The 2008 election of Barack Obama was moving, not only for me and others who voted for Obama, but also for many who didn't support his candidacy. At one point everyone appreciated the historic barriers that had been crossed, and were grateful for the new more inclusive political landscape. We were also sobered by the grave risks to the world as a consequence of a financial crisis brought about by widespread fraud, the exploitation of uninformed investors, lax regulation, and greed.
Now, two years later, a new election has resulted in a loss of 60 democratic seats in the House of Representatives, and 7 to 9 seats in the U.S. Senate.
For the first time in the Obama Administration, the Republicans will have control of congressional committees, and the power to issue subpoenas and investigate the government, or anything else of interest. We haven't seen Republican investigations of a Democratic Administration since the Clinton Administration. Now we will see lots.
The Republicans will claim a mandate to cut federal taxes, spending and budget deficits. Two of three of these objectives might be feasible. Three of three is highly unlikely.
With most of our money going to the military, social security and paying the federal debt, and tax cuts for high income persons, and Republicans promising permanent tax cuts for wealthy and corporate taxpayers, it will be a rough go for anyone seeking to protect or expand federal spending on domestic social programs, or foreign aid unrelated to military adventures.
This election was partly a statement about the direction of the country, and the lack of a convincing story emulating from the White House about how the country will get back on the right track. Why did Democrats appear tone deaf during this economic crisis? For one thing, political leaders from both parties have first and foremost appealed to potential campaign contributors, and in particular, corporations with durable interests and deep pockets.
Some say $4 billion was spent on the election. This includes corporate money newly liberated by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. This may have been a tit for tat or a deliberate escalation, in addition to spectacularly poor judgment. The Supreme Court arguably broke precedent as a consequence of Obama's breaking of the public financing system in 2008. Conservatives on the Supreme Court were concerned that the current rules could benefit the Democrats more than the Republicans in the 2012 election.
Money for campaigns isn't given without expectations of influence, and politicians in both parties understand what donors want.
It's hard to develop a public narrative and a legislative record as a champion of the underdog when you spend so much time pandering to giant corporate interests.
It's not that the Democrats in the White House and the Congress have not done many good things - they have accomplished quite a bit. The economy would be much worse than it is today. Some helpful changes will be made in student loans, and the health care reform bill, while flawed for not dealing with cost controls, does make it easier for persons with prior conditions to buy insurance. In countless areas the Obama Administration has made the government more effective and better prepared to deal with the challenges of protecting the environment and worker, consumer or civil rights. (More on the positive achievements here).
But there are also very visible areas where they have compromised, delivered very little, or made things worse.
In the areas where I work, which includes policies regarding intellectual property rights and innovation, I have made a few notes of some of the positive and negative surprises we have seen over the past two years. This is not exhaustive -- I don't have the time for that. But it does illustrate the frustrations that many feel following the change we voted for (and expected) in 2008. In short, I was:
What are the lessons from all of this?
First, one thing that can't be repeated enough is that the public continues to underestimate the corrosive impact of our system of financing elections, which is basically legal bribery. This has pretty much destroyed the Democratic party as a defender of consumers and workers. Not every elected official, or every vote of every official has been corrupted by campaign contributions. But the pressing need to raise more and more money has a huge impact on the overall state of affairs, and it is just getting worse.
Second, it is possible to push for useful reforms, if they are easy enough for the public to understand, and there is a real effort by some political leaders with enough fame, power and/or charisma to make people pay attention. That's what we though we were getting with Obama. But so far, that type of communication seemed to have disappeared after the 2008 election. Maybe now that Obama will be running scared for the 2012 election we might see more of this -- if he doesn't spend all his time trying to raise a billion or so in fat cat contributions.
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