Could it just be a year ago that so many were so willfully deluded that The New Yorker, attuned to the mood of the time, ran a caricature of Obama in an FDR pose on its front cover? Back then, a new New Deal seemed just around the corner, and happy days were here again. Nowadays, Obamamania is a spent force; it’s the tea-baggers who own enthusiasm. Republicans are not good at much, not even at coopting tea-baggery, but they can smell blood in the water and go in for the kill. The military can too; it’s their stock and trade. Thus the Gates-Petreus-McCrystal axis has gotten a chance in Afghanistan to redo Vietnam. This time, they think, they’ll get it right. Of course, they are as deluded as any Obamaniac ever was; and pity the victims of the murder and mayhem they unleash.
The Afghanistan escalation is high on the list of Obama’s greatest disappointments, but there are so many others. It was clear enough, even before Inauguration Day, as Obama loaded up his administration with Clintonites and as he turned over management of the economy to the architects of the disaster he inherited. But liberals still dreamed that the Obama of their imagination would prevail over his “team of rivals,” putting their expertise to use while forging his new New Deal over all objections. The hope persisted even when Obama turned his signature issue, health care, over to the “stakeholders” (profiteers) and to their bought and paid for legislators. That mistake was clear for all but the willfully blind by mid-summer, and it has gone downhill ever since.
A year ago, one could believe that the leaders of the world’s greatest polluting state would soon deal with global warming and other impending environmental catastrophes. A year ago, one could still hope that the main perps in the Bush-Cheney torture regime would be brought to justice by an administration dedicated to restoring the rule of law. A year ago, it would have been reasonable to bet the ranch that organized labor, which did so much to get Obama elected, would by now have won a few perks – maybe even the Employee Free Choice Act, which Obama officially supports. Who would have imagined that “don’t ask, don’t tell” would still be in force? Or that America’s relations with Latin America and Africa, not to mention the Middle East (remember Obama’s Cairo speech in June!) would be so little changed? The list goes on.
Back in July, Kevin Baker wrote an excellent piece in Harper’s Magazine comparing Obama not to FDR, but to Herbert Hoover. The similarities are striking. Hoover, like Obama, was smarter than the average President (including FDR), better educated and more thoughtful. At an intellectual level, he understood what had to be done to get the country out of the Great Depression. But he was too much a prisoner of conventional wisdom and the powers that be to do more than fall back on old, discredited ways. Do we see a pattern here? In the current issue of The Nation, Eric Foner likens Obama to Jimmy Carter, another smarter than average Commander-in-Chief. Both are too nice and therefore too weak not to be swamped by the forces they set out to oppose; both unnecessarily adopted “ if you can’t beat ‘em, you join ‘em” strategies.
There is merit in these comparisons. But history doesn’t repeat itself neatly, and each presidency is bad in its own way. If the future is like the past, Obama’s presidency will fail mainly for a reason that is unique to his – and his advisors’ -- patently false view of good governance. Obama’s failures to date and the ones to come, unless he radically changes course, stem from abject servility towards the right, and arrogant neglect of the left. This would be bad enough in the circumstances other Democratic presidents confronted. But now, with a unified and disciplined Republican Party determined to bring the Democrats down, and with a Democratic Party populated by right-wing Clintonites and worse, pandering to the right is as sure a recipe for failure as escalating America’s never ending war in Afghanistan. There is only one way to advance or even just stay afloat in the circumstances that now exist, and it is just the opposite of what Obama has been doing. To survive and flourish, it is necessary to move relentlessly left; to beat the tea-baggers and their political representatives at their own game.
We will find out soon enough if Obama is on track to taking a “populist” turn, as the media calls it; in other words, if he’s going to address the needs and concerns of the constituencies who voted for him. If he does, maybe he can salvage something from the shambles of his first year in office. After the Brown victory in Massachusetts, the signs were hopeful. But now, just a few days later, Obama’s Clintonite advisors seem to have won the day. If he goes through with the idea of a freeze on discretionary spending – a proposal of John McCain’s that Obama rejected explicitly in the debates -- it will be clear that his administration is taking precisely the wrong lesson from Massachusetts. Then Obama will have repudiated the one good thing about his first year – his dedication to an activist economic role for the government.
By ruling so incompetently and stupidly, Bush and Cheney and the morally and intellectually bankrupt Greater Evil Party handed Obama and the Democrats an unprecedented historical opportunity, which he and they have squandered. Unless Obama abruptly changes course, he and his fellow Democrats will pay the price for this “bipartisanship.” Thus Obama will return the favor given him by the Democrats’ electoral rivals – and we will all be even worse off than we would otherwise be.