Obama the establishmentarian

The key to Barack Obama is that he is an establishmentarian, not a populist.  Throughout his career he has worked for modest incremental changes by demonstrating his reasonableness and moderation.  He has never challenged the existing power structure, but always sought to work within that structure.  This is not weakness of character.  It is a reflection of his sincere convictions.

When you are dealing with reasonable people, this approach can produce good results.  When you are dealing with unconditional enemies, it does not.

President Obama and the Democratic congressional leaders were able to enact a health insurance bill only when they stopped pursuing the mirage of bipartisanship and made use of their constitutional powers.

Have they learned a lesson?  The test will be how President Obama and the Democrats approach financial reform.  Will they enact legislation that really prevents the big banks from putting the financial markets at risk, or will the legislation simply be a gesture?  Will Obama use his eloquence to bring the pressure of public opinion to bear on Congress, or will his energy be devoted to reassuring the financial establishment of his harmlessness.

We’ll see how it goes. There are encouraging signs that the Democrats are at last willing to use their constitutional powers.  But Obama is what he is. His approach has been consistent throughout his life.

Much has been made of Obama’s early connections with the black nationalist preacher Jeremiah Wright, the wealthy ex-Weatherman felon Bill Ayres and the corrupt Daley machine politician Tony Renko.  The common factor is that all three were all part of the Chicago power structure at the time.  Obama had a choice of working with them to achieve his aims, or fighting them, and he chose to work within the system.

As a community organizer in the Altgeld Gardens housing project in Chicago, Obama had the mission of mobilizing the black project residents for reform without alienating the Catholic parishes that financed his work.  He was not a Saul Alinsky who rubbed raw the sores of discontent. He did not go beyond the bounds of the reasonable. His accomplishments were a summer jobs program and an asbestos removal program, both good things to have done but neither of which solved the basic problem of the people in the projects, which was the area’s major employer.

As an Illinois state senator, his major accomplishment was a law providing for the videotaping of police interrogations, so that juries could decide for themselves whether confessions were coerced or not.  He was able to do that by reaching out to prosecutors and police organizations, and convince them that what he was doing was not a threat.

During his brief career in the U.S. Senate, Obama was noted for bipartisanship. The names of the two bills on which his name appears are the Obama-Lugar Act, co-sponsored with Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, to keep surplus weapons in the former Soviet Union and other countries out of the hands of criminals and terrorists, and the Obama-Coburn Act, co-sponsored with Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and also Senator John McCain of Arizona, to post spending for earmarks on the Internet.

All these things were (a) good to do but (b) did not bring about any fundamental change in the underlying situations.

When Obama ran for President, he received the support of many Republicans and conservatives. He got more support from Wall Street financial firms than his opponent.

Once elected, he tried not to alienate his establishment supporters. He retained Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense and brought in Timothy Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury.

What have been his accomplishments?

He is a more respected figure worldwide than George W. Bush and he has made the United States more respected. His foreign policy initiatives have been applauded by Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and George Schultz.

He negotiated a new arms treaty with Russia, which a less reasonable and more confrontational leader might not have been able to do.

He has signed a nonbinding agreement on climate change at the Copenhagen conference. We don’t know what the results will be.  I’m not optimistic, but I hope I’m wrong.

He launched an end game strategy in Afghanistan modeled on the Bush administration’s end game in Iraq – a buildup of strength, followed by negotiations and withdrawal under conditions in which the United States at least saves face. We don’t know what the results will be.  I’m not optimistic, but I hope I’m wrong.

The Democrats in Congress enacted an economic stimulus bill which was better than nothing.  But it seems to me that a great opportunity was missed to make a start on the necessary rebuilding of our economic infrastructure. Our deteriorating water and sewer systems, bridges and levees, harbors and airports need to be repaired and rebuilt, and what better time than now, when so many people need work? Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s key assistant, famously said you should never let a crisis go to waste, but this is precisely what was done.

Democrats in Congress enacted a health reform bill which may or may not turn out to be better than nothing, but does not change fundamental conditions. Obama voluntarily chose to work within the limits of what is acceptable to the big health insurance companies and drug companies.

Next up is financial reform. Will this be different? We don’t know what the result will be. I’m not optimistic, but we’ll see.

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