The straw that may break the donkey's back: can Democrats defend Obama?

Since the election loss last year, a deepening sense of dread and fear has descended upon many Democrats.

The right wing juggernaut seems unstoppable. Emboldened conservatives are succeeding with their plan to drown government in a bathtub.  They are in the process of dismantling decades of progressive legislation and reform. The transfer of wealth and power to the rich will likely continue, even as the country descends further into economic decline.   The stock market is crashing.  People talk of social unrest and civil disobedience. A right wing populist uprising seems like a  real possibility. Words like “fascism” occur often in emails and blog posts.

Worse, the Left is divided. Many Democrats are angry at President Obama for his early and frequent compromises that, they say, have further empowered the GOP. Progressive email lists and blogs are abuzz with heated discussions about whether to primary President Obama, with centrist Democrats warning of a dangerous repeat of 2000.   There is considerable acrimony and name-calling.  See the Washington Liberals Yahoo email list streamed along the left of this website, this poll, and the examples below for an indication of the divided opinions on this topic.

Certainly, the GOP, the military, and their rich allies deserve most of the blame for the grim situation. But many Democrats accuse President Obama of failing to lead or, even, of selling out. At best, they say, Obama has been a poor negotiator and a weak leader. At worst,they say, he has betrayed Democratic principles by actively protecting Republican criminals and actively promoting conservative policies.

The recent budget negotiations over the debt deal were, for many Democrats, the straw that broke the donkey’s back.  Some progressives (e.g., Mike Malloy) say the Democratic Party is dead. I know long term Democrats who are seriously considering joining the Socialist Workers Party.

Some Democrats still think (or pretend) that President Obama is doing a good job. Given all that he’s up against, they say, he should be applauded: he saved the economy from disaster, ended DADT, started withdrawal from Iraq, killed Osama bin Laden, and enacted health care reform that extends coverage to millions more Americans and ended the worst abuses of insurance companies. Plus, he’s begun regulation of Wall Street. Unfortunately, a divided Senate with arcane rules has stymied his more aggressive progressive policy initiatives.  And the House is now in GOP control (largely due to the failure of Democrats to turn out to vote last November.)   The Republicans did all in their power to assure defeat of Obama’s progressive agenda.  Change takes time.

Other Democrats reject this anodyne view of the President and point out his many sell-outs and betrayals of Democratic ideals.  The bailouts were corrupt and unfair. Health care reform lacked a public option and was a gift to Big Insurance and Big Pharma.  The President repeatedly supported centrist candidates and appointees over progressive ones.    DADT was long past due and, in any case, makes it easier for gays to get killed in service of the imperialist war machine, which continues in full force and with increased funding, as does the surveillance and imprisonment infrastructure built by Bush.  Critics of Obama say that much of the blame for the Democrats’ “shellacking” last year lies at the feet of the president. See Petition expressing extreme disappointment with President Obama’s policies for a summary of the case against Obama.

Other Democrats acknowledge Obama’s failings but say: look, we gotta stick with him because the alternative is even worse. Do you want a repeat of 2000 with Nader? Imagine if someone like Perry gets to choose the next Supreme Court judges.

A concrete example of this powerful argument against criticizing Obama appeared recently on the PDA economic justice email list.

I once had two union organizer uncles living in Germany during the 1920s. According to them it was the German Communist Party who enabled the Nazis to succeed! They would not join the center parties in a ‘Reichstag’ coalition and their continuous street battles with the Nazis drove the average German also into their camp. The center parties with the Social Democrats and the Communists had more delegates than the Nazis, but without the far-left Hitler achieved domination constitutionally!

The idea is that purist progressives’ impatience with Obama may lead to a far right wing victory in 2012.

This is, unfortunately, a powerful argument, and it is a reflection of the grimness of the current situation that Democrats may have to pretend to like the President in order to avoid disaster in 2012.

On the same PDA email thread someone posted this more inflammatory anti-Obama quote:

U.S. President Barack Obama is singularly the most dangerous, anti-democratic president in the history of this nation. He has used his pigmentation as as a shield for corporate fascism and the emaciation of everyday, ordinary Black, White, Brown, Red, and Yellow people in this nation and around the world.
–Larry Pinkney, BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board, Obama’s Bait and Switch Game: Otherwise Known As B. S. Aug. 4, 2011

Most people responded negatively, saying that the quote was off topic. One guy went further and wrote, “Racism is an ideology used to divide us. Its false ideas and debasing caricatures can be used by any person of any color for whatever purpose they are serving. Think about what you are doing by broadcasting racist ideas that were carried in a publication whose purpose is to provide a forum for African-American political commentary.”

Indeed, some people accuse Democrats who oppose Obama of being racists. But many African Americans are highly critical of the president, including Cornel West and (recently) John Conyers.   I think it’s unfair to accuse critics of Obama of racism. I voted for Obama and donated a lot of money to his campaign, as did many other (white) progressives.

Someone sent a link to an article about an effort to primary President Obama, “Primary Obama” Ads Roll Through D.C.. In response, someone responded:

Republicans must love it! Bet some of them paid for it. Either that or it is being pushed by some politically naïve progressives. What a shame to waste money an effort doing this, when what is really needed is a progressive push to change the power structure in the House and Senate.

I acknowledge the power the “lesser of two evils” argument and the possibility that the GOP are behind some anti-Obama activism on the left.  The problem with this approach is that it’s very difficult to defend a president whom you believe has betrayed you. Can we pretend to like the guy and his policies?     Commentators like Glenn Greenwald and Paul Krugman keep reminding us of Obama’s failings.  As Dennis Kucinich says in an excellent interview for TruthDig, Obama Got the Deal He Wanted.

Furthermore, I doubt that many Americans (especially the unemployed and those dependent on government programs) will buy into a favorable view of the president.  The cat is already out of the bag, and already the GOP is accusing Obama of selling out seniors on Social Security and Medicare.  President Obama has made it quite easy for right wing populists to portray the Democratic Party as the handmaiden of Wall Street and government corporatocracy.   A substantial chunk of the Left is already dead set against Obama, whose motivations and psychology remain a deep mystery.

Unless Democrats confront Obama’s failings, they risk being ignored and rejected by the public, who will know full well about Obama’s failings. As David Spring says, “My concern is that Obama is doing to the Democratic Party what Bush did for the Republican Party – making it just about impossible for us to win elections. If we do not stand for protecting Social Security and Medicare, then what do we stand for? ”

A good summary of the dilemma is expressed by this guy’s comments on the PDA email list:

We are working here in Illinois on two progressive campaigns and might add a third. In each we have discussed the issue of how progressives candidates should relate to and speak about the president. No consensus yet, but I think we need to develop talking points that enable progressive candidates to distance themselves from the corporate Democrats including the president without alienating party regulars.

It’s a tough balancing act.

That sums it up well. We’re in a pickle, because we have to support a Democratic president who, under normal circumstances, would be primaried. How can Democrats criticize Obama’s policies without weakening Democrats?  But if we don’t criticize Obama’s policies, we’ll look silly.

The situation is grim and I wish there were a good way forward.

If Obama would withdraw, then a better candidate could possibly step forward.   But this seems unlikely to happen. (Perhaps this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

On Organizing Anger, Or, Could Olbermann Primary Obama?

It was just a couple of nights ago that Keith Olbermann was challenging us, in one of his “Special Comments”, to rise up in the streets and take back this country.

He pointed out that the only way those on the left were going to be able to fight against those who are looking to get all “Tea Party” is to be as angry and as organized and as aggressive as the Tea Party community, and if we’re smart, we’ll take him up on that challenge.

But if you really want to push “professional” Democrats to the left, most especially this President, and you want to do it in time to impact the ’12 cycle, the only way to do it is to run a candidate in primary contests that either moves the conversation your way…or leaves you with a surprising new Candidate.

And right here, right now, we actually have a chance to do exactly that – and that’s why, in today’s discussion, I’m going to challenge Olbermann right back.

“Then white men began to fence the plains so that we could not travel; and anyhow there was…nothing to travel for. We began to stay in one place, and to grow lazy and sicker all the time. Our men had fought hard against our enemies, holding them back from our beautiful country by their bravery, but now with everything else going wrong, we began to be whipped by their weak foolishness…”

–Pretty Shield, of the Crow Nation, quoted in the book The Native Americans: An Illustrated History

So imagine, if you will, how the political conversation would be different right now if this President was facing a primary challenge from an unabashed Lefty.

Let’s go further: just imagine how things would be different over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or over at the Capitol if someone announced they were running against this President from the left – and on the day that person announced, they had 15-20% of the Democratic electorate in their pocket, with an increasingly unpopular President on the other side.

Now imagine if that person had no qualms about “pooping in the Democratic pool”, and was willing to call out the Party establishment for having let the Nation down in so many different ways these past couple years, which would presumably make that candidate very interesting to those who support the interests of Labor, just to give one example.

And most importantly of all, imagine if this President, having just caved, again, for a second, and, soon, a third round of Republican hostage-taking (and facing a fourth in January of 2013), had to face a riled-up and articulate opponent on a debate stage.

Of course, for that to happen, you’d need a credible figure with national recognition, and in this environment, it wouldn’t hurt if that person wasn’t too closely associated with either Washington or the existing political parties.

(All of this would also make that candidate interesting to centrist voters as well; you’ll recall that the ’08 Obama Campaign appealed to many centrist voters for many of the same reasons.)

It also wouldn’t hurt if that person looked like a President, and even better, if that person was entirely familiar with the world of television.

So think about all that for a minute…and after you do, consider this: is there anyone else out there that you’d rather see primarying this President than Keith Olbermann?

Now let me take a minute and talk directly to you, Mr. Olbermann:

I know you said that it’s time for us to get organized and angry, but in this media world, if you don’t have Astroturf to get your movement off the ground, you need a celebrity with respect in all the right places, and that describes you pretty well.

Movements need to raise money, and if you were to go out there and do a week of hustling, I’ll bet you could raise seed money from both the “Left Coast” and “Upper West Side” communities (and you might even be able to hit your boss up for a donation); you could also draw a lot of PAC money (Labor, for starters, the gAyTM, for another) and lots of individual, enthusiastic, Internet contributions – and what happens to the political conversation if the Olbermann Campaign begins to raise money at a pace that puts The Fear on the Obama Campaign?

Al Gore took a big risk, and a made a big financial commitment besides, when he decided to bring you over to Current, and I don’t want you to have to worry about what’s going to happen over there; with that in mind I’m going to suggest that we ask Michael Moore to step in to take the wheel for a short time, at the same time you let Schuster run the actual newsgathering operation, so that we know you’ll be able to come back to something that has been in pretty good hands.

“…(baseball is) our national pastime, that is if you discount political campaigning.”

Ronald Reagan

Before you dismiss this idea out of hand, Keith (can I call you Keith?), I want you to think about one thing, and I want you to think about this very, very, carefully:

You know what happens to those lucky few who actually make it through a Presidential campaign and win?

They get to throw out the first pitch of the new baseball season – at least four times.

You could take a few months out of what you have done so well and really change the direction of this nation’s politics, and you could think of it as a patriotic duty– but it would also be an incredible learning experience, and you’d come back to your own job with an understanding of the inner workings of realpolitik that very few on television could ever match…and after it’s over, since you wouldn’t be running again, you could actually talk about “where the bodies are buried” in a way no one else can.

Maybe you’re thinking: “How can I be credible if I have no real ability to run a government?” The answer can be found, literally, right here.

The Blogosphere is entirely capable of providing the appointees who would run a Government – after all, we have experts, including a Nobel laureate, to run an economy (Secretary of the Treasury Paul Krugman? Robert Reich for Council of Economic Advisors?), and folks like Lawrence Wilkerson who could take over at State…and I could go on and on and on, all the way down to my man Marshall Adame, who, I promise you, has all the training and skills we would need to ramrod the actual physical process of withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan (you’ll find him at BlueNC; on his resume is a stint running the Basra Airport, a couple of decades as a Marine logistician, and an unsuccessful run for Congress).

And it’s not like you would be more subject to scrutiny than you are now: virtually every hard-right Conservative out there already sees you as the Devil incarnate – and that’s actually an advantage in this situation that can’t be ignored.

So…whaddaya think?

You want to go from making Special Comments about how The Fear has overtaken Democrats to being the one who puts The Fear upon them?

You wanna drive Grover Norquist and Steny Hoyer absolutely nuts, both at the same time?

You want to finally do what Craig Nettles got to do, that you never did: play baseball and join the circus?

Well, here’s your chance to do something that could change the whole political conversation – and before we’re done, President Obama might even find those “comfortable shoes” we’ve heard so much about.

So let’s take one for America, and let’s get this thing on the hump, or whatever cliché you prefer…but let’s do it now, and let’s do it well, and let’s create something that brings the “discouraged” public to bear in a way they aren’t today.

This is your chance to do something big, something profound…something that takes your “diva tendencies” and plays them to their best advantage…and I think it’s time for you to get behind this idea; before, as you suggested could happen, the window to fight back closes.

Budget deal puts a lid on our economy

Can we all breathe a sigh of relief now that Congress has passed and the president has signed a bill increasing the debt ceiling and cutting the budget by $1 trillion? After all, it seems like sanity prevailed.

That would have been the case if Congress has simply passed an increase in the debt ceiling. It didn’t. What we got was a package of bad policy gift-wrapped in rosy rhetoric from the president and Congress. What we will get in the next year is a stagnating economy, increased unemployment and a growing federal deficit.

How’s that?

The deal cuts $7 billion from federal spending starting in October. That translates to about 150,000 lost jobs, when you account for both the direct jobs held by civil servants and government contractors, and the jobs created when they spend their paychecks. Then it cuts another $3 billion in government services in the next year. Pile that on top of the national and Washington state unemployment rate of 9.2 percent, and the Snohomish County unemployment rate exceeding 10 percent, and you have the recipe for increasing unemployment and decreasing hope.

It doesn’t help that our economy grew by just 1 percent on an annual basis for the first six months of this year. That doesn’t keep up with population growth and it doesn’t make up for the trillions of dollars that “disappeared” when the economy initially tanked in 2008 and 2009. In our state alone, one result is that we have 150,000 fewer jobs than before the recession.

So now is not the time to cut back on government services. We need them more than ever. We need them to cushion the impact of this continuing stagnation on working and unemployed people, with unemployment insurance, food stamps and Medicaid. And we need the jobs other federal services require, whether those are at the Everett Navy base or in the national forest surrounding Arlington. Don’t count on them.

It gets worse. The deal cuts $1 trillion from federal programs in the next 10 years. On top on this, it empowers a “super-Congress” of 12 legislators to reduce the federal deficit by another $2.5 trillion, through spending cuts, including possible cuts to Medicare and Social Security. (They call this entitlement reform, but actually it is simply taking away benefits we all worked for.)

Congress and the president have engaged in a charade of rhetoric. They say, as if it was a good thing, that they will cut government spending. Would that be cutting the Food and Drug Administration, which tests and guarantees drug safety and effectiveness? How about the firefighters in the national forests? Maybe we could just let those fires burn out of control. How about the Federal Aviation Administration? Surely we don’t need air traffic controllers to land planes. Or just cut Social Security payments, now that we have seen the bottom drop out of our private retirement plans. Sure, cut the only sure bet for economic security in old age.

But the most damning thing about the deal is that it won’t work. It won’t do what it says it will do. It is based on fairy tales of economic growth that remain illusions. For example, the Congressional Budget Office forecast a 3 percent growth rate in the gross domestic product this year. Thus far, it is coming in at 1 percent.

Numbers like these mean that the deal will deepen stagnation and lead us into a double-dip recession. As a result, tax revenues will decline, because there will be fewer jobs, less out-of-pocket consumption and less income. At the same time, the need for essential supports, such as unemployment insurance, health care and food stamps, will increase, fueling more government spending.

So we will see a bigger federal deficit sooner — one that could actually force Congress and the president to again raise the debt ceiling before the next election, which is exactly what they wanted to avoid.

Originally published at HeraldNet

How I feel about the debt deal

I dread learning about the debt deal

I dread learning the details of this deal our leaders have come up with.

No matter how awful a job President Obama does, most Democrats continue to say: “But we gotta support him. You don’t want the Republicans to win, do you?”

Barack Obama is not Al Gore, and 2012 is not 2000.  Unlike Obama, Gore did not actively protect and aide the Republicans.  At some point, Democrats have got to stand up and put their feet down or they’ll look pretty ridiculous.

Of course, let’s not forget: the Republicans are worse and they should be shouted down and harassed at town meetings and in front of their offices. Their policies are cruel and unreasonable.  Progressives and other Democrats need to be angrier, louder, and more insistent.

Obama the Centrist

John McCain, in Obama is a Centrist, says “The president has become more centrist, which makes him easier to work with.”

Paul Krugman, in The Centrist Cop-Out, says “President Obama initially tried to strike a ‘Grand Bargain’ with Republicans over taxes and spending. To do so, he not only chose not to make an issue of G.O.P. extortion, he offered extraordinary concessions on Democratic priorities: an increase in the age of Medicare eligibility, sharp spending cuts and only small revenue increases. As The Times’s Nate Silver pointed out, Mr. Obama effectively staked out a position that was not only far to the right of the average voter’s preferences, it was if anything a bit to the right of the average Republican voter’s preferences. The pres­i­dent, as we’ve seen, was will­ing, even eager, to strike a bud­get deal that strongly favored con­ser­v­a­tive pri­or­i­ties.”

Obama’s Right-Wing Plan to Win the Center — “Obama ‘Big Deal’ on Debt a Gamble to Win the Center” Advisers think securing his plan would ensure general-election victory.

Glenn Greenwald in Barack Obama is gutting the core principles of the Democratic party: “It is now beyond dispute that President Obama not only favours but is the leading force in Washington pushing for serious benefit cuts to both social security and Medicare.”

Jack Cafferty, CNN, writes: “Here is more evidence of the suicide mission this country is on: General Electric announced it’s moving its 115-year-old X-ray business from Waukesha, Wisconsin to Beijing, China. . . . General Electric’s Chief Executive, Jeffrey Immelt, is one of President Obama’s advisers on… ready? U.S. job creation!”

Michael Powell, in Obama the Centrist Irks a Liberal Lion, quotes Robert B. Reich: “If you widen the lens, the public is being sold a big lie — that our problems owe to unions and the size of government and not to fraud and deregulation and vast concentration of wealth. Obama’s failure is that he won’t challenge this Republican narrative, and give people a story that helps them connect the dots and understand where we’re going.”

Mr. Reich, 64, is one of several prominent liberal economists who despair of what they say is this president’s political caution, and his unwillingness to duel with an emboldened Republican Party.

Faced with a Republican majority in the House, Mr. Obama this week appointed Gene Sperling, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, as director of his National Economic Council, and William M. Daley, a centrist politician turned banking executive, as his chief of staff. Mr. Daley was a member of the Third Way, a group that counsels deficit reduction, more tax cuts and perhaps trimming Social Security.

Mr. Reich is not pleased by the president’s message of late.

“By freezing federal salaries, by talking about deficits, by extending the Bush tax cuts, he’s legitimizing a Republican narrative,” Mr. Reich says.

Rep. John Conyers, quoted in Conyers spills the beans on Obama & SS & jobs bill; call for WH protests: “We’ve got to educate the American people at the same time we educate the President of the United States. The Republicans, Speaker Boehner or Majority Leader Cantor did not call for Social Security cuts in the budget deal. The President of the United States called for that. My response to him is to mass thousands of people in front of the White House to protest this. We want him to know from this day forward that we’ve had it. We want him to come out on our side not to watch and wait. We’re suffering.”

See also:

How Obama killed the anti-war movement

Obama as a Centrist. Really

Obama’s Centrist Tone Hits Right Note; State of the Union Ratings Soar

LA Times: Obama compromised early again on the deficit limit battle

According to this LA Times article

Deficit battle shaping up as GOP victory

President Obama began his bargaining about raising the deficit limit from a position that already gave Republicans most of what they want:   way more spending cuts than tax increases.

Even if Obama were to gain all the tax-law changes he wants, new revenue would make up only about 15 cents of each dollar in deficit reduction in the package….

Acquiescing to GOP demands would be the third major compromise for Democrats in the past year — a point of considerable frustration for the party’s liberal base. Despite Democratic opposition, Congress voted in December to extend the Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and agreed this spring to steep budget reductions to avert a federal government shutdown.

Some Democrats believe Obama set the stage for the current situation by opening negotiations on deficit reduction this spring with a proposal that contained a 3-to-1 ratio between spending reductions and tax increases. Administration officials defend that move, saying the president began discussions at what one senior official called a “realistic starting point,” not one designed to maximize his bargaining position.

Hate to say it but: the situation is grim.

The Republican deficit plan enacts zero — zilch — cuts to the defense budget, and I, for one, have little confidence that the President will insist on more than token cuts either.