Obama and the Steady Drift to the Right


After Bill Clinton assumed office in January 1993, with promises of "putting people first," he quickly demoted "the people," putting his most intense political effort into pushing NAFTA, reducing the budget deficit, "reforming" welfare, bailing out investors in Mexican bonds, toughening crime and terror legislation (and filling the prisons), protecting the military budget following the death of the Soviet Union, and warring against Yugoslavia. Clinton failed to improve the medical care system, but did finish the deregulation of finance and the ending of the Glass-Steagall Act that limited bank speculation. In this and other ways Clinton contributed to the late 1990s stock market bubble.

His failure to perform for the people helped bring about the 1994 Gingrich-Republican electoral victory and Clinton’s overall performance fed well into the Bush victory and years of accelerated class and external warfare.

The Obama performance confirms that this pattern of Democratic inability to serve popular interests, followed by Democratic political loss, and then further moves to the right, is now built in to the system. This results in large measure from the steady increase in inequality and business/finance/elite power, the concomitant decline of organized labor, and the absence of any other focal points of power for ordinary citizens. This is reflected in a political system where money rules and candidates, to be effective, must be able to raise lots of it. There is a de facto primary in which serious candidates must solicit big money and, in the process, are vetted by that money. Candidates outside the two-party system, even with the prestige of a Ralph Nader, do not enter the money primary and cannot compete in the U.S. political system. The packing of the Supreme Court with rightwingers, with Democratic help, has assisted in this plutocratization process, recently culminating in Citizens United v. FEC, which should make corporate domination of politics even more complete.

The non-corporate candidates might compete if there were a democratic mass media that would make candidates newsworthy in accord with their real qualifications for office and the extent to which their programs were rational and in accord with public interests, needs, and priorities. But this is not the case. The mass media in the United States have become more centralized, more commercialized, more ad-intensive, and more closely integrated into the corporate-dominated political economy. The overtly right-wing component of the media, led by Fox, has become larger, more aggressive, and able to set the tone and keep the "liberal media" in line. None of them like "populism," nor will they challenge the military-industrial complex’s (MIC’s) growth and command over resources and the associated "power projection" of the imperial state. It has been noted that whenever the Democrats suffer political setbacks, the mainstream media response is that they must move rightward, away from leftist redistributional tendencies and "weakness" on foreign policy. A George W. Bush in office faces no such obstructions as he redistributes income and wealth upwards and advances the MIC command over resources and projection of power; his deficits are treated lightly.

Obama seemed to break this pattern, although this was an illusion. He won, helped greatly by the economic crisis in the late Bush era, with mass support, including many who thought he really meant change—although much of that support was based on fear of more Bush-Cheney and a belief that even a compromised Democrat would be a big improvement. But Obama had been vetted. He received massive funding from financial and corporate interests and, as is well known, made a deal with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries to avoid challenging their dominant role in any health-care reform. Of course, Obama also got a great deal of money in small contributions from his mass base (somewhat less than half the total), but he made no deals with them, merely promising change and a vague new era.

Obama has not provided change, but continuity, and has served the financial/corporate community and MIC rather than the interests of his mass base. This was evident in advance of his election, with his support of the Bush financial bailout, his choice of Cold Warrior Joe Biden as running mate, and his explicit commitment to an escalated Afghan war. His cabinet selections and choice of high level advisors and officials were also telling: Geithner and Summers, Peter Orszag, Hillary Clinton, Arne Duncan (an enemy of public schools), and Robert Gates, a direct holdover from the Bush administration. It is notorious that Obama hasn’t even tried to restore habeas corpus or remove the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and has fought for impunity for the war criminals of the prior Administration and the right to hold declared enemy combatants, even U.S. citizens, indefinitely, and also to assassinate them. Glenn Greenwald writes, "Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has claimed the authority to order American citizens murdered based solely on the unverified, uncharged, unchecked claim that they are associated with terrorism and pose ‘a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests.’ They’re entitled to no charges, no trial, no ability to contest the accusations" ("Presidential Assassinations of US Citizens," Salon, January 27, 2010).

The just announced new freezes on discretionary spending reportedly exempt the Pentagon (and other "security") budgets. Speaking at a recent gathering of large military contractors, Defense Secretary Gates pledged, according to his spokesperson, "to work with the White House to secure steady growth in the Pentagon’s budgets over time" (Jen Dimascio, "Robert Gates meets defense industry heads," Politico, January 13, 2010). These are violations of principle and injurious to the Obama mass base beyond all but the most cynical expectations.

Obama’s continuity with George W. Bush’s foreign policy is also underrated. His Iraq "withdrawal" is a phony, just as his expansion of the Afghan-Pakistan war is real. His collapse in supposedly pushing for a just settlement in Palestine has been complete, ending up with a crude attack on the UN Goldstone Report on Gaza and no resistance whatever to escalated Israeli ethnic cleansing. Israel is once again threatening to attack Lebanon and Syria, with no constraining response from Washington. Obama and his secretary of state are once again threatening Iran with intensified sanctions, if not more. On these matters he and his political party serve as a virtual arm of the pro-Israel lobby.

Less recognized is the extent to which Obama’s militarization of foreign policy continues and may even exceed Bush’s bullying and power projection. The U.S. collaboration in the overthrow of the elected, populist government of Honduras was a throwback to the era of U.S. sponsorship of National Security States in Latin America. Bush could hardly have surpassed Obama’s atrocious performance in Haiti, where the U.S. response to their devastating earthquake was almost completely military—a lagged occupation, with minimal food-water-medical-shelter aid, and even obstruction to aid as airports were preempted for the U.S. military occupation forces and the landing of Hillary Clinton (see John Pilger, "The Kidnapping of Haiti," New Statesman, January 27, 2010; Jesse Hagopian, "Occupation in Humanitarian Clothing," Common Dreams.org, January 24, 2010; Ben Ehrenreich, "Why Did We Focus on Securing Haiti Rather Than Helping Haitians?," Slate, January 21, 2010).

Elsewhere in Latin America, Obama’s policies have been regressive, with more open hostility to left regimes in the region, collaboration in the Honduras coup, and acquisition of seven new military bases in Colombia that all send a message of "change" for the worse.

Across the globe, U.S. military bases are expanding, not contracting. The encirclement of Russia and steady stream of war games in the Baltic, Caspian, Mediterranean, and Western Pacific areas continue, the closer engagement with Georgia and efforts to bring it into NATO moves ahead, as do plans for placing missiles along Russia’s borders and beyond (see Rick Rozoff, "Bases, Missiles, Wars: U.S. Consolidates Global Military Bases," Stop NATO, January 26, 2010).


Couldn’t Obama have changed course, betrayed the establishment instead of the public interest, and altered the structure of national priorities? Couldn’t he have used his powerful platform to make the case for real change, mobilizing the masses, and, with their support, moved us in a new direction? Of course, there is no evidence that he really wanted to do this, but I don’t believe he could have done it even if he had wanted to and was prepared to take heavy risks in the process.

The institutional obstacles are too great. Not only the Republicans, but a large fraction of the elected Democrats are in thrall to the financial and business community, MIC, and pro-Israel lobby. They would have refused to go along with severe cutbacks in the Pentagon budget, massive outlays for public works and subsidies-bailouts for ordinary citizens, or a single payer health-care system. The business community would have gone on strike, with probably serious capital flight and layoffs. Cutbacks in military operations abroad would have resulted in hysteria in the media about Democratic weakness and betrayal, possible disorder, and maybe a military coup to restore order. Even slow and careful moves along these lines would be furiously opposed and would likely precipitate a political crisis.

The institutional constraints on even moderate liberal change are, I believe, very great at this point in U.S. history. The sequence that seems now built-in is for the Democrats to win occasionally after a Republican tenure that effectively serves the rich and MIC, but disaffects the underlying population; and, in the Obama case, winning with the great boost of an economic collapse during the election season. But the Democrats are now chronically unable to serve the middle class and poor or contain the MIC, because of their own dependence on the rich, MIC, and the Lobby, and the work of the media in support of those same elite interests. With nowhere else to go for effective service to their own interests, ordinary citizens will abandon the Democrats and the system will move further to the right. This is a trajectory that bodes ill for the future.


Edward S. Herman is an economist, and a political, social, and media critic. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including the classic Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (with Noam Chomsky).