Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Surely, Comrades, You Want Obama Back?

I didn't mean to return to this topic, but over the weekend some new light was shed on it.  Mehdi Hasan, a writer for the Intercept, stuck his foot into the Democratic rehabilitation of Bush a week or two ago, and now he answered a tweet by Glenn Greenwald on a related matter.

Greenwald posted a couple of video clips from 2013, in which Barack Obama debunked "the long-standing but central DC myth that the two parties are radically opposed on ideology & policy. Instead, he correctly explained, they're far more similar than different, & the US entails far less ideological dispute than most democracies."

Hasan replied: "Agree with this. But also agree with Noam Chomsky’s rider, to me, in 2016: 'Small differences in a system of great power can have enormous consequences.'"  And added: "I’m not disputing at all that he’s sadly right about the similarities, over the differences, just that the differences - while not enough for my liking! - can also result in millions of people getting healthcare or not, living or dying, getting asylum, not getting poisoned, etc."

As a matter of principle I agree with Chomsky's dictum, which is why I've mostly gritted my teeth, held my nose and voted for Democrats for the past few decades, though I did vote for Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000.  But Hasan inadvertently undermined the recommendation. Before he took office, Obama had spoken positively about single-payer, but once he was president he blocked discussion of single-payer, even a "public option," in favor of continuing America's harmful private-insurance-based healthcare system, with some significant but minor reforms; it's reasonable to suppose that he changed his stance in collaboration with his donors and supporters in the insurance and healthcare industry.  But by the time he left office, premiums were soaring again, and even if Trump hadn't become president, even if a devastating pandemic hadn't come along, it's arguable that the whole unwieldy edifice of "Obamacare" would have crumbled under its own weight by now.  The choices Obama made improved many people's condition, but they were always at best a stopgap.  John McCain and Mitt Romney would probably have done no better, though it's important not to forget that the Affordable Care Act was based on Romney's own program for Massachusetts.  Obama made a small difference, but I can't agree that it constituted "enormous consequences."

From there, Hasan is in even worse trouble.  Most Americans' health declined during the Obama years, as their income stagnated and the stress under which they lived and worked increased. Life expectancy in the US began to decline in 2014.  Economic inequality increased, in large part because of policies Obama chose to enact.  Meanwhile, corporate profits soared.  Obama sought ways to justify cuts in Social Security and Medicare, with the long view toward destroying them.  "Living or dying"?  I cannot see any enormous positive consequences in that area resulting from Obama's election, and we don't know what his opponents would have done.  Probably worse, but who knows?

Overseas, Obama made sure that vast numbers of people died: he tried to prolong the US occupation of Iraq, he did escalate the US war in Afghanistan, he continued or started little wars that got less attention, he turned Libya into a slave market, he supported the Saudi invasion of Yemen, he droned wedding parties and bombed hospitals, and he joked about it.  He supported dictatorships and military coups, he materially supported the right-wing opposition in Venezuela, he tut-tutted over Israeli atrocities but continued to support them -- need I go on?

"Not getting poisoned"?  Obama supported fossil fuels, turning the US into a major oil exporter; supported nuclear power; equivocated on destructive oil pipelines, and undermined world action against climate change.

"Getting asylum"?  Obama deported a record number of immigrants, scolded them that they had to "earn" American citizenship (as he had?), and sent thousands of young Central American refugees back to danger and death in their home countries, knowingly.  Again, it's quite possible that McCain and Romney would have been worse, but we don't know, and electing Barack Obama had terrible consequences for millions of people in the US and around the world.  The strange thing is that Mehdi Hasan knows Obama's record at least as well as I do, and probably criticized him for it while he was in office: he writes for the Intercept, which published a lot of Obama-critical material.  Noam Chomsky, of course, was harshly critical of Obama throughout his tenure, and I don't think his tactical-voting recommendation means that he has changed his mind, or that he's nostalgic for the George W. Bush era.

Obama began his presidency with with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, and it wasn't unrealistic to be optimistic about his administration then.  He promptly showed that he had no intention of fulfilling the hopes he'd raised in his campaign.  For me the most telling example is his offering tax cuts for the rich as part of his inadequate stimulus package even before the Republicans demanded them.  That can't be blamed on Republican obstructionism: it was his own initiative, and it was all too typical of his style.  The Democrats lost control of Congress in the midterms, and after that his cult could blame everything he failed to do on the evil Republicans.  Not only Congress but most state governorships and many Federal judgeships fell into the hands of the far right, partly because Obama and the Democratic National Committee didn't bother to support down-ticket candidates, saving their money and resources to re-elect him in 2012.  I think it's fair to say that this outcome was not what Democratic voters had voted for.  These and more are the "enormous consequences" the country (and the world) got from Barack Obama.  I rather wish someone would ask Chomsky about this point.

I have to temper this somewhat, because I don't get the impression that most voters are even aware of most of the consequences that bother me.  They did feel the sluggish economic recovery he engineered, the stagnant economy (except for the very richest) he presided over, and that was more than enough to sap their enthusiasm for him.  That Obama squandered his mandate is unquestionable, however much he and his apologists blame the voters.  (Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti of The Hill are erratic commentators, but this clip is an accurate analysis.)

Suppose, as a thought experiment, that in a parallel universe Obama had run for the presidency as a Republican instead of a Democrat, defeated parallel Hillary Clinton, and once in office governed exactly as he did in our universe - the same policies, the same consequences.  Would Mehdi Hasan, and others like him, defend Obama in the same terms he did last weekend?  Would he say that Republican Obama was a disappointment, but other Republicans would have been worse, so we shouldn't come down on him too hard, because Trump is so awful?  I doubt it, but maybe they would, just as Hasan and others have defended George W. Bush as a lesser evil compared to Donald Trump: by determinedly forgetting and misrepresenting his record.  Obama is the Republican we were warned about.

If Joe Biden manages to defeat Trump in November, I expect Chomsky will attack him as he has attacked his predecessors, and I also expect Democratic loyalists will attack Chomsky for undermining President Biden and giving aid and comfort to the Rethugs.  I wonder where Mehdi Hasan will take his stand.  The function of their argument - probably not intentionally, they're not clever enough to think tactically - is to divert criticism of Democratic politicians by playing the ranking game.