Change You Used to Believe In

I suppose it was naïve to have believed in Change, to have let oneself get caught up on Hope. But it had been a tough eight years, and it wasn’t hard to think that our excitement about the cosmetic regime change would also include some real substantive policy changes to follow.

In his final post as a Washington Editor of Harper’s Magazine, Ken Silverstein does a great job of summarizing the huge disappointment that many of us have felt about the Obama presidency:

. . . I moved to Washington in 1993, when a young, new Democratic president replaced George Bush and promised to reform politics and be a transformative leader. Backed by huge majorities in Congress and with public opinion squarely in his corner, he had the opportunity to shake things up and change American politics. Instead, he and his party squandered their chance through timidity, weak leadership, a lack of any original ideas and their refusal to confront special interest groups.

Here we are seventeen years later and there’s a young, new Democratic president who replaced George Bush and promised to reform politics and be a transformative leader. Backed by huge majorities in Congress….

Well, by now you can probably guess where this is heading.

I had low expectations for Obama as I always viewed him as a fairly conventional insider. But by any measure, his presidency has been a huge disappointment. It’s true that Obama inherited a terrible economy, but his policies were timid — which is no surprise given that his economic team was composed almost entirely of the same bankers and Wall Street insiders who paved the way for and profited from our bubble economy. There are now 43.6 million Americans living in poverty and more than 15 million out of work; that’s a scandal, and when there’s a Democrat in the White House and the party has ample majorities in Congress, it’s not credible to blame everything on obstructionism by the Republicans.

Then there was the health care reform bill, that took more than a year to pass and whose primary beneficiaries were the lobbyists who got paid billions to water it down. The bill does almost nothing to control costs and left the insurance industry in charge of the system. And for that very reason, the industry will be able to contrive loopholes that minimize the impact of the few good measures left in the bill.

Joe Biden and Robert Gibbs have recently been attacking the “left” and saying that it doesn’t appreciate all the great things the administration has done. For my part, I have lived in Washington long enough to have realistic hopes; for example, given political realities, passing a single payer bill was not going to happen. But I also don’t think it’s my job, as a journalist or a citizen, to blindly repeat the mantra of the administration (and its supporters in the blogosphere), that we should “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Fine, but let’s also not treat the administration’s health care plan as a grand achievement. The bill is widely unpopular, and not only because of the hyperbolic attacks on it by Republicans and Fox News. It’s unpopular because it’s a terrible piece of legislation.

The current GOP is truly a scary party, but if not for that it would be impossible to care about the midterm elections. When you’re reduced to rooting for soulless hacks like the current Senate majority leader—and he’s typical of today’s Democrats—you’ve lost something fundamental at the core of your humanity.

Now it appears that the President is fighting back, but instead of fighting for the Change he told us to believe in, he is whining about those who are calling him out for not keeping good on his rhetoric. According to the President, voters shouldn’t judge him by his record but by how bad the alternative would be; aka, vote for me because the other guy is scary.

Unfortunately, Obama, who may speak more coherently than Bush, simply isn’t in a position to make that case. As Glenn Greenwald explains,

President Obama gave an interview to Rolling Stone and actually said this:

The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible. . . . .If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties, we’d better fight in this election.

This may be one of the most audaciously hilarious political statements I’ve read in quite some time . . . for Barack Obama to cite “civil liberties” as a reason why Democratic apathy is “just irresponsible,” and to claim with a straight face that this election will determine whether we’re “the kind of country that respects” them, is so detached from basic reality that I actually had to read this three or four times to make certain I hadn’t misunderstood it. To summarize Obama’s apparent claim:  the Republicans better not win in the midterm election, otherwise we’ll have due-process-free and even preventive detention, secret assassinations of U.S. citizens, vastly expanded government surveillance of the Internet, a continuation of Guantanamo, protection of Executive branch crimes through the use of radical secrecy doctrines, escalating punishment for whistleblowers, legal immunity for war crimes, and a massively escalated drone war in Pakistan.  That’s why, as the President inspirationally warns us:  “If we want the kind of country that respects civil liberties, we’d better fight in this election.”

. . . What is notable about it is what it reveals substantively.  The country is drowning in a severe and worsening unemployment crisis.  People are losing their homes by the millions.  Income inequality continues to explode while the last vestiges of middle class security continue to erode.  The Obama civil liberties record has been nothing short of a disgrace, usually equaling and sometimes surpassing the worst of the Bush/Cheney abuses.  We have to stand by and watch the Commander-in-Chief fire one gay service member after the next for their sexual orientation.  The major bills touted by Obama supporters were the by-product of the very corporatist/lobbyist dominance which Obama the candidate repeatedly railed against.  Rather than take responsibility for any of this, they instead dismiss criticisms and objections as petulant, childish, “irresponsible whining” — signaling rather clearly that they think they’re doing the right thing and that these criticisms are fundamentally unfair.

And in the meantime I am constantly getting emails from the Obama camp asking for something or another. I am still rooting for the guy, but he needs to start coming through on more than just the ability to speak in complete sentences.

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Filed under Essays, Obama 44

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