: He loves it that both “extremes” are complaining. Wall Street wants budget balance with no tax increases on itself. That means cuts. Their major jones has been for “entitlement” reform, which means anything from a squeeze (CPI gimmickry, etc.) to outright privatization. The squeezers are more the WS establishment, like Goldman; the outright privatizers are the hedge fund guys, who tend to be more libertarian, often rabidly so. A lot of WS doesn’t follow details closely – they just *know* that gov spends too much and needs to be “reined in.” A lot of the time, their “facts” are wrong. But there’s no doubt they want spending cuts, big ones. And the only way to get that is SS & Medicare. BTW, Summers is now a good guy, as these things go.
Jay Driskell: To me, he reads like a classic late 19th century progressive – that there are smart people who know smart things and it is they who should sit down in a room and hammer out the details above the “partisan fray.” The problem, then as now, is that there is no way above that fray – especially when one or both parties are trying to game the non-partisan/bi-partisan negotiations for their own partisan advantage. However, I really do think that Obama really believes that he is making progress. Otherwise, his negotiating strategies make absolutely no sense. I’d like to think he’s in the thrall of capital…that would at least be comprehensible (and reprehensible) to me.
Katha Pollitt: IMO, he’s weak. He made a strategic error in letting the debt ceiling, which has a rigid deadline, be connected to deficit reduction, a longterm and complicated issue. this allowed the Republicans to hold the debt ceiling hostage to their ongoing attack on entitlements and discretionary spending on anything good. he also failed to hold the line on raising revenues through taxation. That kind of disappeared.
Corey: Katha, what do you make of all the evidence Greenwald amasses, arguing to the contrary? Genuine question, as ordinarily I tend to be more in your camp; I just can’t square that with the evidence Greenwald has and some of the stuff Doug and others have been saying.
Doug: The “he’s weak” line mystifies me. Why should we see a guy who had a near-overnight rise, blessed by the Dem establishment, be assumed to be lacking in political skills and understanding? He said all along he wanted entitlement reform and budget balance. The mix may not be what he wanted, but he had plenty of rhetorical, legal, and political possibilities to change the discourse and he didn’t. Occam says he didn’t want to.
Jodi Dean: I’m not sure moderate right fits someone to the right of Nixon and Reagan. I don’t think he is a playing an electoral pollitics game. He seems to think of government in the service of markets, where markets mean primarily financial markets (but also insurance markets and others). So, my basic read is: never the progressive or moderate Democrat that progressives and moderate Democrats wanted or fantasized him to be; always the state as an instrument of the ruling class. But what gets me: his last debt ceiling speech went on about shared responsibility when that was not at all what he was going to do or what he actually wanted. Differently put, I sign on to the “not weak just a bad guy capitalist” interpretation. Yet this is rooted in taking him at his word (and not thinking that he deceives or is manipulated). So the glitch is why he would present his preferred solution/plan as other than what it was. Maybe the only difference now between Tea Party crazy and mainstream conservative (Obama) is the willingness to embrace the becoming-Mad-Max-future-of-the US v. lip service to the fragile veneer of governance/sociality still holding something like everyday life together.
Doug: Jodi, I suspect that in an ideal world he’d like to see modest upper-bracket tax increases and somewhat less dramatic spending cuts, but didn’t want to go to the mat for them. Plus, he needs Wall Street money for a billion-dollar re-election campaign.
Doug: Jay, “If he were in the thrall of capital”? In who else’s thrall is he?
Jodi: Doug–so your version of “not weak” still includes the fact that even if strong he has to make some compromises; that makes sense to me (so, it answers my question about the speech).
Katha: You know, none of us know what is in his head. However, he did say, as recently as last monday, that he wanted tax hikes on the wealthy. He wanted the Bush tax cuts to expire, which is not in the current deal. I don’t exactly disagree with Doug — clearly, he is Wall St’s man –but I think a more skillful politician, one less in love with being above the fray, could have handled this a lot better and gotten more on the other side. I mean, asking people to call their congressperson? Pathetic.
He’s a One-Trick Pony
Adolph Reed: He’s a one-trick pony, always has been, and that trick is performing judiciousness, reasonableness, performing the guy who shows his seriousness by being able to agree with those with whom he supposedly disagrees and to disagree with those with whom he supposedly agrees. He has never — not at any moment in his political career — stood for anything more concrete than a platitude. He is also one of those get all the smart people in the room to figure out what’s best for us all technocratic left-neoliberals and at the end of the day (well, even at dawn) believes that the Wall St types are smarter than the rest of us.
Corey: Jodi, moderate right is a term relative to the political spectrum. It doesn’t make sense to say Nixon was to the left of Obama without some reference to the political circumstances. Nixon was constrained by a still vibrant New Deal regime; Reagan came into destroy it, and did so somewhat successfully, but he was still encumbered by it. Obama operates in a different political world. As for taking him at his word, he’s said a lot of words. Sometimes he’s quite explicitly signaled a desire to break with the Reaganite consensus; not just in the campaign but early on in his presidency. So the words are murky.
Doug: Adolph, I mostly agree with you, but he is standing up for the freedom and power of capital. That’s not unprincipled, though it’s not our principle, nor that of many of the febrile sorts who promoted him back in 2008.
Corey: Adolph, I find that persuasive. That supports the notion that he is both a political performance artist, in which the main ideology is one of reasonableness without any content whatsoever, and he’s kind of like the 19th century progressives Jay talked about above.
Doug: Jodi, sure. He had to get something through a divided Congress. But there were arrows in his quiver he chose to leave there.
Corey: Doug, Adolph: Your last two comments to each other really do mark a genuine question I have. I tend to think people like Obama really don’t believe the bullshit they preach; what they do believe is that moderation is the mark of maturity and that Wall Street types are smarter than the rest of us. But that is a fairly apolitical reading of them, which doesn’t look at the real and substantive impact neoliberal ideology has had on such folks. I toggle back and forth between those two views. Obama reminds me so much of people I went to college with, who just hitched themselves to a cart that told them this is where success was, and that intelligence is demonstrated by breaking with the crazy left. After a while maybe they start believing their own bullshit, but I can’t help thinking that if careerism is your motivation, you’ll basically go with wherever you think the career incentives will take you. Of course, all this gets into the kind of armchair psychologizing that is totally besides the point. But I do wonder how these ideological formations happen.
Adolph: Note that his posture toward health care, economic policy, the budget crisis, etc has been to sit back and position himself to work the Grand Compromise. (Note as well his bizarre version of Lincoln that never manages to include the fucking Civil War, not even in relation to the Emancipation Proclamation; James Oakes has pointed out that Lincoln’s penchant for compromise was only with members of his own party; the Dems, after all, were at war against him.) Obama’s one trick was good for getting him elected to successively higher offices, but now he’s where the buck stops where that trick — the equivalent of a short con — doesn’t work so well. And he doesn’t have a long con to operate. So all he has is a knack for getting himself out of the room he’s in at the moment. I imagine he feels, if he even looks that far, that that aptitude will re-elect him in 2012. At that level, who knows what he’s thinking, if he’s thinking anything beyond the moment and having another piece of paper showing that he’s gotten something done. I take Doug’s “I told you so” point to heart (not like he and I haven’t talked about it for a while anyway). All I’d add is that it’s intriguing from the standpoint of ideology-critique and more than exasperating from the standpoint of concern with building a serious left to see how many people who should have known better got swept up in the utterly, transparently bullshit hype about Obama either sanitizing their pasts or tying themselves into more and more convoluted knots trying to rationalize what should have been obvious about him from the very beginning.
Doug: Corey, the personal angle with O, I think, is the fact that he was nurtured from an early age by elites – fancy universities and foundations and then the Dem leadership. He’s in awe of them, and grateful for all they did. Cf. FDR, who emerged from the elite and had the confidence to challenge them. That, plus the times are different. But that’s how I see the personalities meshing with history. I also wouldn’t go too far with the contentlessness of his reasonableness: it’s always about loyal service to power. Not to belabor the obvious, but it’s extremely useful to the bourgeoisie to have a mixed race, cerebral Democrat imposing the austerity program. I’m reminded of Dinkins telling Wall Street skeptics, who thought he didn’t have the balls to impose austerity after the 80s went poof, back during his first campaign: “They’ll take it from me.”
Corey: Doug, did you ever see David Bromwich’s piece (maybe in the LRB or on Huffington Post) about Obama’s infatuation with elites and his comparison with FDR? Very interesting. Though again too much focus on character, for my tastes, not on politics.
Doug: No, Corey, didn’t see that Bromwich piece. The “politics” of it all seem crystal clear to me. What’s going to be interesting, in a sick voyeuristic car wreck kind of way, is watching the pwogwessives rationalize this and get ready for 2012.
Adolph: Doug, of course you’re right about his standing up for the freedom and power of capital. I intended to mention that not only does he believe that the Wall St types are smarter than the rest of us; they’ve also bankrolled him up to his eye teeth in 2008 and now. They started getting behind him about 20 minutes after he was elected to the US Senate. And, if lefties of a sort didn’t have such a ridiculous soft spot for the black guy of the moment, more people might have noticed that that element and maudlin Fulfillment of the Dream fantasies — Pritzker, the Daley crowd — was always where his effective political base was, from the beginning of his political career or that he had never weighed in on any live conflict bearing on inequality, ever, except, of course, in that abstract, Kang and Kodos cum overblown eloquence style of his. He’s a vacant tool, but he’s capital’s vacant tool, not ours, and he never has been. All the crap about his “better angels” that the Nation crowd and others persist with is either the equivalent of not wanting to admit having been wrong in their idiotic slurping in the first place or pathetic clinging to the baseless hope that he’ll listen or toss a face-saving bone. Hell, he told you during his campaign that he wasn’t a progressive and that his skill is in making people believe that he’s with them.
Corey: By the way, it looks as if Social Security is off the table in terms of the trigger mechansm. As is Medicaid. Medicare, though, is not.
Doug: He’s not unlike Jerry Brown – a fundamentally conservative guy who can convince pwoggies that he’s one of them. As J.D. Lorenz, the founder of California Rural Legal Assistance who spent a few months working for Jerry and wrote a fine book about him, his strategy was to create “an ambiance of possibility that gave the viewer space: space to project his fondest wishes onto Jerry, space to identify with Jerry….” They both come off as thoughtful and cerebral, more reflective than your standard issue pol. This is what gives the pwog audience space to project fantasies: he must be one of us!
Doug: They’ll play COLA games with SS, won’t they?
Adolph: Corey, apropos of your comment that BHO reminds you of people you went to school with. I’d refrained from saying that he, as well as his various running dogs, haunt me as illustrations of the modal type of Ivy League POC students I’ve been teaching for the last 30 years. That same mastery of performance of a cultivated, yet at the same time empty and pro forma, intellectuality, conviction that one’s career advancement literally embodies the victory of the civil rights movement, and that awe that Bromwich notes of the rich and powerful. Of course, this doesn’t apply only to the POCs; Arne Duncan and others proceed on the same basis. But take a look at Yalie Jonah Edelman, spawn of Peter and Marian Wright, boasting alongside Crown family scion and financier James Schine Crown at the Aspen Institute about how his ed reform non-profit (also funded by investment bankers, hedge fund operators, Walton Family Foundation, etc) went after Illinois teachers’ unions: http://j.mp/oytHI7 See 6ff, and esp. 8ff.)
Doug: Marx: “The better able a ruling class is to absorb the natural leaders of the oppressed, the more solid and dangerous its rule.” By that measure the American ruling class is doing just fine.
Corey: Funny, Doug, that’s 1/4 of my theory of counterrevolution right there; had totally forgotten about that quote from Marx, which must be where I got it from. Love that pairing of solid and dangerous, which are ordinarily not words we associate together.
Corey: Yeah, Adolph, I know exactly what you mean. But as you know and say, it’s a phenomenon that totally transcends race. Except for that part about telling themselves that they embody the victory of the civil rights movement. Though I’ve seen a version of this among Jews and other sorts whose grandparents were one step removed from the farm or shtetl or whatever: that their arrival constitutes another step in the long march of justice.
Doug: My god, I missed this a couple of weeks ago: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2082971-2,00.html. So this has all been scripted for weeks? And Obama rejected Boehner’s $2.4 trillion – to get $4 trillion?These dollar amounts are big, but the discretionary caps amount to 0.4% of GDP over the next 10 years, and what the magic commish is supposed to come up with is another 0.6% of GDP. Maybe this isn’t quite as awful as it looks, though it’s awful. Of course it could always get worse, and they haven’t started the COLA game yet.
Tom Sugrue: I am with Adolph. There is little about Obama’s trajectory on economic issues that is surprising, except to those who believed that (despite both his words and his record) he was a crypto-leftist waiting for the right moment. Whether or not Obama believes what he practices is immaterial.I would also add that we are where we are because BHO glamored “progressives” including the Nation‘s editors and so many more who should have known better. Without a well-organized, vocal left, we can’t expect any better. FDR did not tack leftward in 1935 and 36 out of principle, but because he was pulled there. (And remember that he veered just as quickly rightward in 1937, when he succumbed to bipartisan deficit-mania.)
Thaddeus Russell: I am struck again and again by how closely Obama’s rhetoric and policies adhere to Kristol’s and Podhoretz’s founding documents of neoconservatism: imperialism, cultural homogenization (e.g., his “post-racial” discourse and especially Race to the Top), and the dismantling of the welfare state. So, to me, this explains his “willingness” to sacrifice SS and Medicare. Also, the elitist attitude toward policy-making, which the neocons got from the original progressives.
Joshua Cohen: 1. I think BHO’s political views are in the neighborhood of Cass Sunstein’s: pretty centrist, with different leans on different issues. But much less conventionally left than some supporters painted him as being. Part of the reason for the painting was the poetic rhetoric, but that rhetoric (hope….change….etc etc) was always VERY VERY abstract, not tied to policy.
2. BHO has shown a willingness to be reasonable with the unreasonable: which is an invitation to being exploited by the unreasonable. People smell weakness: and they treat a willingness to compromise as a sign of weakness, esp. when you compromise right out of the box. That is who BHO is: he does not have a back-up political style.
3. I also think that critics like Greenwald and Krugman, who have zero political sense or experience, have been much too quick to be dismissive of the constraints. (I think Krugman is more careful on this issue than Greenwald.)
4. Huge factor in contemporary politics is extraordinary disarray of mass politics on the left. Unions at 6%, no peace movement, and no jobs movement of any consistent and public visibility. It is much easier to talk about Obama than to talk about this HUGELY important fact.
5. Given point (2) above, and despite (4): I think BHO has not done as well as he might have at, in particular, keeping a focus on jobs.
So I kind of agree with Tom Sugrue….esp. on the Roosevelt point.
Joe Lowndes: I’m with Adolph here. I would add though that nevertheless, Obama continually craves – or rather demands – progressive credentials. Beyond mere triangulation, it’s as if he understands his signal accomplishment to be the translation of progressive desires into neoliberal politics, and he thus can’t understand why we don’t see the flawless logic of his having done so. It’s the Obama of the Iowa victory saying, “They said this day would never come” that is necessary to make his conservative commitments meaningful. In foreign policy it is his supposed unique ability to empathize with Muslims oppressed that rationalizes militarism. In education he just wants better for failing students in the poor communities he knew as an organizer. He is visibly petulant towards LGBT activists who can’t seem to see that he has been their best ally since he was in the State Senate. On and on.
Neolib, Neocon, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off
Thad: Why is he a neoliberal and not a neoconservative? I really so no daylight between his and both Kristols’ politics.
Joe: You’re right, Thad. I was thinking of economic policy when using that exhausted term. He is a total neocon in both foreign and domestic politics.
Corey: Actually, Obama is far more enthralled with capitalism than Kristol Senior was. Remember Kristol could only offer two cheers for capitalism; Obama would more than happily offer three.
Thad: Corey, are you referring to Kristol Sr.’s dislike of the hedonism and cultural chaos produced by capitalism?
Corey: Its deleterious effects on the martial spirit; the fact that it is a completely ignoble way to organize public life (his words, not mine); that anyone who would privilege money over other values like glory is an ant. Kristol was never that concerned with cultural chaos, if by that you mean immoral or libidinous values.
Thad: We basically agree on Irving K. But hasn’t BHO always been a powerful proponent of the martial spirit and critic of the “ignoble” products of capitalism? Remember his argument for a national service? He and McCain agreed that America should always look like it did on 9/12. And during the campaign he went out of his way to attack black men who watch ESPN, kids who wear baggy jeans, and all of us who “engage in childish things, who are more concerned about what they want than what’s good for other people.” And how many times has he referred to the military as representing the “best” and “highest” of who we are.
Corey: That’s what makes the neocon position that much more interesting and ultimately frightening. I could be wrong — haven’t studied BHO to the extent I have Kristol — but my sense is that Obama doesn’t attribute these cultural things he complains about to any notion of capitalism. Kristol did. And while that didn’t lead Kristol to call for capitalism’s overhaul or anything like that, he did see an antidote to it in militarism. Obama doesn’t endorse militarism in the same way.
Thad: I think it’s only a difference in emphasis. But Obama — like his heroes TR, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and JFK — has essentially the same love of a regimented social order as Kristol. Check this out: http://articles.cnn.com/20 08-09-12/politics/candidates.sept11_1_mccain-and-bar ack-obama-common-ground-sarah-palin?_s=PM%3APOLITICS
Thad: Put it this way: I am sure that if Kristol’s argument were presented to Obama, he would agree with it. No?
Corey: Kristol didn’t like a regimented social order. He liked a warrior social order. There’s a big difference. It’s not the authoritarianism of the military; it’s the extravagant glory, the blood-curdling, artistically executed violence, the way it delivers us from the tedium and ennui of a market society — so, no, I don’t think Obama would agree with that. Certainly not in public, and I suspect not even in private. As Josh said above, Obama has a Cass Sunstein view of the world; that’s different from a Carl Schmitt view of the world. At least in some respects.
Thad: I think you’re splitting hairs here, Corey. One of Kristol’s big causes — now enacted in Obama’s ramped-up version of No Child Left Behind — was the establishment of a hegemonic, unified, national culture. No better model for that than the 82nd Airborne, which is one reason the great liberals have always loved the military and the draft. Speaking of which: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/16/opinion/16kristof.html
Alex Gourevitch: Josh, I think point 4, ‘the disarray of mass politics’ begins pointing this thread in a wider, and possibly more important direction. We can debate Obama’s ‘real’ politics all we want – FWIW I basically agree with Adolph/Doug/and Co. But Obama did not end up here alone. The Democratic Party has been decidedly weak during this whole affair. Moreover, especially under New Democrat leadership, it has spent the last decades setting the table for a budget debate in which deficit spending is seen as irresponsible, in which the argument for progressive taxation has severely waned, and in which the state is seen as having a much more limited role – basically correcting market failures. I think we fool ourselves if we think the major problems here are just a) right-wing Tea Party populists with an ideological backbone and b) an opportunistic President who is happy to be the respectable patsy of certain class fractions. It is also a so-called left wing party that has been itself the party of austerity for at least twenty years. They created the environment in which massive spending cuts when on the verge of a double-dip recession can seem like a reasonable thing to do. And we’re talking here just about the Democratic Party, never mind the other elements that go into the ‘disarray of mass politics.’
Lisa Garcia Bedolla: I can’t really say it better than Robert Reich did in his Berkeley blog: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2011/08/01/ransom-paid/. It continues the fallacy that our individual desires (esp. if we’re wealthy) should trump the public good. The Dems have not been able (or perhaps willing) to articulate an alternative vision. They just jumped on the GOP bandwagon (I blame more than just Obama).
Shane Taylor: Others have ably commented on the Obama’s chronic underestimation of Republican intransigence, his pursuit of compromise for the sake of compromise, and his desire for “entitlement” reform (the White House affirmed their commitment to this cause to David Brooks back in March of 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/06/opinion/06brooks.html. I, too, see those as features of this administration. However, there was something different about this episode. I suspect that Obama has an inflated sense of his talent for eleven-dimensional chess, but in this round, the president lost control. Last week the president was pleading with the public to plead with Congress to make it stop. Twice. Something seemed to have gone horribly wrong, and I think John Kay made the appropriate analogy: it was like a dollar bill auction. As Yves Smith said, there was a toxic “bidding” dynamic. http://agonisticliberal.com/2011/07/30/lost-in-the-strategery/
Update (August 2, 12 pm)
This debate has been pinging around the various spheres of the internet. It’s been sent into the strato/twittersphere by Glenn Greenwald, Joan Walsh, Jeff Sharlet, Mike Konczal, and others, who’ve tweeted it to their, between them, 100,000 some-odd followers. It’s been picked up by Digby. It’s brought more traffic to this site than anything I’ve posted.
Two pieces came out this morning that I want to give special mention to. First, this blog post by Alex Gourevitch, amplifying his comment above, is among the smartest I’ve seen and pushes us in a genuinely new direction—away from the individual focus on Obama to larger questions about party formation and comparative political economy. Don’t miss it.
Second, this piece by Matt Taibbi, well, need I say more? As always, Taibbi says and sees things more clearly than the rest of us. Again, not to be missed.
Update (12:45 pm)
More voices have joined in, which I wanted to include. First, this from Anne Norton, who participated in yesterday’s FB discussion but whose comment I wasn’t able to include in the original blog post.
Anne Norton: Adolph’s characterization of Obama’s commitment to performing the reasonable, judicious statesmen is directly connected to his progressivism: both in the endorsement of a particular ostensibly passionless elite expertise and in the priority of process over results. To my mind this shows the ease with which progressivism moves into the service of capital, especially finance capital, which also understands itself as the realm of passionless elite expertise. Our analyses are too cold as well. What is lost in this are the basics: equality, democracy, hunger and profit. I confess it: I expected better.
Then this FB message from Dorian Warren.
Dorian Warren: Hey Corey. I was in a meeting all day yesterday so couldn’t weigh in on the debate on your FB page. How excellent and exciting!! Although I’m a bit glad I didn’t; I can only take so much psychologizing about what BHO thinks and who the “true” BHO really is, especially devoid of context, history and constraints. Obama wasn’t the sole player in the debt debacle. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t analyze his strategy, ideology, etc. But we pour so much energy into a) assessing his true inner state, again and again and again, and b) never get to the implications of those kinds of narrow analyses. Okay, so now what? Primary challenge him? Any “Democrat” president that wins would do the same, white or black, male or female. At least that’s my prediction. I think Josh Cohen and Alex G. were pointing the conversation towards a more constructive direction that’s more comprehensive in an analysis of the current moment, of political and party structures, of large ideological shifts, etc.
I just came back from a union conference in England over the weekend where most of the Europeans I spoke with spoke not of Obama in personality terms but rather of the fact that the “US”, structurally, is about redistribution to the top from the bottom, and that the country has been this way for 30 years. Quite a different starting place relative to us, which is surprising…
And then this email from Rogers Smith.
Rogers Smith: I confess to being too dispirited about current affairs to join in the lively exchange yesterday; but do want to acknowledge that Adolph’s take is looking pretty good at the moment. On the two questions of political style and substance, I think it has been and is debatable whether Obama’s compromise/community organizer style is better suited to getting something done in the current context than all-out left advocacy: that advocacy is needed to push compromisers, but you also need to win some elections. On substance, I’ve seen Obama as seeking somehow to satisfy both his belief in Wall Street economics and his identification with black church social justice goals–and hoped the results would be compromises that moved at least some meaningful degree in more egalitarian directions. Adolph has consistently attacked that kind of view as naive, and at this point it’s hard to argue. I’m sure Obama is telling himself he’s positioned now to accomplish more in the future, and I’d like to see it, but I’m not predicting it will happen.
Which prompted this further email exchange between Rogers and Anne.
Anne: What troubles me most about Obama is that the unfolding of Obama’s presidency seems to knit together aspects of his policies and persona that point in a less democratic and egalitarian direction. He seems consistently committed to elite governance -worse, to an elite governance of people drawn from the unelected and irresponsible ranks of finance. He seems consistently committed to a big state. I’ve always had suspicions of a big state, but I make allowances for those followers of the big state who see it as providing for the poor, the ill and the common good. I can make common cause with that, in the present circumstances. This is a big state making war and preserving its credit rating -or not. Obama’s apparent acceptance of the idea that “the economy” is measured by the welfare of the stock market; his failure to insist on measures drawn from the well-being of the people gives the lie to the idea of fundamental change. His consistent preoccupation with producing elite consensus while remaining indifferent to the popular judgment of that consensus suggests to me that he is not at bottom a democrat, but a Progressive of the old managerial school.
Rogers: Mixes of democratic egalitarianism with managerial elitism are of course characteristic of much Progressive pragmatist thought, which is very much Obama’s thought. And though today’s American left builds on much in the more left Progressives, most Progressives did prove themselves more managerial elitist than democratic. So Obama can rightly be seen as a new chapter in an old story–but I’m not sure the contemporary progressive left knows how to build a politics that avoids that (nor do I). Which is particularly dispiriting.
Update (7:30 pm)
This forum is getting more and more traction. In addition to the folks mentioned above, it’s now been tweeted by Katrina vanden Heuvel and Peter Daou. Between all the various folks who’ve tweeted it, I think this forum has been brought to anywhere from 150,000 175,000 of the Twitterati.
Our old friend Matt Yglesias has now weighed in. He takes issue with a comment by Thad Russell above—actually, he says he “kind of choked” over it—but then takes his disagreement in an interesting direction. The argument he makes is actually not that different from Chomsky’s.
We made the “Roundup” post at Firedoglake.
And from what I hear, this post is all over Facebook, generating discussion, getting thumbs-upped (and I’m sure thumbs-downed), and more.
Lastly, Dorian Warren, who was featured in one of our previous updates, writes in again with some further thoughts.
Dorian Warren: Another thought after reading the updates: I think the problem with this conversation is that it’s too high up in the air. All of us are discussing Obama and the “big” policy deals/outcomes from 30,000 feet up. Okay, true, in every case there was capitulation and non-progressive results which now show somehow who the “true” Obama is. Fine, I agree with that as far as it goes, which frankly isn’t far. I think if we were to look a bit more closely and in detail, we’d find empirically that the Administration as a whole is best described as a set of contradictions. Let’s not forget the power of Administrative politics, even though it’s not as sexy as the hot policy issues of health care, financial reform, or stimulus or debt ceiling. But from where I sit, the Dept. of Labor, the NLRB, the NMB have all been doing rulemaking and enforcement as progressively as they possibly can under the circumstances. We can’t simply lump their work into one box of “Obama sellout/neoliberal/neocon”. Why is the FAA reauthorization being held up now? Because the GOP is furious the NMB changed the rule to make it easier for transportation workers to organize last year. Why is there such outrage over the NLRB’s Boeing complaint? Because the Chamber of Commerce is furious the NLRB is enforcing the all-too-weak labor law, and are fearful the pro-labor board will change the rules to favor unions. The DOL is doing incredible wage enforcement work not seen even under Clinton. On the other hand, other agencies have clearly been captured by Wall Street: SEC, Commerce, Treasury, etc. And obviously I’d be the first to criticize BHO for never going to bat for labor law reform, even though he gladly took labor’s money and ground game. But then how do we square the difference between the SEC and the NLRB? Rogers argued that Obama’s political ideology & governing style (characteristic of Progressive thought) is both democratic egalitarianism mixed with managerial elitism. I think that comes close to capturing the Administration’s policy failures *as well* as some of the progressive political outcomes on the non-sexy but arguably very important Administrative politics side.
Update (August 3, 9:30 am)
Our friend Gordon Lafer was late to this discussion, but as always with Gordon, it was worth the wait.
Gordon Lafer: I am, of course, in the Adolph Reed camp. I think he’s neoliberal in his heart, but most of all that he doesn’t have a heart besides the desire to be elected. He clearly wants to move 70% of the way to the right on the political spectrum (and that point keeps getting further right as the Koch bros, Ari Fleischer et al (I think it’s impt not to call them “the Tea Party” since there is no such thing, while there are real actors at work here) keep pushing the envelope rightward), in order to leave the R’s no room but the fringe right, and get reelected handily. He doesn’t care how far right that strategy takes him, and it’s the only strategy he has, and that’s the only thing he really gives a shit about. Which gives the total lie to the idea of his being the adult in the room. There’s nothing at all adult about his behavior – weak or strong, this is not about getting the best deal possible for the country under difficult circumstances. It’s just about getting himself reelected, even if it means obviously fucking the country in ways that could have been avoided.
This is one of the moments where it pays to ask “what would W (or a left version of W) have done?” and I think the answer is: he would have announced months ago that he would absolutely veto anything that doesn’t include termination of the tax cuts for over $250k, show absolutely no sign of entertaining any compromise on that. Then as the deadline got closer he would have announced that, if the Congress doesn’t give him a bill that includes making the rich pay his fair share, he will have to invoke the 14th amendment and unilaterally raise (or really, just ignore) the debt ceiling in order to pay the country’s bills. He’d then do it, daring the Rs to take him to court in what would easily be portrayed as a legal effort to destroy the country’s credit rating. The fact that it was Obama himself who took the 14th amendment option off the table, saying his lawyers told him it wasn’t a strong option, as he also was first to put Social Security on the table – shows his priority, which is not actually wanting to solve the country’s debt problem in the best way while protecting citizens and economic growth, but rather to get himself reelected, which he and his advisors believe requires moving right and having a vote that Rs and Ds supported rather than being saddled with raising the debt ceiling on his own. Nothing adult about that.
I also think there’s no chance he really believes this is the road to economic health. I was in briefings by all kinds of mainstream economists who said what Summers too (no friend of the left) said — the deficit is a long term problem that should be addressed in 2013 or 2014; right now what you need to do is MORE deficit spending in order to create consumer demand to spur economic growth. He must have had all those same briefings. This isn’t a principled economic position.
One final thing I’d add is that the other option, other than going as he’s been going on this and everything else, is a big bold option. He already thinks his reelect will cost $1 billion. And that’s with doing the free trade treaties, extending the Bush tax cuts, etc. If he moves more to the left, that cost goes up and the question of where it comes from gets more difficult. You saw this with Dodd-Frank when there started being stories about Wall St bundlers being hesitant about obama – then they made up with Wall St. So the only real option, is to go so dramatically to the left that you generate some kind of mass response that counterbalances the fact that you’re going to drive hundreds of millions of dollars to the opposition. I think that’s do-able, and certainly that it’s the only strategy worth doing, but it’s an all-in strategy, a high risk strategy. And the people in this WH are not risk takers. They’re sneak-through-ers.
Update (11:30 am)
We made it into the Wall Street Journal.
Update (12:30 pm)
The estimable Christian Parenti, whose new book on the politics of climate change is must reading, emailed me this late last night:
Christian Parenti: Better late than never…. I agree with Doug and Adolph, if I read them correctly….
Pretty is as pretty does.
Obama is a neo-liberal but his method of arrival at that position is not ideological true belief. Rather it is by way of his endless performance of political sobriety, maturity and “reasonableness.” It is all tactics and no strategy; form and not content. Were this a socialist dictatorship or a theocracy, he would still be a brilliantly capable, charismatic, highly effective, totally reasonable, cipher of a completely different ideological stripe. Or to put it another way: Obama is like Ishmael in Moby Dick. Or he is like CLR James’ reading of Ishmael as delivered in “Mariners, Renegades and Castaways.” He is a dangerously alienated intellectual, smart and eloquent enough to see how it all works, all the while narrating as if on the outside, seemingly protected from it all by his “critique.” Yet he is so disconnected from the masses that he goes along with Ahab’s totalitarian madness, doing his job without ever endorsing the insanity, yet helping the apocalyptic hunt and the mutual destruction of whale and ship come to fruition.
In other words, he is about having it both ways, always. And it will end in a shipwreck.
Update (2:15 pm)
Playing off Obama’s reference to himself and his cohort as “the Joshua generation,” Christian (see last update) adds:
Obama has inspired the invention of a game I like to call “The Old Testament Meets Obama via the New York Times.”
And Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to Debir; and fought against it: and he took it, and the king thereof, and all the cities thereof; and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed all the souls that were therein ; he left none remaining… “while seeking to position himself as a proven voice of reason in an era of ideological overreach.”
Update (August 5, 12:30 am)
The History News Network (HNN) is now plugging this discussion as “a rather startling (and refreshing) use of social media by academics.” HNN further comments that “it does seem oddly fitting that a website that originally rated the looks of Harvard’s undergraduates has been appropriated to serve as a forum for serious political and intellectual debate.”