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THE PUZZLE OF OBAMA December 13, 2010

Posted by wmmbb in US Politics.

President Obama is a puzzle. Why has he turned on the working class and, most oddly, his African-American base?

The question then arises, just who might be Obama’s base? Mick Lukovich, via Truthdig, has one possible description:

Is it possible that he always was a Republican in sheep’s clothing without tea bags?To get away, just for the moment from the instant coffee Facebook commentary, it is interesting, I think, to consider a limited range of academic commentary.

Firstly, quoted at AlterNet, James K Galbraith reviews the lack of change following on G Bush of the the Obama presidency. Speaking at the Kennedy School at Harvard, he said:

Recovery begins with realism and there is nothing to be gained by kidding ourselves. On the topics that I know most about, the administration is beyond being a disappointment. It’s beyond inept, unprepared, weak, and ineffective. Four and again two years ago, the people demanded change. As a candidate, the President promised change. In foreign policy and the core economic policies, he delivered continuity instead. That was true on Afghanistan and it was and is true in economic policy, especially in respect to the banks. What we got was George W. Bush’s policies without Bush’s toughness, without his in-your-face refusal to compromise prematurely. Without what he himself calls his understanding that you do not negotiate with yourself.

He then went on to say that regarding the economic policy of the Administration there is a lack of narrative. And in answering the why question, seems to relate to those people with whom this president, or any president surrounds himself (given that a cabinet system of government does not apply?). James K Galbraith noted:

The president deprived himself of any chance to develop a narrative from the beginning by surrounding himself with holdover appointments from the Bush and even the Clinton administrations: Secretary Geithner, Chairman Bernanke, and, since we’re here at Harvard, I’ll call him by his highest title, President Summers. These men have no commitment to the base, no commitment to the Democratic Party as a whole, no particular commitment to Barack Obama, and none to the broad objective of national economic recovery that can be detected from their actions.

With this team the President also chose to cover up economic crime. Not only has the greatest wave of financial fraud in our history gone largely uninvestigated and unpunished, the government and this administration with its stress tests (which were fakes), its relaxation of accounting standards which permitted banks to hold toxic assets on their books at far higher prices than any investor would pay, with its failure to make criminal referrals where these were clearly warranted, with its continuation in office — sometimes in acting capacities — of some of the leading non-regulators of the earlier era, has continued an ongoing active complicity in financial fraud. And the perpetrators, of course, prospered as never before: reporting profits that they would not have been able to report under honest accounting standards and converting tax payer support into bonuses; while at the same time cutting back savagely on loans to businesses and individuals, and ramping up foreclosures, much of that accomplished with forged documents and perjured affidavits.

Politicians of a certain stripe seem remarkably unconscious and perhaps indifferent to the violent consequences of their policy prescriptions. Michael Nagler poses the question: Is President Obama to blame?

Rabbi Michael Lerner’s recent call to the progressive community to run a candidate who would put pressure on President Obama to move back to the agenda he laid out, or rather implied, in his inspiring campaign of November, 2008 puts attention back on the natural, but misleading question of his personal style and positions. We should realize that his rousing success in 2008 was based on political skill, not a concerted attempt to educate the public about the validity of his views. “Hope” and “change” are emotions, not policies, and while you and I may have read into that hope and change what we wanted those stirring words to mean, others were free to take them as meaning something else, and no one was made any wiser during the bruising electoral process. (The last political leader I know of to insist that his followers understood exactly what he was doing, and why, was Gandhi – who never stood for office in free India’s government). The Republicans, smarting from what they perceived as a defeat (in days of yore it might have been accepted as a political decision, not a popularity contest) bent every effort to stonewall his agenda, and despite the enthusiasm that greeted Obama’s 2008 campaign they succeeded handily. The fact is that they can influence the minds of the most voters far more easily than progressives of any stripe. Whatever may have been his failures and miscalculations, therefore, we must take into account that the President – or any of us for that matter – is not playing on a level field.

The field is unbalanced by two potent factors, one so secret that no one talks about it and the other so obvious that no one seems to notice it. It is not fun to talk about the first, but we must: whatever may be the democratic structure of our government —and for my money it’s the best in the world, on paper — there is a criminal element operating within and around it, who will stop at no outrage. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I know enough physics to know that three buildings of the World Trade Center, one of which was not struck by an airplane, did not collapse from the impact or the ensuing fires of 9/11. I am not a conspiracy theorist but I have followed the writings of Jim Douglass and others closely enough to know that JFK was almost certainly not felled by a lone gunman firing three incredibly accurate shots from the Texas Book Depository Building on November 22, 1963. Let’s face it: whatever you and I decide at the ballot box, these people can reverse in the real world. They can carry out the most outrageous crimes with impunity — their own conscience aside.

Professor Nagler goes on to observe that:

A George Bush need not fear assassination from this quarter, but a Barack Obama does have to live in the shadow of that threat.

Similarly Julian Assange might have cause to be concerned. John Lennon and George Wallace come to mind, not forgetting the many hundreds of thousands now murdered in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

David Kaiser, reviews Newsweek journalist, Jonathan Alter’s book “The Promise”. He writes:

Anyone who wants to understand Barack Obama in action should read the book. However his Presidency turns out, Obama, like Bill Clinton and, I suppose, Ronald Reagan, is an extraordinary American success story, rising from genuinely modest origins and a broken home to become the first black President. He reached the top almost exactly as quickly as Clinton but he had a much shorter political career (much to the Clintons’ disgust.) The book deepens, rather than altering, our understanding of him. He is both extremely intelligent and very careful, and his equanimity is genuinely legendary. (In one of his more daring moments, Alter suggests that every successful black man still has to take care not to seem too angry, although there are certainly exceptions to this rule in academia, at least.) On the other hand, Obama has a disturbing weakness for overbearing men around him–Larry Summers and Rahm Eammanuel both come to mind–which suggests he may be relying on others to act out the tacit parts of his own psyche. He has a real sense of justice and wants to do good. Yet I came away feeling more than ever that this remarkable man has a truly tragic flaw: he trusts the system. And because our system desperately needs fixing, that alone, I am afraid, makes him the wrong man in the White House at this moment in American history–even though he certainly still looks to me as good as any of the other major candidates in the year 2008.

Barack Obama was certainly capable and dedicated enough to have risen through our educational system without affirmative action, but I cannot help but wonder if it had an effect on him nonetheless. In generations past, those like W. E. B. Dubois or Thurgood Marshall whose skin color denied them certain educational or professional opportunities inevitably became skeptics dedicated, for better or worse, to fundamental change. In the same way, although a combination of ability, birth and circumstance gave me every possible educational advantage, my professional life has instilled me with eternal skepticism about the “best and the brightest” of many eras, but especially of my own. To put it bluntly, Obama seems to have a good deal more respect for the leading economists, bankers, and even politicians of our time than I do either for those same people or for my fellow historians. In the economic sphere, especially, he surrounded himself with very conventional thinkers, led by Larry Summers, whose previous record of creating havoc at Harvard did not disturb him. “[Treasury Secretary] Geithner,” Alter writes, “didn’t beliee in punishing Goldman or anyone else. And he didn’t back fundamental restructuring of the banking industry because at bottom, he didn’t think the system was broken.” There are no Harry Hopkinses or Harold Ickeses in the upper ranks of this Administration, men with backgrounds as social workers who felt the system had to be changed. The same is true in foreign policy, where Hillary Clinton has turned out to be an entirely conventional secretary of state. If one thinks that the status quo in domestic and foreign policy just needed a little fine tuning, this would make sense. If on the other hand you believe that the economic and foreign policies of the last 10-20 years have led us to the brink of disaster, then Barack Obama is not your man.

To a considerable extent Alter accepted the Obama Administration’s own view of its actual accomplishments. He gives them generous credit for the simulus, for the rescues that avoided the collapse of the banking system and the auto industry (both of which, to be sure, had begun under George W. Bush), and even for health care reform. Indeed, some of the most interesting passages of the book suggest that the health care bill will allow for a real transformation of American medicine, including the end of fee-for-service compensation. If that is true the Administration was very careful indeed not to tell us about it, though, and the changes in our political life that have taken place in the last year do not make it seem more likely. But having studied FDR, Alter is only too keenly aware of Obama’s nearly complete failure to emulate FDR’s greatest achievement, his ability to make the American people feel, in much worse times than these, that he was on their side and would lead them to safety.

The commentators note that President Obama has a privileged “white” background, so his path was not typical of most Black Americans, and that explains why he trusts the system.

I would suggest that it is the nature of the office that preceding Administration sets the context for the one that follows. The Bush/Cheney regime drove out dissenting voices. I cannot help but notice that someone like Chas Freeman, who seems to me seemingly to both knowledgeable and able cannot get a guernsey, is evidence of the damage of the Bush/Cheney policy did to the intellectual culture of the State Department, and other sectors of the American Government, with NOAA in the firing line. So I would not be surprised if in due course it was discovered that the document leak from Wikileaks had other sources that Bradley Manning. Suppose that to be in part true, then the anti-democratic response to Wikileaks takes on an more interesting character.



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