This is the piece that I hoped to never write. As long-time readers of Beyond Chron will remember, I was a harsh critic of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign – and worked hard to get Barack Obama elected. An Obama Administration, I believed, would not only break from the Bush era – but also prevent the pitfalls that set back progressives in the Clinton years. One year later, I have a tough time seeing how defeating Clinton was worth the trouble. Not only has Obama failed to bring the “change we can believe in,” but in some cases has driven us down the path of triangulation that angered liberals in the Nineties. Despite a more progressive public and wider majorities in Congress, insurance companies are still sinking health care reform – and Republicans hell-bent on making the President fail from Day One are taken seriously. Obama had said that change would not come easy, and only grassroots pressure would make his presidency a success. But it’s hard for the masses to be channeled effectively – if the leader won’t take on entrenched interests the way he must. And when your Afghan policy is being made by relics of the Clinton and Bush Cabinets, what exactly did we vote for last November?
The American people who voted for “change” did not merely seek a return to the Nineties – or else they would have nominated Hillary Clinton. Obama stood to become the most progressive President in over 40 years, and yet his Administration has little to show for it.
Before we focus on what has not
happened, consider the good that came out of the past year – and ask, would Hillary Clinton have not done the same? We would still have had the economic stimulus. The Lily Ledbetter Act would still have become law, and the “gag order” on abortion counseling would have been lifted – as it would if any Democrat had won. And Sonia Sotomayor would be on the Supreme Court today.
Of course, we all know what happened in the last Clinton Administration. Progressives did not hold the President accountable, health care reform efforts failed, the Right took back Congress in 1994 – and Clinton left us with a legacy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, the Telecommunications Act, NAFTA and Welfare Repeal.
By 1996, I felt like a chump voting for Bill Clinton – because we were duped. That’s why I called out Hillary
at the Netroots Conference in 2007, to see if she would disown the worst parts of her husband’s legacy. She did not, and I realized our only hope was Obama.
Did I reasonably expect Obama to undo all the damage? No, but I at least had expected Don’t Ask Don’t Tell to be gone by now. Health care has taken longer than it should (more on that later), but I never dreamed the Justice Department would defend DOMA with offensive legal briefs
that equate gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. It has not been pretty.
Granted, Obama never claimed to be a progressive. He was an incrementalist – which is better than a triangulator. Obama might not do everything we wanted, and change might not be as far as we would like. But there would be small victories on the way that push us in a better direction and would empower progressives. Unlike Clinton – who proved his centrist bona fides by staking anti-progressive positions that alienated, offended and disempowered the Left – Obama believed in change that came from collective action.
But that theory – which I argued throughout the campaign – fell apart with Obama’s right turn
. Now, he is escalating war in Afghanistan – and has delighted Joe Lieberman by indicating to Senate Democrats that the public option was expendable. Look at the people advising him on the surge
right now. Except for Joe Biden and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, everyone was either an architect of the Clinton – or Bush – foreign policies.
Of course, judging who Obama takes advice from is not always an accurate standard. As Randy Shaw wrote last year
, what matters is how they interact with the White House – and how much the President values their advice. But two of his Cabinet appointments have proven to lead the Administration down a dangerous course, which has hurt progressives badly.
I was shocked that Obama chose to keep George Bush’s Defense Secretary – Robert Gates – at the Pentagon, which disturbed me far more than any Clintonite who got a Cabinet post. Obama could never have won the White House without public anger at the Iraq War, but now Gates is responsible (more than anyone) for selling the Afghan surge.
Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff has also been terrible. Rather than being the shrewd henchman who can muscle Obama’s agenda through Congress, Emanuel has instead given cover
to Blue Dog Democrats to keep destroying heath care reform. Rahm’s a good guy to have on your side, but he was part of the problem in Washington.
As for health care, every progressive piece of legislation – immigration reform, climate change and the Employee Free Choice Act – has been on the back burner for the past year because of it. If we were told to wait until Congress passes health care, why didn’t Obama use his political capital to get the kind of universal health care that is meaningful? And if we were going to settle for a lot less in the end, why drag it on for an entire year?
Instead, he let Max Baucus
craft a bi-partisan “compromise” in the Senate Finance Committee that was neither. The public option, which had always been a compromise from single payer, is now on life support simply because Joe Lieberman likes all the attention he gets from Fox News. The President says he wants a public option, but has offered no support to progressive Senators Sherrod Brown and Tom Harkin who are actually fighting for it.
Obama could have put the Blue Dogs and Lieberman in their place months ago. But his defenders – myself included
– argued for months that getting in a knock-down brawl is just “not in his DNA.” Obama has to remain cool and cerebral, and let Congress evolve on its own. But insurance companies have been running Capitol Hill for decades, stand to lose millions of dollars in profits from reform – and were not going to give up without a nasty fight.
Organizing for America has tried to keep the activists who elected Obama working in the health care fight – by making phone calls to Congress. But they made a choice early on not to target
the right-wing Democrats hostile to reform – i.e., precisely the group that needs to be made to feel pressure. Without the fear of primary challenges, Blue Dogs who hold the balance of power are running the show – because they’re just following the insurance money.
Obama always said that change would not come unless we demand it. He also said it was up to activists
to get health care. But while the people may lead, the leader must direct – and a fight like health care reform requires the leader to get his hands dirty. Lyndon Johnson never got civil rights legislation without threatening his colleagues – Obama needs to do the same.
I never meant to write a rant about Obama’s failures. Diatribes that moan about how a Democrat “let us down” are a dime a dozen – and can be found in any alternative media outlet. I don’t want Obama to fail, but success relies on progressive accomplishments.
And right now, I’m skeptical about what has – and will – be done in this Administration. At this moment, I seriously wonder why I worked so hard to get him elected President.