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John R. Talbott

John R. Talbott

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Progressives Cry Out: "Obama, Come Home"

Posted: 03/28/11 08:48 AM ET

Barack Obama at times seems to be the unluckiest person on the face of the earth. He just can't catch a break. Or maybe his bad luck is a result of ignoring his progressive base and scientific evidence and instead trying to negotiate and compromise with congressmen who are financially motivated toward helping banks and corporations more than our own people. When bad events happen that scientists and academics have been warning about for years it is difficult to chalk them up to bad luck.

Take the nuclear accident in Japan. It wasn't but three months ago that Obama was touting nuclear power before congress as a major leg in his clean energy program promising $36 billion in his budget to the industry to design and build new reactors. Unlucky, right? But scientists have been warning for decades about the risks of nuclear power, especially the on-site storage of spent fuel rods which was at the heart of the Japanese disaster. Last month, Obama named Jeffrey Immelt to the President's Economic Recovery Board and then we find out it was GE that designed and built the Japanese reactors. Yesterday we hear that GE is not paying any taxes on $14 billion of profits but is instead receiving a $3.2 billion rebate. And Immelt is the man that is supposed to be investigating how to close corporate tax loopholes?

On March 31, 2010, the New York Times reported that Obama was coming out in favor of offshore drilling. The article said, "The proposal -- a compromise that will please oil companies and domestic drilling advocates but anger some residents of affected states and many environmental organizations -- would end a longstanding moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, covering 167 million acres of ocean." Not twenty days later, BP's Deepwater Horizon platform explodes in the Gulf of Mexico and causes the largest oil spill in history. Unlucky timing? Not when you realize progressive environmentalists have been warning about the risks of offshore drilling for years.

More recently, Obama did little as state workers in Wisconsin had their collective bargaining rights expunged. Do people really believe that a single janitor can effectively negotiate his wages with a powerful state government without collective bargaining rights? Obama had a chance to use the bully pulpit to explain why collective bargaining is so important in labor negotiations and instead the task was left to Rachel Maddow who performed it brilliantly as she made it the lead story on her broadcasts for weeks. And this in an environment where almost all the benefits from the increased productivity of workers in our country over the last thirty years has gone to the country's top 1%.

Obama is now fighting three wars in Muslim countries, depending on your definition of war. Progressives have warned even before the beginning of the Afghan conflict that such military action might lead to the unintended consequence of inflaming peaceful Muslims against American policy and causing the number of terrorists in the world to increase, not decrease. Wars seem to go on forever in America and no one knows why, but it is clear that only one party benefits from war: the weapons manufacturers and defense contractors like Halliburton who saw its stock price increase six-fold during the Iraq war. It would be a mistake for Obama to be influenced by, or compromise with, defense industry lobbyists, their paid shills in congress or the phony defense policy think tanks funded by defense industry dollars.

Similarly, Obama has stayed relatively quiet as the Supreme Court has chosen to give corporations the same political rights and powers as citizens. Many progressive congressmen turned out to be unlucky in their reelection campaigns as corporate money flooded the 2010 congressional elections. Why doesn't Obama come out strongly in support of publicly financed elections?

On the economic front, Geithner and Summers decided to bail out our largest banks while virtually ignoring the millions of Americans who are struggling with underwater mortgages. Unions have been warning for decades that our middle class was under threat from completely unregulated open trade with low wage countries. Obama agreed to a Republican plan for additional tax cuts for wealthy Americans even though he knew the country was facing record deficits and that the Forbes 400 richest people in America had more wealth than the poorest half of all American families, 150 million people in total. Is it unlucky now that the country continues to struggle with nearly 10% unemployment (the real number is much higher when you include part timers wishing to work full time and those that have given up looking for a job), slow growth forecasts and trillions of dollars of government deficits when your advisors cared more about the profits of Wall Street and their executives' bonuses than the well being of average Americans?

Obama believes that in a representative democracy, to get things done, one needs to be willing to compromise with the opposition. And, it is presumed that a compromise that gets a bill passed is better than doing nothing. Doesn't compromise and moderation typically lead to better solutions to our problems? I am not so sure. It depends on what is motivating the opposition. Compromise with immoral, unscientific or corporate controlled opponents is unacceptable and wrong.

I see Obama's opposition motivated by four forces;

  1. There may be reasonable disagreement on real policy issues like whether an economic stimulus paid for with borrowed money is good for the country. Economists on both sides of this issue like to speak with certainty about their positions, but the economics is far from clear as to which side will turn out to be right in the long term. Some believe that without a government stimulus, recessions turn into depressions. Others believe that prices and consumption following a bubble have to be allowed to return to more normal lower levels reflecting less debt-financed demand for products and services. On issues like this it seems that compromise may be appropriate because both sides seem to have the country's best interests at heart.
  2. The opposition may be pandering to the religious right. Say what you want about the religious right, but its positions are based on belief systems that have nothing to do with logic or science, they are dictated by their religion and its holy texts. The word of God may be absolute, but that doesn't mean it is scientific or logical. To be willing to compromise on issues like abortion rights for women, the funding of Planned Parenthood, gays in the military or civil unions between consenting adults would put the President in an indefensible moral position. The President has not compromised on his support of women's right to choose, but his stance on these other issues is suspect. There can be no compromise on morals. Obama has said he is against the state recognizing marriage between persons of the same sex. Barack, don't you remember what it was like when you fell in love with Michelle and knew you wanted to spend the rest of your life with her? How would you feel if your own country did not recognize your relationship as moral and permanent?
  3. The opposition's positions may not reflect scientific consensus. Global warming jumps out as the biggest of these. We can debate its true cost and how many resources we dedicate to it, but the scientific community has spoken, there is almost universal agreement that the planet is warming and it is man-made. To ignore science and compromise with the opposition on issues like this guarantees that we will have "bad luck" in the future when Greenland's ice shelf falls into the Atlantic or Bangladesh is obliterated by rising tides. We need to listen to concerned scientists on all issues but especially on environmental issues that threaten the well being of our planet. Certainly, opponents of global warming are influenced by the coal and electric utility lobbies which brings us to our fourth point.
  4. The opposition in both political parties is often not concerned with the welfare of the American people but is being paid to care more about its largest banks and corporations. I believe that such behavior on the part of our elected representatives is not only immoral, but illegal, and there can be no compromise with immorality or felons. To prove the illegality of campaign donations we only need show that votes are being sold for compensation. Difficult to do, but not impossible. When we structure a financial reform bill but allow the banks and their lobbyists to gut it by refusing to limit their size, their debt leverage or their risky trading activities, we guarantee that we will face bad luck in the future when the next financial crisis hits. We pass health care legislation that has so many giveaways to big hospital corporations, insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies that it does little to address the runaway growth in health care spending, the real reason we were trying to enact reform in the first place. It will be bad luck if runaway growth in health care costs ends up bankrupting our Medicare system.


We must stand up to the immorality of government representatives doing the bidding of big banks and corporations that is so damaging our country. We cannot compromise. We must expose it for what it is and hope the American people are smart enough to recognize that it threatens their jobs, their homes and their future. He can start by insisting that money in politics is wrong, that corporations do a fine job maximizing value in the economic marketplace, but their singular focus on profits makes them a terrible force in the political arena where they lack the empathy, moral perspective and broad sense of community needed to decide the greater issues of justice, fairness and opportunity for all.

Obama runs a very real political risk by ignoring his progressive base. It is hard to imagine anyone emerging from the left who is more popular with progressives than Obama, even if someone as capable as Elizabeth Warren chose to run against Obama in the Democratic Party primary. But that is not the real risk Obama faces by ignoring his progressive base. For Obama to win, his base must be incredibly energized and they must turn out to vote. The economy is not going to magically turn around before election day and it looks like the Republicans will be very highly motivated. Obama won the electoral college vote in many states in 2008 because progressives and young people and blacks and Latinos and women and gays and teachers and union members and environmentalists and people concerned with the corrupting influence of lobbyists and corporate money in politics turned out in record numbers. If they choose to stay home in the next presidential election, it may prove to be a very unlucky day for Barack Obama.


John R. Talbott is a bestselling author whose new book is entitled, How I Predicted the Global Economic Crisis*: The Most Amazing Book You'll Never Read. Progressives should realize how one of their own predicted this whole mess we are in while libertarian and conservative economists completely missed it. You can read more about the new book at www.johnrtalbott.com.