Why Obama Can’t
by Gwydion M. Williams
A review of Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. [Written in 2011, near the end of his first term.]
The authors of the US Constitution never intended that the President should be directly elected by ordinary citizens. They also left it uncertain as to whether all citizens should have a vote at all; practice varied in the various states that came together as the USA. But the intention was that experienced politicians should decided which one of them should have the top job.
The authors of the US Constitution were also over-concerned about influence and connection, and tried to avoid it, very unsuccessfully. They made it a rule that members of Congress could not serve in the President’s Cabinet. And rather than having Congress elect the President, they decided on a separate Electoral College that the voters would choose just for that purpose. That left the door open for candidates to the Electoral College to be pledged for a specific candidate, so it effectively became a popular vote. Of course it is also based on states, so that a candidate who gets a majority of the votes can still lose. Bush Junior benefited from this in 2000, but then so did Lincoln in 1860, getting elected with just 40% of the popular vote, wining most of the North and nothing in the South.
The USA has functioned as a highly open society, but that does not always mean a good society. Indeed emptiness and mistrust are features of the modern USA, lots of people have noted that. But very few dare say that the system has not worked as intended and needs a drastic overhaul. Maybe they don’t even dare think it. A few generations back there were major politicians who’d argue for something more like a parliamentary system, with government and legislature more or less the same. President Woodrow Wilson was one of them. But the USA has grown stronger in its sense of distinctiveness as it has absorbed huge numbers of people from all over the world and processed them to be Standard Individualists on the US model. The same thing applies in sport: the USA used to be a strong cricketing nation but the game has been wholly pushed out by baseball. They also remain a weak soccer nation, preferring their own version of football.
Getting elected to office requires catering to the prejudices of a free-floating electorate. Obama says in his book about his program of local meetings, meeting the electorate:
“most of them were too busy with work or their kids to pay much attention to politics, and they spoke instead of what they saw before them”. [A]
Like Bill Clinton, Obama was good at making an impression at such meetings. Unlike Clinton, he hadn’t actually run anything. Clinton had a total of 12 years as Governor of Arkansas, being once defeated and then re-elected four times. Of course Arkansas has less than three million inhabitants, but it was a good background. Clinton made some bad choices, notably support for the harassment of Iraq and Yugoslavia, but they were at least his choices. Obama may have won with the slogan ‘Yes We Can’, but it was never specified what this meant. In office, he gives the impression of never having been in control, in spite of bringing in Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.
There is also a lack of vision. Obama does note the inherent weakness of the Republican position:
“If the Democrats have had trouble winning, it appears that the Republicans – having won elections on the basis of pledges that often defy reality (tax cuts without service cuts, privatisation of Social Security with no change in benefits, war without sacrifice) – cannot govern.” [B]
But that’s really a criticism of the electorate, who demand such pledges and have now gone further with the rise of the ‘Tea Party’ on the right of Republicanism. Obama does also say:
“Most people who serve in Washington have been trained either as lawyers or as political operatives – professions that tend to place a premium on winning arguments rather than solving problems.” [C] But that’s exactly his own history.
Obama complains about the arguments of the Republican Right:
“According to these activists, liberal judges had placed themselves above the law, basing their opinions not on the Constitution but on their own whims and desired results, finding rights to abortion or sodomy that did not exist in the text…” [D]
The trouble is, such complaints are a fair comment. In the late 18th century, no such rights were ever contemplated and would have been decisively rejected at the time, if the issue had ever been raised. The original Constitution also protected slavery, denied political rights to women and did not guarantee even one-man-one-vote for whites: all of these things had to be fought for in popular politics rather than being awarded by the courts. In Western Europe, the rules were changed by normal politics and are generally accepted. In the USA it was done by shysterism and there is some justification for popular resentment.
Obama does also note how US politics works – you can get nowhere without money, and most of that comes from the rich.
“Absent great personal wealth, there is basically one way of raising the kind of money involved in a U.S. Senate race. You have to ask rich people for it.” [E]
“But I worry that there was also another change at work. Increasingly, I found myself spending time with people of means – law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspective of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2000 check to a political candidate. They believed in the free market and an educational meritocracy…. They had no patience with protectionism, found unions troublesome, and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by the movements of global capital.” [F]
Obama and most other politicians need to gather support from such people, so it’s not surprising that government policies have favoured them and that they have got the bulk of the new wealth created since the 1980s. The older system of ‘machine politics’ at least ensured that ordinary people were looked after. Fighting as individuals, ordinary people lose out to those few who can write cheques for $2000 and never really miss the money. The USA also has no limits on campaign spending, so while money doesn’t always win an election, lack of money almost always loses.
The other big problem is that the people Obama mentioned are mostly wealth-acquirers rather than wealth-creators. Complex financial games have become the core. Manufacturing is getting downgraded and US skilled jobs are being lost. This is no problem to the ‘Overclass’ that Obama mentions, they are doing fine out of an imbalanced US economy and the rise of East Asia. In the broader sweep of history, they are also sawing the same branch that they’re sitting on. But there are always enough tame intellectuals to reassure them all is well.
Obama notes that the USA is getting increasingly dependent on imported brains for hard technical knowledge, as distinct from wheeler-dealer skills in fancy financial markets. At the heart of the US software industry, “at least half of the group looked Asian; a large percentage of the whites had East European names. As far as I could tell, not one was black or Latino…
“Google needed to stay competitive, which meant hiring the top graduates of the top maths, engineering, and computer science programs in the country… You could count on two hands, Dave told me, the number of black and Latino kids in those programs.
“In fact, according to Dave, just finding American-born engineers, whatever their race, was getting harder – which was why every company in Silicon Valley had come to rely heavily on foreign students.” [G]
Obama makes it clear that some people are doing very nicely out the pattern that Reagan launched in the 1980s. Commenting of Bush Junior’s tax cuts, which ate up the surplus Clinton had created, he noted:
“The bulk of the debt is a direct result of the President’s tax cuts, 47.4 percent of which went to the top 5% of the income bracket, 36.7 percent of which went to the top 1 percent, and 15% of which went to the top one-tenth of 1 percent, typically people making $1.6 million a year.” [H] He then quotes the super-rich Warren Buffett saying “‘If there’s class warfare going on in America, then my class is winning… Though I’ve never used tax shelters or had a tax planner, after including the payroll taxes we each pay, I’ll pay a lower effective tax rate this year than my receptionist. In fact, I’m pretty sure I pay a lower rate than the average American. And if the President [Bush Junior] has his way, I’ll be paying even less.’
“Before I left, I asked Buffett how many of his fellow billionaires shared his views. He laughed.
“‘I’ll tell you, not very many’ he said. ‘They have this idea that it’s ‘their money’ and they deserve to keep every penny of it. What they don’t factor in is all the public investment that lets us live the way we do. Take me as an example. I happen to have a talent for allocating capital. But my ability to use that talent is completely dependent on the society I was born into.” [J]
“The rich in America have little to complain about. Between 1971 and 2001, while the median wage and salary income of the average worker showed literally no gain, the income of the top hundredth of a percent went up almost 500 percent.” [K]
A little of this got through in 2008. But by 2010, the ordinary voters were hysterical about state power and ‘creeping socialism’. Middle America elected politicians who look after Rich America and ignore Middle America’s decline. Obama had to keep the tax cuts for the rich, in order to get a viable budget from a Republican-run House of Representatives.
Europe has outgrown hard-line religion. The USA has failed to do this. 1960s liberalism promised a lot, but discredited itself with a senseless war in Vietnam, which it then lost. Obama is part of the process, having fallen back from mother’s freethinking. The revived religion is a source of comfort in a world emptied of meaning by commerce, but at least in its US version it also makes the disease worse. A lot of the popular Protestant congregations depend on contributions from their members, and so are wide open to manipulation by the rich. Whereas Christians in Britain are more on the left, in the USA they are much more likely to vote for right-wing parties committed to empty commercial values. Right-wing Christians are noisy about some aspects of the tradition and evasive or silent on others. One little right-wing group has become notorious for going round to funerals blaming homosexuality for the USA’s ills. No one seems to think to blame usury, theft, covetousness or false witness, nor even adultery, even though such things are much more forcefully condemned in the Old Testament.
The USA as a whole should be considered ex-Christian. The faith disintegrated but social habits persist. William Jennings Bryan was probably the last major Christian in US politics. Mostly remembered for his foolish line as a last-ditch defender of biblical literalism against Darwinism, he also showed a concern for peace and social justice. He was Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State, and resigned when Wilson took the USA into World War One, overturning long-standing traditions. Before that, he had been three times Democratic candidate for the Presidency, and the USA three times rejected him.
Obama got elected by being vague and not seriously displeasing the rich. His weak Presidency has been the predictable outcome of his starting-point.
First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2011.
[A] Obama, Barack. The Audacity of Hope. Cannongate 2007, page 7.
[B] Ibid., page 23.
[C] Ibid., page 48
[D] Ibid., page 79
[E] Ibid., page 110.
[F] Ibid., page 113-4
[G] Ibid., page 141-2
[H] Ibid., page 188
[J] Ibid., page 189-91
[K] Ibid., page 192