The progressive case for Obama

Drones, the drug war and income inequality are important. But a vote against Obama only makes other issues worse

Published October 29, 2012 11:30PM (EDT)

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at a campaign event at George Mason University,  Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, in Fairfax, Va. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)        (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at a campaign event at George Mason University, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, in Fairfax, Va. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Matt Stoller’s provocative piece "The Progressive Case Against Obama" is a passionate, well-reasoned argument as to why "progressives," even in swing states, should refuse to vote for President Obama. While I do not have Stoller’s political bona fides, I, like him, have spent a lifetime in "radical" and progressive politics, and served for eight years under Jerry Brown when he was governor of California -- in other words, I possess some real-world political experience. I also have about 40 years of age on Stoller, and would like to offer the value of that perspective in refuting what I believe to be several distortions in this piece, which, if taken literally, could conceivably throw the election to Mitt Romney with more disastrous consequences than Stoller may have considered.

Stoller argues, and for the record, I agree, that under President Obama’s administration economic inequity in America has grown to staggering proportions. He holds Obama personally responsible for turning down a deal from Hank Paulson where, in return for rapid distribution of the second round of TARP funds, Paulson would press the banks to write down mortgages and save millions of foreclosures. According to Rep. Barney Frank and Stoller, the president nixed this deal, saved the banks and screwed homeowners. This is a damning charge, and I’m embarrassed to say that I believe it is true. It is one among a number of charges against the president that discourage and offend me: his reversal of single-payer healthcare, extra-judicial killings; the extension of imperial presidential powers and extensions of needless secrecy and attacks against whistle-blowers, the reliance on predator drones and death lists, to name a few.

Stoller presses us to consider President Obama responsible for all the above, and demands that we ask, "What kind of America has he [President Obama] actually delivered," and this is where his argument begins to get wonky.

The drive toward corporate dominance of our political life (literal Fascism) began in earnest after Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hired soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell to write a white paper on threats to the American way of life. Justice Powell identified two dominant enemies -- consumer activists (particularly Ralph Nader) and environmentalists -- as sources of major concern for the future. His report went on to create the blueprint of think tanks, publishing houses, social strategies and media assault that right-wing millionaires and billionaires, like the Coors, the Kochs and others, have generously funded for more than 40 years, transforming the American political vocabulary and framing of ideas about government and freedom in the process.

In so doing, their concentrated wealth and leverage of the media have conscripted presidents of both parties, and the entire Congress, as a concierge for their interests. If Ronald Reagan had not snipped the words "fair and balanced" from FCC-enabling legislation we would not have hate radio and Fox News today. If President Clinton had not overseen the demise of Glass-Steagall we would not have witnessed the rampant Wall Street speculation, fraud and collapse of our financial system that President Obama inherited. If Clinton had not signed the Telecommunications Act, delivering the public’s airwaves to a few major corporations, or GATT/NAFTA, bankrupting millions of Mexican farmers (no standing on our street corners seeking work) and shipping jobs to the Third World, we would be inhabiting a very different America today, one with a far more open and less biased public discourse.

I mention this, because there is an unsettling "personal" quality to Stoller’s assault on the president; an imbalanced, somewhat adolescent tenor to his outrage at the fact that the president could have once used illegal drugs but is currently the titular head of the War on Drugs. By making him single-handedly responsible for having "delivered" all current afflictions to America, Stoller simultaneously demonizes the president and makes him more powerful than virtually any figure in our political history.

President Obama was not the architect of these policies. He may be the tip of the iceberg, which we can identify dead ahead of our Ship of State, but capital and its minions have been working carefully and closely behind the scenes for decades, disenfranchising workers, voters, women and minorities. Like frogs resting comfortably in gradually heating water, we are just now apparently noticing how close to boiling our environment is. While Democrats have concentrated on a plethora of issues, the corporatists have worked unremittingly to gain power over the entire financial sector of the Nation.

It is impossible to imagine any candidate running for office that did not have the imprimatur of the American corporate sector. They own the 18 inches of counter and the cash register. They fan out their products as if they were all available for consumer choice --. and they are. Would you prefer a cool, slender, brilliant black attorney who looks like he stepped out of a Colors of Benetton ad or a strong-jawed white man who reminds us of the "good old '50s" when white people could do whatever the hell they wanted? A Bible-thumping Baptist? They’ve got them all, and we mistake our "freedom" to choose among them as liberty. The media colludes with the candidates in repeating their narratives and faux populist roles until the entire spectacle of elections appears indistinguishable from a reality show.

Despite raising unprecedented amounts of money from "the little people," 60 percent of Obama’s first presidential campaign was funded by big donors. He was Wall Street’s darling, and his payback to them was junking his campaign financial advisers and putting Timothy Geithner in charge to ensure that Wall Street’s interests were met. Is this surprising? This is how the politics of capital works. This is why the Commission on Presidential Debates forced the League of Women Voters out of managing the debates so that they could control the narrative and exclude third-party candidates. Did Mr. Stoller actually ever assume that a single man would be able to rein in the military-industrial complex and Wall Street? That would have been delusional, and whatever the president’s real strategies may have been, he was not helped by the defection of most of his supporters, who after the election returned to the Internet and blogging, while public spaces became colonized by Tea Party wing-nuts.

Mr. Obama is an astute student of power and he navigates his presidency between its shoals. He does what he can at the margins, and perhaps as a young father with children, he might be forgiven nervousness at the many unveiled threats leveled against him:  audience members showing up at his speeches carrying arms; unvetted guests slipping through White House security to get close enough for a handshake. These are rough games, and who can fault a family man for wanting to stay alive?

However, Stoller suggests a Machiavellian, hidden subterfuge to Obama’s ascendancy, as if he assumes that (just like a Colors of Benetton ad) race were confused with liberal politics. He cites as evidence of Obama's conservative agenda, Mr. Obama’s early control of the House and Senate, but never analyzes that control closely. Obama was plagued with a razor-thin majority and the threatened defection of mutinous Blue-Dog democrats. He had no hope of passing a number of key legislative programs that might have kept his promises and still had clearly before him President Clinton’s own healthcare debacle as a reminder against acting rashly. Singling him out as the evil genius who has  single-handedly produced the alarming state of 21st century America is a reductionism that is not helpful and certainly takes voters and others off the hook.

The Gordian knot of our current corrupt political system is money! Public financing of elections; free airtime for qualified candidates; disenfranchising corporations from spending their treasure to influence public policy are three steps that could radically transform the American political landscape. People understand them. They are not abstract and could be the basis for real radical organizing. It is how European elections are run, over a two- to three-month period, where people are not bludgeoned into catatonia by trivia and the opinions of pundits discussing everything but the issues. Candidates can be seen on every channel, in open, unstructured debates, and people get a fair chance to make up their minds between a host of philosophies and attitudes that make America’s two-party system look like a fixed three-card monte game.

"The best moment for change is actually a crisis." Stoller’s assertion sounds good, but is it true? In my youth, young radicals refused Hubert Humphrey’s compromised liberalism and wound up with Vietnam scarring the nation for the next decade. We made the perfect the enemy of the good. The real crises upon us are global warming and extreme environmental degradation and the implications are profound and life-threatening. It should be clear to most observers that the conflict between individual self-interest and the commons is leading directly to our mutual destruction. As long as millions of people "work" in industries like coal, nuclear, petroleum and hydrocarbons, their self-interest at maintaining employment works directly against solutions for the good of the race. If the nation needs to take drastic action to save the planet, we will have to consider how we will distribute national wealth when "jobs" have to be sacrificed. That is an idea that no candidate has had the courage to address and neither have any on the left, to my knowledge. What paucity of spirit concludes that begging for a job is a form of dignity, without considering what circumstances have left men and women so bereft of common wealth that they have nothing but their labor to offer?

No one will lay down and die (or abandon their families) for an abstact goal. But unless we can guarantee livelihood to the millions who are currently engaged in destructive planetary practices, we are out of luck. Exacerbating that dilemma by provoking a political crisis is a guarantee of wasting another 10 years while reactionary forces and stopgap measures take short-term dominance over common sense and common need. Doing it in a country awash with guns, anxiety, fears or rapid social change is a recipe to re-create the streets of Syria and Lebanon at home.

Many of Obama’s constitutional violations that disturb Stoller and myself are barely known and understood by the general populace. It will take decades of education to build understanding of their importance and constituencies for them. However, education, carbon, global warming, nuclear issues, the rights of women, immigrants, minorities, etc., are immediate and pressing. In triage terms, an Obama presidency will allow time to work on these issues without sentencing another decade to the negative consequences of panic, despair and chaos.

I applaud Stoller’s concerns and his passion, but I think he underestimates how long political change actually takes. I certainly did as a young man, when I was calling for revolution and stockpiling weapons. My father was a wealthy man in the '50s and early '60s, a big-time Wall Street broker. His  last words to me in 1970, when he was visiting the commune I lived on, remain prophetic and true. "You think America’s going down in five years, son; it’ll take 50 and you better be prepared to hang in for the long haul. There are huge historical forces at work, and the sons of bitches running things will do whatever they can to make sure they get theirs out of it before they die."

A simple walk through any European streets will reveal plaques on the walls commemorating where neighbors were dragged from their homes and shot by partisans, by fascists, by communists, by falangists. True social upheaval is horrifying, it is being danced before our eyes on TV and in print every day. While in the abstract it may "cleanse" the political body or other comforting nostrums, for the dead, the wounded, the maimed and the millions who continue to suffer, those are the slogans of a removed, detached leadership. It is obvious that Stoller considers himself among them. "We need to put ourselves into the position of being able to run the government," he says with no apparent irony, as if he and his friends were obviously "good" people and if the world were left in their hands, only good would come of it.

As a Zen Buddhist priest in my seventh decade, I know better. I know that  each of us carries within us the capacity of all humanity for positive and negative behavior; we can be Hitler or Mother Teresa. We leak anger, jealousy, competitiveness on a daily basis and if we are not careful and do not monitor ourselves, our best intentions become murderous to others. (Think Iraq, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Grenada, Vietnam.) Were the millions upon millions of deaths we caused in those places done only by "bad" people or a mistake? That’s a delusion.

I would suggest that the lesser of two evils is "less evil." Sometimes in the real, impure world the bad man and the good are indivisible and morph from one to the other. It makes fixed judgments difficult. You take what you can get, and you organize to protect yourself. To deliberately create a political crisis as an organizing tool sounds remarkably like the old Marxist saw of "heightening the contradiction." Been there, done that. It’s tough being human. Picking one’s way through reality moment by moment requires delicacy and finesse. Instead of preparing to ‘rule,’ I would be interested in learning more about Stoller’s desires to "serve."  In the meantime, I can only cling to the hope that his advice to vote against the president in swing states is not widely observed.

By Peter Coyote

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