Wayne O’Leary

Obama’s Conservatism

The American left is mesmerized by style. Along with much of the rest of the country, it appears disposed to give Barack Obama a pass on policy, to forgive him for what, so far, amount to failures on a growing multiplicity of political fronts. It’s understandable; the president has a personality you can literally warm yourself by, like a cozy fireplace. Even exasperated progressive critic Dennis Kucinich has been forced to acknowledge that Obama, whose policies he regards as inadequate, is “a lovely man.”

Kucinich is not alone. An increasing number of liberal democrats find themselves torn between wanting to support an appealing leader in whom they have invested much of their emotional capital, while at the same time feeling frustrated to the extreme by his lack of forcefulness and accomplishment. Barack Obama’s words ring like a fire bell in the night, and his restive army is ready to march, yet there is no clear sense of direction, no ironclad commitment to anything resembling a truly progressive agenda.

Excuses abound: The president inherited a mess, both at home and abroad; he’s victimized by bad advisors and bad advice; the uncooperative Republicans won’t reciprocate his bipartisan overtures; and so on ad infinitum. True believers have been forced into the awkward stance personified by populist talk-show host Ed Schultz, an ardent Obama backer, who said of December’s announced escalation of the war in Afghanistan, “I disagree with the policy, but I support the president.”

Progressive Democrats can’t have it both ways forever. Sooner or later, they’ll have to admit to themselves that the man in the White House is not who they thought he was and start applying outside pressure to advance their goals. In the end, the buck, as Harry Truman said, stops with the president. Summers and Geithner may be supplying faulty counsel on the economy, but they were appointed by Obama; Clinton and Gates may be devising a hawkish Middle East policy, but they were appointed by Obama. The outright lack of urgency on a host of issues (e.g. job creation) emanates directly from the Oval Office; “Yes, we can” has been replaced by “No, we can’t.”

How to explain this transformation? To a considerable degree, it emanates from Obama’s Chicago background. He matriculated, policywise, at the University of Chicago, where he taught and interacted with members of the Friedmanesque free-market law and economics faculties.

That explains, in part, his high comfort level with relatively conservative advisors and his tendency to recoil from overtly progressive ideas about stimulating the economy and regulating the financial sector.

Obama, a product of the Reagan years, was never deeply immersed in the liberal political tradition, and his instinct has always been to find a middle ground, not to champion a viewpoint.

On a more practical level, Obama’s brief four-year stint as a senator has not provided him with the facility of, say, a Lyndon Johnson when it comes to working the levers of congressional power and playing hardball politics. Even JFK, another young, inexperienced chief executive, had spent 14 years prior to the presidency learning the ways of Washington. These holes in Obama’s resumé mean that, since ascending to power, he has tended to rely on the advice of others, particularly players from the previous corporate-friendly Democratic administration, in the hiring of staff, and the formulation and carrying out of policy.

Clintonian fingerprints are all over the Obama administration, starting with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton staffer. There is Hillary Clinton, of course, implanting her aggressive style and quasi-belligerent policies at the State Department; the build-up in Afghanistan reportedly originated with her and was sold to the president over the objections of Vice President Biden, who favored a more scaled-back approach leading to withdrawal. In the domestic realm, Obama’s decision to prioritize the rescue of Wall Street and its too-big-to-fail banks, rather than Main Street and the unemployed, stems directly from ideas and personalities inherited from Bill Clinton’s old centrist economic team, led by Robert Rubin acolytes Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner. Obama’s mandate-centered health-care reform, if it can be called a reform, also owes much to the Clinton influence. Although a great deal has been made of the passing of the Kennedy torch to the current president, there is little evidence that Obama has internalized the left-liberal idealism of Sen. Ted Kennedy. What the late Massachusetts senator, a career-long advocate of universal, single-payer health insurance, would make of the willing surrender of Obama to the insurance- industry lobby - the president didn’t lift a finger, for example, to salvage the public option — can only be imagined.

The health plan presently languishing in Washington’s congressional catacombs more closely resembles Hillary Clinton’s market-based initiative of the 1990s than anything Ted Kennedy worked for over the years. Like the Clintons, Obama has emerged in the end as an opponent of single-payer and a supporter of for-profit medicine. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. The president is on record (see: The Audacity of Hope) as an admirer of Bill Clinton’s fence-straddling Third Way and its pragmatically nonideological rejection of the “excesses” of traditional liberalism; his endorsement of minimalist, market-driven health reform, as well as the TARP bailout of the financial system, are pure Clinton in their embrace of the corporate establishment.

Still, it’s too soon to write off the president. His proposed banking reforms hold promise. And there remains the Employee Free Choice Act, another progressive litmus test. Will Obama abandon organized labor, which he ignored with regard to health reform, on its number-one legislative priority? There’s also the matter of Afghanistan. Will the president choose to pursue a military solution over the objection of the antiwar forces that propelled him to the Democratic nomination, opting instead to form a foreign-policy marriage of convenience with the Republicans?

The jury is still out on these critical issues, but it’s close to rendering a verdict. Bill Clinton, it might be said, substituted psychic rewards for concrete accomplishments when it came to his party’s base; he felt their pain. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has used his persona and rhetorical magic to make the base forget its pain. The question is, if massaging the Democratic party’s erogenous zones ceases to work, can triangulation be far behind?

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

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2010


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