By Gregory Wilpert
Progressives are going to face a tough choice this coming November: should they vote for Barack Obama or not? Obama, who was a beacon of hope and change back in 2008, following the dark Bush era, seemed to hold out so much promise as the first African-American president of the USA. But time and again Obama found ways to disappoint progressives. For many it is tempting to believe that Obama actually means well, but that he simply does not have sufficient political power to do all that much. Some prominent voices, however (such as Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky), have argued all along that he never meant to introduce much change anyway and that progressives’ hopes in Obama were misplaced from the beginning.
To make an informed decision about whether it makes sense to vote for Obama this coming November, we first need to carefully review what, exactly, is at stake. Also, what is it that Obama promised and what did he deliver? If at the end of such a review it is clear that Obama delivered far less than he promised or that he was no better than the Republican he replaced, then we need to analyze how this is possible, whether this was merely a personal failing of Obama’s or whether there are concrete structural reasons for the failure. Finally, any decision about how to react to the Obama presidency must do so with a clear understanding of what is actually achievable in the U.S. political system and what could perhaps be done about changing the political system itself. In what follows I will first address Obama’s policies. The second part of this two-part series, will take a close look at the U.S. political system and at the strategic options for progressives in this system.
The Predecessor, the Promise, and the Reality
Obama was supposed to be the peace president, who even won the Nobel Peace Prize. After all, during the 2008 presidential campaign he capitalized on the unpopularity of Bush’s wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan by seeming to promise an end to these wars. After over one million killed Iraqis, over three million refugees, over five million orphans, over 4,500 U.S. and allied soldiers killed due to the war in Iraq, with over 500,000 disability claims from U.S. soldiers, and at an expense of somewhere between $1 to $4 trillion to the U.S. taxpayer (for both Iraq and Afghanistan), these wars have been an unmitigated disaster for all countries involved.
One of Obama’s campaign promises, in addition to criticizing Bush for having started the Iraq war, was to commit to a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by May 2010, after 16 months in office. However, once he became president this was quickly forgotten and U.S. troops did not leave Iraq until the end of Obama’s third year in office, 36 months later, in December 2011. More distressing for peace activists who supported Obama, however, was that Obama never promised to withdraw from Afghanistan. Actually, during the campaign he suggested that he would intensify U.S. attention on that country and this is one promise he did fulfill, by sending in an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan once elected and then increasing them by another 33,000 in 2010, essentially tripling U.S. involvement there during his first three years in office. The U.S. war in Iraq finally came to an end now, with all U.S. troops removed from Iraq at the end of 2011, leaving behind an utterly devastated country. However, it is still unclear how many troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the declared 2014 withdrawal of troops. According to some reports, as many as several thousand special operations troops might remain almost indefinitely.
Realizing how unpopular all-out U.S. war has become, the Obama administration has now shifted strategies. One such shift is to rely only on a relatively short-term bombing campaign, as happened in in Libya in 2011. During the six-month bombing campaign of Libya, supposedly to protect the civilian population, but clearly meant to overthrow Qaddafi, the U.S. Air Force and other NATO air forces went on 26,500 bombing runs (sorties), which led to an estimated 30,000 deaths and 50,000 wounded (according to the successor government, the National Transitional Council). This is a death toll that is about 20 times greater than the deaths that took place before the bombing began, which had justified the intervention in the first place.
The second new strategy is to rely on special operations forces, such as Navy Seals and Delta Force, which are supposed to fight the “war on terror,” but essentially act as death squads in foreign countries, assassinating presumed enemies of the U.S. While during the Bush administration such forces had been operational in “only” 60 countries, Obama has increased that number during his time in office to 75 and plans on further expanding their coverage to 120 countries throughout the globe by the end of 2012. These troops either provide on-the-ground support for drone strikes or carry out their own clandestine assassination attacks, as they did when they killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. The great advantage of this new strategy is that it allows the president to dispatch elite military units at a moment’s notice, without going through the troublesome process of informing Congress or the public.
A third strategy development is to rely on drone attacks, which are currently being deployed in numerous countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Under Obama drone strikes have increased dramatically, for example against targets in Pakistan they rose from 52 under Bush to 275 under Obama. The total number of civilians killed, according to independent estimates, is between 480 and 830. As the New York Times recently reported, the Obama administration, however, does not count civilian casualties because it simply assumes that all deaths of adult males in such strikes are terrorists. While under Bush these presumed terrorists would have been “rendered” (kidnapped or disappeared) to a third country for “interrogation” (and torture), the Obama administration has found this to be too complicated and messy and instead simply targets these suspects for murder by bombing or death squad (“special forces”). According to the New York Times, Obama personally decides every Tuesday who is to be targeted or placed on the “kill list.”
The fourth new strategy (and probably not the last) is to use cyber warfare. While one assumes this is not as deadly as the other strategies, this strategy could become almost as dangerous as biological warfare. Apparently the Obama administration has been working with the Israeli government to introduce computer viruses into Iran’s nuclear energy program, so as to sabotage it. Other cyber attacks introduced computer viruses designed to spy on Iran’s computer systems. While such attacks might seem relatively benign, it is known that the Stuxnet virus, which disabled parts of Iran’s nuclear program, accidentally infected other computers and is now replicating itself throughout cyberspace. While this virus appears not to have caused any wider damage so far, it is quite conceivable that viruses designed to disable computer systems such as those of a nuclear facilities could end up causing far more serious damage, which then could release radioactivity or cause power grids or other vital systems, such as air traffic control systems, to fail.
Also, such cyber warfare represents yet another attack on privacy and civil liberties. According to CNet, one of the largest technology websites, a recently discovered virus known as “Flame” was probably designed to spy on Iran, but is now found in computers around the world. “Flame can sniff network traffic, take screenshots, record audio conversations, log keystrokes and gather information about discoverable Bluetooth devices nearby and turn the infected computer into a discoverable Bluetooth device. The attackers can upload additional modules for further functionality.” It is thus not too surprising that the Russian government has proposed a ban on “cyberweapons.” As David Jeffers of PCWorld says, “A computer virus is the Internet equivalent of biological warfare. One of the reasons that nations around the world entered into a treaty banning the development, stockpiling, or use of biological weapons was fear of what might happen if those weapons fell into the wrong hands, or if a catastrophe occurred that might unintentionally unleash biological agents against the civilian population.”
In addition to expanding secret warfare, continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and expanding wars into Libya and Iran, the Obama administration has also deepened Bush’s foreign policy with regard to Latin America. Originally, a few months after taking office, Obama had promised Latin America “a new chapter of engagement” and “equal partnerships.” But this new rhetoric proved to be just as false as Obama’s rhetoric in other policy areas. Aside from pushing the same bilateral “free” trade agreements that Bush had pushed, passing new ones with Colombia and Peru, against majorities from his own party and with the support of the Republicans.
Similarly, Obama has continued Bush’s militarized war on Drugs, despite early promises to focus more on reducing U.S. demand for drugs. None of the demand reduction strategy has been implemented and instead Obama has extended Plan Colombia and the disastrous Merida Initiative (for Mexico) into Central America with the Central America Regional Initiative (CARSI). This “war on drugs” has led to a massive increase in violence, which has been especially hard on Mexico, where drug war-related killings claimed 50,000 lives in recent years and a murder rate that increased by 70% between 2009 and 2010. Without the Obama administration’s support for this “war on drugs” it is highly unlikely that Mexico would be in the situation it finds itself in today.
Not only is Obama continuing the Bush administration’s failed war on drugs, he is also continuing his predecessor’s policy of trying to isolate leftist governments in the region. However, unfortunately for Obama, since most governments in the region are leftist or left-of-center, it is the U.S. that is as isolated as it was under Bush. An early sign that Obama’s “equal partnership” and “engagement” was just rhetoric was his support for the 2009 coup in Honduras, against Manuel Zelaya, an ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Although Obama at first criticized this coup, his administration’s actions were all oriented towards ensuring its success. The most egregious action in this sense was that Obama recognized the presidential elections that were held under the coup government while there were massive human rights abuses taking place. Obama did this even though all other countries in South America stated very clearly that legitimate elections could only take place once democracy was restored.
An equally blatant effort to undermine democracy and to ensure U.S. dominance in the region was Obama’s support for the ridiculously flawed 2010 presidential election in Haiti, which it supported, even though the country’s largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas of ousted president Bertrand Aristide, had been banned from participating. As a result, only about 27% of the population participated in that election. The Obama administration, via the OAS, then put tremendous pressure on Haiti’s election authorities to disqualify a more left-leaning candidate so that the run-off would take place between two right-wing candidates. In the end, the right-wing candidate Martelly was elected, even though only 4.3% of the voting age population had supported him in the first round.
The most recent overthrow of a left-of-center president, of President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, repeats the U.S. playbook of tacitly approving (if not actively supporting) such actions, while almost all other South American nations condemn it and are working on ways to put pressure on Paraguay to reverse it by suspending the country’s membership in regional institutions, such as UNASUR and Mercosur. It should thus come as no surprise that countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have had enough of Obama’s empty promises and are staking out their own course and are actively undermining the Organization of American States (OAS) by forming a new regional body, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC in its Spanish initials). This new body includes all countries of the western hemisphere except for Canada and the U.S. and was officially launched in Caracas in December of 2011. Even the region’s conservative governments, such as those of Mexico, Colombia, and Chile enthusiastically support CELAC.
There are more foreign relations policies that one could go into, where Obama is merely continuing Republican Party policies, but which would take too much space to get into here. For example, Obama’s (highly secretive) support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is yet another “free” trade agreement that is designed to increase the power of capital vis-à-vis labor and the environment in most of the countries that border the Pacific Ocean. Also, U.S. policies towards Iran and towards Israel are two more examples of Republican-Democratic policy continuity.
Immigration was one of the policy areas that also held out a lot of hope for progressive Obama supporters. Following Bush’s increasingly anti-immigrant policies, with the construction of a 700 mile wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and steadily increasing number of deportations of unauthorized immigrants, Obama’s promise to pass a law to at least provide a path to citizenship to an estimated 800,000 children of unauthorized immigrants was a ray of hope (the DREAM Act). However, Obama tried to negotiate for immigration reform via more draconian enforcement of existing immigration law. As a result, while deportations averaged about 200,000 per year under George W. Bush, the Obama administration managed to double this number, to about 400,000 per year. Meanwhile, the DREAM Act was defeated in the U.S. Senate in December 2010 because Democrats could not break the Republican’s filibuster when it got only 55 out of 100 votes, instead of the needed 60 out of 100.
Obama is probably not to blame for Republicans’ intransigence on this issue and therefore for the bill’s ultimate defeat. However, leaving aside the fact that Democrats do share responsibility with Republicans for allowing a Senate filibuster rule whereby a 60-vote majority is now needed to pass any legislation and a minority may thus block all legislation, the Obama administration is fully responsible for the massive increase in deportations, which have caused tremendous amount of suffering by tearing apart families and in many cases deporting people who have lived practically their entire adult lives in the U.S.
The dramatic doubling of deportations under Obama has been achieved via a new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (aptly called “ICE”) program that the Obama administration has been aggressively implementing, known by the euphemistic name of “Secure Communities.” Under this program local police departments are required to automatically inform ICE and the FBI of all arrested individuals in the U.S. ICE then checks the arrested individual’s immigration status and if it suspects the person to be an unauthorized immigrant, they may issue a detention order once the issue for which the arrest was made has been resolved. That is, while the program was originally intended to deport only immigrants convicted of crimes, it now deports any unauthorized immigrant who is arrested. In August of 2011 Obama promised that ICE would review 400,000 deportation orders, but as of May 2012 fewer than 2 percent reviews have actually been completed.
Immigrant communities are now anything but secure, since any contact with the police can lead to deportation. For example, in one case, an immigrant woman whose husband was physically abusing her was arrested because the husband claimed she attacked him. She ended up being imprisoned (euphemistically referred to as detention) for violating immigration law, while her abusive husband remained with the children, who later ended up in foster care.
The fact that thousands of children end up in foster care because their parents are being imprisoned or deported is one of the cruelest aspects of the Obama immigration policy. According to Colorlines.com, at least 5,100 such children are currently in foster care. However, the number is probably far higher. For instance, according to another estimate, about 22% of all deported immigrants are parents of U.S. citizen children. This would result in 88,000 such parents deported per year. Even if 90% of these children did not have to be placed in foster care because one parent or relatives remained in the U.S. or because they returned to the country of origin with their parents, that would leave at least 8,800 parents whose children would enter the foster care system per year.
Parents who are separated from their children because they are deported and their children are not will go to extraordinary lengths to be reunited with them, which often means trying to reenter the U.S. again illegally, often at great personal risk. The crime of “illegal reentry” has been turned into a federal crime, which is punished with sentences of several years and now accounts for nearly half of all federal prosecutions.
In the course of the 2012 presidential campaign, however, Obama realized just how close he is to losing essential Latino votes and thus decided to issue an executive order on June 15, which would stop deportations of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before they were 16 years old and who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years. As Obama stated during the announcement, the executive order is merely a temporary measure, since without a new law he cannot grant residency or citizenship in such cases. Nonetheless, immigrants’ rights groups welcomed the move.
With regard to economic policy Obama’s record is perhaps a bit more mixed than it is with regard to foreign policy or immigration policy. There is little doubt for progressives that Bush (with Bill Clinton’s help on deregulation) drove the economy into a ditch, with the deregulation of the financial sector and the various tax cuts for the country’s wealthy and the massive increase in spending for Bush’s wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It was thus not difficult for a Democratic candidate to present an alternative. During his presidential campaign Obama stated, for example, “It’s time to get serious about regulatory oversight…” Also, shortly after being elected, when the economy appeared to be in free-fall, Obama presented an economic stimulus program of $787 billion (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, ARRA). However, as many economists have pointed out, both the financial sector’s re-regulation and the stimulus plan proved to be far too timid for what was actually needed in order to improve the economy or to prevent future financial crises.
In short, while in many other policy areas it is possible to say that Obama continued and in some cases deepened Bush’s policies, with regard to the economy he mainly presented a less extremist or market-absolutist version. Anyone who had hoped Obama would take a more progressive stance on the economy than he did should have had that illusion dispelled as soon as he announced his economic team, which included key Wall Street players, such as Larry Summers as Director of the National Economic Council and Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary.
That Obama appointed Summers is perhaps the clearest indication that Obama did not really mean it when he said he was going to introduce “change,” since Summers was one of the main promoters of financial deregulation when he was Treasury Secretary under Clinton, where he helped promote the partial repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. This Act had prevented banks and insurance companies from getting involved in risky investment practices. Once that barrier to investment was removed, it opened the door for the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Also, as Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, Summers was actively involved in passing the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which deregulated derivatives trading and therefore further contributed to the financial crisis because this bill allowed for unregulated credit default swaps.
Geithner is not much better and also represented a continuation of Bush’s neoliberal economic policies. For example, when Geithner was head of the New York Federal Reserve, he helped Bush’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson put together the unaccountable $700 billion bank bailout fund known as TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program). Just like Summers, Geithner is also considered to be a protégé of former Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs CEO Robert Rubin.
Given that Obama’s main economic advisors are typical neoliberals, there was not much reason to believe that Obama’s economic policies would be all that different from those of Bush or Clinton. It thus might have seemed surprising that Obama did promote and managed to pass the $787 billion ARRA economic stimulus bill. After all, it seems that such a bill is more Keynesian than neoliberal. A closer examination of this bill, however, shows that nearly $275 billion of that bill actually consisted of tax cuts (which represents neoliberal policymaking), leaving only about $500 billion, spread over two years, for more direct economic stimulus spending. From a Keynesian perspective, which stipulates that governments ought to increase their spending during a recession by approximately an equal amount as the economy has shrunk, $250 billion per year was far too little to reverse the economic downturn. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in February of 2009,
“The Congressional Budget Office, not usually given to hyperbole, predicts that over the next three years there will be a $2.9 trillion gap between what the economy could produce and what it will actually produce. And $800 billion, while it sounds like a lot of money, isn’t nearly enough to bridge that chasm. … So far the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis is all too reminiscent of Japan in the 1990s: a fiscal expansion large enough to avert the worst, but not enough to kick-start recovery; support for the banking system, but a reluctance to force banks to face up to their losses.”
By mid 2012 it has become increasingly clear that Krugman was right, that the stimulus was large enough to give a little rebound to the economy, but not large enough to bring it out of its depression. As a result, unemployment is beginning to rise again and GDP is beginning to slump again.
Isn’t this better than what the Republicans would have done, had they been in charge? Indeed, it is important to be clear that that Obama’s plan is better and chances are that if the Republicans had been in charge the economic situation today would probably have been disastrous. However, it clearly was not enough and economists who believed that an economic stimulus was necessary should have known this.
Why the half-measures, then? The most plausible explanation is that Summers, Geithner, and probably Obama too, merely wanted to avoid the worst, so as to save U.S. capitalism, without providing too much precedent for instituting social democratic (or Keynesian) policies for the longer term future. That is, they wanted to make sure that capital would remain powerful enough vis-à-vis the state in order to continue to force more concessions from the state in the near future, such as more deregulation, more privatization, and more austerity. A Republican economic program, in contrast, would have led to an economic disaster in which outright popular rebellion would have been a very possible scenario, which could have led to a collapse of the economic and political system (which could then either have led to something far worse or to something better).
The situation is rather similar with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, which Obama signed into law in July 2010, in reaction to the 2008 financial crisis. As some progressive economists note, this law does provide a few positive advances over the previous largely unregulated financial sector, but it falls short in several respects. The most important of these is that it does not prevent the over-concentration of financial institutions so that they become “too big to fail,” thereby leading to more massive taxpayer bailouts of privately held banks. In short, more socialization of risk and more upward distribution of income. As NYT financial reporter Gretchen Morgenson wrote at the time,
“After President Obama signs it into law, the nation’s financial industry will still be dominated by a handful of institutions that are too large, too interconnected and too politically powerful to be allowed to go bankrupt if they make unwise decisions or make huge wrong-way bets.”
Again, the most likely explanation for this half-hearted approach is that Obama and the Democrats wanted to prevent the worst excesses of finance capital, while still giving them as much freedom as possible, especially with regard to their ability to consolidate, merge, and centralize, without having them take responsibility for the risks that this concentration of finance capital poses to the economy and to society as a whole.
Health Care Policy
Obama’s promised health care reform was perhaps one of the issues that raised the hopes of progressives the most, who hoped that at the very least the reform would make health care more affordable. However, once the debates within Congress began, it became increasingly clear that lowering the cost of health care to individual citizens was no longer the goal. Rather, the debate shifted and the goal became to make health care more affordable for private and public employers. As a matter of fact, as then Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel explained shortly after the bill was signed into law, the health care bill is “very similar to the bill Republicans advocated in ’93 [with its]… basic approach, which is a free-market, market-based-system approach.”
While the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (PPACA) of 2010 has some positive elements, such as the abolition of the denial of health insurance because of pre-existing conditions and the expansion of Medicaid, it would seem that the few positive aspects are drowned in a sea of giveaways for insurance companies and private employers in general. If this was a quid-pro-quo between citizens and health insurers, the insurance industry won the better end of the bargain.
The perhaps most outrageous aspect of the PPACA is what is known as the “individual mandate,” which is at the heart of the new law and which is recently survived a constitutional challenge. Of the estimated 50 million uninsured (about 17% of the population), about 16 million middle-income citizens would be compelled to purchase health insurance from a private insurance company or pay a tax penalty. In short, citizens would have to purchase a privately marketed for-profit product, since there is no non-profit or state-run health insurance for the middle class. Taxpayers would subsidize some of these insurance plans, so as to make them more affordable for lower middle-income individuals (those earning between 133% and 400% of the federal poverty level). However, despite these subsidies, there would be no price-controls on how much an insurance company could raise premiums. Only if they raise premiums so that less than 80% of their income pays for medical charges would they have to refund premiums.
This is step on the right direction, but ultimately does not control costs because hospitals, doctors, and drug companies can still drive costs upwards without limitation, with insurance companies passing the cost increases on to the consumer. In the past doctors, hospitals, and drugs have been the main causes of health care cost inflation. And so far medical costs have been rising two to three times as fast as inflation over the past decade. Not only that, while insurer costs rose by 2.6% between 2009 and 2010, employees’ health care spending rose by 7.1%. In short, insurance companies and employers increasingly pass growing health care costs on to employees who pay an ever-larger portion of their health care directly, via co-pays and deductibles. This fact highlights another major failing of the PPACA because it does not reign in this type of shift of health care spending from insurance company to insured.
More than that, part of the subsidy to pay for lower middle-income health insurance would come from an excise tax on so-called “Cadillac” health plans, which tend to be the more complete health insurance coverage plans (without co-pays or deductibles and with dental coverage) that unionized jobs offer. As a result, according to some studies, more and more companies are pushing unions to concede on their health coverage demands or are planning on eliminating health care coverage altogether.
The bottom line of “Obamacare” is that the reform’s drawbacks—such as leaving more than 20 million Americans uninsured, providing massive subsidies and new customers to the insurance industry, cutting Medicare benefits (which affects the poor), declining quality of employer-based insurance coverage, and lack of controls on skyrocketing health care costs—do not compensate for the few advantages of the reform, such as its insurance subsidies for lower-middle-income families and its prohibition against denial of insurance coverage due to preexisting conditions or due to exceeding annual or lifetime medical coverage limits. As a matter of fact, these benefits would probably contribute to a rise in health insurance premiums, since there is nothing in the law to prevent such price increases.
Perhaps the PPACA is the best law that Obama could negotiate given the current constellation of forces in Congress. Even so, the law’s drawbacks are too numerous to make the U.S. health care system better than what it replaces. That is, as Paul Street accurately points out, this is not a progressive reform that contributes to greater social equality. Rather, it “is regressive state capitalism in the interest of the corporate Few, not progressive policy on behalf of the ordinary working- and lower-class Many. It enriches the owners and top managers of the basic problem: the ‘private’ for-profit insurance syndicate.” The fact is, this “health care reform” was originally inspired by Republican ideas and first implemented in Massachusetts by Obama’s presidential opponent Mitt Romney.
Instead of moving towards a situation where health care is a right, the law further deepens the notion that health care is a for-profit commodity where you get what you pay for. We thus need to see Obama’s health care reform as an effort to preempt demands for more equitable health care reform, such as the introduction of universal health care, which a large majority of U.S. citizens support. Also, that the PPACA is the best Obama supposedly could do, despite overwhelming public support for a far more progressive health care reform, shows yet again just how hollowed-out U.S. democracy has become.
When Obama appointed Arne Duncan, the Chicago Superintendent of Schools and an outspoken supporter of charter schools, it became clear that Obama’s education policy would be hardly any different from that of George W. Bush. Then, Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative, which was part of the 2009 economic stimulus package, showed that Obama intended to intensify, not continue or reverse, Bush’s education policies of standardized testing and public school privatization via charter schools.
Race to the Top was a $4.35 billion contest through which states that reached certain Department of Education goals would receive federal grants of between $75 and $700 million for their state public education systems. Since all state governments at the time were severely cash-strapped, this competition created a powerful incentive for states to follow a set of standards and guidelines that the national executive had set, but that remained relatively inexpensive for the federal government.
The contest’s goals were such that they encouraged states to evaluate and pay teachers according to the performance of their students on standardized tests, the adoption of a common core curriculum, and the expansion of charter schools in their respective states. The effect of these policies is that teachers are pushed ever more towards “teaching for the test,” a teaching process that kills student motivation, creativity, and critical thinking. Also, the core curriculum places ever more emphasis on math and English, to the neglect of all other subjects. Finally, the expansion of charter schools, whereby a private company takes over the management of a public school, has been proven not to do anything for improving the quality of public education.
Given these effects of Race to the Top, one can say that the Obama administration’s education policy represents an intensification of Bush’s No Child Left Behind law because it further expands on the notions that competition and privatization are the best ways to fix the U.S. public education system. As Diane Ravitch, a noted critic and scholar of U.S. education policy stated in the Los Angeles Times, “The Obama education reform plan is an aggressive version of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind, under which many schools have narrowed their curriculum to the tested subjects of reading and math. … Having embraced the Republican agenda of choice, competition and accountability, the Obama administration is promoting the privatization of large segments of American education and undermining the profession of teaching.”
Meanwhile, the main problem with the U.S. education system—its fundamentally unfair, unequal, and class- and race-based treatment of students—remains completely untouched and unaddressed by Obama and the Democratic Party. Privatization and competition between schools, between teachers, and between students will not address this fundamental inequality. Actually, it will only exacerbate it. If you combine fundamentally unequal starting positions with competition, the result always is greater inequality. For example, some students have wealthy and well educated parents with a stable family and a local school system that spends an average of $12,000 per student (New York) and other students come from poor backgrounds and unstable families where the state spends an average of only $4,000 (Utah) on school instruction per student (where the amounts within states vary greatly as well). If teachers are then told that their salaries and the fate of their entire school depends on how well their students do, regardless of the students’ and the school’s socio-economic background, then teachers will of course “teach to the test” and the schools that are most likely to excel and receive more attention are the ones that already began from a good starting position.
Similarly, privatization, via charter schools, has shown to have no overall positive effect on the quality of education. Rather, it contributes to de-unionization because when a public school is closed and reopened as a charter school it destroys the existing teachers’ union and thereby helps lower teacher salaries, benefits, and job security, which then contributes to making the teaching profession less attractive to skilled individuals. Also, charter schools prepare the public for the notion that education, just like health care, is a commodity and not a right. By supporting these pro-corporate and anti-union educational policies, Obama is following an educational policy that is practically indistinguishable from that of the Republicans.
Civil Liberties & Dissent
One of the areas that has been extremely disturbing for progressives is Obama’s record on civil liberties and dissent. The issues here relate to his failure to close the Guantanamo prison camp, which he promised to do during his 2008 campaign, the FBI’s harassment and repression of activists in Chicago and Los Angeles, the imprisonment and mistreatment of Bradley Manning, and the 2011 renewal of the Patriot Act, among other issues. Once again, Obama’s record in this area is practically indistinguishable from that of his Republican predecessor. Let’s take a closer look at each of these issues.
With regard to Guantanamo Obama promised that he would close the prison by the end of his first year in office. However, Obama mishandled the process when he made the announcement to transfer prisoners to New York State without having consulted with New York politicians before making the announcement. They objected, of course, and so Obama had to shelve the plan. Similar wrangling took place throughout Obama’s presidency, as Obama presented various proposals on what to do with Guantanamo and subsequently shelved them as soon as objections were raised. The real outrage about Guantanamo, however, is not the existence of the prison camp (although, the fact that it can exist in Cuba is an outrage of its own, since it is a military base that the U.S. occupies in violation of international law). Rather, the real outrage should be that the U.S. is holding prisoners without trial for an indefinite period and when trials occasionally do take place, they lack basic protections of due process and the right to defense.
In April 2010 the Obama Justice Department presented new rules for the military commissions, which would put Guantanamo prisoners on trial. These rules, however, still have several important limitations for the defendants, such as the lack of a right to a speedy trial, requests for witnesses must go through the prosecution, pre-trial detention is not to be counted in sentencing (and most prisoners have been there for over ten years already), and no right of equal defense access to witnesses and to evidence. As a result of these unfair procedures, six military prosecutors have resigned in disgust, with one saying upon leaving, “What we are doing at Guantanamo is neither military nor justice.” As of early 2012 there are still 171 prisoners in Guantanamo, about half of which have been cleared to be released because of lack of evidence against them, but who face indefinite detention nonetheless.
A second area where civil rights in the U.S. have been diminished is with regard to the FBI’s increasing repression against U.S. activists. In contrast to the Guantanamo problem, this is a policy that the Obama administration has actually intensified. One of the perhaps most outrageous instances of this policy has been the FBI’s raiding of anti-war activists homes, seizing of their papers and computers, and the issuing of grand jury subpoenas against them. Since September 24, 2010, when the first such raids took place, the FBI has targeted 23 activists throughout the U.S. These are all long-time activists, active in anti-war, labor, and solidarity organizing. Palestinian solidarity activists seem to have been particularly targeted in this FBI wave of repression.
The Obama Justice Department’s “investigation” is particularly chilling because grand jury subpoenas can easily lead to prosecutions based on flimsy evidence, where prosecutors use even the slightest contradiction of statements as an excuse for perjury prosecutions. Anyone who refuses to testify can be held in contempt and can face prison terms of up to 18 months, which could then be renewed via new subpoenas. Historically the grand jury process has been used to repress a wide variety of activism in the U.S., such as the civil rights movement, Puerto Rican independence movement, animal liberation movements, and solidarity movements.
This time around, the Justice Department is also using the Patriot Act, with its vaguely worded prohibition of “material support” for officially designated terrorist organizations as one of its main tools for repression. A wide variety of organizations and elected representatives have spoken out against this most recent wave of FBI and Justice Department repression, but so far this has left Attorney General Eric Holder unimpressed.
The Obama administration has also been harsher than Bush with regard to the prosecution of whistleblowers. So far, under Obama, the Justice Department has initiated six prosecutions against whistleblowers or leaks, which are twice as many as during all other presidents combined. The most prominent of these cases is that of Bradley Manning, who is accused of having provided Wikileaks with hundreds of thousands of digital files about the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, a damning video that documents the murder of unarmed civilians in Iraq, as well as State Department cables with diplomats’ analyses of U.S. foreign policy and the political situation in countries around the world. These documents, which Wikileaks released to the press and later posted on its website in the course of 2010, revealed instances of war crimes and U.S. interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
Instead of protecting Manning as a whistleblower, as Obama had suggested he would do for whistleblowers more generally when he campaigned for the presidency in 2008, the Obama administration and the U.S. military are prosecuting Manning, charging him with espionage, which carries a possible death sentence or life in prison sentence. Not only that, Manning faces a court martial where the possibilities for defense are more restricted than in civilian courts and he was arbitrarily subjected to nine months of solitary confinement. When asked about Manning’s treatment, Obama defended the solitary confinement and on another occasion falsely argued that Manning’s violation of the law was different from that of Daniel Ellsberg’s, who had released the top secret “Pentagon Papers” during the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, the soldiers who are responsible for the murder of Iraqi civilians in the Wikileaks-released video have been neither investigated nor punished.
The passage of the notorious 2001 Patriot Act has enabled many of the above-mentioned limitations on civil rights and repression of dissent, which Obama all too willingly renewed for four years in May of 2011. The Patriot Act allows the government to seize records without the owner’s knowledge (“library records provision”) and without having to prove reasonable suspicion or probable cause of wrong-doing, roving wiretaps that do not require the government to name targeted individuals or facilities, and surveillance of suspicious people who have no known connection to terrorism (“lone wolf”), among many other controversial provisions.
Finally, in another effort to limit civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism, on December 31, 2011, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA), which has a section (#1021) that reinforced a 2001 law which authorized indefinite detention of anyone the government suspects to be involved in terrorism, whether they are a U.S. citizen or a foreigner. Although Obama stated that he would not apply indefinite military detention to U.S. citizens, there is nothing to prevent future changes of heart or future presidents from applying this section of the law. Luckily, on May 16, 2012, U.S. District judge Katherine Forrest ruled that section 1021 of the NDAA is unconstitutional. This ruling might still be reversed on appeal, but it represents an important success in challenging the erosion of civil rights in the U.S.
Conclusion to Part 1
In so many policy areas, whether foreign relations, immigration, economy, health care, education, or civil liberties, this review of these issues shows that Obama not only failed to live up to his campaign promises and hopes, but in most cases either continued or deepened the policies of his Republican predecessor. There are many other policy areas that this pattern applies to as well, such as the environment, where the administration has been less than helpful in reaching an agreement on controlling CO2 emissions. Another policy area is nuclear power, where Democrats and Republicans have pursued almost indistinguishable policies since the Clinton administration. Yet another disappointing policy area is with regard to labor, where Obama had promised to push for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make it easier for unions to organize. Instead, Obama effectively abandoned the EFCA and ended up completely ignoring the labor conflict with Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
By highlighting only the policy areas where Obama has disappointed progressives and by failing to mention any of the positive aspects of the Obama presidency, some might conclude that this review of the Obama presidency is one-sided. So, in fairness, I should mention some of the positive changes, which in my mind amount to very little compared to the large number and grievous nature of Obama’s disappointments.
For example, with regard to policies relating to gays and lesbians, Obama supported the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that kept homosexuals in the military in the closet. Also, he recently announced his support for same-sex marriage, even though this announcement will have almost no impact on the current legal situation of same-sex couples, since marriage is regulated on the state level. In short, Obama’s policies towards the LGBT community have been far more positive than they would have been under a Republican president. Other bright spots in the Obama presidency are the recent halt of deportations of young undocumented immigrants and increased federal support for college financial aid. The perhaps most important positive difference with Republicans, which was mentioned at the beginning of this article, has to do with Obama’s more intelligent economic policy, which favors limiting public sector job cutbacks and fewer tax breaks for the rich.
One of the main questions thus becomes whether the positive aspects outweigh the negative. In short, do the progressive aspects of the Obama presidency, such as with regard to LGBT issues, college financial aid, deportation deferment of young undocumented immigrants, and slightly less austerity and slightly less tax injustice make up for the massive loss of life and repression due to on-going U.S. imperialism around the world, the cementing of market logic in education and in health care, the otherwise draconian deportation policy towards undocumented immigrants, and the continuation of repression of dissent and civil liberties?
A logical response to this question would be that it depends on what the alternative is. In this case the alternative will be the Republican candidate Mitt Romney and if history is any guide, then a Romney administration would probably move the country further to the right, just as Bush did when he followed Bill Clinton in office. That is, ever since Reagan, Republican administrations tend to move the U.S. further to the right while Democratic administrations merely tend to keep the course that the previous Republican administration had already forged, instead of moving the country back towards the political center or even left. In short, even though Obama’s policies have been nearly indistinguishable from those of Bush, we can fully expect Romney to head the U.S. even further to the right. We thus end up with the typical phenomenon where, from a progressive perspective, the Democratic candidate is no better than his Republican predecessor, but he is still better than the next Republican who would come after him. In short, progressives are faced with the usual option of supporting the “lesser of two evils.”
However, before reaching such a conclusion, we should take a closer look at the U.S. political system, to understand why this seems to be the only practical option every four years and what other strategic options are available for progressives in the U.S. This will be the topic of part 2 of this essay.
Gregory Wilpert is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of political science at Brooklyn College’s Graduate Center for Worker Education. He is the author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso Books, 2007) and a member of the recently launched International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS, www.iopsociety.org).