The Obama Paradox: When Does Popular Reform President Challenge Status Quo?

by Robert S. Becker on June 2, 2009

Oratory Commands High Ground, But Decisions Decidedly Middle Ground

With Dubya’s counterfeit boast, “I’m the Decider,” still ringing in my ear, it’s appropriate to ask: who runs our government, who makes policy, and who most benefits? Barack Obama has evolved marvelously from savvy campaigner to commanding, inspiring President. But to what end? Is he playing it safe to shore up power, eventually to challenge entrenched forces and bring about systemic reform? Or will he become a voice of the vested, as when recently pitching American cars, the pragmatist who partners with, rather than defies the status quo?

What emerges is the Obama Paradox – the extraordinary, once-a-generation change agent, powerfully garnering majority support, holding back his political capital. His presidency so far isn’t about swapping new engines to drive American capitalism but tuning up used, tired models. What’s disturbing is as much what hasn’t happened as what has. Why are we slowing, not speeding Iraq departures, the resonant campaign call? Why not satisfy less complex pledges: reverse overseas anti-abortion nonsense, demote “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or show more transparency? Where’s the center stage, soaring Obama, combining legal and educational skills, to redeem core Constitutional principles and the sanctity of the rule of law?

Fix-it Routines Comfort the Comfortable

Across massive economic stimulus, opacity still rules. Can hugely impacted consumers, small banks, and small businesses be vaunted stakeholders if virtually uninvited to the table? Where’s the promised, diverse input on multi-trillion-dollar economic plans with unknowable final impacts and costs? If this Bernacke-Geithner restructuring is Obama’s idea of reform and regulation, I’d hate to see when they’re trying to comfort the comfortable bankers. The same urgency of now touted about health reforms should apply to financial services. Otherwise, how do we refute this redneck take (unearthed by Joe Bageant), “It don’t matter who gets to warm his butt in the White House chair. The top dogs eat high on the hog and the little dogs eat the tails and ears. That’s what them bailouts is all about, and that’s the way it is no matter who’s president”?

Likewise, where’s visibility on war plans for Afghanistan or Pakistan? There’s less open debate now than when Bush-Cheney rigged the invasion of Iraq. Do we again up the stakes without exit strategies or success markers? Ominously, the same Pentagon brass running two Bush wars hold sway. Yet Pakistan unravels, Iraq sinks, and promoting the controversial General McChrystal to Afghanistan promises nastier Special Forces strikes (drone bombers, unilateral attacks, covert maneuvers, far greater civilian casualties). Elections change more White House staff than war strategy. Will today’s “war president,” like the last, ever come clean by articulating the explicit, unarguable link between national security and costly, deadly land wars? Why do we still not know, accusations aside, why we invaded Iraq, why we’re at war, and what defines victory?

Likewise missing in action is clarity what laws restrain intell gathering, detention of alleged terrorists, and secret prisons. Obama carried over FBI and Defense chiefs plus similar defaults to sanitize rigged tribunals, state secret privileges and, finally, “preventative,” indefinite detention. Civil libertarians shudder at the legitimacy of “separate but legal” schemes for unindicted non-combatants. Without identifiable enemies, uniforms, battlefields, or nations against which to war, what concocted tribunal would honor due process and fair trials? We can’t even close Gitmo, but we’ll reinvent a fair legal “architecture” to foil imagined crimes yet to come? Our president rejects torture truth commissions or talk of war crimes while tolerating the mainstay of Bush-Cheney’s “war on terrorism.”

Scary Default to Congress

These disappointments don’t equate Obama’s savvy administration with Bush-Cheney’s disaster parade. By orders of magnitude, the Obama team differs, but that produces its own problems. What if Obama becomes as unBush-like as the oblivious Bush when reversing Clinton? Shockingly on target is the depiction by Time’s Mark Scherer of deference to Congress; ever the compromiser-consensus builder, the President convenes:

The players, points them down the road and then lets the chips fall where they may. Obama regularly gathers members of Congress at the White House to give them broad encouragement, not marching orders. On May 5, he invited Democrats from the House Energy and Commerce Committee . . . [but] no specific list of demands. He asked only for a bill that could get industry support, deal with regional concerns and provide market certainty for future investment. Behind the scenes, his aides all but backed off from any arm-twisting.

The Nation’s astute Chris Hayes agrees:

This is spot on, and really, really frustrating. Sometimes . . . the White House conducts itself like an editorial page: announcing its views, and principles and then promising to watch closely as the process unfolds . . . A savvy progressive DC observer said to me recently that they lay out principles, let Congress do with it what they will, and then come in and declare victory. Politically, it makes sense: it’s almost impossible to have a high-profile setback or defeat.

So much for ideals and principles, let alone telling fights and setbacks that rightly define sides and stakes. Did we elect a reluctant reformer so wary he cedes power to Congress, avoiding dissension but assuring marginal results? Sixty-four million voters hoped for “change we can believe in,” not “change a lobby-infested Congress comes up with.” Perhaps the larger strategy is to coalesce his new power base – uniting, not dividing – with Obama waiting for all-important “hills” he’s willing to die on? White House styles may change with 60 Senate votes and an unshakeable majority on board. Yet today consensus and centrism rule, hardly auguring well for progressive health care reform or landmark alternative energy programs. Playing it safe, Obama will avoid the multiple fiascos filling the Bush-Cheney’s era. But what great president changed the world by defaulting to a complacent Congress overcome with diminished capacity?

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