Are Clinton and Obama to blame for Trump?

Secretary of Labor Robert Reich

Robert Reich, who was Secretary of Labor during the Bill Clinton administration, is an honest man whom I respect.

When he left public service, he went back to his old job as a college professor and author.  He didn’t become a millionaire by joining corporate boards of directors or collecting consultants’ fees.

I also respect Reich, who is 4 feet 11 inches tall, for making his way in a world in which most people unconsciously take tall people more seriously than they take short people.  This is a form of prejudice I seldom think about.

He wrote an interesting article in The Guardian about how working people no longer feel represented by either the Democratic or Republican parties.

In 2015, he interviewed working people for a new book he was working on.  He’d talked to many whom he’d met 20 years before when he was in government, and many of their grown children.

Almost all of them were disillusioned with the “rigged system,” which they thought Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush represented.  The only presidential candidates they were interested in were Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  Reich thinks they had a point.

Democrats had occupied the White House for 16 of the 24 years before Trump’s election, and in that time scored some important victories for working families: the Affordable Care Act, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit and the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example.  I take pride in being part of a Democratic administration during that time.

But Democrats did nothing to change the vicious cycle of wealth and power that had rigged the economy for the benefit of those at the top and undermined the working class.

As Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg concluded after the 2016 election, “Democrats don’t have a ‘white working-class’ problem.  They have a ‘working class problem’ which progressives have been reluctant to address honestly or boldly.  

“The fact is that Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate.”

In the first two years of the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.  Yet both Clinton and Obama advocated free trade agreements without providing millions of blue-collar workers who consequently lost their jobs any means of getting new ones that paid at least as well.  

Clinton pushed for NAFTA and for China joining the World Trade Organization, and Obama sought to restore the “confidence” of Wall Street instead of completely overhauling the banking system.

Both stood by as corporations hammered trade unions, the backbone of the white working class. They failed to reform labor laws to allow workers to form unions with a simple up-or-down majority vote, or even to impose meaningful penalties on companies that violated labor protections.

Clinton deregulated Wall Street before the crash; Obama allowed the Street to water down attempts to re-regulate it after the crash. Obama protected Wall Street from the consequences of its gambling addiction through a giant taxpayer-funded bailout, but allowed millions of underwater homeowners to drown.

Both Clinton and Obama turned their backs on campaign finance reform. In 2008, Obama was the first presidential nominee since Richard Nixon to reject public financing in his primary and general election campaigns, and he never followed up on his re-election promise to pursue a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United vs FEC, the 2010 supreme court opinion opening wider the floodgates to big money in politics.

Although Clinton and Obama faced increasingly hostile Republican congresses, they could have rallied the working class and built a coalition to grab back power from the emerging oligarchy. Yet they chose not to. Why?

Source: The Guardian

Before I respond to Reich’s question, I want to take him to task for saying unions are the backbone of the “white working class.”  All workers, regardless of race, ethnicity or, for that matter, gender, need the protection of labor unions.

Black and Hispanic Americans are a larger percentage of union members than they are of the U.S. population as a whole.  When you use the expression “white working class,” you ignore the existence of a huge number of American wage-earners.

I don’t think Reich had bad intent, but one of the Democratic Party’s big problems is the successful Republican effort to drive a wedge between native-born white Anglo working people and black, Hispanic and immigrant working people.  It’s a mistake to use language that plays into that.


All right, then.  Why didn’t Clinton or Obama try to rally the working class and grab back power from the emerging oligarchy?  Here’s Reich’s answer.

… [I]t was because Clinton, Obama and many congressional Democrats sought the votes of the “suburban swing voter” – so-called “soccer moms” in the 1990s and affluent politically independent professionals in the 2000s – who supposedly determine electoral outcomes, and turned their backs on the working class. They also drank from the same campaign funding trough as the Republicans – big corporations, Wall Street and the very wealthy.

This is true as far as it goes.  What Reich doesn’t quite see, what writers such as Thomas Frank didn’t quite see and what I myself was slow to see, is that they couldn’t have gotten elected if the oligarchy hadn’t trusted them.

George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump began their careers from a position of wealth and of connections to holders of political and economic power.  Bill Clinton and Barack Obama rose by making themselves acceptable to the power elite.

Their overnight emergence from obscurity would not have happened if they had not made themselves acceptable to the powers that be.

Bill Clinton

Both of them were highly gifted politicians.  They were eloquent speakers, they had a good grasp of the details of policy, they were good at forming an emotion bond with voters.

But had either of them held the views of a Dennis Kucinich or a Jesse Jackson, they wouldn’t have gotten to where they were.

Somebody had to approve Clinton for a Rhodes Scholarship.  Somebody had to approve Obama for the editorship of the Harvard Law Review.  Somebody had to appoint them to give keynote speeches to the Democratic National Convention as a time when both were fairly obscure.

Clinton was Governor of Arkansas in the 1980s and President in the 1990s, during the high tide of Reaganism.  At the time, I thought Clinton stood in the same relation to the Reagan Revolution as President Eisenhower stood toward the New Deal.

Eisenhower accepted the New Deal reforms.  At the same time, he said, “Thus far and no further.”  That’s how I saw Clinton in relation to Reaganism.

I thought that was the best that could be accomplished at the time.  But in fact Clinton took Reaganism a step further, by pushing through Reagan’s North American Free Trade Agreement and by removing the limits and firewalls that prevented financial speculators from crashing the economy.

Barack Obama

Clinton famously complained about the power of the bond market. If he had done anything to cause the financial markets to “lose confidence,” interest rates would have risen and he would not have been able to balance the federal budget, as he did.

Barack Obama was elected in 2008 on a promise of “hope and change.”  He collected more campaign contributions than anyone before him from wealthy contributors, and also from small donors.

I wondered at the time which way he was going to go, but I now realize that siding with the small donors against the wealthy contributors was not a possibility.  Silicon Valley was a rising power.  Organized labor and the civil rights movement were declining powers.  So Obama went with the Silicon Valley millionaires.

What makes Bernie Sanders different from Clinton and Obama, and also different from Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and even Elizabeth Warren, is that his rise has been in opposition to the powers that be, every step of the way.

When Bill Clinton was 47, he was President of the United States.  When Barack Obama was 47, he was a U.S. Senator and a candidate for President.

When Bernie Sanders was 47, he won his first election, as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont, against the opposition of both Democratic and Republican candidates.  He later won election to Congress against the opposition of both Democratic and Republican candidates.

Bernie Sanders

If Sanders is nominated, he will run against the opposition of the leadership of both political parties, the national press, the business community and the CIA-NSA-Pentagon national security establishment (aka “the deep state’).

Unlike Trump, he is a personal threat to these people—a threat to their power and their wealth.  They’ll stop at nothing short of assassination to keep him out of office and, as far as that goes, I’d advise him to stay out of single-passenger airplanes.

If he wins, he will owe his political power not to any power elite, but entirely to forces from below—the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement and plain citizens fed up with how things are.

I don’t think any President in American history, including Franklin Roosevelt, will have had such a narrow path to the White House.

If Sanders is elected, and I have to admit the odds are against it, he will have to govern in opposition to a hostile press, a hostile business community and a hostile national security establishment, not to mention “loss of confidence” in the financial markets.

If he governs successfully, and I have to admit the odds are against it, it won’t be due to himself alone.  And it won’t be due to the Democratic Party.  It will be due to the power of the voting public that has chosen him as their representative.


Why Democrats share the blame for the rise of Donald Trump by Robert Reich for The Guardian.

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7 Responses to “Are Clinton and Obama to blame for Trump?”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I saw a map showing who would have won if eligible voters who didn’t vote had all voted for none of the above. Overwhelmingly the electoral college would have gone to M. Nobody.

    I often wonder what would have happened to the political system if Perot had not gotten cold feet. By proving that a 3rd party candidacy could work, that might have opened the door for a multiplicity of parties. There would have to be ruling coalitions in Congress. Negotiations between differing factions. Multiple points of view instead of two sides of the same monolith.

    Or not.

    Politicians and parties like it when people don’t vote. Today’s theory seems to be to appeal to the minimum possible number of voters needed to win. The smaller the turnout, the easier to target high propensity voters and the more extreme those voters will be. It pays to have most voters in disinterest or despair.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David G. Markham Says:

    I agree with your assessment. I would add that there are a growing number of progressives and the Justice Democrats and AOC are taking on the DNC. They are collecting their own funds to form a grass roots political advocacy group.

    Things are changing very rapidly especially with global warming. We will see tremendous changes in political movements in the next twenty years. As you point out both political parties have exhausted their social capital. They each only have about 28% of the registered voters. All the rest are independent and other.

    It appears that political parties are waning and losing credibility with the GOP senate impeachment acquital and the the Iowa Caucus debacle.

    I don’t know if the morality and competence of the professional politicans (those who get paid) is any lower than it has ever been, but with the internet their faux pas are immediately and much more broadly evident.


  3. Nikolai Vladivostok Says:

    Though I oppose Sanders’ policies, I agree with everything you’ve said here.
    Another thing to consider is how much of his platform he’d be able to enact if he were elected. The efforts of his two predecessors demonstrate that it is very hard to get policies past vested interests with immense power. If enacted at all, they’d be heavily watered down, like Obamacare, the border wall, ending foreign entanglements, and many other proposals were.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. whungerford Says:

    Sanders nominated, winning, and overseeing a successful first term against long odds isn’t promising. Is there no better alternative? Voters in both parties are said to favor any candidate who could win. We have seen this before with Ike for example.


    • philebersole Says:

      I agree, but letting the country continue on its present path of self-destruction is even less promising.

      Liked by 1 person

      • whungerford Says:

        Much depends on how we define success. If Sanders has a 50% chance of nomination, a 20% chance of election, and a 10% chance of success, the overall odds are 1% for success. If Biden has a 20% chance of nomination, a 50% chance of election, and a 20% chance of success, the odds are a little better–2%. I can’t identify a candidate who combines the ability to win the nomination, the election, and to oversee a successful term no matter how success is defined.


      • philebersole Says:

        I think that Joe Biden, if elected, has an excellent chance of achieving his goal, which is to restore the status quo of 2015. If that is what you want, you should vote for him.


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