Obama: Accomplished leader or corporate shill?

Published online 27 November 2009.

The wandering eye of media-based attention here at Orange seems to have opened its focus upon the accomplishments (or lack thereof) of President Barack Obama.  Whereas some on this blog would trumpet 90 accomplishments of President Obama which the media fail to report (*media* being a plural noun), others would emphasize Obama’s failure to elicit change on the big-ticket items.  Whatever this diary is, it’s not an attempt to substitute the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down for sober evaluation.  You’ll have to read it to find out its thrilling conclusion.

(now turbo-charged over at Docudharma!!!)

So, OK, the first diary:

I am always being asked to grade Obama’s presidency. In place of offering him a grade, I put together a list of his accomplishments thus far. I think you would agree that it is very impressive. His first six months have been even more active than FDRs or LBJs the two standards for such assessments.

then the second one:

I know it’s popular for those of us who supported you to list the many small changes you have shepherded.  But in the big things, Sir, health care, climate change, using the stimulus package to improve infrastructure and generate jobs, forestall the foreclosure crisis, and address renewable energy, you have done little.

which inspired this rebuttal:

But in the big things, Kossacks, health care, climate change, the economy, improving infrastructure, creating jobs, forestalling the foreclosure crisis, and addressing renewable energy, you have ignored that this President has done more than any other president in our history in less than a year.

Meanwhile the environmentalist Muzikal203 dips in with this report:

The White House also announced that, in the context of an overall deal in Copenhagen that includes robust mitigation contributions from China and the other emerging economies, the President is prepared to put on the table a U.S. emissions reduction target in the range of 17% below 2005 levels in 2020 and ultimately in line with final U.S. energy and climate legislation.  In light of the President’s goal to reduce emissions 83% by 2050, the expected pathway set forth in this pending legislation would entail a 30% reduction below 2005 levels in 2025 and a 42% reduction below 2005 in 2030.  This provisional target is in line with current legislation in both chambers of Congress and demonstrates a significant contribution to a problem that the U.S. has neglected for too long.

Lots of pretty promises, but are they real?  And then you have the “Obama can only do so much” diaries: this one, for instance.  Or maybe the Russ Baker treatment over on truthout: What Obama Is Up Against.

So with all of this wonderful achievement, what is there really about Obama to complain about?

Well, there’s the Obama scandals list, which nails Obama on all of the major issues.  Go ahead, read it.  Obama has fallen in with entrenched power, for the sake of, I suppose, having any power at all.  I dunno, why do you think he’s doing it?

And note the the 90 accomplishments appear to be (for the most part) limited half-measures.  As one comment on the “90 accomplishments” diary suggested, “Parts of this diary read like a resume listing college part time jobs.”  The criticisms appear to be, on the other hand, focused on the big-ticket measures: “health-insurance reform,” bank bailouts, Afghanistan, and so on.  (So maybe they both can be right!)

Meanwhile, you have the “Obama can only do so much” pieces.  Let’s take a look at what Russ Baker said, for instance, about Obama’s relation to the military:

Those who do not kowtow to the spies and generals have had a bumpy ride. FDR and Truman both faced insubordination. Dwight Eisenhower, who had served as chief of staff of the US Army, left the White House warning darkly about the “military industrial complex.” (He of all presidents had reasons to know.) John Kennedy was repeatedly countermanded and double-crossed by his own supposed subordinates. The Joint Chiefs baited him; Allen Dulles despised him (more so after JFK fired him over the Bay of Pigs fiasco), and Henry Cabot Lodge, his ambassador to South Vietnam, deliberately undermined Kennedy’s agenda. Kennedy called the trigger-happy generals “mad” and spoke angrily to aides of “scattering the CIA to the wind.” The evidence is growing that he suffered the consequences.

Given this reality, are we sure we want to trust Obama with ending our wars?

What you can conclude, then, is that Obama will be with you on the small stuff, but the big-ticket items?  They will be decided by someone else, someone nonetheless backed by the authority of the White House.


The point of this elaborate preface is as follows: the “Good Obama-Bad Obama debate” is wholly misconceived, on both sides.  Politics is not about “what should Obama do?”  Politics is also not about “what should we think about Obama?”  Politics is about “what should WE do?”

Our choice, then, is not between “cheerleading for Obama’s resume of accomplishments,” and “declaiming Obama’s resume of non-accomplishments with the air of disgusted former supporters.”  Our choice is between different paths of action, some of them for ourselves, others not so much.

One of the things I love about Jane Hamsher (who give us firedoglake) is that she has attempted to refocus discussion about progressive political options with reference to a phenomenon called the “veal pen.”  The “veal pen,” for Hamsher, is constituted by “liberal” organizations who dare not criticize the White House for fear of losing their funding.  Here is what Hamsher says about the “veal pen”:

They leadership gets gets bought off by cocktail parties at the White House while the interests of their members get sold out.  How many have openly pushed back against the Administration on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or DOMA? Well, not many.  Most tried to satisfy their LGBT members by outsourcing activism to other organizations, or proving their bona fides by getting involved in the Prop 8 battle that is not directly toxic to the White House.  It’s a chickenshit sidestep that betrays their members in the interest of personal gain, which they justify with feeble self-serving palliatives about the importance of “maintaining a seat at the table.”

Where are they on health care?  Why aren’t they running ads against the AMA, the hospitals, the insurance industry barons who have $700 million in stock options, PhRMA, the device manufacturers and the White House for doing back room deals with all of the above?

Why are they not calling for the White House to release the details of those secret deals?

Because they are participating in those deals, instead of trying to destroy them.  Well, that and funneling millions of dollars in pass-throughs to their consultant friends that they are supposed to be spending on the health care fight.

The truth is — they’ve all been sucked into insulating the White House from liberal critique, and protecting the administration’s ability to carry out a neoliberal agenda that does not serve the interests of their members.  They spend their time calculating how to do the absolute minimum to retain their progressive street cred and still walk the line of never criticizing the White House.

So who is in the “veal pen”?  A lot of rather familiar groups: NARAL and Planned Parenthood, HCAN (and thus also its constituent organizations), and others.  You want real change?  Cut off the “veal pen.”  Cut them all off.  Start by finding out who they are.  I’m sure you can pick some of it up by reading Hamsher’s stuff on firedoglake; you’ll have to do independent research though.  When you find out who they are, the next step is to find out where your money is going, and to make sure it goes away from such organizations and to organizations which are actually supporting measures which are in your interest: single-payer health care, a smaller military-industrial complex, and so on.

Perhaps it would be best if we started an organization dedicated to publicizing the activities of the veal pen, discrediting its membership, and publicizing its misdeeds with the intent of establishing a solid, popular boycott of organizations which behave thusly.  Organize strikes, demonstrations, take-overs of buildings, marches and rallies.  It should be clear after thirty-five years of neoliberalism that ordinary people deserve better from the intermediaries between themselves and government than what they’re getting.

Without this, I’m afraid, the Obama analysis of Paul Street stands:  “A Centrist, Corporate-Imperial Presidency Facing Minimal Popular and ‘Left’ Resistance.”

The effect of actually following your money and yanking it where it won’t work for you, however, will be to create (insofar as you have the power to do so) genuine pressure groups, groups capable of agreeing with Obama when their members think he’s right, and disagreeing with him when they think he’s wrong.  Isn’t that what you want?


In my previous series on power, one power which I argued was within our possession was the power to “disbelieve in the schematic of power imposed upon one by the powerful.”  Part of this schematic of power, I would further argue, has to do with our attachment (or lack thereof) to Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States.  Praise the President!  Blame the President!  or, neither of these things: but know what is in your interests, and act to be sure they are not betrayed.



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