When ‘getting it done’ becomes impossible

Obama started out with the idealistic ‘Yes We Can’, but now focuses on re-election and being the lesser of two evils.

Obama’s reelection campaign will be based on the phrase ‘I’m not as bad as they are’, says author [GALLO/GETTY]

When President Obama took office, the idealistic “Yes We Can” and “change” rhetoric of the campaign gave way to a far more pragmatic and centerist idea: “getting it done”.

To counter their outsider image, he recalibrated his image to reassure insiders – bankers, generals and senior members of Congress. He reassured one and all, with middle-of-the-road appointments and revised rhetoric that said plainly they were in business to do business – to make whatever deals and compromises were required to “get it done”.

If that meant letting the health care companies and their loyal political supplicants shape the reform he had promised, so be it.

If that meant showing the Pentagon that he was willing to kill bad guys with more bloodlust than theirs, he would do it with surges, drones and Seal Team 6 assassins.

Peace? Forget it.

Speechifying in Cairo made the headlines, but follow-up was rarely to be seen.

Ameliorating climate change? Yes, but not now or – shh – ever. What’s a little smog among friends?

Interests, not issues, drive policy. And those interests are always defined by the self-interested.

Wars are moneymakers for contractors and companies, even as they drove up national debt. Label it “national security”, and the critics go silent.

Wall Street was now represented by faithful alumni like Tim Geither and Larry Summers. Bush’s Pentagon chief was back in the saddle.

So, as Mr Obama became Mr President, an army of insiders were soon advising on how to “get it done” by placating this one, or benefiting that one.

How psychologically satisfying it must be to be cheered by people who took you at your word! They don’t realise that the pretensions of office and political appearances always trump changes that could make enemies or take risks.

Re-election possible?

Even though he had been in the Senate for under four years, Obama fancied himself an expert on using charm, charisma and contracts to move a political process that was not only stalemated but also stuck.

This self-styled outsider soon shed one persona for another to become the consummate insider.

How else to “get it done”?

He relied on tough guys like Rahm Emanuel to handle Congress and appointed some Republicans to signal how bi-partisan he could be. He reached out across the aisle time and again, but in the eyes of some of his adversaries, he was an illegitimate evildoer of questionable American heritage, with a political agenda that was mad and Marxist.

They understood how to play to racial fears with code words, and turn the game of politics into a blame game.

No matter how far he would go in the direction of bailing out our businesses and selling out his core constituency, it was never far enough. Soon, there was little he could say or do to “get it done” in the way he envisaged.

By focusing on the affairs of state, he ignored his party and his base, and then blew the 2010 midterm elections.

Opening the door to the Tea Party and their handlers, who would rather blow things up than get anything done, made it so much harder to “get things done”.

Not just harder, impossible.

So what now? The political insiders believe that with all his failures, flaws and foibles, Obama can still be re-elected if he only makes fewer mistakes than his adversaries, who, in trying to please the far right, are alienating the public.

Obama positions himself as the adult in the room – the guy who tried to make progress in the face of unreasonable opposition and an economic crisis that was not his fault. Sure, he made some mistakes, his supporters admit, but he also prevented the depression that all the experts feared. (Where’s the evidence for that?)

Hope is now off the agenda – the appeal is “I am not as bad as they are”. And that may be true, but to think that Obama will emerge as some kind of FDR in a second term is an illusion.

Occupy the mainstream

So where does that leave the Occupy movement, who are as critical of the Democrats as the Republicans? They know that song by the Who: “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

They are talking about holding a political convention on July 4, 2012 – but given the history of third parties, that’s not an encouraging prospect. Do we want another 1968, with a new Nixon winning as the opposition fragments?

Occupy has to fight on terrains it has some experience with. It has to be careful not to get bum-rushed into a political race it can’t win.

Millions of Americans are out of work. Millions more are losing homes or dealing with draconian debt burdens. Student debt is a problem on the scale of subprime mortgages.

To get anything “done”, you need muscle – and that comes from building and sustaining a movement in the mainstream, not the margins.

Much of what Obama has “gotten done” is not what most activists really want: a prison-industrial system. More military adventures. Authorised assassinations. Few new regulations on Wall Street. No tax on financial transactions. Only a trickle of prosecutions of financial criminals.

The health care reform may not survive a Supreme Court decision. New jobs are not being created, and Obama is quickly moving from getting it done to devoting more time to his re-election campaign.

The financial system is unraveling in Europe, and enriching the .01 per cent here. No progress on the economic front.

The idea of more wars – whether in Africa or Iran – are not really popular, but that’s never stopped imperial adventures before. They do create jobs, after all.

So in the end, the pragmatists have not delivered, and in this environment they cannot get much done.

The Washington Post published an article pronouncing Occupy Wall Street “over”. It’s up to the movement to prove them wrong with an “Occupy The Mainstream” strategy that uses media and direct action to reach out to a large and victimised constituency waiting for leadership and eager for change.

News Dissector Danny Schechter covers the Occupy movement on his News Dissector blog. He made the film Plunder, about financial crime on Wall Street.

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