Is Obama capable of political leadership?


The 2010 tax cut deal between Obama and the Republicans marked a watershed moment in his presidency. It signified his abandonment of the populist base which he successfully channeled in his election campaign, the voters to whom he promised hope which they understood as a break from everything Bush had done. As well as prolonging the tax cuts for the super-rich, the bipartisan legislation threatens to deliberately bankrupt states in order to wage class war on public sector unions.

Reuters blogger James Pethokoukis explains: ‘Congressional Republicans appear to be quietly but methodically executing a plan that would a) avoid a federal bailout of spendthrift states and b) cripple public employee unions by pushing cash-strapped states such as California and Illinois to declare bankruptcy. … That’s why the most intriguing aspect of President Barack Obama’s tax deal with Republicans is what the compromise fails to include — a provision to continue the Build America Bonds program.  … the lack of a BAB program would make it harder for states to borrow to cover a $140 billion budgetary shortfall next year, as estimated by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The long-term numbers are even scarier.”

Obama stands for the rational organization of the state, maintaining property relations necessary for the regular functioning of capital. The Republicans, however, stand for the absolute class privilege of the super-rich. They act for a section of the financial elite which wants a return to 19th-century unregulated exploitation. Clearly their wealth ties them together as a class, and their funding of extremist and lunatic grouplets and bloggers enables them to organize propaganda around a common theme. It has been well documented that the Koch brothers and other super-rich oligarchs worked assiduously over many years to create ideological think tanks, plant press stories, and fund Tea Party groups. Their purpose is to drive public discourse and the Republican party to the right.

Now voters are feeling the effects of right-wing legislation, the super-rich need to deflect attention away from their wealth by organizing highly-publicized attacks on groups of workers. Since states are suffering from federal aid cutbacks and the fact that income tax cuts have made them increasingly reliant on property taxes, the target for this new onslaught is public sector unions. A rash of proposals from Republican and Democratic state governors to cut pension plans and wages for state employees has been coordinated by yet another secretive group, according to the New York Times:  “A group composed of Republican state lawmakers and corporate executives, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is quietly spreading these proposals from state to state, sending e-mails about the latest efforts as well as suggested legislative language.”

Defenders of Obama’s presidency – and Obama himself – claim that he has achieved as much as he can, given the heated opposition of the Republican right. Obama clearly thinks that he has to act on behalf of the American people without involving them in a political fight. But his compromises have amplified the Republican ideological message: when he attacked left-wing critics of the legislation he reinforced the illusion that the taxes owed by the super-rich don’t matter when it comes to federal and local budget deficits, and encouraged the Republicans’ renewed assault on state workers.

Paul Krugman pointed out that, in contrast to Reagan, Obama “has consistently tried to reach across the aisle by lending cover to right-wing myths. He has praised Reagan for restoring American dynamism (when was the last time you heard a Republican praising F.D.R.?), adopted G.O.P. rhetoric about the need for the government to tighten its belt even in the face of recession, offered symbolic freezes on spending and federal wages. None of this stopped the right from denouncing him as a socialist. But it helped empower bad ideas, in ways that can do quite immediate harm.”

Obama could have called the Republicans’ bluff, let the tax cuts expire – and told the public exactly who had voted down unemployment benefits. He could have turned back to his base, as Sam Graham-Felsen, the Obama campaign chief blogger in 2008, writes in the Washington Post: “Obama entered the White House with more than a landslide victory over Sen. John McCain. He brought with him a vast network of supporters, instantly reachable through an unprecedented e-mail list of 13 million people. These supporters were not just left-wing activists but a broad coalition that included the young, African Americans, independents and even Republicans … They were inspired by Obama’s promise to upend Washington by governing from the bottom up. … Yet at seemingly every turn, Obama has chosen to play an inside game. Instead of actively engaging supporters in major legislative battles, Obama has told them to sit tight as he makes compromises behind closed doors.”

Obama’s willingness to work within the stacked political deck, his refusal to give leadership to his base, has actually created the stick with which the Republicans are beating him. The ability of the super-rich to continue extracting wealth from the middle class and working poor depends directly on the secret manipulation of democratic forms. This is why vast sums are spent on elections and controlling the information available to voters through the mass media. At all costs the workings of the oligarchy have to be kept hidden from the public because its power rests on an ideological base. The witch-hunt of Assange shows how vulnerable elements of the state feel to exposure. As Patrick Cockburn remarks, “The true origin of their rage seems to be the way in which the publication of classified papers, whether they expose real secrets or not, undermines the ability of political elites to present themselves as the all-powerful guardians of secret knowledge essential to their country’s well-being.”

If Obama has broken from his base, then now is the time to break from him in defense of the rights of unions, of public education, social security, Medicaid, and every other hard-won right that workers possess. Don’t milk the middle-class and poor – make the rich pay!

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Filed under marxism, Obama, political analysis, populism, Tea Party movement, US policy

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