Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama and the Economy


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On January 20, 2009 — unless he’s killed before that, which given the number of death threats he’s received can’t be ruled out as a possibility — Barack Hussein Obama will take the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States. He will be in that position largely because the American economy, which had been ailing for about a year and a half with the collapse of the housing bubble, melted down outright in mid-September. And it will be the economy, both what it does over the next four years and how Obama responds to it, which will either make or break Obama’s presidency.

Obama was elected in defiance of quite a few odds — and not just the obvious one that he’s at least partially of African descent in a country that still largely lives by the old segregationist rule that one drop of Black blood makes you Black. He won the Democratic nomination against a more experienced, better funded candidate, Hillary Clinton, who had the support of the party establishment and also (inexplicably, given that her husband was the President who pushed the anti-jobs, anti-labor, anti-environment, middle-class-destroying North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, through Congress in 1994) stronger support among white working people.

What’s more, he won the general election against a well-honed Republican attack machine that had routinely chewed up and spat out Democratic Presidential nominees with far less going against them. Up until mid-September, I was predicting that John McCain would win the election, partly because of the so-called “Bradley effect” — the five percent or so of American voters too racist to vote for an African-American but too embarrassed by that to tell pollsters that they won’t — partly because of past Republican successes in rigging elections and mainly because McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, were expertly playing the same Republican fear cards that enabled their party to win seven of the 10 Presidential elections.

Aided by the half of the mainstream media that is essentially a permanent propaganda machine for the Republican party — the complex of talk radio, Fox News, the CNN Headline channel and print publications like the Washington Times, American Spectator and National Review — McCain’s campaign trotted out all the familiar nasties about Obama. We heard he was a socialist, a wimp who’d let al-Qaeda murder us all in our beds, an “elitist” permanently out of touch with “real America,” a friend of terrorists (if not a terrorist himself) and a mere boy utterly unfit to be entrusted with the most important job in the world.

All this came a lot closer to working than most of us progressives who voted for Obama like to think. McCain’s plaint during one of his debates with Obama that the Democrats in general and Obama in particular were painting him as a clone of Bush — “If you wanted to run against Bush, you should have run four years ago,” McCain told Obama — ironically reflected that if the 2008 election had been fought on the same turf as 2004’s, McCain would have won easily. To the end, polls showed more Americans trusted McCain than Obama on the issues of terrorism and the war in Iraq. Obama won because the horrifying scope of America’s economic crisis rendered terrorism and Iraq irrelevant as issues.

Progressives and conservatives alike have been writing a lot of nonsense about Obama’s victory. Progressives, who seem to specialize in this sort of wishful thinking, have said Obama’s victory is a thorough repudiation of lassiez-faire capitalism and the “government is not the solution, government is the problem” rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and every President (Clinton as well as both Bushes!) since. They’ve also hailed Obama’s victory as the end of the “Bradley effect,” which is simply not true. Obama consistently ran behind his poll numbers, and though the last polls put him 10 points ahead he actually won by only 5 1/2 percent — exactly the fall-off the “Bradley effect” predicted.

The Right, not surprisingly, has been even worse. Having failed to defeat him with their scare campaign, they’re using their media to declare Obama’s Presidency a failure two months before it’s even started. They’re making a big to-do about how Obama has drawn virtually all his appointees so far from the Clinton administration — which is pretty ominous if you’re a progressive Democrat who thinks Clinton was a moderate Republican in Democrat drag — but if Obama were filling the ranks of his administration with new people they’d be lambasting him with equal fervor for neglecting all the “experienced” Democrats from the Clinton era.

Certainly Obama’s appointments so far seem more than anything to be aimed at assuring Wall Street that “change you can believe in” means “change people of wealth and privilege don’t need to worry about.” Hillary Clinton is supposed to be secretary of state — an odd choice given that, whatever her role in her husband’s administration, little or none of it involved foreign policy. Obama has made Clinton’s last treasury secretary, the abominable Lawrence Summers who said women weren’t qualified for scientific careers and Africa didn’t have its fair share of the world’s pollution, a senior White House advisor, and for secretary of the treasury he’s picked Timothy Geithner, New York Federal Reserve president and former staff member of Kissinger Associates (in a country that gave a damn about honor, anyone who’d worked for Henry Kissinger would automatically be disqualified for high public office!) and protégé of Summers and his Clinton-era predecessor, former Goldman Sachs investment banker Robert Rubin.

The list goes on: former Clinton staff person John Podesta as head of Obama’s transition team. Former Clinton hatchet person Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff. For attorney general: Eric Holder, former deputy to Clinton’s attorney general Janet Reno, instrumental in winning the controversial presidential pardon for financier Marc Rich in the last days of Clinton’s term. For White House counsel: Gregory Craig, who represented President Clinton in his impeachment trial. Other ex-Clintonistas under consideration for jobs in Obama’s administration include former energy secretary Bill Richardson, former Clinton economic advisor Peter Orszag, former White House budget director Jack Lew, and Daniel Tarullo, former assistant to President Clinton on international economic affairs.

These appointments indicate that so far Obama is taking the path of least resistance, assuring the financial community that he can be “responsible” and isn’t going to listen to all those crazy liberals in his party who actually want him to do something about the growing inequality of wealth and income in this country — and the world — that sparked the economic crisis in the first place. Franklin Roosevelt, who ran a similarly cautious campaign in 1932 (few people remember that FDR actually criticized Herbert Hoover for running a budget deficit!), moved far more radically — but he had one element pushing him that Obama doesn’t need to worry about.

That was a mass Left, well organized and able to mobilize such a degree of popular support that many people in the capitalist elite worried that if something weren’t done to save it, their entire system would collapse. It doesn’t matter whether that movement calls itself populist, socialist, communist, anarchist or something else; what matters is that it be large and powerful enough to scare the capitalists into thinking that they have to make compromises with the working class in order to survive. America’s mass Left was smashed in the reactionary period following World War II, briefly rekindled in the 1960’s (albeit far less powerfully) and then worn down by the period of reaction that began with the 1960 election and reached its peaks under Reagan and the Bushes.

Our response to Obama shouldn’t be to support him blindly or oppose him blindly. It shouldn’t be to expect that he will give us everything we want and begin the new progressive millennium (that was the mistake we made with Clinton!). It shouldn’t be to hold back for fear of embarrassing him. It should be to take advantage of the crack in the door his election has opened and build a unified movement based on the possibilities his election seemed to create — before the forces of pro-capitalist reaction seize the moment and slam that door in our faces again. As a symbol, Obama is a catalyst for hope; as a leader, he’s as irrelevant to what this country really needs from its progressives as any other capitalist politician — and we need to treat him as such and be as hard on him as we were on Bush.