Andrew Sullivan’s “Obama Keeps His Cool”: A Critique

Published online 6 July 2009.

Andrew Sullivan, whose blog I follow regularly now that it has important coverage of Iran’s war of position (some other good folks to follow are Nico Pitney of Huffingtonpost.com, and Saeed Valadbaygi) has a column on Times Online: “Barack Obama keeps his cool in hothead Washington.”  This is pretty much an “Obama has the right idea in mind for the long run” editorial.  Now, far be it from me to criticize “keeping cool” as an attitude, but IMHO there are concerns about all this that need to be raised.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

So, OK, the piece, in yesterday’s Times Online. offers somewhat of an eloquent defense of the actions of the Obama administration.  I myself am on record as criticizing Obama’s underlings as having an imagination deficit when it comes to economic policy.  Sure, this criticism goes back to the lame-duck Bush administration, but what applies to Paulson also goes for Geithner.  I stand by every word of Mike Whitney’s update of the situation.

At any rate, you are all free to read Sullivan’s piece yourselves, but this paragraph stood out for me as the beginning-point, where Sullivan sticks his neck out in defense of Obama:

As he had once written when describing his strategy as a black man in a white world: no sudden moves. And we have seen none. Obama likes the system; he just wants to make it work for more people.

The problem I see in this, of course, is that the system is a system in which the many work for the few.  The political system, moreover, can be said to have emerged from Bizarro World, a state in which the main opposition to George W. Bush, a President elected by a 5-to-4 vote, was John F. Kerry, a man whose stature was described to a T in a post-election editorial by Alexander Cockburn.

Given Sullivan’s accurate assessment, it’s understandable why Obama may wish to pursue a “no sudden moves” set of policies.  However, given the reigning political situation, this means in practical terms the perpetuation (in some ways) of Bizarro World.  It becomes an open question, then: to what extent does Obama himself realize this?

Sullivan continues:

Obama is also, at his core, a community organiser. Community organisers do not jump into a situation and start bossing people around. They begin by listening, debating, cajoling, inspiring and delegating. Less deciders than ralliers, community organisers explain the options, inspire self-confidence and try to empower others, not themselves. If you think of Obama even on a global stage, this is his mojo. And those community organisers do not tell you to expect instant results. It takes time when you try to build real change from below. But the change is stronger, deeper and more real when it comes.

As reasoning goes, this is all very cool.  It is also, I might add, a good description of what Hugo Chavez has been trying to do in Venezuela ever since he managed to get beyond the November 2002 capital strike.  Chavez can be graded as having made some degree of progress in this regard, having significantly reduced poverty in Venezuela while at the same time not really eliminating corruption in Venezuelan politics and blundering his big ego into trouble now and then.  So doing what Sullivan suggests of Obama is not easy.  May I recommend some steps Obama might take to meet Sullivan’s expectations for his Presidency?

  1. If Obama is serious about adapting humankind to a future in which the main concern will be human adaptation to a transformed global ecosystem, he needs to grant people the option of “living off the land” in at least one important way — urban agriculture.  Thus there needs to be a “stimulus package” dedicated to the nation’s cities, comprised of monetary grants targeted toward municipal acquisition of land for community garden spaces.
  2. If Obama is serious about trying to empower us, he needs to revitalize our nation’s college and university systems.  With a number of states going belly-up this year, students in these states can expect higher tuition, larger class sizes, and reduced options for getting degrees and for (and this is MOST IMPORTANT as it is for many students their REASON FOR BEING THERE) hanging out with professors who are empowered to help them where they need it most.  There is, moreover, one field which needs revitalization more than any other, given the priority listed above: ecology.  We need a new version of the 1958 Defense Education Act, only this time as a response to ecological crisis.
  3. If Obama is serious about empowering the public to access the nation’s health care delivery systems, he needs to establish a robust public option in health insurance, preferably without insurance mandates.  Mandates without a robust public option, on the other hand, do not empower us — quite the opposite, mandates without a robust public option are in fact a tax we pay, highly regressive as all head taxes must be, to support a special interest holding our government hostage.

*****

So, moving on, there is Sullivan’s defense against the ostensive argument “from right and left” that Obama is “too moderate.”  Here’s the substance of it:

The Obama brigade would counter with some strong arguments. It would point out that he won a huge stimulus package from Congress very swiftly precisely because he did defer to the Hill. It would point to the first real carbon reduction legislation to be passed in the House. It would note the swift rebalancing of America’s alliances and the catalytic effect of the Cairo speech in Iran. It would note that Obama was not so indecisive in a legitimate case of purely executive decision making — as three Somali pirates shot on his orders found out.

It would also rightly argue that alternative methods of dealing with Congress — remember the Clinton White House’s presidential-driven healthcare debacle? — don’t work so well. Better an imperfect Barack victory than another Hillary nosedive. As for foreign policy toughness and clarity, Obama’s insistence that Israel cease and desist its settlement programme on the West Bank is not exactly passive-aggressive. Besides, he always said this would take time.

For the record, practically all “carbon reduction legislation” ever passed so far by any government of the world has been of symbolic value (i.e. perhaps good for the conscience, but not for the environment) — see Raupach et al.’s summary in PNAS for a description of the real-world outcome of all this “activity.”  Perhaps Obama’s joining the rest of the world in passing symbolic “climate change legislation” is to be counted as a victory — but advocates of real change in what Marx called “the metabolism of man and nature” are going to look to other ways of making it happen.  As Loren R. Cass points out in The Failures of American and European Climate Policy, there are limits on what government can do when its main duty is perceived as that of propping up the neoliberal economy.

And the “stimulus package” does look, when the proportions of Federal assistance are considered, like a matter of trillions for the banks amidst a few pennies for the rest of us.  Since the primary cause of the present-day economic disaster is the inordinate difference in wealth and power between the rich few and the rest of us, the Obama administration needs to be out there giving the rest of us a fighting chance in the class struggle.

Finally, Sullivan praises Obama as a leader of long-term vision:

The more you observe, the clearer it is that Obama is working on an eight-year time cycle. He wants deep structural change, not swift superficial grandstanding and conflict. He is taking his time and keeping his cool. The question is whether a volatile electorate in a terrible economic time will be patient enough to wait.

A concern with “progressive” thinking, at least from a historical perspective, is that the “progressive” movement (at least the one at the beginning of the 20th century) was originally designed to smooth over the class conflict, then raging in American society, between an undernourished and largely immigrant working class and a robber baron elite.  Recognizing that class conflict is a normal byproduct of the capitalist system, then, has never been the strong suit of “progressives.”

As for the “electorate,” it’s high time we stopped waiting for entrenched interests to get out of the way.  We will not only need a resumption of the class struggle, from our side of the mansions, but also a good degree of “outside of the box” thinking if we are to make it OK through the next decade or two.  Let’s hope we (never mind Obama) are up to the task.

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