Wayne O’Leary

The Bipartisan Chimera

The hits just keep coming: Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, followed by National Economic Council Chairman Lawrence Summers, followed by US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, followed (reportedly) by Surgeon General Sanjay Gupta. The selected or proposed second-tier staffers of the Obama administration, in common with its cabinet appointees, superficially “look like America;” there are Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, women, even Republicans among them. (Funny how Democratic administrations have to resemble all-American Hollywood platoons from World War II.) There is one thing they don’t look like, however, the liberal wing of the Democratic party.

Obama’s best and brightest virtually all come from the mushy middle of American politics. They fit almost universally into three neat categories: first and foremost, old Clinton hands; second, apolitical technocrats; third and most symbolically significant, moderate Republicans of a generally nonpartisan bent. With few exceptions, the activist Democrats among them are from the DLC (Democratic Leadership Council) wing of the party, not the ranks of its progressive-populist antagonists.

Ties to big business, or at least the absence of any obvious enmity toward corporate interests, appears to be part of the “change” we’ve elected. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has the support of Big Oil for his pro-drilling stance. Tom Vilsack, who will run Agriculture, is friendly with agribusiness, especially the ethanol lobby. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican, is cool toward public transit and warm toward the highway industry. Sanjay Gupta, rumored for the surgeon general’s slot, is a favorite of the medical industry for his hostility to government-run, single-payer health insurance. And presumptive Trade Representative Ron Kirk is an unrepentant free trader. It’s all in the name of seeking bipartisan consensus, of course.

It’s now obvious that when it comes to openings in the Obama administration, left-liberal Democrats (or left-leaning independents, for that matter) need not apply. The people who kept the progressive flame alive during the dark years of the Bush regime, who manned the barricades against the policy assaults of the radical right, are nowhere to be seen. They’ve been effectively marginalized as “partisan ideologues.” They have the misfortune to possess a sharply coherent political philosophy that differs markedly from what’s gone on the past eight years, and for that they must be cast into the political wilderness—to wander in perpetuity with the Dennis Kuchiniches and John Edwardses of the world.

The new Democratic purgatory includes most especially those whose economic ideas are not sufficiently geared to conventional free-market solutions. The list of respected academic and non-academic thinkers who advocate a progressive approach to economic problems is long and brimming with expertise: James K. Galbraith, Dean Baker, Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Kuttner, Jeff Madrick, Robert Reich, Jared Bernstein. Except for Reich and Bernstein (to a limited extent), none have been invited into the inner circle of White House appointees or advisors. All appear doomed to be outliers in this administration—recipients, to one degree or another, of the Nader treatment: their invitations not received, their phone calls not returned, their advice and counsel not sought.

Obama’s economic policy will be formulated not by liberal reformers, but by those the media are pleased to call pragmatic centrists. In practice, this means the same crowd that laid the groundwork for the present financial crisis, through their prior advocacy of market deregulation, will be placed in charge of solving the problem they helped create. The theory seems to be that they’re so smart, they’ll get it right this time. So, Larry Summers at the White House and Timothy Geithner at Treasury, both protégés of Citigroup’s Robert Rubin—the same Rubin who as Treasury secretary helped deregulate the banks in the 1990s—will become the point men for financial reform under Obama. Holding down the “left” flank will be economic advisory board head Paul Volcker, who as Fed chairman broke the back of inflation in the 1970s by deliberately engineering a recession and who is said to look askance at labor unions. He, at least, is an advocate of enhanced regulation.

What, it might reasonably be asked, is behind Obama’s cautious, middle-of-the-road personnel picks? This, after all, is the supposed change agent of our time, the new-age politician who will shake up government and solve problems with bold, innovative policies. Yet, the people charged with bringing the desired change are from the country’s permanent political class, believers all in conventional wisdom, the establishment’s loyal opposition in waiting.

There are several available explanations for the apparent dissonance. Giving President Obama the benefit of the doubt, it is possible he is seeking reassuring continuity in frightening circumstances by selecting credentialed people of reputable competence and familiarity with the levers of power. There has been only one Democratic administration in the last generation, Bill Clinton’s, and most Democrats with national governing experience still young enough to serve in the executive branch earned their spurs under Clinton’s centrist regime.

A second possibility is that Obama fooled progressives, that he’s not really a believer in political upheaval in the sense of a left-right dichotomy, but inherently a moderate whose instinct policywise is to trod familiar and approved paths. His change may be largely rhetorical and generational, a use of language merely to co-opt a party with liberal roots and traditions, and to use it as a vehicle for his personal ambitions and those of a rising generation anxious to assert its claim on government.

But the most probable answer is that Obama is at heart an inclusive persuader, that as he says, he wants to bring bipartisanship to government in order to win over the opposition. If this is his motivation—and I take him at his word—it’s a naïve approach, and he likely has a date with disillusionment. Curiously, when Republicans win, we get conservative government, but when Democrats win, the mandate somehow dictates cooperation, compromise of liberal principles, and (that word again) bipartisanship.

The bipartisan chimera has already expressed itself in Obama’s insistence that his proposed economic stimulus plan must gain Republican support and must therefore include trickledown aspects—namely, top-heavy tax cuts. Liberal Democratic Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts said it best in a recent New Yorker interview: “Obama tends to overstate his ability to get people to change their opinions and underestimates the importance of confronting ideological differences.” Amen.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2009

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