Change That’s Still to Come

According to the Gallup Poll, Barack Obama will wrap up his first 100 days in office as the most popular president in 30 years. That time period includes the patron saint of the American Right, Ronald Reagan.

This is testament to the desire of the majority of the U.S. public to stick with the decision it made last November — to break with a generation of conservative rule.

Support for Obama among the population surely stands out as his first few months in office has raised criticism from different quarters of the media and political establishment, as well as from liberals who would normally count themselves in his corner.

The opposition from the right so far has been unfocused and largely ineffectual. The motley crew of “tea-baggers” who turned out April 15, radio yakker Rush Limbaugh, and second-rate politicians like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas secessionist Gov. Rick Perry are a pretty sorry excuse for an opposition.

On the other side of the spectrum, most liberals remain strong supporters of Obama’s plans, despite their reservations about the administration’s kowtowing to Wall Street bankers and its half-heartedness in advancing priorities like the Employee Free Choice Act and health care reform.

Obama’s first three months in office should also remind anyone who harbored illusions otherwise that, as the president of the United States, Obama — by definition — is there to preserve the status quo. Even if the status quo has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

Obama has taken some steps to renovate U.S. policy, from ordering the closure of the Guantánamo Bay prison camp to scrapping the global “gag rule” on abortion counseling. In contrast to the Bush administration’s denial of global climate change, the Obama administration is acknowledging that this is an issue the U.S. government should tackle.

But on a number of his most important actions, his administration showed much more continuity with the Bush regime than many of his supporters would have predicted.

First, the array of programs that his chief economic adviser Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have hatched to rescue the banking system are extensions of the pro-Wall Street bailout policies of their predecessors under Henry Paulson, Bush’s treasury secretary and the former head of Goldman Sachs. These plans amount to a huge transfer of wealth from working people to the banking establishment that is largely responsible for the economic crisis.

Obama and his advisers have swatted away liberal critics of their coddling of Wall Street, like Nobel Prize-winning economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. They have even tried to deflect outrage aimed at Wall Street titans who used taxpayers’ money to pay themselves outlandish bonuses.

Obama told a group of bankers at the White House that he was “the only thing [standing] between you and the pitchforks” of angry people demanding an end to Washington’s favoritism to Wall Street, according to the Washington-based newsletter Politico. If that quote is accurate, then Obama is quite conscious of his role in fronting for Wall Street, while saying that he “feels the pain” of Main Street.

Second, it was largely predictable that Obama would reaffirm a number of the most heinous Bush policies from the “war on terror.”

Presidential power is cumulative. Once one president seizes it, his successors don’t give it up willingly. From refusing to prosecute authors of the recently released “torture memos” to intervening on behalf of secrecy and against civil liberties in a number of “war on terror” court cases left over from the Bush years, the administration is signaling to the U.S. national security establishment that it has no intention of rolling back policy to a pre-September 11, 2001 state.

Coupled with plans to step up intervention in Afghanistan and increase the military budget (carping from conservatives about the “cuts” in the military aside), the military certainly has nothing to fear from the Obama era.

Obama’s election was a part of a general move among the U.S. population to the left, or at least away from the dominant right-wing ideology that shaped American politics for a generation. This evolution is likely to continue, independently of what Obama does or doesn’t do.

Witness, for instance, the gathering support for equal marriage rights across the country. Only a few years after conservatives used gay marriage as a “wedge issue” to wind up their base, two rural states — Iowa and Vermont — recently legalized gay marriage after activist campaigns put the issue on those two states’ agendas. Now, even some Republicans, like McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt, are calling for the Republicans to dump gay-bashing.

And Obama’s recent suggestions that the U.S. may be open to changing its bone-headed policies toward Cuba has brought forth far less wailing and gnashing of teeth among all but a handful of anti-Castro diehards.

Where do we go from here? Given the mound of crises that Obama inherited, it’s pretty remarkable that he appears to be in as strong a position as he is. But the future may not be as kind to him, and the public’s patience may wear thin.

Right now, Obama has the advantage of having put into place a number of programs to address the economic crisis, without the results of any being visible. So people are giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Nevertheless, it’s a sure bet that unemployment and economic desperation will increase over the next year or more. Obama’s policies are most likely not strong enough to really arrest the economy’s decline. And the risk of the U.S. being drawn deeper into a long and unpopular war in Afghanistan is inherent in Obama’s drum-beating against al-Qaeda.

So there is much that could undermine Obama’s current standing. And his political opposition will not be as clownish is at appears today.

This puts a premium on what has argued consistently since Obama emerged as the Democratic favorite to win the presidential nomination more than a year ago — that is, the shift in mass consciousness has to translate into mass organization that pressures the government on behalf of working people.

The yardstick of judging a new administration by its actions in its first 100 days dates, of course, from the early days of the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. Between March 9 and June 16 of that year, Roosevelt proposed, and Congress enacted, 15 major pieces of legislation, including the repeal of Prohibition, creation of the National Recovery Administration, establishment of federal unemployment insurance, jobs programs, foreclosure relief and banking regulation (the Glass-Steagall Act, whose repeal in 1999 contributed to the current crisis).

Compared to this output of legislation, Obama’s stimulus package and budget resolutions don’t even seem to compare.

But it’s important to remember that none of these pieces of legislation in the 1930s — the beginnings of the New Deal — would have had the impact they did if ordinary people hadn’t organized themselves to demand more.

Historian Thomas Sugrue’s recent commentary in The Nation is well taken:

Whether Obama can tame the Great Recession, whether his mostly seasoned, Clinton-era circle of advisers will boldly experiment, and whether his presidency will ultimately be compared favorably with Roosevelt’s, remains to be seen. It pays to recall that the New Deal was the result of presidential leadership and policy innovation, but also that the drama of the Great Depression and the New Deal played out in places far from the nation’s capital — on New York City’s streets, in Nebraska’s cornfields, in Flint’s auto factories and in California’s shipyards.

Perhaps the biggest difference between 2009 and 1933 is that Obama has not, at least yet, been seriously tested by organized pressure from below. That might ultimately be what distinguishes FDR’s administration from Obama’s.

It’s up to those who want to see more fundamental change than Obama is willing to contemplate to get on with creating that “organized pressure from below.”

Lance Selfa writes for the Socialist Worker where this article first appeared. Read other articles by Lance, or visit Lance's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Jeff said on April 30th, 2009 at 6:36pm #

    The only difference between 1933 an 2009 is time!

  2. Tennessee-Chavizta said on April 30th, 2009 at 7:23pm #


    Resist or Become Serfs

    By Chris Hedges

    America is devolving into a third-world nation. And if we do not immediately halt our elite´s rapacious looting of the public treasury we will be left with trillions in debts, which can never be repaid, and widespread human misery which we will be helpless to ameliorate. Our anemic democracy will be replaced with a robust national police state. The elite will withdraw into heavily guarded gated communities where they will have access to security, goods and services that cannot be afforded by the rest of us. Tens of millions of people, brutally controlled, will live in perpetual poverty. This is the inevitable result of unchecked corporate capitalism. The stimulus and bailout plans are not about saving us. They are about saving them. We can resist, which means street protests, disruptions of the system and demonstrations, or become serfs.

    We have been in a steady economic decline for decades. The Canadian political philosopher John Ralston Saul detailed this decline in his 1992 book “Voltaire´s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West.’ David Cay Johnston exposed the mirage and rot of American capitalism in “Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill),’ and David C. Korten, in “When Corporations Rule the World’ and “Agenda for a New Economy,’ laid out corporate malfeasance and abuse. But our universities and mass media, entranced by power and naively believing that global capitalism was an unstoppable force of nature, rarely asked the right questions or gave a prominent voice to those who did. Our elites hid their incompetence and loss of control behind an arrogant facade of specialized jargon and obscure economic theories.

    The lies employed to camouflage the economic decline are legion. President Ronald Reagan included 1.5 million U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine service personnel with the civilian work force to magically reduce the nation´s unemployment rate by 2 percent. President Bill Clinton decided that those who had given up looking for work, or those who wanted full-time jobs but could only find part-time employment, were no longer to be counted as unemployed. This trick disappeared some 5 million unemployed from the official unemployment rolls. If you work more than 21 hours a week—most low-wage workers at places like Wal-Mart average 28 hours a week—you are counted as employed, although your real wages put you below the poverty line. Our actual unemployment rate, when you include those who have stopped looking for work and those who can only find part-time jobs, is not 8.5 percent but 15 percent. A sixth of the country is now effectively unemployed. And we are shedding jobs at a faster rate than in the months after the 1929 crash.

    The consumer price index, used by the government to measure inflation, is meaningless. To keep the official inflation figures low the government has been substituting basic products it once measured to check for inflation with ones that do not rise very much in price. This sleight of hand has kept the cost-of-living increases tied to the CPI artificially low. The New York Times´ consumer reporter, W.P. Dunleavy, wrote that her groceries now cost $587 a month, up from $400 a year earlier. This is a 40 percent increase. California economist John Williams, who runs an organization called Shadow Statistics, contends that if Washington still used the CPI measurements applied back in the 1970s, inflation would be 10 percent.

    The corporate state, and the political and intellectual class that served the corporate state, constructed a financial and political system based on illusions. Corporations engaged in pyramid lending that created fictitious assets. These fictitious assets became collateral for more bank lending. The elite skimmed off hundreds of millions in bonuses, commissions and salaries from this fictitious wealth. Politicians, who dutifully served corporate interests rather than those of citizens, were showered with campaign contributions and given lucrative jobs when they left office. Universities, knowing it was not good business to challenge corporatism, muted any voices of conscience while they went begging for corporate donations and grants. Deceptive loans and credit card debt fueled the binges of a consumer society and hid falling wages and the loss of manufacturing jobs.

    The Obama administration, rather than chart a new course, is intent on re-inflating the bubble. The trillions of dollars of government funds being spent to sustain these corrupt corporations could have renovated our economy. We could have saved tens of millions of Americans from poverty. The government could have, as consumer activist Ralph Nader has pointed out, started 10 new banks with $35 billion each and a 10-to-1 leverage to open credit markets. Vast, unimaginable sums are being placed into these dirty corporate hands without oversight. And they will use this money as they always have—to enrich themselves at our expense.

    “You are going to see the biggest waste, fraud and abuse in American history,’ Nader warned when I asked about the bailouts. “Not only is it wrongly directed, not only does it deal with the perpetrators instead of the people who were victimized, but they don´t have a delivery system of any honesty and efficiency. The Justice Department is overwhelmed. It doesn´t have a tenth of the prosecutors, the investigators, the auditors, the attorneys needed to deal with the previous corporate crime wave before the bailout started last September. It is especially unable to deal with the rapacious ravaging of this new money by these corporate recipients. You can see it already. The corporations haven´t lent it. They have used some of it for acquisitions or to preserve their bonuses or their dividends. As long as they know they are not going to jail, and they don´t see many newspaper reports about their colleagues going to jail, they don´t care. It is total impunity. If they quit, they quit with a golden parachute. Even [General Motors CEO Rick] Wagoner is taking away $21 million.’

    There are a handful of former executives who have conceded that the bailouts are a waste. American International Group Inc.‘s former chairman, Maurice R. Greenberg, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Thursday that the effort to prop up the firm with $170 billion has “failed.’ He said the company should be restructured. AIG, he said, would have been better off filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection instead of seeking government help.

    “These are signs of hyper decay,’ Nader said from his office in Washington. “You spend this kind of money and do not know if it will work.’

    “Bankrupt corporate capitalism is on its way to bankrupting the socialism that is trying to save it,’ Nader added. “That is the end stage. If they no longer have socialism to save them then we are into feudalism. We are into private police, gated communities and serfs with a 21st century nomenclature.’

    We will not be able to raise another 3 or 4 trillion dollars, especially with our commitments now totaling some $12 trillion, to fix the mess. It was only a couple of months ago that our expenditures totaled $9 trillion. And it was not long ago that such profligate government spending was unthinkable. There was an $800 billion limit placed on the Federal Reserve a year ago. The economic stimulus and the bailouts will not bring back our casino capitalism. And as the meltdown shows no signs of abating, and the bailouts show no sign of working, the recklessness and desperation of our capitalist overlords have increased. The cost, to the working and middle class, is becoming unsustainable. The Fed reported in March that households lost $5.1 trillion, or 9 percent, of their wealth in the last three months of 2008, the most ever in a single quarter in the 57-year history of record keeping by the central bank. For the full year, household wealth dropped $11.1 trillion, or about 18 percent. These figures did not record the decline of investments in the stock market, which has probably erased trillions more in the country´s collective net worth.

    The bullet to our head, inevitable if we do not radically alter course, will be sudden. We have been borrowing at the rate of more than $2 billion a day over the last 10 years, and at some point it has to stop. The moment China, the oil-rich states and other international investors stop buying treasury bonds the dollar will become junk. Inflation will rocket upward. We will become Weimar Germany. A furious and sustained backlash by a betrayed and angry populace, one unprepared intellectually and psychologically for collapse, will sweep aside the Democrats and most of the Republicans. A cabal of proto-fascist misfits, from Christian demagogues to simpletons like Sarah Palin to loudmouth talk show hosts, who we naively dismiss as buffoons, will find a following with promises of revenge and moral renewal. The elites, the ones with their Harvard Business School degrees and expensive vocabularies, will retreat into their sheltered enclaves of privilege and comfort. We will be left bereft and abandoned outside the gates.

  3. Jeff said on April 30th, 2009 at 7:52pm #

    Well T-C, most bought into this. Looking into whom you expose, exposes yourself. This is most concerning.

    I look at this world 180 degrees to many. This means “I can see you!”.

    There are no “Canadians”. Never have been, never will be. Subjects to the “CROW-N”.

  4. mjosef said on May 1st, 2009 at 2:53am #

    The American went to the “left” because of, as evidence, one and only one issue: gay marriage equality? As a McCain hack said to the Log Cabin Republicans, it’s as much a conservative position as anything: marriage is supposed to be what Goldwater Republicans want as the answer for everybody.
    So it’s one sidebar identity politics issue (is Massachusetts now a beacon of economic equality? Does it have single payer? Are the streets lined with gold?) and here comes the American public to a mass socialist consciousness? That may be what has to herald as part of its raison d’etre, but that is not what I see. The supersystem rolls on, and in America, this means a cowed labor force, rampaging elite financial and military interests, a nearly impenetrable reinforced institutional structure that has now its diversity figurehead. The US is not France, with its bossnappings. France, with its Sarkozy, is not France, of course.
    Self-styled leftists, especially of the self-focused male variety, must stop with the optimistic uplift con – social power resides in control, not in “beliefs” that have not stopped a single bomber.