For six long years now Barack Obama’s liberal supporters have repeatedly promised, and his conservative opponents have gravely warned, that deep down inside the president of the United States of America is not the moderate seeker of establishment-consensus that he appears to be, with the most committed partisans on each side of America’s binary electoral system believing the commander-in-chief is in fact a Marxist radical under deep cover. But if this president is ever to show that he’s something other than what he has shown himself to be, he has ever less time to do it.
Back in 2009, when a president with a mandate for change from a hopeful public enjoyed Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the story was that he couldn’t go Full Communist until after the 2010 midterms, which then became the 2012 election -- gotta have that second term -- which then became 2014. This devoutly held belief in a secret inner-president keeping his secret out of electoral concerns, a view expressed on both ends of the tiny and dumb political spectrum, assumed that anything bolder than milquetoast would anger voters, thus it was agreed that the president was only begrudgingly taking the slow-and-reactionary course.
That course, delaying progressive reform in the hope of winning over Republicans and voters, took Obama from a candidate viewed as a friend of immigrants to the biggest deporter of them the United States has ever known. His most progressive achievement was federalizing a health care reform -- arguably a small step forward; arguably only an entrenchment of the private insurance industry’s power -- enacted by Republican Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. He took credit for withdrawing from Iraq, a move in large part imposed on him by George W. Bush and the Iraqi people, only to send back troops and fighter jets a few years later.
If one believes that course was followed to win elections, it certainly hasn’t worked. In the wake of the electoral disaster of 2014, Democrats have now gone from controlling both houses of Congress when Obama was elected to being the minority in both. Voters do what they always do when they’re upset with the way things are and there’s really no science to it: when not happy with the status quo, the public takes it out on the party in power; they throw the old crooks out, not because they’re particularly fond of the fresh set of criminals they voted in, but because it’s the traditional way to voice discontent with a ballot.
And there’s good reason to be angry. Political junkies can quibble over which political faction is more to blame, but the overall picture is clear as day and it isn’t good: Unemployment may be down as of late, but that’s in no small part because millions of Americans gave up looking for work and have been unemployed so long they are no longer considered part of the labor force (though many still vote). The jobs that have come back since the end of the officially designated recession don’t pay nearly as well as the ones that were lost and, insofar as the economy has recovered at all, it has almost entirely benefited the wealthiest among us, with a 2013 study from the University of California-Berkeley finding that the top 1 percent have captured no less than 95 percent of the economic gains since 2009.
So things are bad and people are pissed and there’s really not much more to it. On the plus side -- I’m revealing my cards -- the last election Barack Obama will ever witness from a position of official power has come and gone, which should mean it’s time for some of that long-promised Marxism, or at least a little more tangible and a little less “pragmatic” progressivism. The executive action on immigration, for instance, that the president postponed once more, on the eve of election, on the grounds that it would hurt his party at the polls can do harm no longer, if it ever could; indeed, the lack of action on immigration that was meant to please white voters left many Latino Democrats sitting at home -- and even a few answered the Democrats’ regular election-year taunt, “What are you going to do, vote Republican?” with a “Yeah, actually.”
If the president truly isn’t fond of his title as deporter-in-chief, he could bring an immediate halt to deportations right now. There are a lot of things he could do, actually, some of which are helpfully spelled out in an article published in the New York Post, “Obama’s post-election plans for a secret radical agenda,” America’s far-right being home to some of the last of those who believe the president is something other than what he has been. They’re mostly concerned about nominations -- Mumia Abu-Jamal as Ambassador to the UN, perhaps? -- but the president could take a lot more radical steps without ever once consulting a single Republican in Congress.
As commander-in-chief, for instance, Obama could also start earning that Nobel Peace Prize by bringing home all the troops and drones he has deployed around the world; killing people is expensive, eating up over half of the income tax revenue the federal government collects, and the money spent doing it could be spent keeping people alive. If he wanted, the president could turn the world’s most lethal military into the humanitarian project its depicted as being in recruitment ads, making soldiers drop their guns and start picking up bags of sand.
Though it wouldn’t be the systemic reform required, Obama could also immediately free the thousands of people behind bars in federal prisons for non-violent drug offenses. Donel Marcus Clark has been imprisoned since 1993 after being convicted of his one and only crime: involvement in a conspiracy to make crack cocaine. Ronald Evans was sentenced to life prison at the age of 19 for the intent to distribute narcotics. Mandy Martinson is serving a 15-year term for help out her drug-dealer boyfriend. One can, unfortunately, go on and on -- though all could be released tomorrow with the stroke of a pen from the world’s most powerful politician; each day they instead spend in a cell is the result of a conscious decision not to use that unquestioned, unilateral power to ameliorate the excesses of the world’s most populous prison system.
Obama, if he cares at all about preventing catastrophic climate change, could also kill the Keystone XL pipeline, which is to carry -- and sizeable parts of it already are -- a type of oil called “tar sands” that makes the stuff coming from Saudi Arabia almost look green. The EPA could start living up to conservative fears and impose a strict cap on greenhouse gas emissions. He could also close Guantanamo Bay, which he promised to do within a year of being elected.
But, probably, none of this will happen and Obama’s conservative approach to managing the capitalist state of affairs will belie his rumored Marxism. Already, he has greeted his the new Republican Congress with further promises of compromise -- if progressive policies were his goal, one might think he’d have learned his lesson by now -- and a call, according to The New York Times, for “immediate action by Congress on a request for emergency funding to combat Ebola” -- okay -- “and a measure to authorize military action against the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State,” which is already being undertaken but at least he’s getting around to asking now that such an authorization is even more likely than it was before.
There will, undoubtedly, be be some executive actions to string along liberals for yes, yet another election in 2016 -- national parks will be made, more people may just escape deportation, and a few of the most unjustly incarcerated people will be freed -- but the six years before now are not suggestive of a push for massive change in the final lame-duck stretch.
Still, even as late as 2012, many a liberal still believed, in spite of all they had seen. After he won reelection, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes suggested Obama’s could be “one of the truly great presidencies,” which -- given that a good deal of the “greats” literally owned people -- is about as useful a statement as “most liberal talk show host on cable”; that is to say, it may even be true, but the bar is so low that it doesn’t tell us much. And, perniciously, it has the effect of breeding complacency among those most needed to pressure the political class to take the people’s needs seriously. For every social justice warrior whispering in the president’s ear, there are 1,000 capitalist pigs shouting out reminders of how much they donated, so as soon as social movements -- and the 2008 Obama campaign almost counted as one on its own right -- start acting as if they view a person in power as a friend, that’s the moment the powerful seem them as no longer a threat; as a thing to be manipulated, not feared. The wealthy don’t do this: they already get almost all they want and still they act pissy and demand more.
Since he was subjected to a cruel burn composed out of rhetorical necessity, my conscience demands I point out Hayes is, in 2014, absolutely correct when he argues Democratic defeat in the most recent election would not have been avoided had the party’s candidates “just been more outspokenly liberal” -- indeed, by this point, far too much damage has been done to the brand for it to have been saved by more promises. By passing referendums boosting the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana, voters have shown they weren’t necessarily embracing the far-right’s policy agenda by electing Republicans, but instead punishing the people they view as having led us to where we are today: the Democrats whose rhetoric they have learned not to trust.
I recall the same error being made in 2010: the assumption that the problem is the promises being made, not the Democrats’ actual policies. While attending a progressive conference in DC called “Roots Action” (trust me, it was a work thing), I sat through an orientation video that I would generously call “nauseating” in which a self-satisfied narrator proclaimed that we, by which they meant the liberal left, “had elected a president,” as if electing someone who promised to be on your side was worth celebrating after nearly two years of actions suggesting they were not. Afterwards, I attended a panel discussion, advertised as addressing why the Democrats are so terrible, only to find speaker after speaker blaming that year’s defeat on what was said, not the substance of what their party had done with its power. They refused to acknowledge that there’s only so much spinning one can do; that people will still look at their paychecks and compare them to their bills and take out their anger on those clowns in Congress they don’t see doing much of anything to help.
Want the people to think you’re on their side, Democrats? Don’t worry about your messaging: try doing something for them. Instead of deporting your base’s friends and family and cutting the food stamps of those who are stuck here, try not doing that and seeing if it boosts morale. Consider the views of those who vote for you as long as and hard as the views of those who give you money. Until then, don’t complain when those you claim to represent choose someone else to represent them, which in the case of America’s many non-voters is: “none of the above.”
It has been said that voting takes 5 minutes and it’s a sentiment with which I agree; though the lesser evil is often much less evil than imagined, if at all, I can’t blame people for taking what it can appear to be an act of self-defense. The real problem is that we spend much more than 5 minutes talking about these elections -- it is 95 percent of what is popularly construed as being active in politics -- which means the hard work of building and maintaining the movements needed to pressure those in power into following up on their promises is neglected.
Desperate people wanted to believe in Obama and the Democrats and I can’t really blame them for that either, but if expecting him and his party to be more than just not-Republicans is a touch too idealistic, we really ought to spend more than 5 minutes talking about the systemic change we need to change the fact that as it is now it seems that no matter who loses, those with the most money seem to win.