What Will The Democrats Do For The People?

The Democrats in Power: Part 2

The broad Democratic and independent “Yes We Can” movement that elected Obama has hardly any visibility these days. President Obama demobilized his enthusiastic supporters when he took office, relying on his high popularity, a big legislative majority, skillful structuring of elaborate compromises with the opposition, and centrist policy initiatives to accomplish his objectives.

But even with a 60-40 Senate advantage (now 59-41) and an overwhelming majority in the House, the Democrats have little to show for it. There are several reasons why Obama’s strategy has produced hardly any legislative results of note.

First is the nature of the Democratic majority in Congress. Centrists and conservative Blue Dogs rule. The minority liberals usually tag along with the majority, and it’s up to the handful of progressives, such as Reps. Barbara Lee (CA) and Dennis Kucinich (OH), to lead the losing struggles for peace and uncompromised social programs for the American people.

(For clarity, the terms “liberal” and “progressive” are not in our view interchangeable but represent historically different currents. Simply put, progressive is to the left of liberal, as the politics of the three different Progressive Parties formed in the 20th Century made clear.)

Second, the obstructionist Republican minority in Congress routinely thumbs its collective nose at Obama and the Democratic majority, remembering how they hamstrung President Bill Clinton — another consummate centrist and compromiser — for much of his eight years in office. Clinton’s most important (and practically only) “achievement” in social program policy was to dismantle “welfare as we know it.”

Obama’s campaign statements about how he and the Congress would govern as “Americans” and not as Democrats or Republicans may have been useful for harvesting votes from the “believers” but couldn’t conceivably produce effective results in practice. The Obama Administration’s decision to buy off the Republicans with concessions rather than to fight them has cost the Democrats a great deal in terms of legislation and public support.

As New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote March 7: “Obama prides himself on not being ideological or partisan — of following, as he put it in his first prime-time presidential press conference, a ‘pragmatic agenda.’ But pragmatism is about process, not principle. Pragmatism is hardly a rallying cry for a nation in this much distress, and it’s not a credible or attainable goal in a Washington as dysfunctional as the one Americans watch in real time on cable.

“Yes, the Bush administration was incompetent, but we need more than a brilliant mediator, manager or technocrat to move us beyond the wreckage it left behind. To galvanize the nation, Obama needs to articulate a substantive belief system that’s built from his bedrock convictions. His presidency cannot be about the cool equanimity and intellectual command of his management style.”

Third, the Obama Administration’s programmatic proposals start from the center and move to the right as they wend their weary way to withdrawal (for fear of filibuster), great compromise, defeat or, as may happen with the eviscerated healthcare bill, a victory in Congress for much weakened legislation.

Since January 2009, when the Democrats took over the government, there has been a paucity of successful big legislation save for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion “stimulus” bill Obama signed Feb. 17 last year. It was a good anti-recession effort as far as it went, but it hardly went far enough to produce the amount of jobs required to make big inroads against unemployment. The bill itself was the product of one compromise after the other just to gain a couple of GOP Senate votes.

The only legislative action the Democratic majority took about America’s wars was to support them. The great majority of Democrats joined arm in arm with their fellow pro-war Republicans to support the widening Afghan war and the most expensive Pentagon budget in history.

On March 10, 189 Democrats and 167 Republicans united to oppose a motion to end the Afghan war introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH). The opposition consisted of 60 Democrats, which is excellent under present conditions, and five Republicans. It took guts and adherence to principle for those Democrats to buck the party leadership, and they deserve the thanks of all who oppose the Bush-Obama wars.

The two other items of major legislation introduced by the Obama Administration since January 2009 were the Employee Free Choice Act, and the healthcare bill (the House’s Affordable Health Care for America Act, and the Senate’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act).

The Democrats owed the Free Choice Act to organized labor, which devoted a huge amount of volunteer time and hundreds of millions in dollars to the Obama campaign. Labor also suffered a number of setbacks during two terms of anti-union Republican misrule. But the measure has been stalled in committee for a year and may never come to a vote. The Republicans oppose anything that helps the unions and workers, but so do many conservative Democrats. So much for a big majority.

What happened to the healthcare bill is a classic case of the middle moving right. First, President Obama compromised with Big Insurance and Big Pharma behind closed doors before the bill was introduced. Single payer was given away in the process. Then he compromised with his Blue Dogs, which probably is where public option bit the dust. Then he compromised with the Republicans (several humiliating times) — the result being the enrichment of the two big “health” industries beyond their imaginings.

Appearing on PBS’s Bill Moyers Journal March 5, Dr. Marcia Angell, a physician and author on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, was asked, “has President Obama been fighting as hard as you wished?” to which she responded:

Fighting for the wrong things and too little, too late. He gave away the store at the very beginning by compromising. Not just compromising, but caving in to the commercial insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry. And then he stood back for months while the thing just fell apart. Now he’s fighting, but he’s fighting for something that shouldn’t pass. Won’t pass and shouldn’t pass.

But if it is passed, she continued, “it will begin to unravel almost immediately. And then what will people do? Well, they’ll say, ‘We tried health reform, and it didn’t work. Better not try that anymore.'” Her advice was to withdraw the bill and come back in the next session with single-payer legislation and fight hard to get it passed.

The Obama Administration realizes that despite a thundering majority and willingness to make concessions, the healthcare bill might not get passed this year, leaving the Democrats without a major legislative victory in an election year.

In early March, Obama began to fight publicly for the bill, indicating that the Democrats might invoke the complicated “reconciliation process” for budget resolution, where a simple majority prevails instead of the 60 vote anti-filibuster rule.

On March 8, after nearly 14 months of not calling on his popular base for anything, the president showed up at a mass meeting in Philadelphia sounding for the first time like a populist and demanding public support for his thoroughly weakened healthcare bill. Would that he fought as hard for single payer.

Wrote the Times the next day: “In a high-octane appearance that harked back to his “yes we can” campaign days, Mr. Obama jettisoned the professorial demeanor that has cloaked many of his public pronouncements on the issue, instead making an emotional pitch for public support as he tries to push the legislation through a final series of votes in Congress in the next several weeks.”

Populism does not come easily to Obama, but he seems willing to evoke the image out of desperation, as he did again in Ohio March 15. “Obama Makes a Working-Class Appeal for Health Care Votes,” is how the N.Y. Times headlined the event.

Populism could pay off for Obama this critical election year if he simultaneously introduces progressive legislation. The shameless Republicans in Congress already call him a “socialist,” the Tea Party rightists suggest he is “Hitler” incarnate, and the “birthers” insist he’s not even an American citizen, so he doesn’t have much to lose being identified as a progressive populist.

Populism also depends on overcoming Obama’s reluctance to mobilize the party’s mass base to take public action in support of his objectives. Why not a big Fifth Avenue March for Single Payer? The “danger,” of course, is that progressives and their politics might gravitate to the leadership of a prolonged national mobilization of Democratic activism across the country during a recession. Who knows what would come out of that! So any “mobilization” probably will consist of getting people to attend rallies where Obama is speaking, and little more.

(Continued in Part 3)

  • Read Part 1.
  • Jack A. Smith is the editor of the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter. He can be reached at jacdon@earthlink.net. Read other articles by Jack.

    2 comments on this article so far ...

    Comments RSS feed

    1. Don Hawkins said on March 22nd, 2010 at 1:02pm #

      Jack I see where some bricks through the windows of Democratic office’s before the vote and I watched a few Republicans after the vote smart human’s they are not. The good the bad the ugly here we go.

    2. Don Hawkins said on March 22nd, 2010 at 3:26pm #

      For the President to give the people of Earth speech with much on the deep do do part could just bring people on the same page. I’d like to see the look on a few people’s faces if he did. Welcome to the twenty first century. What would they say if he did? Probably the President needs psychiatric help or can Joe take over. The amazing part is the very people who would say that are the one’s who need the psychiatric help or maybe some book learnin and not how to win friends and influence people. Yes boring this will not be