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Obama too big to fail - First year as president (Analysis Part 1)

Published:Sunday | January 24, 2010 | 12:00 AM


Matthew Kopka, Contributor

Barack Obama rode to the United States presidency on a wave of disgust with George Bush and the Republican party, with the failures of government that followed Hurricane Katrina, and weariness with the contradictions that filled the nation's ongoing war on terror.

For many - this author included - there was exultation at the election, and hope that the country could more honestly begin to face its problems. With majorities in both houses of Congress, the Democrats could enact long-needed legislation to address the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, improve education, and fill neglected infrastructure and energy needs.

By the end of November, disappointment was rampant. By January, many sniffed disaster. Progressive enthusiasm - the driving force behind the victory - was gone. Liberals and centrists were divided between those still loyal to Obama and many who thought he had sold out to health interests on establishment of universal care, bowed to Wall Street while ignoring the needs of 'Main Street', and failed to push for jobs needed to revive the economy.

After deliberating for three months, Obama had opted to escalate the war in Afghanistan, sending 30,000 more troops there. For this, if nothing else, conservatives praised him.

Matt Taibbi, hero to many for his reporting on Wall Street's manipulation of the economic crisis, called Obama's "one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history".

"Elected in the midst of a crushing crisis brought on by a decade of … unchecked greed," Taibbi wrote, "Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy. What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias, while packing the key economic positions … with the very people who caused the crisis." (December 9, Rolling Stone)

Rising criticism from the black community, falling general support

Support among black people remained high. But key black leaders, including New York Times columnist Bob Herbert and Detroit congressman John Conyers, now openly criticised Obama. In an October 15 trip to New Orleans lasting just four hours, Obama met anger for his failure to develop a new plan to address ongoing misery there. In a Washington Post interview, Obama was defensive about the lack of initiatives to help black people - falling into poverty at a rate two to three times that of the general population - or poor people in general.

After astronomically high early ratings, Obama's support dropped between April and June, to just above 50 per cent before year's end. Discussions about the imminent death of the Republican Party were replaced by worries over how many seats Democrats would lose in 2010 congressional elections.

Obama's policy of consensus-seeking with Republicans had brought not a single cross-party vote on issues before Congress. Racism was voiced in weekly demonstrations by a right-wing 'tea party' movement, boosted by Fox reporting, echoing demonstrations that led to the 18th-century overthrow of the British. Gun sales reached new highs. Obama faced a record number of death threats.

Was Obama progressive to begin with?

A portion of the liberal electorate had not cared much about Obama's stances, had voted for him out of delight at his historic candidacy, his soaring calls for change, or for his criticism of the Iraq War - even as he tempered vows to bring troops home from that country. A sense that the nation might expiate Bush administration sins was palpable as people entered polls, in the jubilant demonstrations that followed.

Once in office, Obama kept on Ben Bernanke, Bush-appointed head of America's central bank, and Bush Defence Secretary Robert Gates, a man with roots in Republican presidencies going back to Ronald Reagan (in the CIA and Iran-Contra Affair, as well). He chose as principal economic advisers two men closely linked to the crisis, and made Rahm Emmanuel - despised figure on the left - his chief of staff and right-hand man, tabbed to securing legislation for the White House.

These early choices were a wake-up for those watching carefully. But goodwill was rampant; naysayers were shouted down.

Obama's electoral strategy and Congress

There was an open secret in Obama's campaign strategy. His road - which sought to square the circle between corporate money and popular support - had been taken before by Bill Clinton. It was how the Dems had broken the Republican hold on power after the Reagan-Bush years.

A largely overlooked 2007 article, called 'Barack Obama, Inc' in Harper's, had chronicled Obama's transition from community organiser to politician, the adept manner that enabled him to arouse progressive hopes while courting Wall Street interests. Obama had come out of nowhere for voters but not for corporate America, which had scrutinised him and judged it could work with him.

Such alliances are so central to American politics that many shrugged them off.

It is easy, a year later, to blame the congressional Democrats most allied with corporate wealth for blocking progress. But Obama has affirmed he is one of them. In a post-election meeting with congressional members of the Democratic Leadership Council - long committed to moving the party right to capture corporate backing, of which the Clintons and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman were key members - he made a plea for their support: "I am one of you," he told them.

Even amid such warnings, it was hard for progressives to overcome relief that the Bush years were over. As 2009 wore on, they would be whipsawed by conflicting sentiments, uncertain what most needed combating: an Obama administration hurrying towards the middle, or the president's frightening right-wing opposition.

By year's end, though, there was little disputing one thing: Never had such powerful
and positive political momentum disappeared so quickly.

Obama's accomplishments

With divisions rampant, it is important to evaluate what Obama really has done. There is no doubt his election restored respect for the law and a minimum competence - with it confidence in - America's liberal democracy, in a country whose laws, treaties and other obligations were repeatedly flouted by the Bush administration. America is no longer seen as a rogue power.

The Obama administration's unwillingness to prosecute Bush officials is, however, a huge bone of contention, and may come back to haunt Obama, as officials like former Vice President Dick Cheney - who many believe should face prosecution on several fronts - continue to deride Obama's responses to terror threats real and imagined in the media.

It is accepted that the president faces extraordinary challenges. Despite pronouncements that the recession is over, the worst may be yet to come. Unemployment hovers at an official 10 per cent. In real terms, it is nearer 20 - far worse for people of colour - as bad as it has been since the Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their homes each month in 2009. Hunger has reached shocking proportions. Tent cities and shanty towns have sprouted around the country.

The fact that those businesses left standing have 'recovered' means little to most Americans. Corporations have found ways to insulate themselves and even profit during down times (in part through the speculative activities that brought on the collapse; only 30 per cent of Wall Street activity still relates to manufacturing). Humans have not.

Further complicating Obama's task: the machinery of American government is stuck. Members of both parties have written for decades how the Senate, deeply undemocratic by design, is saddled with outdated rules that prevent legislation's enactment. The outdated mechanics of governance impede even changes the country's governing elites see as necessary. (When nothing happens, the greatest benefit tends to fall to the status quo.)

There has long been a kernel of truth, then, in Republican charges - beginning with Ronald Reagan - that "government is the problem". Failure to acknowledge this in the slightly more progressive Democratic party leaves liberals defending the indefensible.

And the White House now suffers a public relations problem that Bush and others faced, political pressure to claim things are better than they are.

An Obama restoration?

It was striking, even among Obama supporters, how the word 'restore' was so often used to characterise the administration's first-year actions.

Obama had returned relationships with many countries to a stable footing. With US power shockingly diminished by Bush's blunders, he was intent on maintaining geopolitical advantages the US did have, playing hardball with Japan (for instance) on that country's desire to close the military base on Okinawa.

The new president acknowledged that American personnel had tortured terror suspects and forbade further torture by the CIA or military, though the practice of 'extraordinary rendition' of suspects to other countries continued. In January 2010, the administration announced that it would begin reporting the names of suspects arrested - welcome step - though the terms under which they are seized often violate their rights and other countries' sovereignty.

Obama had promised to close Guantánamo prison - where terrorism suspects are still held - by year's end. This has not happened, but moves were under way to transfer many to the state of Illinois.

The new administration had initiated a drawdown of American soldiers in Iraq. (With the world's biggest embassy finished and 14 new military bases there, in a nation bordering Iran, the US has - in truth - no plans to leave that country.) The White House had restored the media's right to photograph coffins of soldiers killed overseas, ending a Bush media blackout that angered many.

But although these moves were hailed as a delayed expression of the American people's will, they were soon overshadowed by the announcement of plans to transfer many more troops to Afghanistan. This came even as a leaked report showed the Afghan army mired in corruption, with little hope among analysts for a turnaround. Strategic regional aims increasingly centre on Pakistan, badly destabilised (ironically) by the US war on the Taliban.

Despite Obama's attempt to sell the war to US citizens, it was not even clear whether plans were to continue to fight the Taliban, or win them over by bringing them back into government. That the number of civilians killed doubled during the past year cannot surprise amid such confusion. On Obama's orders, the number of drone missiles fired at suspect targets had also doubled, leading to hundreds of more 'mistakes' and murdered innocents.

Further help for the military

The White House made efforts to improve the lot of military personnel, with initiatives to provide them better armour, housing and benefits. It ended the ridiculous, absurdly expensive, 'Star Wars' plan for a missile shield of Europe from Russia and initiated negotiations (now stalled) for sizeable cuts in both countries' nuclear arsenals. The administration also instituted policies to curtail corruption in military procurement, ending no-bid contracts.

But these moves left open the question of whether the US should continue to police the world or supply its arms, activities which constitute roughly 50 per cent of the economy. (Cancelling arms sales to Taiwan, for example, though these threaten relations with China, means lost jobs.)

It had become plainer Obama would not challenge the military industrial complex that has dominated the US landscape since World War II, or pose the real or necessary alternatives to Americans. Defence spending has risen in his administration to all-time historic levels, and now equals what the rest of the world spends together. "[T]he Pentagon," says the Centre for Defence Information, "spends more in a few hours than Al Qaeda spends in an entire year."

Domestic actions

Obama signed a new law, which he backed as senator, to help assure equal pay for women.

His administration restored funding for scientific and energy research, and validated anew the role of science in a White House that for eight years rewrote reports, obscured evidence, and pushed science back toward the Middle Ages. The White House ended Bush administration policy of not regulating or labelling carbon dioxide emissions and removed restrictions on stem-cell research.

Environmental regulations that the Bush administration failed to observe or enforce have been restored.

The Obama administration slowed ruinous practices like mountaintop removal for coal mining that were blighting once-beautiful Appalachia. There were plans to increase development and installation of alternative energy and transportation, though on nothing like the scale Obama held out in campaign appearances. With countries like Germany and China far in the lead in such investments, there was a lessening chance the US would become the industrial engine - or reap the biggest advantages - from the inevitable necessary change to alternative sources.

Infrastructure spending in general increased with a federal stimulus act, the first big piece of legislation propelled through Congress by the new administration. The moves were timid - made in nothing like the degree needed after decades of neglect. There was growing clamour for a second, 2010 stimulus.

The administration was again respecting the Freedom of Information Act, and took steps to ensure no government secrets would be withheld in perpetuity. It placed new limits on lobbying of the White House and former staff.

The administration expanded health care for more than four million schoolchildren. It expanded vaccination programmes. It began efforts to close some offshore tax havens. In other moves, the incoming Obama administration:

  • Relaxed the most unpopular element of Bush Cuba policy, restrictions on family travel to that country;
  • Decided to try the accused 9/11 perpetrators in New York City, helping assure minimal standards of justice accompanied judgement;
  • Nominated the first Hispanic Supreme Court judge, Sonia Sotomayor, and saw her seated.

    Matthew Kopka is a political ecologist. He has been writing for The Gleaner since the eve of the US Iraq invasion in 2002, and has lived in Jamaica during three periods, first visiting the country in 1976.

    See Part 2 in tomorrow's Gleaner.