Bird that Sings

November 18, 2010

The Devil and Barack Obama

Filed under: Politics,Uncategorized — admin @ 1:23 pm

And a good time was had by all.

The Mid-terms are over and Congratulations are in order for the new speaker of the House, John “Burnt Sienna” Boehner, who this morning enunciated the ruling credo of the Congressional Republican Party.

“Credibility?” he whistled in wonder. “We don’t need no stinking credibility.”

In the wake of the failure to revive the economy of “Main Street” over the past two years Boehner would be exactly right about that. Republicans don’t need much credibility, because the President doesn’t have much either.

The reasons why the Democrats were demolished in the Midterms were 1) the economy, 2) Obama and 3) Race, and most importantly, the way those three things became conflated in the minds of many white working class and lower middle class, Midwestern voters.

Yes, Democrats got murdered because of the economy but more; it was the failure of Democrats to frame a credible argument about the economy.

The Administration’s official insistence that we are in a slow economic recovery, when most working people know we are in a deep and open ended recession allowed an opening for the Republicans that shouldn’t have been there. This is especially true given that most of what the Republicans propose–privatizing Social security, protecting Wall Street and Big Finance– is anathema to the Reagan Democrats of the Midwest who abandoned the party at this election.

There is not one answer to why the Reagan Democrats abandoned the Party this cycle. The fire probably started when Obama and Geithner continued the Bush and Paulson policies of bailing out the banks and Wall Street even as working class jobs continued to be offshored and/or eliminated.

It was then fanned on talk radio and Fox News using the rhetorical red flag of mandated Health Care, but clearly there was a disposition on the part of white working class voters to distrust Obama.

Strictly speaking that sentiment goes back to at least the Pennsylvania Primary in 2008 and Obama’s famous “guns and bitterness” remark, but the truth is that argument was just a stand in for a deeper political divide. (See Obama and the new politics, April 2008)

Strategically, the strength of Obama’s candidacy was his cerebral appeal to liberal and suburban independent voters for a new politics of reason. He was a black candidate who had turned away from the politics of anger and resentment and seemed to point to the possibility that we as a people could also move beyond race and the old divides.

We, his fans, saw Obama’s candidacy as a symbolic moment and his election, the change we had been waiting for.

As many wrote at the time, it wasn’t a political campaign, it was a-once-in-a-lifetime PR campaign in which the brand, Obama, becomes magically linked with an only-in-your-dreams product: Barack Obama is hope&change.

Obama and his advisors knew–or should have known–that no one could ever live up to that level of expectation.

As my wife, an Obama supporter, said to me last week; to get elected, Obama did a deal with the devil and now the bill is coming due.

The weak link in the Obama candidacy was always that in his reasoned appeal to liberals and so-called independents, he was leaving behind the ethnic, white working class base of the old New Deal coalition. (see “The Little Putz”, April 2010). Despite a dry, academic lip service to the politics of class, Obama’s heart clearly wasn’t in it.

One could argue that the Obama candidacy was actually a call for restoration of the neo-liberal political-economic consensus of the Bush I and Clinton years that had been overturned by the over-the-top right wing radicalism of the Bush II adventure.

If Lehman Brothers hadn’t imploded in September of 2008, that might have worked out for Obama. But the subsequent financial crisis startlingly revealed the speculative and debt based Finance Capitalism of the previous thirty years, not as the new source of economic innovation, but as a giant Ponzi scheme to transfer wealth from the Middle class to the Rich.

Both Parties were implicated but as the de-facto Democratic opposition candidate to the ruling Republicans who had presided over the precise moment of disaster, Barack Obama was now called to address this gaping hole in the American dream.

It was a great opportunity for Obama–it certainly got him elected– but it also went against his political grain.

And so, on his election, rather than invoke a new populist stand on the markets, Obama and his advisors fell back into their neo-liberal comfort zone, best exemplified by the appointment of the old Clinton/Robert Rubin fun bunch, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, to head his economic team.

Spitting at the opportunity fate had afforded them, Obama, Geithner and Summers spent the next two years trying to restore the now discredited Finance system to it’s Clinton era glory; an impossible task, and also, on balance, stupid politically.

Despite the signal legislative achievements of the Obama administration–not to mention their salvaging of the American Auto Industry–these achievements did not keep real unemployment from rising to nearly twenty percent, nor lift the Midwest from the near depression it has been sunk in for the better part a decade.

White Midwestern voters were looking for someone to blame, and who better than someone you viscerally dislike in the first place.

For white working class voters, Obama is, to flip the old Tastycake commercial, all the bad things wrapped up in one: a black, liberal, elitist.

They had been waiting two years to give Obama his comeuppance and that’s what happened on November 2nd.

It would be a mistake not to acknowledge the role straight up racism played in the Democrats’ repudiation. Anecdotally, some of the stuff that people have said to me about Obama over the past several months does not bear repeating, but it’s clear, to me at least, that we are definitively not a post-racial society.

But we’re not the same as we used to be either.

In 1901 WEB Du Bois prophetically wrote that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” but as a corollary I would assert that the problem of the 21st century is not so much the color line as it is the related issue of “class and caste.”

In an America–let alone a world–where the working class is increasingly of color, only a progressive politics based on Class and working class unity can succeed.

The Democrats cannot win the next election without their black electoral base, for whom Barack Obama is still a hero–though we’ll see how that goes over the next year or so. However the Democrats also cannot win without the Reagan Democrats of the rust belt whose antipathy for Obama is likely to grow as the economic crisis worsens.

To win in 2012; and more importantly, to deserve to win in 2012, the Democrats–with or without Obama–have to forget about branding themselves like cattle and really change this time.

Part II of this post, Towards a Labor-Democratic Party, will discuss some ways that struggle might be joined.

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