“Getting Things Done” With Obama

Recently I was speaking to a liberal friend about a writer I thought might be a good reviewer for a book I recently published on the Barack Obama phenomenon. 


"He seems to be a lot less left than he used to be," I said about this writer.


"I think," my friend responded, "he decided he wants to get things done."


It’s an old American trope: leftists don’t live in the real world; they don’t want or know how to "get things done." They don’t have concrete and practical alternatives. They just want to complain. They are dysfunctional.


In an article on Obama’s political origins in Chicago one of his early campaign staffers approvingly recalls how the young Obama ruffled the feathers of "black activists" and "community folks" with seeming indifference to "the struggle" and "the movement" in his practical quest "get the job done." (Ryan Lizza, "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama," The New Yorker, July 21, 2008).


The dichotomy between inherently counter-productive "ideology" and "getting things done" is a major theme in Obama’s campaign and career. Again and again, he introduces his cabinet picks and policy ideas with stern admonitions about the need to steer a practical "get things done" course between the "ideologies" of the right and left, as if any key U.S. government agencies or policies have recently fallen under the direction of Marxists. 


The "get things done" narrative is a big part of what "mainstream" (dominant corporate) media commentators say in support of the President Elect. Obama, the line goes, isn’t an "ideologue," he’s a "pragmatist."  He soars above the unproductive realm of "ideology" to embody the practical, can-do spirit inhabited by "most Americans." He wants to "get things done."


Obama and his team of "the best and brightest" apparently have no ideology of their own. They’re just "can-do" folks interested in using technical expertise to make policy in accord with the no-nonsense American people, who reject "ideology."



Skirting "The Real Issue to be Faced"


But who doesn’t want to "get things done," really? And how much of a virtue is it to want to "get things done"?  The highly ideological fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was hailed by Western businessmen for his practical success in making the trains run on time.  Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin certainly "got things done." So did Richard Nixon and George W. Bush and so on.


A President Obama may not seem likely to transgress on the level of these criminals, of course.  That’s good but progressives have sound reasons to be concerned about his definition of "getting things done."  According to Larissa MacFarquhar in a carefully researched piece on the President Elect last year, the solutions offered in Obama’s writings, speeches, and town-hall meetings are "small and local rather than deep-reaching and systemic."  Such refusal to advance large reform – e.g. single-payer health insurance on the Canadian model – reflects what MacFarquhar found to be Obama’s "deeply conservative" take on history, society and politics: "In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good."


MacFarquhar found that Obama’s "deep conservatism" was why "Republicans continue to find him congenial, especially those who opposed the war on much the same conservative grounds that he did." (Larissa MacFarquhar, The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?," The New Yorker, (May 7, 2007)  


"Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama," Ryan Lizza noted in the New Yorker last July. "is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them" (Lizza, "Making It")


The problem here is that American and world citizens are facing problems that go beyond small-scale solutions and beyond existing dominant institutions. As John Bellamy Foster has recently noted, we currently inhabit a period where "life on the planet as we know it can be destroyed either instantaneously through global nuclear holocaust, or in a matter of a few generations by climate change and other manifestations of environmental destruction." As Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney recently argued in Monthly Review, "A society that supports its global position and social order though $1 trillion a year in military spending, most likely far exceeding that of all the other countries in the world put together – unleashing untold destruction on the world, while faced with intractable problems of inequality, economic stagnation, financial crisis, poverty, waste, and environmental decline at home – is a society that is ripe for change." (John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney, "The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending," Monthly Review, October 2008).


Put less delicately, it is a society overdue for revolution – for what the democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King called "real issue to be faced" beyond "superficial" problems:  "radical reconstruction of society itself." (Martin Luther King Jr, "A Testament of Hope" [1968], reproduced in Martin Luther King, Jr.., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by James M. Washington [San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1991]).



King rejected efforts to get him to run for the U.S. presidency in part because he wasn’t interested in cutting moral and ideological corners in accord with the wildly disproportionate influence that concentrated economic and military power exercise over U.S. electoral politics and policy. I’d like to see Obama dismiss Dr. King as an impractical "ideologue."



Coming Up Short on Health Care and Economics


More than a generation after King was killed for including radical change in his can- and must-do list for America,  Obama’s "Guaranteed Choice" health care plan amounts to a probably unworkable "half way solution" that falls well short of the public’s longstanding desire for universal national health insurance.  It preserves the power and profits of the institutions most responsible for the health care crisis – private insurance and pharmaceutical corporations.  "Despite Barack Obama’s avowed hopes for change," Roger Bybee notes, the President Elect’s ealth reform, "manacled to private insurers, may ultimately deepen public cynicism of the possibility of meaningful reform." (Z Magazine, December 2008).


In a similar vein, "Obamanomics" at best falls short of the bold progressive initiatives and challenges to financial and corporate power required to spark equitable domestic development. As adjusted in response to the banking crisis and deepening recession, moreover, Obama’s economic program could well amount to "something akin to a national austerity program…" Instead of forward movement on jobs, education, retirement, and health care, Jack Rasmus finds, "what me may well get is ‘Let’s all tighten our belts to get through this crisis.’" (Z Magazine, December 2008).[1] 


But like most of the nation’s elected office-holders, Obama supports a massive taxpayer-funded bailout of leading Wall Street financial and insurance firms deemed "too big [and powerful] to fail" – a curious government payout for parasitic enterprises that have driven the national and global economy into the ground.  The leading Wall Street firm Morgan Stanley alone is slated to receive tens of billions of federal dollars – a giant state capital dividend approved by Obama even as the firm’s analysts approvingly observe Obama’s "agree[ment]" with conventional establishment wisdom  – and ideology – holding that "there is no peace dividend" (see Paul Street, " ‘ There is No Peace Dividend’: Reflections on Empire, Inequality, and ‘Brand Obama,’" Z Magazine [January 2009 – forthcoming]).



A "Superficial Reform" for Ex-Offenders


I learned a thing or two about Obama’s definition of "getting things done" back when Obama was still a state senator.  In the fall of 2002, I published a study documenting the remarkable extent to which city, county, and state authorities in and around Chicago were exacerbating black social and economic disadvantage by saddling an astonishing number of African Americans with prison histories and the lifelong mark of a criminal record.  Among my findings: (1) there were nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than enrolled in the state’s public universities in the 2001-2002 school year; (2) Chicago area black male ex-felons were equivalent in number to 42 percent of the metropolitan region’s black male workforce; (3) ten very predominantly black Chicago zip codes received 25 percent of Illinois prisoners released in the years 2000, 2001, and 2002; (4) the chance of securing legitimate employment decreases significantly with prison time and ex-prisoners suffer a lifetime "wage penalty" (earnings reduction) as high as 30 percent.                                    


The study, titled The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Community and Jobs (Chicago Urban League, 2002) was released at a day-long conference in October of 2002 on the South Side of Chicago – a major event on a racial justice and economic development issue that had long escaped adequate attention.  State senator Barack Obama was a featured speakers at this gathering. 


The Vicious Circle became part of the arsenal used by activists to push for two state bills meant to ease ex-offender employment barriers in Illinois.  The first bill, sponsored by the progressive Chicago-based state representative Constance Howard (the 2003 Ex-offender Expungement and Sealing Act )  permitted the sealing (from review by employers and the public) of criminal records for Illinois ex-prisoners – four years after their release – who have been convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors and certain low-level Class 4 felonies (minor drug possession and prostitution).  The act also allowed the expungement (the actual destruction) of all records – with 2 to 3 year waiting periods depending on the offense – for a small number of minor criminal cases, including arrests that did not result in a conviction and first-time possession of marijuana.


The second bill, sponsored by state legislator Obama mandated the issuing of "Certificates of Relief from Disability" [CRDs] by the Illinois Department of Correction’s Prisoner Review Board to certain ex-offenders. Modeled weakly on a much stronger law in New York, the legislation originally permitted a first "offender" who had been convicted of no more than one non-violent felony to apply to the courts or to the Prisoner Review Board to receive a Certificate purportedly entitling them not to be denied an occupational or professional license in fifteen (subsequently expanded to twenty-eight) specified and mostly skilled employment fields because of a previous conviction.                                                          


These progressive-sounding bills meant very little in reality. By my best estimates in a  2006 program evaluation conducted for the Chicago-based advocacy organization Protestants for the Common Good (PCG), all but a small portion of Illinois prison inmates – probably no more than 5 percent – were ineligible for records sealing, much less expungement, under Rep. Howard’s law. (It didn’t help that, as the New York Times reported in the fall of 2006, employers enjoy widespread access to private criminal history databases that commonly omit expungements).  


Obama’s bill – subsequently expanded to include second-time nonviolent offenders -cast a slightly wider net over the prisoner and ex-offender community. Given the remarkable recidivism that characterizes the inmate population and the large percentage of inmates serving time for technically violent offenses, however, the margin of difference was not terribly great. At the same time, Obama’s bill did nothing about the persistently high de facto barriers to ex-offender employment in Illinois.  It contained no capacity to compel occupational licensure, much less actual employment, of qualified ex-offender applicants.


It covered only a very small percentage of mostly skilled occupations that were and remain beyond the each of the ex-offender population regardless of explicit and/or de facto barriers to the training and/or hiring of people with criminal records. [2]


The conclusions of a 2006 PCG test-project seeking to evaluate the Obama bill’s outcomes and relevance were less than surprising.  PCG found that the legislation, "while well-intended," had "very limited applicability as currently drafted. The number of ex-offenders" who were assisted in any meaningful way, was "small indeed."


Obama’s legislation anticipated a key warning made two years later by leading national prisoner reentry expert Jeremy Travis in his award-winning 2006 study But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentr. "The risk at this juncture," Travis warned about a recent upsurge in ex-offender reintegration policies, "is the allure of success …We must not confuse superficial reforms with profound changes."  Highly advertised small changes can work against real and substantive change.


By "the allure of success," Travis meant at least in part the thirst of legislators to pad their resumes with progressive sounding policy-changes that actually did very little for the nation’s vast and disproportionately black army of prisoners and felons. 


For what it’s worth, I am not at all convinced that Obama’s legislation was "well-intended." Insiders told me it was deliberately "watered down" under the influence of powerful conservative players (including the leading corporate-neoliberal downtown Chicago organization Metropolis 2020 and the state-prison-affiliated Safer Foundation) and in order for the ambitious Obama to avoid an unpleasant "floor fight" with reactionary "downstate" legislators who enjoyed fiscal and legislative-apportionment windfalls accruing to their districts from racially disparate mass incarceration.


Obama wanted to "get something done" largely for his political and policy resume, regardless of his bill’s consequences for the (ex-offender) population in question.


"Bringing People Together To Get Things Done" By Helping Kill Universal Health Care


Reviewing  Obama’s ex-offender law,  I was reminded of the critical role Obama played at the end of his Illinois Assembly tenure in helping the insurance industry kill legislative efforts towards universal health coverage in Illinois. Working with Republicans and insurance corporation lobbyists who later extolled him for honoring their interests, he intervened to (again) "water down" the state’s "Health Care Justice Act" to mean little more than the setting up of a panel to research the supposedly mysterious question of how to provide universal coverage – a panel that gave the private insurance industry significant influence in how the issue would be approached. 


At the beginning of 2004, the state’s progressive health-care advocates had high hopes for passing a newly introduced bill that would have made it official state policy to ensure that all Illinois residents could access "quality healthcare at costs that are reasonable." The state governor’s office, legislature, and courts were all simultaneously controlled by Democrats for the first time in a long while.  It seemed like an opportune moment for progressive activists coalesced around the Illinois Campaign for Better Health Care.


Insurers expressed their fear that the language of the proposed bill would lead to a "government takeover of healthcare."  By the time the bill became law, containing three amendments written by Obama, they had little to worry about. As finally passed, the legislation merely established universal healthcare as a policy goal. It set up a task force charged only with studying how to expand healthcare access – a panel that gave (thanks to one of Obama’s amendments) insurers a big voice on how the task force developed its plan. And as the Boston Globe’s Scott Helman noted in a September 2007 feature, insurance "lobbyists praised Obama for taking the insurance industry’s concerns into consideration. ‘Barack is a very reasonable person who clearly recognized the various roles involved in the healthcare system,’ said Phil Lackman, a lobbyist for insurance agents and brokers. Obama ‘understood our concern that we didn’t want a predetermined outcome.’" By Hellman’s instructive account:

"In one attempt at a deal, Obama approached the Campaign for Better Health Care with insurers’ concerns, asking if the group would consider a less stringent mandate than requiring the state to come up with a universal healthcare plan. The coalition decided not to bend, said Jim Duffett, the group’s executive director."


" ‘ The concept of the Health Care Justice Act was to bring the sides – the different perspectives and stakeholders – to the table,’ Duffett said. ‘In this situation, Obama was being a conduit from the insurance industry to us.’"


"Obama later watered down the bill after hearing from insurers and after a legal precedent surfaced during the debate indicating that it would be unconstitutional for one legislative assembly to pass a law requiring a future legislative assembly to craft a healthcare plan."


"During debate on the bill on May 19, 2004, Obama portrayed himself as a conciliatory figure. He acknowledged that he had ‘worked diligently with the insurance industry,’ as well as Republicans, to limit the legislation’s reach and noted that the bill had undergone a ‘complete restructuring’ after industry representatives ‘legitimately’ raised fears that it would result in a single-payer system."


" ‘ The original presentation of the bill was the House version that we radically changed – we radically changed – and we changed in response to concerns that were raised by the insurance industry,’ Obama said, according to the session transcript."


According to Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki in the summer of 2007, Obama’s experience with the Health Care Justice "showed him that real change comes not by dividing but by bringing people together to get things done" (Scott Helman, "In Illinois, Obama Dealt with Lobbyists," Boston Globe, 23 September 2007).



"Thinking Ahead"



By the time the reality of how he helped undermine universal health care efforts in Illinois received any public attention, Obama had moved on to the U.S. Senate, where his passion for "getting things done" included making it more difficult for ordinary people to recover decent damages from corporations in court, voting twice to unconditionally fund the criminal occupation of Iraq, and voting twice for the totalitarian Patriotic Act – the second time (last spring) with increased  wiretapping power and retroactive immunity for telecommunications corporations.


From the minute he got into the U.S. Senate, getting elected to a higher office – either Illinois Governor or the U.S. presidency – was already at the top of his practical to-do list. "One evening in February 2005, in a four-hour meeting stoked by pepperoni pizza and great ambition." the Chicago Tribune reported in the spring of 2007, "Sen. Barack Obama and his senior advisors crafted a strategy to fit the Obama ‘brand.’" The meeting took place just weeks after Obama had been sworn into the elite representative body of the federal United States government.  According to Tribune Washington Bureau reporters Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons:


"The charismatic celebrity-politicians had rocketed from the Illinois state legislature to the U.S. Senate, stirring national interest.  The challenge was to maintain altitude despite the limited tools available to a freshman senator whose party was in a minority."


"Yet even in those early days, Obama and his advisors were thinking ahead. Some called it the ‘2010-2012-2016′ plan: a potential bid for governor or re-election to the Senate in 2010, followed by a bid for the White House as soon as 2012, not 2016.   The way to get there, they decided, was by carefully building a record that matched the brand identity: Obama as a unifier and consensus builder, and almost postpolitical leader."


"The staffers in that after-hours session. Convened by Obama’s Senate staff and including Chicago political advisor David Axlerod, planned a low-profile strategy that would emphasize workhorse results over headlines.  Obama would invest in the long-term profile by not seeming too eager for the bright lights."



The title of the article in which this story appeared was "Carefully Crafting the Obama Brand." (Chicago Tribune, 12 June, 2007, sec.1. p.1).


"Getting things done" ("workhorse results") would be a key part of the "brand."



False Dichotomies


Observers are free to call Obama’s policy agenda and team an expression of" non-ideological" "pragmatism."  The deeper truth is that they reflect the incrementalist spirit of pseudo-progressive "third way" corporate centrism in the well-trod footsteps of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. My recent study Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008) shows that Obama can in fact (with some basic critical investigation) be found on the ideological spectrum. Like the John F. Kennedy (JFK) depicted in Bruce Miroff’s remarkable and forgotten New Left study Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John Fitzgerald Kennedy  and in Noam Chomsky’s instructive Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture, Obama is a "progressive" of a very particular corporate, imperial, and racially neutral type. With Obama, as with the neoliberal icon JFK, this is the dark reality behind deceptive claims of post-ideological and nonpartisan commitment to technical expertise


At the same time, it is worth nothing that my liberal friend and others who contrast radical ideas with practical "get things done" politics are advancing something of a false dichotomy. Again and again in American history, we have seen that in-power Democrats move off their attachment to concentrated wealth and power only when they are faced with serious threats of popular rebellion and radical change from below. Big and meaningful reforms – and we need serious reforms (e.g. single-payer national health insurance, massive public works programs, and the restoration of union organizing rights in this country), however insufficient they may be in and of themselves – are only attained when elites are convinced that the cost of changing is less than the cost of not changing. The change comes when the governing class believes popular forces are ready, willing, and able to create serious disruption and move society to the left. That’s a "pragmatic" reason that progressives should not to shirk from calling for revolution [3].



"An Accurate Translation"


As for the timeworn claim that true-progressive radical leftists are just do-nothing "antis," perpetually alienated people who have no interest in advancing practical alternatives, this is what ruling classes and their apologists have always said about those who dare to advance serious and urgently needed progressive change.  "One commonly hears," Chomsky wrote, "that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions.  There is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’" (Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York, NY: Metropolitan, 2006, p. 262).  




Paul Street’s books include Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005);  Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York, 2007), and, most recently Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm,2008),order at www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987

Paul can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com.







1. Underlying systemic contradictions related to the deepening economic crisis may drive Obama to introduce some measures that will seem comparatively progressive in relation to the last thirty-five years of U.S. economic policy. For a real and genuinely progressive recovery to occur, however, popular agency on the model of the recent factory occupation at Chicago’s Republic Door and Window plant will be required, as in previous periods of reform. As Howard Zinn noted in The Progressive last March: the Democrats "offer no radical change from the status quo. They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure. They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live. None of this should surprise us. The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties."


2. According to the best estimates, nearly a third of prisoners in the U.S. are not working when arrested – a jobless rate far beyond that of the population as a whole. Nearly half (46 percent) of prisoners have never held a job longer than two years.  Prisoners are more than twice as likely as low-wage workers to be high school dropouts: nearly 60 percent versus 30 percent.  A third of low-wage male workers have either a college degree or some college or vocational education, but only 7 percent of prisoners possess such qualifications.


3. The other reason is more existential.  We cannot meaningfully attain democracy, peace, social justice or ecological sustainability (all interrelated) under the inherently perverted priorities of the state-capitalist Profits System and its intimately related global empire.  Dr. King’s "radical reconstruction of society itself" is something we must put on our "get things done" list if we want the species to survive the next 20 years in any decent and recognizably desirable and democratic form.

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