Sunday, December 19, 2010

Kissing Butt and Taking Names: Obama’s Winning Political Strategy

Kissing Butt and Taking Names: Obama’s Winning Political Strategy

December 18, 2010

What in the world is he thinking?

Liberals have been asking themselves this question about Barack Obama and his administration since the day he was sworn into office.  On issue after issue, in ways both subtle and overt, Obama has acted in ways that alienate and marginalize the political left, such as it is in America today.  Assuming that Obama needs the energy, money, and political support of liberals in order to be re-elected, liberals have been left scratching their heads by this President, trying to figure out exactly what his game plan is and trying to understand why he would risk alienating his political base.

Several theories have been advanced to explain Obama’s apparent tone-deafness and his willingness to regularly betray those on the left who helped get him elected.  One such theory is that Obama is a neophyte--incompetent in his role as the political leader of his party and, therefore, incapable of effectively advancing liberal policy.  This theory ignores the reality of the past two years.  Obama has proven to be remarkably effective as the leader of the Democratic Party.  Rahm Emanuel boasted that the President was “13-0” going into the health care reform debate, and Obama even managed to pull a political victory out of that fiasco, enacting historic legislation that, lo and behold, perfectly matched the contours of the agreement that he negotiated with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries before debate over the legislation even began.  An inept politician could never have pulled this off.  No, Obama has proven to be very effective—demanding, and getting, lock-step support from his party to advance his legislative agenda.  Only recently, during the debate over extending unemployment insurance and tax cuts for the rich, have cracks begun to form in Obama’s previously solid control of the legislative branch, and despite this mini-revolt within his own party, Obama managed to enact legislation that conformed, almost to the letter, with the agreement he had already made with the Republican leadership.  To argue that Obama is inept ignores his impressive history of legislative success in the face of unprecedented resistance from the opposition party.

Another theory holds that Obama is some kind of liberal pragmatist.  He takes what he can get, according to this theory, and given the intransigence of congressional Republicans, especially in the Senate, it is impossible for Obama to enact truly liberal legislation.  Liberals are supposed to be pleased that Obama managed to accomplish as much as he has given the current political climate, and liberals are supposed to presume that in a more favorable political climate, Obama would have had the power to effect the transformative change we were promised in the 2008 election campaign.  The flaw in this theory is that it ignores everything Obama has done that did not require congressional approval.  Appointing Rahm Emanuel, a died-in-the-wool corporatist and leader of the DLC, as Chief of Staff?  An industry insider, Ken Salazar, as Secretary of the Interior?  Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education?  Tim Geithner and Larry Summers as the foxes guarding the financial industry hen house?  Republicans didn’t force Obama to appoint any of these people, and each one of these appointments constitutes a direct attack on a core Obama constituency.  Environmentalists hate Salazar.  Teachers hate Duncan.  Most Americans who realize that bankers and financiers are making record profits and pocketing record bonuses on the public dime, while working Americans are forced to tighten their belts, hate the people who got us into this mess.  Both Geithner and Summers played key roles in creating the financial meltdown from which we are now trying to recover.  Everybody, of course, hates Rahm Emanuel, but liberals have more reason to hate him than most given that he is fond of calling them “fucking retarded.”  To argue that Obama has liberal political instincts, but that he has been constrained by congressional Republicans, is patently absurd given the people he appointed to run the Federal Government.

And it’s not just his appointments that have irked liberals.  Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay.  It’s still open for torture and unconstitutional detention.  Obama promised to end the Iraq war.  Our troops are still there.  Obama said he would escalate the war in Afghanistan, and he has kept his word on that, but he also promised to bring the troops home in 2011.  Whoops.  Now liberals are supposed to be happy that they’ll be coming home in 2014 ... maybe.  Obama promised open government, but in nearly every case that has come before the Courts, Obama’s Department of Justice has argued for secrecy and for denying the public the right to know exactly what our government is doing in our name.  Even worse, the Obama administration has taken a hard line on whistleblowers and is dead set on punishing Julian Assange for having the audacity to actually provide the people with some knowledge about the inner workings of their government.  Obama could have eliminated “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” with the stroke of a pen.  Instead, he ordered a survey and drug his feet on this issue for two years.  Environmentalists were hoping that Obama would actually do something about global warming, but the Obama delegation effectively sabotaged negotiations in Copenhagen.  Those of us who value our constitutional rights were hoping that Obama would put an end to warrantless wiretapping.  That practice has been endorsed by this administration, not to mention that this administration is fully responsible for the electronic, full-body, naked-image searches that are now routine practice at airports across the country.  Those of us who care about the republic were hoping that Obama would disavow the unconstitutional “Unitary Executive” theory of government propounded by George W. Bush.  Instead, time after time, Obama has fought to preserve executive privilege and power.

Given all of this, liberals are supposed to believe that Obama has liberal instincts and intentions, but that he has been stymied by Republican resistance?  Republicans didn’t force Obama to take any of the positions he took on the long list of issues cited above. The argument that Obama is some kind of “liberal pragmatist” is patently absurd.

So who is this guy?  What is he thinking?  He’s not inept, nor is he unintelligent.  Stupid people don’t get to be the editor of the Harvard Law Review.  He’s not weak.  Weak Presidents don’t enjoy the record of legislative successes that Obama has managed to compile.  He’s not some kind of liberal pragmatist.  His record shows that he’s ambivalent to liberal concerns on a whole host of issues, and it doesn’t take any Republican pressure to make Obama stab the left in the back.  Starting with his inauguration, when he invited Rick Warren to give the convocation, Obama has shown his willingness to betray liberals and large groups of people who voted for him in 2008.  This includes the unions.  Organized labor was hoping for card-check legislation that would have made it easier for workers to organize and enjoy the protection of unionization.  While Obama somehow had the political strength to push through health insurance reform, despite organized resistance, he somehow lacked the strength to push through protections for workers.  Not only that, he publicly backed Blanche Lincoln in a primary contest against a union-supported candidate, and he negotiated a NAFTA-style trade agreement with South Korea that will destroy thousands of American manufacturing jobs.

So, again, liberals ask, what is Obama thinking?  How can he expect to be re-elected in 2012 after abandoning the left, and not only abandoning it, but regularly attacking it, as he did in a recent press conference at which he called liberals sanctimonious purists?  To liberals it’s laughable to hear pundits like Dana Milbank laud Obama for finally “standing up to the left.”  When, liberals ask, did Obama ever cave to the left?  When has he not stood up to the left?  Despite Milbank’s ridiculous assertion to the contrary, Obama’s strategy has not changed in the two years he has been in office.  Obama has consistently fought against the left on issue after issue.  He has betrayed those who elected him at nearly every turn.  He has done his best to distance himself from his core constituents.

And here we come to the only explanation that makes sense when trying to understand Obama’s political calculus.  What Obama understands, and what most liberals do not, is the extent to which liberalism, as a political philosophy, has been discredited among the American political caste.  Obama can not govern as a liberal, nor can he even appear to be a liberal, because doing so would make him a pariah to the political caste, and that would doom his ambition to be re-elected in 2012.  As Noam Scheiber recently informed us in The New Republic, Obama and his team see political issues “through the class warfare stuff--Kerry in 2004, Gore in 2000.”  An anonymous Obama insider admits that “[t]hey [Obama’s political team] worry that they'll get painted as lefties,” a statement that rightly mystifies liberals who supported Obama and who hoped for the kind of transformative change that they were promised in 2008.  From the point of view of the left, Obama better BE a lefty, or he’s not worthy of support.  If Obama is not even willing to appear to be a lefty, then hope is lost for this Presidency, and Ralph Nader’s pronouncement that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two major American political parties rings terribly true.  This would explain the abysmally low turnout of traditionally Democratic constituencies during the 2010 midterm elections.  Why vote for a party that refuses to support your interests and that actively works against them?

Whereas Obama’s political strategy baffles liberals, it is likely that Obama knows exactly what he is doing.  He’s wicked smart, after all, and one assumes he intends to run for re-election in 2012.  So, what’s he thinking?  Why is he so eager to abandon, and even attack, the very people who elected him?  Again, there appears to be only one reasonable answer, and this answer calls into question a fundamental premise of our democratic republic.  Obama assumes, and he’s probably right, that he doesn’t need the support of liberals to win, nor does he need the support of the Democratic Party’s core constituencies.  In fact, one can even go so far as to say that Obama doesn’t need the support of “the people” to win.  To Obama, it is more important to appeal to this nation’s political caste than it is to appeal to voting Americans.  In a tragic way, this makes sense.  Let me explain.

Washington is famous for being tone-deaf and insensitive to the needs and desires of the American people.  For example, most Americans opposed the 2008 TARP bailout of the financial industry.  Did our politicians care?  No.  They did it anyway, and members of both major parties were complicit in the bailout.  Most Americans wanted a public option included in Obama’s health care reform package, but did that matter?  No.  Most Americans wanted to eliminate Bush’s tax cuts for the rich.  Did that happen?  No, and again, both parties were complicit in extending those budget-busting cuts for millionaires and billionaires.  People who vote for Democrats complain that their legislators are weak and ineffective because they fail to enact legislation to improve the economic conditions of working Americans.  People who vote for Republicans complain that their legislators are weak and ineffective because they fail to balance the budget, combat illegal immigration, ban abortion, or act upon other planks of the religious right’s agenda.  Neither party seems to serve its constituents well, and both parties blame the opposing party for their failure to do what their constituents demand.

This behavior would be puzzling if the explanation for it were not so abhorrently clear.  The fact of the matter is that neither major political party represents its voting constituents.  They pretend to, and they ask for our time, our money, and our votes on that basis, but they regularly fail to do what they promise us they will do--what we elect them to do.  Let’s face it.  Republicans controlled all three branches of the Federal Government from 2003 until 2006.  If they wanted to balance the budget, they could have done it, along with a host of other things that their constituents wanted.  They could have tried to outlaw abortion if they really wanted to, but they didn’t.  Democrats, for their part, have controlled the Presidency and both chambers of Congress for the past two years.  If they really wanted to enact some significant progressive legislation, they could have done it.  They didn’t, but why?

Both Republican and Democratic politicians fail to actually represent the interests of those who vote for them because they are part and parcel of what I call the nation’s political caste.  That’s who our politicians work for, not “the people.”  As a result, for better or for worse, our government is completely controlled by perhaps half-a-million people who may, or may not, have the best interests of the majority of Americans at heart.  This group includes legislators and their staff-members; judges and their clerks; high-level members of the executive branch of government; thousands of lobbyists; bank and insurance executives; high-powered lawyers, doctors, stock brokers, and accountants; industrial and agricultural tycoons; oil barons; military contractors and high-ranking military officers; media tycoons and editors of major newspapers; a sprinkling of Hollywood types thrown into the mix to improve the over-all sexiness of the bunch; and all the others who interact and socialize with these people.

These people, collectively, are what might be called “the powers that be,” and they are a remarkably insular and exclusive group.  They go to the same parties, or they talk to people who went to those parties.  They are members of the same clubs, or they talk to people who are members of those clubs.  They wear the same kinds of clothes.  They read the same newspapers.  They share the same gossip.  They vacation at the same exclusive resorts, and they intermarry.  Through regular and ordinary social interaction of this kind, they form a more-or-less cohesive group, and like all social groups, they operate on an internal logic, or “group think,” if you will.  They both think collectively and make decisions collectively, in the same way that a flock of geese decides to fly South for the winter.  One goose will get cold, take off, and start flying South.  If the rest of the flock stays put, that goose will circle back and land, preferring to stay with the flock rather than going it alone.  In our own sophisticated political speech, we call that “a trial balloon.”  Perhaps one or two more geese will make the same attempt to “move the group,” as it were, but if the group does not follow, those geese will also return to the flock and wait.  At a certain point, the desire to “fly South” will reach a critical mass within the group.  At that point, one goose will take off and start flying South.  That goose has no way of knowing whether the rest of the flock will follow, but once critical mass has been reached, lo and behold, most of the group will take off and follow, and the flock will begin its migration.  The few stragglers that weren’t ready to go yet will follow their instincts and try to catch up with the flock, if they are able.  Those left behind are likely to die.  This is how group decisions are made, and it’s no different for America’s political caste.

Being a member of the political caste is extremely desirable, for obvious reasons, not the least of which is that membership in this exclusive club gives one the ability to suckle on the government teat—a very rich and powerful teat.  Thus, it’s important to the members of the group that they not “rock the boat,” or challenge the collective thinking of the group, as doing so could mean expulsion from the group and an inability to suckle.  Sending up a trial balloon is one thing, but actually challenging the collective wisdom of the group is unthinkable, or, at the very least, unwise (as, perhaps, John F. Kennedy discovered). Members of the American political caste fiercely protect the group, and when they do this, it is usually the American people who pay the price.

Barack Obama, as a junior member of this group and an obvious outsider, is more susceptible than most to its group thinking, and he’s more afraid than most to challenge it.  After all, very few black men have been allowed into the American political caste, and Obama is more of an outsider than many black men.  His father was Kenyan, and he was reared, for a time, in Indonesia.  To his credit, Obama overcame these obstacles to become the President of the United States, but he must sense that his status as a member of this group is in constant jeopardy.

Obama’s desire to be an accepted and acceptable member of America’s political caste, better than any other theory, explains his behavior as President.  He was elected as a Democrat, and this put him at a disadvantage because Democrats are distinctly un-cool among the American political caste.  Some renegade Democrats actually try to protect the interests of the great, unwashed masses, whereas Republicans are much less threatening to the status quo that has allowed the political caste to thrive.  In fact, liberalism, as a political theory seeking social and economic justice, has been so thoroughly rejected by the political caste that Obama felt the need to laud Ronald Reagan as one of his political heroes.  Actual liberals in Congress are a bit of a joke, frankly.  When the Progressive Caucus was making some noise about not supporting Obama’s health insurance reform proposal unless it included a “robust” public option, Nancy Pelosi laughed and predicted that, in the end, the Caucus would support the final bill.  She was right, of course.  The Progressive Caucus folded and voted for a bill without any public option in it, much less a “robust” one.  Even the members of the Progressive Caucus, supposed champions of the people, will sacrifice principle in order to remain members of the political caste—and they did, despite the fact that a majority of Americans supported the public option.  This explains the seemingly inexplicable behavior of both Democrats and Republicans when they are in power.  Neither party ever truly challenges the “groupthink” of the political caste.  On occasion, a few individuals like Ron Paul will do so, but what’s your opinion of him?  To challenge the groupthink of the American political caste means to be ostracized and labeled a nut.

For his part, Obama has done his best, from the very beginning, to show that he is no threat to the political caste.  Starting on the day he was inaugurated, Obama has gone out of his way to distance himself from the very people who voted for him.  He immediately alienated the GLBT community by having Rick Warren give the convocation, and it has been all downhill from there for Obama’s supporters.  He alienated liberals everywhere by making Emanuel Chief of Staff, but at the same time he sent a strong signal to the political caste that he was not a threat to the status quo.  Time after time, on issue after issue, Obama has betrayed liberals and core Democratic constituencies, and the apparent intent of these betrayals has been to placate the political caste.  Each betrayal sends a clear message to the political caste that he is not a threat to them.  Moreover, Obama is perfectly clear about his desire to improve their lot.  Obama recently told a group of prominent business leaders, “We want to be boosters because when you do well, America does well.”  He went on to say, “I want to dispel any notion that we want to inhibit your success.”

And this, it appears, is his ultimate “winning” strategy.  Obama hopes to win re-election in 2012 by betraying his supporters and the political left while “boosting” the American political caste.  Sadly, this strategy might just work.  Call it triangulation, if you will.  I call it being a school-yard bully—picking on the little kid so that the cool kids will like you and accept you.  Whatever you call it, Obama is a brilliant politician.  He has proven himself to be adept at sticking his finger in the air (in whatever social group he’s in) and going the way the wind is blowing.  Obama knows which way the wind is blowing in the political caste, and he has been very successful at giving them precisely what they want.

But doesn’t Obama need the support of the people in order to be re-elected?  Perhaps not.  Ultimately, the political caste has the necessary connections and resources to insure that Obama gets a plurality of the votes cast, if they so choose, and there’s very little that the American people can do about it.  Most Americans are not aware of the extent to which Obama has betrayed their interests.  Favorable media coverage combined with boatloads of campaign cash may be enough to insure the outcome of the election.  Obama appears to believe that all he has to do is to appease the political caste.  Then, he thinks, they will support him and insure his victory.  He may be right about that.  Besides which, Obama’s political strategists have probably concluded that the Democratic Party’s core constituents will vote for Obama in 2012, no matter how many times he knifes them, because the Republicans are worse.  That argument is rapidly losing its potency.  To many Americans, voting appears increasingly irrelevant.  We get policy dictated by the groupthink of the political caste no matter whom we elect.  In fact, liberals might be better off with a Republican President.  After all, only Nixon could go to China.  Only Clinton could gut welfare and enact NAFTA.  Bush tried to privatize Social Security and failed.  Obama may actually do it.

One thing is certain, though.  If Obama determines that the American political caste wants to “reform” Social Security, Obama will do his level best to make it happen, and he will not lose any sleep worrying about how his actions will hurt the American people.  Oh, he’ll blame the Republicans for “making” him gut the most popular social program in American history, but he will do it, all the same.  The groupthink of America’s political caste will, once again, become the law of the land, no matter what the people think, and Obama will celebrate his “victory.”  He’ll also be patting himself on the back for his “winning” strategy.  Kissing the collective derriere of the entire American political caste may even get him re-elected.


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