The Left and Barack Obama: The good, the bad and the empty

It was somewhat amusing to watch Hillary Clinton as her campaign, once widely thought to be invincible, began to fall apart. Facing the increasing likelihood of losing the nomination to Mr. Hope himself, Clinton took to outright mockery in describing the junior senator from Illinois and his seductive narrative of hope, unity and change.

“I could just stand up here and say ’Let’s just get everybody together, let’s get unified,’” she told supporters at a rally in Providence, Rhode Island. “The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.”

At this stage of Clinton’s flailing campaign, the move comes off as desperate. With polls showing a likely Obama triumph, the Clinton camp has had to pull out all the stops – including accusing Obama of disloyalty to Israel in the latest Newsweek cover story. Still, we have to admit: she has a point. While Obama’s stump speeches speak glowingly of dramatic change, his policies fail to match up; in fact, his policy positions are, in many cases, barely distinguishable from those of Clinton. And on some crucial domestic issues, he is actually outflanking her from the right.

Of course, there are some positives about the Obama phenomenon. First, he is clearly preferable to Clinton, whose record (in the senate and as first lady) on trade, welfare, gay marriage, the War in Iraq, and media regulation has been horrendous. Obama, a one-term Senator with a background as a community organizer, is far less entrenched in the Washington establishment than Clinton. Further, he opposed the invasion of Iraq and supports some level of diplomacy with Iran, Venezuela and other countries that have typically poor relations with the US.

More important, I think, is the mass outpouring of grassroots support that Obama has received. While I doubt very much that Obama is the vehicle for change his supporters think he is, the fact that millions of Americans have donated time, money and sweat into trying to make this country a little more humane, speaks volumes about the American peoples’ desire for change. This shows the very real potential for more significant social movements to succeed in the not-so-distant future.

And, this happens at a time when the conservative movement, once monolithic in its control of all three branches of government, is collapsing due to poor leadership and a sharp disconnect with the American public on foreign and domestic policy.

These are all positive things. But we lose out by romanticizing Obama’s platform –which is still well to the right of the majority of the public on virtually all of the crucial issues.

Obama and foreign policy

Since the executive branch has far more influence over foreign affairs than it does over domestic issues, it makes sense to begin there. As I noted, Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning, But Obama’s record since that vote has been pretty dismal.

For starters, Obama has voted repeatedly to fund the war he opposed. As Dennis Kucinich noted last year,

“[Obama's] voted to fund the war at least ten times, each time, it's like reauthorizing it all over again. If they keep voting to fund the war, it's not credible to say they are for peace.”

In fact, just when members of the newly-elected 110th congress were beginning to square off against Bush over Iraq legislation lst March, Obama made a point to cave into the president, asserting that he does not want “to play chicken with our troops,” by threatening to cut of funding for the war.

And even now that Obama is trying to run as the anti-war candidate, he still refused to say he would have the troops out by 2013.

Obama defended his record to reporters. "I have been very clear even as a candidate that, once we were in (Iraq), that we were going to have some responsibility to make it work as best we could,” he said.

On foreign issues other than Iraq, Obama offers even less substantive change. For starters Obama is an unambiguous interventionist. When Obama gave a speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs outlining his foreign policy views, Robert Kagan, one of the world’s foremost hawks, who along with Bill Kristol co-founded PNAC, wrote glowingly about it.

America must ‘lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.’ With those words, Barack Obama put an end to the idea that the alleged overexuberant idealism and America-centric hubris of the past six years is about to give way to a new realism, a more limited and modest view of American interests, capabilities and responsibilities.”

One can only imagine Kagen, a staunch unilateralist, also enjoyed Obama’s expressed willingness to “attack inside Pakistan with or without approval from the Pakistani government.” Obama’s piece in Foreign Affairs should likewise put to rest any idea that he is seeks to lessen the United States’ interventionist ways. In this piece he praises Roosevelt and Kennedy for building strong militaries and asserting US dominance around the world.

In terms of the Middle East, it comes as no surprise that Obama has taken a very assertive pro-Israel stance: all Democrats take a pro-Israel stance, especially ones that hope to become president.

But when Obama gave a speech in front of AIPAC, he was so egregious in his pandering that he drew jubilant praise from some of the most hawkish supporters of Israel in the media today. Samuel Rosner, arguably the most pro-Israel voice at Haaretz, said Obama was “as strong as Clinton, as supportive as Bush, as friendly as Guliani. At least rhetorically, Obama passed any test anyone might have wanted him to pass. So, he is pro-Israel. Period.”

Marty Peretz, the editor-at-large of the New Republic, and a chronic apologist for Israeli war crimes, was also impressed. He said of the speech:

“I believe he must have satisfied (nearly) all of those who had been skeptical of his grasp of the Israeli conundrum. Very much satisfied them. Me, included. (His was an extremely sophisticated analysis.) And he must also have disillusioned all of those who'd hoped--like the lefty blogosphere--that he'd be oh-so-sympathetic to the self-inflicted Palestinians.”

Indeed, Obama was no such thing. He said that Israel was "our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy," He added, "we must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs" which would "deter missile attacks from as far as Tehran and as close as Gaza."

“As if the starved, besieged and traumatized population of Gaza are about to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles,” noted Ali Abunimah in Electronic Intifada.

Further, David Sirota has noted Obama’s connection to at least one big-wig in the defense industry.

“Buried at the very bottom of a New York Times story marveling at Barack Obama’s ability to shakedown wealthy Chicago scions for big cash, we find out that one of the Illinois senator’s biggest donors is the family that owns one of the largest defense contractors in the world, General Dynamics. What a shock, then, that Obama hasn’t discussed our bloated military budget even though polls show the public wants that budget reeled in.”

And this is just scratching the surface of Obama’s non-progressive ways. As Paul Street observes, Obama voted to reauthorize the USA PATRIOT ACT, gave his valuable support to neoconservative Sen. Joe Lieberman (I- CONN) as he faced off against his anti-war challenger Ned Lamont, voted to approve Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state and opposed Sen. Feingold’s move to censure Bush for his illegal wiretapping of US citizens.

Obama and Domestic Policy

As bad as his foreign policy positions are, they are still unambiguously to the left of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. The same can not be said of his domestic platform, where Obama has been especially disappointing. His policy positions, in some cases are to the right of Clinton’s.

For starters, as Robert Kuttner observed in an excellent article for the American Prospect, Obama has strong ties to Richard Rubin, former chairman of Goldman Sachs and the chief economic strategist for Democrats throughout the Clinton years. Rubin represents the old neoliberal thinking that dominated the 90s; he is also a key player in the Hamilton Project, which as Kuttner notes, is dedicated to promoting “free capital movements.” They also flirt with privatizing social security.

That Obama has solicited the help of Rubin is a sure sign that, despite the countries growing antipathy for neoliberalism, he will not be endorsing any kind of substantively different economic word view. Kuttner writes:

“If the Rubin doctrine again dominates the Democrats' pocketbook program, it will once again blunt the Democrats' (now resurgent) appeal as the party of the common American.”

And indeed the extent of Obama’s Rubinization is evident in his campaign. On health care, he favors a plan that, while similar to Clinton’s, is slightly less ambitious. This is mainly because Obama concedes his plan, which unlike Clinton’s (and Edward’s) plans do not require one buy insurance, will leave a few million without insurance; Clinton claims her plan cover everyone, which, as Harvard’s Steffie Woolhandler notes, “is pure fantasy.”

Reasonable people can disagree over which nominee’s flawed plan is less bad.None of these candidates are anywhere close to the public on health care. 56 percent of the country said they would support a single-payer plan “like Medicare” to our current program. Further, the country is willing to pay higher taxes to see such a plan implemented. What’s more, there is a bill, HR676, which would provide Medicare for all. It has more than 80 cosponsors in the House of Representatives, but Obama, like a lot of Democrats, will not go near it.

But what is especially unsettling about Obama on this issue, is the angle he has taken in critiquing the other’s health care plan. As Paul Krugman observed in the New York Times:

“[L]ately Mr. Obama has been stressing his differences with his rivals by attacking their plans from the right — which means that he has been giving credence to false talking points that will be used against any Democratic health care plan a couple of years from now …. by echoing the talking points of those who oppose any form of universal health care, he’s making the task of any future president who tries to deliver universal care considerably more difficult.

Obama has used the same approach on Social Security. He continues to perpetuate the right-wing myth that Social Security is in some kind of fiscal crises. These talking points are designed by conservatives to dismantle one of the lasting relics from the New Deal, and Obama, by repeating them, only helps this myth gain traction. “Everyone knows Social Security, as it’s constructed, is not going to be in the same place it’s going to be for the next generation, Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives,” Obama told Tim Russert on Meet the Press.

Krugman, again, takes issue with this assessment.

“But the ‘everyone’ who knows that Social Security is doomed doesn’t include anyone who actually understands the numbers. In fact, the whole Beltway obsession with the fiscal burden of an aging population is misguided. As Peter Orszag, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, put it in a recent article co-authored with senior analyst Philip Ellis: “The long-term fiscal condition of the United States has been largely misdiagnosed. Despite all the attention paid to demographic challenges, such as the coming retirement of the baby-boom generation, our country’s financial health will in fact be determined primarily by the growth rate of per capita health care costs.”

Indeed, Obama has literally taken to praising the vision of Ronald Reagan who he views as a man of bold ideas.

“I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."

Matt Stoller, a blogger from MYDD observed that Obama “agrees with Reagan's basic frame that the 1960s and 1970s were full of 'excesses' and that government had grown large and unaccountable. Those excesses, of course, were feminism, the consumer rights movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the antiwar movement. The libertarian anti-government ideology of an unaccountable large liberal government was designed by ideological conservative to take advantage of the backlash against these 'excesses.'”

All in all, I think David Sirota may have put it best. Obama, he observes, is only

“interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what’s considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. This posture, comes even as polls consistently show that Washington’s definition of mainstream is divorced from the rest of the country’s (for example, politicians’ refusal to debate the war even as polls show that Americans want the troops home).”

Voting for Obama?

Steven Maher recently told me that he was surprised that consumer-advocate Ralph Nader decided to run for president. He thought Nader might endorse Obama this year.

I was less surprised. As I noted earlier, there is in fact much to be excited about in regards to the Obama campaign: he would be the first black president, he has a decent background, he has energetic well-meaning grassroots supporters and so forth. But, when you really look at what Obama is offering, it represents a lot more of the same.

This is not to say one should not vote for Obama; in most states voting for Obama makes a lot of sense. The differences between Obama and McCain are not as big as many of us would like to see, but they are different enough to affect thousands of lives. But I do not think it is credible to say that Obama has taken enough bold steps to bypass a third-party challenge from the left. His weakness on health care and the military budget alone, are reason enough to expect such efforts, no matter how futile.

Indeed, Obama’s rhetoric, if not his policies, have moved to the left. This is true of Edwards and Clinton as well. The candidates understand that the public is outraged about the economy, our failing health care system and our endless wars. And so, unlike previous elections, they feel compelled to address these issues.

This is the true lesson of the Obama phenomenon. Politicians do not bring change, people do. And the best way to facilitate change is not to get behind a candidate, but to force them to take better stands on issues.

As Howard Zinn recently wrote:

Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death ... Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.

But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.