He has made key decisions in three areas that, unless he alters his approach (not likely), could well guarantee a Republican victory: an embarrassingly rolled-out, badly-compromised health-care reform bill; his continuing slavish subservience to those on Wall Street that took the country into the economic toilet; and his sad imitation of CheneyBush's imperial campaign in Afghanistan.
(Obama's only hope for 2012 may depend on Sarah Palin getting the GOP nomination. Even better if Glenn Beck or Dick Cheney is her running mate -- tickets, I'm appalled to say, that have been mentioned seriously. The Democrats can only hope to face such Republican candidates.)
If Obama goes down to defeat in 2012, he could take with him any hope for a major revitalization of American democracy after eight years of wrack and ruin under CheneyBush. And Obama's own Democratic majority in Congress might well suffer, perhaps quite badly, at the polls in November of 2010.
Yes, yes, I know that Obama's only been in office for a month shy of one year, and dumping on the guy may seem way early, especially given the humongous mess he inherited from his disastrous predecessor, and the vicious, destructively partisan warfare being waged by the Congressional Republicans. Still, as we approach the New Year, some summarizing truths need to be spoken now, and loudly, if we are to gain anything from the current situation in the way of possible alterations of course that can still be made.
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TIMIDITY IS NOT GOOD POLITICS
The long and short of Obama's present dilemma lies in his inability and/or unwillingness to use his massive electoral mandate in the service of the kind of systemic change he promised and that most Americans thought they were voting for. He seems afraid to step out of the D.C. Beltway manner of thinking and acting. Or, more likely, he is behaving the way he is because he really feels comfortable with the elitist/corporatist power-wielders and doesn't want to rock any boats.
Instead of being a transformational president, in the mode of FDR, willing to think boldly and move courageously, he's quickly turning into a lame-duck Democratic place-holder for whomever comes next. The incremental change he's willing to fight for is not the the major-change platform he ran on, certainly not on health-care reform, not on helping middle-class homeowners, not on extricating the U.S. from mistaken wars.
America needs major surgery, but Obama is supplying little more than Band-Aids while trying to pass himself off as a successful surgeon. The Democratic base is not buying what he's selling, especially liberal/progressive Dems, moderate Independents, and Republicans who voted for Obama because they were appalled by the extreme rhetoric coming from the crazies in charge of the GOP. In the eyes of these voting blocs, which overwhelmingly backed Obama in 2008, he is just your average politician, promising anything to get elected but not fighting and following through when it counts. No wonder 25% of Democrats already say they probably won't vote for him again.
EXAMPLES OF WRONG-HEADEDNESS
It didn't have to turn out this way.
- Millions of citizens were energized to work for and vote for and contribute to Obama's campaign. I was one of those in the political trenches, sending money, ringing doorbells, writing editorial columns, etc. Even though I saw him as little more than a pragmatic centrist, Obama seemed unlike a traditional politician and made promising speeches about taking on the entrenched power structure in Washington and in the country in general, enacting major reforms.
As one who was a bit inside the campaign, I can verify that the energy and hope in 2008 was palpable. Finally, FINALLY!, this was our chance -- after backward-looking Reaganism, after greedy and power-hungry CheneyBushism -- to turn things around, cleanse the foul-smelling stables, get America's priorities right. Maybe Obama wasn't a true progressive, but he wasn't Bush or Cheney or McCain or Palin and his liberal tendencies might come to the fore.
It's plain that too many liberals let their fervent dreams of change cloud their assessment of the man. Now, even in his first year, everyone can see that he's pretty much a politician of the old school, willing to compromise and triangulate and water down, often even before the fight is joined. In short, he is averse to taking on the powers-that-be, in part because he is a product of and a true believer in that status quo system. Or, too naively, he hopes he can convert the opposition to voluntarily do the right thing. Ain't gonna happen.
- How else to explain Obama's wishy-washy support of true health-care reform? OK, he won't accept the single-payer, Medicare-for-all approach that would be so simple, cost-effective, universal. We understand his reticence while bemoaning his lack of courage. But not to fight tooth and nail for a robust public-option plan that was supported by two-thirds of the American citizenry in polls? All along, he could have made clear that he would veto any legislation that did not include that robust option, and thus altered the debate and outcome. Instead, his chief of staff and other key Democrats effectively indicated for weeks that even the much-compomised, less-than-robust public-option could disappear with no great loss. With a jerry-rigged "trigger" substitute and buy-in for some, Obama still believes he can claim a "victory," placate his base, and thereby boost his electoral chances. He and Rahm have badly miscalulated.
- How else to explain Obama's embrace of the very financial players who helped get us into our current economic trauma? Not just the financiers on Wall Street (who, not incidentally, are still engaged in some of the very greedy tactics that created the mess in the first place) but bringing those types into vital policy-making roles in his administration: Geithner, Summers, Bernanke, et al.? Obama's dedication to propping up a corrupted form of capitalism makes him seem to be moving the deck chairs around the Titanic, rather than charting a new, more secure, more economically-just course. We've hit the economic iceberg, but are blithely continuing on toward the next catastrophe.
- How else to explain Obama's mirroring of CheneyBush's penchant for anti-democratic secrecy ("state secrets"), and their neo-con, American-exceptionalist foreign/military policies?
- How else to explain Obama's abysmal, CheneyBush-like record on civil liberties: asserting the right to hold detainees forever without charging them or bringing them to trial, to "render" them to states that engage in extreme torture, to continue domestic spying on U.S. citizens, to claim to be fighting "just wars," etc. And to the amassing of enormous powers, a la CheneyBush, in the Chief Executive's hands? The political lesson here seems to be: If you build it, they will come -- and not leave.
Unless Obama is willing to make a drastic shift in course, he's going to be a lame duck, one-term President. Those who worked so hard for him are starting to abandon him, or are being pushed out (example: Greg Craig) because of ideological differences in approach on the wars, the economic bailouts, torture, holding officials accountable for war crimes and unconstitutional behaviors, civil liberties, etc.
AND WRONG ON AFGHANISTAN
But even more than his arm's-length behavior on health-care reform dragging Obama down in the public's estimation, it's the escalation of the war in Afghanistan that may well doom his political future -- in much the same way Vietnam destroyed the effectiveness and presidencies of LBJ and Nixon.
In trying to play to every faction with his newly-announced Afghanistan policy, Obama pleases no one. Obama may think that means he's in the comfortable middle and has maneuvered skillfully with his triangulation, but, in truth, it suggests that his policy is pretty much a congealed mess.
At least Obama has the good sense to understand that "winning" in Afghanistan is impossible, as imperialist powers like the Brits and the Soviets in different centuries finally had to concede in the end. And so, Obama is launching a major escalation of a lost war mostly not to win it but to buy a little time in order to extricate U.S. troops on our own schedule (which just happens to coincide with the 2012 election). "We came in to help the Afghan people stand up for themselves, but it turns out they are so factionalized and corrupt that they cannot successfully be helped. We tried and now we're coming home." That seems to be the Obama scenario.
The $30-billion allocated for this escalation is money poured down a rathole, funding that could do wonders in helping nation-build and create jobs back in the U.S. This cost does not even include the brave young men and women in the U.S. military -- along with thousands of innocent Afghan civilians -- who will be slaughtered and maimed in this Vietnam-like quagmire of a war. (Karzai and a goodly number of U.S. generals figure we're in Afghanistan for anywhere from five to 20 years.)
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
So what, if anything, can be done about this trifecta of disasters: an endlessly-compromised, less-than-satisfactory health-care reform; a senseless, immoral war in our names (fought, to a large degree, with outside-the-law mercenaries); and a slow, partial economic recovery that helps the wealthy and corporations -- the insurance giants, the financial/banking sector, the pharmaceuticals, the oil moguls, et al. -- but not the American working- and middle-class?
Though the momentum currently is with Obama and the Democratic leaders, none of these issues are done deals as of this writing. We should be putting immense and unrelenting pressure on the President and our members of Congress to at least place tough, enforceable regulatory sanctions on the Wall Street robber-barons; to stick with the robust public-option on health-care reform; and to not fund the Afghanistan escalation. These oppositional actions could be accomplished through phone calls, petitions, letters, online agitation, sit-ins at their offices, protests on the campuses and in the streets, creative political theatre at a wide variety of venues, etc.
That's short term. Long term, we must work to fertilize the field in various states and Congressional districts for liberal/progressive candidates to run against conservative Democrats who too often side with the Republican extremists. Obviously, no Democrat can be 100% in correct votes for there are occasionally issues, or political realities in the field, that will lead to a bad vote on a particular bill.
The targets, though, are those DINOs (Dems in name only) who habitually desert the Democratic caucus to side with the worst of "conservative" positions on key popular issues. In the Senate, think Lieberman, Bayh, Nelson, Lincoln, Landrieu and that crew. The House is replete with conservative Blue Dog Democrats who proudly perform their obstructionist role time and again by siding with Republicans on decent legislation. At the very least, those politicians should have to face solid, viable liberal opposition in the primaries. That way, even if the Blue Dogs eke out victories, a potential progressive base can be identified and built on for future campaigns. And, who knows?, threatening these conservative Democrats with opposition in the primaries could affect their votes right now.
Even more long-term, we must start thinking, and talking, about the alternatives open to progressives in the 2012 presidential race. Including joining with many other Americans who are turned off by the current stranglehood on power held by elite forces seemingly beyond our control. Among these options might well be the founding of a viable third party.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at various universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently is co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To respond to this or other Crisis Papers essays, write: email@example.com.
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