Part of me shares the enthusiasm for Barack Obama. After all, how could someone calling themself a progressive not sense the importance of what it means to have an African-American so close to the presidency? But as his campaign has unfolded, and I heard that we are not red states or blue states for the 6th or 7th time, I realized I knew virtually nothing about him.
Like most, I know he gave a stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. I know he defeated Alan Keyes in the Illinois Senate race; although it wasn’t much of a contest (Keyes was living in Maryland when he announced). Recently, I started looking into Obama’s voting record, and I’m afraid to say I’m not just uninspired: I’m downright fearful. Here's why:
This is a candidate who says he’s going to usher in change; that he is a different kind of politician who has the skills to get things done. He reminds us again and again that he had the foresight to oppose the war in Iraq. And he seems to have a genuine interest in lifting up the poor.
But his record suggests that he is incapable of ushering in any kind of change I’d like to see. It is one of accommodation and concession to the very political powers that we need to rein in and oppose if we are to make truly lasting advances.
THE WAR IN IRAQ
Let’s start with his signature position against the Iraq war. Obama has sent mixed messages at best.
First, he opposed the war in Iraq while in the Illinois state legislature. Once he was running for US Senate though, when public opinion and support for the war was at its highest, he was quoted in the July 27, 2004 Chicago Tribune
as saying, “There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position at this stage. The difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute.” The Tribune went on to say that Obama, “now believes US forces must remain to stabilize the war-ravaged nation – a policy not dissimilar to the current approach of the Bush administration.”
Obama’s campaign says he was referring to the ongoing occupation and how best to stabilize the region. But why wouldn’t he have taken the opportunity to urge withdrawal if he truly opposed the war? Was he trying to signal to conservative voters that he would subjugate his anti-war position if elected to the US Senate and perhaps support a lengthy occupation? Well as it turns out, he’s done just that.
Since taking office in January 2005 he has voted to approve every war appropriation the Republicans have put forward, totaling over $300 billion. He also voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State despite her complicity in the Bush Administration’s various false justifications for going to war in Iraq. Why would he vote to make one of the architects of “Operation Iraqi Liberation” the head of US foreign policy? Curiously, he lacked the courage of 13 of his colleagues who voted against her confirmation.
And though he often cites his background as a civil rights lawyer, Obama voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act in July 2005, easily the worse attack on civil liberties in the last half-century. It allows for wholesale eavesdropping on American citizens under the guise of anti-terrorism efforts.
And in March 2006, Obama went out of his way to travel to Connecticut to campaign for Senator Joseph Lieberman who faced a tough challenge by anti-war candidate Ned Lamont. At a Democratic Party dinner attended by Lamont, Obama called Lieberman “his mentor” and urged those in attendance to vote and give financial contributions to him. This is the same Lieberman who Alexander Cockburn called “Bush’s closest Democratic ally on the Iraq War.” Why would Obama have done that if he was truly against the war?
Recently, with anti-war sentiment on the rise, Obama declared he will get our combat troops out of Iraq in 2009. But Obama isn’t actually saying he wants to get all of our troops out of Iraq. At a September 2007 debate before the New Hampshire primary, moderated by Tim Russert, Obama refused to commit to getting our troops out of Iraq by January 2013 and, on the campaign trail, he has repeatedly stated his desire to add 100,000 combat troops to the military.
At the same event, Obama committed to keeping enough soldiers in Iraq to “carry out our counter-terrorism activities there” which includes “striking at al Qaeda in Iraq.” What he didn’t say is this continued warfare will require an estimated 60,000 troops to remain in Iraq according to a May 2006 report prepared by the Center for American Progress. Moreover, it appears he intends to “redeploy” the troops he takes out of the unpopular war in Iraq and send them to Afghanistan. So it appears that under Obama’s plan the US will remain heavily engaged in war.
This is hardly a position to get excited about.
CLASS ACTION REFORM:
In 2005, Obama joined Republicans in passing a law dubiously called the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) that would shut down state courts as a venue to hear many class action lawsuits. Long a desired objective of large corporations and President George Bush, Obama in effect voted to deny redress in many of the courts where these kinds of cases have the best chance of surviving corporate legal challenges. Instead, it forces them into the backlogged Republican-judge dominated federal courts.
By contrast, Senators Clinton, Edwards and Kerry joined 23 others to vote against CAFA, noting the “reform” was a thinly-veiled “special interest extravaganza” that favored banking, creditors and other corporate interests. David Sirota, the former spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee, commented on CAFA in the June 26, 2006 issue of The Nation
, “Opposed by most major civil rights and consumer watchdog groups, this Big Business-backed legislation was sold to the public as a way to stop "frivolous" lawsuits. But everyone in Washington knew the bill's real objective was to protect corporate abusers.”
contributor Dan Zegart noted further: “On its face, the class-action bill is mere procedural tinkering, transferring from state to federal court actions involving more than $5 million where any plaintiff is from a different state from the defendant company. But federal courts are much more hostile to class actions than their state counterparts; such cases tend to be rooted in the finer points of state law, in which federal judges are reluctant to dabble. And even if federal judges do take on these suits, with only 678 of them on the bench (compared with 9,200 state judges), already overburdened dockets will grow. Thus, the bill will make class actions – most of which involve discrimination, consumer fraud and wage-and-hour violations – all but impossible. One example: After forty lawsuits were filed against Wal-Mart for allegedly forcing employees to work "off the clock," four state courts certified these suits as class actions. Not a single federal court did so, although the practice probably involves hundreds of thousands of employees nationwide.”
Why would a civil rights lawyer knowingly make it harder for working-class people to have their day in court, in effect shutting off avenues of redress?
CREDIT CARD INTEREST RATES:
Obama has a way of ducking hard votes or explaining away his bad votes by trying to blame poorly-written statutes. Case in point: an amendment he voted on as part of a recent bankruptcy bill before the US Senate would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent. Inexplicably, Obama voted against it, although it would have been the beginning of setting these predatory lending rates under federal control. Even Senator Hillary Clinton supported it.
Now Obama explains his vote by saying the amendment was poorly written or set the ceiling too high. His explanation isn’t credible as Obama offered no lower number as an alternative, and didn’t put forward his own amendment clarifying whatever language he found objectionable.
Why wouldn’t Obama have voted to create the first federal ceiling on predatory credit card interest rates, particularly as he calls himself a champion of the poor and middle classes? Perhaps he was signaling to the corporate establishment that they need not fear him. For all of his dynamic rhetoric about lifting up the masses, it seems Obama has little intention of doing anything concrete to reverse the cycle of poverty many struggle to overcome.
LIMITING NON-ECONOMIC DAMAGES:
These seemingly unusual votes wherein Obama aligns himself with Republican Party interests aren’t new. While in the Illinois Senate, Obama voted to limit the recovery that victims of medical malpractice could obtain through the courts. Capping non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases means a victim cannot fully recover for pain and suffering or for punitive damages. Moreover, it ignored that courts were already empowered to adjust awards when appropriate, and that the Illinois Supreme Court had previously ruled such limits on tort reform violated the state constitution.
In the US Senate, Obama continued interfering with patients’ full recovery for tortious conduct. He was a sponsor of the National Medical Error Disclosure and Compensation Act of 2005. The bill requires hospitals to disclose errors to patients and has a mechanism whereby disclosure, coupled with apologies, is rewarded by limiting patients’ economic recovery. Rather than simply mandating disclosure, Obama’s solution is to trade what should be mandated for something that should never be given away: namely, full recovery for the injured patient.
MINING LAW OF 1872:
In November 2007, Obama came out against a bill that would have reformed the notorious Mining Law of 1872. The current statute, signed into law by Ulysses Grant, allows mining companies to pay a nominal fee, as little as $2.50 an acre, to mine for hardrock minerals like gold, silver, and copper without paying royalties. Yearly profits for mining hardrock on public lands is estimated to be in excess of $1 billion a year according to Earthworks, a group that monitors the industry. Not surprisingly, the industry spends freely when it comes to lobbying: an estimated $60 million between 1998-2004 according to The Center on Public Integrity. And it appears to be paying off, yet again.
The Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2007 would have finally overhauled the law and allowed American taxpayers to reap part of the royalties (4 percent of gross revenue on existing mining operations and 8 percent on new ones). The bill provided a revenue source to cleanup abandoned hardrock mines, which is likely to cost taxpayers over $50 million, and addressed health and safety concerns in the 11 affected western states.
Later it came to light that one of Obama’s key advisors in Nevada is a Nevada-based lobbyist in the employ of various mining companies (CBS News “Obama’s Position On Mining Law Questioned. Democrat Shares Position with Mining Executives Who Employ Lobbyist Advising Him,” November 14, 2007).
REGULATING NUCLEAR INDUSTRY:
The New York Times reported that, while campaigning in Iowa in December 2007, Obama boasted that he had passed a bill requiring nuclear plants to promptly report radioactive leaks. This came after residents of his home state of Illinois complained they were not told of leaks that occurred at a nuclear plant operated by Exelon Corporation.
The truth, however, was that Obama allowed the bill to be amended in Committee by Senate Republicans, replacing language mandating reporting with verbiage that merely offered guidance to regulators on how to address unreported leaks. The story noted that even this version of Obama’s bill failed to pass the Senate, so it was unclear why Obama was claiming to have passed the legislation. The February 3, 2008 The New York Times article titled “Nuclear Leaks and Response Tested Obama in Senate” by Mike McIntire also noted the opinion of one of Obama’s constituents, which was hardly enthusiastic about Obama’s legislative efforts:
"Senator Obama's staff was sending us copies of the bill to review, and we could see it weakening with each successive draft," said Joe Cosgrove, a park district director in Will County, Ill., where low-level radioactive runoff had turned up in groundwater. "The teeth were just taken out of it."
As it turns out, the New York Times story noted: “Since 2003, executives and employees of Exelon, which is based in Illinois, have contributed at least $227,000 to Mr. Obama’s campaigns for the United States Senate and for president. Two top Exelon officials, Frank M. Clark, executive vice president, and John W. Rogers Jr., a director, are among his largest fund-raisers.”
On energy policy, it turns out Obama is a big supporter of corn-based ethanol which is well known for being an energy-intensive crop to grow. It is estimated that seven barrels of oil are required to produce eight barrels of corn ethanol, according to research by the Cato Institute. Ethanol’s impact on climate change is nominal and isn’t “green” according to Alisa Gravitz, Co-op America executive director. “It simply isn’t a major improvement over gasoline when it comes to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.” A 2006 University of Minnesota study by Jason Hill and David Tilman, and an earlier study published in BioScience in 2005, concur. (There’s even concern that a reliance on corn-based ethanol would lead to higher food prices.)
So why would Obama be touting this as a solution to our oil dependency? Could it have something to do with the fact that the first presidential primary is located in Iowa, corn capitol of the country? In legislative terms this means Obama voted in favor of $8 billion worth of corn subsidies in 2006 alone, when most of that money should have been committed to alternative energy sources such as solar, tidal and wind.
SINGLE-PAYER HEALTH CARE:
Obama opposed single-payer bill HR676, sponsored by Congressmen Dennis Kucinich and John Conyers in 2006, although at least 75 members of Congress supported it. Single-payer works by trying to diminish the administrative costs that comprise somewhere around one-third of every health care dollar spent, by eliminating the duplicative nature of these services. The expected $300 billion in annual savings such a system would produce would go directly to cover the uninsured and expand coverage to those who already have insurance, according to Dr. Stephanie Woolhandler, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program.
Obama’s own plan has been widely criticized for leaving health care industry administrative costs in place and for allowing millions of people to remain uninsured. “Sicko” filmmaker Michael Moore ridiculed it saying, “Obama wants the insurance companies to help us develop a new health care plan-the same companies who have created the mess in the first place.”
NORTH AMERICAN FREE TRADE AGREEMENT:
Regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement, Obama recently boasted, “I don’t think NAFTA has been good for Americans, and I never have.” Yet, Calvin Woodward reviewed Obama’s record on NAFTA in a February 26, 2008 Associated Press article and found that comment to be misleading: “In his 2004 Senate campaign, Obama said the US should pursue more deals such as NAFTA, and argued more broadly that his opponent's call for tariffs would spark a trade war. AP reported then that the Illinois senator had spoken of enormous benefits having accrued to his state from NAFTA, while adding that he also called for more aggressive trade protections for US workers.”
Putting aside campaign rhetoric, when actually given an opportunity to protect workers from unfair trade agreements, Obama cast the deciding vote against an amendment to a September 2005 Commerce Appropriations Bill, proposed by North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, that would have prohibited US trade negotiators from weakening US laws that provide safeguards from unfair foreign trade practices. The bill would have been a vital tool to combat the outsourcing of jobs to foreign workers and would have ended a common corporate practice known as “pole-vaulting” over regulations, which allows companies doing foreign business to avoid “right to organize,” “minimum wage,” and other worker protections.
SOME FINAL EXAMPLES:
On March 2, 2007 Obama gave a speech at AIPAC, America’s pro-Israeli government lobby, wherein he disavowed his previous support for the plight of the Palestinians. In what appears to be a troubling pattern, Obama told his audience what they wanted to hear. He recounted a one-sided history of the region and called for continued military support for Israel, rather than taking the opportunity to promote the various peace movements in and outside of Israel.
Why should we believe Obama has courage to bring about change? He wouldn’t have his picture taken with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom when visiting San Francisco for a fundraiser in his honor because Obama was scared voters might think he supports gay marriage (Newsom acknowledged this to Reuters on January 26, 2007 and former Mayor Willie Brown admitted to the San Francisco Chronicle on February 5, 2008 that Obama told him he wanted to avoid Newsom for that reason.)
Obama acknowledges the disproportionate impact the death penalty has on blacks, but still supports it, while other politicians are fighting to stop it. (On December 17, 2007 New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine signed a bill banning the death penalty after it was passed by the New Jersey Assembly.)
On September 29, 2006, Obama joined Republicans in voting to build 700 miles of double fencing on the Mexican border (The Secure Fence Act of 2006), abandoning 19 of his colleagues who had the courage to oppose it. But now that he’s campaigning in Texas and eager to win over Mexican-American voters, he says he’d employ a different border solution.
It is shocking how frequently and consistently Obama is willing to subjugate good decision making for his personal and political benefit.
Obama aggressively opposed initiating impeachment proceedings against the president (“Obama: Impeachment is not acceptable,” USA Today, June 28, 2007) and he wouldn’t even support Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold’s effort to censure the Bush administration for illegally wiretapping American citizens in violation of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In Feingold’s words “I’m amazed at Democrats … cowering with this president’s number’s so low.” Once again, it’s troubling that Obama would take these positions and miss the opportunity to document the abuses of the Bush regime.
Once I started looking at the votes Obama actually cast, I began to hear his rhetoric differently. The principal conclusion I draw about “change” and Barack Obama is that Obama needs to change his voting habits and stop pandering to win votes. If he does this he might someday make a decent candidate who could earn my support. For now Obama has fallen into a dangerous pattern of capitulation that he cannot reconcile with his growing popularity as an agent of change.
I remain impressed by the enthusiasm generated by Obama’s style and skill as an orator. But I remain more loyal to my values, and I’m glad to say that I want no part in the Obama craze sweeping our country.
Matt Gonzalez is a former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.