SYNDICATED COLUMN: A President Who Doesn’t Even Try

Is Obama Kowtowing to the Right? Or Is He One of Them?

The President’s progressive critics blame him for continuing and expanding upon his Republican predecessor’s policies. His supporters point to the obstructionist, Republican-controlled Congress. What can Obama do? He’s being stymied at every turn.

The first problem with the it’s-the-GOP’s-fault defense is that it asks voters to suffer short-term memory loss. In 2009, you probably recall, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. By a sizeable majority. They even had a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate. His approval ratings were through the roof; even many Republicans who had voted against him took a liking to him. The media, in his pocket, wondered aloud whether the Republican Party could ever recover. “Rarely, if ever, has a President entered office with so much political wind at his back,” Tim Carney wrote for the Evans-Novak Political Report shortly after the inauguration.

If Obama had wanted to pursue a progressive agenda—banning foreclosures, jailing bankers, closing Guantánamo, stopping the wars, pushing for the public option he promised in his healthcare plan—he could have. He had ample political capital, yet chose not to spend it.

Now that Congress is controlled by a Republican Party in thrall to its radical-right Tea Party faction, it is indeed true that Obama can’t get routine judicial appointments approved, much less navigate the passage of legislation. Oh-so-conveniently, Obama has turned into a liberal-come-lately. Where was his proposed Buffett Rule (which would require millionaires with huge investment income to pay the same percentage rate as middle-class families) in 2009, when it might have stood a chance of passage?

Team Obama’s attempt to shore up his liberal base also falls short on the facts. Progressives were shocked by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling, along party lines, that legalized strip-searches and body cavity rapes by police and private security firms who detain people suspected of any crime, even minor traffic infractions.

“What virtually none of this…commentary mentioned,” reported Glenn Greenwald in Salon, “was that that the Obama DOJ [Department of Justice] formally urged Court to reach the conclusion it reached…this is yet another case, in a long line, where the Obama administration was able to have its preferred policies judicially endorsed by getting right-wing judges to embrace them.”

No wonder Obama stayed mum.

Which brings us to the biggest, yet least discussed, flaw in the attempt to pin Obama’s inaction on the heads of Congressional Republicans: the bully pulpit.

Whether Donald Trump likes it or not, Barack Obama is still president. If he calls a press conference to call attention to an issue, odds are that reporters will show up. But he’s not walking tall or even talking big.

Responding to fall 2011 polls that indicated softening support among the younger and more liberal voters who form the Democratic base, Obama’s reelection strategists began rolling out speeches inflected with Occupy-inspired rhetoric about class warfare and trying to make sure all Americans “get a fair shot.” But that’s all it is: talk. And small talk at that.

Instead of introducing major legislation, the White House plans to spend 2012 issuing presidential orders about symbolic, minor issues.

Repeating Clinton-era triangulation and micro-mini issues doesn’t look like a smart reelection strategy. The Associated Press reported: “Obama’s election year retreat from legislative fights means this term will end without significant progress on two of his 2008 campaign promises: comprehensive immigration reform and closing the military prison for terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Piecemeal presidential directives are unlikely to make a sizeable dent in the nation’s 8.6 percent unemployment rate or lead to significant improvements in the economy, the top concern for many voters and the issue on which Republican candidates are most likely to criticize Obama. In focusing on small-bore executive actions rather than ambitious legislation, the president risks appearing to be putting election-year strategy ahead of economic action at a time when millions of Americans are still out of work.”

Of course, Obama may prevail. Romney is an extraordinarily weak opponent.

For progressives and leftists, however, the main point is that Obama never tries to move the mainstream of ideological discourse to the left.

Obama has been mostly silent on the biggest issue of our time, income inequality and the rapid growth of the American underclass. He hasn’t said much about the environment or climate change, the most serious problem we face—and one for which the U.S. bears a disproportionate share of the blame. Even on issues where he was blocked by Congress, such as when Republicans prohibited the use of public funds to transport Gitmo detainees to the U.S. for trials, he zipped his lips.

It isn’t hard to imagine a president launching media-friendly crusades against poverty or global warming. FDR and LBJ did it, touring the country, appointing high-profile commissions and inviting prominent guests to the White House to draw attention to issues they cared about.

In 2010, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez invited flood victims to move into his presidential palace. Seven years after Katrina, Gulf Coast residents are still waiting for help. What if Obama opened up the Lincoln Bedroom to a homeless family? The media couldn’t ignore a PR stunt like that.

Obama has mostly shunned the time-honored strategy of trapping your opposition by forcing them vote against your popular ideas. In 2009, for example, it would have been smarter politics—and better governance—to push for real socialized medicine, or at least ObamaCare with the public option he promised. He would either have wound up with a dazzling triumph, or a glorious defeat.

Liberals don’t blame Obama for not winning. They blame him for not trying. When he does crazy things like authorizing the assassinations of U.S. citizens without trial, progressives have to ask themselves: Is this guy kowtowing to the Right? Or is he one of them?

(Ted Rall’s next book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” out May 22. His website is tedrall.com.)

14 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: A President Who Doesn’t Even Try

  1. The people on here arguing that you should vote for Obama because he isn’t as bad as the Republicans miss the point. Ted isn’t arguing that you should vote for one person over another, the point is, it really doesn’t matter who you vote for, because they all protect the same interest groups, and make the same policies. So therefore voting for anybody is a complete waste of time, and in fact, voting would be supporting what lefties consider criminal behavior.

  2. The 2-Party political system continues to be the ”good cop / bad cop” version of democracy,
    where the Republican Party is totally transparent about their agenda for the big money,
    and the leadership of the Democratic Party is totally deceiving about their complicity.
    The only political protest left to us lefties is to continue to work for 3rd party candidates,
    even as the Titanic sinks.

  3. Whimsical,

    Okay. I think we can both agree that “the Republicans and their DINO enablers were determined to deny him everything he asked for from the word go.” Also, I think the point you raise about reaction by Dems/Progressives “mainly being either the “I didn’t get what _I_ wanted so I’m going to punish Obama and the Democrats and damn the consequences” has it pretty much on the money. What I think we’re disagreeing on is the part about “Obama didn’t push for the impossible and suffer a ‘glorious defeat’, so I’m going to punish Obama and the Dems, and damn the consequences” mentalities which are largely responsible for the failure of progressive policy for the past 30 years.”

    I’m stealing the line from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data, the android with a positronic brain, loses in a strategy game to a humanoid, and goes to Capt. Picard to be removed from duty because, as Data explains, his decisions are now suspect. Picard tells Data this: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.”

    If Obama tried and failed 50 times, I would support him. Not because he was failing. Not because he was being impressive or inspiring by failing but because, by failing, he was showing me that he actually stood for something. But I simply don’t see how I can support a candidate who folds on almost every hand because he didn’t draw a straight flush. Other presidents — Democrat AND Republican — have faced similar situations, and they’ve been able to gain significant, lasting policy victories.

    That’s the first part. The second part of that springs from the first. Why do I want a Republican in office? God Almighty, I do not want a Republican in office. But after 30 years of the Republicans playing a better game of manipulation than the Democrats. I’m seeing how the Democrats keep shifting to the right in their policies, and I’m reminded of the well-known example of boiling a frog. You have to turn the heat up gradually because a sudden transition alerts the frog. In a few more elections, it won’t matter anymore because the water with be killing-hot. It’s already pretty damn close to that (example: Obama’s own Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to rule the way it did in the matter of police strip searches of people arrested for minor crimes.)

    As to, “What I don’t get is the rest of your attitude; since Obama did not go far left away from Bush enough to suit you, you are going to empower an administration that will go incredibly to the right of Bush. I just don’t get the mental gymnastics necessary to square that particular circle.” I do not think it’s mental gymnastics at all. I think that nothing other than a sudden, staggering shift — not just criminalizing abortion or inserting a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man, one woman but a whole raft of severe, restrictive, fanatical craziness — will be enough to wake up the majority of Americans.

    When Russia stopped being Communist, the people simply couldn’t understand Capitalism. The idea of selling something to make profit was completely alien to them. (P.J. O’Rourke had a brilliant essay on this). We are, as a people, already forgetting the essentials of enlightened government. The Bill of Rights is almost completed mooted at this point. Why drag it out? Why allow this to continue worsening? Right now, some people are still outraged over arbitrary searches at airports and the like. In 10 more years, those who object because something in the Constitution forbids this sort of thing, will be looked at like they are, literally, insane. That’s what I’m afraid of because I see that sort of damage as being far worse for the country than letting the fringe end of the Republican Party completely ruin this country. That latter ruin will be short term — a few years at best. Reconditioning society to stand up to bullies who want to look in their bags? That will take a generation at least.

  4. When Obomber praised Ronald Reagan’s presidency along with Reagan’s cleanup of the “excesses” of the 60s/70s, that should have been all anyone needed to know about which way he would swing. Obomber is the empire’s dream – a Trojan Horse whose black face and slick persona silence valid criticism which enables him and his henchfolk to plunder and pillage to an extent a Republican president could never pull off. That’s why the field of Republican contenders was beyond weak and whacko; the empire is pleased with Obomber’s evil ways and know they’d never get away with as much crap with a Republican (or all-white Democrat) president as they do with him.

  5. @Alex

    “I think the big problem with the Obama presidency is not the issue of what he didn’t get done, or whether it would have been possible for anyone to get health care (I think that at the very beginning, he could have gotten anything he asked for). The big problem is that, taken collectively, his administration doesn’t seem to stand for anything admirable.”

    I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt on that (well, except for the anything he asked for- the Republicans and their DINO enablers were determined to deny him everything he asked for from the word go), because on most subjects you seem a sane and reasonable sort of fellow.

    That said, I will go and say that that has not been the primary attitude I have found in dealing with those on the far left who are dissapointed in Obama. It has mainly been either the “I didn’t get what _I_ wanted so I’m going to punish Obama and the Democrats and damn the consequences”, or worse the “Obama didn’t push for the impossible and suffer a ‘glorious defeat’, so I’m going to punish Obama and the Dems, and damn the consequences” mentalities which are largely responsible for the failure of progressive policy for the past 30 years.

    “If George W. Bush were doing these things, we would all be screaming for impeachment proceedings followed by sending him to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes.”

    Give me credit for consistency, at least- just as none of these things bothered me when Obama did them, they would not have bothered me if Bush did them either. There were enough valid reasons to impeach Bush and send him to the Hague without adding dubious ones.

    I couldn’t care less about deportations, Bradley Manning agreed to forgo his Constiutional rights when he signed up for the Army (which, before you split hairs, does not make what they did to him any less morally wrong), and I’m not going to rehash why I believe you to be wrong (and in this case, wildly exaggerating) on the death of Al-Akawi.

    As for TOP DOJ asking for strip searches- who voted FOR legalizing the strip searches? Republican justices including the 2 appointed by Bush. Who voted AGAINST? Justices appointed by Democrats- including the two justices appointed by Obama. Had the 2000 presidency not been stolen, this would be a non issue, and I’m not prepared to punish Obama for actions of judges he had no control over.

    “Obama may be the lesser of two evils in some things, but when I add it all up, it’s such a small difference, it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.”

    Really? Cause no matter how I scrutinize it, its a chasm larger then the Grand Canyon.

    But at least I can see your point of view. I disagree, more or less completely, with it, but at least I can see how you come to that conclusion.

    What I don’t get is the rest of your attitude; since Obama did not go far left away from Bush enough to suit you, you are going to empower an administration that will go incredibly to the right of Bush. I just don’t get the mental gymnastics necessary to square that particular circle.

    @Michael

    I have nothing but respect for people willing to take an honest look at their situation and say “Hey- instead of kneegirking away from the guy pointing out a truth because its ugly, we should consider his point carefully, because he may be correct.

    I’m sorry if my praise wasn’t effusive enough; but I’d be a lot happier with you if you’d stop repeating a prticular falsehood:

    “Whimsical claims to only consider those who reject non-violence as right-wing plants, but Whimsical has repeatedly condemned as right-wing plants everyone who rejects the Democratic platform, whether via violence or non-violence.”

    This is simply untrue. Other than in calling out the obvious right wing plant among us, I think the term has only come out of my mouth ONCE- in an unfortunate exchange with Susan, I believe. It ran something like:

    Susan: I think you are a right wing plant because of this…
    Me: Oh yeah, well you could be a right wing plant because of this…

    And yes, I am familiar with the term “Yellow Dog” Democrat; if I am one, it is only by default, because barring very few exceptions, the worst Democrat has been better than the best Republican for quite some time due to the Republicans insane desire to purge anyone of common sense and moderation from their party.

  6. Whimsical doesn’t seem to appreciate that I have no idea whether or not Whimsical could be right, as opposed to almost everyone else who posts here who is certain Whimsical is wrong.

    Whimsical claims to only consider those who reject non-violence as right-wing plants, but Whimsical has repeatedly condemned as right-wing plants everyone who rejects the Democratic platform, whether via violence or non-violence. Which makes Whimsical a Yellow Dog Democrat (does Whimsical even know what Yellow Dog means?).

    My own view is that either non-violence or violence can destroy a weak opponent, and the question is which approach will lead to the most felicitous outcome. Likewise, neither non-violence nor violence can destroy a strong opponent, where the question is which approach will least to the least infelicitous outcome.

    The US government is the strongest organisation ever seen in the history of the world, so strong it can ‘disappear’ Mr Rall by ensuring that his cartoons do not appear in the New York Times or the most widely viewed websites, without the cost and inconvenience of killing him and disposing of the body.

    The colonials in the Raj could never have defeated the British Empire without the support of the US and the USSR. Those opposed to the US government have no such support.

    Which is why I think there is a chance Whimsical could be right.

    But the fact that the Democrats are currently so far to the right makes me hope that Whimsical is wrong.

  7. @Ted: You’re proving again that you’re just out to attack. How can you hammer Obama on climate change and environmentalism when you repeatedly attack the left for making changes that address the root causes of the damage humans inflict?

    Recycling? It’s bullshit, sayeth Ted.
    Canvas bags? A profit scheme, sayeth Ted.

    I’m tired of the left that attacks on environmental issues, and then attacks those that are trying to change things for the better. What fucking world does Ted live in? The one where Obama will solve climate change? Where the big hero swoops in and stops the polar ice caps from melting? Or the one where people stop being obedient, mindless, and wasteful consumers? Seems it’s more efficient for Ted to just make political hay out of it, which pretty much renders his opinion not credible.

    Second point: All this bitching is useless. I’m going to say it again, that the Obamas are not the problem. The Whimsicals are the problem. Until progressives have a cleansing and start forcing change, nothing will happen. In fact, things will only get worse. The enablers are the grease in the system, the third point in the triangulation strategy. Remove them, you remove the strategy. That’s not going to happen though, because progressive are not serious about change. Occupy has proven that point.

    @Ted, what happened to the revolution? Weren’t you writing that there might not even be an election this year because of the revolution? LOL – how’d that work out for you?!? It’s almost May and the weather is no longer an excuse. It wasn’t winter that killed Occupy. Occupy killed itself.

  8. Whimsical,

    I think the big problem with the Obama presidency is not the issue of what he didn’t get done, or whether it would have been possible for anyone to get health care (I think that at the very beginning, he could have gotten anything he asked for. The big problem is that, taken collectively, his administration doesn’t seem to stand for anything admirable.

    The Obama Presidency (TOP from now on) has had more deportations than the Bush administration did. TOP kills American citizens, without due process, via drones, wherever those people may be in the world. You can now be killed by the government without due process, without the right to confront witnesses or see evidence, and you (rather, your survivors) simply will have to trust that the government got everything right because that’s just how it is now.

    Poor old Bradley Manning is accused of leaking files (note today’s LA Times front page; Abu Ghraib all over again) that were so embarrassing to the military that he still sits in a jail somewhere waiting for his day in court. Remember how long it took just to get an arraignment? And that was after he was driven almost to a complete mental breakdown by Soviet Gulag-style mistreatment at the hands of his captors — good, corn-fed Americuhs engaging in your basic sado-masochistic torments and humiliations. He finally got an arraignment in February 2012. NO trial date was set.

    TOP’s legal department encouraged the Supreme Court to agree that cavity searches of prisoners should be permitted. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, when the police are given permission to do something to you, they tend to do that something to you. Part of it is very simple: breaking someone through humiliation makes them much more compliant. Also, for some of the people who become cops, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to do things like this to people.

    I understand that Barack Obama can’t be everywhere at all times, that he isn’t Superman, and that the world is a hard place filled with bad people. That’s not what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to say that all these really contemptible, questionable, obscene things are happening on his watch, and he seems just fine and dandy with all of it. If George W. Bush were doing these things, we would all be screaming for impeachment proceedings followed by sending him to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes.

    Obama may be the lesser of two evils in some things, but when I add it all up, it’s such a small difference, it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

  9. @Ted-

    “The first problem with the it’s-the-GOP’s-fault defense is that it asks voters to suffer short-term memory loss. In 2009, you probably recall, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. By a sizeable majority. They even had a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate.”

    Sadly, Ted untrue statments like this make you look like the one with the memory loss. The actual makeup of the Senate in 2009, was 40 Republicans, 58 Democrats and two independents, one of whom (Lieberman) was virtually indistingushable from a Republican.

    Not only did the Democrats never have a 60 seat majority in name; given the presences of such DINOS as Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln, they never had one in spirit. And that’s not even touching Scott Brown’s election and swearing in in early February. Even if you were right, which you aren’t, their 60 vote majority lasted less than 3 weeks, barely enough time to do anything in Washington.

    So no, they didn’t have a filibuster proof majority, and to claim they did and didn’t use it, and THAT’s why you’re disappointed is disengenious at best, distracting from the real issues at worst.

    ” The media, in his pocket,”

    Again, flat out false:

    http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jul/27/nation/na-onthemedia27

    73% of media coverage of Obama in the run up to the Presidency was negative. If that’s the kind of coverage that having the “media in your pocket” gets you, I’d hate to see what would have to happen before you’d actually concede the media was biased.

    “If Obama had wanted to pursue a progressive agenda—banning foreclosures, jailing bankers, closing Guantánamo, stopping the wars, pushing for the public option he promised in his healthcare plan—he could have. ”

    Prove it- give me a plan that would’ve made it through, or admit you’re spitballing. He did the best he could on Gitmo, as you have yet to demonstrate anything else he could’ve done beyond the Presidential order he did sign.

    “He had ample political capital, yet chose not to spend it.”
    False- he spent it on getting a stimulus passed that prevented things from getting much, much, worse than they got. Which ate up his time and his capital (and it’s disingenious again not to mention that he had to spend political capital at a far higher rate than a white President would’ve had to) until well past the loss of Kennedy’s seat.

    You’ve created this fairy tale Ted, and are punshing the actual man for not living up to it, when the reality is no one could’ve done what you wanted, given the situation. No one.

    “The Associated Press reported: “Obama’s election year retreat from legislative fights means this term will end without significant progress on two of his 2008 campaign promises: comprehensive immigration reform and closing the military prison for terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Piecemeal presidential directives are unlikely to make a sizeable dent in the nation’s 8.6 percent unemployment rate or lead to significant improvements in the economy, the top concern for many voters and the issue on which Republican candidates are most likely to criticize Obama. In focusing on small-bore executive actions rather than ambitious legislation, the president risks appearing to be putting election-year strategy ahead of economic action at a time when millions of Americans are still out of work.””

    I don’t have time to find the original piece you pulled this quote from, but I’d be shocked at its bias if it does not mention who is directly responsible for Gitmo remaning open and millions of Americans remaning out of work-Republicans. So either you’ve cherry picked a quote, or your source is biased.

    “In 2010, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez invited flood victims to move into his presidential palace. Seven years after Katrina, Gulf Coast residents are still waiting for help. What if Obama opened up the Lincoln Bedroom to a homeless family? The media couldn’t ignore a PR stunt like that.”

    Finally, a good idea. Have you actually bothered to suggest it to anyone in a position to get it to Obama? Or are you just determined to punish the man for not thinking of it on his own?

    “In 2009, for example, it would have been smarter politics—and better governance—to push for real socialized medicine, or at least ObamaCare with the public option he promised. He would either have wound up with a dazzling triumph, or a glorious defeat.”

    And with that false choice, you’ve perfectly summed up exactly why “progressives” have made no progress for 30_ years. They’d rather have someone get a “glorious defeat” (and there’s no evidence I’ve seen that suggests the public supports the defeated) then a little bit of progress every time.

    Imagine if Kennedy hadn’t been so stuck on getting his “dazzling triumph” and accepted Nixon’s health care plan. Imagine how it could’ve been improved over the past 30+ years- why we’d probably have single payer by now. Hell, we’d certainly be closer than we currently are.

    But since he couldn’t have his “dazzling triumph”, and couldn’t accept a little bit of progress, he went for “glorious defeat”, and that mindset has been defeating progressives ever since. It’s going to have to go if there’s ever going to be hope of making progress on progressive goals. But the far left seems intent on casting blame for their defeats everywhere but it belongs- with the folks in the mirror.

    @michael
    You damn me with faint praise, sir. I only have one substantive issue with your post:

    “Whimsical repeatedly states that everyone who isn’t a yellow dog Democrat is a right-wing plant.”

    No, I do not. I repeatedly state that everyone who advocates for slitting throats or rendering those with opposing views limb from limb is a right wing plant, and that is all.

  10. Whimsical repeatedly states that everyone who isn’t a yellow dog Democrat is a right-wing plant. But Whimsical’s prose lacks precision:

    Back when I was taught to fear a Commie take-over of the US, with the installation of a totalitarian dictator who was just a puppet of the Kremlin and who would have us all queue for hours for a loaf of mouldy bread, the right-wing warning tracts (e.g., What you should know about Communism and Why) divided those who opposed their policies into three groups: Party Members, who had signed an oath to betray the US, Fellow Travellers who secretly wanted to betray the US, but had never taken any oath, and dupes, who were loyal to the US, patriotically supported the legitimate government of the US, and wanted keep the US free and democratic, but who foolishly supported people and policies that would lead to the overthrow of the legitimate US government by that totalitarian puppet of the Kremlin.

    Whimsical should at least admit that those who are not Yellow Dog Democrats might be divided into right-wing plants and dupes.

    Whimsical has said that, if the entire left agrees to vote as Yellow Dog Democrats, the US will very slowly drift to the left, while if we do not, we will end up lurching further and further to the right. His argument is not entirely without merit.

    Whimsical would say that, when progressives did not support Humphrey and Carter, they got Reagan, so Clinton moved far to the right, even to the right of Bush, Sr. And when progressives did not support Gore, we got Bush, Jr, after which Obama moved so far right that his policies are indistinguishable from (and in some cases worse than) those of his predecessor.

    But, while Obama strongly supports the right of the authorities to strip-search anyone and everyone for any reason or for no reason, both of his Supreme Court appointments voted against that ruling. Had McCain been elected, the ruling would have been 7 – 2 instead of 5 – 4.

    Which ALMOST makes Whimsical’s argument to vote Yellow Dog sound like it might be the best of the dismal alternatives for progressives.

    I hope progressives can find a better answer than Whimsical’s, but I know that I do not know the answer.

    I only know that none of the options available to progressives, including Whimsical’s, is attractive.

  11. “They even had a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate. ”

    Not that I’m defending him (I didn’t vote for him), but doesn’t this imply that NONE of those 60 is One Of Them?

  12. Yes, Romney is a surprisingly weak candidate (interesting that this seems to be the year of Meh: the Pulitzers couldn’t put a medal to any of the finalists for fiction, either). I suspect that his VP pick will be a significant factor. I’m guessing Portman at this point.

  13. Adding to the sad farce: very early on, Obama defined closing Gitmo as moving it to Illinois… and he didn’t even do that. Same as defining healthcare reform as the meaningless “public option” … and not even doing that.

    It’s quite a strategy: lower expectations beneath what any decent person should consider acceptable, and then underperform.

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