Barack Obama’s Neoliberal Legacy: Rightward Drift and Donald Trump
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.
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.As the retired and veteran Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren notes in his indispensable book “The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government” (2016), “In 2008, Barack Obama the change agent ran against the legacy of George W. Bush. But when he assumed office his policies in the areas of national security and financial regulation were strikingly similar. Even the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans vilify with uncontrollable rage, is hardly different in outline from Bush’s Medicare [legislation] (both expand medical coverage by subsidizing corporate interests).”
Lofgren is critical of Obama’s liberal defenders, who blame all his failures on Republican obstruction. “They forget” Lofgren rightly notes, “that during his first two years in office, he had a Democratic majority in Congress.”
‘To Administer an Entrenched System’
In the summer of 2011, Obama offered the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” put forward amidst the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis. It was after this point that hundreds of thousands of mostly younger Americans had received enough of Greider’s “blunt lesson” to join the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which sought progressive change through direct action and social movement-building rather than corporate-captive electoral politics. We will never know how far Occupy might have gone. It was shut down by a federally coordinated campaign of repression that joined the Obama administration and hundreds of mostly Democratic city governments in the infiltration, surveillance, smearing, takedown and eviction of the short-lived movement—this even as the Democrats stole some of Occupy’s rhetoric for use against Romney and the Republicans in 2012.
After his re-election, Obama spoke to some of his rich friends at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council. “When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans—we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines. … People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.” It was a “touching ruling class moment,” wrote Danny Katch, author of “America’s Got Democracy.”
The rightward policy drift got worse until Obama was a full-on lame duck and could make some more progressive-sounding noises with knowledge that nothing he claimed to be for (like an increase in the federal minimum wage) was in danger of being passed. By Lofgren’s insider account in “The Deep State”:
For six years running, Obama sought bipartisan compromise with the deluded persistence of Captain Ahab, despite abundant evidence that the GOP was in no mood for it. … After frittering away those six years when he had at least one house of Congress in Democratic hands, Obama emerged from the 2014 midterm debacle with an epiphany: now was the time to display the populist president that his supporters thought they had elected in 2008. … There was only one problem: how was a lame duck president going to get this agenda through the most numerically dominant Republican Congress since 1929? That absurd dilemma sums up the reality of his presidency. … Obama…may be, like Napoleon III, a sphinx without a riddle: merely an ambitious politician who tested well with focus groups, and who arrived at just the right moment, promising hope and change as a pretext to administer an entrenched system without any conviction.
The only part of Lofgren’s passage I might take some issue with is the phrase “without any conviction.” Obama brought a fair amount of capitalist, imperialist, neoliberal and even subtly white-supremacist conviction to his privilege-serving role. Read his deeply conservative and American exceptionalist, Ronald Reagan-praising 2006 campaign book, “The Audacity of Hope,” or any of the speeches Obama gave to elite business and foreign policy groups during his years as a U.S. senator and presidential candidate (I covered all that material at length in “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics”). Candidate Obama bent over backward to distance himself from “angry” black calls for racial justice and equality, preening as a “post-racial” leader ready and willing to blame poor blacks for their position at the bottom of American society (this too is covered at length in my 2008 book. See the third chapter, titled “How Black is Obama? Color, Class, Generation and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era”).
And recall that Obama spent no small part of his last years in office trying to pass the secretive, undemocratic and global-corporatist Trans-Pacific Partnership.
‘We’re Worse Off Than Before’
How strange after all this to hear the liberal black author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently proclaim that Donald Trump is the radical backlash “price we have to pay” for Obama’s “revolutionary” presidency. “Revolutionary,” that is, simply because Obama was half-black. I wonder if Coates caught The New York Times’ memorable report on widespread black non-voting in Milwaukee (the most populous state in the contested state of Wisconsin) during the 2016 election. By the account of Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise after a visit to the heavily segregated city of Milwaukee’s black North Side:
At Upper Cutz, a bustling barbershop in a green-trimmed wooden house, talk of politics inevitably comes back to one man: Barack Obama. Mr. Obama’s elections infused many here with a feeling of connection to national politics they had never before experienced. But their lives have not gotten appreciably better, and sourness has set in.
“We went to the beach,” said Maanaan Sabir, 38, owner of the Juice Kitchen, a brightly painted shop a few blocks down West North Avenue, using a metaphor to describe the emotion after Mr. Obama’s election. “And then eight years happened.”
All four barbers had voted for Mr. Obama. But only two could muster the enthusiasm to vote this time. And even then, it was a sort of protest. One wrote in Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The other wrote in himself.
“I’m so numb,” said Jahn Toney, 45, who had written in Mr. Sanders. He said no president in his lifetime had done anything to improve the lives of black people, including Mr. Obama, whom he voted for twice. “It’s like I should have known this would happen. We’re worse off than before.”
“Mr. Fleming, 47, who has been trimming hair, beards and mustaches for 30 years, had hoped his small business would get easier to run. But it hasn’t.
“Give us loans, or a 401(k),’ he said. … His biggest issue was health insurance. Mr. Fleming lost his coverage after his divorce three years ago and has struggled to find a policy he could afford. He finally found one, which starts Monday but costs too much at $300 a month.
“Ain’t none of this been working,” he said. He did not vote.
There’s a real and nationwide material-economic basis for such complaints. By the fifth year of Obama’s presidency, U.S. black households’ net worth had fallen to 1/13th of the wealth of U.S. white households at the median. This helped generate a sense of futility about voting among black citizens—a sense that contributed significantly to Mrs. Clinton’s failure to recreate the electoral coalition that elected Obama in 2008 and 2012. Talk about vote suppression.
(The smart reparations advocate Coates knows all this, of course. He persists, nonetheless, in seeing Obama’s presidency as racially “revolutionary” because of its symbolic significance. But even the symbolic victory was a double-edged sword. “For many white Americans,” the black economist William Darity Jr. has noted, Obama’s “elections confirmed their belief that American racism is a thing of the past.”)
‘Three Tours in Iraq and No Bailout for People Like Us’
Yes, it’s true that Obama won a second term with a convincing victory over Mitt Romney in 2012. But Romney was a perfect foil for the fake populism the Democrats were brandishing in the wake of the Occupy Movement they helped crush the previous year. Romney was like something out of central casting when it came to helping the Democrats pose as a party of the people. He was a rigidly aristocratic and super-wealthy Wall Street Republican who was dumbly caught on a smart phone calling “47 percent” of the U.S. population lazy moochers and welfare cheats. Throw in the Mormon thing and the Obama two-peat was an easy slam dunk. Who knows how a more charismatic and “authentic” Republican opponent might have done in 2012?
The misery and betrayal of the working class (both white and nonwhite) continued apace without serious presidential opposition during Obama’s second term. So did the savage upward concentration of wealth and income; the deadly expansion of the permanent U.S. imperial war machine; the systematic deportation of millions of “illegal” Latinos; the hyper-segregation, shakedown and militarized policing of black ghettoes; the neglect and suffering of Native America; the relentless federal subsidization of parasitic finance; the creation of millions of precarious low-paid, no-benefit, part-time and contract jobs; mass debt servitude; ridiculously high health care costs and college tuition; the “geocidal” cooking of the planet by Big Carbon.
In the excellent 2016 movie “Hell or High Water,” the following complaint is written on the side of a building in a depressed eastern Texas farm town: “Three tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.” That sums up the neoliberal-imperial era as experienced by the nation’s “heartland” working class and epitomized by the age of Obama. American government has billions, nay, trillions of dollars to spend on rescuing and recapitalizing giant parasitic financial institutions, restoring outrageous Wall Street “compensation” levels, overturning the Libyan government, destabilizing Syria, militarizing Africa, undermining Venezuela, occupying Afghanistan and overthrowing governments in Honduras and Ukraine, and on keeping “more people in prison than any other country, including China, which has four times our population,” writes Lofgren. It has nothing really for the nation’s hard-working and increasingly surplus everyday people, a remarkable number of whom are thrown into jail and prison for victimless crimes like drug possession. The financial executives who criminally crashed the economy and threw millions out of their homes and out of jobs continue to escape prosecution. They live in style above the law.
One does not deny the catastrophe that is the incoming Trump administration by saying good riddance to the Obama administration. The two presidencies are joined at the capitalist, imperialist and white-supremacist Deep State hip along with all the other dismal presidencies of the long neoliberal era, starting with Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, tea partyers and now the noxious, geocidal atrocity that is the forthcoming Donald Trump presidency. Trump is what America gets after “the inauthentic opposition” party makes it into the White House.
The resistance we need to form against Trump and Trumpism must not repeat the mistakes of the past. It must not allow itself to be hijacked by the dismal dollar Dems and their timid centrist and electoral nothingness, which only pushes the country further in the same direction as the arrow on Hillary’s 2016 campaign poster—to the right.