“Every day now, I meet sad and angry people in this progressive part of northern California, furious at themselves at having believed in Obama at a time in those early primaries and fundraisers last year when he needed them to believe. They kept on believing through most of this year, even as Obama threw one pledge after another out the window.” Alexander Cockburn, 12/12/2009.
On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama was greeted by huge crowds based on his promises to attack special interests and abuses of corporate power. He promised to usher in a new era of progressive politics.
Those seem like days from a bygone era as his supporters have had to grapple with an Obama Administration that quickly shifted to the right, failing to deliver on its promises. Instead of resting on its popular mandate to make change, the Obama Administration has disappointed millions of supporters by failing to enact any fundamental progressive changes.
Once in power, Obama surrounded himself with Wall Street executives and conservative foreign policy advisors. While many supporters temporary looked the other way as he enacted a further bailout of Wall Street to deal with the economic mess left by the Bush Administration, some were shocked by the corporate character of his administration, which wasted its political capital on projects that benefited Corporate America more than the average person.
Cabinet and Advisors
Matt Taibbi, one of the few progressive critics willing to look at the Obama Administration honestly, wrote in Rolling Stone: “Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy. What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias while packing the key economic positions in his White House with the very people who caused the crisis in the first place. This new team of bubble-fattened ex-bankers and laissez-faire intellectuals then proceeded to sell us all out, instituting a massive, trickle-up bailout and systematically gutting regulatory reform from the inside.” (12/9/2009)
Obama handed over key positions of authority for economic policy in his administration to leading figures of big business. The appointees to his 17-member economic advisory board included billionaire Warren Buffet; CEOs and senior executives of Google, Hyatt Hotels, Time Warner, Xerox, JP Morgan Chase, and TIAA-CREF (a private financial services company); Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin, both of whom spearheaded the neo-liberal offensive in the Clinton Administration; and former Reagan Administration Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker.
Most startlingly, Obama’s economic team did not contain a single representative from labor unions, which gave hundreds of millions of dollars to Obama and the Democrats. Nor did it have any representatives from any social movement organizations.
Foreign Policy and Afghanistan
While campaigning, he railed against Bush’s reckless foreign policy in Iraq and made promises of a speedy withdrawal from Iraq. Through such speeches, Obama was broadly seen as a peace candidate. However, once elected, he quickly weakened his timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and then escalated the war in Afghanistan.
Then at the end of 2009, he announced a surge of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, on top of the 21,000 soldiers he ordered there earlier that year. This brought the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to nearly 100,000. He also continued the Bush doctrine of using private forces like Blackwater (i.e., mercenaries) whose actions are effectively outside of U.S. and international law, and escalated the use of drones on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.
As with previous presidents, Obama’s foreign policy has being driven by the interests of U.S. big business, which wants stability to conduct business operations in the Middle East. This means propping up regimes considered friendly to the interests of U.S. imperialism. After over eight years of U.S. presence, the U.S. left Iraq ravaged by its bombing and occupation. Obama has dashed the hopes of millions of poor and working-class people in the Middle East who were looking for a change in U.S. foreign policy, especially regarding the plight of the Palestinian people.
U.S. casualties in Afghanistan have continued to rise. The 90,000 WikiLeaks documents described an occupation that was on the ropes and failing in all its objectives. Despite assurance from the Obama Administration to the contrary, the UN reported that U.S. drone attacks contributed to a record number of innocent people being killed in Afghanistan in 2011. Returning soldiers have been suffering from huge medical problems and military families have suffered enormous hardship. Meanwhile, tens of millions are suffering hardship that could be alleviated if the massive money spent to wage these occupations was diverted to meet their needs. On top of this must be added the huge destruction and loss of life inflicted on the people of Afghanistan.
Jobs, Education, and the Labor Movement
Obama has failed in his promises to workers on the economy. Three and a half years into his term in office, tens of millions suffer from unemployment, foreclosures, and evictions. The stimulus money was temporary and has now run out. High levels of structural unemployment have hardly changed since early 2009.
As far as workers are concerned, there has been no bounce-back in this recession. In February 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 12.8 million unemployed. Additionally, 8.1 million were working part-time because they were unable to find full-time work, and 2.6 million were “marginally” employed. This brought the total number of unemployed workers to 23.5 million.
The BLS also stated that, in February 2012, an astounding 42.6% of the unemployed had been out of work for over six months. Millions more have been evicted from their homes and are now desperate, with no means of support. Yet the Obama Administration is still insisting they must wait until the market provides new jobs.
Poverty, which spiked in 2008, also continues to rise. The following figures were released by the U.S. Census Bureau in September 2011 (www.nclej.org/poverty-in-the-us.php): In 2010, 46.2 million people – 15.1% of the population – were living in poverty. This was up from 43.6 million in 2009 and 39.8 million in 2008.
But what is truly staggering is the huge number of Americans now living just above the poverty line. In December 2011, the Census Bureau reported that nearly half of Americans have either fallen below the poverty line or are classified under the category of “low income.” The number of low-income residents has risen to a massive 97.3 million, and coupled with the 49.1 million in poverty gives a total of 146.4 million. The figure marks an increase of four million over 2009 (Democracy Now!, 12/16/2011).
Once again, African Americans, Latinos, and women are suffering the worst. The report states: “In 2010, 9.9% of non-Hispanic whites lived in poverty and 4.3% in deep poverty; 26.6% of Hispanics lived in poverty and 10.9% in deep poverty; and 27.4% of blacks lived in poverty and 13.5% in deep poverty.
Families headed by a single adult are more likely to be headed by women, and these female-headed families are at greater risk of poverty and deep poverty. 34.2% of families with a female householder where no husband is present were poor, and 17% were living in deep poverty.
This has fallen particularly hard on African Americans, who had hoped that the first African American president would be focused on addressing the issues of poverty, lack of jobs, and the massive injustices of the criminal justice system that particularly hit their communities.
At the same time, the wealthy have continued to grow fabulously rich under Obama’s policies. An analysis of tax returns by Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty found that the top 1% pocketed 93% of the gains in 2010. 37% of the gains went to the top one-tenth of 1%. No one below the richest 10% saw any gain at all. This is reflected in the booming stock market, which is dominated by activity of the top 1% (elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/saez-UStopincomes-2010.pdf).
On education, the Obama Administration has led the charge to push a right-wing agenda. His Race to the Top initiative was built on Bush’s discredited No Child Left Behind. In order for states to receive additional education funds, the Obama Administration insisted they take steps toward the development of charter schools, weaken teacher seniority, and pay teachers based on the test scores of their students.
This was a massive stepping up of the move to privatize education and weaken the teachers’ unions. It was also in line with big business’s agenda of ending the concept of a quality public education for all, and instead enacting a two-tier system of providing a quality education to only a “qualified,” and often more affluent and white, minority. For those whose public schools are deemed “failing,” primarily located in the poorest communities starved of education dollars, education is to be downgraded to a regimented learning environment in preparation for work in the dominant low-wage service sector.
The main promise the Obama Administration made in 2008 to win labor support was to enact the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would have made it easier for unions to organize new members. Labor leaders then repeated this promise as a key reason why workers should vote Democrat in 2008. Since then, the only activity on EFCA has been Democrats dropping a key provision from it – the right of workers to form a union by signing up a majority of workers who are in favor of it. EFCA has now vanished from view.
Despite Obama offering nothing to labor in his 2012 election campaign, the AFL-CIO union leadership again endorsed him in March 2012. Yet, less than a month before the AFL-CIO endorsement, Obama signed an FAA funding bill – another sellout “compromise” with Republicans. The new law was a major attack on rail and airline workers and a victory for the bosses – increasing the number of workers required to sign a petition initiating a union election from 35% to 50% at their workplace.
Environment and Oil
Millions were hoping that the removal of the Party of Oil from power would open the door to a radical change in the environmental policies of the U.S. While certain initiatives have been taken by Obama, he has failed to take a bold approach to reversing the backward position of the U.S. on global warming and to shift its energy policies away from carbon-based fossil fuels.
The Deepwater Horizon BP disaster found the Obama Administration continuing the oil drilling policy of the Bush Administration and leaving in place the same corrupt officials of the past. Obama’s statement a few weeks before the spill, “Oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills – they are technologically very advanced,” speaks volumes about his disastrous policy of making concessions to Republicans in order to win possible votes.
Here was a golden opportunity for the president to use the power of his office to shift the debate on energy. A massive federal program to create millions of jobs in new green industries could have begun to put millions back to work and laid the basis for new industries and retooling key sections of the U.S. economy.
The Obama Administration has recently approved a plan to drill for oil in the Arctic and has announced plans to allow energy companies to conduct seismic studies off the east coast to detect oil and natural gas. According to Obama, “We want U.S. oil companies to be doing well…That’s why…we’ve opened up millions of acres of federal lands and waters to oil and gas production.” (whitehouse.gov, 3/29/2012)
It’s easy to understand this short-term dependence on fossil fuels when you consider the fact that big oil spends hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying Congress. In fact, Senator Obama was the number one recipient of cash contributions from BP, the giant oil company responsible for the massive Deepwater Horizon BP spill (Politico, 5/5/2010), and candidate Obama received $884,000 from the oil and gas industry during the 2008 presidential campaign (Truth-out.org, 6/9/2011).
Nevertheless, support for green policies has grown significantly amongst ordinary people. Last year, thousands of activists organized unprecedented protests against the Obama Administration and the Keystone XL pipeline, compelling Obama to reject the project and postpone the final decision on the northern route of the pipeline until after the election.
Health Care and Social Issues
On the campaign trail, Obama promised to take on the insurance companies and corporate health care interests and to provide “universal health care.” Most people had a vision of a health care system where the government would step in to ensure everyone was covered from cradle to grave while shackling corporate interests.
What they did not expect was health care “reform” constructed around the private drug companies, hospitals, and insurance companies that are responsible for all the inequities in the health care “system” in the U.S. Once people saw that instead of health care becoming a right, it was going to be a duty backed up with fines; that insurance companies were going to be further entrenched in the system; and that quality health care policies were going to be taxed; then popular support slipped away.
The central issue was the refusal of the Obama Administration to put forward a single-payer system in which the government provides health care for everyone. By cutting out the profits and madness created by insurance companies, this could have been enacted without any extra cost to the public. Not to mention such a change was very popular – far more popular than Obama’s policy of mandating that everyone must buy insurance from private insurance companies.
A brief review of election campaign records begins to explain this process. In the 2008 election cycle, the Democrats received 54% of all election campaign contributions made by the corporate health care industry. Obama received the most of any presidential candidate with $18 million. Consider Democratic Party Senator Max Baucus, who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee: Of all the campaign contributions he received in 2008, nearly 25% came from the health care industry (opensecrets.org).
The Obama Administration has failed to deliver on issue after issue that was important to those who voted for Obama. It failed to provide legal security to the millions of undocumented immigrant workers, as Republican President Reagan did in 1986.
During the 2008 elections, Obama championed the cause of immigration reform, which was one reason why he obtained 67% of the Latino vote (Pew Research Center, 12/2011). But as he has since demonstrated, the liberal agenda of immigration reform is sometimes indistinguishable from right-wing views.
Obama has deported more immigrants than any other president in a two-year period (Reuters, 9/2011), averaging about 1,100 deportations per day (Huffington Post, 8/2011). The notorious E-Verify system started under Bush’s administration has been expanded under Obama (Committee on the Judiciary, 8/2011). Obama further militarized the U.S.-Mexican border by tripling the number of intelligence analysts working there, sending 1,200 National Guard troops with a resulting increase in deaths (NY Times, 5/2010), deploying drones to patrol the skies (Whitehouse.gov, 5/2011), and continuing to fund the War on Drugs (whitehouse.gov, 2/2012).
Obama and Capitalism
Barack Obama: “You would be hard-pressed to identify a piece of legislation that we have proposed out there that, net, is not good for businesses… We are pro-growth. We are fierce advocates for a thriving, dynamic free market.” (Bloomberg.com, 2/10/10)
While Republicans try to confuse the public with their cries that Obama is a socialist, his first steps were to save capitalism. Even before being elected, candidate Obama stepped up in October 2008 to back the $700 billion Wall Street bank bailout.
Once elected, he presided over a further bailout of the financial system and a multi-billion-dollar bailout of Citibank and Bank of America. Yet Obama has not bailed out those who lost their homes or jobs due to the corruption and greed of big bankers. He did not provide a bailout for the unemployed or those foreclosed on.
Much debate has revolved around Obama’s $775 billion, two-year stimulus package from 2009 to 2010. This money played an important role in propping up the capitalist economy as it tottered on the brink of a depression. It was backed by the majority of big business as part of a global effort to save their system and prevent the economy plunging into a new 1929-style depression. However, it was temporary and inadequate, and failed to solve the economic crisis.
Overall, between 2008 and 2009, more than $10 trillion was spent to shore up big banks and their owners. But this money went to rich bankers, real estate companies, auto makers, and other corporate interests. The promise was that the benefits would trickle down to the average working-class or poor American. But that hasn’t happened. While some workers were able to get some temporary relief, the plight of the overall majority of working people was not improved.
With the immediate threat of a 1929-style collapse of the system seemingly overcome, the Obama Administration began repeating the big business line that “we” need to shrink government to allow the private sector to revive the economy. Yet the history of the last period has been one of private-sector failure, leading to crashes that the public then pays to clean up – the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, the stock market and dot-com bubbles of the 1990s, the housing and derivatives bubbles of the 2000s.
The Tea Party and the 2010 Elections
Obama’s abandonment of his promises, combined with his clearly pro-corporate policies, resulted in massive disappointment and a decline in support for Obama – from 78% support soon after he was elected to around 45% in 2010. This directly led to the Democrats losing the House of Representatives and a shrinking of its majority in the Senate in 2010.
Funded by Fox News and other corporate interests, the Tea Party emerged to push a right-wing corporate agenda of cuts in social programs while blaming immigrants and the poor for the problems of America. The corporate mass media grabbed hold of this decline in support for Obama to trumpet its own ideology, by claiming that it was because Obama’s policies were too far to the left. In fact, the opposite was true.
As Socialist Alternative wrote in September 2010: “It’s not because Obama’s agenda is too left that Obama is losing support. It’s because he failed to deliver on his promises, delivered a bad health care bill, and bailed out the banks. His failure to provide jobs in a recession-plagued economy has even allowed the hated Republicans to re-emerge as supposed ‘defenders’ of the interests of the people!
“The fact is that the public supports radical policies. A solid majority supports a government-run universal health care system like those that exist in Canada and most of Europe. The majority opposes U.S. troops occupying parts of the Middle East, and they support a major green jobs program and clipping the power of big business and Wall Street.”
Many people now point to the need for Obama to compromise with Republicans as reasons for his failures. But in the period from 2009 to 2010 Obama had control of the House and a large majority in the Senate, including a filibuster-proof majority for part of that time. With 78% support immediately after he was elected, Obama could have pushed through a radical agenda on issues like health care and the retooling of the economy to create millions of new green jobs. Polls showed the public supported a radical shift in power away from Corporate America. He had a mandate from the voters, and Republicans were on the ropes.
If Obama was truly progressive, he would have fought to expose that the corporate elite would be the real beneficiaries of the Tea Party and the right-wing Republican agenda, and explain the interests of working people. By mobilizing the public, he could have pushed back both Republicans and conservative Democrats. This is what his supporters expected him to do.
But that would mean him not being the leader of the big business Democratic Party. He would have needed to be a real radical who put the needs of the people before corporate interests. He would have had to be a leader like socialist Eugene Debs or Martin Luther King, who both went to jail as part of building a powerful movement against the power of Corporate America based on mass struggle.
With the victory of Republicans in 2010, Obama moved further to the right in 2011. Rather than stand his ground and refuse to enact Republican policies on cutting the budget, he agreed to continue Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and led the charge to cut the budget, proposing an historic $4 trillion cut in federal programs in 2011. It was only the right-wing Tea party that prevented Republicans accepting the deal because it included some increases in taxes.
As with previous presidents who have failed to turn around an economic crisis, Obama is increasingly focusing on foreign policy and his role as commander-in-chief. A detailed article in the New York Times on May 29, 2010 described how Obama personally plotted and selected victims for drone attacks. This article, seemingly commissioned to boost his election credentials, included interviews with “three dozen of his [Obama’s] current and former advisers.” It described “Terror Tuesday” meetings chaired by Obama with his military and intelligence officials to select drone candidates. The New York Times stated Obama “signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan – about a third of the total.”
In a reprise of 2008, Obama launched his 2012 re-election by once again calling for tax increases on the rich and for a fairer America. Apart from his proposal for a Buffet Rule on taxes on the wealthy, there have been far fewer concrete promises in his re-election campaign. This populist rhetoric, along with a few reforms, is an election-year maneuver to win a second term so that Obama can get back to the real business of carrying out the corporate agenda.