Will Obama Be Democrats’ Herbert Hoover?

Was it only this past March that Tom Hayden et al of the newly formed Progressives for Obama proclaimed "the future has arrived" in the form of Barack Obama’s upstart presidential campaign?

Declaring the Obama campaign "just what America needs," Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Danny Glover, and Barbara Ehrenreich anointed Obama an alternative to "the dismal status quo politics that has failed so far to deliver peace, healthcare, full employment and effective answers to crises like global warming."

Unfortunately, "the fresh wind of change" these veteran political activists saw in Obama’s surging spring campaign has already turned into a storm of summer doubts among many of the candidate’s progressive backers. Much to their consternation, Obama’s trajectory since securing the party nomination has largely geared toward reassuring the political establishment that the "change we can believe in" only goes so far.

With the senator’s recent declaration that he intends to redeploy U.S. troops from Iraq for more U.S. military action in Afghanistan and possibly Pakistan, the idea that Obama’s election would represent what Hayden’s group calls a "powerful peace mandate" is looking not just desperate but embarrassing. It’s embarrassing because despite their many criticisms of Obama (Hayden labeled Obama’s call for more war in Afghanistan a "dumb idea"), it would still take a seismic upheaval large enough to make Nevada the new west coast before Hayden et al abandoned their support for the Democratic candidate.

Even without the threat of an expanded "war on terror" in Afghanistan, Obama calls for more money and more soldiers for a $700 billion plus Pentagon budget that already claims nearly half the world’s total military expenditures. With the United States now slipping fast into a serious economic crisis, Obama’s commitment to massive military spending will if he is elected quickly bring into relief how limited and vacuous all the lofty campaign rhetoric about change and hope really was.

Many Illusions, No Expectations

"No president in modern times has faced a more daunting agenda than awaits the man who wins in November," write David Gergen and Andy Zelleke in the Christian Science Monitor (July 17, 2008). "Arguably, we have to go all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt in March 1933 to find a parallel."

Certainly Republican candidate John McCain’s confidence in the market’s ability to correct itself is about as blind as Herbert Hoover’s. But analogies with the past only go so far. That’s because there’s little reason to expect Obama either to embrace an updated New Deal for our times. "Whatever glittering promises are made on the campaign trail," note Gergen and Zelleke of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, "the fact is that the new president won’t have any money to pay for them-not with federal deficits heading skyward."

In other words, don’t expect an economy capable of producing $13 trillion in annual income, the most productive in the world, to offer working Americans even basic economic security. Instead, get ready for just more of the same stagnating wages, eroding benefits and pensions, and rising health costs that have long eaten away at middle-class prosperity.

If elected, Obama says he’ll fix NAFTA to make it fairer to workers, support health insurance reform, expanded family and medical leave provisions, and regular raises in the minimum wage. He also promises to lessen the tax burden on seniors and working Americans, extend unemployment insurance, and invest $20 billion to address the foreclosure crisis.

Is it overly cynical to question such promises? If so, why? Every Democratic Presidential candidate has espoused one variation or another of such promises to suit the times for the last quarter century? But the larger issue is that an Obama presidency is unlikely to offer a drastic shift away from the stale neo-liberal policies of the Clinton era, when reducing the deficit and free trade ruled enlightened liberal thought. It’s a corporate liberal approach that at best takes potshots at problems, but never fundamentally addresses the irrational core of waste and inequality that defines the entire system of market economics.

Unfortunately, every four years a kind of mystical thinking seems to descend upon many otherwise trenchant voices of the left, for whom the allure of lesser-evil presidential politics invariably becomes the "best option at this time" for advancing progressive aspirations. "Under a McCain presidency, we’d be back to the square one where we’ve found ourselves since January 2001," warns Norman Solomon in a recent essay (Common Dreams, July 20, 2008). "Putting Obama in the White House would not by any means ensure progressive change, but under his presidency the grassroots would have an opportunity to create it."

But what does this really mean? Short of a military dictatorship, do organizing opportunities not exist under a Republican president? Can we ask exactly how eight years of the Clinton presidency aided the progressive grassroots? Ironically, Solomon cautions progressives to guard against disillusionment by "dispensing with illusions." But isn’t it illusory to believe that grassroots activism per se is more likely to flourish under a liberal presidency. Where is the historical evidence for this?

If you think about it, there have only been two Democratic presidents since the Depression whose terms coincided with historic gains in social progress. Under President Roosevelt in the 1930s, social security, unemployment insurance, and union rights won major victories. Under President Johnson in the 1960s, civil and voting rights acts and Medicare/Medicaid were passed. But did these changes occur because of the enlightened generosity of Roosevelt and Johnson? Not likely. Both the wealthy upstate New York "Blue Blood" Roosevelt and the Southern "Jim Crow" politician Johnson were by personal pedigree and bias and political history unlikely prospects for leading anything progressive. In fact, Roosevelt campaigned in 1932 on a Democratic platform advocating "immediate and drastic reductions of all public expenditures." In Johnson’s case, the Texas politician had a long Congressional record of opposition to civil rights, voting early in his career against the elimination of poll taxes, measures banning lynching in the south, and denial of federal funds to segregated schools.

It was rather the unemployed and trade union organizing movement of the 1930s and the civil rights protests of the 1960s, not some benevolent epiphany of either Roosevelt or Johnson that set the political agenda for reform. As leaders, both Roosevelt and Johnson were compelled to respond to the social turmoil of their times, just as in the early 1970s the nation under President Nixon and a conservative Supreme Court saw an end to the military draft and the legalization of abortion.

Are We All In This Together?

To "imagine the world anew," as Progressives for Obama describes the passion of their candidate’s many enthusiastic supporters, is a good thing. But how exactly is the Obama campaign inspiring progressive social movements, such as they are? Is his candidacy encouraging the social power of the antiwar movement, for example? Or is it just siphoning off the movement’s independent energy and activism for the sake of a candidate’s future promises to end one war and now, start another?

"From CEOs to shareholders, from financiers to factory workers," declares Obama, "we all have a stake in each other’s success because the more Americans prosper, the more America prospers." This sounds nice, but why is it then that three decades of economic expansion has translated not into ever-widening prosperity, but rather a steady decline in real wages for the American majority? The wealth is out there, of course. It’s just going to fewer and fewer people.

The real American story today is of corporate CEOs who routinely enjoy annual compensation packages totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, even when their companies are going bankrupt. It’s the story of the richest one percent of U.S. households, those with an annual income of $348,000 or more that now controls 34 percent of the nation’s net worth. It’s the story of a society dominated by values of militarism and empire, whose humanity is corroded by its role as global overseer of a permanent warfare economy. Meanwhile, a culture of avarice and wealth sends the message that conspicuous consumption for the privileged is the point of it all.

But our American story is also one of 36,400,000 Americans who live below the official poverty line, of ever-growing numbers of citizens-nearly 47,000,000 now-who do without health insurance. It’s a story in 2008 of record foreclosures, inflation in gas and food prices, growing personal and business bankruptcies, and even unease about bank deposits. This is a story of sacrifice and insecurity, of a hard-times economy and fear of even harder times to come.

Unfortunately, the one story that won’t be written in this election is that of either major candidate doing much of anything about any of this.


Mark T. Harris is a contributor to "The Flexible Writer," fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). His essay (with Carl Finamore),"What Will an Obama Presidency Bring?" will appear in the September issue of Amandla!, a left monthly publication in South Africa. You can write to him at Mark@Mark-T-Harris.com.

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