At the start of Iran’s mass uprising against the shah in 1978, there was a popular rumor in the country that Ayatollah Khomeini’s image could be seen in the moon. As Nazar Nafisi recalls in her bestseller "Reading Lolita in Tehran," "Many people, even perfectly modern and educated individuals, came to believe this. They had seen him in the moon."
It was an illusion, of course. But the messianic reverence for Iran’s opposition leader spoke of the degree to which people’s hopes for a brighter future were stirred by the unfolding mass revolt against one of Washington’s favorite tyrants. Unfortunately, the nascent popular hopes for democracy and social justice born of the shah’s overthrow would soon fall decisively before the hanging gallows that was and is the Islamic Republic.
In the United States there is little place in politics for ayatollahs. Nor is our political culture inclined to see images of our leaders in the heavens. As a nation we prefer instead to cultivate our political hopes through professional advertising campaigns employing vacuous slogans and costing hundreds of millions of dollars. We even give awards for the best of those campaigns, as Advertising Age did when it awarded Barack Obama and his "Change We Can Believe In" the industry journal’s 2008 Marketer of the Year award. A $748 million campaign fund may not buy a billboard on the moon, but it can buy belief by the ballot box.
No doubt liberal and progressive America by the tens of millions did believe. But in the end said "change" may be about as substantive as those Apple computers ads that tell us to "think different." In office now for over a year the Obama luster is rapidly wearing thin. With Republican Scott Brown’s upset victory over Democrat Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts Senate race comes now the first blunt taste of backlash. It should not have come as a surprise. When the rhetoric of change fails to triumph over a so far largely unchanged reality, well…. there’s a price to pay.
Jobs, Health Care, and Republicans in Pick-up Trucks
To Florida Rep. Alan Grayson and other Democrats, Coakley’s loss was more about bumbling campaign gaffes than anything else. Appearing as one of those caricatured out-of-touch, elitist liberals who thinks Curt Schilling is a "Yankees fan," or doesn’t want to campaign in Fenway Park in cold weather, is apparently far more of a disaster than a ten percent unemployment rate. The Republican did drive a pick-up truck, after all.
Let the Democrats believe what they want. The Republican victory reflects growing anger and frustration among voters with a weak economy and even weaker prospects for genuine solutions from a Democratic White House and Congress. In Massachusetts especially, voters are already well aware what happens when the state mandates everyone buy health insurance, but does little to regulate costs. With a captive market, state health insurance costs have only accelerated upward to among the highest in the nation.
Now comes the President’s state of the union message with its anticipated new call for a spending freeze on some domestic programs. But, of course, nothing will be done to rein in the Pentagon, or, for that matter, the huge burden of grossly inefficient for-profit health care. The one health proposal that actually had a chance of saving money while providing true universal care for the American people—non-profit, single-payer health care—was off the legislative table from the start. Instead, both the current and previous presidents endorsed massive bailouts to Wall Street bankers, with no mandate as to how that money must be spent. True to form the banks remain lending misers at home, while investing abroad and doling out newly generous executive bonuses.
Understandably, after eight years of George W. Bush, those with progressive aspirations were desperate to embrace any Democratic candidate who talked of "change." With Obama the public got a politician who "is all about the art of the possible within the system," as writer David Sirota noted in a 2006 profile for The Nation. But that’s the problem. What is needed now is change of an entirely different order. The "art of the possible" in a health care system dominated by for-profit insurance companies, for example, is less about art or possibility than the rotten compromise.
That, sadly, is what Obama and Congress is intent on giving us. From the start the President’s health reform initiative was determined to preserve the stinking albatross of an insurance industry that really should just get the hell out of the health care "business." Accordingly, months of congressional wrangling has reduced the once lofty campaign vision of "universal" health care to a few anticipated insurance reforms the New York Times calls "little more than more of the same" for 160 million American workers and their dependents. The legislative debate has also taken a toll on the public spirit, revealing with disheartening certitude just how much influence the insurance lobby has over a tamed Congress.
Unfortunately, the President’s priorities include not only preserving the insurance industry’s hold over health care, but fidelity to the obsequious mantra of bi-partisanship. Such priorities apparently preclude leading a real fight to defeat Republican Party/Blue Dog Democrat obstructionism. Indeed, on issue after issue the moderate Obama consistently shouts down whatever progressive sentiments he might personally entertain on weekends and holidays. But that’s just the point. Obama the speechmaker and "community organizer" has always been versed at the art of adroit generalities on peace and social justice. But as a working politician he is really just another ho-hum corporate politico who thinks all the scheming stock in trade of what it means to be a successful Washington insider are the real stuff of success.
Stepping Smartly Into Disaster Abroad
It only gets worse when the art of the possible goes international. The presidential candidate who once courted the country’s strong antiwar sentiment as an up-and-coming critic of President Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, Obama now flexes his own imperial mettle with officious speeches about why we need 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Such foreign policy folly is supposedly tempered by the fact that we now have a "smart" leader in the White House, who, unlike the previous administration of right-wing dunderheads, values such things as "flexibility" and "collaboration" with allies. It’s also supposedly promising to talk about "timelines" for withdrawal, even if your secretary of state basically admits such things are not to be taken seriously.
Watching the President’s West Point speech on Afghanistan it was hard not to see the moment as a tragic denouement, the moment the lofty rhetoric of campaign 2008 turned into the same old, same old of 2009. But the denouement belongs less to Obama than to a progressive base that wants desperately to believe his election represented a turning point in the nation’s fortunes. Unfortunately, what they got was less a speech of the "another world is possible" vein than a grimy blueprint of the heartache to come for the next generation of war victims.
It’s already happening, of course. According to a recent Times of London report, U.S. troops dragged eight children from their homes and shot them during a nighttime raid on December 27 in the eastern province of Kunar. Perhaps the victim’s families will be expected to find consolation knowing they were killed under the leadership of a concerned American liberal, instead of that crude warmonger George W. Bush?
Ironically, while the fire of militarism burns bright in Afghanistan, the flame for justice in housing, healthcare, and jobs seems never quite adequate to the challenge. With official unemployment expected to reach 10.2 percent later this year, most economists expect high unemployment will continue well beyond Obama’s first term. That’s a nice way of saying don’t expect any far-reaching political solution anytime soon from our leaders to the market’s cruel impositions. Instead the administration persists in its own Democratic version of trickle-down economics. Take care of the Wall Street folks first, and supposedly when they’re doing well everyone else will start doing well. The only problem with that is that Wall Street is already on the rebound, which explains why U.S. banks and securities firms happily paid their executives nearly 18 percent more in 2009 than the previous year.
Admittedly, the Wall Street bailout is provoking growing public disgust with the bloated class and their undisguised avarice. That’s why the White House recently announced a new Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee (FCRF) designed to recoup taxpayer money from TARP beneficiaries. But the FCRF won’t do much to change the larger "bloat" of the casino finance economy. Over the last 10 years commercial and investment banking has become one large playground for the parasitic aspirations of rich investors. Thanks to the administration’s disinclination to seriously re-regulate the finance sector, there’s little standing in the way of future economic havoc coming from this crowd.
Are the Democrats Capable of Giving Us Anything?
The election-year hopes of many for a new New Deal (or even New Deal Lite) has turned instead into another dispirited march through the thick mud of established politics. It’s as if the Democrats in power can’t give the people even one damn thing to feel good about anymore. No wonder Progressives for Obama founder Tom Hayden recently announced he had stripped the Obama bumper sticker off his car. Or MSNBC host Ed Schultz, another Obama supporter, now warns the President, as he did on his December 17 show, "Right now your base thinks you’re a sellout, a corporate sellout at that." Or Arianna Huffington can declare, as she did in her January 18 Huffington Post column, "Our system is too broken to be fixed by politicians, however well intentioned."
The rules of mainstream politics say "serious" candidates are only those mature and responsible folks who accept the essential underpinnings of our "free enterprise" economic system as sacrosanct. Of course, it’s perfectly fine to talk about "change" and "reform," even of the "historic" kind, just so long as at the end of the day the people with the real money remain the people with the real money.
Unfortunately, a practical reformer like Barack Obama invariably faces the thorny reality that it’s the people with the real money who are the source of most of society’s real problems. The crazy talk from Republican’s about Obama’s "socialist" inclinations cannot hide the fact that the real "cash for clunkers" program turns out to be the ongoing bipartisan bailout of Wall Street by the American public.
After a year of hopeful expectation in the Obama presidency, a disappointed Huffington now concludes, "change is going to have to come from outside Washington." She’s right about that. We need to rediscover what leaders of earlier movements for civil rights, peace in Vietnam, the eight-hour day, and the right of women to vote came to understand—the power of the street.
Now that’s the kind of change we can really believe in.
Mark Harris is a former senior editor for the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. He has written for Counterpunch, Utne, Z, and other magazines and is a contributor to "The Flexible Writer," fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). Website: www.Mark-T-Harris.com. Email: [email protected].