24 January 2015

A Manchurian Candidate’s State of the Union

Why do people who nominally like Obama side with his enemies?

Despite misgivings over his choice of financial and defense advisors, I voted for Barack Obama in 2008.  I continue to think he waged a brilliant “motherhood and mismatch” (or M&M) campaign for President, for reasons I explained in The M&M Strategy.  
Nevertheless, based on his actions and inactions as President, Mr. Obama has placed himself on the horns of the same kind of M&M dilemma he used to skewer Hillary Clinton and John McCain.  Mr. Obama has become a kind of Manchurian candidate for Republicans.  He supports their policies, while he neuters self-styled “progressive” opposition in the Democratic party, and in so doing, he paves the way for an even more self-evident, pseudo-liberal Manchurian candidate to deface the Democratic banner in the 2016 election.  
Meanwhile, the Banksters, the MICCsters, big Pharma, etc., will continue, with increasing ease, to synthesize neo-liberal economics with militant neo-conservatism into what looks like an emergent neo-fascist corporate state.
In retrospect, it should be patently clear that Mr. Obama has continued and reinforced the inequities of neoliberal economics.  These inequities have been expanding insidiously since the mid-1970s, in effect, mutating the post-WWII consumer society (which lasted only 25 years — a kind of “new normal”) into the “old normal” of the Gilded Age political-economy of 19th Century through 1929.  Combined with the arrogant triumphalism and exceptionalism accompanying the end of the Cold War, Mr. Obama has also reinforced the grand-strategic madness triggered by the Bush Administration in response to 9-11 (see this essay analyzing the criteria of a sensible grand strategy).  
Together these two trends — neoliberalism and neo-conservatism —  are coalescing to transform the political-economy of the United States into a pseudo democracy that rewards a few at the expense of the many.  The result is an emergent police state that spies on its citizens, incarcerates people without due process, and loots the people by engaging in financial cronyism and perpetual war; in effect, creating a political economy that privatizes profits and socializes losses.  As we will see below, the horror of this political-economic mutation is covered by a protective layer of cognitive dissonance, reinforced by ideology and a politicized mass media. 
This posting has three attachments.  Together, they illustrate the patently irrational nature of the cognitive dissonance now shaping the political debate.  In Attachment 1, an Obama apologist (who will remain unnamed) recently distributed an email praising Obama’s “achievements.”  He ends by posing a  question as if the answer were self evident, given these achievements: Why do so many people who nominally like Obama side with Republicans who hate him? 
The apologist’s email was triggered by Professor Michael Brenner’s analysis of Obama’s State of the Union Address (Attachment 3).  Although Brenner does not use the term, his subject is that Obama’s address reflected the dissonance at the center of contemporary political discourse.  In Attachment 2, my friend Mike Lofgren responds directly to the question raised in the critique of Brenner’s essay.  Taken together, Lofgren and Brenner effectively answer the apologist’s question — but until so-called progressives come to grips with the elemental nature of President Obama’s Manchurian Candidate-cy, silly questions like that in Attachment 1 will merely serve to lubricate the looting operation.

————- Attachment 1 ————-
A democrat’s critique of Professor Brenner’s essay, “Obama’s Epiphany:
Give the man a break! He's presided over one of the greatest economic recoveries in American history, rescued the American car industry, introduced universal health care, passed serious financial reform legislation, launched immigration reform, established challenging fuel efficiency standards, started the phase out of coal power, championed net neutrality, presided over an era of gay rights breakthroughs, ended two wars, insisted on the lightest possible kinetic/diplomatic mix in the latest iteration in Iraq, initiated rapprochement with Cuba and Iran, maintained stable relations with a very awkward customer in China, and lastly laid the foundation for a probable Democratic successor as President. There's probably more.
So, there's stuff where he's dropped the ball. I agree. Hardly surprising. On the big picture, however, the record looks not unimpressive. 
The Republicans hate him. Why on earth do people who nominally like him sign up on their side?

————- Attachment 2 ————-
Mike Lofgren answers the question:
[Lofgren, a close friend, is a retired member of the Republican staff of the Senate Budget Committee and is now a political independent for reasons that will become clear if one reads his book The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted and/or his essay Anatomy of the Deep State.]

1. The Great Recovery was “great” with respect to reflating Wall Street and some asset prices; income inequality continued to increase as the jobs that were created paid less than the jobs lost;
2. Not a single major Wall Street crook from the big firms was jailed, nor were there any salary caps placed on the bailed-out executives; Holder actually testified that Wall Street was so systemically important its executives should not be brought to justice. Could this attitude have been a result of Obama loading his administration with Wall Street stooges: Geithner, Daily, Orzag, Emanuel, et al? Obama wanted to put Larry Summers at Fed and Lazard Freres’ corporate inversion king Antonio Weiss at Treasury, until screaming from the Democratic base stayed his hand;
3. Obama’s Pentagon budgets exceeded even the outyear projections of the Bush administration; he agreed to the useless Afghan surge; overthrew Ghaddafi, leaving a failed state; initiated covert actions against Syria and nearly bombed Damascus until Putin of all people pulled his chestnuts out of the fire; let Nuland, Pyatt, and the CIA pull off a coup in Kiev. Now he’s helped restart the cold war;
4. Obama let Brennan run wild at CIA; but he repeatedly says he has full confidence in a guy who’s a pathological liar and who shows contempt for constitutional government; the administration’s draft “reform” of NSA would have given it even wider access to citizen data than it already has, which is practically unlimited;
5. He left 95% of the Bush tax cuts intact when they simply would have expired had he done nothing; he did not veto, but actually lobbied for (and signed) the 2015 Omnibus, which contains provisions to (a) put depositors and taxpayers on the hook to support Wall Street’s failed derivatives trades; (b) revised ERISA rules such that current retirees can have their pensions cut; and (c) created yet another loophole for big money in campaign financing.
6. The health care bill was identical to the Heritage Foundation’s and Newt Gingrich’s 1990s proposals: instead of single-payer Medicare for all, he opted for enormous subsidies for Big Pharma, the insurance industry, the hospital associations, etc. Was it because the GOP wouldn’t allow it? Not really, Obama took single payer, negotiated drug prices, etc., off the table from the beginning, at the behest of the industries concerned;
7. His administration has engaged in more harassment and prosecution of whistleblowers than any administration in memory;
8. Now that congressional Democrats are safely in the minority, Obama has indicated his enthusiasm for reviving more free trade scams (actually managed trade whereby we allow our industrial base to be destroyed in return for foreign countries permitting financial penetration by Goldman Sachs, Citi, JPMorgan, etc.);
9. Obama waited six years until he got a Congress that would sooner mandate cannibalizing children than countenance a tax increase. So now Obama proposes a purely symbolic tax increase on the rich (meaning, his and every politicians’ major contributors). Pure theater with cynical intent;
10. All the social issues stuff, gay rights, abortion, etc., are not monetary issues of who gets what. They do not affect Wall Street’s bottom line, so they are safe for Obama to use to create the illusion of parties fighting over issues. He also uses them strategically to keep his base mollified, much in the manner of throwing chum into a pond full of carp.
Sure, he’s not as crazy as the GOP on Iran, Cuba, and a variety of issues. Stomach flu isn’t as bad as Ebola. But somehow, precisely at a historic point when the Bush presidency was about as popular as herpes, and when the GOP had degenerated into an insane cult, Republicans managed a Lazarus-like resurrection whereby they won two landslide congressional races giving them the biggest majorities in decades, as well as taking over a thumping majority of state houses and governorships. Just because Republicans hate Obama is not a sufficient rationale for declaring his presidency impressive.
————- Attachment 3 ————-
Michael Brenner, Huffington Post, 21 January 2015
[Reposted with Professor Brenner’s permission]
American politics has come to occupy a spectral plane of reality that bears little resemblance to the universe of fact and logic many of us are accustomed to. President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday – and the widespread reaction to it – is the ultimate confirmation that the gap between the virtual and the actual is unbridgeable. They no longer connect by any leap of imagination.
Obama presented Americans with a strongly argued case to press a progressive agenda that encompasses taxes, social spending and a variety of ancillary programs.  It was rooted in the philosophical soil that has sustained the Democratic Party for nearly a century. It meets crying national needs.  It conforms to principles of justice and decency that hold the Republic together. Unfortunately, it all amounted to little more than an exercise in rhetoric under current political realities.
Those realities are the ineluctable outcome of the Obama presidency’s abandonment of those very ideas from the day he entered the White House.  The speech is 6 years and 3 elections too late – literally behind the times. That raises serious questions as to the authenticity of the apparent conviction with which it was delivered and, therefore, the President’s motivations in deciding now to assume the mantle of reformer that he unceremoniously discarded after the 2008 election.  Has he experienced an epiphany, like Paul on the road to Damascus? Surely, he is on the road constantly at home as well as abroad but we know nothing of any stunning incidents occurring on Air Force One. Is he trying to bolster the Democrats’ chances in 2016 in a state of remorse of how low he has brought them in successive congressional elections and in state house races? Or, is Obama engaging in a campaign to shape his image for the afterlife of a former President in the public limelight and for posterity?
The last is most plausible. It also is the explanation ignored by the commentariat who are content to take the President’s declarations at face value. They, too, occupy a spectral space in which whatever happens today is disconnected from the recent past, to be viewed in existential isolation from the protagonist or his setting, and whose meaning for the incoherence of American public life goes unrecognized.
For those whose historical memory is short, here’s a quick canter through the Obama record.  This is the man whose response to the Great Financial Crisis was to appoint to every position of authority persons who themselves had participated directly in its occurrence or its facilitation: Rubin, Summers, Geithner, et al. Obama actively opposed and succeeded in thwarting every serious legislative or regulatory attempt to reform the system. He is the man who, along with Attorney general Eric Holder, refused to pursue criminal prosecution of even the most egregious miscreants and then promulgated the doctrine that they could be made immune from prosecution if conviction might damage the national economy.  Obama is the man who has put Social Security and Medicare in jeopardy by committing himself to deals with the Republican leadership that would markedly cut back benefits under both programs. This is the man who reneged on a pledge to workers that he would back moves that favor unionization.  This is the man  whose version of health care reform ruled out a public option but instead was built on a series of behind the scenes deals with Big Pharma and the health industry that pads their profits. This is the man who has all but declared war on public school teachers in stigmatizing them as the cause of what ails American education while campaigning relentlessly for the dubious panacea of profit driven charter schools.
One can go on and on. Obama has governed as what used to be called a Moderate Republican – leaving the long-standing, natural Democratic constituency in the dust. Even now, simultaneously with his progressive pivot, he has given two gift wrapped presents to the financial interests: one, lobbying with Jaime Dimon to gut a key provision of Dodd-Franks that put a barrier, albeit feeble, between the big banks trading on their account and trading on clients’ account; and, two, working with Wall Streeter Mary Jo White whom he appointed as head of the Security Exchange Commission to void regulations that were designed to restrict trading in volatile derivatives.
In the State of the Union speech itself, Obama made a strong plea for acquiescence is his prized  Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement (and implicitly its Euro-American) that he has been negotiating in concert with business leaders while keeping all other parties including Democratic Congressional leaders in the dark. The proposed treaty’s main impact and intent is to undercut all national authorities’ regularity power across the board by ensconcing a corporate right to challenge any regulation in a supranational court whose members they would help choose.       
There is no conceivable way that an all court press for passage of the TPP can be reconciled with Obama’s new-found progressive philosophy and vow of a dedication to reducing inequality in America.
What of the political implications for 2016? Certainly, the publicity given progressive ideas and the argument for them means that the issue cannot be ignored by the candidates – as Democrats like Hillary Clinton as well as Republicans have been inclined to do. The latter will use the current legislative session to undermine any concrete proposals to implement the agenda, will try to discredit the underlying ideas, and distract by stressing various social issues that play to their strength and their constituency. The challenge for the Democrats is greater.  For the Clintons turned their backs years again on the very thinking and interests that the State of the Union speech is reanimating. Hillary thought nothing of pocketing $400,000 from Goldman Sachs for sitting next to Lloyd Blankfein on a stage for half an hour soothing an audience of fat cat clients. Now, that image could be a liability were she to face a rival in the Democratic primaries. That looks unlikely, though, now that Elizabeth Warren has taken her name out of consideration and nobody else is stretching in the paddock.  There is Bernie Sanders – a genuine liberal who could make things very hot for Clinton in debates. Indeed, one could argue that such might be the best thing that could happen for her. Her blemished image and limp public persona would be invigorated and Democratic voters reenergized.  But Sanders is a maverick outsider.
Was this Obama’s Machiavellian intent? That seems highly improbable on several counts. Obama always has been a political loner who distances himself from his party. That was true in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014.  In fact, back in 2010 his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was smugly telling confidants that a Republican victory in the House would be to the advantage of the White House since President Obama no longer would be constrained to placate the progressives whom they both disdained.
So back to the question of why Obama “did it?” Following the Sherlock Holmesian axiom that once you have eliminated all other possibilities, whatever is left – however bizarre – is the truth, we are left with the conclusion that it was all about Obama.  His imagined “legacy,” his public profile over the next 30 years in the public eye, what will get him the attention and adulation that he craves. Perhaps, he simply concluded that recasting himself as a liberal carried better possibilities than the fuzzy picture of a middle-of-the-roader who played footsy with the business establishment, kowtowed to the Pentagon and the Intelligence agencies, and couldn’t end the endless wars on terror.
By retracing his steps, he hopes to place himself before the public as he was in 2008 – a Messiah without message or mission – but a Messiah nonetheless.
Michael Brenner is a Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations and Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh