CounterPunch, Weekend Edition, September 24-25, 2011
On March 31, 1968, United States President Lyndon Baines Johnson told a national television audience that he would not seek and would not accept the nomination of the Democratic Party for another term in the White House. “When the address was over,” author Hampton Sides notes, “a euphoric Johnson leaped from his chair and bounded from Oval Office to be with family. ‘His air was that of a prisoner let free,’ the First Lady wrote: ‘We were all fifty pounds lighter and ever so much more lookin’ forward to the future’…The president described his mood this way: ‘I never felt so right about any decision in life.’”
Harassed and depressed by antiwar demonstrators, urban riots, rampaging youth, unruly professors and reporters, and a deadly colonial quagmire in Southeast Asia, Johnson felt that (as he later told historian Doris Goodwin) he “was being chased on all sides by a giant stampede coming at me from all directions.” And by Bobby Kennedy.
He wanted out. He left and it felt good.
Barack Obama might want to think about that happy moment experienced by an earlier failed Democratic president as he reflects on the revolting re-election season ahead. Along the way he should imagine a beautiful picture: he and his wife and two daughters relaxing on a beautiful beach on a sunny day in Hawaii on January 21 2013, one day a day after Mitt Romney, Rick Perry or Hillary Clinton is sworn in as the nation’s 45th president on January 20, 2013. As he looks out across the rolling waves of the blue Pacific, he takes a nice long drag on a cigarette he doesn’t feel compelled to hide from the press. Reflecting on all the “ideological extremists,” “unrealistic” zealots, “partisan dividers” and opportunists who criticized him in office, he can take comfort in the fact that “they won’t have Barack Obama to kick around anymore” an d in contemplating the many millions of dollars he will be slated to rake through future speaking, writing, and other fees.
What does Obama have to look forward to in the future if he insists on trying for a second term? The stalled profits system seems ready to double dip back into full technical recession (the human recession never stopped beneath the mild statistical recovery), fitting him with the same fatal yoke of economic powerlessness that deep-sixed Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and the first George (H.W) Bush’s hopes for second term. Unemployment remains sky high, contributing to a recent low in American history: the largest number U.S. citizens (46 million) ever recorded below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. Obama’s job approval is at an all time low (43 percent), 7 points under his disapproval rating (50 percent). A preponderant majority of Americans say that the country is “on the wrong track.”
Four months after his empty, politically calculated execution and sea-dumping of Osama bin-Laden., Obama is widely perceived as weak and ineffective, as too eager to compromise with – and as incapable of standing up to – his (supposed) right-wing enemies. His party has recently lost two special House elections and one of those defeats came in a district Democrats had previously held for 88 years in a row. He has staked his future prospects on a highly flawed jobs bill – legislation that may well not pass the House and that is scaring off many conservative Democratic legislators. Most Americans think the bill won’t work.
The president is starting to look like the potential victim of a landslide in November of 2012. The Democratic base is widely disillusioned with him. Even many among his fake-progressive pseudo-liberal dead-end defenders sometimes squawk about his conservative corporatism and unwillingness to govern in accord with his idealistic campaign promises. Liberal and progressive Democratic elected officials in the House and Senate have been grumbling about his center-right proclivities for some time now. It is one thing to rightwardly triangulate on the backs of welfare mothers and declining unions in the mode of Bill Clinton; it is another thing to do so at the expense of the broadly popular programs Social Security and Medicare, all while passing on hyper-regressive Republican tax cuts for the obscenely rich and powerful.
After years of overexposure, the Obama brand has gone toxic to a degree that may well be terminal. Leading Democratic political consultant and media pundit James Carville recently offered a single word of advice for Obama: “PANIC.” According to Bill Burton, a former White House spokesman and senior political strategist, “Democrats should be very nervous.” Unless Obama can somehow rally his party’s progressive base, Burton thinks, “it’s going to be impossible for the president to win.” But how is the deeply conservative Obama (accurately described in 1996 by Dr. Adolph Reed Jr. as “a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics”) going to do that in the middle of a center-right presidency hat has been a shining monument to the power of the United States’ “unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s term) and to John Dewey’s observation notion that American politics is “the shadow cast on society by big business”? Obama’s “liberal” defenders complain that he is checked in his supposedly progressive ambitions by the power of right wing congressional Republicans. But what did the nation get from their “liberal” president and the Democrats in his first year, when he enjoyed a clear and filibuster-proof Democratic majority in Congress? Expansion of the monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, refusal to nationalize and cut down parasitic financial institutions, a health “reform” bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), an auto bailout deal that raided union pension funds and rewarded capital flight, the undermining of global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, a refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), the green-lighting of escalated strip mining and hazardous deepwater oil drilling, the disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies (remember the Employee Free Choice Act?) and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors), and the appointment of a Deficit Reduction Commission “headed [in economist Michael Hudson’s words] by avowed enemies of Social Security”
Along the way, the “new” White House escalated Superpower violence in South Asia, passed a record-setting “defense” (Empire) budget, rolled over George W. Bush’s not-so counter-terrorist assault on human rights (in the name of “freedom”), extended the imperial terror war to Yemen and Somalia, disguised escalated U.S. occupation of Haiti as humanitarian relief, aided and abetted a thuggish right wing coup in Honduras, and expanded the Pentagon’s reach in Columbia/Latin America – a fascinating record for the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. It called progressives who dared to criticize these and other White House policies “fucking retard[s] (former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel) who require “drug testing” (former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs). Leftists and sincere liberals were accused of being “purists” who do not live in the real world, who make “the perfect the enemy of the good” and fail to grasp the necessity of “compromise” to “get things done.”
When Obama’s center-right corporate-imperial presidency yielded the predictable consequence of demobilizing the Democratic Party’s “progressive base” in the mid-term elections and thereby enabling an historic right wing sweep in Congress, the president quickly moved yet further to the business-friendly right like a hungry lion leaping on a faltering zebra. In the debt-ceiling fiasco last July and August (a preposterous drama he could have prevented), Obama ignored majority progressive opinion (as usual) and accepted the Republicans’ reactionary framework, according to which (i) the nation’s main imperative was deficit-reduction, not job creation and (ii) the way to reduce the deficit is to cut spending and attacking working people and the poor, not to raise taxes on business and the filthy rich.
Good luck “rallying the progressive base” with that sort of corporate-imperial track record and as the economy sours yet further!
It is possible, I suppose, that the Republicans’ nomination of the doltish Christian Dominionist, mass executioner and arch-plutocrat Rick Perry could activate enough of the Democrats’ base and scare enough moderates and independents to push Obama over the top in November, 2012.. But does Obama really want an encore? Second terms have not been kind to returning presidents. Think Watergate (Nixon), Iran-Contra (Reagan), the Monica Lewinsky impeachment (Clinton), Katrina, and the financial meltdown of 2008 (George Bush the Lesser). A second Obama term could well coincide with Republican control of both the House and the Senate. Obama can expect many of his administration’s top staffers to exit in droves, leaving the second string to finish out a truly lame-duck term, headed by a temporizing, boring, and distant figurehead to whom the populace has long been overexposed.
If he cared about his party, Obama would step down and give the nomination to Hillary Clinton, determined by a recent Bloomberg poll to be “the most popular national political figure in America today.” Ms. Clinton has distinct advantages over Obama in running against Perry or Mitt Romney in 2012. She is not a member of Congress, which has even lower popular approval than Obama. She is associated with economic prosperity thanks to the long neoliberal Clinton boom of the 1990s. And she carries a reputation for toughness, quite different from Obama’s emerging legacy as a 98-pound weakling who gets kicked around on the policy beach by bullies like John Boehner, Sean Hannity, and Eric Cantor. (For those of us on the radical left, a Hillary Clinton presidency might have the benefit of inducing at least some less confusion and tepidness among progressives than “the first black president.”)
My sense is that quitting is unthinkable for the current president. Obama is far too convinced of his own special qualities and qualifications for Mount Rushmore to seriously entertain standing down. Personalities and money and candidate brands have trumped traditional parties and party needs in U.S. politics for some time now. Obama’s narcissistic desire to be at the center of the action is too strong for him to seriously contemplate stepping down at the end of just one disastrous term. Relinquishing power would go against every grain of his being.
His campaign for a return engagement should be an especially nauseating chapter in the expression of what the still-left Christopher Hitchens once accurately described as “the essence of American politics….the manipulation of populism by elitism.” That was the basic nature of Obama’s 2007-08 campaign, of course. It’s going to be a harder and uglier sell this time around – a path worth not taking.
Paul Street is the co-author with Anthony DiMaggio of the newly released Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm Publishers, 2011). Street will speak on (and sign copies of) Crashing the Tea Party at Boxcar Books in Bloomington,Indiana (Tuesday, September 27 at 7 pm), Peoples’ Books Cooperative in Milwaukee, WI (Thursday, September 29 at 7 pm), and Bluestockings Bookstore in New York City (Tuesday, October 4 at 7pm).
Street can be reached at email@example.com.