Obama and the transformation illusion

The US president’s floundering overshadows himself when the real problems seem to be avoided.

US President Barack Obama makes a statem
Obama is what some political theorists would describe as a "preemptive president" [AFP]

Everyone has an ideology, whether they know it or not. But when your ideology has you – that’s when you’re an ideologue. It’s not a matter of “extremism” but of rigidity and blindness – detachment from reality. Which is why Barack Obama is one of the most ideological presidents we’ve ever had. And being imprisoned in his “pragmatist” ideology is key to his numerous pragmatic train wrecks, as well his less-noted failures to even take on several really big, really significant problems.

It’s not a matter of intelligence. Barack Obama is clearly one of the smartest men to ever occupy the Oval Office. President of the Harvard Law Review, four years from state senator to President of the United States. First black president. These are not the accomplishments of a stupid, or even just a reasonably competent man.

Unfortunately, however, smart people can often be quite dumb – not just do dumb things, but do them over and over and over again. And while Obama’s rapid rise to power was a tale that highlighted his intelligence, his time in office – now at its half-way point – has been a tale that highlights the limits of that intelligence. Those limits are deeply implicated in his ideology – a fanatical belief in compromise, no matter what – that has served him admirably on a personal level in his rapid climb to power, but that fundamentally cripples him in the exercise of that power once it is in his hands. 

The contrast between Obama’s brilliance most of the time and its utter absence when the chips are down has once again been revivified by the sharp transition from his crisp, decisive re-election campaign to his tortured “fiscal cliff” negotiations with Congressional Republicans, particularly House Speaker Boehner.

Boehner’s own incompetence is legendary – he couldn’t even get all his members sworn in on their first day in office – which helps to distract attention from the fact that Obama has been floundering as well. Obama’s floundering is further obscured by the political mainstream’s inability to diagnose and contextualise its own limited vision of untapped possibilities and unacknowledged costs and consequences.

Soros’ prophecies 

It’s not just that Obama was still negotiating with himself, rewarding Boehner’s incompetence with a series of ill-conceived and fruitless concessions, which only weakened him; it’s that the entire enterprise is supremely idiotic, on at least three counts: First because it’s an invented political problem, not a real world problem. Second, because the larger goal of the process – budget balancing – is a fool’s errand for Democrats, in light of how quickly (and gleefully) Republicans undid that very same accomplishment under Bill Clinton, as soon as they got back into power. Third, because America does have very serious real-world problems that need dealing with, which are not just being neglected in the “fiscal cliff” drama, but are being made even worse.

Two in particular are worth noting. The first is persistent mass unemployment, still affecting tens of millions of families, which translates directly into economic underperformance, a primary root cause of the budget problems, which the “fiscal cliff” drama purports to be about. The second is global warming. It’s also worth noting that these two seemingly separate problems are really both just halves of a single solution, as was pointed out by George Soros just weeks after the financial crisis exploded in 2008.

President Obama and climate change

Eighty years have passed since the last time America and the world faced such an extreme economic challenge, and the key to ending the Great Depression was massive government spending, which we did not get on the scale that was needed until the advent of World War II. Only then would conservatives get on board for the scale of spending that was absolutely necessary to get the economy back on track.

This time around, the urgent need to combat global warming represented a similar possibility, as Soros noted to Bill Moyers on October 10, 2008, just weeks after the crisis hit:

For the last 25 years the world economy, the motor of the world economy that has been driving it was consumption by the American consumer who has been spending more than he has been saving, all right? Than he’s been producing. So that motor is now switched off. It’s finished. It’s run out of – can’t continue. You need a new motor. And we have a big problem. Global warming. It requires big investment. And that could be the motor of the world economy in the years to come.

Soros’ words have proven prophetic – but only in the counterfactual sense of a road not taken. The economy as a whole quickly pulled out of recession (defined as two consecutive quarters of contracting GDP), much as FDR was able to quickly get GDP growing again upon taking office. But unemployment and underemployment remain dramatically high, and those who do have jobs are paying off debts – deleveraging – rather than than spending freely on new consumer goods, the motor that Soros warned was switched off. Lack of demand is why corporations are sitting on record profits, rather than reinvesting them, particularly in hiring more workers.

Meanwhile, one form of extreme weather after another – topped off by Hurricane Sandy – underscores how the cost of doing nothing about global warming is turning out to be higher than expected, and to be coming due much faster than expected. All of which means that Soros was even more correct than he seemed to be at the time.

“Obama’s root problem is his deep unwillingness to engage in hegemonic struggle, to face his adversaries’ failures, call them out by name, and show how we can do better.

What Soros was pointing to was simple common sense. But common sense is no match for cultural hegemony, what political theorist Antonio Gramsci essentially described as ideology in drag as common sense. Obama’s root problem is his deep unwillingness to engage in hegemonic struggle, to face his adversaries’ failures, call them out by name, and show how we can do better. This ought to be easy. Under George W Bush, conservatives controlled the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court for the first time since the 1920s, and just like the 1920s, the result of their dominance was unmitigated disaster. Yet, instead of challenging everything they stand for, Obama has repeatedly sought common ground with them – which they’ve responded to by becoming even more extreme.

The pattern is easy enough to see. The stimulus was roughly 1/3 tax cuts, and half the size it needed to be, but still barely got any support from Senate Republicans, and no support at all from Republicans in the House. Healthcare reform was based on the blueprint developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation in the 1990s, and implemented on the state level by Mitt Romney, but it was even more fiercely opposed by Republicans than the stimulus was.

Even on budget-balancing, Republican Senators withdrew their support for a deficit-reduction commission once Obama agreed to it, leading him to create a presidential commission instead of a congressional one. Then Republicans on that panel – lead by Romney’s VP choice, Paul Ryan – voted against its recommendations, demanding even more extreme measures. 

So, seeing the problem is easy. But how to explain it? For this, we turn to a pair of articles at the Atlantic by Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin on the eve of the election, one considering what a Romney election would mean, the other doing the same for Obama. The latter was titled, “What It Will Take for Barack Obama to Become the Next FDR”. It was not Balkin’s view that Obama was a shoe-in to become “the next FDR”, but that it was at least possible, and he wanted to clarify what that would mean, and how it could happen. Both articles drew on the work of Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek on presidential leadership.

Balkin began his Obama article by noting:

Ever since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, people have debated whether he might be for the Democratic Party what Ronald Reagan was for the Republicans – a transformational president in the mold of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who changes the basic assumptions of national politics for a generation or more.

Skowronek’s work on presidential leadership distinguishes different types, based on where they fall within what he calls “political time”, and transformational – or what Skowroneck calls “reconstructive” – presidents are the ones who take on the biggest tasks, simply by virtue of their place in time and what that means. He describes US history in terms of successive governing policy regimes, each with a life-cycle that determines the sort of presidential possibilities and challenges that exist. Reconstructive presidents initiate new regimes, when the previous one falls into decay. Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and FDR are classic examples. Regimes continued by affiliate presidents like Madison, Grant, Truman and Kennedy, and their demise is presided over by disjunctive presidents like John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. There are also presidents elected by the party opposed to the dominant regime of an era, whom he calls “pre-emptive presidents”, such as Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, or Richard Nixon.

The preemptive model 

“Preemptive presidents are the most interesting type in Skowronek’s theory,” Balkin wrote, “In a political age dominated by the other party; they must continually navigate upstream against fierce political currents. Their political legitimacy is always in question. The regime’s dominant party continually casts doubt on their right to rule, and their own party often seems too weak to defend them.”

Although I find Skowronek’s approach clarifying, commonsensical and compelling, there are a few obvious problems here. For one thing, this description is much more fitting for Clinton and Obama than it is for Eisenhower and Nixon. Eisenhower’s legitimacy was never questioned (except, of course, by the Birchers), while Nixon only lost his legitimacy as a result of his own paranoid scheming blowing up in his face.

What this says to me is that the New Deal regime was not entirely typical, but what came afterwards was even less so. Clinton and Obama both seem like prime exemplars of the preemptive type of president – far more hounded by their opponents than Eisenhower or Nixon were from the very beginning, despite the fact that both were elected with solid majorities in both houses of Congress, while Eisenhower enjoyed just two short years with the narrowest of congressional majorities, and Nixon faced solid opposing majorities throughout his term. Moreover, Skowronek identifies Ronald Reagan as one of his reconstructive presidents, but Reagan never came close to a Republican majority in the House. All other reconstructive presidents were elected along with two consecutive House wave elections, establishing unmistakable majorities supporting them. 

I do not see these facts as invalidating Skowronek’s basic insight. But they do point to other factors being involved as well. Three different books shed light on what’s going on. First, as Tom Ferguson and Joel Rogers argued in Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics Reagan’s election reflected a shift in elite thinking, which had little if anything to do with mass public opinion. This shift was reflected in Jimmy Carter as well as Ronald Reagan.

Inside Story Americas
Should the US be a global moral authority?

After all, it was Carter who began the proxy Afghan War against the Soviet Union, and Carter’s projected military build-up was almost as massive as Reagan’s. Second, as I’ve argued previously, August Cochrane III’s book Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie shows how the system of divided government which has dominated since 1968 is tremendously empowering for elite special interests who are particularly adept at getting their way in “quiet rooms” as Mitt Romney so eloquently put it, far away from the open contest of public, democratic debate. 

Since Reagan’s election, the 1 percent has seen its income share roughly triple, while the income of the 99 percent has stayed relatively flat. This basic fact speaks volumes about the nature, priorities, and power-distribution of the political regime of the past 30 years, which has been more detached than ever from the fairy-tale version of a competitive two-party democracy. Two separate empirical studies by political scientists Larry Bartels [PDF] and Martin Gilens [PDF] show that middle-income voters have only modest political impact on how Senators vote, and low-income voters have none at all.

Behind all this lies the arc of decline of American power, which erstwhile Republican policy guru Kevin Phillips described in his 2002 book, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, where he drew parallels to similar patterns of declining power in Spain, Holland and Great Britain – the three sea-faring dominant world powers that preceded the US. Phillips argued that in each of these cases prosperity was broadly shared in the period of ascendance, until power peaked unexpectedly, marked by a sharp defeat, much as the US experienced in Vietnam. 

What followed was a period of roughly two generations of reactionary politics, during which elites did better than ever, while the broad mass of people suffered stagnant incomes, and withered hopes, until a turning point signaling a renewal of broadly communal values. Those former world powers never regained their stature in the world, but their citizens lives did improve remarkably – enough so that it no longer seemed important where their nation stood in terms of global power.

However, Phillips’ schema is only half the story. It explains the anomaly of the Reagan era, by bringing into play larger historical forces operating on a larger time-scale than Skowroneck’s regimes, and explaining the salience of bipartisan reactionary elite politics. But it does not explain Obama’s failure to perform according to the pattern Phillips describes. After all, Obama’s election in 2008 seemed to promise renewal and a reaffirmation of shared values and equal participation. But it’s precisely Obama’s failure to deliver that we’re challenged to understand. 

The reason why the US doesn’t fit the pattern Phillips’ described appears to be based – at least in part – on the exhaustion of capitalism. This is not to say that “Communist” China won’t have a good go at reinventing the basic framework and keeping it alive in some new form. But it is to say that the ideological constraints of capitalist ideology are just too stifling for America – and possibly for the rest of the Western developed world. The “exhaustion of capitalism” thesis is not the sort of thing one can expect to get rationally considered amongst America’s elites – but that’s just the problem: Only problems that can be formulated and analysed can be solved.

And this brings us back to the subject of Obama’s brilliance and its limitations, and his place in Skowronek’s schema. Obama has done well at solving certain sorts of problems, but they almost entirely “housekeeping” sorts of problems, matters of “tidying up” the messes created by the existing political regime. Even his adoption of conservative healthcare reform – using a template first developed by the Heritage Foundation, and applied at state level by Mitt Romney – fits under this description. This is precisely the sort of thing that preemptive presidents do best. As Balkin goes on to describe them, they respond to the adverse political environment around them strategically:

This predicament drives preemptive presidents to be pragmatic, compromising, non-ideological, and unorthodox. They triangulate in order to survive. As a result, preemptive presidents often deeply disappoint their own party faithful, who crave greater ideological purity and stronger principled stands. To members of their own party, it sometimes seems as if preemptive presidents never stand up for their principles; instead, they are always temporizing, compromising, and letting their political opponents push them around.

“…destroying residual institutional support for opposition interests, restructuring institutional relations between state and society and securing the dominant position of a new political coalition 

As I said before, these descriptions are much better fits for Clinton and Obama than for Eisenhower and Nixon in the previous era. But contrast them with what Skowronek himself said about reconstructive presidents:

The president as regime builder grapples with the fundamentals of political regeneration – institutional reconstruction and party building… destroying residual institutional support for opposition interests, restructuring institutional relations between state and society and securing the dominant position of a new political coalition.

None of this sounds remotely like Barack Obama. Rather, he acts as one completely engulfed in the mindset of the old order, doing everything possible not to disturb it, constantly reminding folks of just how incremental his sought-for changes are. Remember, his criticism of the Clintons was that they erred by fighting against that old order, rather than seeking accommodation. The repeated failure of his own efforts at accommodation has done nothing to alter his fundamental orientation. He may be relatively young as national politicians (much less presidents) go, but his mindset is profoundly ossified, firmly locked into the reignite past.

One explanation for why Obama remains so thoroughly stuck in the preemptive presidential mode, is that the system has not failed for America’s elites. Rather, it has worked like a charm. Thousands of them could have and should have gone to jail, much like what happened following the S&L scandal of the 1980s. Instead, they kept getting their massive bonuses, paid for by US taxpayers. In 2010, according to IRS data compiled by Emmanuel Saez, the top 1 percent captured 93 percent of the income gain in the recovery. More specifically, the bottom 90 percent lost $127 on average, the bottom 99 percent gained $80 on average, and the top 1 percent gained an average of $105,637. Thus, America’s political donor class has not experienced regime failure in any meaningful sense at all. They are perfectly content to have a preemptive president making minor adjustments here and there for them – and that’s precisely what Obama is delivering.

And thus, the republic slips ever more deeply into darkness.

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