Obama: WTF? A Facebook Roundtable of the Left

1 Aug

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/n​ation/article/0,8599,20829​71-2,00.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/candidat​es.sept11_1_mccain-and-bar​ ack-obama-common-ground-sa​rah-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/201​1/06/16/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.”

 Exhibit A

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.”

79 Responses to “Obama: WTF? A Facebook Roundtable of the Left”

  1. petergrfx August 2, 2011 at 3:23 am #

    Apropos of Dinkins’ comment, remember what Bill Clinton told us Obama told him during the campaign at the height of the financial crisis:

    “He [Obama] said, ‘Tell me what the right thing to do is. What’s the right thing for America? Don’t tell me what’s popular. You tell me what’s right — I’ll figure out how to sell it.’”

  2. ursula August 2, 2011 at 6:23 am #

    Wow, the hot wind is really blowing on this site.

    Did all that wind come with a cigarette and a kiss after each of you were finished stroking your own egos?

    No wonder our side doesn’t have a majority in Congress.

  3. Shane Taylor August 2, 2011 at 8:11 am #

    I want to second what Jay Driskell said. After signing PPACA into law, Obama publicly, even angrily, reproached his critics on the left. His “shut up and sit your bitter ass back down” sounded more like Walter Lippmann’s ideal (in the 1920s) of technocratic governance than FDR’s “make me do it.” Also, broadening the subject to the modern Democrat party, Democrat mandarins have a bizarre affinity for the ludicrous worldview of Bill Gates. I haven’t found commentator with a sharper eye for this crap than David Rieff:

    http://www.tnr.com/blog/foreign-policy/77932/altruists-in-wonderland-united-nations-millenium-development-goals-david-rieff

    http://www.tnr.com/blog/foreign-policy/78784/the-gates-foundations-delusional-foreign-aid

  4. Jose Alvarez August 2, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    I’d like to comment on how interesting this dialogue and commentary has been to read. Obviously, this is intelligent and coherent analysis and it would not be within my skill level to criticize the content or the tone (which appears to be rather less than angry as I have seen in other commentaries). Thank you for that. From the perspective of an Independent Gay moderate socialist, it does however baffle me that people are still trying to encapsulate Obama by identifying who is like and why he does what he does. As a neo-political-hacktivist, and a member of the lgbt community, my only concern initially was the equality for lgbt community and the reversal of offshoring policies. Obama is and I believe always will be the strongest supporter of the lgbt community in the history of the United States, especially considering that barely half of the people NOW support gay marriage, and was much lower when he was elected.

    He’s done exactly what he promised and I am thrilled and satisfied 100% with his performance in the area of lgbt equality.

    On the issue of economics, I may be missing the nuanced discussion where you are considering that less than a month after being sworn into office, the Tea Party was born and initiated a popular right wing revolt against Obama that has been hugely successful thanks to Citizens United and billionaire investment from every single free market group from Heritage Foundation and beyond. This is very similar to the American Liberty League that tried to overthrow FDR. The difference now is social media and constant news updates to the ‘small people’ have created a completely new dynamic that is extremely powerful and has had enormous effects unlike anything else in history. This hasn’t only affected Obama, but all of government local and national. This cannot be ignored, nor can the power of FOX which only heavily entered the propaganda business in 1995 or 1996. That plus Rush Limbaugh’s decades of flowing hatred against all things liberal has shifted the national discourse and the common people are more ‘conservative’ in their own eyes and can therefore be easily swayed against liberal ideology simply by the power of right wing media. It is highly effective. I know many ‘independent gays’ who instantly stopped liking Obama because FOX convinced them that he was a usurper and a out-of-control spender and they totally ignored his actual record on lgbt equality. Even when I pushed the facts on them, they seemed completely untrusting of me, a friend they have had for more than 20 years, simply because my ‘facts’ didn’t jibe with their ‘FOX talking points’. This seriously cannot be ignored. Clearly, the dynamic between the public and the government has rotted since Nixon. This is the liberal weakness, not Obama’s weakness. Until ALL liberal politicians and groups start vocalizing and pushing the ideology that IS American Liberal Politics, and using the same techniques as FOX – repeat, repeat, repeat, hammer, hammer, hammer, then one single president will never be able to foist any ideology on any person who mistrusts the government by nature.

    To me, this is why the average public citizen may criticize the right, yet instinctively trust them, because they also sense the right’s hate for government. Even if the public actually supports socialist ideals in essence, they balk at the term ‘socialist’ and ‘liberal’ because of the last 40 years of right wing libertarian asto-turfing, messaging, and the overall effect of selfishness and the gospel of prosperity working its way through religious groups and mainstream society. All of these factors play a direct roll in why liberal politics get the shaft and conservatives can lie all day long and still get 46% support. I believe we must all shift our main priorities away from trying to pin everything on Obama or other perceived ‘imperfect liberals’ and focus on the root cause of our social illness – the lack of faith in government. This will obviously not ever be fixed by Obama keeping all of his promises as it is evident that the left will never be happy with even the smallest compromise with the obstructionist republicans even in the face of a house minority, lack of supreme court support, 20+ states in the pocket of the Koch Brothers, and lack of message power in the media. Remember when all the news stations cut away from Nancy Pelosi when she said she wasn’t going to talk about Congressman Weiner? It’s not just Obama who has a problem with the media – it’s the media who has no taste for reasonable truth, but rather sensational tabloid “bat-boy” insanity and lies. Society is rotting and selfishness and greed rule the day. That’s never a good thing for ‘collectivism’.

  5. Brian G August 2, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    A lot of the criticisms being waged here towards Obama seem to be completely disconnected from political reality. They also remind me a lot of the criticisms that Bill Clinton dealt with from the left when he was President. He was a sell-out with no convictions that was probably a crypto-fascist.

    It was this sense of defeatism from the left that enabled George Bush to beat Al Gore. And it was the discovery of the actual differences between Clinton and the right that made the left look at the man they were constantly disappointed with as a liberal lion after he left office.

    Being President of the United States is, first and foremost, about compromise. Always has been. As a matter of fact the Presidents that were the least conciliatory(Jackson, Buchanan, Tyler) were among our worst presidents.

    People always want to believe that if the President simply did what they wanted him to do, then there would be a natural groundswell of support for him that would carry him to political victory. But the reality is that this is usually not the case. There are no hidden political tides just waiting to be tapped.

    Obama made one huge mistake in this entire debate. He did not believe that the Republican leadership would allow the entire economy collapse. He did not factor that the radicals of the Republican Party would most certainly watch the entire economy collapse before surrendering their ideological purity.

    But ultimately I also believe that many are grossly overstating the impact of this deal. The bulk of the cuts have been kicked down the road several years where a different Congress will have to accept being on the hook for cuts to defense and entitlements. The Bush tax cuts are still set to expire at the end of next year and the debt ceiling is now off the table for 2 years.

    • epitone August 2, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

      “There are no hidden political tides just waiting to be tapped.”

      Really? Tell that to the millions of struggling people who voted for Tea Party candidates because they did a better job of selling economic populism than Democrats have done in decades. Obama has a unique opportunity to appeal to the middle-and-below classes of America, but he’s avoiding that opportunity because he thinks it’s more important not to offend Wall Street.

      “Obama made one huge mistake in this entire debate. He did not believe that the Republican leadership would allow the entire economy collapse.”

      This is an interesting point, and I’m inclined to agree. Obama genuinely did not understand that politicians could be arguing for something that they were willing to back up with votes, since he’s really never done that himself.

      • Pamela August 4, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

        He could have just underestimated their craziness. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one. Look at what’s happening in Wisconsin. Voters willingly put GOP in charge, and now workers are fighting for their lives. POTUS may have thought that the GOP wasn’t willing to actually default because they like money too much. Miscalculations are different than fundamental incompetence.

    • JR September 5, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

      “People always want to believe that if the President simply did what they wanted him to do, then there would be a natural groundswell of support for him that would carry him to political victory. But the reality is that this is usually not the case.”

      We’ll never know, will we? Since he won’t do those things. People aren’t pissed about losing a fight, they’re pissed about REFUSING a fight.

  6. thepoliticalamerican August 2, 2011 at 10:14 am #

    If you really want insight into Obama’s worldview, I would watch this if you haven’t already. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CemfB_Z6elY

    As for the comment about there being no daylight between Kristol’s and Obama’s worldviews, that might be one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard. That sounds just like the line of thinking that got us eight years of the Bush Administration.

  7. Stephen Zielinski August 2, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    I believe the Obama is “weak” and a “compromiser” claims can be put to rest. They will not die the death they deserve, but that is another matter.

    Obama is, on economic matters, a neoliberal, and has used the GOP and Tea Party as his stalking horse, Their ideological rigidity and the commitments which follow from their rigidly held ideology pulled the debate over the public debt to the right. Obama used them to create a political situation in which he could pursue his austerity agenda. He also got a second Cat Food Commission, one with teeth.

    Selling this debacle — along with the health care debacle, the compulsive war-making debacle — to the electorate will be a problem he must overcome if he wants to be reelected. But he’ll seek reelection with a massive war chest. Moreover, the GOP will likely help Obama by running a candidate that will not be an obvious and desirable alternative to the neoliberal and militaristic Obama.

    Machine politics must always be bipartisan, to paraphrase Robert Lafollette and Walter Karp. It must be bipartisan if it is to be successful. And we can evaluate the success of this bipartisan system by estimating the electoral prospects of a left candidate for President in the 2012 election.

  8. aunt esther August 2, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    great discussion, and thanks for going public with it. nader wuz right all aong…

    • Stephen Zielinski August 2, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

      2008 indeed was Nader’s moment. But too many learned a lesson in 2000 that was utter nonsense. They concluded that the American political system was sufficiently healthy that it could reform itself.

      What reason do we now have which would convince a rational person that one of the two legacy parties will produce a political reformer worth supporting?

  9. John Gabree August 2, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    There is little practical difference between presidents Obama and Clinton (other than the personal one that Clinton seems more capable of critical analysis). The Obama presidency as it has played out was predicted by some on the left during the 2008 primaries (though I don’t think even those who warned against him imagined how bad it would be). The question now has to be: Is there a way that the Democratic Party can be a vehicle for economic justice and anti-militarism or do we need new institutions, including an independent party of the left, to more successfully organize behind progressive policies? Wouldn’t the Progressive Caucus in the House be much more effective, for example, if it were organized as the Progressive Party whose allegiance would have to be wooed by the center-right Democrats, instead of being taken for granted by them?

  10. beesat August 2, 2011 at 1:32 pm #

    All this talk of what Obama ‘wants’, and ‘feels deep inside, what he ‘believes’. It sounds like your boyfriends broke up with you.

    You will a) never know what he truly feels and b) it doesn’t really matter..

    Do a little exercise, do a rough tally of all the different real power structures in the country. Military contractors, financial organizations, bankers, think tanks, political parties, etc.

    What % of real actual tangible power does he have? 1%? .1%? If he, truly, deep down inside, wanted to take on the establishment how far do you think he could get if that other 99% of power is opposed to him?

    They parade an endless cast of characters in front of you and then toss him/her when his political capital as been exhausted. Here’s Reagan the California Conservative, look at how dumb and senile he is? Here comes Slick Willy, the suave womanizer from Arkansas. He’s done now, let’s bring back another Dumb Cowboy. Thank God he’s gone, here comes the suave Black Man with the foreign dad. He speaks so well!

    It only seems like these characters are diametrically opposed to each other because you have an amplifier and magnifying glass focused on all their bickering. The system is very sophisticated and complex in the ways that it assumes power and concentrates wealth. Stop focusing on what color the wall paper is in the Senate Lobby.

    • paul frymer August 2, 2011 at 4:23 pm #

      Its an interesting debate, Corey. Most has been said, and said well. Given all the famous race scholars who have chimed into this debate, I’m just going to ask what is obvious–are we giving racism enough ‘credit’ here? All along, a notable number of Republicans have treated Obama as undeserving of being president–even many GOP congressmembers seem angry and resentful of having a black person in power. He had to defend his birth and religion. And, because of racism in America, he can’t respond aggressively. To me, the most important statistic of his presidency is that his approval rating went up to only 53% after he assassinated bin Laden. And that isn’t because peace activists represented the other 47%. There is a significant population in America that hates him for his race. Is this entirely independent of corporate power, neoliberal ideology, a bad economy? of course not. But it is still significant.

      Would he be more aggressive if he could be? I don’t know him, so I’m not going to psychoanalyze him. All along, he has seemed like a carbon-copy of Clinton from the day he started running. He’s scared, he’s corporate, he’s anti-union, he supports a lot of conservative pieces of the Democratic Party. But I’m amazed by the aggressiveness of white racism in America–and he has had to face it from Democrats and Republicans, even when he is bending over backwards to be as race-less as possible–and I think more than anything, that has defined/confined his presidency.

      • beesat August 3, 2011 at 8:37 am #

        You point to the answer yourself. All his appointments from the beginning were conservative Clintonites. Doesn’t sound like someone that tried to be a rebel and got pushed back….

        If you want to go down the psychoanalyzing route, no person (especially a black man in america), can rise through conservative organizations and power structures (and yes, the democratic party is a conservative organization) that quickly and rapidly by being an agitator or rebel.

        As Matt Taibbi pointed out, do you think the businessman that spend every minute of their lives focused on protecting and expanding their billions of dollars of wealth really would throw their money behind Barry if he was going to vote against their interests?

  11. Jim Pharo August 2, 2011 at 5:12 pm #

    I think one key point is (amazingly!) missing from this mix: BHO thinks he is breaking the back of the “movement” conservatives by leading from the remaining rump of the GOP. He is trying to woo not just independents but also moderate GOP-ers who are not comfortable with the rise of the rabid right and have no home. He means to provide that home one way or another, with the result that the extreme right once again becomes an isolated fringe.

    I think he’s wrong in his analysis — tribal feelings too strong amongst all GOP-ers for enough to come over to Dem world. But I suspect he would like nothing better than for the extremists on the right to finally cut off the branch on which they’ve been sitting, and for there to be the center-right GOP and the center-left Dems.

    Also left unsaid in the psycho-babble about BHO: he is also, I believe, trying to get the Congressional Dems to be better leaders. That’s why he is so deferential to Congress: he is trying to get them to start to think and act like they are in charge of something. Again, I think he’s wrong — can’t make steel beams out of jell-o. But I see precious few commentators commenting on it, which is likely due to too little time spent with CEO types, which are BHO’s bread and butter…

    • Stephen Zielinski August 2, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

      “But I suspect he would like nothing better than for the extremists on the right to finally cut off the branch on which they’ve been sitting, and for there to be the center-right GOP and the center-left Dems.”

      But this center-right GOP and center-left DP would amount to nothing more than a elite political consensus committed to implementing crappy policies. Pushing the GOP-reactionaries to the margins will not enable this centrist consensus to pursue sensible policies simply because the consensus would form over a commitment to bad policies. The Tea Party did not turn America’s centrists into idiots; the centrists were idiots who had to manage the crazy Tea Party.

  12. frankly0 August 2, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    I find this rather breathtaking remark from Josh Cohen:

    “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.)”

    You know, it’s kind of rich for a guy like Josh Cohen — who, I gather, was completely in the tank for Obama and his potential early on, to the point of being embarrassing — to be sneering at the supposed political obtuseness of Greenwald and Krugman, who were on to Obama’s political limitations from the get go. Who was right about how, say, the politics of bipartisanship would play out, and about where Obama would actually position himself on the spectrum of right to left — Greenwald and Krugman, or the likes of Josh Cohen?

    As always, it’s the pundits who were wrong again and again who can’t help but decry the naivete of those who were right again and again.

    • Belvoir August 2, 2011 at 7:53 pm #

      Agree. Saying Greenwald and Krugman have “zero political sense or experience” is ridiculous. If they don’t, then I shudder to think of what Cohen might think of the “political sense or experience” of almost everyone else on the planet. Talk about a high bar, to dismiss Krugman and Greenwald like that, so completely and sweepingly.

    • jcohen570 August 3, 2011 at 1:07 am #

      “In the tank” is totally ignorant. If that is what you” gather”, you should try gathering the old-fashioned way (by actually learning something). I always thought Obama was a centrist, always thought he was in the same general political place as Cass Sunstein: that is how he ran (and that was his voting record, as close inspection showed). I thought he was a better candidate that the asshole (edwards), who I agreed with on a bunch of policy issues (esp. health care), and than Hillary. I have consistently said (on bloggingheads) that Obama’s policy directions have been consistent with how he ran: on health care (weak), on Afghanistan (interventionist), on trade. My complaint about Krugamn, more so about Greenwald, goes to their confident statements about what Obama could have gotten if only he did X, Y, Z. Krugman, as I said, is very consistently MUCH more qualified on these statements than Greenwald. My point is not about their disagreements with Obama on policy.

      • Corey Robin August 3, 2011 at 1:39 am #

        Josh: Why do you say Krugman is “much more qualified” than Greenwald to talk about the politics and limits/constraints of presidential action? Krugman hasn’t done any research on this, has he? I thought his research was almost entirely in international trade and finance,with some stuff on fiscal policy, but basically nothing on politics. Or am I wrong? My sense of his reading in political science — it’s just impressionistic so correct me if I’m wrong — is that it’s Larry Bartels and Hacker/Pierson. All good stuff, to be sure, but hardly anything that would complicate Greenwald’s account (and not really directly germane to the question of constraints on presidential power.) And his government experience was a year in the early 80s. If that’s correct, is he really that much more qualified than Greenwald? I mean I know he’s a smart guy and all and I love reading him, but if it’s a question of expertise and qualifications, is there that much difference between them?

      • Joshua Cohen August 3, 2011 at 2:35 am #

        Corey: you misread what I said. Of course Krugman does not have greater “qualifications.” What I said was that Krugman is more careful to qualify his own political judgments: that is, his judgments about what was and what is possible to get done. He is more hesitant and circumspect when he makes them.

        Let me be clear on this: these guys are both brilliant critics, and Krugman has also been fantastic at proposing constructive ideas. Goes without saying. I read both of them (Krugman more consistently), and am in their debt. I was making a very specific criticism: about their judgments about what is politically feasible. That is what I mean by “political sense.” I agree on this with the recent Mark Schmitt piece that we did in Boston Review. I think the same of Chomsky: a genius to whom we all owe a great deal. But Noam will be the first to tell you not to come to him for political insight….that is, for judgments about what is politically feasible. He does not make those judgments.

        In any case, I think this is all a sideshow. The big issue is this: BHO nows says that he promises to focus on jobs. Who has a strategy for making him (and other Democrats) keep that promise?

      • frankly0 August 3, 2011 at 11:28 am #

        You know, it would be a lot easier to take you seriously if, in advance of actual events, you got something important right.

        Where, for example, in 2008 and earlier is there ANY sense of just how badly an Obama Presidency would turn out? Where? Merely saying that you regarded his views as something rather centrist hardly does any justice to just how far to the right Obama’s policies have actually pivoted. Krugman gave Obama great flack over his praise of Reagan, and himself got great grief in return from Obama supporters for his views. Did you criticize Obama on this, or in any real way foresee how Obama would actually play out in terms of policy? Where is there any sense in whatever you may have said in 2008 of how deeply Obama would betray many of the ideals and specific policy proposals he espoused in his campaign?

        And I happened to encounter one of your bloggingheads in which you were talking up — as if it were a very real possibility — the idea that Holder and Obama were going to go after the Bush gang for engaging in torture. You even presented an embarrassing “syllogism” to demonstrate how it surely will be so. Great call there, Josh. A fine political sense that little effort put on display. I should think that the very skeptical (if “purist”) Greenwald got this one a lot more right than you ever did.

        And I repeat my earlier point: where is there in anything you said ANY indication that you understood the broad and pervasive disaster that “bipartisanship” would become? And you presume to lecture Krugman and Greenwald on their lack of political astuteness?

        The very fact that you do presume to do so demonstrates that there is no justice in the world of pundits. Being importantly wrong only means you can go on to be importantly wrong again.

      • Joshua Cohen August 3, 2011 at 11:58 am #

        1. I was not comparing my own expansive political experience and political sense with Krugman’s or Greenwald’s. Like them, I have never run for office, never run an organization, never had policy position. That makes me hesitant about registering judgments about what is possible, feasible, likely to happen. I think others should be similarly hesitant. (And I will say it again: Krugman often is.)

        2. As for offering a syllogism for the conclusion that they would prosecute: I think you are confusing the conclusion that they WILL with the conclusion that they OUGHT TO, given their own premises. I never thought that they would. And would never have offered some deduction to that conclusion.

        3. As for not predicting how far Obama has tacked to the right, I confess. But I thought we were having this discussion because most of all us find the extent of that move surprising. By “the extent,” I mean, for example, that his health care stuff was pretty centrist, as was the awful decision to go deeper in afghanistan, whereas the recent performance on debt/deficit has been more right and generally pathetic and defeated. And I think most people think (anyway, I think) that the extent of the move is partly a consequence of the rise of the Tea Party right and the 2010 election: not something that was easy to predict in 2008.

        Most importantly, this whole thread is all of no real significance, though pissing and moaning is a great way to evade the hard issues about what to do. Instead of defending Glenn Greenwald, who is VERY good at taking care of himself, make some suggestions about how to hold feet to the fire in the next three months on the jobs issue. Say something specific: the worst that could happen is that someone will give you a hard time about in two years.

  13. Pamela August 2, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    The academics have focused on Obama’s mindset and motivations but have not really delved into why the electorate votes the way it does. What makes a candidate appealing? All elections are delusional to a certain extent, each candidate responsible for their brand. Very few actual voters conduct historical due diligence, and the press – for the most part – certainly doesn’t, at least not in any forum that the average voter would read. Voters seem to be more interested in their gut feels about a person; as in George W Bush’s case, whether or not they could have a beer with him. The question is: what are the factors that inform that “gut” reaction.

    In making changes, it would be more useful to development movements that focused on fundamental structural changes instead of personnel changes. The trick is electing those willing to assist with those structural changes.

    Weird how the election of Barack Obama is making people finally look at America’s structural foundation. And I don’t think it’s Barack Obama that’s making more people pay attention, I think it’s the chaos of the Bush years. Barack Obama just happens to be the post-Bush guy.

    I agree that Barack Obama knows how to take advantage of a system that’s been in place for the past few decades. Good for him. That’s what politicians do. I think to a certain extent some on The Left deluded themselves into thinking they were voting for Shaft instead of a complex human being.

    BTW, Adolph Reed sounds completely disgusted with Barack Obama.

    • Stephen Zielinski August 2, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

      “Weird how the election of Barack Obama is making people finally look at America’s structural foundation. And I don’t think it’s Barack Obama that’s making more people pay attention, I think it’s the chaos of the Bush years. Barack Obama just happens to be the post-Bush guy.”

      I differ from you even though I believe/sense/suspect that some Americans are considering the structural features of American politics. My belief/suspicion/sense is that Americans can see a depressing future before them but cannot see a political movement or party that will, if enabled by an electoral victory, divert the country from this depressing future. The structural features they are considering are those which point to the practical impossibility of having another future. Today we cannot expect either party to pursue rational reform of the polity or the economy. That is the lesson Obama has taught us.

  14. Fred Brack August 3, 2011 at 12:43 am #

    Well, that was edifying. No, not about Obama. About the lint-free laboratories in which pundits operate, where assertions fly free of evidentiary friction, hypotheticals are conjured out of thin air, and responsibility and accountability are absent.

    The participants in this discussion couldn’t reach consensus as to why Obama is Satan. They just know he is. Perhaps some White Supremacists, Tea Partyers, and the Koch Brothers should have been invited to the discussion. Even more varied opinions could have been introduced.

    As a progressive, I cringe when I witness outer-fringe lefties masticating a topic, any topic.

  15. Doug Tarnopol August 3, 2011 at 3:19 am #

    My pithy and profane take expands on a point brought up above by more than one person: Who gives a fuck about Obama the person? Only those who once thought him something other than what he obviously was, or who are disappointed for really no good reason. That “break-up” feeling should be long gone.

    Presumably, he’d be whore enough, like any savvy pol, to follow the public if it spoke long and loudly enough. It’s our fault, primarily, even with all the “reasons” — we on the left have let it happen.

    Personally, I’m more disgusted with the vaunted Obama Army than with Obama, who is what he is. I suppose that despite what I just wrote in the first para above, people will have to go through their break-up angst and anger as they hit their own cog-diss maxes. Fine, but I wish they’d hurry up the process because time is running very short.

  16. hermes August 3, 2011 at 3:37 am #

    Thanks for this thread. It has been quite enlightening. Two things:

    First, Obama’s ideas/ideology as well as disposition to fight are germane when talking about the outcome of the debt-ceiling crisis for surely there has been a, for lack of a better term at the moment, “dialectical” relationship between those ideas and disposition and the larger array of institutional/structural forces both enabling and constraining the administration. BHO has been locked in a cascading set of increasingly bad choices. The fact that he made strategic missteps at the beginning point of his first term where he had the most room to maneuver (political capital) has haunted his steps since. Despite all the talk about being the grownups in the room, the administration has consistently lacked realism about its opponents. We’ve had nearly twenty years of experience of people like Gingrich, Delay, and other Republican politicians and their modus operandi. Thinking that this would change was a serious miscalculation. Obama’s seminar-style bipartisanship has been incredibly naive in the age of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh-dominated Republican Party. I think Krugman is right when he talks about the mistake that BHO made at the beginning of his term in not going after a much larger stimulus. This almost certainly had something to do with the set of economic advisers surrounding him and the oursized influence of Wall Street on administration economic policy. Had he gone larger initially (and before the onset of the Tea Party grasstroturf organizing), there might have been a better chance of economic recovery (and one that could have been seen as such by the larger American public). This, rather than health care, might have been the better initial fight as he could have set the tone and agenda of the debate about the role of the state in the economy during a crisis. It was much harder to make that sort of argument with the health care legislation because its main effects will not be seen for a few years yet and given that the legislation is seen as a permanent extension of the state into the economy, the bogeyman of “socialism” could be trotted out.

    At this point in time, Obama’s disposition and ideology is much less important (which is not to say unimportant) because those initial decisions were some of the conditions for the formation of the Tea Party backlash and the 2010 election results which now limit his freedom of action. Unless we examine the disposition and ideology, we cannot understand how it is that we got to where we are.

    Second, I find it odd that there are people arguing that, on the one hand, the office of the presidency is just a minor cog in the machinery of state, overdetermined by the larger structural, political, and economic forces in US society which absolve Obama of responsibility for the current capitulation (less prejuidiced language: compromise); and on the other hand, waving the specter of an apocalyptic Palin or Bachman presidency as reason to tow the Obama line during the campaign. If the power of the presidency is so constrained as to be epiphenomenal, then surely we should not be worrying quite so much over the takeover of the office in 2012. I am sure that I must not be understanding the argument.

    In any case, I like to see this thread continue. It has certainly given me much food for thought.

  17. Tim Dibble August 3, 2011 at 3:40 am #

    Any one here paying any attention to the IMF and what they’ve been demanding and getting everywhere in the world? http://tinyurl.com/3tx7fxv (UK) http://tinyurl.com/3jxabhp (Greece). These political and economic discussions and measures mirror exactly our recent experience.

    The IMF is viewed by much of the world as an arm of Wall Street and US Government policy. The key difference, of course purely for reasons of definition, is that we don’t use the term IMF in our country. Greenwald’s ferocious adherence to the facts, not motives, is the antidote to the incredibly insulated views in the above comment thread.

  18. cantueso August 3, 2011 at 5:04 am #

    To Jodie Dean:

    I went to the web page that your name (above) is connected to. There is a link to your curriculum vitae that does not work (404 server error)

  19. Stephen Zielinski August 3, 2011 at 9:48 am #

    To Dorian Warren:

    “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.”

    When discussing Obama’s politics we are forced by circumstances to adopt the aerial perspective because Obama practices his politics 30,000 feet up in the air. I would not expect a microanalysis of the Obama government (the politicians and the bureaucracies they manage) to yield an insight into Obama’s inclinations and strategies. Obama may be directly or indirectly responsible for the whole of the federal government, but it’s highly unlikely that his intentions saturate the whole federal bureaucracy. These limits to the Presidency exist by constitutional design in any case.

    • Dorian Warren August 3, 2011 at 11:49 am #

      @stephen zielinski. I disagree. We are not “forced by circumstances to adopt the aerial perspective…”. This is an analytical choice, and frankly the far easier and lazier one. The sum of Obama’s politics isn’t 30,000 feet up in the air; that’s at best half the story. You can’t claim Obama is a sellout because he appoints Geitner, Summers, et. al. on the one hand, and then *ignore* his other appointees to other cabinet posts and federal agencies that run in the exact opposite direction on the other. No, his intentions don’t saturate the entire bureaucracy, but they do at the top level, especially when folks use his neoliberal appointees as “evidence” of his politics. My main point was that there are clear contradictions in terms of the politics of his presidency, which emerge depending on where you look.

      • Joe Lowndes August 3, 2011 at 5:48 pm #

        Dorian and others have rightly pointed to institutional, structural, and historical constraints to be considered when assessing Obama, and that we need a more fine-grained analysis of the work of his executive branch appointments. But there’s no getting around the powerful cultural role of the presidency in US politics – and how folks on the left understand Obama has strong implications for what we do politically right now for at least a couple of reasons. Two things have stymied activism on the left for the last three years, I think. One, as Adolph and others have said, is the liberal romance of Obama as a redemptive figure who, given the chance, will reveal ultimately himself as progressive – circumventing the need for social movement action on the wars, the economy, etc. The other, as Paul Frymer points out, is racial hatred of Obama, which is profound, deep, and given clear political direction by the Right. The Right’s logic of white racial populism over the last half century pitted an honest, hard-working “Middle America” against the liberal state above and blacks (understood as parasitic and criminal) below. Obama brings together both blackness and the state. Obama as signifier for the state itself opens the door for political identifications that are more profoundly pro-market and libertarian than at any prior moment of the populist right because racial animus can be attached to the state itself. (The Obama-asJoker image over the caption “Socialism” says it all about how racial antistatism operates now.) What Obama signifies politically for both supporters and haters has direct implications for mobilization and countermobilization, and indeed for how we understand the institutional constraints and possibilities in which he operates.

      • Stephen Zielinski August 4, 2011 at 9:45 am #

        To Dorian Warren:

        “My main point was that there are clear contradictions in terms of the politics of his presidency, which emerge depending on where you look.”

        My brief reply is: Where you see contradictions, I see facts which generate weak ambiguities that do not disturb much a political judgment strongly motivated by those compelling facts revealed by the aerial perspective. Adopting the aerial perspective certainly is an analytical choice, as you noted; however, it is not a frivolous choice.

  20. louisproyect August 3, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    Obama had a prescience of what he would become in “Audacity of Hope”:

    Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means—law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate. They believed in the free market and an educational meritocracy; they found it hard to imagine that there might be any social ill that could not be cured by a high SAT score. They had no patience with protectionism, found unions troublesome, and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by the movements of global capital. Most were adamantly prochoice and antigun and were vaguely suspicious of deep religious sentiment.

    And although my own worldview and theirs corresponded in many ways—I had gone to the same schools, after all, had read the same books, and worried about my kids in many of the same ways—I found myself avoiding certain topics during conversations with them, papering over possible differences, anticipating their expectations. On core issues I was candid; I had no problem telling well-heeled supporters that the tax cuts they’d received from George Bush should be reversed. Whenever I could, I would try to share with them some of the perspectives I was hearing from other portions of the electorate: the legitimate role of faith in politics, say, or the deep cultural meaning of guns in rural parts of the state.

    Still, I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population—that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve. And in one fashion or another, I suspect this is true for every senator: The longer you are a senator, the narrower the scope of your interactions. You may fight it, with town hall meetings and listening tours and stops by the old neighborhood. But your schedule dictates that you move in a different orbit from most of the people you represent.

    And perhaps as the next race approaches, a voice within tells you that you don’t want to have to go through all the misery of raising all that money in small increments all over again. You realize that you no longer have the cachet you did as the upstart, the fresh face; you haven’t changed Washington, and you’ve made a lot of people unhappy with difficult votes. The path of least resistance—of fund-raisers organized by the special interests, the corporate PACs, and the top lobbying shops—starts to look awfully tempting, and if the opinions of these insiders don’t quite jibe with those you once held, you learn to rationalize the changes as a matter of realism, of compromise, of learning the ropes. The problems of ordinary people, the voices of the Rust Belt town or the dwindling heartland, become a distant echo rather than a palpable reality, abstractions to be managed rather than battles to be fought.

  21. Nell Lancaster August 3, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    Dorian Warren: :: 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? ::

    Easy. Obama needs active union support for his re-election, and to avoid any independent moves by labor. He’ll get it because they do understand how effective DoL and NLRB have been, and he’ll promise to push for card check in his second term. As worthless a promise as any of his others, but the actual progress inside DoL will keep the unions believing…

  22. tdraicer August 3, 2011 at 10:19 pm #

    >There is little practical difference between presidents Obama and Clinton (other than the personal one that Clinton seems more capable of critical analysis).

    There was one enormous difference: the obvious failure of the Bush II presidency left Obama an opportunity for liberal change Clinton never had. Unfortunately, Obama saw his role as closing the door on that opportunity. That’s what his Wall Street backers expected, and that is what he delivered.

  23. Pamela August 3, 2011 at 11:29 pm #

    Re this Capitulation tag that progressives seem determined to pin on Pres Obama. It seems to me that the real capitulators are Dem voters who basically “gave up” last fall, opting out of going to the polls because they were “disappointed” about one issue or another. I heard Alan Grayson say that only 40% of Democratic voters showed up at the polls in FL in November, compared to 60% of Republican voters. Voters who went with the Tea Party got mad, but instead of staying home like Dems, when they got mad they organized and voted. Dems got mad and stayed home. Tea Pary control of Congress was a choice; it’s not like they’re extreme views weren’t one display for all to see BEFORE the 2010 elections.

    My main point: a lot of people are heaping blame on Barack Obama’s shoulder. But Democracy requires participation, not just every 4 years. Voters are responsible for the government they get. Congress passes laws; the House brings legislation to the floor. The election of Barack Obama didn’t change/alter that process. He didn’t get extra powers. Democratic voters capitulated last fall, added by progressive neurosis.

  24. hartal August 4, 2011 at 12:57 am #

    This discussion is weirdly, obsessively and at times creepily focused on Obama.

    Here’s the situation.

    Without a big second stimulus the US economy will at best remain stuck in a Lesser Depression or what the Keynesians call a stable unemployment equilibrium.

    With a big second stimulus the US economy would be more likely to jump from a Lesser to Greater Depression than from the Lesser Depression to renewed prosperity.

    Obama has good reasons for believing this. Presently yields on Treasury bills continue to fall both because interest rates are expected to remain low on account of the economy remaining weak and because international investors are confident due to Obama’s neo-liberalism and gridlock that the debt won’t continue to accumulate that it will have to be radically monetized.

    Obama has good reason to fear that a big second stimulus would engender fear of the debt being monetized away, and that whatever fiscal stimulus he gets will be neutralized by higher interest rates, which would probably blow up the real estate market and the economy as a whole. Exactly because the first stimulus was so moderate in the face of a huge crisis has the dollar remained strong.

    Krugman would have us play with fire; the result could be very little stimulus due to foreign leakage and punishment in the bond market. But he’s a religious Keynesian which is based on a religious faith in markets being equilibrium machines that only require a push now and then.

    Yet being a declining superpower only gives you so much autonomy from the constraints that other states face.

    Obama realizes this; carping Keynesians do not.

    You do see the point–he is screwed either way he goes.

    Now of course Obama could move to an inflation target of, say, 4%, but that would roil the international markets as it would be experienced as a competitive devaluation and provoke retaliation. It could also lead to another implosion of the financial sector.

    The problem is bigger than Obama or conventional politics. It a crisis rooted in civil society. The limits on the state’s steering capacities are limits on the state’s steering capacities, not the limitations of a single politician.

    You’d have to be a Marxist to see that.

  25. Tim Dibble August 4, 2011 at 4:39 am #

    No Naomi Wolf and no Chomsky. There are many other missing voices on this thread, ostensibly voices from the left.

    Lafer agrees with Adolph. They both agree that Obama is a wholly unprincipled neo-liberal. It’s a label. Does it help soothe our injured psyches to call him that? Austerity as a political tactic, at this time in history, is designed to preserve the prerogatives of the very powerful, who need not practice it. My very conservative Republican brother-in-law will vote for Obama. He considers him a very, very pleasant surprise, although distasteful because he’s from Chicago and has a sordid political past. He was, after all, a Democrat. He will hold his nose, when he votes.

  26. Doug Tarnopol August 4, 2011 at 9:51 am #

    Jeff Cohen of Fair pretty much lays it out: http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=7125

    This is pretty much all one needs to know. It was obvious at the time, too, that this is what the O admin would do.

    The only important questions are what to do about it. Anything else, strictly speaking, is a waste of time and energy.

  27. Jonathan Weiler August 4, 2011 at 10:01 am #

    It’s not wrong to say, per Henwood, Greenwald, etc.that he wanted to pursue an austerity or bankers’ agenda. It’s just incomplete. Obama is perhaps trying to practice Rubinomics – a trimmed down though still minimally decent social safety net, vigilance about interest rates and inflation and concern for ensuring that major financial institutions can operate within a stable but favorable environment – in a context where it is impossible to do so, because the need for government spending is much greater now than it was in the mid-1990s, the GOP is more intransigent and fanatical than it was then (it’s all relative) and where, therefore, choosing between Wall Street’s prerogatives on the one hand and the needs of ordinary Americans on the other is more of a zero-sum game than it was then.

    Obama’s faith in Rubinomics, in a context in which it’s not viable, will not appeal to independents and Elizabeth Drew’s recent NYRB piece made pretty clear that they’ve been the focus of his 2012 strategy (Ruy Teixeira has compellingly argued that this focus on independents is based on a serious misreading of who the independents are and what they want, something that Drew suggested as well). But this is relevant to your discussion because I don’t think it’s right to say that Obama is happy with the outcome – that it’s what he wanted. I think he’s stuck in his own faulty premises and convinced himself he was both being “responsible” about deficits and appealing to the political middle.

    Here, he proved inept, not in the sense that he should have done more for a progressive agenda (we should all have been disabused of the notion that he’s a progressive reformer by now) but because this whole pivot toward deficit reduction hurts his re-election chances and I am sure he does want to be re-elected. If he wasn’t going to fight for jobs and clearly blame the Republicans for the bad job market and stagnant economy for the sake of justice and progressive values, at least we could have hoped that he would do so for the sake of political self-preservation.

    IN sum, he wants austerity AND he has been inept.

  28. Molly August 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    “We are where we are,” writes TS up there, because Obama dazzled progressives in publishing. Nonsense, we have been on our way here since late 1970s and Obama was not chosen for this until some time along in the progress. It’s startling – or perhaps not – that progressives here don’t consider that before Obama’s victory, the progressives with portfolios panicked when they were told the sky was falling (in 2008) and started shreiking “bail! bail!” as passionately as the ruling class could desire. Some here should remember, being among them. It was that baseless panic that set the stage for the wildly emotional takeup of the Obama brand, the widespread public attachment to him as to an eleventh hour saviour – and endowed it with the intensity of fan loyalty that has been so useful.

    But this fascination with guessing at what’s inside BHO ( a Simon Critchley, Oprah Winfrey sort of obsession) tells its own story. The worst thing it signals is the short time frame fragmentation in which progressives are choosing to understand the ruling class war. Most discouraging – and most gratifying for the marketing experts hired to manage public opinion – is this the progressive decision to view reality the way the lawyers for the defence determined the jury should see the video of Rodney King’s assault. Because if the big factor is President Obama’s personal emotional life, then clearly the current ruling class policy is not being perceived in the context necessary to explain it, but is being mistaken for an effect of the interaction of that personality and a set of unforeseen circumstances.

    If he were 100% cgi this would be as useful a debate as it is now. Obama was cast in this role and a public image was constructed for him to facilitate, among other things, this kind of pointless debate; the view that he personally (due to the qualities that suited him to play this part and spurred him choose this career) is the catastrophe, and that determining his interior experience is of moment, is as childish as the view that he personally would lead and indeed embody the working class struggle to push back some of the ruling class gains made under the Bush regime 2001-2008. The veneer of “progressive” – his brand – is a (perhaps necessary, perhaps merely useful) veil of legitimacy for the policies, radical and in many instances illegal, or newlegal or postlegal, those not illegal enabled by the postlegal environment and the credulity of progressives who buy one story of unforeseen disaster after another because it soothes the powerless managerial elites to believe they are smarter than those who rule over them and terrify them.

    Obama’s persona is an asset to the ruling bloc of the ruling class, just his predecessor’s was, and Clinton’s, and Reagan’s. It was a costly and time-consuming creation. But should he fall in a hole, you could have this conversation all over again about someone else. This is big ruling class strategy – big big big, the biggest, long planned and much risked for. It doesn’t depend on this man – the strategy was there before the man was chosen. He’s very suitable – his brand was designed to do exactly this – but not determining. The focus on the question of how he personally got into this role in the transition from capital to the next thing is an indication of the unwillingness of progressives to recognise the strength and dangerousness of the class now dominating humanity. And this unwillingness is partly due to being terrorised and partly due to needing to rationalise ongoing complicity – and preparation for complicity in even more heinous ruling class crimes – for the shrinking rewards.

    • Pamela August 5, 2011 at 11:54 am #

      In other words, don’t hate the player, reognise and change the game.

      • Molly August 5, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

        No – Hate all the players but understand they’re playing at a very high level of competence and discipline.

      • Molly August 5, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

        Obama has a job and he has patrons/employers/sponsors/backers and he’s doing the job for the rewards they guarantee. It doesn’t matter whether he believes bottom to top wealth transfers are good for propertyless people or “the economy”, it matters only that he knows doing his job for the leading bloc of the ruling class elevates him and his children to their ranks, the untouchable global elite.

  29. Pamela August 4, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    It seems to me if progressives/labor unions were serious about structural changes, then they’d focus attention on campaign finance reform, as a start.

    And it’s easy to dump on Barack Obama, but as far as I know, his election didn’t dissolve congressional powers. The House is still charged with bringing bills to the floor and passing legislation. If Dems can’t be bothered to show up during primary elections to stack the deck and fight entities like the Tea Party, then it’s unfair to expect a Democratic president to do back flips/magic tricks to make good legislation happen. When Dems decided to be apathetic in November, they CAPITULATED to the Tea Party.

    • vic August 5, 2011 at 10:57 am #

      It’s time to get politically sophisticated. It seems that people were expecting the president to be Jesus the 2nd. Progress will be impossible if people are half as naive as they appear on this site.

  30. 3 hands clapping August 7, 2011 at 4:00 am #

    Gordon Lafer,

    You write:

    “…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.”

    I agree with your analysis, but you need to take this further. Writing that “This isn’t a
    principled economic position” is a gross understatement. Think what Obama’s economic position will mean, the millions who would be jobless who might not otherwise be, the cuts to medicare and or medicaid that will lead to people dying who might otherwise live. This is EVIL. A president who knows that his re-election strategy would involve more death and misery than would otherwise be, is an evil man. As Ian Welsh said (http://www.ianwelsh.net/if-youre-pro-obama-youre-an-idiot-on-the-payroll-or-evil/) “If you’re pro-Obama you’re an idiot, on the payroll, or evil”. I agree with Ian and do not support President Obama’s re-election. No one who claims to have any principles should support it either. What about you ?

  31. seth edenbaum August 7, 2011 at 8:18 pm #

    Obama is the first black president of the United States but no one seems able to think what that implies. If you look at his record the implications would seem to be confirmed.

    Obama is the product of the Daley machine. He didn’t come out of black politics and if he had he would never have gotten this far. Harold Washington was the product of Chicago politics both black and white. Obama grew up in the white world. He rarely shows anger, because anger is threatening. He learned very young that the road to popularity and success was cool negotiation. Maybe Adolph Reed can enlighten the rest of you on the politics of performance.

    It’s been out there out in the open the whole time, but liberals have a hard time dealing with race.

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    [...] Matt Taibbi’s post from the other day, is a must read (for more in-the-weeds read, go here). [...]

  6. Het grote bezuinigen - GeenCommentaar - August 4, 2011

    [...] fout die hij heeft gemaakt was dat hij te weinig heeft gedaan om de economie te stimuleren. De meningen lopen uiteen over wat nou precies het probleem is: is hij een zwakke en zelfs wat naïeve president [...]

  7. Depression, Debt Ceilings, and Derivatives « Ph.D. Octopus - August 5, 2011

    [...] again in context of the recent–and mind-numbing–debate over the debt ceiling, and this incredibly fascinating discussion by leftwing critics of Barack Obama and his apparent capitulation to Tea Party insanity. The [...]

  8. Obama’s Mysterious Motivations and What Next — Babel Krieg - August 10, 2011

    [...] brought his magnifying glass to bear on the progressive anthill (of which I’m a member), and out boiled ants looking for their President. Maybe that leader has never been there in the first [...]

  9. OUPblog » Blog Archive » A Facebook roundtable of the Left - August 11, 2011

    [...] Facebook roundtable of the Left permalink buy this book read more Posted on Thursday, August 11th, 2011 at 8:32 [...]

  10. My Own Munchings (that’s for you, Mom) « Corey Robin - August 18, 2011

    [...] on the heels of our roundtable on Obama, the London Review of Books asked me to write a piece on the debt ceiling crisis. I’m glad [...]

  11. On Presidential Power Yet Again : Lawyers, Guns & Money - December 8, 2011

    [...] = [];}It won’t surprise most readers to know that my reactions to some of the responses to Corey Robin’s informal roundtable are pretty similar to Matt’s.    The idea that there’s not really any difference [...]

  12. Fight Club, or That’s the Year That Was « Corey Robin - December 26, 2011

    [...] with the blog on some days getting nearly 6,000 hits. My two most popular posts, by far, were this roundtable on the Obama presidency from August and my recent take on Christopher Hitchens.  My personal favorite, which hasn’t [...]

  13. Check out BC pol sci prof Corey Robin’s blog | Brooklyn College MA in Political Science and International Affairs - December 29, 2011

    [...] with the blog on some days getting nearly 6,000 hits. My two most popular posts, by far, were this roundtable on the Obama presidency from August and my recent take on Christopher Hitchens.  My personal favorite, which hasn’t [...]

  14. We’re Going To Tax Their Ass Off! « Corey Robin - August 30, 2012

    [...] shouldered the load of debt and deficits. Whether that was by default or design remains the subject of much debate. But what’s not in dispute is that the debt has become the Democrats’ burden and/or vocation, [...]

  15. Richard (RJ) Eskow: Will the Democrats Speak For the People? | Screw Cable - September 4, 2012

    [...] Robin says that Dems have recast themselves as the “Austerity Party.” Make that the “Eat [...]

  16. Richard (RJ) Eskow: Will the Democrats Speak For the People? | WestPenn Journal - September 4, 2012

    [...] Robin says that Dems have recast themselves as the “Austerity Party.” Make that the “Eat [...]

  17. Richard (RJ) Eskow: Will the Democrats Speak For the People? | Political Ration - September 4, 2012

    [...] Robin says that Dems have recast themselves as the “Austerity Party.” Make that the “Eat [...]

  18. Richard (RJ) Eskow: Will the Democrats Speak For the People? | News Talk One - September 4, 2012

    [...] Robin says that Dems have recast themselves as the “Austerity Party.” Make that the “Eat [...]

  19. Richard (RJ) Eskow: Will the Democrats Speak For the People? | Gyred News - September 4, 2012

    [...] Robin says that Dems have recast themselves as the “Austerity Party.” Make that the “Eat [...]

  20. Richard (RJ) Eskow: Will the Democrats Speak For the People? : freedomluchador.com - September 4, 2012

    [...] Robin says that Dems have recast themselves as the “Austerity Party.” Make that the “Eat [...]

  21. Broward Directory Blog » Richard (RJ) Eskow: Will the Democrats Speak For the People? - September 5, 2012

    [...] Robin says that Dems have recast themselves as the “Austerity Party.” Make that the “Eat [...]

  22. Richard (RJ) Eskow: Will the Democrats Speak For the People? - Political News - September 5, 2012

    [...] Robin says that Dems have recast themselves as the “Austerity Party.” Make that the “Eat [...]

  23. Richard (RJ) Eskow: Will the Democrats Speak For the People? | Liberal Media Books - September 5, 2012

    [...] Robin says that Dems have recast themselves as the “Austerity Party.” Make that the “Eat [...]

  24. newsrackblog.com » Blog Archive » Outgrowing Booker T. Obama - October 1, 2012

    [...] Also, I was just reminded of Corey Robin’s fantastic Facebook discussion along these lines, Obama: WTF? A Facebook Roundtable of the Left — right after the 2011 debt ceiling debacle. (The discussion was prompted by a Glenn [...]

  25. The Bleak Landscape of American Education - The Daily Journalist | The Daily Journalist - January 21, 2013

    [...] that go by the name of Tea Partiers, it’s no wonder that leftist intellectuals are reduced to compelling if pointless banter about what motivates the President.The landscape of American education, a synecdoche for the [...]

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