Wayne O’Leary

George W. Bush Jr.

Am I alone in feeling that President Obama is genuinely reluctant to identify with America’s unionized public workers?

His administration’s response to their nationwide death struggle has been tepid at best, symbolized perhaps by Vice President Biden’s rather secretive remarks recorded during a “virtual town hall” hosted by the AFL-CIO in mid-March.

This took the form of a dog whistle — support for labor expressed surreptitiously in hopes that no one else, least of all those cherished independent voters, could hear the message. Not exactly a full-throated, Ted Kennedy-style endorsement.

The long-suffering Democratic Left has become accustomed to this sort of treatment. The Obama administration either doesn’t really support organized labor, or it’s afraid to announce that support openly. It appears to view unions as unrealistic and insufficiently in sync with the new austerity society.

Barack Obama ran as a progressive because that’s how you get the Democratic nomination. Ever since then, he’s increasingly distanced himself from progressives and their causes, much as Bill Clinton did in the 1990s.

Nearly all his important executive appointees have been either conservative Democrats or moderate Republicans. Equally troubling, nearly all the policies he’s initiated have differed only at the margins from what his predecessor introduced and carried out. Go down the list. On foreign policy, little has changed since Bush. The US remains in Iraq and Afghanistan 27 months into the Obama presidency, and as of this writing, we’re in Libya as well.

There is a bipartisan consensus operating that suggests Americans will still be actively involved in the Middle East a generation from now, if not longer.

Obama has become an apparent convert to the neocon notions of regime change and nation building.

As Bush before him, the president wants to shape and direct developments in the Muslim world.

The Obama touch is far subtler than Bush’s heavy-handedness — more consultation with the Europeans, more coalition building, more use of “soft” power, less belligerent rhetoric.

But the objectives remain the same, and cost is evidently no object; in the midst of calls for domestic austerity, the American fleet off Libya began our latest adventure by firing $550 million worth of missiles at Muammar Qaddafi during the first 10 days of Operation Odyssey Dawn. Like the imperial British, our appetite for world hegemony will be quenched only when we literally can’t afford to indulge it any longer; some would say we’re at that point now.

In the meantime, America’s domestic needs will have to wait. Again, like the British, we will demand sacrifices from our people in order to service the (virtual) empire — until, that is, the dam breaks.

Completion of Britain’s comprehensive welfare state, a dream deferred for decades, was finally realized under the Labour Government of 1945-51 only after fiscal reality prompted an abandonment of Churchillian world ambitions once and for all in the postwar period. America is in denial on that score, and Barack Obama has no intention of disabusing it as yet.

On international economics, Obama remains firmly tethered to the pro-globalization policies of the Bush years, continuing to seek out free-trade deals (South Korea is the latest) with the perverse potential to export more American jobs. This nation is now committed to a bipartisan policy of deindustrialization. The Obama iteration of that consensus includes soothing talk about labor and environmental standards absent from prior trade deals, but the end result will be the same.

At home, the Bush parallels are equally striking.

In 2009, the Obama administration chose, instead of fundamental financial reform, to continue Bush’s TARP rescue of the existing financial setup, leaving in place the banking structure inherited from his predecessor — that is, a structure dominated by mammoth too-big-to-fail banks (which have since gotten bigger) operating under minimal regulatory supervision.

With the exception of minor new appendages like the seriously circumscribed consumer-protection bureau under the Federal Reserve, the Obama banking reforms (Dodd-Frank) merely slapped Wall Street on the wrist and virtually guaranteed a reprise of the 2008 financial calamity sometime down the road, perhaps a decade or two from now when the juices of irrational exuberance begin to flow again. Obama also reappointed Bush’s Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who presided over the financial disaster, and gave him free rein to continue his disastrous interest-rate policies.

On health reform, Obama’s signature achievement, the president followed another precedent established by Bush. Just as the former chief executive added a privatized drug benefit to Medicare administered not by government but by government-subsidized health-insurance companies, Obama enshrined privatized healthcare system-wide by not only preserving but mandating private health insurance for most Americans.

On energy policy, Obama has called for offshore oil drilling, “clean” coal development, and (Japan notwithstanding) expanded nuclear power. This bears a remarkable resemblance to the proposals of Dick Cheney’s much-maligned energy taskforce of 2001; in fact, it’s almost identical, except for the symbolic placing off limits of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Finally, on education policy, Obama, through his neoliberal education secretary Arne Duncan, has for all intents and purposes adopted Bush’s market-oriented No Child Left Behind program and put it on steroids. The Obama-Duncan education approach, like that of Bush, is based on endless testing accompanied by sanctions, establishment of nonunion public-private charter schools, introduction of merit-pay schemes, public-school bashing, and (most important) stigmatizing of teacher unions for failures in education.

Unsurprisingly, Arne Duncan is the GOP’s favorite Obama cabinet member, since he’s fighting the National Education Association (NEA), as well as advocating a business approach to education that includes pushing the meat-axe tactic called school “turnarounds” (closing low-testing schools regardless of circumstances, firing their staffs en masse, and replacing them with new, preferably nonunion hires). Respected education critic Diane Ravitch sarcastically characterizes the Duncan initiatives as the Bush administration’s “third term in education.”

The radical new Republican governors, however, are on board big time, especially as regards charter schools and the scapegoating of teachers.

This brings us around full circle to the Obama unwillingness to unreservedly and vocally back unionized school teachers and other public workers in places like Wisconsin. Could it be that the president is a closet sympathizer with state efforts to “rein in” public unions? After all, they’re the main barrier to his Bush-inspired education reforms. Food for thought.

Wayne O’Leary writes in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2011


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