Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now
Few progressives would take issue with the argument that, significant accomplishments notwithstanding, the Obama presidency has been a big disappointment. As Mario Cuomo famously observed, candidates campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Still, Obama supporters have been asked to swallow some painfully "prosaic" compromises. In order to pass his healthcare legislation, for instance, Obama was required to specifically repudiate his pledge to prochoice voters to "make preserving women's rights under Roe v. Wade a priority as president." That promise apparently was lost in the same drawer as his insistence that "Any plan I sign must include an insurance exchange...including a public option." Labor unions were among his most fervent and dedicated foot soldiers, as well as the key to any likely progressive political renaissance, and many were no doubt inspired by his pledge "to fight for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act." Yet that act appears deader than Jimmy Hoffa. Environmentalists were no doubt steeled through the frigid days of New Hampshire canvassing by Obama's promise that "As president, I will set a hard cap on all carbon emissions at a level that scientists say is necessary to curb global warming—an 80 percent reduction by 2050." That goal appears to have gone up the chimney in thick black smoke. And remember when Obama promised, right before the election, to "put in place the common-sense regulations and rules of the road I've been calling for since March—rules that will keep our market free, fair and honest; rules that will restore accountability and responsibility in our corporate boardrooms"? Neither, apparently, does he… Indeed, if one examines the gamut of legislation passed and executive orders issued that relate to the promises made by candidate Obama, one can only wince at the slightly hyperbolic joke made by late night comedian Jimmy Fallon, who quipped that the president's goal appeared to be to "finally deliver on the campaign promises made by John McCain."
None of us know what lies inside the president's heart. It's possible that he fooled gullible progressives during the election into believing he was a left-liberal partisan when in fact he is much closer to a conservative corporate shill. An awful lot of progressives, including two I happen to know who sport Nobel Prizes on their shelves, feel this way, and their perspective cannot be completely discounted. The Beltway view of Obama, meanwhile, posits just the opposite. That view—insistently repeated, for instance, by the Wall Street Journal's nonpartisan, non-ideological news columnist, Gerald Seib—is that the president's problem is that he and his allies in the Democratic Party "just overplayed their hand in the last year and a half, moving policy too far left, sparking an equal and opposite reaction in the rightward direction." And Newt Gingrich, speaking from what is actually considered by these same Beltway types as the responsible center of the Republican Party, calls him "the most radical president in American history" and "potentially, the most dangerous" as he urges his minions to resist the president's "secular, socialist machine."
Personally, I tend more toward the view expressed by the young, conservative New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat, that Obama is "a doctrinaire liberal who's always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer." Or as one of Obama's early Chicago mentors, Denny Jacobs, explained to his biographer David Remnick, Obama is a pol who learned early that "sometimes you can't get the whole hog, so you take the ham sandwich."
But the truth, dear reader, is that it does not much matter who is right about what Barack Obama dreams of in his political imagination. Nor is it all that important whether Obama's team either did or didn't make major strategic errors in its first year of governance: in choosing to do healthcare before financial reform; in not holding out for a larger, more people-focused stimulus bill, in eschewing a carbon tax; or in failing to nationalize banks and break up those that are "too big to fail." Face it, the system is rigged, and it's rigged against us. Sure, presidents can pretty easily pass tax cuts for the wealthy and powerful corporations. They can start whatever wars they wish and wiretap whomever they want without warrants. They can order the torture of terrorist suspects, lie about it and see that their intelligence services destroy the evidence. But what they cannot do, even with supermajorities in both houses of Congress behind them, is pass the kind of transformative progressive legislation that Barack Obama promised in his 2008 presidential campaign. Here's why.
The American political system is nothing if not complicated and so too are the reasons for its myriad points of democratic dysfunction. Some are endemic to our constitutional regime and all but impossible to address save by the extremely cumbersome (and profoundly unlikely) prospect of amending the Constitution. Others are the result of a corrupt capital culture that likes it that way and has little incentive to change. Many are the result of the peculiar commercial and ideological structure of our media, which not only frame our political debate but also determine which issues will be addressed. A few are purely functions of the politics of the moment or just serendipitous bad luck. And if we really mean to change things, instead of just complaining about them, it would behoove us to figure out which of these choke points can be opened up and which cannot. For if our politicians cannot keep the promises they make as candidates, then our commitment to political democracy becomes a kind of Kabuki exercise; it resembles a democratic process at great distance but mocks its genuine intentions in substance.
We live, as Tony Judt has written, in an "age of forgetting," and nowhere is this truer than in our political discourse. Rarely do we stop to remind ourselves that, as a New York Times editorial put it, Obama "took office under an extraordinary burden of problems created by President George W. Bush's ineptness and blind ideology." The economy was tanking: for the decade between 2000 and 2009, real growth was at its lowest point since the 1930s, and the fact that two-thirds of all economic gains went to the top 1 percent of the population meant stagnation at best for most workers, actual decline for many. Clear environmental threats had been allowed to fester. The Bush Justice Department was engaged in what appears to be widespread criminal action in a host of areas. We were fighting two wars, hamstrung by the hatred of most of the world's citizens, and operating torture chambers (and lying about it) across the globe. What's more, based on the theory of the "unitary executive" Bush and Cheney were claiming near dictatorial powers to ignore both houses of Congress and even the courts when it suited their purposes. What was his successor to do? Should he bail out the banks? Nationalize them? Break them up? Allow Detroit to die? Invite the firing of tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of teachers, police, firefighters and emergency workers by state and local governments strapped by falling tax revenues? Allow the deficit to explode or the economy to implode? Should he close Guantánamo and Bagram prisons? End rendition? Get out of Iraq? Reverse signing-statements? Outlaw domestic spying? Cut carbon emissions? And by the way, exactly how would he accomplish these things—and simultaneously? By legislation? By executive fiat? By magic? Believe me, I could go on.