Obama the Purposeless Pragmatist
It’s apparent that Barack Obama thinks of himself as a pragmatic politician. Apparently pragmatism to Obama means doing something, without regard to any principles, and with no thought of how whatever emerges from our legislative process might be carried into practice or how it might damage other more important goals and purposes.
At the beginning of his first term, Obama faced tremendous problems with a crashing economy, a rump minority in the Senate dedicated to destroying his presidency and a bloodthirsty plutocratic class. On the positive side, he wanted to enact health care reform. Dealing with these problems required massive negotiation with the nutcases in the House of Representatives and a bunch of Blue Dog Democrats in both the House and the Senate. We saw Obama’s pragmatic approach to getting something done. The results were just what you would expect: Rube Goldberg statutes like Obamacare and Dodd-Frank with no clear vision and no clear path to implementation. We also saw him refuse to deal fairly with the damage inflicted on the middle class by the financial sector for pragmatic political reasons. He couldn’t help those homeowners, he couldn’t get a bipartisan deal.
In the re-election campaign, Obama made no effort to reach out to the netroots or to harness the energy even of his Obot supporters directly. Instead, he went after the low-information voters using technologies and systems that made it possible to generate the appearance of activism through standard political techniques like phone calls and door-knocking. Even that only took place in a few states. Obama was able to ignore the big states, which wouldn’t vote for Mitt Romney under any circumstances. Republicans ran as anti-everybody but white men and the women who are submissive to them. That made it possible for Obama to win their votes by supporting the status quo. He didn’t have to make any promises, he didn’t have to offer to deal with any of the problems facing the vast majority of Americans.
And he didn’t. During the campaign he talked a lot about two topics: increased taxes on the richest Americans, and shared sacrifice. The first point is concrete and real. The second is amorphous and easy to misinterpret. Apparently many people believed that somehow this sacrifice was the increased tax on the rich. They missed the part where Obama promised to wreck Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He never explained why the 99% was to be sacrificed when the damage was done by the .1% and their servant class of professionals and bankers. And he most certainly didn’t say exactly what it was that the 99% were to sacrifice. That made it possible for Obama voters to imagine that somehow that sacrifice wouldn’t crush their dreams of retirement. And for millions, shared sacrifice means loss of jobs, stagnant wages and loss of their homes.
As a result, Obama can govern with no regard to anyone but himself. He doesn’t pay attention to whatever’s left of the left, and the low-information voters are easily distracted. Now that he is off the campaign trail forever, Obama can return to his comfortable chair in the bubble and listen to the Clintonites and Republicans who want to wreck Democratic legacy programs. The Republicans want the Democrats to take the heat for cutting these crucial programs. They want him to sacrifice Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid so that the bulk of the damage falls on the poorest Americans and they want to be able to campaign against the idiot Democrats who vote for it.
This freedom from campaign promises has enabled Obama to engage his e-mail list of his activists in a campaign to raise taxes on the richest while distracting them from their shared sacrifice. Look at this tax thing, ignore that man behind the screen cutting your Medicare. To see this in action, look at the Facebook page or the twitter stream for @JointheAction. You will see lots of talk about the discharge petition for a bill that raises taxes on the rich and retains the Bush tax cuts for the rest of us. You won’t see anyone talking about Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, except a couple of lonely replies from @masacciofdl saying that shared sacrifice is for masochists. Of course, that guy can safely be ignored: he’s a dirty hippy who doesn’t understand that you have to be all bipartisany in the real world of DC politics.
@JointheAction is the mirror image of @FixTheDebt. It’s the Facebook page and twitter stream operated by a group of corporations, funded by the likes of Peter G. Peterson, whose sole reason for staying alive is the destruction of the Democratic Party’s legacy, especially Social Security. It calls for bipartisan solutions to deal with the national debt, without mentioning cuts to the Democratic Legacy Programs. Its praise of bipartisanship is a way to neutralize the massive victory won by the Democrats in the last election.
Why does Obama think slashing Democratic Legacy Programs is a good idea? Why ruin the lives of millions to soothe the hurt feelings of the Crazy Party? Under what theory can you justify any of this clownish posturing, or the utterly stupid ideas that are floated out like raising the eligibility age for Medicare? How do you explain Obama’s willingness to pretend that he is hostage to the debt ceiling or the fake fiscal whatever? Why does Obama think, as Jonathan Chait puts it, that he has to throw a bone to the Republicans to do some kind of deal? And which of your bones and my bones does he think we should throw to the zombies? How much money should we pay so Obama can cut some kind of deal?
There are no answers. There is no theory. There are no principles. There is only the bipartisan deal, a deal at any sacrifice, so long as the sacrifice is shared by everyone except the oligarchs and their servants. That’s the lesson Obama learned from his first term.
In his second term, we will all learn that pragmatism without principles is murderous.
Photo by JJ Hall under Creative Commons license.