Reform Is Not A Tea Party

Against the Current, No. 143, November/December 2009

The Editors

THE NOBEL PEACE price notwithstanding, Barack Obama’s presidency, contrary to the hopes of many, has not produced a big political space for the left, let alone “a seat at the table.” Most visibly, it has been the right wing that succeeded in seizing the initiative, in some truly grotesque ways that have thrown a spotlight on the deep paranoia — and straight-up old-style white racism — that persists in this society, and on the ways it can be opportunistically pandered to and manipulated. The tea-party mob phenomenon, however, cannot be dismissed as merely a freak show created by rightwing talk media and massive covert corporate funding, although that is certainly part of the story.

At the same time, we should resist the facile temptation to proclaim a “crisis” for the Obama administration. President Obama continues to have both considerable popular support, which emerges when he’s seen to come up fighting — leaving aside for the moment the miserable substance of what he’s fighting for — as he did with his health care speech to Congress or his October 17 radio address attacking the private insurance lobby. Above all, Obama continues to enjoy the support and gratitude of the capitalist class.

Are the blockages of reform — on health care, on labor law, on corporate plunder, on closing Guantanamo — products of institutional obstruction by reactionary Republicans and conservative Democrats, or of Obama’s own politics? We think the answer is clear: Both.

After nine months we can characterize this administration’s trajectory: The tentative hopes for an aggressive reform agenda can be laid to rest. It wasn’t that this magazine had such expectations, but we should always be open to being surprised. It has turned out, frankly, as we thought: Obama’s presidency is that of a firmly centrist, corporate Democrat, Clinton without the extreme cynicism and the sleaze.

Obama’s liberal and progressive base is disappointed and demoralized by the blockage, and political momentum shifted toward the exceptionally vicious and outright racist right wing, although these forces represent only a small minority of the population.

The administration has had, of course, one notable success — stopping the free fall of the financial system. This was accomplished with “stimulus,” enormous bank bailouts, managed bankruptcy of the auto industry, and practically no inroads on the power of the finance capital that triggered the crash.  Any remote hopes that the temporary quasi-nationalization of the banks and GM might give rise to a program for massive mortgage relief, or converting the auto industry to production for mass transit, were immediately dashed. With the full support of the United Auto Workers leadership, the auto restructuring has basically ended this industry’s status as a high-wage sector.

The ruling class is rightly very grateful for the administration’s economic performance. President Obama is truly what the system needs in this crisis — charismatic and inspiring on the one hand, and a committed pro-corporate manager on the other. He is a particularly important asset now, when the economic crisis is far from over and when the Republican party has not yet reorganized itself as a credible force to push the savage budget-cutting that will be on the agenda further down the road.

As the financial press constantly reports, scaling back the stimulus too quickly might bring on a “double-dip” recession, while pushing it too long risks drowning the economy in unsustainable debt (although at the moment, the debt is at least as much an ideological problem as a substantive one.) The problem is not one of fine-tuning but of inherently unpredictable developments in the world system.

The U.S. government’s own projections for 2010 are for a weak recovery with official unemployment remaining over 10%. Meanwhile, state government budget deficits, as reported by the Financial Times, add up to $165 billion. State and municipal governments are facing fiscal catastrophe — and not only in Michigan and California. Massive cutbacks on the state and municipal level have the effect of a huge “anti-stimulus.” A second round of federal stimulus designed to prop up collapsing state and city governments, especially to salvage public sector employment, is necessary but not on the political agenda.

Meanwhile, it is difficult now to see the administration staking much political capital on resurrecting the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Certainly, the labor movement’s aim of card-check unionization is finished — the most important commitment the Obama campaign made to the union leadership. As to climate change, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA) barely passed in the House of Representatives, with the environmental movement about evenly split on whether the bill was worth supporting at all. The likelihood of a Senate bill before December seems remote, meaning that Obama will be going to Copenhagen with nothing but his rhetoric.

Health Care on Life Support

When president Obama vowed in his health care speech to Congress, “I am not the first President to take up this issue, but I will be the last,” his audience thought he was promising to deliver reform. But there may be a different message to the insurance industry: “Trust me, once this is passed you won’t have to worry about a grassroots reform movement any more.” Indeed, if passed in its presently emerging form, this may be a “reform” that kills genuine health care reform for years to come, until the whole system implodes from its own contradictions.

Health care reform became the pitched battle of 2009 — a battle for which the administration turned out to be poorly prepared — and make no mistake, it is a big political battle, even though before the fight had begun the viable progressive option of a single-payer system was ruled out, demoralizing the grassroots activist base for reform.

The Max Baucus (Senate Finance Committee) plan accomplishes what no one could have thought possible — taking the present broken-down, disastrously failed U.S. health insurance system and figuring out how to make it even worse. Under this scheme millions of families, too far above the poverty line to qualify for subsidies, would be legally required to purchase insurance which they can’t afford, and which they couldn’t use because it would cover too low a percentage of their expenses. This mess is simply the inevitable result of trying to cover rising costs not by creating straight-up National Health Insurance (what’s known as “single payer”), but  by scooping tens of millions of uninsured into the private industry’s bloated coffers.

It’s certainly necessary for the supporters of “Medicare for all” to answer the rightwing arguments that whipped up the Patriot mobs. But this has to be done from an independent, although non-sectarian, vantage point, not as “critical supporters” of what’s emerged as Obama’s corporate reform — a huge public subsidy to the insurance and pharmaceutical industry.

We are for single-payer, not only because of socialist principles — in particular, equal access for all — but because it would actually work. A second-best option might be a strong “public option” with the capacity to seriously compete with the private insurance industry, capable of growing over time into the single-payer option if the industry didn’t meet people’s needs. Whatever president Obama’s “public option”  might have been worth, it has been pretty well surrendered in any case — still hanging on in the draft House legislation, but unable to survive a Senate filibuster even if it has a bare majority there.

In real life, aside from the monstrosities that are inherent in an elephant designed by five different Congressional committees — committees whose members are funded by the industry they’re supposed to “reform” — the end product will inevitably be a bureaucratic and very expensive program, which of course makes it all the more vulnerable to attack from the right.

War and Peace Policy

As we go to press, the administration is struggling to decide whether it will adopt General McChrystal’s proposals and thereby sink, irreversibly and permanently, into the bloody quicksand that is the war in Afghanistan. But there’s a underlying reality: The choice for president Obama at the outset was to decisively break with the Bush-era war policies, or to “take ownership” of them. By trying to split the difference, the administration effectively chose the latter course — whether by choice, or by inertia.

We’ve seen this dramatically in the questions around Guantanamo, torture and rendition. Obama had the power, by executive order, to undo many crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Bush regime. He chose not to do so.

Rendition continues — a program whose only purpose is farming out torture. An investigation of the Bush-CIA torture regime will proceed only because Attorney General Holder, against the president’s inclinations, insists on it. Obama has also taken ownership of the Bush regime’s salvage operation from the lost war in Iraq, an operation with very dubious prospects.

The good news, frankly, is that Obama’s dilemma over whether to double-down on Bush’s very poor wager in Afghanistan comes at a time when the American public’s toleration of this war is rapidly declining.

If General McChrystal’s request for 40-45,000 troops (on top of the 21,000 new troops already ordered to Afghanistan) were implemented, there would be something over 110,000 U.S troops engaged in a deadly whack-a-mole with a growing indigenous insurgency — supposedly to defeat what is a numerically tiny global-jihadist gang.

Increasingly, what president Obama called a “war of necessity” is looking like a war that’s mostly about itself, a “test of U.S. leadership and NATO resolve.” The spectacular theft of the Afghan “election” is the collapse of the idea of building a “stable democracy” on a U.S.-designed model under western occupation.

It has also become distressingly (if predictably) clear that there is no muscle behind the administration’s pleas for a “freeze” on Israel’s colonial-apartheid settlement program in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which the Israeli government dismisses with undisguised contempt.

Implications for the Left

The assaults on Obama from the far right are in no way “balanced” by mobilization, real or imagined, from the progressive side. If anything, criticism from the left is muted by the impulse to rally to his defense against the racist, reactionary hysteria. The Democrats in general won’t really fight for what they believe in, and what they believe in isn’t really worth fighting for. Socialists understand this, but just because we aren’t “illusioned” doesn’t immunize us from the impact of the blockage of reform hopes.

What’s critically needed today is a left that’s firmly independent, while remaining in a friendly dialogue with those people who either consciously or in practice remain part of the “Obama coalition.” Further, the antiwar movement needs to catch up with the American people’s growing disenchantment with the Afghanistan war as the reality of that quagmire sets in. It’s important to understand that in the absence of a strong movement, the right wing will be able to capitalize on popular alienation from this war.

We look forward to the convergence at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia November 19-22. With the coup in Honduras, the demand to shut down the School of the Americas takes on added urgency — its military side carried out by SOA graduate General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez.

In principle, it is not impossible for the Obama administration to regain momentum for a reform agenda. This would require, among other things, adopting a stance of serious political struggle instead of endless accommodation to Republican and “blue-dog Democrat” demands, taking on the despicable corporate health insurance lobby not only in words but in all-out political combat, and the judicious but decisive use of executive power.

We see no reason to expect this, but we should not allow the Democrats’ apologists to evade the issue by claiming that president Obama “is trapped” or “has no choice.” If Obama is trapped, it’s precisely by his own choices. The Democrats will never have a larger majority than they do now, and the failure to use it is their choice too.

ATC 143, November-December 2009