Many commentators are now weighing in on the big Republican wins in last Tuesday's elections. Besides taking the House of Representatives Republicans took over 18 state legislatures. Conventional media wisdom is already buying the narrative that President Obama and the Democrats moved too far to the left and abandoned independents. That narrative is palpably false. Obama has run a presidency that primarily benefits corporations and the wealthy - the same powers that have run Washington for decades. For the president, and his liberal supporters, his governance has been both a policy and political loser.
Obama has never even tried to govern from the left. Nor was he ever the "change" agent that his campaign made him out to be. As Glenn Greenwald has written, Obama's path to power, since he was young, has always been to accommodate and not threaten the institutions he belonged to. He instead is an accommodater, a compromiser, with existing power. After the 2008 election Obama immediately tacked to the corporate side, seeking bipartisanship with an opposition that not only did not want to cooperate with him but overtly sought his failure.
Glenn Greenwald and Cenk Uygur discussed "whither progressives" on the Dylan Ratigan show.
Obama's political calculation did not acknowledge that the real dividing line in America today is between the interests of the corporate and the rich and the rest of the country. While the Republicans constantly cite "freedom" as their rallying cry, the real freedom that people want is freedom from the dominance of corporations. Obama might have taken a different course - he could have played to his base, taken on the power of corporations, the plutocrats, and the military-industrial-media complex. Of course the right would still have demonized him, but how would that have been different than what they did when he tried a conciliatory stance? If Obama had operated as a true liberal he would at least have had his own base with him, and he would have been able to draw clear lines between the American people and their oppressors, perhaps avoiding the political bloodbath he has just experienced. But that's not the course he chose.
Obama's opportunity has turned into an incredible failure; he has wasted a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn back the civilizational decline that has afflicted America since the 1980s. The litany of the Obama administration's catering to the interests of the rich and corporate is embarrassingly long. Is there any base constituency of the Democratic Party who Obama didn't stick it to? It is truly a sick joke that the right and portions of the media still call him a liberal. He is in fact a corporate Democrat who is in the process of shattering what is left of his party.
The Obama administration created its own doom, making deals with corporations that sold out the American people in a misguided attempt to nibble around the edges of the gaping holes in our society. Obama's approach to governing was a double loser: politically, his attempts at conciliation with opponents did not soften them up, but gained their further enmity and dissembling about the true nature of his governance, labeling him a socialist, communist, and worse. Meanwhile, the compromises he made, and the steps he took, strengthened the corporations that dominate our lives while providing no meaningful relief for hurting Americans. It's no wonder that marginalized demographic groups that helped elect him, such as women, gays, the elderly, the young, and racial minorities showed up in smaller numbers in 2010 than in 2008.
What, exactly, is "liberal" in expanding a pointless war in Afghanistan? Not only has Obama not reversed Bush's imperial policies, he has expanded them with new wars in Pakistan and Yemen. He has continued some of the Bush Administration's policies of torture and rendition. He has continued military tribunals that convict children of terrorism for fighting foreign invaders on their own soil. Obama has even gone beyond the brazenness of president Bush in asserting presidential "sovereign immunity" to allow the government to illegally spy on its own citizens. He continued and expanded Bush's bailout of Wall Street, while doing virtually nothing to stand up for dispossessed home owners. Obama pushed through a politically costly stimulus program that was both too small and laden with unproductive tax cuts.
He promised to end the don't-ask-don't tell policy of discrimination against gays in the military, but then deferred to pentagon brass. When a court ruled the policy illegal, the Obama administration actually appealed the judge's ruling, recently gaining a permanent stay of the judge's order. Obama has betrayed America's teachers and their schools by boosting conservative philanthropy funded Teach for America, while shutting down public schools in favor of failed non-union charter schools supported by billionaires. When a school serving the poor and minorities in Rhode Island engaged in mass teacher firings, Obama and his sadistic education secretary Arne Duncan literally cheered. To demonstrate the absurdity of Obama's education policy, consider that Duncan toured the country with Al Sharpton and noted education expert (not!) Newt Gingrich touting it.
Perhaps the most egregious Obama failure has been health care, where the president literally lied to his own constituencies for months about his secret deals with drug manufacturers and hospital associations. Piles of political capital was wasted on rube-goldberg health care reform that promised no relief for four years, while making permanent the centrality of corporate power in the providing of health care insurance, while doing almost nothing to control costs. The spectacle of an Obama supporter selling a signed letter from him in order to pay her health care bills was a little-remarked iconic moment of the fall campaign.
If you couldn't tell Obama's true attitude towards liberals from his actions, consider the statements made by people from his administration about what they call "the professional left," people, I take, like the ones at DailyKos, Firedoglake, OpenLeft, David Sirota and the Young Turks, to name just a few. These are the people who saw Obama for what he was from the beginning, and warned the president repeatedly to follow through on his campaign's central theme of change. In return Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in March 2010 that "...those people ought to be drug tested" for suggesting that Obama was pursuing a similar course as George W. Bush, which he actually has done in many areas.
Earlier Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had called liberals "fucking retarded" for planned primary campaigns against the Blue Dog Democrats who blocked liberal action. Ironically, those same Blue Dogs are the ones most hurt by the administration's corporate politics, losing 50 percent of their congressional caucus last week.
Why would an administration say such things about a group that has led a resurgence in liberal and political thought, and brought together progressives in a hopeful, positive fashion to attempt to bring real change. The Netroots - as it's known - is a true grassroots phenomenon, sprung from the rise of the Internet in the late 1990s to the explosion of blogs in the early aughts. The Netroots was divided during the presidential primaries, but got behind Obama for the general election. If anyone deserved props from Obama it was the Netroots, but instead they were mocked - dubbed "the professional left" by Gibbs. Yes - administration officials - even the president - occasionally met with groups of these bloggers. The administration may have listened, but it didn't act. The rift has been growing.
Now with Republican sweeps in the elections the Netroots has got its ire up, thinking they were right all along, and Obama's policies which favor the rich and the corporate have been both policy and political losers. They're right. But in Obama's press conference the other day the president said his problem has been one of salesmanship and not of policy. That is delusional. The reality is that most people have seen the entrenchment of the corporations and plutocracy that oppress them, when they had been promised hope and change. Many are now extra disillusioned, feeling they were fools to once again believe in a politician, and that's a shame.
Simultaneously the predictable argument has broken out over what the president should do: tack to the "center" - which in practice always means Democrats capitulating to Republicans - or turn to his base, as George W. Bush did? The signs are pointing to capitulation, and the Netroots knows that liberal goals like tax equity, Social Security and public education are on the block.
The prospects for liberals don't look good. Obama has created a deficit reduction commission, dubbed "The Catfood Commission" by the professional left for its members professed preferences for raiding Social Security, even though the program is self-funding. They conveniently won't report their recommendations until December. Obama and the Republicans actually have a shared attitude towards public education. The only difference is Republicans want to spend less. They both want policies that weaken teachers' unions and privatize public education. There are already signs that Obama will cave in and allow the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to be extended.
Ironically Obama's greatest asset is the crazy right, and its crazier media. By comparison the president looks positively sane and moderate, obscuring his corporatist and plutocratic policies. But he's made a terrible political mistake by forsaking his own base, and by not making an overarching argument about the kind of freedom people want: freedom from domination. Traditional media seems to have recognized that a fight is breaking out on the right between the tea party extremists and the rational right. What they haven't really noticed is that the left is heading for an even bigger fight between disillusioned liberals and their corporatist president.
If Oprah was speaking as a billionaire when she proclaimed Obama "The One" she was right, but if she was speaking as a progressive, she was tragically wrong. Unless Obama radically changes course, which seems unlikely, to say the least, liberals will have to seek real change without him.