Economics and politics - comment and analysis
30. January 2017 I Will Denayer I Countries and Regions, General, General Politics

The liberals’ president. Eight years of Obama

Who’s your president?

Barack Obama is no longer president of the US. I will not produce a list of his achievements. What interests me is the current political constellation and the future strategy of the Left. The Sanders phenomenon showed that there is widespread popular support for leftist policies in the USA (in itself this nothing new – see below). It also shows that the Democratic Party is not part of it. The lesson is therefore that the Left has to fight the elite, including the Democratic one. It basically entails creating a whole new party. That is far from easy, but it is the only way forward (see also here).

During the last decades, the liberals, undoubtedly on purpose, reproduced Chesterton’s mistake: one can call every flower a daisy, but in doing so, one loses the ability to distinguish daisies from all other flowers. As the liberals considered Obama a progressive, they lost the capacity to distinguish friend from foe (see here and here). The elites made the political power of the population impotent. The target must therefore not only be Trump – although Trump, the “rebel,” is of course the elite par excellence. The target must be all of those who made the country into a de facto oligarchy. This is no rhetoric. Numerous political science studies prove it black on white (see below). Needless to say, Trump and his renegades need to be opposed. It is time – high time – for the progressives to wake up and to distance themselves from the liberals. It is all good and well to protest in the streets because Trump is “not my president.” Okay, but then who was their president? It is just not good enough.

Imagine that Trump had said during his campaign that he wanted to greatly expand America’s drone program and bomb twice as many countries as his predecessor. What would the public outcry have been? If Trump had pledged during his campaign to reverse America’s trend toward nuclear disarmament and commit more than one trillion dollar to developing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, what would the public outcry have been? When Obama did so, no Democrat said a word. Exactly the same goes for Obama’s wars (see here). During the election, the issue of foreign wars was forbidden domain. Is that progressive politics? If Trump had promised during his campaign to greatly expand the Patriot Act, install an Orwellian surveillance program and prosecute more whistleblowers than any previous administration, what would the public outcry have been?

The country went berserk in what has to be considered as an act of near-collective hypocrisy went Trump ranted about his insane wall with Mexico and this plan to deport two to three million illegal immigrants. This is absolutely scandalous indeed. But this (electronic) wall already exists. According to a Pew Research data analysis, the Obama administration deported an unprecedented 2.4 million illegal immigrants between 2009 and 2014. It deported 414,481 immigrants in the fiscal year 2014 (see here, here and here for discussion). Where were the protests? The truth of the matter is that the great majority of liberals never raised a finger for America’s undocumented immigrants, for the people in the countries that Obama bombed, for the unemployed, homeless in the inner cities in the US or for the inmates – mostly coloured people – of the American Gulag industry. Last week has to be considered the absolute historical low point of this hypocrisy. When CNN published completely unsubstantiated dirt on Trump, the progressives cheered. They had found a new ally. Incredibly, it is the CIA.

The liberals and the CIA

As Greenwald last week, now that Trump is the enemy –  a comfortable position which demands no thinking or insight – Democrats, still reeling from their traumatic election loss, as well as a systemic collapse of their party, and seemingly divorced further from reason with each passing day, are willing — eager — to embrace any claim, cheer any tactic, align with any villain, regardless of how unsupported, tawdry and damaging those behaviours might be in order to damage Trump (see here). This is not a fight of the Left against the Right. It is not a fight of democracy against authoritarianism or ‘fascism.’ It is the Democratic party struggling for its life. Of course, there are serious dangers to a Trump presidency. It is disaster. As Greenwald explains, there is a wide array of legitimate and effective tactics for combating threats: bipartisan congressional coalitions, constitutional legal challenges, citizen uprisings, civil disobedience (see here). But, as Greenwald continues – and this is the point – cheering for the CIA and its shadowy allies is outright pathological. As he writes: “Empowering the very entities that have produced the most shameful atrocities and systemic deceit over the last six decades is desperation of the worst kind. Demanding that evidence-free, anonymous assertions be instantly venerated as Truth — despite emanating from the very precincts designed to propagandize and lie — is an assault on journalism, democracy, and basic human rationality.” He is absolutely right.

What is Greenwald talking about? In the week before the inauguration, the CIA released a completely unverified document, compiled by a paid, anonymous operative, accusing Trump of a wide range of crimes, corrupt acts and salacious private conduct. According to New York Times’ Executive Editor Baquet, the allegations were “totally unsubstantiated.” It ended up on CNN the same evening, which, in the gravest of tones, announced the “Breaking News” that “the nation’s top intelligence officials” briefed Obama and Trump that Russia had compiled information that “compromised President-elect Trump.” CNN refused to specify what these allegations were on the ground that it could not “verify” them (see here). Hours later, the whole memo, although its farcical character is clear, was online.

When Trump, later in the week, refused to take a question from a CNN reporter, the clip went around the world as evidence of Trump’s authoritarianism and disrespect for free speech. This is not progressive politics. This is hypocritical and outright wrong.

As Greenwald explains (and he can know), the CIA had of course thrown its weight behind Clinton, who was critical of Obama for restraining the CIA’s proxy war in Syria and was eager to expand that war, while Trump denounced it. Clinton wanted a harder line than Obama took against the CIA’s long-standing foes in Moscow, while Trump wanted improved relations and greater cooperation (whatever that may mean for the moment) (see here). Whatever it is, as Greenwald writes, nobody should crave the rule of Deep State overlords. Many democrats openly embraced and celebrated what was, plainly, an attempt by the Deep State to sabotage an elected official who had defied it.

Your president’s farewell

Obama’s Farewell Address was a fitting monument of this presidency. “I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it” (see here and here).  Obama moved to crush the Occupy Movement in the fall and winter of 2011. We will never know how far Occupy might have gone. It was shut down by a federally coordinated campaign of repression. Hundreds of mostly Democratic city governments fully participated in the infiltration, surveillance, smearing, takedown and eviction of the short-lived movement – even as the Democrats took over some of Occupy’s rhetoric (see here).

As Paul Street writes in Counterpunch, Obama did nothing as president for card check union authorization — the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which he campaigned on and which would have re-legalized serious union organizing. He failed to offer one iota of support for the great pro-public worker Wisconsin Rebellion of early 2011 (see here).

What about the arch-authoritarian, super-secretive, global-corporatist Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Obama spent much of his second term trying to get through Congress (see here)? Is that “ordinary people” getting engaged and coming together to demand change? It may sound spiteful and cynical, but it is true, of course: when 13 top bankers ended up in the White House in March 2009, Obama told them not to worry – ‘I am here to help.’ How many lives did these bankers destroy? How much damage did they cause to the American and the global economy – to the lives of “ordinary people”? Did Obama help “ordinary people” when he decided to offer Republicans bigger cuts to Social Security and Medicare than the GOP asked for during the debt-ceiling crisis of summer 2011? What was that about? Where do people get the idea from that Obama is something like an American social democrat? From the media, of course. From all other political forces, worldwide, which do not want to see any progressive policies – talk yes, keeping the population docile, repression if necessary, outright violence, sheer lies, indoctrination, the most right wing policies since the end of World War 2 in basically every domain, everything except progressive policies.

Even more spiteful, it has not always been like this. When savings and loan officials scammed the public out of billions during the first Bush administration, federal prosecutors convicted a couple thousand of them. Obama could have done the same. He simply chose not to. Obama’s apologists always refer to the fact that after 2010, the Democrats no longer had a majority in either the House or the Senate (or both). But why did they no longer have majority? Was it because of Obama’s policies? Why has the Democratic Party been losing so many voters – basically, they lost half of their governors? Why would, in 2016, the traditional ‘working class’ – the blue-collar worker in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the states where in Clinton lost the election, vote for the Democrats promising more of the same?) (see here and here). In that sense, neoliberalism is ‘over.’ The tragedy is that it fell into the hands of an even greater plutocrat.

What is this democracy that Obama is talking about? I commented on this before (see here). According to Gilens and Page, the US political system functions as “an oligarchy:” wealthy elites and corporations rule (see here). Examining data from more than 1.800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page find that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of and against the will of the U.S. majority and irrespective of which major party holds the White House and/or Congress. As Gilens explained “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” “Under Obama, people learned,” Greider wrote, “that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. (…) (T)o deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid” (see here).

“The wealthy,” Obama claimed in his Farewell Address “are paying a fair share of taxes.” This is the darling of the liberals talking. “Today the economy is growing again.” It is growing, yes. The top 10% of the upper 1% now has as much wealth as the “bottom 90%.” An incredible 95 percent of the nation’s income growth went to the top 1 percent during Obama’s first term. A recent study shows that 94 percent of the jobs created under Obama have been part-time, contract and/or temporary positions. In all of the 3,007 US counties, parishes and territories, just over 50% of the population is on government assistance of some sort. “The US has the strongest, most durable economy in the world,” Obama boasted. But his administration is the first two-term presidency that has not posted a 3% GDP growth on an annualized basis for 8 years (see here and here).

The point

The economic, financial and political elites in the US (and this includes the Democrats) have accomplished to break the power of labour in the struggle over the appropriation of the value created by productivity (see here). Labour has been losing that battle during the last four decades, under the pressure of anti-trade union laws, ending of employment protection and tenure, the reduction of benefits, the ‘capital bias’ in technology (see here), a growing reserve army of underemployed and through the globalisation of manufacturing – regardless of who was in power. According to Roberts, it was the weakened bargaining power of unions and higher unemployment combined with a marked decrease in redistribution through taxes and transfers that was the main explanation why Americans have fallen behind in income since the 1980s.

And Americans did fall behind in income. From 1980 to 2014, average national income per adult grew by 61% in the US, yet the average pre-tax income of the bottom 50% of individual income earners stagnated at about $16.000 per adult after adjusting for inflation. In contrast, income skyrocketed at the top of the income distribution, rising 121% for the top 10%, 205% for the top 1% and 636% for the top 0.001%! (see here). From 1980 to 2014, none of the growth in per-adult national income went to the bottom 50%, while 32% went to the middle class (defined as adults between the median and the 90th percentile), 68% to the top 10% and 36% to the top 1% – regardless of who was in power or which party had a majority in the House (see here).

Roberts cites Piketty, Saez and Zucman to make clear the absolutely essential point that all of this has been due to politics, it is to say to power relations:

“The diverging trends in the distribution of pre-tax income across France and the United States—two advanced economies subject to the same forces of technological progress and globalization—show that working-class incomes are not bound to stagnate in Western countries. In the United States, the stagnation of bottom 50 percent of incomes and the upsurge in the top 1 percent coincided with drastically reduced progressive taxation, widespread deregulation of industries and services, particularly the financial services industry, weakened unions, and an eroding minimum wage” (see here). 

So yes, the economy has been growing. And it did nothing for a lot of people and almost nothing for the majority of Americans.

Health care

“Health care costs,” Obama exulted. “are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years” (see here). As former Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren notes in The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government (2016), “In 2008, Barack Obama the change agent ran against the legacy of George W. Bush. But when he assumed office his policies in the areas of national security and financial regulation were strikingly similar. Even the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans vilify with uncontrollable rage, is hardly different in outline from Bush’s Medicare (both expand medical coverage by subsidizing corporate interests)” (see here and here).

The health care situation in the US has long been an international scandal, with about twice the per capita expenses of other OECD countries and outcomes which are, on average, marginally better than those of Albania (see here). It is plagued, among other things, by an enormous bureaucracy. One study of the US and Canada by Woolhandler concluded that “Reducing US administrative costs to Canadian levels would save at least $209 billion annually, enough to fund universal coverage” (see here). Another anomalous feature of the US system is the law banning the government from negotiating drug prices, which leads to highly inflated prices in the US as compared with other countries. That effect is magnified considerably by extreme patent rights accorded to the pharmaceutical industry enabling monopoly profits. In a profit-driven system, there are also incentives for expensive treatments rather than preventive care.

I am paying some attention to this, because it proves two points. Progressives may consider ‘Obamacare’ as one of Obama’s great achievements – they should not. Second, Obamacare exists because the oligarchy rules. Obamacare is not what the American population has been wanting for the last 30 years or longer (see here). During the Reagan years, 70% of the adult population thought that health care should be a constitutional guarantee. Poll results have consistently shown large majority support for universal health care. The early proposals calling for “public option” were supported by almost two-thirds of the population. As Chomsky explains, it never received proper consideration, as part of a compact with financial institutions. The legislative bar to government negotiation of drug prices was opposed by 85 percent, also disregarded – again to prevent opposition by the pharmaceutical giants. “The preference for universal health care,” Chomsky explains, “is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that there is almost no support or advocacy in sources that reach the general public and virtually no discussion in the public domain. The press reports – correctly – that there is little “political support” and that what the public wants is “politically impossible.” This is the polite way of saying that the financial and pharmaceutical industries will not tolerate it” (see here).

What remains is a depoliticized society in which a majority of voters (barely half the population even in the super-hyped presidential elections, much less in others) are literally disenfranchised, in that their representatives disregard their preferences while effective decision-making lies largely in the hands of tiny concentrations of wealth and corporate power, as study after study reveals.

It is true that Obamacare insured millions of Americans. But for how long? It also left millions of Americans out in the cold. ‘Obamacare’ had two goals: to provide affordable health care and guarantee competition of providers at state level. Today, the average American family spends on up to 24% of its disposable income on health care. For years in a row, the states with only one provider have been growing. That many more people will suffer when (or if) Trump repeals the ACA does not mean that Obamacare was ever good enough. It was never good enough.

A Nobel peace prize

I do not want to go into Obama’s international achievements. We know what they are. Obama, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, sold more weapons than any other American president since World War II (see here). Most of the arms deals totaling over $200 billion in the period from 2008 to 2015 have ended up in the Middle East. A Congressional report found that Saudi Arabia was the top arms importer with deals worth around $94 billion from 2008-2015 (see here). Under Obama the overall sales, pending delivery of equipment and specialised training for troops, to Saudi Arabia alone has ballooned to $115 billion. Saudi Arabia is spearheading a coalition of Arab nations in a bombing campaign closing in on Yemen. The United States has sent special operations forces to assist the Arab coalition in a grinding war that has seen over 10000 killed,2.2 million displaced and nearly half a million children on the brink of famine from the ensuing crisis. As the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran involving Syria and Yemen continued to devastate the region for years (see here). Obama’s drone campaign has been described by Noam Chomsky as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times”? (see here). According to Chomsky, Obama has acted as global-war-on/of-terror judge, jury, and executioner, in brazen defiance of technically irrelevant national and international law (see here).

Under Obama, the US has spent more on defence than China, Russia, Saudi, France, UK, India and Germany combined (see here). It is, of course, Obama, who signed the NDAA – an indefinite detention bill – into law. It was Obama who waged war on Libya without congressional approval. It was Obama who started a covert drone was in Yemen and who escalated the proxy war in Somalia, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan (see here). It is Obama who has been speaking out on “clean coal” and fracking and opened territories for deepwater oil drilling. It is Obama who signed the Patriot Act extension into law (see here). It was Obama who signed the Monsanto Protection Act into law. It is Obama who has prosecuted more whistleblowers than any president before him. It is Obama who escalated tensions with Russia putting troops in the Baltics and Poland and anti-missile systems in Romania. It is Obama who has been pushing TPP and other “trade” agreements, which have to remain secret to the populations of the potential signatories.

If there anything amazing here, it is that the liberals show sufficient shamelessness to walk up the street and demand more of the same.

What we need in the US – as everywhere else – are political parties which stand up for the needs of the population at large – labour parties, labour unions, parties that stand up for decent wages, decent policies, investment, social welfare, universal health care, decent housing, decent education, people who stand up for the rights of immigrants, women, minorities, global development, the fight against climate change, fairness and justice. It is not the job of the progressives to prefer one neoliberal disaster over another. If you want to fight the Right, fight all of them. The American people – and everybody else – deserves much better than Trump. They deserve better than Obama. All the rest is collaboration and laziness. The elite is not going to do it for you. You have to do it yourself, against the elite.