Problems Ahead for Obama?

The New Yorker magazine published a memorable front cover a year after President Barack Obama assumed office. It was a four panel cartoon-like drawing by artist Barry Blitt of a man walking on water, a reference to the Apostle Paul. In panel one, the walking figure, illuminated by a heavenly shaft of light, shows a small unidentifiable figure in the background. By panel two the tall, thin man is clearly Obama. By number three, a still walking confident, serious president dominates the panel, looking sternly at the viewer. And in panel four he sinks.

He is still sinking today. According to the Pew Research Center poll released Aug. 25: “For the first time in his presidency, significantly more disapprove than approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president (49% vs. 43%), and… 38% strongly disapprove of Obama’s job performance while 26% strongly approve.” The poll shows that 22% approve of the job performance of Republican congressional leaders while the figure is 29% for Democratic leaders. At 43%, the Democratic Party is viewed more favorably than the GOP at 34%.

At issue now is what the important and very disappointed liberal, progressive and labor union sector of the Democratic constituency is going to do during the 2012 election campaign, which already seems well under way 14 months before the voting.

Many Democratic Party supporters, especially those of the center-left, virtually venerated their candidate during the 2008 campaign. Liberals and unionists not only chanted slogans on cue at rallies but volunteered and donated money to elect him. The union movement invested a few hundred million dollars. Obama was not only viewed as the anti-Bush redeemer but the rescuer who would bring the party left wing back to relevance after being exiled to the sidelines when the leadership began its nearly four decade trek to end up right of center.

During the earlier campaign in Des Moines, Oprah Winfrey — who is arguably the most influential woman in the world — declared to a crowd of 15,000 enthusiasts, “I am here to tell you, Iowa, he is the one. He is the one!” But in her New York Times column Sept. 3 titled “One and Done?,” Maureen Dowd devilishly observed, “The One is dancing on the edge of one term.”

Even though Obama will occasionally pretend to liberal populism to mesmerize selected audiences during this campaign, his first term record of concrete concessions to conservative ideology cannot be camouflaged. As viewed from the party center left, and even from the center, the Obama Administration’s record is lamentable when matched against reasonable Democratic voter expectations in 2008.

Most Democratic voters, liberal or not, expected a reduction in U.S. military violence, not the increase Obama produced. They preferred a strengthening of civil liberties, not a continuation of the Bush Administration’s Patriot Act and additional erosions of rights. They sought progress on reducing environmental despoliation and global warming, not policies that produce opposite results. Many anticipated at least moderate efforts to mitigate the appalling increases in economic inequality, and to alleviate the hyper-inequality afflicting some national minorities, but nothing has been forthcoming.

So far, it is premature to anticipate how many defections are expected from the Obama camp due to increasing malaise and anger from much of the liberal sector and its further left cohorts who usually end up on the Democratic Party treadmill every four years. They are caught once again — although by surprise this time for many — in the familiar lobster-like pincers of the lesser evil/greater evil dilemma.

Most fear that voting for existing small third party progressive alternatives will help elect the “greater evil” right/far right half of the ruling duopoly, so they will vote for the center right Obama, who occupies political territory once claimed by the now extinct “moderate” wing of the Republican Party. The White House inner circle, Democratic Party bigwigs and the main sector of the ruling class are counting on it, and seek to raise a record-setting $1 billion dollars to keep their man in the Oval Office.

The Democratic Party strategy for gaining a second term in the White House seems based on two main assumptions about the Republicans, as well as blaming the GOP for everything except Hurricane Irene, and putting forward a popular program that after the elections may never see the light of day.

(1) The first assumption is that the GOP will be perceived by much of the electorate as having moved too far to the right, alienating independent voters who will now vote for Obama in greater number, and keeping the dissident Democrats in line. There is also the possibility of splits between the Tea Party stalwarts and the less doctrinaire parent party as a whole and possibly within the TP itself.

(2) The second assumption is that the GOP simply does not have a broadly attractive presidential candidate if the field remains narrowed to Tea Party favorites such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, or flagrantly opportunist conservative former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, backed up by secondary candidates including libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul and longshot mainstream Republican former Utah Gov. John M. Huntsman. At this point Perry (an aggressive climate change and evolution denier, who thinks Social Security is a Ponzi scheme) and Romney (who probably was the last of the “moderate Republicans” until raw ambition and hypocrisy drove this multimillionaire to the farther right) have the inside track. Palin hasn’t announced yet.

For his part, President Obama will strive to convince the American people that the Republicans are entirely responsible for the political gridlock in Washington. He will charge the GOP with putting petty party interests ahead of “American,” not merely Democratic, interests, intentionally conflating the two to imply the Republicans are lacking patriotism. The White House will propagate the notion that Tea Party extremists left Obama with “no choice” but to cut social programs to lower the deficit instead of fighting harder for taxing the rich, and “no option” but to put Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid up for grabs — concessions that were in fact entirely voluntary. It is highly doubtful for obvious reasons that the Democratic candidate will repeat his most stirring crowd pleaser from the 2008 campaign — “Our time has come, our movement is real, and change is coming to America.”

The Democratic domestic platform will be a glistening cornucopia of promises and good intentions for every sector — the right, center, and even a trifle for the left. In essence, however, it will tilt toward conservatism. There will be elevating talk about needed programs, but it is highly doubtful a viable social agenda that serves the needs of an increasingly desperate American people will emerge from an Obama triumph, including anything more than token gestures toward rebuilding infrastructure or protecting the environment. Foreign policy will remain the same, as will military/national security strategy and its ruinous price tag. Full spectrum power and global domination remain the name of the imperial game.

This may keep the bulk of Democrats content and attract independents. Most rank-and-filers have followed their party into the center right over the years, consciously or often not even aware of the political shift, and remain comfortable with Obama even though the blush has departed the rose. Most liberals are no longer sanguine and some will fight back within the party and may be able to wrest small favors.

Obama will be traveling on a bumpy campaign road, however, and there will be some potential Democratic voters who stay at home, probably including younger and first time voters who played a big role in 2008, and Latino voters dismayed by the Obama Administration’s George Bush-like immigration policies, among others.

Several score liberal, progressive and labor organizations are complaining loudly, from Move-On, Campaign for America’s Future, and Progressive Democrats of America to the AFL-CIO federation of 56 unions. It is expected that a developing coalition of such forces will exert considerable pressure on the Democratic Party leadership to include at least a few key liberal programs in the platform, although most campaign priorities are ignored or delayed indefinitely after the election.

Nearly 70 groups that describe themselves as progressive sent a communication to President Obama Aug. 30 insisting that he fight for a jobs program “that does not just tinker around the edges.” Similar groups are pushing for a legislative drive to “Restore the American Dream.”

Some groups are threatening to withhold campaign contributions should Obama ultimately agree to making cuts in federal entitlement programs. A grassroots group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee composed of liberals who raised money for the Democrats in 2008 brought 200,000 signed pledges to Obama’s national campaign headquarters in Chicago in July with precisely that message.

The most important critic is the 10.5 million-member AFL-CIO and its new community affiliate, the 2 million members of Working America. Total U.S. union membership may have suffered a precipitous decline since its apogee in 1954, when it constituted 33% of the workforce, compared to 11.9% this year — but the unions are key to the Democrats’ existence, although the party has given very little in return.

Criticism of the Democrats of any kind is a fairly new attitude for the AFL-CIO, after many decades of conservative, pro-war, Cold War, pro-business leadership from former AFL and AFL-CIO presidents George Meany and Lane Kirkland from 1952 to 1995. The more militant John Sweeney, federation president 1995-2009, broke with many of the earlier right wing practices while remaining close to the Democratic leadership.

Former United Mine Workers leader Richard Trumka, who was part of the now-retired Sweeney’s winning New Voices reform team, succeeded to the presidency. He has been remarkably vocal this year about the failure of the Obama Administration to fight the right and to support progressive programs for jobs, the Employee Free Choice Act, a public option for healthcare, and raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour as Obama promised in 2008. Free Choice was the labor movement’s key legislative priority. It would have removed several barriers to increasing union membership — but the White House didn’t even bring the bill to a vote, knowing conservative Democrats would join anti-union Republicans to defeat the measure, not that Obama twisted any arms on behalf of labor.

In addition to public criticisms, Trumka has been suggesting that the AFL-CIO intended to declare a certain independence from the Democratic Party. In early June he told union nurses meeting in Washington that “We want an independent labor movement strong enough to return balance to our economy, fairness to our tax system, security to our families and moral and economic standing to our nation…. We can’t simply build the power of any political party or any candidate. For too long we’ve been left after the election holding a canceled check and asking someone to pay attention to us. No more!”

In the equivalent of aiming a hefty whiff of grapeshot across the White House lawn, Trumka declared Aug. 25: “This is a moment that working people and quite frankly history will judge President Obama on his presidency. Will he commit all his energy and focus on bold solutions on the job crisis or will he continue to work with the Tea Party to offer cuts to middle class programs like Social Security all the while pretending the deficit is where our economic problems really lie?”

Some other indications of the labor movement’s more active stand include the recent federation announcement that it is organizing a nationwide week of demonstrations for jobs in 450 locations in October. On Sept. 4 it was reported that union donations to federal candidates at the beginning of this year were down about 40% compared with the same period in 2009. In August, a dozen trade unions, including the 2.5 million member AFL-CIO building trades division, said they would boycott next year’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., because of “broad frustration with the [Democratic] Party” and to protest the event’s location in an anti-union right-to-work state.

Despite some unprecedented criticism, and positive evidence of a tilt toward labor independence, a break with the Democratic Party is not in cards for the 2012 election. But it is a long delayed warning that has a powerful potential should it be ignored. A token of opposition may transpire next year by union refusal to back selected Blue Dog Democrats; perhaps labor candidates will run against some conservative Democrats in primaries or in some cases stand as third party election entries against anti-union candidates of the two ruling parties. Some money may be withheld and there may be fewer volunteers.

When President Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009, the news media often compared him favorably to Dr. Martin Luther King, suggesting, in effect, he was the fulfillment of King’s “Dream,” a reference to the great civil rights leader’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. On the anniversary of the march Aug. 28, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who was a civil rights fighter in his youth and who at spoke at the historic event, speculated on what King would say to Obama were he alive today, in a public statement that was both a plea and a sad censure:

“Dr. King,” Lewis wrote, would tell President Obama “that it is his moral obligation to use his power and influence to help those who have been left out and left behind. He would encourage him to get out of Washington, to break away from handlers and advisers and go visit the people where they live…. He would urge Obama to feel the hurt and pain of those without work, of mothers and their children who go to bed hungry at night, of the families living in shelters after losing their homes, and of the elderly who chose between buying medicine and paying the rent….

“[He would tell him] to do what he can to end discrimination based on race, color, religious faith and sexual orientation…. There is no need to put a finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. There is no need to match each step to the latest opinion poll. The people of this country recognize when a leader is trying to do what is right…. Let the people of this country see that you are fighting for them and they will have your back.”

This is no doubt true, but fighting for the people is simply not among Barack Obama chief priorities.

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  • Jack A. Smith is the editor of the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Jack.