How Obama Is Neutralizing the Left and Tilting Rightward

by on August 9, 2011 · 9 comments

in American Empire, Civil Rights, Economy, Popular

Obama is a willful player in an epic drama of faux-politics.

By James K. Galbraith / AlterNet – Deutsche Welle / August 8, 2011

Political news travels slowly, and in my casual observation progressive Europeans have held on to the myth of Barack Obama as a good man much longer than most progressive Americans did. How could a young black American from Chicago and Harvard be otherwise?

Over here reality has been evident for a while, thanks to the President’s pattern of giving way to banks, lobbies, Republicans and right-wing extremists. Whether your prime interest is housing, health care, peace, justice, jobs or climate change, if you are an activist in America you have known for a long time that this President is not your friend.

Still, even on these shores disillusion often took a mildly forgiving form. The President was a “disappointment.” He was weak. He had “bad negotiating skills.” He had a tendency to “deal with hostage-takers,” to “surrender.” All of this fed the image of a man with a noble spirit, a good heart, the best intentions, but trapped by limited ability and the relentless and reckless determination of his foes.

 Obama is no progressive

The debt deal will make things clear. The President is not a progressive – he is not what Americans still call a “liberal.” He is a willful player in an epic drama of faux-politics, an operative for the money power, whose job is to neutralize the left with fear and distraction and then to pivot rightward and deliver a conservative result.

What Barack Obama got from the debt deal was exactly what his sponsors have wanted: a long-term lock-in of domestic spending cuts, and a path toward severe cuts in the core New Deal and Great Society insurance programs – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And, of course, no tax increases at all.

To see the arc of political strategy, recall that from the beginning Obama handed economic policy to retainers recruited from the stables of Robert Rubin. From the beginning, he touted “fiscal responsibility” and played up the (economically non-existent) “problem” of the budget deficit. From the beginning his team sabotaged economic recovery with optimistic forecasts and inadequate programs – in the clear interest of protecting the banking system from reform.

As the presidency moved along, false claims of economic recovery supported a transition toward obsessive focus on debt and deficits, validated by a federal commission and constantly reinforced by a Washington propaganda chorus funded by Peter G. Peterson, for many decades a billionaire campaigner against Social Security and Medicare.

Debt ceiling a pseudo-crisis

But it wasn’t enough. Even with the Republican victory in the 2010 mid-terms there wasn’t the political will-power simply to pass the cuts and make them stick. For it wasn’t sufficient just to pass them: politicians need cover when they do ugly things.

They need an excuse, something that will offer protection from the anger of the victims, or more precisely from other politicians who might exploit that anger. In the well-practiced manner of organized crime, blood needs to be on everyone’s hands. That way, no one can defect; no one can turn states’ evidence and safely get away with blaming the others.

The debt-ceiling pseudo-crisis created the necessary panic.

The debt ceiling is a unique American law – no other country has one – a little travesty of democratic bad faith. It was first enacted in 1917, to allow congressmen to hoodwink the rubes back home even as they voted for a large issue of Liberty Bonds to finance the Great War.

It has been a vehicle for posturing ever since – but that it would be raised has never been in doubt. (Even this time the markets never showed the slightest worry.) It became a vehicle for blackmail because it was convenient. It was convenient, because Obama failed to insist it be his price for agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts last December. Whether that omission was accidental or calculated at the time is, for the moment, unknown.

 Obama’s neglected options

Even as “crisis” loomed, the President had powerful options. The Constitution of the United States flatly forbids default on debt or any other public obligation. The President could have simply asserted his duty and refused to negotiate.

Even more cleverly, he could – under a quirk of existing law – have turned drama to farce by minting a large platinum coin – say for a trillion dollars – and using that to buy back public debt held by the Federal Reserve, so that the debt ceiling would never have been breached. (There would have been an uproar but no other economic effect.)

These options were rejected or not considered at all. From which, one has to conclude that the President really did want a big budget-cutting deal. He just wanted – like any politician – the appearance of being bullied into it.

So now the die is cast. Practically nothing to address any real economic problem can now get done. Actual austerity will come slowly – the cuts are not abrupt and some may yet be blocked – but unless there is a radical change of events or mood it will come. Meanwhile as the economy stalls and despair deepens, the deficits and debt will continue to climb.

 Short presidencies

The deficit lobbies are shifting: their next step will be to raise doubts about the plan’s credibility and about Congress’s will to enforce it. They will then make the self-protective assertion that still stronger steps are needed. European observers of Greek/Irish/ Portuguese/ British/Spanish and Italian politics – not to mention Latvia or Hungary – will find all of this familiar.

For European observers, one key to understanding how such things can happen in America is to remember that our presidencies are short. The professors who joined Obama for his opening act have already gone home. The advisers who remain face dreary futures in think-tanks funded by the likes of Michael Milken, our premier financial ex-felon.

Maybe, if they are especially loyal to their true masters, then like the former budget director Peter Orszag they can go to work for a bank. This surely accounts in part for their present actions.

And the President too is a young man. Unlike say Lyndon B. Johnson or Jimmy Carter, when his term ends he won’t be able simply to go home. He’ll need a big house in a gated suburb, with high walls and rich friends. And a good income, too, from book deals and lecture fees. He may be thinking about that now.

The good news is: it won’t save him. For if and when he ventures out, for the rest of his life, the eyes of all those, whose hopes he once raised will follow him. The old, the poor, the jobless, the homeless: their eyes will follow him wherever he goes.

James K. Galbraith is the author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, and of a new preface to The Great Crash, 1929, by John Kenneth Galbraith. He teaches at The University of Texas at Austin.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar RB August 9, 2011 at 3:53 pm

All presidents are forced to govern from the center relative to their campaigns. It is the primary process, run by the far right and far left, that distorts the will of the majority in the center. President Obama’s decisions makes perfect sense when viewed as part of his re-election campaign. The President and his advisers know you don’t raise taxes while the economy is weak. So you tell the far left how you want to raise taxes (wink, wink), while you do what is best for the country and extend the Bush/Obama tax cuts.

Does anyone believe the left is not going to vote for the President? They will not decide the next election.


avatar annagrace August 9, 2011 at 8:48 pm

The majority isn’t defining the center, because the “center” has been pushed to the right by radical conservatives.


avatar dave rice August 9, 2011 at 9:23 pm

“The President and his advisers know you don’t raise taxes while the economy is weak.”

They should also know that you don’t slash holes in safety nets while the economy is weak and the people need them most.


avatar RB August 10, 2011 at 7:22 am

What safety net program has been slashed?………none!
What safety net program has been cut?…..none!

A cut in Washington is not a cut. A cut in Washington is decrease in the rate of increased spending.


avatar Frank Gormlie August 12, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Unless the Super-committee of Congress makes the requisite moves, there are automatic cuts in military and the safety net – did you miss that RB?


avatar Greg Noyes August 9, 2011 at 8:51 pm

First we declare we will win the race for the future. Then we carbo load by eating our seed corn. A peculiar , innovative strategy. Why not double the gas tax and use the proceeds to rebuild infrastructure. Employ two shifts for 3 10 hour days each, and you would be able to employ 50 per cent more people to work, and complete projects in a more timely manner.


avatar dave rice August 9, 2011 at 9:27 pm

I’m still waiting for all the massive (and much needed) infrastructure spending that was supposed to come from the”stimulus” – especially as construction remains one of the hardest-hit sectors locally and I watch the friends I grew up with in East County who became tradesmen forced to flee San Diego, leech off unemployment before being forced into minimum wage service jobs, or drown themselves in bottles…and even the “lucky” ones who got out aren’t doing well in Idaho, Oklahoma, Oregon, or elsewhere.


avatar Jettyboy August 10, 2011 at 9:28 am

” The President is not a progressive – he is not what Americans still call a “liberal.” He is a willful player in an epic drama of faux-politics, an operative for the money power, whose job is to neutralize the left with fear and distraction and then to pivot rightward and deliver a conservative result.” BINGO!
He is well on his way. How he uses the “liberal guilt”phenomena is almost genius.


avatar RB August 10, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Yeap, the President is not a progressive. He is a Democrat.

FDR was a Democrat not a progressive. He was for group prayer and against public employee unions and strikes. Kennedy was a Democrat not a progressive. He was for reducing taxes not increasing taxes, when the economy stalled. Clinton was a Democrat not a progressive. He reformed the welfare state and reduced the federal deficit. And Obama is a Democrat and not a progressive. He extended the Bush tax program when the economy was weak and has called for reform of our failing public schools.

The problem is not with President Obama, FDR, Kennedy, or Clinton. The problem is with progressive who hide their radical ideas within the Democratic party. The problem is with the far left and California progressives who don’t know Democrats live in the Midwest, the South, the East, and places other then Berkeley.


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