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Paul Rosenberg
Paul Rosenberg
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
Obama's conservative pandering
The debt-ceiling disaster was merely a symptom of much deeper problems with the ruling class in the US.
Last Modified: 11 Aug 2011 12:10
"Obama seems pathologically drawn to 'move to the centre', somehow never noticing that Republicans are constantly moving the 'centre' farther and farther to the right" [EPA]

In mid-April, the House passed Paul Ryan's Budget Plan, complete with its provision to privatise Medicare. In late May, Democrat Kathy Hochul won an upset special election in upstate New York, winning what had been over a 70 per cent GOP district just six months before. The issue that did it was her Republican opponent's expressed support for the Ryan Plan. Afterward, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi laid out the Democrat's campaign strategy to retake the House next year: "Medicare. Medicare. Medicare." 

There was just one problem: President Obama had different ideas. Although he always speaks in carefully modulated tones, he has repeatedly placed cuts to Medicare and Social Security back onto the negotiating table, tossing politically suicidal Republicans a lifeline they will surely use to try to strangle him with next year - along with the rest of the Democratic Party.

Obama seems pathologically drawn to "move to the centre", somehow never noticing that Republicans are constantly moving the "centre" farther and farther to the right. How far to the right, exactly? Consider this: since 1984, the General Social Survey has asked Americans 18 times whether our spending on Social Security and health care is "too much", "too little" or "about right". Among self-identified conservative Republicans, just 3.4 per cent think we are spending "too much" on both.

Since Obama has repeatedly floated the idea of cutting both programmes, he seems to think that the political centre is somewhere to right of 96.6 per cent of all conservative Republicans in the population at large. When the so-called "professional left" is screaming at him not to do this, they are actually speaking for almost the entire Republican electoral base as well.

Wisconsin: Another world is possible

On Tuesday, Wisconsin Democrats reminded us that there's another way to do politics, a way that involves Democrats standing up for their values and the vast majority of the people they represent. Last February, crowds up to 100,000 people flooded the capitol in Madison in protest of a sweeping public union-busting bill, inspired in part by the protests in Tahrir Square. They quickly turned to organising an unprecedented campaign to recall Republican state senators.

On Tuesday, five months later, Democrats won two of six state senate recall races in hard-core Republican districts, despite the fact that outside groups spent $30 to $40 million in what's been called "the first big test of Citizens United at the state level" - a reference to the Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited corporate spending in elections. 

These were all districts that Republicans have won for generations, and won most recently in 2008, when Obama buried McCain at the top of the ticket. Democrats fell one seat short of regaining control of the senate outright, but together with Dale Schultz, the one Republican senator who voted against the union-busting bill (calling it "colossal overreach"), they will have put a stop to the legislature rubber-stamping everything that Republican Governor Scott Walker proposes. 

Schultz, not Walker, will be the decider now. After winning two of six seats in hostile terrain, Democrats' chances of ousting Walker in a recall next year are looking good. The big question remains whether national Democrats in Washington are paying attention to what Wisconsin Democrats have just done in some of the reddest parts of their state.

What happened to Obama?

In the New York Times Magazine, psychologist Drew Westen, author of The Political Brain, asked "What Happened to Obama?", and while most might take this question to mean, "What happened to the progressive leader we thought we voted for?", in a much more basic sense it simply means, "What happened to the competent politician we thought we voted for?" Or, "What happened to the Democrat we thought we voted for?" Or even, simply, "What happened to the rational human being we voted for?"

As Westen points out, from his inaugural address onward, despite his obvious abilities displayed while campaigning, Obama has consistently failed to present a narrative explaining the challenges we're facing and what he wants to do about them. And because of that failure, the political landscape has once again been shaped by those who played a leading role in creating the multiple catastrophes America finds herself struggling with.

Perhaps the height of absurdity was the debt limit struggle, in which Republicans threatened to not pay our nation's bills... in the name of "fiscal responsibility", no less! As if to underscore this absurdity, one of the leading "Tea Party" congressmen, Joe Walsh, of Illinois, turns out to be a deadbeat dad, owing more than $100,000 in back child support, according to court filings by his ex-wife. 

Yet, for months Obama has appeared helpless to push back against such absurdity - even with a clear constitutional mandate to simply ignore the debt ceiling. (The 14th Amendment says the US debt "shall not be questioned".)  Clearly, the issue here is not whether Obama stands for "progressive leadership", but whether he stands for basic sanity. And the answer is clearly "no". He will plead for sanity, but when push comes to shove he will not draw a line in the sand to defend it.

Republicans, at least, got the message loud and clear. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Washington Post"I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting," but "Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this - it's a hostage that's worth ransoming."

The big picture

Back in the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt - an eighth-generation member of America's ruling class - saved  American capitalism from itself. He got a lot of hate for his troubles, but he did it anyway. Eighty years later, American capitalism is in deep trouble, once again, at least in part for some of the same reasons - an over-concentration of wealth at the top, without a coherent overall vision of how to get the economy back on track for the long run. In the 1930s, conservatism had failed, and FDR looked around for anything that could provide possible ways forward.

Today, conservatism has failed once again, but President Obama is the opposite of Roosevelt. Some have even taken to calling him Barack Hoover Obama, because his passive acceptance of status quo thinking and power arrangements makes him much more akin to Roosevelt's defeated opponent in 1932 than to Roosevelt himself. 

But there is a deeper antithesis: while FDR belonged to one of the oldest ruling class families in America, Obama was a neophyte who worked his way into the ruling class by proving himself a worthy servant, as many before him had done. As sociologist William Domhoff long ago noted, this is an integral aspect of how America's ruling class continually replenishes itself. In ordinary times - or moreso, times of relatively limited crisis - such new blood proves itself invaluable. But dependent as such figures are for their early opportunities, they are rarely the sort to lay down the law to senior members of their newly acquired class.  It's just not their place... even if they are President.

Thus, a paradox: When Obama debuted on the national stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, most people heard him appealing to bridge the divide between red America and blue America - a divide between ordinary people. 

But his presidency hasn't been about that at all. It's been about trying to bridge a divide between political elites, who are wildly out of touch with the people they pretend to represent. And the more Obama tries - in vain - to bridge the gap between elites, the more he widens the gap between the elites and the people.  Disapproval of Congress now stands at 82 percent - a record high. And Obama's approval rating has fallen to 42 per cent in Gallup's weekly average, down from 50 per cent as recently as early June. He's headed for George W. Bush territory.

This is hardly surprising in light of what I noted above - that only 3.4 per cent of conservative Republicans think we are spending "too much" on Social Security and health care, while 96.6 per cent think we're spending "too little" or "about right". Yet, Obama's dream of striking a "grand bargain" with Republicans is all about negotiating the terms for cutting spending on both - something that almost no one wants - except in Washington and on Wall Street.

Ruling class decay

While many individual segments of the ruling class are doing just fine now - corporate profits are up, as are individual incomes, etc. - the same can't be said of America's ruling class as a whole. Instead of leading the world in developing the green technology that will play a major role in reshaping the world economy in the decades ahead, we're still tangled up in webs of fossil fuel-industry denial, while China blasts ahead into the future. A  recent poll conducted for the Alliance for American Manufacturing showed strong support for job creation rather than deficit-cutting, and for manufacturing in particular. Numerous different questions showed a deep-seated disconnect between popular priorities and elite obsessions. 

A similar poll last year gave Democrats a heads up on the electoral potential of pushing a manufacturing jobs agenda to avoid electoral catastrophe. It received some notice, but not nearly enough to cut through the general haze of elite neglect. Yet, if Obama really were the 11-dimensional chess master that supporters once took him to be, these polls would be much more than just the keys to his re-election. 

Ever since Reagan, the conservative mantra has been prosperity through tax cuts. It hasn't worked. Yes, the wealthy have become super-wealthy. But everyone else has seen three decades of stagnant wages, even before the Great Recession and the jobless recovery that followed. Obama knows this, and yet - as Drew Westen highlighted - he flounders when it comes to providing a different vision of how things might be.

One root cause of this, econoblogger Bruce Webb argues, is that people misunderstand the purpose of progressive taxation, because they misunderstand the motivations of capitalists. Traditional economics "explicitly assumed that the goal of capitalism is accumulation," he wrote, and thus, "taxation on gains from capital serve to displace investment".

However, this "doesn't hold up well against the historical record.... Instead in most of those cultures and most definitely in Georgian and then Victorian England the evidence is strong that capitalists saw investment as the means to different ends, those of consumption and display that in turn would lead to societal status.... Let us put it this way: Scrooge was not then or now considered the hero, and throughout history the miser has been a despised and mocked figure."

Thus if the goal of upper-class investment is ostentatious consumption, then "The goal of progressive taxation... was to penalize consumption and favor re-investment," which is why Reaganomics - repealing progressive taxation - did precisely the opposite: it favored consumption at the expense of reinvestment.  "[A]ll Supply Side did was to lower the cost of consumption in pre-tax dollars, purchases that were inconceivable in the days of 90 and then 70 per cent top rates have become routine in the days of 15 per cent," Webb concludes.  Now, individual capitalists might like this just fine, but it wrecks havoc with the economy as a whole - including the capitalist class, which loses interest in creating new future value, and falls into decline.

That's a connection made by sociology blogger Peter Frase in his post, "The Decay of the Capitalist Class", which related Webb's argument to observations by economist Doug Henwood, publisher of the Left Business Observer. "[O]ne of the problems of the United States is that there is a great deal of incoherence at the upper level, that unlike the WASP ruling class, there is no social formation that can think in the truly long-term, that can think beyond the short-term concerns about the accumulation of money."

This is a rather precise replay of what happened in the run-up to the Great Depression, a period of time in which top tax rates were similarly slashed, while lavish spending and reckless speculation were the order of the day. Among other things, Roosevelt raised top rates to 90 per cent. It certainly pinched individual capitalists, but business a whole did just fine, and so did the American people as a whole, who experienced four decades of strong, broadly shared growth in prosperity - a glorious past that most Americans outside of Washington yearn to see come once again.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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