'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Post-Obama Era 

My, how things have changed in less than two years. In November 2008, the election of Barack Obama precipitated a crisis on the left. Recognizing that Obama was unlikely to bring about a fundamental shift is US domestic and foreign policy, leftists wondered about how they would be able to continue to reach liberal and progressive allies on issues of importance. How could they retain what marginal influence they had in the face of Obama's personal charisma and strong public support? Some subsequently perservered, while others unequivocally supported Obama as consistent with a long term, evolutionary strategy of change within the US. Meanwhile, liberals and progressives believed that 30 to 40 years of tireless political activity was about to be rewarded with the implementation of much of their agenda.

Now, just 19 months later, liberals, progressives and leftists find themselves entirely put to rout. The Obama administration has placed itself solely at the service of capital, and expanded US military intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It remains deaf to the exhortations of those who advocate policies that have been historically proven to generate economic growth, persisting in the implementation of supply side measures that do little to generate demand. It manipulates contradictory concerns over the deficit and the stalled economic recovery to chart a clear course of corporate subsidy and worker austerity. Hence, the administration's support for a 200 billion dollar tax credit for equipment alongside a deficit reduction commission that will recommend cuts in Social Security, Medicare and the social safety net more generally. Similarly, while it remains a contentious subject, my personal view is that most of the Bush tax credits for the high income people will be renewed.

No doubt, administration appointees like Rahm Emanuel, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers persuaded Obama that, through the implementation of such Machiavellian measures, a corporatized Democratic Party would retain power for a generation, assuming, of course, that he needed any persuasion at all. There's just one problem: the policies have failed miserably in the real world. Instead of generating a mild economic recovery, where capital interests could skim the cream off the top without resentment, as planned, they have done nothing to revive the economy, and the public knows it. Home foreclosures and 99ers (people who have exhausted their 99 weeks of unemployment benefits without finding work) have become a seemingly permanent feature of everyday life.

With Obama in the White House, and Reid and Pelosi in control of the Congress, the Democrats cannot blame Bush for the country's economic stagnation. Academic liberals like Eric Alterman may write approximately 17,000 words seeking to buttress support for Obama by claiming that a progressive presidency is impossible, but outside the echo chambers of The Nation and The American Prospect, no one is listening, because they know that the Democrats failed to help them. They may or may not know that the Democrats have relied upon the arcane procedural rules of the Senate to justify their inaction, but that's irrelevant for people facing the loss of their home, the health care and their jobs. They didn't vote Obama into the White House in order to hear Professor Alterman lecture them that it is impossible for him to do anything for them. They have already tuned out the great communicator of this generation.

Thus, a terrible reckoning awaits the Democrats in November. Poll numbers are looking worse and worse, so much so that they may lose control of both houses of Congress, while Obama's popularity drains away by the day. Out here in California, there is amazing prospect that the Republicans may win both the governorship and a seat in the Senate. Among Obama critics in the liberal blogosphere, some still express the hope that he can turn it around by taking it to the Republicans with a daring economic stimulus plan that will capture the public imagination. Surely, with a humiliating defeat staring him in the face, he must seize this last opportunity. But it is too late for that now, and he is not so inclined. Although no one will say it, he has passed the point of no return, and absent a dramatic turn of events, he will be even more reviled upon his departure from the White House than Carter. Republicans will run against him for decades.

But Obama will be remembered for more than just the damage that he has inflicted upon the Democratic Party. He has seriously undermined public confidence in the political process, and the consequences, while still speculative, will be profound. After vaguely campaigning on the prospects for progressive change that would reach much of the populace, he has exposed the reality that we face a choice between a merciless, social Darwinist party, the Republicans, and a inclusive, neoliberal one, the Democrats. No one is ever going to believe that a future Democratic candidate for President will be the next Bobby Kennedy, the next FDR or the next LBJ. Instead, they will be perceived as either the next Clinton or, with Republican assistance, the next Obama. Most Americans are disenfranchised by this choice, alienated by a political system in which capital interests dictate the outcome of all major political decisions behind the scenes. The tentative steps towards social democracy in the 20th Century are being consigned to the history books, with the current targets being Social Security and Medicare. Within 10 years, they are likely to be a shadow of what they are today.

Meanwhile, the wars will go on and on. Of course, the great unanswered question is whether Obama will attack Iran. Certainly, a Republican victory in November would increase the pressure upon him to do so. Such a conflict would initiate an open ended war that, much like the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, would last several years, and intensify violence all around the world. Domestically, it would accelerate the transformation of the US economy from manufacturing to services to one centered around military operations, weapons procurement and social control. It is hard to know how the populace will respond to these changes, but, given that liberals, progressives and even some on the left, will be tarred with the failings of the Obama presidency, there is no visible left alternative to the ascension of the radical right. The right will never become dominant, as it will always remained contained within the boundaries of its natural constituency, but it will increasingly dominate the public discourse, even more so than today, because all other ideological possibilities will have been either discredited or invisible.

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