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Tuesday, December 21, 2010


[Winston Churchill, describing Soviet actions]

Something strange is happening in our nation's capitol. I do not understand it, but since it is of very great political importance, I feel I must at least acknowledge its existence. Let me say, to begin, that in explaining to myself the behavior of our sainted leaders, my default assumption is that they are rationally self-interested, at least subjectively. That is to say, given their goals and their beliefs about the world, however bizarre those beliefs may be [see yesterday's post], their actions should for the most part be explainable as chosen in the reasonable expectation of achieving those goals. Their goals may be execrable -- that goes without saying -- and their beliefs may be, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, north by northwest to reality, but given those goals and beliefs, what they actually do should make a kind of subjective sense.

Now, the Congressional Republicans began Obama's presidency with the declared intention of making his presidency a failure, Their behavior for the next two years conformed quite nicely to that despicable goal. They made it quite clear that they were prepared to drive the country into a deep depression if that would sink Obama's chances for reelection. As the midterm elections approached, it was a near certainty that they were going to win control of the House, and at a minimum, diminish significantly the Democrats' majority in the Senate. This latter goal was somewhat undercut by the success of the Tea Party in nominating unelectable candidates to easily winnable seats, but nonetheless, we all knew that there would be a tectonic shift in Washington politics in the next Congress. McConnell openly declared that the primary goal of the Republicans would then be to do whatever it took to defeat Obama for reelection.

The election went pretty much as the Republicans anticipated and hoped. Obama himself described what he had suffered as a "shellacking." He went off on a foreign trip shortly after election day [as defeated presidents often do], while the mainstream media and cable bloviators excitedly gossiped about the prospects for a primary challenge to Obama and even a Palin presidency.

So what happened? First, Obama succeeded in working out a compromise with the supposedly intransigent Republicans on the continuation of the Bush tax cuts. In that bill, Obama got an extension of unemployment benefits, a one year FICA tax reduction [Social Security], and an expansion of Pell grants. Next, against all odds, and with masterful skill, he actually secured the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, which he will sign tomorrow morning [my son, Tobias, has been invited to the signing. He will not be on the dais, but if the cameras scan the audience, look for the really handsome gay man in an elegant suit.] Finally, despite the stated opposition of both Senate Republican leaders, he is poised to win the 67 votes needed for ratification of the new START treaty.

A word about this last item, for those of you who do not pay much attention to the issue of nuclear weapons control. I got my start in politics, fifty years ago, in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I lived through the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we came within a hairsbreadth of an all-out world destroying nuclear war. I have anguished over the fate of the thousands upon thousands of nuclear warheads inadequately guarded after the breakup of the Soviet Union. To his very great credit, Obama made this is signature issue during his brief tenure as a United States Senate, and he is now poised to take a major step toward a further reduction in warheads and better inspection protocols with regard to those that remain. This may in fact be the most important thing he ever does as President.

The net result of this series of legislative victories, all of which are publicly perceived as his doing, is that Obama looks like the Comeback Kid after the election. He goes into the next Congress not knocked back on his heels by the election losses, but buoyed by a series of remarkable victories.

Here is the riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. The Republicans could have addressed all of these issues before the election, simply by aborting their obstructionist stalling tactics. Had Obama won these victories BEFORE the election, it would not have changed the outcome one iota. But it would have left Obama looking weak and defeated after the election, instead of resurgent and victorious. Now, it would not have taken a great deal of intelligence to see this. I mean, worrying about such things is virtually all Congressional Republicans do, aside from raising money. But they played their hand so badly that it is now quite unclear what their control of the House and increased Senate presence will get them.

I invite my readers to offer their explanations for this puzzling turn of events.


English Jerk said...

I take it for granted that both parties are essentially owned by Citigroup, et al. But there can still be conflicts between elite groups, just as there can be competition between huge corporations, within certain narrowly defined limits (subordinating absolutely all things to the goal of short-term profits, for example). But I don’t think those conflicts, such as they are, happen at the level of one whole party against another. The shifts of power between those parties are, in my view, epiphenomena spun off from a combination of a whole host of smaller-scale power struggles between individual corporations and their instruments in Washington. Some of these smaller-scale struggles have consequences for ordinary people, and some of them don’t. But I don’t think shifts of power between whole parties have any significance at all for ordinary people—which is surely why they’re a major focus of Fox News, the New York Times, and all the rest of the propaganda machinery.

On the issue of nuclear weapons: I can’t think of a more important issue (the environment aside), since, as Chomsky says in Hegemony or Survival, the issue is not just the rights or welfare of a particular group but rather the survival of the human race in toto, perhaps of all life. But I’m not convinced that Obama’s record on these matters is so lovely. He is, after all, on track to have spent more on the military than any political leader in the history of the world. And if the past is any guide, the US will mainly work to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of potential enemies (i.e., everyone else) and will, at best, make nominal reductions to the largest nuclear arsenal the world has ever known. (Or perhaps just give the extra warheads to the only nuclear power in the Middle East.) We have, after all, such enormous quantities of WMDs that we can make a show of benevolence without any loss of comparative advantage, or any real reduction in the threat of total extermination.

Chris said...

Agree. At the end of salt we retain enough nukes to kill the species anyway. Not to mention there was a new York times story about how the DoD of trying to design a weapon to replace the lost nukes; a literal death ray of old sci-fi villain stories. Classic Obama, our most protian president yet!

Chris said...

Sorry not salt, start.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am sorry but you folks are simply dead wrong. Hate Obama if you wish. That is your prerogative. But on the issue itself, you are just wrong. The single greatest threat to the world today is the large number of ill-secured nuclear weapons that might fall into the hands of individuals willing to kill hundreds of thousands, or millions, to make a political statement -- individuals who cannot be deterred by the threat of retaliation. This treaty takes another step in the direction of diminishing that threat. If you cannot see that, you are not thinking clearly. I cannot engage seriously with people who are unable to recognize simple facts like these. So I am not going to any more.

Murfmensch said...

Is it possible that some Republicans could only vote for these items now? Before the election, they would have faced a stronger well-funded populist Tea Party insurgent.

When the next session begins, many of their colleagues will have been replaced by some of these insurgents.

I believe that the Tea Party will have trouble as it confronts the question of its actual stances.

Amato said...

I can only speculate, but I’ll take a shot at elucidating this apparent enigma. The republicans, you noted professor, have pretty much defined themselves in opposition to the Dems generally, and Obama particularly. The only active political stance that they seem to have even taken was on tax cuts. But of course even here the tax cuts they are shouting the loudest over were the bush tax cuts, which Obama opposed [you should check Larry David’s Op-Ed in the times about extending the bush tax cuts, if they haven't.].

Now I still feel they’re doing what they do best and opposing Obama almost unilaterally at juncture. However, I think the win we may be witness a little calm in the storm. The republican narrative of Obama [the oppressor] and republicans/American people [the oppressed], which worked so well when Dems had control senate and house, does not resonate the same way after their win. Even republicans are no longer pretending that they are a helpless few fighting the good fight. Why does this matter for the success of the recent legislation? Because it has freed up a free moderate republicans to move away from the purely reactionary voting against Obama, and vote on a few democratic policies they agree with. My guess is, If I’m right, this won’t last long.

Just my theory.

Scott said...

English Jerk,

Chomsky has also said that small differences in narrow power spectra can translate into big outcomes which are often very real.

I'm not a fan on Obama either but I'm not so blind as to not recognize that what he's done is a huge step in the right direction and may very well be a necessary measure to ensure the survival of the species.

Chris said...

You think his presidency is a step in the right direction ? Or his policy regarding dadt?

Godamn my fellow lefties, you make me worry. All parties continue to shift further to the right, election after election. Obama is 1 step forward 2 steps back; or more accurTely for the Democratic party, one step left, two steps right.

Chris said...

By the way it's east for you in the West to act as if he's a step in the right direction, but let's think of mountain of dead in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. What about the Palestinians who continue to have their land encroached upon, and their foreign aid providers assaulted, because Obama continues to support Israeli crimes? Or the citizens of Guam and Okinawa who have to suffer increased military bases (and subsequently rape crimes...sad fact). Or the citizens of Honduras who are now under an extremely undemocratic, authoritarian regime, thanks to the fact the US - the obama admin - stood alone against the UN, and OAS, in recognizing the coup government (which they knew was a coup;thank you wikileaks) as legitimate.

Fine, great, Obama is good for us. But what about them? Do we always ignore the other in the US? yes... it seems we do.

The left is dead.

Chris said...

Scott what has he done that offers better chances of species survival?

He's done nothing tantamount to serious effectiveness regarding climate change, deforestation, polluted and decreasing fresh water supplies, dwindling reserves of sea food, rapid decrease of major mammal species, etc.

And as far as Nukes, he's cutting the number sure, but retaining SEVERAL THOUSAND ACTIVE NUCLEAR WEAPONS. Enough to blow up the godamn planet several times over. How is that laudable? bleh. pfui.

Amato said...

Chris, it sounds like the presidency of a lefty Jesus--who breaks every political norm in the name of radical principles of justice--is the only genuine step forward to you.

I think what Professor Wolff, and a few others of us on the left feel, is that Obama is a step forward in a mile walk. Please don't mistake recognizing the political differences between the Republicans and Dems, or small achievements (in grand scheme of things) of Obama as us forgeting what truely progressive politics would look like.

However, we must first admit that Obama is, at the very least, symbolically a step forward. The election of America's first black president means something I don't think we should forget.

Second, I actually believe that the pejoratives Fox News wages against Obama (he's left socialist who wants to redistribute the wealth) may be more right than they know. I have read "dreams from my father" and I believe Obama is far more left than his policies would indicate. I tend to think, and I may be wrong, that Obama is similar to the Jimmy carter type: that is, he genuinely cares and is trying to achieve what little good he can in his position. However, forced to play the same political game, against obstructionist republicans, and Dems that would disown him if he seemed to far left, I have trouble imagining how a principled leftist stance would achieve anymore [most likely far less] than what Obama has done. Obama knows this and we know this. All im saying is we have to contextualize Obama's actions against the current political situation as well as the truly lefty principles of justice, to paint a fair picture.

Chris said...

As I'm trying to stress, and a quick glance at FDR, LBJ, and Carter will vindicate, the democratic party, the republican party, and the whole political spectrum is consistently moving to the right. Two steps right, one step left, is not a step forward on our mile journey, it's, if we rotate the steps by 90ยบ still a step backward for the left. When Obama's policies are literally the policies of the right of a decade-two decades a ago, we are losing, not wining. We are failing, not achieving.

You're right to point out my desire for a seriously radical, but that's because the solutions to all our serious problems - campaign financing, social welfare, health care, foreign military empire (860 overseas bases in over 60 countries), our numerous wars, our increasing surveillance state, our relationship to non-renewable resources, nuclear arsenal, to name a few - require radical solutions.

I see Obama as a symbolic victory for the left, and that's the very problem here. It's mystical symbolism, not actual reality. The empire grows. the dichotomy of rich and poor grows. the non-sustainable relationship to energy and nature grows. Yet are comforted in a false blanket of symbolism, as the spectrum shifts further to the right.

The election of the first black president is frankly moot to the discussion that was going on. Yes, that's well and good, but even Cornel West and Tavis Smiley long since abandoned ship on this guy as a black president that actually aids black people. It's more of that false symbolism. Literally look at black poverty statistics, they are worse than ever. More of them are suffering from diabetes, low education, food stamp life styles, unemployment, etc, than ever before. And Obama has no special interest in helping blacks specifically as a long-standing impoverished minority, regardless of his own race.

Your beliefs of Obama, like your symbolism, don't match the reality on the ground, in the legislative bills, in the wikileaked files, etc.

Personally, I would suggest reading Paul Street's analysis, and then re-evaluating your beliefs.

Chris said...

By the way, although I'm essentially an anarchist, I'd take Sanders, Kucinich, or Nader as president, so radical Jesus isn't absolutely necessary ;)

Amato said...

I feel you misinterpreted Chris. Lets start with my point about symbolism. I don't think we should acknowledge symbolism the of Obama, as the hero of Hope and change, and be comforted by this. I think we should stop for a moment, and acknowledge the symbolic meaning of having a black president in respect to the history of race in this country. Cornell West and Tavis Smiley (not particularly important, but many Africana scholars reject calling these individuals' intellectual leadership in the African American community. Unlike a W.E.B Du Bois or Garvey.) are right that Obama's policy are not particularly favorable toward black people. But that doesn't change the fact that on a less material level, Obama presidency has contributed to a change of what it means to be black in this world. This does not by any strech of the imagination mean the end of racism, but it is something to look at when considering the historical significances of Obama.

Second, I would also like radical political solutions to today's problems, which I admit demand them. However, that was not my point. My point was that when we talk about Obama lets contextualize him a bit more. You pointed out they we should historically contextize him. Your right. He is further right than Dems and even republicans before him. However, we also have to understand the ideological shift right in mainstream discourse with the propoganda war of of a Fox News.

So I suggest we evaluate Obama in three ways: 1) historically 2) on the current state of politics, where a leftist sentiment is only going to be able to manifest incremental change. This second on I believe is more significant than you give credit to. It is why, unless a Obama was driven by pure ideology, he might likely hold stronger leftist sentiment than his policy indicates. 3) On our radical views about what a state should look like.

This paints a little different picture, in my mind, of Obama than the one you have Chris.

I'll check out the links nonetheless.

P.S. I would not call myself anarchist, probably a democratic socialist of some sort. However, I would also prefer the policies of a Kucinich or Nader.

Chris said...

I'm leaving for work, and will be closing tonight, so no real time to offer a serious reflective commentary. Knee-jerk response is, I don't give Obama any credit for the monumental moment of electing a black president. I give that credit to anyone/everyone who either overcame their own racism, or who fought to end it. Whether it was Obama, Powell, Sharpton, etc who was president, that individual isn't in anyway laudable to the degree the former group is. On that note, the victory to me doesn't tell me anything positive/negative about Obama as President.

Secondly, the propaganda war and shifting to the right, I do not believe to be entirely fox news fault. It's a core player, and a cunning one no doubt, but by no means the catalyst.

Democratic socialism is a stage of society I'd much prefer to our present one, and maybe after that the state could "wither" away ;)

Dan said...

Here's a hypothesis as to what might make the republicans' behavior seem rational: it all has to do with tax cuts for the rich.

First, remember back before the elections. Obama and Pelosi and Reid were under a lot of pressure from the left to push legislation through that would allow the tax cuts for those making 250k to expire, but not for everybody else. The idea was to put the republicans on record as standing with the super rich, in the hopes that this might be an effective campaign slogan. That didn't happen, and Obama et al. were criticized for short sightedness.

But what if they were playing a longer game that combined four propositions: 1. democrats will lose a lot of seats in the midterms, no matter what they did at that moment. 2. lots of the republican gains will come in the form of tea party candidates. 3. the old republican establishment are obsessed with low taxes for the rich. 4. the tea party people will push for a balanced budget, which might mean opposing tax cuts for the rich.

If you accept these, then what the republican establishment did makes sense, so long as you also grant Obama a lot of political acumen. Obama knew democrats would lose big time in the elections. So what was the best carrot he had? It's what the old guard republicans cared most about, and were worried about having to fight an intercine war with tea partiers over: tax cuts for the rich.

So Obama waited to deal with the tax cuts until after the election, at which point he could use those to extract considerable concessions from the Republicans, who were holding everything up to keep their friends' taxes historically low. Once that was done, the flood gates would open, and Obama could become the Comeback Kid. That is to say, the republicans can be treated as rational actors if you start by treating their subjective frame as: keep those taxes low for the rich.

Anyway, just an idea.