Be careful what you hope for

Here is my comprehensive critique of the Obama campaign, along with an argument for strategically supporting Edwards. Thanks to the fine people at The Protest for publishing it and keeping the magazine going strong.

Be careful what you hope for
Obama, progressives and the ‘08 elections

Here's an important question progressives need to ask themselves: Why are so many of us so excited about Barack Obama? Is Obama progressive? Is he offering progressive policies? Is there a better candidate for us? And most importantly — how should progressives use elections to advance our agenda?

The outpouring of support for Obama among liberals is not surprising. Unlike the other leading presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, Obama opposed the war in Iraq from the start. He has a commendable background in community organizing on Chicago's South Side. Should he win the presidency, he would break the racial barrier of the highest office in the country.

I must admit that during Obama's run for the Senate, I was optimistic about him, too. But everything I've learned about him since then has made me deeply skeptical. His record in the Senate, his book The Audacity of Hope, his political connections and the kind of campaign he has chosen to run have all called Obama's progressive credentials into question.

Many people are drawn to Obama's message of hope, his promise of a “new politics.” But what does that mean? Is the problem with this country, as Obama says, really a “failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics”? Or is it the radically unequal distribution of wealth and power? And the powerful networks of privilege that defy any attempts to change the status quo?

Obama should know the answer. He is deeply entrenched in these networks himself, as a glance at Chicago politics makes clear. From the start, Obama has relied heavily on patrons in the high-powered world of Chicago finance and industry. According to a New York Times investigation, some of the richest men in the country, like James S. Crown and John W. Rogers Jr., have found nothing about Obama's politics that would threaten their wealth and profits.(1) Just as damning, Obama has tied himself closely to Mayor Daley's Chicago machine: the corrupt, pro-business administration that has devoted its nearly 20 years in office to improving the lives of the city's yuppies while ignoring the thousands of destitute (or forcing them out of their homes), tolerating police brutality and torture, and allowing public transit to crumble. Most recently, Obama endorsed Dorothy Tillman, the corrupt third ward alderman who had voted against a living wage for workers at big box retailers. Voters in the ward disagreed with Obama and booted her out of office.

But let's say that Obama, once in office, finds a way to transcend the sordid political world that has brought him this far. Let's say an Obama presidency ushers in his vaguely defined “new politics.” Would it produce policies we actually want? After all, Ronald Reagan came to power based on a sunny optimism, and he inaugurated a “new politics.” Yet this new politics was used to restore U.S. militarism, aid regressive forces around the world, and rapidly accelerate the dismantling of the U.S. social safety net. Bill Clinton campaigned on a message of hope, but he failed to pass universal health care through a Democratic Congress, he maintained the sanctions against Iraq, which killed around one million people, and he did away with the last remaining welfare guarantees. Before we know whether to support Obama's “new politics,” we need to know which policies this new politics would serve.

Who is the most progressive candidate?
If we decide to participate in the Democratic primaries, the first choice we have to make is whether to back one of the three viable candidates (Obama, Edwards, Clinton) or one of the candidates who has already been eliminated from the competition by lack of money and media disinterest. While Dennis Kucinich, in particular, supports far better policies than any of the top three, investing our time and resources in a lost cause may not be the best choice, especially if one of the three viable candidates has many solidly progressive policies. Hillary Clinton can be dismissed immediately. Not only is she too conservative to consider seriously, she also has so little respect for the voters that her website has no issues section. The choice, then, is between Obama and Edwards. Edwards has already issued a series of detailed and quite progressive policies. He is by no means a perfect candidate, but nominating him would represent a dramatic change from the last several decades of relentlessly centrist Democratic nominees. What about Obama?

Obama has been notoriously vague about how he would fix all the urgent problems he points out in his speeches. However, based on the discussion in his book and the policies he has supported in the Senate, we can now draw some tentative conclusions. Progressives should pay close attention here, because if Obama ever inhabits the White House, we will have to fight hard against his very centrist agenda.

Foreign policy
Many Obama supporters think that his opposition to the Iraq war from the start sets him apart. But on what grounds did Obama oppose the war? That it's immoral to invade another country? That it's wrong for the United States to dominate other parts of the world? Not at all. In his book, Obama speaks admiringly of those men who started the Cold War and unleashed all its horrors, saying that they understood the need “to maintain American military dominance and be prepared to use force in defense of its interests across the globe.”(2) Obama fully believes the United States has the right to control other countries, and he has made clear that violence is an option when countries like Iran or North Korea defy U.S. commands. So we should hardly be surprised that although Obama calls for the withdrawal of U.S. “combat” soldiers from Iraq, he says he would keep U.S. troops in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.(3)

The next president will not only have to clean up Bush's Iraq mess, he or she will also have to decide how to manage the rise of China and the possible revival of Russian power. Again, Obama would act to protect U.S. supremacy: “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.”(4)

In a brazen display of hypocrisy, Obama condemns Russia and China for behavior that — in obvious contrast to the United States — neither one has displayed for 20 years.(5) And he is completely oblivious to the fact that the country most guilty of attacking other sovereign nations in the last 15 years has been the United States — while none of the so-called “rogue states” have done so. Obama is calling for a United States that acts less like a reluctant sheriff and more like the Chicago cop who was recently videotaped beating up a bartender because she refused to continue serving him alcohol.

Obama has not proposed cuts in our enormous military budget, which is as big as the military spending of the rest of world combined. In fact, in his most recent speech he actually proposed adding another 92,000 soldiers.(6) He has not called for closing U.S. bases in Japan, South Korea, Germany, Italy, the Middle East and elsewhere. He has not promised an end to the United States’ continuing attacks on progressive forces in Latin America. He has not called for global nuclear disarmament.

Obama certainly opposes the neoconservative approach to maintaining U.S. power, but his disagreement is one of strategy rather than principle. He thinks that making shows of consultation with other countries and bribing them are more effective tools for keeping the United States on top than unilateral bullying. But, like Bill Clinton, he has no scruples against sending arms to brutal militaries or even going to war should gentler approaches fail.

Unfortunately, all the viable presidential candidates have almost indistinguishable foreign policies. If we want to pick one over the others — and given the brutality promised by their foreign policies, that's an open question — we'll have to look at the key domestic policy issues: health care, energy and the economy.

Health care
Obama is sensitive to the health care crisis in this country, and he promises universal coverage by the end of his first term. However, he has steadfastly refused to reveal any details. Plenty of time remains for him to come up with a good plan, but if and when he does make a proposal we must hold it to the standard already established by John Edwards.

The Edwards plan would extend universal coverage by requiring all businesses to either provide health insurance or pay into a fund to cover the uninsured. Other costs would be paid by eliminating Bush's tax cuts on those making more than $200,000 a year. (Obama also supports ending some of the deeply regressive Bush tax cuts, but only for those making more than $250,000 a year.) Edwards would impose powerful regulations on private insurers so they can no longer cherry-pick healthy individuals or deny coverage to the ill. Most importantly, it would set up a government insurance plan similar to Medicare that would compete with private insurers.

Government-run plans are more efficient because they eliminate the wasteful overhead of private insurers, which spend huge sums on advertising, executives' pay packages and reduplication of complex bureaucracies. (The evidence isn't really up for debate — every other rich country has universal public health care while spending less per person, covering everyone and maintaining better health statistics than the United States.) So if private insurers are forced to compete against a public insurance plan, they will gradually be forced out of business and we'll finally have an efficient, universal public health system — what's known as single-payer health insurance.

Any health plan that does not chart a course to such a system is a dead end. The efficiencies of a public system and the bargaining power of a single huge insurance provider are the only way to bring health care costs under control. Other plans, like Bill Clinton's failed 1994 proposal, funnel public funds to private insurers in exchange for covering those who are currently excluded from the health system. But throwing money at a broken system won't fix it. If such a plan were implemented, it would allow costs to continue rising and opposition to universal coverage would quickly grow. Soon the system would be dismantled. Moving to single-payer is the only way to get a just and politically sustainable health system. Will Obama support a plan that could get us to single-payer? We don't know yet — but it would be hard to improve on the Edwards plan.

Global warming
I was surprised and deeply disappointed that Obama said almost nothing about global warming in his book. He acknowledged that energy policy is hugely important, but framed his arguments in terms of national security rather than the future of life on this planet. He supports a few unambitious policies to attain “energy independence,” like increased fuel efficiency standards. But, he also embraces domestic energy sources like corn-based ethanol and “clean” coal technology, which actually harm the environment. Incidentally, they also channel government funds to Obama campaign contributors Archer Daniels Midland and downstate Illinois coal interests.

In the Senate, Obama is supporting the most conservative proposal for a cap-and-trade system to restrict carbon emissions. The McCain-Lieberman bill has drawn considerable support from business, which is looking for the predictability of a national greenhouse gas policy but seeking to avoid major cuts in their emissions. Beyond this, Obama has said little on how he would fight global warming.

Again, Edwards makes a strong contrast. He has announced a detailed plan to fight warming, and his energy proposals are considerably more progressive than Obama's positions. Like Obama, Edwards backs an end to oil company subsidies and increased funding for the development of green technology. But in contrast to Obama, he supports the best Senate proposal for a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions, the Sanders-Boxer bill. And unlike Obama, he has publicly committed to the ambitious — but absolutely necessary — goal of reducing our carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

The third major part of Edwards's plan is a new international emissions-reduction treaty to include developing nations. Edwards understands that the rapidly increasing emissions of countries like China and India are a grave concern, and his proposal to share clean technology with poor countries in exchange for emissions cuts is a good one. The only question is whether Edwards is willing to devote the resources in environmental aid that would be needed to make his new treaty a success.

Edwards's proposals do not go far enough. In particular, he has not faced the need to dramatically restrict the nation's car culture through increased taxes on gasoline and investment in public transit. Yet Edwards is, at least, on the right track. Obama's failure to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis is a major strike against him.

A similar comparison emerges when we turn to the economy. As Hurricane Katrina showed, the most urgent economic issues revolve around poverty. In an unusual move for a mainstream candidate, Edwards has invested considerable energy in calling for an end to poverty in a generation. His plan to accomplish this — which includes a variety of policies from strengthening labor laws to increasing housing vouchers to creating a million temporary jobs for those out of work — strike me as a collection of worthwhile initiatives that are nevertheless utterly inadequate to the task. Moreover, Edwards stays far away from the central causes of poverty — institutional racism and capitalism. Even so, nominating Edwards would thrust the poverty agenda into the national debate. Where is Obama on this? He has not made poverty a central part of his campaign and betrays no intention of doing so. Yet again, Obama's rhetoric fails to translate into anything of substance.

On some other issues, like immigration, drug prohibition, and gay marriage, both Edwards and Obama disappoint. But I have not found a single issue where Obama’s position is better than that of Edwards. The question for progressives should not be whether to support Edwards or Obama — Edwards is the clear choice. The question is whether we should be involved in electoral politics at all.

In many ways the U.S. electoral system is rigged against the left. No candidate can become viable without attracting huge sums of money from the rich people and corporations that maintain the status quo. The media relentlessly focus on candidates' public images, their campaign strategies, and who leads the polls. They ignore candidates with unorthodox policies, making a serious discussion of the issues nearly impossible. The first-past-the-post voting system marginalizes those third parties that could force progressive issues onto the agenda by turning them into "spoilers." And the left remains too unorganized to marshal the popular support that evangelical churches, for example, can leverage.

The priority for progressives, then, should not be seeking the illusory salvation of electing a heroic political leader. We must concentrate instead on developing the economic and organizational power that would give us a real chance in elections. This should be our goal not just to win elections, but to form the foundation of a truly participatory and egalitarian society. The only way to do this is by creating democratic businesses and organizing communities rather than throwing all our energies into politicians who will just disappoint us in office.

Even so, sometimes electoral work can serve these goals instead of distracting us from them. That may be particularly true today, when John Edwards is running the most progressive, viable presidential campaign in most of our lifetimes. We have the chance to swing the Democratic Party to the left, put hugely important issues back on the national agenda for the first time in 35 years, and strengthen the left organizationally in the process. But we'll miss that chance if we continue to blindly follow Barack Obama.


1. Christopher Drew and Mike McIntire, “Obama Built Donor Network from Roots Up,” The New York Times, April 3, 2007.

2. The Audacity of Hope, p. 284.

3. Obama has given two speeches on foreign policy. In both he called for retaining troops in Iraq and throughout the region: Speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Chicago, March 2, 2007; Remarks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, April 23, 2007.

4. The Audacity of Hope, p. 306.

5. Internally, of course, both the Russian and Chinese governments have been actively repressive, but they are not unique in this regard, and Obama fails to mention U.S. clients like Turkey or Colombia that have been similarly repressive. Outside the military realm, Russia has to a certain extent “thrown its weight around,” especially in the former Soviet republics. Yet the United States routinely does the same thing across the globe — including in the former Soviet republics — and the nature of the regimes it backs makes clear that freedom and democracy are only incidental (or rhetorical) concerns. As for China, with the sole exception of Taiwan (which both China and the United States consider a part of China), it has thus far been a model of restraint in the international competition for power.

6. Remarks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


Eric said...

Well-argued. I definitely prefer Edward's policy positions over Obama's. Of course, where I differ from you is that, no matter what, I'm voting for the Democrat in the end. I just hope it winds up being one I like, but I'll still support a least-bad option. I don't think there's any other viable way to make progress but by incremental change in the electoral realm.

Jake said...

keep in mind that if you're voting in illinois, new york, or california, there's no point in voting for the democrat. if the race is close in liberal states like these, then the democrat has no chance in the general election.

as i argued in the article, i see "incremental change in the electoral realm" as a dead end unless the left can organize itself and develop a popular and financial base to influence elected officials. otherwise they just take us for granted and cater to corporations.

Eric said...

I wasn't talking about just voting. What you say is unfortunately true about it being rather pointless in states like this one. But I hope to be able to volunteer for canvassing and such things in states that are close, something that I was not able to do much of in 2004.

With respect to your more general point, it's true that we're a bunch of useless rabble in the eye of politicians so worried about money. But if by my enthusiastic support I can give any extra boost to a candidate that I really like, especially one in favor of some sort of campaign finance reform, then I'm not sure what else I ought to do. It's not clear to me that there are many other avenues of influence left that would be worth pursuing and palatable enough that they stand any chance of attracting a critical mass of participants.