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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner

Posted: October 25, 2010 10:28 AM

The election is sounding the death knell for a decent America. A country where the enlightened consensus of the postwar decades is restored; a country where reciprocal obligations are woven into the fabric of our public institutions; a country where justice for all is more than a phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance; a country where there is a measure of honesty and integrity to our public life; a country where plutocracy is rejected and kleptocracy is unimaginable; a country that doesn't torture, that doesn't torture itself with inflated fears; that respects its civil liberties; that shuns imperial ambition and pretense. This is the America so many expected would be served by a President Barack Obama. It hasn't worked out that way. The principal reason is Mr. Obama himself.

It makes little difference whether the Democrats retain a thin majority in one House of Congress or other. The Republicans will rule the roost with an active assist from their soul brothers burrowed across the aisle. Yes, the subpoena power counts for something, as does the processing of presidential nominees. On legislation, the future is preordained. Anything smacking of progressive thinking is dead. Obama's enemies will be more emboldened; his sympathizers more demoralized. Moreover, the White House will pursue its well established policy of seeking common ground somewhere between Sarah Palin and Olympia Snowe. The crucial concessions already have been made in heart and mind.

The chatter and clatter of the artless spectacle that our politics has become conceals this stunning truth. We have missed an historic opportunity to reverse America's steady descent into Reaganism. There was an epochal chance to forge a new political reality based on progressive principles with a generation of young voters as its base. Three factors created this opportunity. The Republican party had lurched far to the right with its embrace of America circa 1928 as its model, thereby estranging its traditional moderate (true) conservatives. That is one. Its philosophies of ruthless individualism, free market fundamentalism and government be damned had been discredited in dramatic fashion by events that hurt most Americans. That is two. It had proven itself at once corrupt and incompetent at home and abroad. That is three. Katrina, the Iraq fiasco, rampant criminality inside the government and the pernicious effects of stagnant incomes for salaried Americans over four decades had broken the hold that Republican ideas had on the popular mind. The financial meltdown of 2007-2009 that shook national self-confidence to its foundations brought into sharp focus all of the above. The wave of anxiety that it provokes made people amenable to a fresh way of thinking about how to conduct our public affairs. The 2006 election was the first political fallout. Obama's election in 2008 confirmed that the mood of the times even overrode our latent racism.

The upshot was that in January 2009 the pieces were in place to push the Republicans into the political wilderness for a generation. The party's capture by its most obscurantist elements made realization of that prospect easier and more durable. This year's election should have been shades of 1934 when the Roosevelt led Democrats greatly increased their Congressional majorities - or at least 2002 when Republicans gained seats. Instead we are seeing a reprise of 1994. Only the perverse genius of the Obama led Democratic Party could make possible this drastic reversal of a powerful political logic. What should be an historic turning point in the direction of good governance for all our citizens now is about to be a turn toward a radical and reactionary regime far more toxic than anything we have experienced to date. The passions of a troubled country that have given impetus to a reform agenda are now tearing that agenda apart. The national crisis that coincided with Obama's entry into the White House was a godsend for liberals. It has been turned into a curse.

This is a harsh indictment. The uncomfortable truth, though, is that the alternative explanations for what has befallen us are lame. Let's look at them in turn. First is the simplistic notion, recently voiced by a self-serving Rahm Emanuel, that the discontent in the American body politic had been brewing for a long time and it was just bad luck that Obama and the Democrats happened to be in control when it erupted. In fact, it was those very discontents that carried Obama into office and padded Democratic majorities in the Congress. The momentum was all theirs; the wind was at their back. Tragically, they lacked the insight and political skill to take advantage of it. Second there is the argument that the Obama administration was hamstrung by the implacable opposition of an obstructionist Republican Party dedicated and united to preventing it from governing.

True -- but that should have been seen as opening the way to driving the final nail into their coffin. Doing so would have meant drawing clear lines between the enlightened policies and programs the times require and the Republicans' discredited philosophy. It would have meant opening as much distance as possible between the White House and the special interests which own the Republican Party and use it as their paid agent. It would have meant a campaign to rouse and mobilize the American people behind Obama led Democrats in a struggle for the nation's political soul. It would have meant calling out the Blue Dogs and using every bit of leverage available to force them to choose between accepting White House leadership or facing the ire of a wrathful electorate. It would have meant calling the Republicans bluff on threatened filibusters by raising the stakes while attacking their most vulnerable members rather than cosseting them. It would have meant calling out the Tea Party rabble rousers and enablers for what they are while shrinking the pool of their possible recruits by tapping and channeling the free floating angst abroad in the land.

As to the obtuse media who have spotlighted the radical right and routinely give the lies of Republican leaders a pass, the cynical truth is the American media today exist to be used. The White House is in a better position than anyone to meet their needs for a story line, for celebrity, for sound bites. If it doesn't satisfy their needs, the other guys are only too happy to step in.

The final exculpatory argument for refraining from an indictment of Obama and his entourage is that no one could have done better in the face of the unrelenting, vicious attacks on him. It often is coupled with the specious line that we should concentrate our criticism on Bush instead since he was the cause of so many of the country's ills. Well, you don't grade Presidents on a curve when the fate of the Republic is at stake. You don't ignore the opportunity that severe challenge opens. You don't forget how a Roosevelt used his enemies' venom to his advantage. You don't let the color of a President's skin enter into how you assess his performance as Chief Executive.

To seize that historic opportunity would have required from Obama conviction, courage and a sense of history. All are absent from his thinking and public persona. He is portrayed in a recent New York Times magazine article as having few if any regrets about how he has conducted himself. He apparently feels that he is a victim of circumstances beyond his control. He still approaches associates and problems with the instinctive confidence that he is the smartest person in the room - so we are told. Let's look at the record.

Obama was not the smartest man in the room when he swallowed whole the Rubin-Bernanke-Summers line that restoring financial supremacy to the biggest players on Wall Street was tantamount to restoring financial stability and the absolute precondition for economic recovery. He wasn't the smartest guy in the room when he declared that Lloyd Blankfein and Jaime Damon were 'very savvy businessman' who deserved every dollar they took; when he reneged on his pledge to push legislation that would have restored to home owners the right to renegotiate mortgages in bankruptcy court; when he cast Paul Volcker into the outer orbit of his administration. He was not the smartest guy in the room when just last week he dismissed massive bank foreclosure fraud as "honest mistakes and errors."

Obama was not the smartest man in the room when he made a secret pact with the health insurers to kill the public option as their price for acquiescing in a deal that saw their stock prices spike; when he struck another shadowy deal with Big Pharma to kill proposals to allow the government to bargain over drug prices; when he made health reform hostage to the bipartisan 'gang of six' conservative Senators from the boondocks led by Max Baucus, the bought agent for the health care industry. He wasn't the smartest person in the room when he pursued the same futile strategy on finance reform by sponsoring the mixed marriage of Senators Dodd and Coburn. Obama wasn't the smartest guy in the room when he appointed a Presidential Commission on Social Security stocked with devotees to the 'cut-it-back' cult - this after trying to sneak through Congress a bill that would have compelled the legislature to vote up or down the whole package of its predictable recommendations. He was not the smartest guy in the room when he took a hands-off attitude toward the BP oil spoil.

Obama was not the smartest person in the room when he convinced himself that a firm commitment to escalation in Afghanistan was a stepping stone to the White House. He wasn't the smartest guy in the room when he allowed Secretary Gates and General Petraeus to sell him their pie-in-the-sky scheme for victory in Afghanistan; when he tried to square circles by linking an increase in troops to a fixed deadline to begin withdrawal; when he fostered the illusion that we could dictate our terms to Karzai and Kayani.

Obama was not the smartest person in the room when he dispatched Robert Gibbs to publicly insult in vulgar language the people who elected him. He surely wasn't the smartest guy in the room when he sought out the smug, foul-mouthed Rahm Emanuel to be his trusted White House lieutenant; Rahm Emmanuel the consigliore cum hustler whose machinations spawned those politically suicidal actions; Rahm Emanuel the designated 'fixer' who did more to break the Obama presidency than anyone save the President himself. Nor was Obama the smartest guy in the room when he shunned his electoral network of grass roots -- and young -- activists while cultivating all the Washington power brokers against whom he'd run.

Political considerations rightly figure in most White House policy judgments. Expediency does at times dictate bowing to them. But this President routinely has taken actions against the grain of good government, betraying his backers and losing his credibility in the process, that have exacted such heavy political costs as to run his presidency onto the rocks. That is the signal failure of an administration that has marooned its friends and allies, curried favor with the opposition and passively accepted abuse from them, all based on a disastrous political calculus that leads inexorably to next Tuesday's shipwreck.

This blunt truth returns us to the question of how devoted BaracK Obama actually is to the success of the Democratic Party, its stated program and its voting constituents. One hears reports of sighs of relief in the White House now that it no longer will be required to reconcile the demands of 'professional progressives' with the relentless pressure of the right. The bipartisanship that he so avidly sought now will be imposed on him by congressional arithmetic, on the stringent terms of the Republicans and their blue dog auxiliaries. The nonchalance with which this outcome is anticipated strongly suggests two awkward conclusions. One, Obama believes deep down that the locus of American public life does not coincide with the locus of sentiment within the Democratic Party; and, two, that there really isn't anything that terrible about conforming to that reality. "In Losing, There May Be Winning," as yesterdays NYT's headline complacently reassures us.

The White House mood on the eve of the pending rout is pictured as resigned - a shrug of the shoulder 'that's life' bordering on the blasé. This tepid attitude has been on display throughout the campaign. When Joe Biden mustered the courage to condemn the Republicans for their embrace of the Tea Party crackpots, he was immediately reined in. There were mutterings about not irritating the far right further lest they really get ticked off -- and, presumably, would never consider voting for Obama in 2012.

Obama's public life, as we know it, has followed one deeply etched pattern that allows for only mode of conduct. It is a true expression of who he is - at heart, a deeply conventional person who has learned how to profit from his exceptionality. A creature of his times, the embodiment of generation 'X' that came of age during the Reagan era and inhaled its mixture of sanctimony and selfishness.

These are its core ingredients. Always portray yourself as a traveler on the high road who looks with disfavor on those who follow the grubby path of partisan mean spiritedness. Make much of an ideal world in which all walk hand-in-hand on that high road headed toward an undefined better tomorrow. Cultivate via rhetoric laced with the occasional theatrical gesture that you identify with the weaker and the marginal, e.g. African-Americans, the unprivileged, the uninsured, women, gays. Never alienate the establishment in the process. For the establishment is where American strength and the ultimate source of legitimacy for all serious matters lies. Make your pitch to the former so as to position yourself to reach your goal. Play it in contrapuntal fashion with the theme of promoting one harmonious family -- of Harvard Law School rebels and its mainstream, of the Chicago business establishment and inner city minorities, of good government Illini and the party machine, of Progressive Democrats and the Senate power brokers, of the idealistic kids who backed you and the hustlers you surround yourself with.

Once you reach your goal, whatever position you're grasping for, quietly shed your more passionate supporters whose conviction is as embarrassing and alien to you as is a true reform agenda. Make peace with the powers that be. All the while cultivate, albeit sotto voce, your image of someone deserving respect for your brains and for having overcome adversity. Thereby, you entice the world to overlook your contradictions and self-centeredness -- especially since you are so manifestly a great guy and you're black. The latter element is particularly helpful in dulling the skeptical inclinations, such as they are, of liberals and blurring the vision of all. It is an ecumenical approach - all are welcome in the congregation of celebrants for the phenomenon that is Barack Obama.

In the avidly sort position, you do a competent job but never get out on the limb. You're the conciliator, the above the fray man even while espousing the creed of betterment and improvement. Legislative life best suits you. There is more room for maneuver; you're not held accountable for actually running anything; your accomplishments can be fudged. Then you find yourself President of the United States of America. A different modus operandi is called for. But you can play only the one role. It is you and you are it.

There is something abnormal going on here. The world is supposed to accommodate itself to me; I don't adjust to it. Certainly not as to style and mode of address. The opposition doesn't even pay lip service to the lofty ideals I pronounce. It spurns the hand of bipartisanship that I extend in good faith since, in truth, I feel that they may be almost as close to what's right as are my supporters. ("My administration claims no monopoly of good ideas.") The Fox crowd call me dirty names; they race bait. (That was beyond the pale at Harvard Law School, in Chicago's corporate world, in the Springfield Sate House, in the Senate). So I'll just keep doing my thing - my way. I'll play up to the establishment powerhouses - the Wall Street barons, the health industry moguls, the Pentagon brass, the CIA mandarins. In the past, they've always seen it in their interest not to embarrass or hurt me; I've always made sure that there was something for them in my successes. I'll just have to call a success whatever comes out of this strange new reality and distance myself from the nastiness all around me. Nobody could have done as well as I have. Anyway, I'm above it all; I'm better than all this. I plan to take up my option on the White House through 2016.