At last, the big Obama post

Well now that he's finally running and has become the great black hope of white liberals, I suppose I should pass judgment.

I read thru the interesting (nonbiographical) parts of his book some months ago and took extensive tho sometimes illegible notes. Based on that, I have no great enthusiasm for the man.

It seems to me that the key issues in the presidential election should be (in no particular order):
1) health care,
2) Iraq and other foreign policy,
3) global warming,
4) immigration,
5) poverty, economic decay, and its connection to race.

(You'll notice I did not mention the goddamn middle class, because there are some people who have real problems.)

So how does Obama rate?

1) Health care.
The only acceptable solution here is a single-payer health care system, or the extension of Medicare to everyone in the country, preferably with the nationalization of the pharmaceutical companies. The patchwork solutions that Democrats have been pushing are expensive and inefficient and will be rolled back next time the budget has some problems. Obama seems to recognize this when he writes, "there may be other more cost-effective and elegant ways to improve the health-care system" (186), but he goes ahead and signs on to the same old incremental, fatally flawed approach anyway. I don't remember the specifics, but my notes refer to his proposal as "half-assed health care".

2) Iraq and other foreign policy.
Unlike many Democrats, Obama opposed the invasion before it began. In the book he calls for a phased troop withdrawal by the end of 1996, and it seems likely that as president he'd get most of the combat troops out. Whether he'd establish permanent bases and continue to interfere in Iraq is less clear.

His general foreign policy discussion in the book makes clear that he's a liberal imperialist, willing to defend America's world hegemony but preferring to do so with bribery and shows of consultation rather than thru unilateral violence. He speaks admiringly of Truman, Acheson, Marshall, and Kennan - the architects of the cold war - as "marr[ying] [Woodrow] Wilson's idealism to hardheaded realism, an acceptance of America's power with a humility regarding America's ability to control events around the world. . . . America needed to maintain its military dominance and be prepared to use force in defense of its interests across the globe" (284).

As for the present day, he writes, "So long as Russia and China retain their own large military forces and haven't fully rid themselves of the instinct to throw their weight around - and so long as a handful of rogue states are willing to attack other sovereign nations . . . - there will be times when we must again play the role of the world's reluctant sheriff. This will not change - nor should it" (306).

When he speaks of "rogue states willing to attack other sovereign nations", he's not referring to the USA, but it's unclear who he is talking about since in the last 15 years the only country to attack other sovereign nations has been America (you might want to include the Eritrea-Ethiopia war, or possibly Israel, but I don't think this is who he has in mind). Regardless, it should be clear that Obama is just another great power hypocrite, willing to use violence to protect American supremacy if he needs to. In light of this, his reference to China as a "potential rival" (307) and his warlike statements about Iran appear rather ominous.

3) Global warming.
Political space to address global warming has been opening with suprising speed over the last couple years, so Obama's failure to say much of anything about it in his book is doubly disappointing. He does call for an end to oil company subsidies, taxing those companies one percent of their revenues to fund alternative fuel research, and for increased fuel efficiency standards. But he mostly justifies these in terms of national security and economic stability, with nary a word on global warming. The centerpiece of what there is of an environmental program is expanding ethanol production. That will serve Obama campaign contributor and corporate agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland well, but will not do much to fight global warming. Obama is also supportive of (energy intensive) technologies that turn coal into oil, a nice sop for downstate coal interests but terribly regressive on global warming.

4) Immigration.
Obama writes that "American citizenship is a privilege and not a right, that without meaningful borders and respect for the law, the very things that brought [immigrants] to America, the opportunities and protections afforded those who live in this country, would surely erode" (267). This is simply not good enough. It does not address the root cause of massive immigration - global inequality - and it does not condemn the racism that has been animating anti-Mexican legislation and invective. What we need is an amnesty, not cliched rhetoric.

5) Poverty, economic decay, and its connection to race.
Obama calls for many useful economic measures, including a raise in the minimum wage, increased earned income tax credit, stronger unemployment insurance, better legal protections for unions, and government subsidized jobs programs in the inner city. But these are crumbs - they're not imaginative, they certainly don't go far enough, and Obama stays away from the real problems here, institutional racism and capitalism. He also doesn't have much to say on reviving economic activity in the ghetto or reforming our system of so-called criminal justice.

On other issues, Obama doesn't look much better. He opposes gay marriage. He admits using marijuana and cocaine so he should know that drug prohibition is asinine, but if he does he's not doing anything about it. His biggest funders are corporate law firms and finance capital. His close advisers and friends are a collection of campaign mercenaries, corporate bigwigs, and Daley proteges. Perhaps the most damning thing about Obama is that he hasn't used his huge media presence to push any truly ambitious progressive policy.

All that said, Obama may be the best choice among the viable candidates - the only one that may be better, at least in rhetoric if not policy, is Edwards. Certainly, some useful organizing could take place under cover of campaigning for Obama. But we on the left should be clear: there is almost no evidence that this man is our ally, and investing great hope in him seems deeply misguided.


kyle said...

Good post, Jake. I've been debating whether or not to waste my time with a post about Obama. I think I'd be more likely to offer a ranting critique, for better or worse. I've just been really frustrated with Obama because all the NU progressives seem to be completely and uncritically in love with the guy. A few people I consider to be more or less political radicals got up at 5 am to drive to his speech the other day. One of them is working in Obama's office. It seems like everyone I run into is excited about him and spouting the rhetoric of hope. It seems like it is sucking energy out of other causes already.

I have been wasting a lot of time reading critiques of Obama on progressive sites. The Black Agenda Report (www.blackagendareport.org -- a recent spin-off of Black Commentator) seems to be wholly committed to tearing Obama down. He really is the perfect candidate to make people think "colorblind" society is a reality. He even said that blacks have entered the economic mainstream!

I guess I'm entering into rant mode... Maybe I'll just post on this myself sometime in the near future. My next article is on supply chains though, so it might be a while.

Patrick said...

Fwiw Obama always had a strong environmental record in the General Assembly here, but I've found him bizarrely stand-offish as a U.S. Senator. You might chalk it up to prudent caution, but he's been unwilling to publicly commit support to environmental issues where other Democratic lawmakers - including Durbin - are out in front.

As for energy committed to Obama and the perception that he's the great liberal hope...let's not forget the instructive example of Howard Dean. Sure, his campaign was a great catalyst for the netroots, which I *guess* has been a (marginal) step forward, but he was approximately 37.4% as left as everyone seemed to think. This sort of exceptionalist politics of big individuals is doomed to failure; only through lasting social and cultural institutions (or movements) will we achieve real change.

In any case, I think a different argument can be made that Obama's not viable anyway. I have far too little faith in the electorate to believe that a black candidate is electable in the current climate, even if he is "articulate".

naureen said...

I'd like to see your analysis of Edwards, who as far as I can tell, does have more gutsy rhetoric than 'bama, if not more gutsy policy.

Jake said...

edwards definitely has better rhetoric, and his health care proposal actually looks pretty good. it's mainly the same old patchwork solutions with this key exception: it would put private insurers into competition with a govt-run medicare-type body, which would almost certainly offer lower prices because it'd have lower overhead. over time it could absorb more and more of the market and we might end up with single-payer. (see krugman's analysis.) this is a great strategy for getting single-payer thru the back door, and if it's done right it might be the best approach to getting a decent health care system.

other than that we don't really have any specifics from the edwards campaign, and no book to read to get a better idea. i was in china during the '04 campaign, so i don't have a very good feel for the guy. we'll have to wait for concrete policy proposals. i'm particularly interested in what he'll say on global warming (which obama seems so bad on) and poverty, which he's made central to his campaign.

in the end, no one really good is viable. probably the most important thing is to prevent clinton from getting the nomination.

Berkeley High Class of 1997 said...

Being a Berkeley Socialist, I recognize the impulse to shoot for best policy practices only. I'd very much like to live in a Scandanvian/Japanese style social-democracy w/universal healthcare and bullet train mass transit. But it'll take a few years.
Given the structural deficiencies of our democratic republic, it's a bit unfair to impose a political ideal on a mainstream American political candidate.
While it's novel to soak in some nitty-gritty criticism of the Obamanator, for big-picture-me the latent memories of the Kennedy brothers are channeled through this new embodiment of hope. Obama's more than capable of rising to the occasion and steering the country in a leftward direction. All's I really care about is annihilating neoconservatives and laying the foundation for a progressive, inclusive, participatory democracy.
Sure we want to battle inequity at home and globally, but we've got to lay waste to the dynamic obstacles (Republicans) who stand in the way first. One step at a time!

-Teddy (Blaine's buddy in SF)

Jake said...

"the latent memories of the Kennedy brothers are channeled through this new embodiment of hope."

what are these latent memories of the kennedys? the kennedy administration was active in organizing the militaries of latin america against the threat of popular movements, an investment that eventually paid off in the rise of brutal military dictatorships across the region. jfk agreed to attack china with nuclear weapons if china got into another war with india. jfk was pursuing the same escalation in vietnam that lbj saw to fruition. rfk, after years of questionable involvement with mccarthyism, the mafia, and conspiracies to assassinate castro, seems to have adopted far better politics by 1966. however, he was not a leader in this regard - he was following the powerful mass movements for civil rights, against the war, and for economic equality.

the point is that leftists should never invest hope in politicians - in particular those, like obama, who don't even use progressive rhetoric. what hope we have must be invested in the possibility of popular movements that will force politicians into action. when obama was running for senate i thought he might be an ally (he comes from an organizing background, after all), but he has chosen to occupy the bland middle ground since then.

"Obama's more than capable of rising to the occasion and steering the country in a leftward direction."

i see no evidence that obama would be any further left than bill clinton. if he comes out with solid progressive proposals, like edwards's health care proposal, i'll reconsider then.

"All's I really care about is annihilating neoconservatives"

that's a good goal, and i certainly hope the democratic candidate wins (altho it's an open question if clinton would be better than giuliani). the key point here is to always remain independent from mainstream candidates, to never excuse their deficiencies, and to use our efforts not to win the election for them, but to build popular movements that will force them to adopt progressive policies. doing that organizing is not necessarily in conflict with campaigning for some candidate, but the difference must always be understood. politicians should always be considered instruments, never leaders of our movement.

Desiree said...

Ah, I really, really want to rant about Obama, but I haven't the time at the moment. I'll come back later Jake.

Yes, white liberals and their great Black (or light skinned) hopes...