“Change We Can Believe In.” Those fine words fooled a lot of people in 2008. Now they stick in the craw even of Obama apologists for whom all the hopes dashed over the past three years are the fault of tea party Republican obstructionists. Expect to hear a billion dollars worth of that malarkey between now and next November.
But even those who hold Obama blameless must concede that, in every way that matters, his first term has been continuous with George Bush’s second. Yes, there have been small, mainly cosmetic changes; changing circumstances made that inevitable. And there has been a change in style. Where once there stood an inarticulate Buddy Ebsen wannabe — a living reproach to Phillips Andover, Yale, and the Harvard Business School — there is now a silver-tongued orator of whom Columbia and Harvard can be proud. But as for a change of course, a change for the better — forget it! This not even Obama’s cheerleaders can deny.
Lately, there has been pullback even on the few intimations of change for the better that survived into the administration’s first months. Back then, it was not too unreasonable to hope that Obama would move to reverse the anti-regulatory tide of the past three decades and that he would at least try to rein in banksters and corporate polluters. It didn’t take long for that illusion to be dispelled. Obama’s most recent gift to the industries that pollute the air, his order to the Environmental Protection Agency to delay implementation of legally mandated ozone regulations, is only the latest in a long line of environmental malfeasances. It is a particularly egregious case, however, because this time there was no question of Republican obstructionism; Obama did it all by himself.
To be sure, his interventions abroad are less inept and more multi-lateral than Bush’s were. But the difference is mainly one of tactics and style. It has by now become clear to all but the willfully blind that Obama is as much a steward of the empire as any of his recent predecessors. The military does not rule directly, but along with the rest of the national security apparatus it calls the shots.
Accordingly, the rule of law is as threatened as at any time since the 9/11 attacks — international law certainly, and increasingly also domestic law as constitutional restrictions on the state’s right to intrude into individuals’ lives and behaviors are given up for the sake of “security.” The purported tradeoff is nonsense of course, but how could Obama do otherwise given his determination to “look forward, not back”? Not bringing Bush-era war criminals to justice was his administration’s Original Sin, and the consequences keep unfolding.
Change? In Washington today, the most nefarious lobbies rule more than ever. Witness Obama’s address to the United Nations last month. If Israeli government publicists did not actually write his remarks on Israel and Palestine, they might as well have. The Barack Obama who spoke in Cairo in 2009 and at the United Nations in 2010 seemed a little less servile to the Israel lobby than George W. Bush had been. That appearance is now shot, and the United States, along with Israel, will suffer for it for a long time to come.
Still, it must be said that Obama did bring change — for the worse. He didn’t just continue Bush’s lost wars, rebranding one and escalating the other; he also added much of Asia and Africa, and even parts of Latin America, to the empire’s anything goes free-fire zones. Drone technology makes it easier now than it was for his predecessor to practice “low intensity” warfare; but, to borrow a slogan from another nefarious lobby, “drones don’t kill, presidents do” — insofar as they really do control the means of violence. To the extent that Obama is not owned by the national security state, he is culpable each and every time its agencies spread murder and mayhem.
But the worst change of all, so far, is that this former teacher of Constitutional law has trashed Fifth Amendment protections of due process and First Amendment protections of free speech by ordering the extra-judicial murder of U.S. citizens who propagandize for radical Islamic causes. American presidents have been ordering assassinations of political figures abroad at least since the 1950s. But assassinating U.S. citizens used to be beyond the pale. Yet this is precisely what Barack Obama did in ordering the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric and a citizen of the United States.
One would think that tea partiers who bleat on endlessly about the Constitution would object. So far only Ron Paul has. The rest of them are not about to let consistency become a hobgoblin of their little minds; not when their anti-Muslim animosities are aroused.
But because they know better, liberals are even worse. Just as they did when Obama’s very own “Murder Incorporated,” the Navy SEALs’ Team 6, killed Osama bin Laden and dumped his body at sea instead of bringing him to justice, they praise their commander-in-chief’s boldness and cheer him on for perpetrating murder. How dare they then fault Republicans for applauding the hapless Rick Perry for overseeing hundreds of executions in the killing fields of Texas! How dare they claim moral superiority!
Would it not have been better had a President Bush or a President McCain killed al-Awlaki? Then Congressional Democrats — moved by partisan zeal, if not by principle — might at least object. It is the old, “love me, I’m a Democrat” story. It is why Obama, like Clinton before him, has been able to do so much to advance the neoliberal agenda. As a Democrat, he can do what no Republican can — co-opt or neutralize the opposition.
From Wisconsin to Wall Street
But history is nothing if not ironic; and so it is that thanks to the very capitulations and backsliding that have made a mockery of “change we can believe in,” Obama just might turn into the agent of change he once presented himself to be.
It started with the “shellacking” Democrats took in the 2010 elections — a consequence in part of Obama’s spineless “bipartisanship.” With Republican tea partiers in control of key governorships and legislatures in mid-Western and northeastern states, and with Democrats drawing all the wrong lessons from their defeat, the most retrograde sectors of our political culture felt emboldened. Accordingly, their representatives in Wisconsin and Ohio and elsewhere overreached. This time, however, working people and their allies fought back.
It was mainly a defensive struggle, aimed at the restoration of the status quo ante. But, unlike the top-down mobilizations the Obama campaign directed in 2008, it was a real social movement, spontaneous and creative, and therefore replete with promise. That movement is now simmering as the action has moved into the electoral arena. The transition was both inevitable and unfortunate because electoral politics is never where the real action is. But the turn towards recall elections is not an altogether bad thing, inasmuch as Democrats at the state level are not all bought and paid for corporate flunkies. The Wisconsin state senators who fled to Illinois in order to hold the Republican onslaught at bay attest to that.
And the events of last spring may yet turn out to be just a harbinger of better things to come. Thus it is that, as if from nowhere, the spirit that brought tens of thousands to occupy the state Capitol in Madison has risen again — as the Occupy Wall Street movement grows and spreads to cities all over the United States.
National Democrats, Obama especially, did almost nothing to support those who were fighting back last spring against Republican overreach. Except insofar as their pusillanimity helped get Republican tea partiers elected, they were irrelevant.
They are becoming relevant now — not however as part of the solution, but as part of the problem. The occupiers of Wall Street and other venues may not know it yet, and Democrats may not realize it yet, but this time the enemy is bipartisan. Occupy Wall Street is not just about out whacked out Republicans; it is about the elected toadies of both parties who make the misdeeds of banksters and corporate moguls possible.
Occupy Wall Street is not anti-Obama — not explicitly, not yet. It is not yet anti-capitalist either, though it is certainly against the form of capitalism Obama, like every other U.S. president since Ronald Reagan, has stewarded — a capitalism that generates obscene inequalities, disempowers workers, and diminishes the well-being of the vast majority, the 99 percent who are not making out like bandits.
It became clear decades ago that, for our economic elites and their political representatives, many of us are no longer indispensable either as workers or consumers — not in the global economy recent capitalism has concocted. This is one reason why the nation’s prison system has grown exponentially; prisons are where the United States warehouses those whom it would prefer to be without. Needless to say, in a society where institutional racism still structures economic relations, many of those people are black or brown. But, as capitalism evolves, even highly educated white people are becoming surplus too, and there is no way to warehouse all of them. Younger blue- and white-collar workers, or would-be workers, are most affected, and now some of them are fighting back. They are occupying Wall Street.
So long as the movement they launched is not derailed, it will not stay limited to that “demographic.” The demonstrators are already seeing the connections, and forging new solidarities. So are segments of organized labor, still reeling from the events of last spring. Thus some of the more militant sectors of the labor movement — the Transport Workers Union in New York, for example — are coming on board. Even the AFL-CIO leadership is joining the fray. Condescending pundits complain that the protestors don’t know what they want; that they have no programs and no demands. In fact, they know well enough — for the time being — and they will know better before long. They are already ahead of the Obamamaniacs of three years ago. Not only do they want “change we can believe in,” they have some idea of what that entails.
It is possible but unlikely that fear of tea party lunacy will draw this most amazing of social movements back into the Democratic fold. Team Obama will try to make that happen. But it is up against a formidable foe — people who are mad as hell, know a thing or two, and think for themselves.
Thus there is a way for change we can believe in to come to pass after all, and Obama is part of the story — not just because he helped make Republican overreach possible, but also because of all he has done to expose how much a part of the problem he and his fellow Democrats have become.
Relish the irony. He who did so much first to conjure up and then to quash hope for meaningful, worthwhile change may yet play a key role in bringing change we can believe in to fruition.
Andrew Levine is an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar. His most recent book is “In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People” (Prometheus).
This post ran earlier on Counterpunch