Barack Obama: Legacy Play or "Untethered" Progressive?
2006: Barack Obama at the launch of the
Brookings Institute's Hamilton Project
by Gaius Publius
Obama's latest moves in the (sometimes semi-)progressive direction are all the rage among Democratic supporters and activists hoping, finally, that change has arrived. We saw his move on immigration, but just after the election, not before it — meaning not in time to save candidates like Colorado Senator Mark Udall. He followed that with a move to open the diplomatic and travel door to Cuba, finally. There's also talk in his State of the Union address about extending the ceiling for mandatory overtime pay, providing free community college, and the like.
All of this has garnered praise, as it should. It's also sparked talk of the "bolder," "untethered" Obama. Even his (never gonna pass) proposal for wealth distribution through a Wall Street tax, which I looked at here, has burnished the "new Obama" cred, at least among left-leaning voters and non-voters.
In that same discussion, though, I asked if this "new Obama" was sincere or a "legacy play":
Barack Obama's "Piketty Moment"The debate runs on, especially among the left-leaners Bill Curry identifies in this interesting piece — like the Ready-for-Hillary crowd (a/k/a "Dems first because Republicans") and the Dems-As-Betrayers splinter group. Who is this "new Obama"? And does he signal real change in the Democratic party? I won't answer the second question here, but here are a few data points on the first.
None of Obama's policy proposals (including TPP, I'm told) will pass. Most, in fact, don't have a prayer, in the new Congress or the old one. There are, for example, too many bought-and-paid Democrats to pass anything that taxes Wall Street one dime, the first penny, or the first tenth of a cent. And if something has not a prayer of passing — and is proposed by someone traditionally opposed to anti-One-Percent proposals — it starts to look oddly like an ad campaign, or an attempt to put an enemy on the defensive, or both.
As I've written elsewhere, I don't buy the idea that "this" Obama is "newly freed" Obama, someone who can express his true progressive beliefs. Obama was a free-trade, reform-Social-Security neoliberal in 2006; there's your "true Obama." If he was a secret progressive, he lied to Robert Rubin and Roger Altman to their faces, two years before he first ran for president.
So where is this newfound concern for the "middle class" coming from? Three things to consider:
▪ Legacy — Obama's major job for the next two years will be creating his post-presidential life. Has he chosen the Carter model or the Clinton model? You'll know as soon as he starts giving speeches for money. My money's on the Clinton model, and I'd bet any amount you want that I'm right.
▪ Clintonian legacy requires parting gifts to the already-wealthy. As noted above, Obama is promoting "free-trade" and TPP even as he's telling the old-old lie about "more jobs."
▪ But he can't appear to be handing out cash and prizes, giving the store to thieves, or his legacy as a closet progressive — touched with the Carteresque brush — won't pass muster. So he needs a cover story, one that many will buy. Aid for community college education, tax credits for child care, guaranteed sick and maternity leave, increased overtime pay, and the like, help burnish that story.
It's not that those things are meaningless; they aren't. It's that they won't happen. But that won't stop him getting credit for saying them, and therein lies the beauty. Can anyone say, for sure, he's being insincere? Not many. (I can, but then, I've read the whole speech carefully. His left hand takes back what his right hand publicly offers.)
Climate and Carbon: On the One Hand, On the Other Hand
I mentioned "hands" above and said that in the State of the Union address, the left hand takes back what the right hand offers. There's more where that came from, both inside and outside his speech. First, on climate:
Obama seeks to put Alaska refuge off-limits to drillingYet:
President Obama plans to ask Congress to designate more than 12 million acres of Alaska's wildlife refuge as a protected wilderness area, seeking to block oil and gas production. ...
In a video released by the White House on Sunday, Obama said he wants to "make sure that this amazing wonder is preserved for future generations." ...
Much of the dispute revolves around some 1.5 million acres on the oil-rich coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, long a source of contention between conservationists and backers of the energy industry.
Obama administration opens up southern Atlantic coast to offshore drilling – but restricts it in AlaskaBy the way, the phrase "soaring demand for energy production" is almost right. Change it to "soaring demand for carbon-extraction profit" and you've got it. Soaring demand for energy production could easily mandate a World War II–style crash conversion to wind, solar and the like — but only if one wanted to go there.
The Obama administration on Tuesday outlined a politically fraught plan for allowing oil and gas drilling in U.S. coastal waters, announcing steps to open parts of the southeastern U.S. coastline for oil leasing while imposing new restrictions on environmentally fragile waters off Alaska’s North Slope.
The proposals, intended to set a course for coastal energy development into the next decade, sought to strike a balance between soaring demand for energy production and White House priorities to protect sensitive environments, particularly in the Arctic. ...
American Jobs and TPP: On the One Hand, On the Other Hand
From the State of the Union address:
So no one knows for certain which industries will generate the jobs of the future. But we do know we want them here in America.The very next sentence:
That’s why the third part of middle-class economics is about building the most competitive economy anywhere, the place where businesses want to locate and hire.Because business will always locate and hire where wages are high and benefits support a middle-class lifestyle to go along with those middle-class economics? Or the exact opposite?
And to get those jobs "here in America" he wants to pass the TPP, another massive NAFTA-style trade giveaway:
21st century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more American products overseas. Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages. But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. ... That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.Let me translate: "21st century businesses need to [send more American jobs] overseas. Today, our businesses export more [jobs] than ever, because businesses tend to pay their [foreign workers lower wages]. That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect [corporate profits] ..."
Is that an unfair translation? Not if you look at NAFTA's unarguable devastation of American manufacturing, to name just one of many such trade deals.
So he wants more jobs at lower wages, and NAFTA-style trade deals with both Asia and Europe, because ... wages will go up? ("Exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages"?) I'll leave it to you to decide if he's trying to make sense and failing, or just making a foggy pro-corporate pitch and doing pretty well at it.
Diplomacy and War: On the One Hand, On the Other Hand, On the Other Other Hand
Last one, this time on the military front. First, three quotes from the State of the Union address:
When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.But:
And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.Because:
we are demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy. We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small ...No comment needed, I think. We've been bullying smaller nations since a long time ago. Looks like he wants a third bite at the Iraqi apple.
Legacy Play or Untethered Progressive?
If these contradictions were a minefield, he'd blow himself up. Which is the "real Obama"? If the more progressive Obama is the "realer" one, then he really is a traitor — both to us for the last six years, given how he allowed himself to be painted in 2008, and to himself and his presumed progressive values, for governing as his opposite.
I'd respect him a lot more if the "real" Obama were the one who spoke to a roomful of Robert Rubins in 2006 and declared himself a "strong free trader" (in those words) and a Social Security reformer (in easily translated code). Click the video above and give a listen; the real Robert Rubin was in the room (he's "Bob").
If Hamilton Project Obama is the real one, he'd at least get points for consistency, for fooling us consistently, and the wildly inconsistent language I quoted above would make more sense.
For memory's sake ...
Is that the real Obama, the one with the Will.I.Am overlay? Or is it just too confusing to think so? Me, I have much more respect for the man. I'm going to treat him as a functioning, consistent adult and choose "legacy play" as his current motivation. That man I understand.
HOWIE SAYS "HELLO" TO EVERYONE
Yesterday he thought he might be going home today; then by last night he didn't think so so much. But he's been thinking about all of you out there, and you already know how much he looks forward to being back in his blogging chair! -- Ken