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How Obama and the Democrats Have Failed Us

Ralph Seliger
October 29, 2014

Anticipating an Electoral Debacle

by Ralph Seliger NN_27obama2ALTHOUGH I VOTED in the New York State primary for Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, I later campaigned for Barack Obama's election and shared the hopes of countless millions (if not billions) around the world for his success. Along with most, I've been disappointed. Remember when Howard Dean suddenly rose to prominence in 2004 as the candidate of “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”? That phrase had resonance because the Democrats of the Clinton years won their electoral and legislative victories by “triangulating” to the center, downplaying the liberal/social democratic legacies of FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ. Dean's critique has found surprising concurrence in the recent writings of a veteran of the other party. A former Republican House and Senate aide, Mike Lofgren, abandoned a 28-year career as a Congressional staffer, leaving his party in disgust over its extremism in 2011. In an article at Truthout.com, “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult,” then expanded into a book, The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, Lofgren also trenchantly criticized Democrats for ceasing to believe in anything greater than how to get elected and reelected. Media coverage of Leon Panetta's new memoir, Worthy Fights (Penguin Press), further substantiates such views. These quotes from Panetta's book, in a New York Times article by Peter Baker, recount his frustrations with President Obama when he served him as CIA chief and then Secretary of Defense. “For Mr. Panetta,” writes Baker,
the moment that crystallized his frustration with Mr. Obama came when the president made little effort to stop deep automatic budget cuts mandated by the sequester. “Indeed, that episode highlighted what I regard as his most conspicuous weakness, a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause,” Mr. Panetta wrote. “That is not a failing of ideas or of intellect,” he added. “He does, however, sometimes lack fire. Too often, in my view, the president relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” Mr. Obama grew more reticent, in Mr. Panetta’s view, because his legitimacy has been challenged more than any of his predecessors by accusations like the unsubstantiated claim that he was not born in the United States. “Those challenges have encouraged the president’s caution and defensiveness, which in turn has emboldened further challenges,” Mr. Panetta wrote. ... Mr. Panetta draws a largely respectful portrait of a president who made important progress and follows a “well-reasoned vision for the country” but too often “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.” ... [He] recounted decisions that he disagreed with, including the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq in 2011, the failure to intervene in Syria’s civil war by arming rebels and the abrupt reversal of Mr. Obama’s decision to strike Syria in retaliation for using chemical weapons on civilians. Mr. Obama “vacillated” over the Syria strike and “by failing to respond, it sent the wrong message to the world,” he wrote. Had the president followed different courses, Mr. Panetta said in the interview, the United States would be in a stronger position as it now tries to counter the rise of the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria....
I happen to agree with Panetta's critique on Syria, but my main emphasis for purposes of this essay is to affirm his insight on the President's lack of "passion" on domestic matters. Nevertheless, we must give credit where it's due (as Panetta actually does). Obama's anti-recession policies, primarily the stimulus spending — which funded a variety of infrastructure projects and subsidized state and local budgets in keeping numerous teachers, police, firefighters and other civil servants employed — was vital in preventing the Great Recession from turning into another Great Depression. In addition, we finally have the beginnings of a national health care system that can cover all Americans. I share the usual liberal criticisms of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) and would have much preferred a voluntary extension of Medicare to cover middle-aged Americans who were made jobless and without insurance due to the recession (as was seriously considered); I hate its complexities and other shortcomings, but it was a genuine achievement. There's much more that can be said about Obama's domestic programs, but what is most pertinent for the sake of this essay is that this administration's failures are more about politics than policy. The paradox of this intellectual who catapulted to national prominence with a single work of great oratory (his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004) is that he hasn't effectively explained his policies nor consistently even advocated for them. There is a sound legacy of successful progressive Democratic achievements, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which can be proudly extolled and expanded upon. Instead, we've had a President and a party rendered strangely quiet in the face of Republicans who endlessly pound home a mindless litany about high government spending and deficits, leading to sharp cutbacks that have laid off hundreds of thousands of public workers, blocked further legislation, and thereby delayed a more complete economic recovery. It took a little-known journalist, Michael Grunwald, in The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era to explain how successful the Obama administration had been in preventing the Great Recession from becoming another Great Depression, including in detail how the $700-800 billion stimulus has been put to good use. According to Grunwald, Obama governed with the naive assumption that policy was one thing, and politics another, and if you do the former well, the second will follow naturally. This President and his party needed to mount a full-court press, equivalent in volume and confidence to the vehement talking points of the right. Should it have been all that hard to convince a majority of Americans that in the face of the sharpest economic downturn in seventy years, one thing you don't do is cutback on public expenditures and worry about balancing the national budget? And with the American Society of Civil Engineers consistently documenting the dire need for this country to overhaul its physical infrastructure — projecting a required investment of $3.6 trillion by 2020 to keep our bridges, tunnels, roads, pipelines and other structures from falling or exploding on our heads — why are the Democrats not making political hay on the vital role of government to set this right? THE GREAT DEPRESSION of the 1930s inspired the federal government to promote an ambitious agenda of infrastructure improvements (e.g., the Tennessee Valley Authority and rural electrification). Of necessity, it also made teaching and other jobs in civil service a career choice desired by millions. The lofty words of John F. Kennedy (“Ask not what your country can do for you...”) inspired much of the baby-boom generation into idealistic quests, movements and careers. We similarly had a right to expect the young new President, elected on the slogan of “Change we can believe in,” to inspire us with his vision and rhetoric. Why, with the manifest failure of the banking industry, were young people not being exhorted into careers in teaching and other varieties of public service, rather than the “best and brightest” still being funneled into finance? Why was the teaching profession not freshly extolled and championed, rather than having their hard-won union protections attacked by an education reform movement that emphasizes testing and charter schools? In my view, the Obama administration has been excessively conscientious in deporting undocumented residents and in cracking down against leaks to the press. Others may criticize some of his foreign security policies (e.g. drone attacks) in ways that I don't; I'm somewhat agnostic on what's exactly needed in this very difficult and dangerous world that we inhabit today. For me, the primary problem is a failure to engage effectively with Republicans and libertarians in a public debate on the proper role of government. Sadly, a very reactionary right-wing opposition stands to benefit, as the Dems are likely to lose some important battles nationally in a few days. Ralph Seliger was the final editor of Israel Horizons, and is currently administrator for the Partners for Progressive Israel Blog.