05/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011


As Obama's first year in office wraps, we have to wonder how he squandered such a great opportunity to produce real "change," the theme that inspired his campaign. Those who expected it are disillusioned; those who didn't gloat at the marooned administration. The election rhetoric made many believe something was coming. In the final stretches of the campaign he indicted a failed generation of sectarian neoliberals that began with Reagan for taking us on the wrong course. But now Democrats frantically read focus groups and polls, perhaps even tea leaves, to keep their jobs. Obama's "army" has been left out of the picture, yet to find its war. Progressives, still hopeful the speeches and policies will coincide, appear stymied at the administration's steering of mostly the same course.

Is this betrayal, or the proverbial idealist facing unexpected obstacles once in power? Did we misunderstand what he represents?

He said in his chat with Republicans after the State of the Union address that he's not about ideology but working together with all parties to solve problems. He's a healer, as perhaps his choice of Rick Warren to kick off the inauguration showed. But this doesn't mean he's neutral and balanced. He coddles and courts the Republicans who are way out on the right. What if he at least glanced left on occasion and built on the passion in his speeches about the host of problems we face? What would his problem solving look like then?

Leaders inspire others to change course through their passion about certain ideas, so what does it mean to lack ideology? Ideologies are a narrowing of ideas, but they bear some relation to ideas. The bearer pushes something. It's like someone saying they aren't political when they merely support an agenda that doesn't have to be identified since it's the one that's in and the majority simply does your bidding. Obama claims to lack ideology, but he's also devoid of passion. He never makes firm cases for positions, floating feelers for focus groups to test and interests to engage instead, letting well-funded lobbyists and other players decide what will work best. Generalities floated during the campaign galvanized troops, but specifics that could translate them into action were not forthcoming.

Obama's appointments were an early eye-opener. They were far from neutral choices, but a slate of dittos from the team he replaced. This was particularly distressing since there was an expectation he would do something about the mortgage crisis other than send checks to banks; that he would push for some form of public fix of the health care system; that he would quickly move to get out of Iraq, and likely not increase the military budget; that he would re-regulate the financial industry, the cause of the whole mess, especially since deregulation was the centerpiece of the failed system he rejected.

No question there are obstacles to getting this done, but Obama's first year actions seem close to pre-new right Republican ones, especially when it comes to defense. They're pitifully close to George Bush. What better homage than to tap him as a figurehead in the Haiti response! The post-Scott Brown health plan emerging from the "summit" this week is basically the one the republicans proposed as an alternative to the Clinton plan in the 90s. His economic policies are filter-down retreads. The congressional black caucus has nearly abandoned him since he's virtually ignored the plight of African-Americans. Some reverse racist!

Had McCain-Palin won, things would likely not be very different. They would have propped up large corporations and defense, probably even doled out stimulus money, though less of it. Obama's stimulus program lacks even the spiritual fumes of the Great Society anyway, certainly the parent New Deal, providing minimal funds to the states. It basically props up the existing order.

It's because Obama is so near to the Republicans on policy, talks liberal some of the time, and keeps things vague, that they can strike at him assured he can't come back with much. He politely sidesteps charges of being a fascist or a socialist. But they hardly need substance to continue the badgering through other means, getting mileage calling him liberal among those on the right who don't need much convincing.

The chair of the Orange County Republican Party said recently in an interview with Larry Mantle on KPCC's "Air Talk," that while Obama campaigned as a moderate, he's governed as a liberal; he's just another tax and spend Democrat. When pressed for an example, he just stuttered and changed the subject. The rant about his "socialism" produced the same clichés, that he's increasing big government and "taking away our freedom."

Rush Limbaugh aptly called him a "post-accomplishment" and "post-racial" president. He and others know that most people don't sit around and evaluate facts and policies since they have neither the time nor the preparation. But many are receptive to clichés passed down by elites. We learned from Bush that saying something over and over again convinces people it's true. And if folks miss Obama's occasional liberal clichés then Limbaugh and the gang will make sure they get repeated for them.

Obama's outreach to the Republicans is notable, however, in trying to heal the political body. His predecessor inflamed the red/blue state rift. So rather than simply try and ram his "change agenda" down Republican throats, which would have deepened the polarization, Obama apparently felt a responsibility to console the losers and make them players. They still aren't playing but these gestures suggest Obama is a team player and should deflect some blame to the Republicans for inaction.

Reaching out to his adversaries, and those responsible for our problems, to muster needed change, is also intriguing. So the administration turned to the drug and insurance industries for advice on how to reform health care. And it let those who defaulted our lives and swapped our fortunes through financial speculation take charge of the repayment plans. And it gave the prior administration's head soldier the nod to solve our "wars on terror."

After all, they might've seen the light and their actions filtered down to shape his version of a better society, whatever that is. It would have been an amazing coup; giving the bad guys a chance to be good guys. Many fence-progressives feel this was a great idea since the system doesn't change that easily, and the problem is also with the bureaus and Congress. There's no question that Obama faces considerable blockages.

But it's also a stretch to believe the system will correct and regulate itself. The industries and bureaus Obama defers to are delivering more of the same. Some say we need a movement to pressure him in a "progressive" direction. Others that it is simply difficult to govern, and we need to be more patient. We do await the movement that will push him to do what he seemed to promise in that magical campaign.

But the campaign was fueled by a movement of sorts, the vast recruitment of mostly the young -- those who inevitably make up movements -- through the internet. This sizable "army" helped get Democrats their majority in Congress, and now the administration has virtually abandoned them, according to Micah Sifry ("To the Point," KCRW, Santa Monica, 1/29/10). Though a substantial outsider force for change during the campaign, once the election was over the "army" was incorporated into the Democratic National Committee. As Tim Dickinson says in Rolling Stone, this people-powered revolution became part of the amorphous mass of partisan bodies and lost its edginess. From engaged activists they became receptacles of emails, retired into a shadow of its previous self.

Obama has freely made his choices. He didn't side with the move to deny Bernanke another term. He was against moves to audit the Fed, as well as the more aggressive plans to regulate the financial industry. The problem is he accepts the center as the space to start the problem solving. It sounds so right. The center is where differences are worked out and leaders find common ground between opposing parties. But there's a difference between ending up in the center, versus beginning there. This talk manages the consent of the players who've staked claims on the wealth and power with just enough reform to make changing the rules of the game unnecessary.

Obama's position on health care has taken the public option, and obviously single payer, off the table. What criticism of the insurance companies there is gets drowned out by the assumption that reform needs to happen within the private system. They get what they want before committees sausage the product. He rants about banks and borrowers being collectively responsible, but talks little about the plight of homeowners.

When I hear the word centrist I think of Grey Davis, former California Governor who was recalled for the Terminator. He was a problem solving "new Democrat" who believed in practical solutions. In office, the utility deregulation framework engineered by both democrats and Republicans in the '90s unraveled. Privatized companies gobbled each other up, leaving weakened competition and eventually fewer players and a mess of too-big-to-fail survivors that threatened the state with insolvency if it didn't bail them out. Mr. Davis never minced his words, sending checks to those who caused the crisis. California then experienced a huge budget shortfall, leading to mass layoffs and extensive cuts in education and social services.

Working out serious differences through compromise is key to a functioning democracy. But this requires a reasonably equal field of players who have the ability to influence decisions. The voices that mostly matter now are those funded by the corporate elite that owned most successful candidates even before the recent Supreme Court decision that removed obstacles on campaign financing. Privatization is the enemy of democracy. It's because Charles Grassley and the other players drafting health care legislation can legally deposit funds from lobbyists that skews the voting proportions and mocks the spirit of compromise.

So if Obama wants real compromise he must at least bring the weight of ideas from the side wanting change to battle those who fiercely resist it, and have extraordinary power to influence others. The center, unfortunately, is where leaders have often hidden their sectarian beliefs in what they claim are practical, value-free decisions.

We got a glimpse of this attitude after WWII when Daniel Bell and others argued that our socio-economic system had reached such a level of success and affluence that all problems had become mere technical ones. There was no need for alternatives since our brand of capitalism had proven to be the best. If there were any imperfections remaining, like scarcity in income and resources for some citizens here and there, this could be alleviated with policies crafted fairly and objectively. This was also about sending a message that there was no need to get attracted to social democracy, an alternative that appeared to be increasing in popularity elsewhere.

The end of the Cold War in '91 was another moment when this was especially appealing, as the popularity of Fukuyama's "end of history" notion shows. Soviet Communism's collapse was proof positive the system left standing was the best.

But the end of ideology is the ideology that supports the alignment of power that takes place behind the talk. Not only do leaders in love with the center, who always promise reform, avoid discussing the structure of society. Their value-free rap monopolizes the discussion and lets the privileged have their way so that "solutions" mostly benefit them. Health care is another example. Obama pitches the need for universal reform from the center while the industry's players can do what they think necessary to reform itself.

The avoidance of the structure of society has a long history. It comes from the first celebrators of industrial capitalism, like Comte in the early 19th century who augustly claimed that progressive improvement was built into the system that survived the ruinous transition from feudalism -- and so must be the best! -- and therefore all that remained was to twist out the facts usable for eliminating the minor aberrations, the messy exceptions, that inevitably trail progress. Herbert Spencer's dog-eat-dog diatribe was only a few tracts away.

One of the most famous early tourists of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, found the perfect lab in the 1830s to reflect on these concerns. His very first chapter of Democracy in America identifies our "philosophical method." We distrust ideas and preexisting formulas about society, living in the moment and relying on our own individual opinions, which are a sort of "intellectual dust" that's "unable to cohere." And the result of this "independence of mind" is that "interests" bind us together, not ideas.

As individuals we may not have read the right books or sifted through the best arguments, but we know what's right. We merely perform under the hand of god and progress toward more perfect unions and complete bank accounts, doing the things that matter on the spot. It's about what's happening now. No need for last year's news or power shifts, let alone the relevance of what happened in the previous generation that locked in the power that narrows the ideas available and restricts present options. Does anyone remember the $700 billion bailout, or even care whether the disappearance of this money, or whose pockets it ended up in, has anything to do with the nature of the recession the media mostly ignores?

Tocqueville felt it was our "equality" that kept us fixed on the present and future. We were not bound by class and could effortlessly move on toward the next opportunity. The 1830s was when European immigration was gearing up, pulled by promise but pushed by economic collapse. The prospects for transcending your origins and bypassing your neighbor were real. But is it our very real myth of equality, inherited from these circumstances, that now keeps us pitched toward the future and fuzzy about present and past?

The bad is only ever temporary. We will all be somewhere else better down the road. So the news doesn't have to give us the depressing stories that advertisers feel dampen the urge to buy, but which unfortunately also might educate us and help solve important problems. Keep the messages upbeat, especially since the chaos of the recession threatens to disrupt our ways of thinking and doing and make us disbelievers. Ignore the foreclosure crisis; focus the great opportunities for those who can buy the foreclosed properties! The next boom is right around the corner once we flush all the impediments, the homeowners who shouldn't have bought, the "losers" who couldn't bypass their neighbors, out of the system.

Like those frequent ups and downs at the gas pump that picture the idea of a free market, centerspeak mimics the core values of the American experiment: freedom, equality, fairness. It says we should all stream into the main and most evident spaces and arenas. Fringes are un-American. We weigh options on both sides, but avoid rigid position-taking within either. The middle, not the ends, is what matters. This is where the mass of individuals lay, the groups of ordinary people who make up the middle class, Obama's rhetorical target. It's where the common resides, not the special and preferential, as in common denominator, the everyday essence of the American republic.

While the connotations reel from the metaphors, the "interests" that comprise the power structure, the PACs and think tanks and institutes and lobbyists that mostly represent business and elite labor positions and have most of the funds, get going. It's these voices after all that are dictating the legislation while bipartisanship and compromise, the center's official rap, distracts us.

As Arianna Huffington said on This Week recently, when responding to the issue of why real "change" is not occurring in the Obama administration, we get bipartisanship when the laws are voted on, but lobbyists are the ones writing them! Splitting the difference in negotiations about issues that have been legislated in advance by interests outside of the body which supposedly represents the people in the middle, is illusory democracy. The content of legislation needs to be shaped by the larger plurality. And we could use a different batch of voters in Congress as well.

We really need a third party that represents those left out. Most other advanced industrial nations have multiple parties, and certainly one that represents middle class interests better, and especially worker interests. Such a represented chunk of the citizenry could add to the plurality and at least force the administration to negotiate with those on the forgotten side.

Just as the economic "recovery" can occur without the nearly 20% who are under-or-unemployed, in the broken system Obama brokers, those in power, or claiming it, don't need all of these forgotten citizens to maintain their positions and get reelected. They only need media blitzes and astroturf flare-ups to engineer the appearance of an army of support to hold on. And for well over a generation the system has done without a significant number of citizens who've become apathetic, driven from the voting booth by literacy tests or a sense of disillusionment about their chances to influence the process.

Which makes the fate of Obama's "army" all that more tragic. An inspired mass of activists wanting real change, and led to believe they could help shape it, they've become another alienated group.

Obama's "liberalism" is actually consistent with structural and demographic shifts that have been underway for some time. According to Eric Foner in a recent piece in the Nation, he's far from being a New Deal liberal. Obama came of age in the Democratic party when labor was no longer a significant part of its base, and so issues of inequality, unemployment and workers' struggles have not taken priority. His perpetual referencing of the middle class as the designated target for change meshes with this assessment. And certainly the lower middle portion, these days not too close to any middle, has fallen into the bottom rung that's of little interest to the democrats. Obama's sympathies are mostly with the upper range of the middle. If Obama has a liberal twitch, Foner concludes, it can be seen in talk for the issues of women's reproductive rights, gay rights, environmentalism and racial and ethnic diversity.

All well and good, even if most of this thus far is talk. But liberal rhetoric has a better chance of finding fruition if power and resources are not stacked so much on one side. Very little can change without resources or firm legal changes in rights. Obama's optimistic encouragement of individuals to act and do things on their own is commendable, but until the system provides more options we can't expect much real progress.

Right at the top of the AOL homepage every day Obama encourages moms to go back to school. But since there's been no change in the tax structure and a revamping of budget priorities that can release more funds to the responsible authorities, business as usual has led to mass layoffs of personnel, class cuts, and larger sizes for the classes that do remain. Some climate for returning to school!

We're being pelted with commercials to read more. Well, with nearly 20% of the working population effectively out of work, it's indeed a good time for it. But what about the exorbitant cost of books caused by the oligopoly that produces them? What about the shrinkage of alternative periodical distributors caused by the same oligopoly? Antitrust regulation lays dormant. The aspirants can, of course, go to the public library, where due to severe budget cuts there's been a freeze on new books and periodicals for some time, as well as fire sales on existing stock.

Until there's something done about the way wealth is accumulated and distributed, the tax structure, unfair competition, usurious interests rates, financial speculation and other matters, individual initiative can't lead to much of substance on a broad scale. The only way that individuals can be all they want to be is to join the military.

Just letting things take their course, allowing the "free" market do its magic, makes matters worse in a world that Paul Krugman calls "lemon socialism," where the losses from economic activity are borne by taxpayers, and the gains by the corporate elite. This amounts to no less than a redistribution of wealth upward.

It's Obama's refusal to confront these fundamental structural flaws, particularly the "free market" that he railed against in the campaign, hesitantly marooned as he is in the center, that makes change virtually impossible. But blame the shift in liberalism that's made democrats so similar to republicans, and whose weakness has allowed the extreme right to gain footing. The tea baggers are only the most recent symptom of this weakening, and whose ranks reflect significant numbers of Obama voters, as well as democrats and independents.

But post-Scott Brown, isn't Obama changing, some are saying? He's endorsed the "Volcker Rule" according to Robert Scheer (Truthdig, 2/2), which involves restoring the "spirit, if not the letter" of Glass-Steagall, the legislation from the 30s -- repealed under Clinton -- that prevented commercial and investment banking from merging. But then eight days later in an interview with BusinessWeek, he endorsed the multimillion dollar bonuses paid to Chase's CEO Jamie Dimon and Sachs' CEO Lloyd Blankfein because they are "savvy businessmen" and he doesn't "begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free market system."

A few days later he came out to the cameras fuming about Anthem's decision to raise premiums on health policies by 39% in the face of record profits in the previous quarter. So much for universal coverage and those deals made at the White House to cooperate on passing a health care bill that would control costs!

Tomorrow's another day. Back and forth, up and down: whatever gets you through the election cycle and satisfies this or that potential focus group...