Our Professional Failure
Hey, Robert Gibbs: Screw you, and the president you rode in on.
I've always heard former presidents and their staff remark about the insularity of working in the White House. Now I see what they mean. These people are losing it.
Press Secretary Gibbs recently did an interview with The Hill magazine in which he vented what is apparently widespread anger within the White House toward progressives who express their disappointment with this presidency. Among other comments, he noted that the "professional left" wasn't recognizing the administration's accomplishments to date. Gibbs said, "They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we've eliminated the Pentagon. That's not reality." He also said, "I hear these people saying he's like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested. I mean, it's crazy". And he argued that liberals would never be happy, saying, "They wouldn't be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president".
Let's leave aside how insulting and demeaning these comments are to millions of Americans who happen to share three key attributes: One, they really care about their country, two, they worked harder than anyone to get Barack Obama and Gibbs their current jobs, and, three - unlike much of the rest of America today - they have so far resisted slipping into insanity. In truth, this White House has been bitch-slapping its own base since it walked in the door, staffing up with Republicans and Wall Street bankers, negotiating endlessly at every opportunity with the absolute worst elements of both political parties, and completely ignoring any progressive initiatives or components of key legislation. Now it comes along and adds grievous insult to injury with these degrading remarks.
Which also happen to be stupid remarks. As I have wondered aloud previously, just who exactly does Barack Obama think will be voting for him in 2012? The right? Golly, that seems unlikely. They don't even think the sonuvabitch is an American. The center? He punted away these voters three months into his presidency, chiefly over fiscal issues, and they're not coming back. This loss was largely unnecessary, but it nicely highlights the values, results and ineptitude of the White House. Anyhow, take away the right and the middle and that leaves the rest of us worthless whiners, out here on the professional left. Sure, prolly a lot of liberals will vote for this guy again, especially when they see their foaming-at-the-mouth other option nominated by the GOP. But is that supposed to represent a winning coalition? Two-thirds of the twenty percent of Americans who self-describe as liberals voting half-heartedly for Obama's reelection because the other choice is too horrible to imagine? Is that their vision of a ringing endorsement? As for me - and I think I speak for many others here - I'd rather eat metal than vote for Obama in 2012. I'd rather shit bricks. Big, rough, rocky ones. I'm not sure if I'll ever vote for another Democrat again for the rest of my life, but if I do it sure won't be this pathetic punk.
Yet all of this appears to be quite lost on the White House, where the reigning dogma is that they're doing wonderful things and dummies on the right and now the left (oh, and the middle too) just don't recognize it. It's all perfectly clear when you're inside the bubble.
And, in fairness, there is some bit of reason to see the world in this fashion. A large part of how we measure the success of presidents involves the degree to which they are able to fulfill their legislative agendas. This president has put through Congress three major, difficult, bills - the stimulus package, the health care bill, and the financial reform act - which gives the outward appearance of outstanding and unusually strong success.
But, of course, appearances are often deceptive. As in this case. This is, in fact, a failed presidency - and tragically so. Here are ten reasons why:
First, Obama has indeed shepherded through Congress several major pieces of legislation. No doubt. But the bills are crap. It's like the difference between a sperm donor and a dad who has actively raised a kid for twenty years. You can accurately label both ‘father', but they are very different animals. Similarly, you can push through Congress massive bills which do many things, and accurately call them ‘stimulus' or ‘health care reform' or ‘financial reform', but that doesn't make them quality legislation.
And, in fact, these were not. Yes, Obama did in fact get health care legislation through Congress, and yes, it does include some necessary and beneficial changes. But otherwise this was a lousy bill. The fact that the insurance industry applauded it in the end (and, indeed, the president cut a secret deal with them from the very start) tells you everything you need to know about who were the winners here (hint: you are in that other category). This legislation took everything that's fundamentally broken with American health care - namely, the whole for-profit modality of the system - and exacerbated it expansively, forcing thirty to forty million Americans to buy this useless predatory product, and stealing money from Medicare in order to pay for it. Moreover, there is nothing within the legislation to contain the escalating costs of health care delivery in America, or to prevent insurance companies from just jacking up their rates. Recently the president was seen wagging his finger at the industry, trying to prevent them from doing just that. Can you imagine the laughs they have inside corporate headquarters across America at the expense of this rube?
The same is true of the two other major bills associated with this presidency. The stimulus bill was a grab-bag of pork and Republican tax cuts which was wholly insufficient in scale and entirely unfocused on projects that would actually stimulate the economy. Yes, it seems very likely that things would be worse now than had the bill not been passed, but is that our current standard of presidential achievement? "Life is bad, my fellow Americans, but it would be worse without me"? Likewise, there are some good items in the financial reform bill, but it fundamentally doesn't address the problems that got us where we are and will therefore take us down even further on the next iteration. Wall Street is reportedly happy with this package, which, again, tells you just about all you need to know. Think about it. Imagine that Congress had passed legislation on criminal penalties for sexual assault that left serial rapists applauding the quality of their work. Get the picture?
The second reason that the Obama presidency is tanking has to do with the process by which the president moved these bills. The White House displayed ineptitude that could make Keystone Kops wince. They make piñatas seem like the new standard of proactive advocacy by comparison. This president evidently sees Mr. Bill as his model for self-actualization. And so he holds endless negotiating sessions with every rapacious barbarian and grotesque freak in the American political system (and nobody does political sickos quite like we do), even as those same folks quite literally label him a granny killer, a socialist and a fascist. And then, of course, after a year of cutting deals with these monsters, watering down the bills to meet their requirements, while completely stiff-arming progressives, none of them vote for his bills anyhow. Meanwhile, the president, the Democratic Party, the progressive agenda, and the country have all been deeply damaged by the dithering dummkopf in the White House. Are you really surprised that we're not excited about your legislative achievements, Mr. Gibbs, after you put us through such a tortuous process only to yield such detritus, the legislative equivalent of junk bonds?
But it actually gets worse. The fundamental reason that Obama is producing lousy legislation - and the third reason his presidency is failing - is because he is serving the wrong masters. Anyone who thinks that he or his pals in the Democratic Party are any less whores of the corporate oligarchy in this country than are the Reptilicans is living in the 1930s. Obama, like Clinton before him, and like Reid and Pelosi and even Barney Frank, know who their constituents are, and it sure ain't you and me. This is a president who wrote health care legislation that will massively enrich predatory insurance companies which contribute nothing to the actual delivery of health care. This is an administration that continued to let BP and other oil companies run wild and unregulated, both before and after the Gulf spill. These guys are going to hugely increase offshore drilling. They gave away public funds to bail out Wall Street thieves, one hundred cents on the dollar, after those nice men wrecked the global economy. This presidency keeps feeding the military-industrial complex ever more and more, setting new records for ‘defense' spending. And on and on. I hope the president and his professional mouthpiece can forgive us progressives for not getting excited about yet another administration that - even in the midst of the worst economic times since the Great Depression - continues to serve the American oligarchy and leaves the rest of the country out flapping in the wind. Maybe that makes us seem from inside the White House bubble like we're a bunch of fussy, demanding cranks. So be it. People are dying out here in the real world, while the wealthiest among us are blowing out all records for the accumulation of wealth, and the hyper-polarization of class in America marches on unabated.
But what really is most laughable about Gibbs' remarks is how he has confused legislating with solving people's problems. And, after all, that's what people expect from a president. No one gives a damn how many bills he can ram through Congress or how hard it is to get it done. Odd as it may seem, what people want is results. Talk about needing drug-testing, do the folks in the White House really think that the public is happy about the state of the economy now? Do they really think that passing a stimulus bill - even a good one - is necessarily the same as creating jobs? It's a real measure of the insularity (or desperation) of these fools that the president is running around these days talking happy talk about how the economy is in recovery mode, at exactly the same moment that the tapped-out Fed is reaching deeper than ever into its bag of tricks seeking unconventional tools to stimulate an economy that they overtly admit is heading southward again. The same lunacy applies to Obama's other legislative ‘achievements'. Which one of us is on drugs here? Robert Gibbs for thinking we should all be pumped about being forced to buy health insurance when the legislation actually kicks in in 2014, or that we should be excited about how Wall Street criminals remain as unregulated as ever? Or those of us sitting out here in the real world, experiencing zero change in our lives as a product of this presidency?
But there's more to what Obama has done than simply legislation, and this gives us reason number five for why progressives think the guy sucks. He's massively increased America's commitment to a war in Afghanistan that might have made sense at one time, but now gives every appearance of being a poorly executed attempt to achieve objectives that would likely be completely impossible, were they ever to be adequately defined. He has staffed his economic team with almost no one who isn't an acolyte of Robber Rubin and his kleptocratic klan of legalized Wall Street Madoffs. He's appointed what appear to be careerist nothingburger vague moderates to key Supreme Court justice positions, at a time when the twisted mutants who form the majority of the Court are going absolutely off the rails, without any sort of constraint. He's actually gone to court defending the Defense of Marriage Act. He has made claims for executive power and national security-based intrusions on civil liberties that could make John Yoo blanch. Every time the right runs a smear campaign against some low-ranking individual in the administration he immediately capitulates and has them fired. The administration has radically increased the offshore areas available for oil drilling in ways that environmentalists never thought Dick Cheney would contemplate.
And there's more still where all that came from. But a sixth reason that the Obama administration is not impressing progressives has less to do with what it's done and more to do with what it hasn't. Somehow, Harry Truman could integrate the military racially, but Obama can't seem to do the same for gays. Nor can he close Guantánamo either, well after he promised he would do so. And despite the fact that Russia is quite literally on fire now (and this is just the beginning of the fun that is to come), this guy can't do anything about global warming. What's worse is that he isn't even seriously trying. But perhaps the most glaring omission of all right now is the president's absence without leave on behalf of the struggling people of his country. He has no plan for economic stimulus, and he couldn't possibly get one through Congress at this point anyhow, having blown his political capital on the first one which was both too small and not remotely focused enough. My favorite of all, though, is his near silence on the most basic decency of unemployment insurance. The utter-scum-with-human-DNA otherwise known as American conservatives have been running around at a time of huge and genuine public suffering talking about how we can't afford to continue meager unemployment benefits for lowlifes who are just too lazy to work. And this president, who never seems to get animated about anything, can't even muster sufficient compassion and outrage to rise to the defense of the millions of poor slobs being ground under the wheels of this Government Sachs Depression. Of course progressives are disenchanted with Barack Obama. On so many key issues, we can't even find the guy.
Of course, all this adds up to disaster for the president as well as the rest of us, a seventh very fine explanation for why we professional lefties - who, after all, have no jobs and nothing else to do - gripe about the Great One, his amazing achievements notwithstanding. Do they actually not notice in the White House, that Barack Obama's job approval rating has sunk by twenty points since he came into office? Are they really not aware that they have facilitated the revival of a Republican Party that less than two years ago was rightly (pardon the pun) on death's door? Are they actually not cognizant of the fact that voters are about to reward their accomplishments by smashing Democrats everywhere next November, likely causing them to give up control of the House, possibly the Senate, and lots of state legislative and gubernatorial positions that will be key to redistricting for the next ten years? Have they not asked themselves why so many Democratic candidates across the country are busy, uh, doing laundry, when the president flies into town to campaign on their behalf? I'm sorry, but if this is a democracy (and that's a debate that must be reserved as the subject of another essay, or ten), then isn't the ultimate measure of how you're doing just how it plays in Peoria? Don't we know without question whether the administration is succeeding just by looking at these figures? Yes, we more or less do, and it ain't a pretty picture.
But don't get me wrong. It would be fair to say that I couldn't care less what happens to Obama, Pelosi, Reid, Geithner, Summers and that whole lot, except that it's not quite true - I would actually like to see them smacked upside the head for their treason (and I choose my words carefully here) against the American people at a time of such great need. But the reason that their sinking prospects nevertheless remains so troubling to progressives is twofold. First, because what will replace these professional failures will actually be worse. In many ways there isn't much difference between the parties, but at least Democrats don't seem to feel the need to start wars so frequently, or slash taxes on the rich so much, adding to the national debt so significantly. At least they don't embarrass the country so thoroughly abroad. That's the first way, Mr. Gibbs, in which your failure translates into our punishment. The other is that because you've been such boobs in office, and because you've let the lunatic right (which is the only kind there is any more) falsely paint you as liberals, socialists and every other kind of mad creature from left field, you've managed to do great damage to the marketing prospects of real progressive ideas and badly needed solutions, damage that is likely to be around for a very long time. Great work, fellas. Thanks so much for pissing in our pond.
A ninth reason why Obama has left his erstwhile base empty-handed and exasperated is because he refuses to grab the reins of an institution he profoundly misunderstands. I'm sick of this administration and its apologists - some of them nominally progressive - impatiently explaining to hopelessly naive lefties like myself how Obama has only (only!) sixty Democrats in the Senate and an equal percentage in the House, and how the very, very bad men of the right constantly say many unpleasant things about Mr. Happyface, tearing him down with supreme unfairness. Gee, I don't really remember this being a problem for the last president, who often had no majorities in Congress. Or for Reagan or Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt. Why? Because they understood the nature of the presidency.
It's all about the bully pulpit. You don't sit there like a can or corn waiting for the likes of Sarah Palin to take a Louisville Slugger upside your freakin' head. You don't park yourself in the White House and fret about the lack of public support for your policies. You don't attack your base for insufficient obsequiousness. What you do is go out there and you sell your program to the public, insisting that people demand Congress acts the way you want them to. And then you go to Congress and you twist the limbs of those little freaks out of their sockets. Hell, you can even rip their arms right off their shoulders and use them to vote on the bill yourself. In short, you get the job done. You create the reality you need to achieve the goals of your administration. The Obama people are astonishingly inept at this, and thus he has become the most passive president in memory, something right out of the nineteenth century. Which explains why even when they win a legislative battle, they lose. A yawning, indifferent public, never mobilized behind your agenda in the first place, isn't going to notice when you pass big legislation, even if it happened to be good stuff - which this is decidedly not. Ironically, Republicans get this concept all too well. They've been wielding the bully pulpit like masters of the craft, and they don't even own it right now. This tells you everything you need to know about why Obama's presidency is sinking, along with the country's welfare and progressives' aspirations with it.
The upshot of all this is that yes, Barack Obama is in fact quite a bit like George W. Bush. Except, of course, that Bush and his people were only cowardly when it came to fighting America's wars themselves, as opposed to sending other kids off to do it. Obama, on the other hand, can't even muster a bit of courage to use the office with which he's been entrusted. Otherwise, though - policywise - Gibbs is completely wrong in his indignation directed at lefties for thinking Obama is like Bush. His war policies are like Bush's. His state power, national security and civil liberties policies are like Bush's and maybe worse. He said he wanted to close Gitmo but hasn't, just as Bush did. His "fierce urgency of now" seems to have settled in for a long nappy-time when it comes civil rights for gays, just like with Bush. He serves America's oligarchy just as fully as Bush did, Geithner and Summers stepping right in where Snow and Paulson once stood. He's doing nothing about the most urgent issue of our time, or any time - global warming - just as Bush also fiddled while the planet burned.
So, yeah, Robert, we do say that your boss is hardly distinguishable from his predecessor because, in every way that counts, he is hardly distinguishable from his predecessor. I don't particularly care that Obama smiles where Bush smirked. I don't really give a damn that Obama is doing war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq while Bush did them in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are nuances on nuances. When it comes to actual policy and effective governance, this presidency has been every bit the regressive disaster as was Bush's or Clinton's or Reagan's - but more so because now the country is deeply mired in crises brought on by the last three decades of these abysmal policies.
And so I confess that I'm not all that psyched when I see the press secretary of a failed president lecturing the people who put him into office, following two years of betraying them while cutting deals with the scariest predatory monsters in the country.
And I especially don't want to hear it from folks who don't have the good sense to have good sense about themselves and their record. Obama recently gave himself a grade of "incomplete" for his presidency, but said he has a "pretty good track record". Last year it was a B+, with an A- after health care passed. He's certainly entitled to his opinion, which his fawning press secretary and other White House staff no doubt share in spades. It's just that no one else does.
Maybe if Obama was up twenty points instead of down that many, maybe if he was adored by a grateful public, maybe if he was poised to increase his party's majorities in Congress rather than turn over control of both houses to people like Sharon Angle and Rand Paul, maybe if he was genuinely changing the country for the better - maybe then he'd have a soapbox to stand on and lecture the left.
Until then, it's not working.