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Barack Obama’s Neoliberal Legacy: Rightward Drift and Donald Trump

Posted on Jan 3, 2017

By Paul Street

  President Barack Obama. (Wikimedia)

In a parting shot near the end of his depressing, center-right presidency, Barack Obama wants the world to know that he would have defeated Donald Trump if the U.S. Constitution didn’t prevent him from running for a third term. It was a stab at Hillary Clinton as well as the president-elect.

I suspect Obama is right. Like Bill Clinton, Obama is a much better fake-progressive, populism-manipulating campaigner than Hillary. Also like Bill, he has more outward charm, wit, charisma, and common touch than Mrs. Clinton. Plus, he’s a male in a still-sexist nation, and he would have had some very sharp election strategists on his side.

 ‘Inauthentic Hope’

Fine, but so what? The Electoral College has spoken. The Constitution is a harsh mistress. And Obama richly deserves Donald Trump as his legacy. As I predicted in my June 2008 book “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics” (most of which was written in late 2007), Obama’s presidency has epitomized the late left political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s early 2008 description of “the Democrats’ politics” as “inauthentic opposition.” Wolin predicted that “should Democrats somehow be elected,” they would do nothing “to alter significantly the direction of society” and to “substantially revers[e] the drift rightwards. … The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that for the poor, minorities, the working class and anti-corporatists there is no opposition party working on their behalf.” The corporatist Democrats would work to “marginalize any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans.”

Wolin called it. Yes, a nominal Democrat was elected president along with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress in 2008. What followed under Obama (as under his Democratic presidential predecessors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) was the standard “elite” neoliberal manipulation of campaign populism and identity politics in service to the reigning big money bankrollers and their global empire. The Wall Street takeover of Washington and the related imperial agenda of the “Pentagon System” were advanced more effectively by the nation’s first black president than they could have been by stiff and wealthy white-male Republicans like John McCain or Mitt Romney. The underlying “rightward drift” sharpened, fed by a widespread and easily Republican-exploited sense of popular abandonment and betrayal, as the Democrats depressed and demobilized their own purported popular base.

 ‘To Quell the Mob’

The first year, when Obama’s party had Congress, was key. In the book “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President” (2011), Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind told a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Obama’s presidency, popular rage at Wall Street was intense, and the leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive. The nation’s financial elite had driven the nation and world’s economy into an epic meltdown—and millions knew it.

Having ridden into office partly on a wave of popular anger at the economic power elite’s staggering malfeasance, Obama called a meeting of the nation’s top 13 financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the gathering full of dread, only to leave pleased to learn that the new president was in their camp. Instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis—workers, minorities and the poor—Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown.

“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help. … I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you … I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Suskind put it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said, ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying, ‘How can I help?’ ”

“The sense of everyone after the meeting,” one leading banker told Suskind, “was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything, and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t—he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

The massive taxpayer bailout of the super fat cats would continue, along with numerous other forms of corporate welfare for the powerful and parasitic super-rich. This state-capitalist largesse was unaccompanied by any serious effort to regulate their conduct or by any remotely comparable bailout for the millions evicted from their homes and jobs by the not-so-invisible hand of the marketplace. No wonder 95 percent of national U.S. income gains went to the top 1 percent during Obama’s first term.

 ‘Plenty of Money to Spend When the Right People Want It’

It was a revealing moment. With (to repeat) Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry, “pitchfork”-wielding populace at the gates, an actually progressive President Obama could have rallied the populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by moving ahead aggressively with a number of policies: a stimulus with major public works jobs programs, a real (single-payer) health insurance reform, the serious disciplining and even break-up or nationalization of the leading financial institutions, massive federal housing assistance and mortgage relief, and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have once again legalized union organizing in the U.S. But no such policy initiatives issued from the new White House. Obama and his Citigroup- and Goldman Sachs-appointed team opted instead to pick up the ball from Dubya in giving the U.S. populace what William Greider memorably called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned,” Greider wrote, “that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it . ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”

Americans also watched as Obama passed a health insurance reform (the so-called Affordable Care Act) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single-payer “Medicare for all”) to the curb while rushing to pass a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by the arch 1 percenter Mitt Romney.

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