Why is the left defending Obama?

The author's "Progressive case against Obama" stirred strong reactions. He takes on his critics

Published November 3, 2012 2:00PM (EDT)

The 2012 election is next Tuesday. We face a choice between Barack Obama, a candidate whose Presidency we can examine and evaluate, and Mitt Romney, who is a dangerous cipher. My argument - made last week in "Progressive Case Against Obama", is that progressives should evaluate these risks honestly, with a clear-headed analysis of Obama's track record.This piece sparked a massive debate that has had both Obama loyalists and Republicans resort to outlandish name-calling, evidently as a result of their unwillingness or inability to address the issues raised. .

It is remarkable to see the level to which Obama defenders have sunk. Let's start with a basic problem - why is Obama in a tight race? Mitt Romney is more caricature than candidate, a horrifically cartoonish plutocrat whose campaign is staffed by people that allow secret tapings of obviously offensive statements. The Republican base finds Romney uninspiring, and Romney has been unable to provide one good reason to choose him except that he is not the incumbent. Yet, Barack Obama is in a dog fight with this clown. Why? It isn't because a few critics are writing articles in places like Salon. The answer, if you look at the data, is that Barack Obama has been a terrible President and an enemy to progressives. Unemployment is high. American household income since the recovery started in 2009 has dropped 5%. Poverty has increased substantially. Home equity - the main store of wealth for the middle class - has dropped by $5-7 trillion, in contrast to the increase in financial asset values held by Obama's friends and donors. And this was done explicitly through Obama's policies.

Obama came into office with a massive mandate, overwhelming control of Congress, hundreds of billions of TARP money to play with, the ability to prosecute Wall Street executives and break their power, and the opportunity for a massive stimulus. Most importantly, the country was willing to follow - the public believed his calls for change. Yet, instead of restructuring the economy and doing obvious things like hardening infrastructure against global warming, he entrenched oligarchy. This was explicit. Obama broke a whole series of campaign promises that would have helped the middle class. These promises would have reduced household debt, raised the minimum wage, stopped outsourcing, and protected workers. He broke these promises for a reason - Barack Obama uses his power for what he believes in, and Barack Obama is a conservative technocrat. Obama sided with Wall Street. He probably made the foreclosure crisis worse with a series of programs designed to help banks but marketed to help homeowners. These were his policies, they reflected the views of his most valued advisors like Robert Rubin and his Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Moreover, he's proud of this record - the only mistake he cites in his first term is inadequately communicating how effective he has been, focusing too much on getting the policy right.

And the result is inequality in income gains that is higher than that under George W. Bush. Most of Obama's defenders refuse to acknowledge Obama's role in this policy mess. He deserves credit for the auto bailout, but when it comes to the bank bailouts, hey he's just one man. What could we possibly expect? Yet, reelecting this man to a Presidency that is hamstrung by the system is the most important thing in the world. In other words, just as they've been arguing for years, Obama is both entirely powerless and utterly essential.

Let's examine a few articles to see the contortions certain progressives go to in order to defend Obama's policies.

Mike Lofgren, a Republican staffer for 28 years who resigned in 2011 and now seems to think it's his role to speak for Democrats,goes down this road. First, he argues Obama did not break his campaign promises, that "progressives are deceiving themselves if they think they have been deceived by Obama". This is simply, baldly untrue. Obama broke many campaign promises. Here's a list. My favorite is Obama's promise to renegotiate NAFTA. Obama was so cynical about this promise during his 2008 campaign that he sent his chief economist Austan Goolsbee to Canada during the campaign to explain privately to Canadian elites he had no intention of following through on it. Obama lies, a lot, and he lies about important things that matter. Lofgren simply refuses to acknowledge this, because it's easier to pretend it's the fault of progressives for believing their lying eyes. His piece gets worse. Lofgren goes on to rebut the argument he implies critics made, that "the worse [the situation] the better", or that critics wish to "heighten the contradictions". He then said he "not yet seen" anyone make this argument "in print". And that is because it is far easier to smear critics as nihilistic Leninists - a charge he admits is untrue even as he makes it - than address the fact that average household income is dropping and inequality is really high.

Finally, according to Lofgren, pointing out that Barack Obama has pursued a set of destructive policies means that one is a nihilist, and in that case, we should "stock up on canned food and ammunition." Talk to people in Staten Island abandoned by Obama's FEMA, and you'd find that at least the canned food bit is good advice. Doesn't Lofgren realize that politics is not a game? That Obama's failure to act on global warming is the ultimate act of irresponsible nihilism? Partisans may enjoy Mitt Romney's corrupt denial of man-made global warming, but nature doesn't distinguish between Obama's cynical lack of action and Romney's cynical denial of reality. We simply do not have time for this nonsense anymore.

An even more problematic argument came from Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine. Chait, in rhetoric reminiscent of Dow 36,000, argued that Barack Obama is a "Great President. Yes, Great", surpassing every President in gross positive accomplishment, with the possible exception of Lyndon Johnson. As proof, Chait cited a laundry list of minor policy shifts, as if the Presidency is about doing well on a series of homework assignments assigned by pundits and think tanks. He did not even acknowledge that median income has dropped, that millions have lost their homes with no policy response, and that the rich have captured a historically high proportion of income gains in the Obama era (93 cents of every dollar, versus 65 cents of every dollar under Bush).

Another argument came from Peter Coyote, in Salon. Coyote's argument is more effective than Chait's, and more honest, in that he addresses the policy thrust of the Obama administration. He agrees that, yes, the trends described above are real, and that yes, Obama's policies are partially to blame. But it is not Obama's fault, he argues, because this is really the result of a long indoctrination campaign by the right launched after Barry Goldwater's campaign in 1964. It's the system. This is a common argument that draws its lineage from the beautifully told story by Rick Perlstein in his book on the Goldwater campaign, "Before the Storm", and also, in Jeff Madrick's work "The Age of Greed". In these books, it's a series of policy changes, media consolidation, and conservative organizing that led to the takeover of the country by conservative reactionaries. These trends were noticed at the time; political scientist Tom Ferguson wrote "Right Turn" in the 1980s, and Sidney Blumenthal's "Rise of the Counter-establishment" also noted the influence of this network of conservative organizers, and the shift in the loyalties of the business elite.

Obama, in Coyote's narrative, is a politician who can do nothing in the current money soaked system but tread water. Beset by malevolent corporate forces, Coyote implies that Obama faces assassination should he choose to truly engage in systemic reform. Those of us who believe that Obama is a malevolent actor, Coyote asserts, simply do not understand the true deep roots of today's dysfunction. Our passion and temperament should be tempered by his wisdom, his seven decades of observation in which he understands that the best we can hope for is for things to get worse a bit more slowly.

Cassiodorus wrote a detailed and excellent rebuttal of Coyote's work, so I won't reprise it here. But my broad response is that this binary choice reflects a fake consumer oriented view of political power. This binary choice leaves out a very important factor. Namely, us. The people. Like all Obama supporters, Coyote prioritizes the politician that pursues bad policy because this politician is of the same political party as him, rather than resistance movements that can actually lead to serious social change. To Coyote, citizens and organizing are simply irrelevant. Far more likely is that they, we, are our only hope in the face of malevolent political leaders.

In fact, despite the heated tone of Obama defenses, not one person disputed the underlying factual basis of my argument:

1) Under Barack Obama, economic inequality in terms of income growth has skyrocketed to historically high levels. After I published my piece, Ian Welsh buttressed these claims, pointing me to this St. Louis Federal Reserve chart of the Gini coefficient, a measurement of inequality. Labor as a share of GDP is at a historically low level. And this is in spite of a different trend line when Obama took office - during the crisis, inequality was actually collapsing. Obama reversed this trend, restoring Bush's unequal America, and then going beyond it.

2) Under Barack Obama, there has been a massive foreclosure crisis, with a policy response that was intentionally ineffective. Meanwhile, corporate profits have rebounded, while home equity levels (which can rebound through increased home values or debt write-offs), have not.

3) These shifts largely occurred when Barack Obama's party controlled Congress, from 2009-2010.

4) The American energy system is turning us towards a petro-state, with investment in mining (fracking, tar sands and dirty oil, coal, etc) nearly equal to investment in manufacturing.

5) Obama broke a significant number of campaign promises from 2008, promises that would have secured bargaining leverage for debtors and labor. These included : a higher minimum wage, a ban on the replacement of striking workers, seven days of paid sick leave, a more diverse media ownership structure, renegotiation of NAFTA, letting bankruptcy judges write down mortgage debt, a ban on illegal wiretaps, an end to national security letters, stopping the war on whistle-blowers, passing the Employee Free Choice Act, restoring habeas corpusand labor protections in the FAA bill.

Obama's main policy framework for his first term was bailing out the financial system and the auto industry - this was more consequential than his health care plan, despite receiving less attention. Obama's health care plan didn't change the incentives or structure of an overpriced and underperforming health care system, while the bank bailouts greatly increased the concentration of power within the financial sector. These actions were portrayed by proponents as saving the financial system and preventing a depression. Opponents often argue these bailouts were a shift of funds to banks. This doesn't quite encompass the scope of what Bush and Obama did. In fact, the combination of Federal Reserve activity, regulatory forbearance, TARP, and a lack of criminal enforcement against those who rigged markets comprise an intentional policy to change the American system of property rights.  The property rights of the wealthy have been super-sized. Private creditors can now enforce even dubious claims (exemplified by the robo-signing and foreclosure scandals) and get government protection from any downside, or even immunity from criminal wrongdoing. Meanwhile, ordinary debtors have property rights at the pleasure of the powerful. Obama took a financial system flat on its back, and, with an unlimited checkbook and an overwhelming mandate, entrenched oligarchy.

Remarkably, though my piece inspired tremendous vitriol, none of what I laid out is in dispute. The only point of contention is whether these shifts just sort of happened, with the President as an innocent bystander or an ineffective actor, or whether he aided these shifts with his policy framework. If it is the former, then this President is guilty of gross incompetence and one wonders why he is worth defending. Moreover, one wonders why the President should be credited for policy victories like the resuscitation of the auto industry, or, if the Presidency is so ineffective an office, why it is so important to deny it to someone like Mitt Romney. Indeed, Obama defenders - and Obama himself - simply cannot dispute any of the facts above. Is it any wonder this is a close race? Romney may be a comically foolish liar, but Obama isn't exactly Mr. Credibility.


Moreover, arguing that Obama's policy framework didn't contribute to serious problems is foolish, and disrespectful. Many advocates who support Obama, such as Bob Kuttner, Dean Baker, Damon Silvers, Charles Ferguson, Simon Johnson, and Elizabeth Warren, understand that policy is significant, which is why they worked so hard to encourage the President to choose a different policy course than the one he chose. And many people who worked on policy during this period, such as Neil Barofsky, Sheila Bair, and Jeff Connaughton, are perfectly willing to explain how Tim Geithner, Eric Holder, and Barack Obama executed the policies that produced the society I described above. They even wrote books about it, all of which are available from Amazon. You don't even have to read if you don't want to. Ferguson made a film called Inside Job about the rampant criminality enabled by Barack Obama. It won an Academy Award.

Obama defenders for the most part simply do not address the core moral question in evaluating the role of any political leader, which is whether the lives of their constituents have improved during that leader's term and whether society is more just. And the outcomes for Americans under Obama - a historically higher student debt burden, deleveraging of debt occurring only through defaults, larger banks than existed before the crisis, a crushing foreclosure crisis, higher inequality, and a falling median net income - suggest that for most, the answer is no. What people care about - whether their lives are better overall - is basically irrelevant in their calculus. As Kuttner notes, this is the reason that Obama is in a very difficult reelection campaign against a comically weak opponent. The American people think he has done a bad job, because he has. And he has promised, many times, to cut more spending and cut entitlements - Social Security, Medicare, and/or Medicaid. This is what you are voting for when you vote for Barack Obama.

The Resistance Effect

What is gained by not supporting Obama for reelection? Simply put, there is power in resistance. Organized people that distrust and constrain their political leaders can have a significant impact on policymaking.

The President does not sit in the Oval Office and play a video game where he governs the country. The Presidency is constrained by the various checks and balances in our governance system, notably a partisan opposition and public opinion. Under Obama, that partisan opposition has been a right-wing Republican force buttressed by well-funded Tea Party activists. This has made it far easier for Obama to implement conservative policies. Under Mitt Romney, the Democrats will be far more likely to oppose Romney from the left, and the public will be much more likely, as it was under Bush, to mistrust its President and demand social justice.

One of the more intriguing arguments in this line came from a Canadian UAW member, Joe Emersberger, who actually tried measuring the difference between recent Republican and Democratic Presidents. He noted that Ronald Reagan was the worst President for life expectancy growth, income growth of the top one percent, deunionization, and closing the racial gap in life expectancy. But the second worst - for deunionization and share of income going to the top one percent - was actually Bill Clinton, followed by Barack Obama. George Bush did substantially better than those two on these measures, and surpassed Clinton in closing the racial life expectancy gap. This is quite possibly accurate - Clinton's changed the country with NAFTA, a policy nearly as hostile to labor rights as Reagan's embrace of union busting. George W. Bush though faced a hostile public and a partisan Democratic opposition. Certainly, this is not conclusive evidence, and I'm sure political scientist Larry Bartels would lay out different data. But it's worth considering the power of this "resistance effect". Partisan opposition isn't worth nothing, and there's no sense pretending it doesn't matter.

In other words, as Glen Ford put it, Obama is not necessarily the lesser of two evils, he may be the "more effective evil". He puts the left to sleep (whether by defunding progressive groups or allowing the destruction of Occupy encampments), and the left is where the resistance to imperial tendencies currently resides. It is this problem, of how to organize large groups of people into a political force for justice, that should concern us. Otherwise, under Bush or Obama, inequality would continue to increase. And with this, I'd bring us to the argument I made about leverage points, most notably, that policy leverage is apparent during a crisis.

Consider that there is a crisis right now, in the Frankenstorm, Sandy. Parts of lower Manhattan are still without power, and much of the Eastern seaboard will never be the same. Late night comedians, NBC, and even Businessweek are jumping up and down and screaming that this catastrophic storm is a result of climate change. Yet, on Monday, no major environmental groupsexcept Bill McKibben's 350.org featured Sandy on its home page. These groups, from the Sierra Club to the Environmental Defense Fund - focused instead on the safety of chemicals, saving the Osprey, voting for Obama, or other such problems. As Brad Johnson noted, almost every left-wing journalist or advocate was equivocating as to whether climate change was the cause. This is the moment of leverage, when an organized advocacy space should have been arguing for a massive emergency mitigation and adaptation efforts. Tens of billions of dollars will flow into the Northeast, this money could be used for rebuilding unsustainable Con Ed, or for powering the New York with entirely renewable and robust energy. Instead, the right-wing, including Democrats like MSNBC contributor Ed Rendell, are working to undermine environmental, labor rules in the reconstruction while privatizing rebuilt infrastructure.

Moving policy to save our civilization has nothing to do with voting on Tuesday, and this is obvious when you consider Sandy as a moment to define man-made global warming as the key challenge of our society, as the Cold War was after World War II. Progressives are obsessed with reelecting Obama instead of governing, so there is silence in response to a massive leverage point (except on CNBC, where the anchors are screaming for more refining capacity in response to Sandy). We the people need to protest and demand the solutions that might have a chance at saving our civilization from the many Sandy's to come. Indeed, global warming fueled Hurricane Katrina killed 3000 people, and we did nothing except allow the privatization of the New Orleans school system. But as we see now, this is not just because of George Bush, it is because our theory of change, of looking to right-wing politicians entrenched in the Democratic Party as an answer, was an utter failure. It is the politics of self-delusion, and catastrophe. Voting third party is a way of indicating, to yourself and your community, that you will not be party to this game any more. Voting third party is a way of showing, to yourself and your community, that you consider Barack Obama an opponent, and that you oppose his policy. This is a profound admission, and it creates the space for real opposition, for real resistance.

As recovering alcoholics know, admitting your problem is the first step to recovery.  It's time to look honestly at Barack Obama's record, and recognize what we are really voting for.

By Matt Stoller

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