If Barack Obama truly wanted to be a transformative president he would have pushed to break the senatorial filibuster at the very beginning of his term in office. As a former senator, he knew full well the power and inclination of a senate minority to obstruct all legislative initiatives.
There is not a syllable in the constitution that empowers a minority in the least democratic branch of government with an absolute veto over all legislative action. That usurpation of power was accomplished by senatorial rules of conduct, which are subject to change by a majority vote at the beginning of each congressional session.
Had the Obama administration been able to lower the filibuster threshold to 55 votes or required senators to hold the floor as they once did or limited its duration to 27 calendar days, the incoming president would have been empowered to usher in an era of progressive change, the very change for which the electorate thought it was voting. He surely could have passed Medicare-for-all with a ten or twenty-year phase in. He could have restructured the tax code and fully financed an emerging green economy. He could have rebuilt the nation’s infrastructure and established an interstate mass transit system, achieving something very close to full employment.
There is no end to what Obama might have accomplished had he been willing to take that first bold step. With the economy moving again, he might well have reversed his party’s fortune in the mid-term elections. But that bold president, the one that would have summoned the spirits of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, was nowhere to be found.
It was never what Barack Obama had in mind. It seems he was playing from the Bill Clinton handbook all along. Even now, as we approach a new session of congress, there is little talk of reforming the filibuster. With the Republicans taking control of the lower house perhaps we no longer think it important. But the lower house is closer to the people and closer to the next election. Any representative who refuses to extend unemployment benefits with the unemployment rate near ten percent will almost certainly guarantee the wrath of his or her constituency and an abbreviated tenure in Washington. No, the Senate will remain the leading source of obstructionism and the problem should be addressed. But that is not in the Clinton handbook.
Never was I so reminded of Slick Willy as when Obama with a passion rarely summoned in his presidency challenged his progressive critics to name a single instance where he has failed to keep his word: “Look at what I promised during the campaign. There’s not a single thing that I haven’t done or tried to do.”
While managing to project himself as an antiwar candidate, he never promised to withdraw all troops from Iraq. He promised to escalate in Afghanistan and that he has done.
Winning the support of organized labor, Obama promised to sign the Employee Free Choice Act but it never reached his desk. He never promised to support Fair Trade but he appeared to support labor provisions in Free Trade agreements. He advocated exacting a price on those who export jobs but it has never made the Obama short list.
He advocated health care as a right rather than a responsibility but he never promised a public option. He never promised universal healthcare or that health insurance rates would be mediated. He did oppose an insurance mandate but few have held him accountable on that ground.
From Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to immigration reform and the repeal of the Bush tax cuts, Obama has always chosen his words carefully. Considered in context, his words are consistent with his actions. He never claimed to be progressive so he cannot be held accountable for failing to live up to what that label entails.
Obama ran as a pragmatist and he has governed in that fashion. What he does not seem to understand is that we don’t care how carefully he parsed his words. We don’t care if we were fooled by our own Audacity of Hope. We frankly don’t care if he is a man of his word or not.
We are living in hard times and we’d like to know he is out to help us. If the president truly believes his compromise on tax policy is in the public interest, fine. Let him state his case. We respectfully disagree and we’ll state ours.
Obama has made it clear he is not beholden to the left for having rallied to make him president. Neither are we beholden to him for having done so. While few of us would argue that he is worse than George W. Bush or John McCain, that’s a little like saying a plunge in freezing water is better than a dip in raw sewage.
From a pragmatic point of view, we could have chosen to rally around Hillary Clinton in the primaries. Why didn’t we? Because we knew what to expect from another round of the Clinton administration. We witnessed Bill Clinton’s pivot to the right after his party lost the mid-term elections. We witnessed welfare reform and bipartisan agreement on free trade (job exportation) and deregulation, all major Republican initiatives. Even after winning reelection, Clinton held to the right in a bold attempt to dominate electoral politics by eliminating the left from the equation. (In the end, he didn’t even have the guts to pardon Leonard Peltier. Yes, some of us still remember.)
We could not rally around Hillary because she showed no inclination to govern differently than her husband. We could not support a third-party candidate because the stakes were high and no candidate rose above the level of symbolism. We rallied to the Obama camp because he was perceived as antiwar and relatively progressive. It was better to gamble on the unknown than to stake our hopes on the highly improbable.
We did not want another Bill Clinton but it seems that is exactly what we got. We gambled and lost, but that does not mean we must sacrifice our voices and convictions by continuing to support a president that has not earned it.
The strangest thing about this sudden rightward pivot on tax policy is the urgency with which it was presented, as if the opportunity would be lost once a new congress was seated. As all must recognize by now this is an overwhelming Republican victory. (The president’s supporters can produce all the graphs and charts they want. The Republicans favor all the tax cuts. The president sold the farm for an extension of unemployment benefits.) Rushing the proposal through a lame duck congress before the Bush tax cuts expired was not only unnecessary but it also worked against the president’s interest.
Had the tax cuts been allowed to elapse the power would have shifted to the White House and a still Democratic Senate. A Republican lower house of congress could do absolutely nothing without Democratic consent. With unemployment near ten percent, there is not a working family in the nation that is not affected. With every vote against extending benefits, the Democrats could have rolled out ads in every district: Joe Worker lost his job when his plant was shipped to China. He took a job as a janitor and was laid off in the Great Recession. Now he’s lost his unemployment benefits. Congressman Right says he’s lazy. What do you say?
As for tax cuts for the middle class, how many times could the anti-tax party say no without losing all credibility?
The Republicans were playing a bluff and either the president was fooled or he did what he intended to do all along: the Clinton pivot.
The American two-party system functions to the extent that it does by managing a delicate balance between corporate interests and the public good. When the right goes too far by gutting that part of government that serves the public good, the left assumes power to restore the balance. When both parties represent essentially the same policies, balance is never restored. The result is a reversal of centuries of progress, an unraveling of the New Deal and the Great Society, a process that predictably ends with the decimation of Social Security, Medicare, public education, environmental protection, civil rights, labor rights and all regulatory agencies.
It is a prescription for disaster because it favors the rich to the detriment of the middle class. When the working people can no longer afford to purchase goods and the middle class is impoverished, the system no longer functions.
Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt. He never intended to be. He is a pragmatist, a man everyone can love once they get to know him. He is Bill Clinton without the personal charm.
It’s not all bad. There is something to be said for intelligence and good management. There is a reason the crash did not happen on his watch. Had Clinton been president instead of George W. Bush, I’m certain he would have acted long before the global economy was on the threshold of total collapse.
Nevertheless, the elements creating the conditions that inevitably led to systemic failure were put in place by Bill Clinton. Unfortunately, Barack Obama shows no inclination to make the necessary corrections.