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“Obamanots”: People Who Care What David Brooks Thinks


 

We got a small but good example of what the new presidential administration is really all about on the Op-Ed page of last Friday’s New York Times.  On the left-hand side of that page, conservative Times columnist David Brooks reported that a recent column of his quickly won him four conversations with "senior members of the administration." 

The column that led to these consultations with power had expressed childish fears that "the Obama budget is a liberal, big government document that should make moderates nervous."

 

Obama’s "senior" team members rushed to calm Brooks’ nerves by telling him that (by Brooks’ account) "they do not see themselves" as "liberal crusaders" in pursuit of "some grand transformation of America" but as non-ideological "pragmatists" seeking to "restore balance" to America (D. Brooks, "When Obamanots Respond," New York Times, March 6, 2009). I’m guessing that the people who called Brooks included Obama’s top political consultant and media maven David Axelrod and White House communications director Robert Gibbs.

 

Here’s a translation Brooks would never give of what the leading Obama operatives said to him: "Please don’t worry your anxious little power-worshipping brain. We are as committed as the Republicans to the preservation of the profits system and to protecting the unjust wealth and prerogatives of the hyper-opulent capitalist Few. We are not about to commit government to serving the common good, public welfare, and social justice and equality Don’t get fooled by our pseudo-progressive campaign and stimulus  rhetoric about Hope and Change.  We thought you’d been reading the fine print. We have to sound a little populist to properly manage the expectations of the deluded rabble. Relax David, we are all on the same corporate-neoliberal – sorry, we mean ‘pragmatic’ and ‘non-ideological’ – team here." [1]

 

Consistent with this "cynical" translation [2] translation Obama’s messengers informed Brooks that they hope to bring federal spending down from 27 percent to 22 percent of GDP "in a few years."  The only reason it’s currently at 27 percent, the "Obamanots" (Brooks’ term) told the reactionary Times (and "Public" Broadcasting System) pundit, is that the U.S. population has been aging as of late.  "It’s not caused by big increases in the welfare state" – not, that is, if we respect conventional doctrine by deleting gigantic public payouts to Wall Street and the "defense" industry from our understanding of government assistance.

 

Obama’s people told Brooks that they plan to bring "nondefense discretionary spending" down from 4.6 percent of GDP to 3.1 percent by 2019.  Brooks described such expenditure as "spending for education, welfare, and all that stuff that Democrats love." 

 

The columnist left out three things out here.  First, Democrats don’t really "love all that stuff" (odd that he did not include health care and environmental protection and civil rights and much more) very much since they don’t really work to fund them very heavily compared (for example) to the amount – well into the trillions [3] – they are ready to spend on rewarding failed financial institutions and sustaining a permanent war economy.

 

Second, the U.S. populace (at one with government in a functioning democracy) likes "all that stuff" a great deal, as opinion surveys regularly show [4].  They would like increased levels of education, welfare, health care (and other "Democratic stuff" like that) in the ever more poverty-ridden U.S., the industrialized world’s most unequal society – a country that denies basic health coverage to nearly 50 million of its citizens. For what it’s worth, the amount that Obama is spending on dysfunctional bankers’ bailouts [5] – granted with no real strings attached to the very parasitic companies that recklessly crashed the economy in the first place – and the military dwarfs his proposed "down payment on universal health care" and his broader "economic stimulus," which even the Times calls considerably leaner than what many economists say is now needed to jolt the economy, given its grave condition."[6]

 

And third, the populace would like the government move to shift money out of the Pentagon’s giant and heavily corporate-welfarist pot of "defense" (empire) spending and into the meeting of human needs.  The citizenry’s longstanding desire for a peace dividend is consistent with Dr. Martin Luther King’s observation (exactly one year before his execution) that a nation (the U.S.) is "approaching spiritual death" when it "continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift." [7]  Nearly thirty-two years after King made this observation, the U.S. government violates its own populace’s expressed desires with a federal budget in which Pentagon outlays outweighs: health care by nearly 2 to 1; anti-poverty spending by more than 5 to 1; education, training, and social services by 10.4 to 1; housing and community development by 14 to 1.[8]  While many tens of millions live below the notoriously inadequate poverty level in "the world’s richest nation," that nation’s government spends $1 trillion per year [9] on a "defense" budget that pays for nearly half the military spending on Earth and maintains more than 760 military bases in more than 130 countries.

 

Obama’s operatives also reassured the "moderate" Brooks that the new president is "extremely committed to entitlement reform and it is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending."  They boasted that the Obama "spend[s] as much time resisting liberal ideas as enacting them," nobly "resist[ing] union pressure" by "cap[ping] pay increases for government workers" and "resist[ing] efforts to create mandatory veterans’ health benefits." (Brooks, "When Obamanots Respond"). It is apparently irrelevant to Brooks and the senior "Obamanots" who spoke to him that all of this is contrary to the majority policy sentiments of the U.S. populace, which opposes rollbacks in Social Security and government health care spending, supports adequate care for veterans, and is hardly in the mood for further pay freezes.

 

The deeply conservative, corporate-centrist policy attitudes – well to the right of the citizenry – expressed in the Obama team’s "conversations" with Brooks are offensive enough in and of themselves.  But just or nearly as revolting (and revealing) is the fact that the supposedly "progressive" new White House sent four high-level administration staffers to talk to the right-wing Brooks at all. The elitist University of Chicago graduate and former Hoover Institute fellow David Brooks is thoroughly out of touch with the needs and values of ordinary working people.  Most of those people logically support the minimally progressive social programs and agenda they thought – and were given reason to think – Obama was going to pursue. Why would "progressive" policymakers give a damn about David Brooks?

 

Over on the other side of last Friday’s New York Times Op-Ed page, interestingly enough, we learned one of the many reasons that Brooks’ fear of Obama’s supposed leftism is laughable.  In a column titled "The Big Dither," the liberal Democratic Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning Princeton economist Paul Krugman noted that the Obama administration’s capitalist inertia and conservatism is preventing it from facing up to the basic fact that the giant banks it insists on bailing out with massive wealth transfers are essentially insolvent.  Without developing the elementary half-progressive vision to undertake (at least temporary) nationalization, the new neoliberal White House is violating public trust and its occasionally populist-sounding campaign promises by "showering benefits," Krugman observes, on "people who don’t need or deserve to be rescued." [10]

 

While Brooks frets over supposed creeping government radicalism, his intellectual superior Krugman suggests a different and deeper reality .He (rightly) implies the ever-more disgusting continuation of the standard old farce: public subsidy and "socialism" for the rich along with Darwinian market discipline and capitalism for the rest of us.

 

Did Axelrod and/or Gibbs get on the phone to calm down Krugman? I doubt it. It is a good indication of how conservative the Obama administration really is that mildly progressive mainstream economist Krugman was blacklisted from the new president’s militantly corporate-neoliberal economic team, along with other "supposedly left of center" [11] economists like James Gailbraith and Joseph Stiglitz.

 

During the campaign, Obama’s chief economic advisor was a centrist University of Chicago economist named Austan Goolsbee – the fellow who told conservative Canadian officials not to worry about Obama’s meaningless populist-sounding campaign rhetoric on NAFTA last June [12].  At one stop during the campaign, Goolsbee spotted Brooks in the press team and "gushed" when the Republican columnist agreed to pose with him for a picture [13].

 

That interesting little incident spoke volumes about the moral and ideological character of the corporate Obama team, absurdly described as "free of ideology" [14] by its media admirers and as "socialist" by ludicrous right-wing screech monkeys like Sean Hannity.

 

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

 

 

Paul Street ([email protected]) is a veteran radical ex-historian in Iowa City, IA.  Street’s books include Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008, order at www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987). Street will speak on "Change and Continuity: An Assessment of Obama’s Early Administration" on Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at 7pm, Paul Engle Center, 1600 4th Av SE Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

 

 

NOTES

 

1.  Please see my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), pp. ix-58, 123-164 for an exhaustive pre-election critique of the Obama team’s claim to be beyond ideology and for a treatment of the new president’s historical attachment to dominant corporate and imperial doctrines.

 

2. As George Bernard Shaw once said, "The power of accurate observation is frequently called cynicism by those who don’t have it."

 

3.  As the editors of the venerable monthly socialist magazine Monthly Review note, "The U.S. government  in this crisis has thus far committed $8.5 trillion in support programs primarily aimed at salvaging banks (through capital injections, loans, guaranteeing debts) while the banks continue to collapse."  "Notes from The Editor," Monthly Review (March 2009).

 

4.  Paul Street, "Americans’ Progressive Majority Opinions vs. ‘The Shadow Cast on Society by Big Business," ZNet Sustainer Commentary (May 15, 2008), read at http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/commentaries/3491

 

 

5.  See David Lindorff, "Kiss the Banks Goodbye," CounterPunch (March 6-8, 2009) on "the futility and stupidity of the Fed’s and the Obama administration’s policy of pumping ever more money into failing banks and insurance companies in a vain effort to get them lending again."  As Lindorff explains, "obtaining financing is not the reason people are not buying cars. People are not buying cars because they are worried about having a job to enable them to pay back the loan. It’s the same reason people aren’t buying houses. It’s not that you cannot get a mortgage. There are plenty of smaller banks that would be happy to lend money to buy a house these days. But who’s going to go out and buy a house in this economy? First of all, to buy a house, unless you are a first-time buyer, you have to sell your current house, but that would mean taking a huge loss. Indeed, one in five homes in America today is technically ‘underwater’—that is, it is worth less than the outstanding mortgage on the property. Probably another one in five are worth little more than the outstanding mortgage. No one would sell a house under either such circumstance." Further: "with the economy still in free fall, with companies laying off American workers at a rate of over 20,000 per day, with real unemployment soaring past 18 percent—one in six American workers are now either out of work and looking for a job, out of work and giving up looking, or involuntarily working part-time—and with family wealth more than 50% eroded away, there is simply no way that Americans are going to turn around and start borrowing and spending again. And given that the American economy is 72% composed of consumer spending, there is no way that the economy is bouncing back anytime soon….That means that the hundreds of billions of dollars that are being poured into the likes of Citibank and AIG are being completely wasted. It is simply a pointless and scandalous transfer or wealth from the American public to the shareholders of these companies—the very companies and people who caused this catastrophe in the first place." read Lindorff’s essay at http://www.counterpunch.org/lindorff03062009.html

 

6. David M.  Herszenhorn and Carl Hulse, "Deal Reached in Congress on $789 Billion Stimulus Plan," New York Times (February 11, 2009). The scale of the Obama stimulus and its promised job creation (3 million) comes nowhere close to meeting the real job creation and needs of the American people (of whom 13 million are now officially unemployed, with joblessness rising by a half-million per month). The plan is loaded with regressive tax cuts (mostly directed at business interests and spread across a decade) that will do little to stimulate recovery but plenty to appease the arch-plutocratic Republicans and reward the affluent. According to the left economist Jack Rasmus notes, "Not only is the magnitude of the Obama program insufficient, not only is too large a portion of the program wasted on tax cuts, but even the composition of the spending proposals are not structured to retain or create jobs." See Jack Rasmus, "Obama’s Economic Plan vs. An Alternative," Z Magazine (March 2009). 

 

7.  Martin Luther King, Jr., "A Time to Break the Silence," Speech to the Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967. Read at http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article2564.htm

 

 

8. National Priorities Project, "Where Do Your Tax Dollars Go?" read at http://www.nationalpriorities.org/taxday2008 (accessed March 8, 2009)

 

9. John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney, "The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending," Monthly Review (October 2008).

 

10.  Paul Krugman, "The Great Dither," New York Times (March 6, 2009).

 

11. I am quoting John Bellamy Foster on Krugman and Stiglitz.  Foster, "A Failed System: The World Crisis of Capitalist Globalization and Its Impact on China," Monthly Review (March 2009), p.4.

 

12. CTV News Staff, "Obama Staffer Gave Warning of FANFTA Rhetoric," www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20080227/dems_nafta_080227/20080227?

 

 

13.  Norman Scheiber, "The Audacity of Data," New Republic (March 12, 2008).

 

 

 

14.  Scheiber, "The Audacity of Data."

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