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Barack Obama, without illusion

bringiton's picture

The King is Dead! Long live the King!

You’d think such sentiments would have long ago expired in a country that boasts about being a bastion of democracy, but that is not the case. We move from one expression of dynastic rule directly into another, with no pause for reflection and little protest from the proletariat who seem not just content but rather comforted by the presence of a Leader who will Make Things Happen and Keep Us Safe.

Ready or not, the next president is already being thrust into those rolls. I say thrust because even though it appears that both Obama and McCain are asking to be some sort of Maximum Leader in mufti, only one of them sees that as a natural role.

The son and grandson of Admirals with a failed Navy career, the dashing jet jockey who crashed plane after plane, the heroic bomber who got shot down, the brave captive who earned the nickname “Songbird” from his interrogators, the scion of stable families who abandoned his crippled and loyal wife for a series of fast women and eventually a slinky hot heiress, has for his whole life longed for a command position, one that would let him redeem his honor and exceed the accomplishments of his ancestors.

John McCain wants the presidency like a meth addict wants a fix, and for the same reason – he wants it for the high, the rush of feeling powerful, one more ride in the bucket seat at full throttle, the power dive with guns blazing, Bombs Away! He is, in his motivations and his temperament, an emotional match for George W. Bush and in governance he will be exactly the same sort swashbuckling, flailing authoritarian miscreant with exactly the same agenda of domination and conquest. That is what he has always been.

Obama is a different sort of person, altogether. His tendencies are, for as far back as any records exist to document them, to be a conciliator and organizer. He is quiet where McCain is loud, organized where McCain is haphazard, focused where McCain is flail incarnate, and calm where McCain is hysterical. Those qualities of Obama’s are the good news; they are also the bad news.

They will serve him well in developing strategies and identifying goals that are attainable with the minimum of discord and the greatest possible inclusion of divergent views. They will also keep him from making the kinds of bold moves that would fulfill the pent-up need for a true Progressive agenda. While we should be grateful he is not John McCain, we will also find ourselves frustrated that he is not Franklin Roosevelt. Rather, he is a conservative in the mold of Eisenhower and Truman and Clinton, all of whom were reluctant to force change in large ways.

All of them were incrementalists, all were big on fiscal responsibility within a conservative construct, and all were very much invested in and thus constrained by a vision of governance that preserves the influence of capitalist motivations. Truman and Eisenhower were also forced to accept domestic realities stemming from social activism; Truman to integrate the armed forces by the reality of shrinking enlistments by poor blacks who saw greater opportunity in civilian life, and Eisenhower by a Supreme Court ruling and escalating racist violence.

That they did what they did under some duress is not a diminishment of their humanity; both were decent men who wanted to do right. But both of them needed pushing by the afflicted citizenry and the burden of public approbation; they needed activists to show them where to Lead. Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are absolutely correct about that bicameral requirement.

Obama will also Lead, no doubt; he didn’t run for the office to be a follower, in spite of the desire by some to paint him as a lackey of others in the Democratic Party hierarchy. But unlike the authoritarian reactionary politics of Reagan and the Bushes, he will want to lead as much as possible through consensus. This need for consensus, for the avoidance of open conflict – and I believe it is just exactly that, a deep-seated psychological need – will be in many ways frustrating for Progressives because it will serve to constrain the rate of change that might otherwise be possible.

The economic disparities exacerbated under Republican rule need fixing and they need it now, but Obama will want to make a series of small, measured interventions rather than large sweeping changes; America’s absurdist imperial approach to sustaining the unsustainable, our dependence on fossil fuels, needs immediate and large imposition of forceful programs that will reverse this disastrous course, but Obama will tend to nibble around the edges while attempting to line up consensus for greater things; and so on, for health care and civil rights and equal pay and education and environment and foreign affairs and every other ill before us.

Reality will emerge relentlessly, in ways that no president can control. Policy decisions will for some time be largely reactive in nature; this is not to say that there will be no choices, but rather that the range of good choices will be restricted while some will be imposed not by philosophy but by desperation.

The magnitude of destruction wrought by 35 years of malign Corporatist pillaging leaves no alternative to complete collapse except for Progressive policy. In spite of Obama’s inherent conservativism and reluctance by whatever residuum of Reactionary Corporatism remains attached to power, the only functionally workable schemes to continue Corporatist supremacy require a Progressive path. However painfully obtained, there is a tasty bit of irony here to be savored.

Hope, as has been pointed out, is by itself insufficient; at some point it must translate into action. Rumor to the contrary notwithstanding, there is a functional Progressive Wing of the Democratic Party, and many more Moderate Conservative caucus members who share with Progressives a desire for greater equality and increased equitability. When they employ the new trendy terminology of post-partisanship, they mean it to be a style of governance that does things their way, free of interference by historical partisan concerns; they are not talking about cozying up to radical reactionaries but rather co-opting the most cynical and craven elements of the Republican obstructionist/reactionary coalition. If that is not possible, the new management intends to crush them – in the pursuit of post-partisanship, to be sure.

It would be a great mistake for Progressives who are feeling dispossessed by this election cycle to view this new coalition as either uncommitted to change or toothless in their ability to achieve it. Certainly the frightened and angry Reactionaries of the Republican Party see what is happening, that power is shifting out of their hands and into those for whom social justice and human rights and equality before the law are minimum requirements for a productive corporate entity, not merely cynical ploys to further concentrate corporate wealth and assert theocratic hegemony.

This new coalition is most definitely not free of Corporatist influence. That hierarchical dominance, by wealthy Corporatist elite, is imbedded within our form of government warp and woof; it is inseparable from our Constitution, and until that Constitution is rewritten entirely it will continue to play an excessively dominant societal role. There are, however, factions within that Corporatist ruling class and the shift in power from political Reactionaries to a coalition of Conservatives and Progressives means a shift in influence within the Corporatist structure as well.

Since Reagan, the Power Elite who have governed have consisted of the Same Robber Baron sorts that controlled America from the time of the end of westward expansion, marked by the Civil War, until the Great Depression. As in the past, they have ruled by dictat based on philosophies of plunder, pillage, and maximal wealth extraction from the proletariat without heed or concern for human suffering or any long-term vision. They are anti-union, anti-social welfare, anti-collectivism of any sort unless it benefits their financial interests, focused entirely on self-aggrandizement; they are the sort of corporate management that focuses solely on next quarter’s earnings at the expense of any long-term considerations. They are the ones who created this atrocity:


The other more liberal Corporatist faction, no less concerned with self-perpetuation as a class but more enlightened in their management style, are focused more heavily on the long term. They are the sort of management who think about investment rather than extraction, about promoting education for achievement rather than imposing ignorance to instill subservience, and cherish maximizing individual opportunity for growth and expansion regardless of origin rather than bigoted pre-selection based on race and gender and religion.

The difference is between Jack Welch and Kenneth Lay on the one hand, a sort of management of whom we have had a surfeit, and William Hewlett and David Packard on the other. All of them are dedicated to building and maintaining a material corporate edifice within a Corporatist philosophical structure, no question, but the one approach retains a humanist bent based on Keynesian economic principles and the other does not. Or, perhaps Keynesian rather than Friedman economic principles are employed because of an inherent humanist bent; rather difficult to sort that out.

The extraordinary ineptitude of the Bush government, having crippled the military and the economy while alienating the entire rest of the world, has created an American Constitutional power vacuum of historically unprecedented proportion. We have already seen Obama – not McCain, no one would receive him – stepping into that vacuum in foreign affairs, treated by international citizenry and politicians alike as a Head of State, renegotiating the US-Iraqi relationship, signaling changes in the Afghani Occupation strategy, redirecting the dynamic between the US and the EU and moderating NATO's expansionist drift.

The economic upheaval and the Bush administration’s clear inability to even suggest a coherent response has created a parallel domestic policy vacuum that is just now being coherently filled, again extra-constitutionally and again lead by Obama; McCain, in spite of his grandstanding, has been entirely irrelevant except as a foil and the butt of talk-show comedy routines.

In the background, in the midst of and interdependent with the Federal elections, a negotiation is underway; a realigning of the Elite within the new reality of a changed Congressional center of power and a new Administration with agendas and priorities divergent from the established order. Some items have already been agreed upon within this new coalition for early action during the Congressional session starting November 17, and while still setting fire to some of the few remaining areas of government rationality the Bush administration has on other matters meekly accepted the reality of the established power of this new government.

Emergency extensions and expansions of unemployment benefits, food stamps, aid to states for a variety of functional budgetary needs, and infrastructure repair and expansion are all of them a done deal. Perhaps $150 billion worth of Main Street economic stimulus measures will be enacted, including inevitably some sweeteners to bring about a working Senate majority; depending on electoral outcome and ongoing negotiations, the total could be bigger. More on this in a day or two.

Taking the White House away from the Republicans will make this kind of Progressive-ish legislation more probable; returning the administrative power to Republicans will make these measures more difficult to implement and force tighter restrictions. Even with a Democratic presidential victory, the amount of leverage over this lame duck government will be limited by the number of new Democratic Senate members; in terms of leverage over Republican caucus members, six new Democratic seats is one thing, eight is another.

The difference between a Democratic and a Republican administration is not large, but it is critical; the lesser of two evils is always the better choice, and the benign Corporatism of the Democrats is definitely less evil than the rapine Corporatism of Republicans.

Watch Noam Chomsky endorsing Obama, as a patient with gangrene endorses amputation. [Link only, video will not load.]

The less evil option is the rational choice.

[Open for comments if any. Thank you for your patience.]

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vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

At this hour, I remain stuck deciding what to do about the game of chicken that Obama has played with progressives.

He never blinked, never acted like he understood (or at least cared about) what Chomsky said in the video -- that America is more progressive than either political party (an opinion which, IIRC, differs with your position that the country demands that Dem politicians be as center-right as they are). Never showed any signs that the opinions of the Democratic base mean jackshit to him.

By not voting for him, I make a tiny point that what he's selling in this time of massive need and opportunity for political reform ain't good enough.

By voting for him, I make a tiny point to the Republicans whom I wish Obama opposed with some conviction (hard to get convictions when you vote for retroactive immunity).

By voting for McCain... well, I'm not even going there as a hypothetical. Fuck McCain, and the elephant he rode in on.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

Wish I did have something inspirational to offer, but I am afraid it is going to be a long slow slog.

Appreciate your taking the time to read. Whatever the differences, if we can keep a dialogue open we've accomplished something worthwhile. We do share valuing our vote; as little as it sometimes seems, I wouldn't give it up or fail to use it. Good for you for considering yours so carefully.

Oh, yeah, Chomsky and that "liberal nation" nonsense. He's wrong about that, of course, but I don't hold it against him; he does pretty well on most things. He has a first-rate mind and I remain convinced that if he keeps working at it he can yet become a serious thinker.


badger's picture
Submitted by badger on

Rather, he is a conservative in the mold of Eisenhower and Truman and Clinton, all of whom were reluctant to force change in large ways.


Truman dropped nukes on Japan - you looking for larger change than nuclear war? He also integrated the military, implemented the Marshall Plan, attempted to draft railroad workers and seize steel mills, fired MacArthur, advocated national health insurance, and fought a war with China. As a Senator he chaired the Truman Committe on military waste.

Eisenhower launched the space program, sent Federal troops to Little Rock, created the Interstate Highway system, and appointed Earl Warren as Chief Justice. He was Supreme Allied Commander during WW II and launched the D-Day invasion.

I won't argue whether Clinton was liberal, moderate or conservative - probably all three - but even he tried to allow gays to serve openly in the military and implement national health care, as well as some unfortunate changes like welfare reform, and did balance the budget, which was no small change.

I'd say all three tried to force change in large ways. They weren't always successful.

It isn't necessary to bring 3 pretty good Presidents down to Obama's level to make a point.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

Perhaps when you take a look deeper down than a Wiki laundry list you'll discover just how reluctant Ike and HST were to take each of the presidential actions you list. As I argue, circumstances outside their control drove them to do things they felt at least ambivalent about and were persuaded by events and the forceful arguments of others, and in nearly every instance you cite they were initially extremely reluctant and acted only because they had no other practicable choice. I argue the same course will follow with Obama. Your examples support my claim.

The Warren choice is especially telling. Ike knew less about Warren than McCain knew about Palin, and thought he was a hard-right conservative. What Ike didn't know was that Warren was a strict constructionist in the purest sense of the term, not the Reactionary Revisionist sense. Warren was wildly popular across the board in California, from conservatives to progressives, because he was compassionate, consistent, incorruptible, careful, thoughtful, thorough and competent. Warren was nominated because Ike and his advisers ignorantly expected him to be a steadying conservative manager who wouldn't cause any trouble, not because they thought it would force change.

Since Obama has not yet assumed the office, you cannot say what level of president he will be any more than I can; you are projecting your own negativity in prejudgment. Many of the same things were said about Truman in terms of readiness and competency as you've asserted about Obama, and he was widely derided as nothing but a machine politician and a hack who was in way over his head. Harry turned out OK on balance; no reason why Obama cannot do at least as well.

Sarah's picture
Submitted by Sarah on


He can be a Jimmy Carter or a Harry Truman.
He can be a Bill Clinton (remember the Reagan/Bush deficit?
Remember the Clinton/Gore surplus?).

He can even be a Barack Obama, and since that's a (new and shiny) President-elect, I think I'm inclined to let him do that, and see how it turns out.

However it turns out, though, I don't think he could possibly do anything but improve on Bush/Cheney. Not that they're not going to do everything in their power to scuttle what's left of the US ship of state before they're driven back to their ... ancestral dungheaps.

I wish Texas could enact a law forbidding that cretin from moving back here. Maybe he'll settle down somewhere in Poppy's town. (Given that Ike didn't hurt Houston as bad as it could have done.) Having him back in Dallas would suck, as it would be just our luck Jerry Jones would find W an acceptable partner or (FSM forbid) buyer for the Cowboys, now that they're emerging from more than a decade of crapitude.

We can admit that we’re killers … but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes! Knowing that we’re not going to kill today! ~ Captain James T. Kirk, Stardate 3193.0
1 John 4:18