No matter what the facts are, some liberal activists and leaders persist in seeing President Obama as a principled progressive reformer who lives and breathes the campaign rhetoric about “change you can believe in.”
When he compromises, it’s not Obama’s fault – it’s the opposition. Retreat is never a sell-out but a shrewd tactic, part of some secret long-range strategy for triumphant reform.
He’s been in the White House eight months. It’s time for activists take a harder look at Obama. And a more assertive posture toward him.
Because if Obama believes it’s okay to pass healthcare “reform” that subsidizes insurance firms without a robust public option and he dispatches still more troops to Afghanistan, it could demobilize progressive activists while emboldening the Teabag & Beck crowd to bring the GOP back from the dead in low-turnout congressional elections next year. That would be a rerun of the 1994 rightwing triumph brought on by President Clinton’s weakness (e.g. healthcare reform) and corporatism (e.g. the business-friendly NAFTA).
Some activists still see Obama as a brilliant political superhero who – although maddeningly slow to fight back against his opponents – always manages to win in the end . . . like Muhammad Ali defeating George Foreman.
But watching Obama last weekend on the news shows gave little reason for confidence. It’s hard to win the public toward reform if you accept – as Obama often does – the rightwing terms of debate. The right frames healthcare as a debate over a dangerously over-intrusive government taking away individual freedom. The left says it’s about greedy insurance and drug companies – with CEOs getting paid $10 million or $20 million per year – putting profits above public good.
Last weekend, when he was repeatedly asked to comment on Jimmy Carter’s view about anti-Obama animosity being racially motivated, Obama kept wielding the rightwing frame about big “intrusive” government. On ABC, Obama talked about people being “more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right. I think that that’s probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol.”
On NBC, Obama said: “This debate that’s taking place is not about race, it’s about people being worried about how our government should operate.” He asked: “What’s the right role of government? How do we balance freedom with our need to look out for one another?”
The president has a huge bully pulpit, which he’s largely squandered. I’ve heard him discuss healthcare close to ten times in recent weeks without once hearing him rally the public against the corporate greed that leaves our country No. 1 in healthcare spending and 37th in health outcomes, on par with Serbia. Without a populist challenge to corporate profiteering, what’s left is either a bloodless debate about “cost containment” or a rightwing debate about “big government.” Neither mobilizes the public toward progressive change.
Recent U.S. history shows that you can’t serve corporate interests at the same time you’re seeking reform – of healthcare or Wall Street or any other sector. Not when big corporations are the problem . . . and the major obstacles to change.
Placating big business en route to social reform is like downing a flask of whiskey en route to kicking alcoholism.
Yet there was the Obama White House this summer entering into secret deals with the pharmaceutical lobby protecting that industry’s outsized profits.
If Obama is radical about anything, it’s about NOT rocking corporate boats.
That’s why he received more Wall Street funding than any candidate in history and why – before he was a front-runner in early 2007 – he was raising more money from the biggest Wall Street banks than even Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, presidential candidates from New York.
That’s why – as soon as Hillary left the race – he went on CNBC and assured big business: “Look: I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market.”
That’s why he declared to the New York Times last March that his economic policies were absolutely not socialist, but rather “entirely consistent with free market principles.”
That’s why during his 2008 “I love the market” interview on CNBC, he shunned the “populist” label.
President Franklin Roosevelt showed in the 1930s that major reform is possible if a populist upsurge of ordinary people is mobilized to overcome the entrenched opposition of business interests – derided by FDR as the “economic royalists.”
The problem today is that Obama doesn’t seem to have a populist bone in his body. A smart guy, he should know that it’s absurd – in an era when a shrinking number of ever-larger corporations dominate Congress and regulators as they deform markets in industries like banking and healthcare – to keep believing we have a “free market.” Yet he waxes on about being a “free-market guy.”
I guess he’s smart enough NOT to call himself “a corporate guy.”
Liberal activists need to be smart enough to see Obama for the status quo politician he is – and to act accordingly.
Jeff Cohen is an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). His latest book is Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.