Keep Palaver Palatable

Republicans try to paint President Obama as a radical black socialist. Some lefties paint him as little better than George W. Bush (and, yes, a TPP columnist recently called him “George W. Bush Jr.”). But Barack Obama really is a moderate liberal who used grassroots organizing and promises of “hope and change” to win the Democratic nomination and election in 2008, only to get handed what The Onion memorably called the “Nation’s Worst Job.”

The satirical weekly noted that Obama was charged with such tasks as “completely overhauling the nation’s broken-down economy, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and generally having to please more than 300 million Americans and cater to their every whim on a daily basis. As part of his duties, the black man will have to spend four to eight years cleaning up the messes other people left behind. The job comes with such intense scrutiny and so certain a guarantee of failure that only one other person even bothered applying for it.”

It wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Remember that the Bush administration left Obama the financial markets in the toilet and the economy hemorrhaging jobs. General Motors and Chrysler were on the verge of bankruptcy, which not only threatened hundreds of thousands of jobs directly, but also threatened a million support jobs. Cash-strapped states wondered if they could keep teachers in the classroom or troopers on the highways.

Obama and the Democrats pulled the economy out of the tailspin. Against the almost unanimous opposition of Republicans in Congress, who saw the carmakers’ bankruptcy as a chance to weaken the United Auto Workers, Obama bailed out GM and Chrysler with loans that allowed them to restructure the companies and saved most of those union jobs — as well as white-collar jobs and small businesses that depend on the domestic car industry. Again, with almost unanimous opposition from the GOP, the Democrats approved a stimulus package that kept public works projects going across the country and helped many states — including Texas — balance their budgets even as Republican governors such as Texas’ Rick Perry complained about federal spending.

President Obama’s governing style reflects the Kansas roots of his grandparents who raised him. He is, above all, a pragmatist. Unfortunately, he keeps trying to strike a deal with a Republican Party that does not exist anymore.

Senate Repubs decided to “filibuster” everything of substance, so that Democrats needed 60 votes to proceed with anything in the Senate. But with election challenges and sickness and deaths there were only about four working months in the 111th Congress where the Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority (and that was after Arlen Specter switched to the Dems and it still depended on keeping Joe Lieberman, Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson and other corporate Democrats in line).

That’s why we didn’t get a bigger stimulus, a public option for insurance reform — much less expansion of Medicare to cover everybody in a single-payer plan — or tougher Wall Street reforms. Senate Democrats didn’t have the votes when they were prepared to move on any of those initiatives — but we do not score that as Obama’s fault. He has a “bully pulpit,” but he didn’t have a 60th vote in the Senate to fulfill those progressive dreams. Still, he got the stimulus and saved GM and Chrysler and hundreds of thousands of jobs. After a protracted fight he got the health care reform bill and then got a financial reform bill through Congress — and was roundly condemned by the right and the left for it.

In the new Congress, of course, Democrats not only lost the House majority but also saw their Senate majority reduced to 53 — still including Lieberman. As long as the Senate keeps the archaic filibuster rule (at least until Republicans control Congress and the White House again), some reasonable Republicans are needed to pass bills, but they’re practically extinct.

Some progressives are still upset that Obama not only ruled out a single-payer plan, but also failed to press for a public insurance option. Then he also compromised on financial reforms. They also are unhappy that he didn’t get a climate change bill, immigration reform or labor law reform through the Senate. Many disagree with his choice to trade the renewal of Bush’s tax breaks for extension of unemployment assistance for those who were put out of work because of Bush’s economic policies.

Some leftists are irate that Obama expanded the war in Afghanistan, provided air support for rebels in Libya and sent a commando team to take out Osama bin Laden. All fair points for discussion. But as we prepare for an election campaign, we hear some progressives prepare to cut off their nose to spite their face when they say they can no longer support Obama — that he is the lesser of two evils.

Well, damn me for an Obamabot if you must, but even if he IS the lesser of two evils, Obama is worth supporting again. We went through eight years of the greater of two evils with the Bush/Cheney maladministration. Bill Clinton left Bush a budget surplus and Bush pissed it away on tax breaks for the rich. He wasted worldwide sympathy after 9/11 and spent trillions of dollars on a misguided invasion of Iraq. Perhaps more destructive, Bush packed the Supreme Court with hacks John Roberts and Samuel Alito, who have provided the base to reverse a generation of liberal court precedents and enforce a corporate bias in the law, most prominently reflected in the infamous Citizens United decision. Obama’s picks so far — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — seem to reflect his moderate liberal demeanor.

We think there is a big difference between disappointing progressives — which it can be fairly argued that Obama has done — and doing evil. We opposed the expansion of war in Afghanistan, but Obama did campaign on that proposal and he did wind down the occupation of Iraq. And he got bin Laden.

Republicans, on the other hand, propose not only to expand foreign interventions, extend the PATRIOT Act and regret that they didn’t get a chance to torture bin Laden; they also have made it clear that they want to repeal health care and financial reforms, they want to break labor unions once and for all, they want to privatize Medicare and Social Security and they want to eliminate public assistance programs. They really think that providing food stamps and unemployment assistance, even when the jobless rate is upwards of 9%, encourages laziness and they really want to make it more difficult for working people to vote. Republicans really do want to build a bridge back to the 19th century.

Organized labor is right in putting the Democrats on notice that they no longer can take union support for granted. Even with the high level of unemployment and underemployment, and the low rate of growth, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka noted that “instead of having a national conversation about putting America back to work to build our future, the debate here in Washington is about how fast we can destroy the fabric of our country, about breaking the promises we made to our parents and grandparents ...”

Labor was understandably upset when the Senate failed to act on the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for unions to win elections and would require employers to negotiate with certified unions. Among the senators who balked at the bill was Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), and she drew a more liberal challenger with union backing last year. Lincoln managed to win the primary, and unions were mocked for backing challenger Bill Halter, though polls showed Halter would have done better in the general election. In any case, Republican John Boozman beat Lincoln — but some corporate Democrats might get a union-backed challenge next year.

Still, I’m sorry to break the news, but there is no way that seeing Obama replaced in 2013 will be good for the left or labor, nor does a strategy that keeps Paul Ryan writing budgets in the House or hands Mitch McConnell the Senate gavel help working people. So promote a progressive populist agenda and candidates but please hold off on overheated rhetoric such as, “I can never support Obama (or the Democrats) again,” because you might have to eat those words next year. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2011


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