Archive for June, 2009

Small Change Won’t Cut It

By Steve Klinger

I’ve been watching with a buttoned lip as Obama has had a town hall meeting with half the country and still found time to appear on every news show plus Colbert. I’ve watched him extend an olive branch to Republicans, sweet-talk blue dog Democrats and provide a collegiate lecture on everything from fiscal policy to health care. Every day I am thankful that we dodged the McCain Express and have a president who thinks rationally, solicits advice, considers alternatives and expresses reasons for at least some of his decisions. I remain convinced that Obama cares about ordinary Americans and believes in his heart he is doing his best by them.

I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon of critics who will never be satisfied with anything short of absolute pacifism and total, instant redistribution of wealth, or the doomsayers who continue to predict societal collapse on a daily basis.

But all that said….don’t you miss Dubya the gunslinger even a little bit? There’s something about having a president swagger up to the podium, plant his hands on his hips and say, “I’m the decider!” that fills the belly with gross comfort, like eating a pound of chile cheese fries, even if you know they’ll do you in.

Of course, the kinds of things Bush decided almost destroyed civilization. Most of Obama’s problem is that he has inherited Bush’s infernal mess. But that’s not my point.

I am increasingly starting to believe that Obama underestimates himself. He needs to think back to LBJ and across the spam of generations to his role model, Lincoln. When he’s tempted to compromise on health care and back away from a public option (not to mention the single payer approach he knows in his heart is best), or when he pushes a watered down energy bill that perpetuates the coal industry, he needs to remember his own miraculous election campaign.

The man has public opinion on his side. His charisma (Republicans excepted, of course) is unparalleled in recent political history. He has science and history on his side to support arguments for stronger positions on global warming, against big banks and insurance companies, etc. He has the example of eight years of catastrophic failure by the very forces who oppose him now.

You can argue all you want that the votes aren’t there, that it’s all he can do to get weak legislation through because conservative Democrats and obstructionist Republicans – all bought and paid for by the obscene power of the corporate lobbyists – just won’t support progressive change. And it’s true from a certain perspective: mathematically, the votes aren’t there now indeed. But they weren’t there in 1965 either, when Lyndon Johnson hammered through civil rights legislation and Medicare, lacking even a shred of Obama’s personal appeal but knowing he held the high moral ground — and he could use his leverage as president to twist arms in Congress and win votes one by one. They weren’t there a century earlier when Lincoln determined he had to free the slaves to save the Union and then wage a war to restore it. And they weren’t there in 1933 when FDR envisioned the New Deal that produced the CCC, the WPA and Social Security.

I was resigned to the expediency of passing the wimpy energy/climate bill currently before Congress until I read Dennis Kucinich’s withering analysis of its shortcomings – on coal, on compromised timelines for greenhouse gas reductions, on all the pulled punches that undermine the good intentions of the original legislation. Even then, ordinary logic tells me a weak bill is better than none at all.

But are those really the alternatives when a leader as unique as Obama has the bully pulpit at his disposal and public approval ratings in the mid-70s? Just as he came from nowhere to beat a field of strong candidates, he has that rare capacity to captivate public imagination and support as chief executive, if he chooses to use it and does so with passion and conviction. Only his fear of failure can hold him back.

Ironically, and he’s way too smart not to realize this, it’s his lowered sights and his readiness to compromise that will likely produce failure in the longterm and provide the forces on the right with an avenue to regain power.

I’m not sure what tactics will best get his attention, though I can think of a few things I’d say to him at a town hall meeting. But I do know that those of us at the grassroots level must not buy into the conventional wisdom that compromise is better than gridlock. It’s a false equation, because strong leadership can change the dynamic and break the gridlock.

We must find a way to hold Obama’s feet to the fire on the crucial issues of global warming, health care, financial reform, nuclear disarmament and an end to empire building. But first  we must reawaken his belief that together we can accomplish the change we know is desperately needed.

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Obama must be pressured to separate principle from expediency

By Steve Klinger

One hundred and twenty days into his first term as president, Barack Obama has galvanized opposition from both the left and the right, though his personal popularity and favorable opinion ratings remain very high. Where George Bush was the cowboy sheriff, firing from the hip with a snort and a smirk, Obama is the lawyerly professor, gathering input, offering compromise, explaining his practical, non-ideological approach in speeches, town hall meetings and press conferences.

Yet for all his promise of change and his rhetoric of inclusion and transparency, the policies emerging from the early days of the Obama administration are frustrating to progressives, and some bear disturbing parallels to the administration he loves to repudiate. Maybe it’s the all-powerful shadow government calling the shots, or maybe there’s some truth in the adage that the ultimate responsibility of the office has a sobering effect on the idealism of former presidential candidates. Or maybe Obama’s idealism needs a jump start after four months of shock and awe from dealing with the nightmare he inherited.

We can of course disregard the hysteria from the right, labeling Obama by turns a socialist, a tyrant, a spineless wimp and the anti-Christ incarnate. That was inevitable, and Obama was foolish to extend an olive branch to the ideologues who continue to march in lock step, even now as a shrinking, obstructionist minority. (Message to red states: If at first you don’t secede, try, try again. We’ll help you pack your bags!)

But from the left the criticism of Obama has been both valid and at times unfair.

Despite Obama’s rejection of extreme interrogation methods, and especially waterboarding, he has shown no interest in a thorough investigation and even a nonpartisan prosecution of the policy-makers. How can torture be totally wrong and yet legally forgivable?

Obama has been steadfast in his determination to bring health care reform to Americans, a welcome and long-overdue approach, yet he refuses to seriously consider a single-payer system, which is the only avenue that will reduce medical costs in an environment of social justice.

Obama has condemned the greed and moral depravity of Wall Street, yet his bailout programs and stimulus initiatives put far too much money in the hands of those who created the problems and not enough in the hands of those who need immediate relief. His version of Roosevelt’s New Deal is a pale impostor, with trickle-down capitalism instead of massive public works projects, and his key economic appointment, Timothy Geithner, seems unable to think outside of the rarified box in which he was incubated.

These are all valid concerns heard from the left and issues for which Obama’s feet must be held to the fire. As he himself noted, it’s not enough to vote for change; each of us must embody it and pressure those at the top, starting from the grassroots level. And as Howard Zinn so pointedly observed (http://www.progressive.org/zinn0509.html), Obama is above all a politician; he will take the path of compromise and triangulation unless he is pressured to do otherwise.

Obama is beholden to the rules of the game in Washington, which quite simply boils down to the prevailing power of money. As long as corporate interests finance Congressional and presidential campaigns, issues like meaningful gun control (the assault weapons pouring into Mexico) and single-payer health care are off the table. Could Obama spend his political capital and force the issue: probably, but he doesn’t want to take on a battle he thinks he’ll lose, so it’s up to citizens like us to choose our issues and force his hand.

National security/foreign policy is a more complex area to evaluate because so much information is classified or filtered through partisan prisms and therefore much harder to evaluate. But reversing course on military tribunals, while it may be repugnant in principle, is not a decision I take issue with, as long as at least some basic human rights are respected. The problem is that some terrorists we have tortured in the Bush-Cheney era and hardened into mortal enemies of our nation –even if they were not so to begin with – cannot be set free, and other nations won’t take them. Guantánamo can and should be closed, but there is no way to provide civilian trials for some of its inmates (the “evidence” is either hearsay or inadmissible coerced confessions), and criticism of Obama’s response to an abominable situation he didn’t create strikes me as unfair. What would progressives do with the few dozen Gitmo detainees who can’t be tried, yet can’t be set free?

What troubles me more are Obama’s protectiveness of executive power (White House e-mails and guest logs, for example) in cases when transparency has no virtuous counter-argument, and a persistent, almost reflexive pragmatism when principles such as the constitutional duty to prosecute torturers are sacrificed to short-term political expediency. And sadly, if predictably, Obama has thus far embraced the culture of militarism and empire, with a little lip service to nuclear nonproliferation. What we need is a mindset of espousing alternatives to violence – a high bar indeed to set for a mainstream politician, but the only path to continued evolution of the human species.

If Obama is to make a difference it must be not with lofty rhetoric but with leading a government that actually protects and defends its neediest citizens from social and cultural evil, safeguarding them not only from foreign attack but from domestic predators of every stripe and from the self-serving instincts of their own leaders. That’s the Obama I voted for, and for that I will hold him accountable.

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