Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Incredible Shrinking President

Barack Obama represented many aspects of progressive politics in the 2008 election, and he promised several solid economic policies: a Health Care “Public Option,” an end to President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, a renegotiation of Free Trade Agreements, an end to U.S. support for foreign dictators that have propped up the U.S. economy, and movement toward ending the U.S. “addiction” to foreign oil imports.  These were his major platform promises in 2008, but he has failed to implement any of them.  In fact, when conservative politicians attacked these logical policies, President Obama repeatedly gave up his platform and caved in to their demands.  Progressives should be outraged at President Obama.  They need to make their demands even clearer during his re-election campaign if they expect to influence the president beyond 2012.  Americans in general also need to overhaul the electoral system that has clearly corrupted his judgment as president.

Health-care was one of the overwhelming topics of debate in the 2008 election.  Barack Obama was a major proponent of changing the existing system to make it more equal for the mass majority of Americans.

If you don’t have health insurance, then what we’re going to do is to provide you the option of buying into the same kind of federal pool that both Sen. McCain and I enjoy as federal employees, which will give you high-quality care, choice of doctors, at lower costs, because so many people are part of this insured group. . . .  This will cost some money on the front end, but over the long term this is the only way that not only are we going to make families healthy, but it’s also how we’re going to save the federal budget, because we can’t afford these escalating costs.  (Third Presidential Debate, held October 15, 2008 in Hempstead, New York.)

Obama here proposed what came to be known as the “public option” in health care: allowing un-insured Americans to purchase coverage in the same pool as federal employees.  Economists estimated that this would, indeed, lower the costs of health insurance due to the pool’s large size, which would allow it to collectively negotiate the best prices.  This is largely already in place in Japan, whose citizens are generally amongst the healthiest in the world.  (For more on Japan and other national health insurance systems, see T.R. Reid, The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, New York: Penguin, 2010).  Candidate Obama’s proposal was logical and well-proven, but President Obama completely abandoned it in the health care debates of 2009.  He continued asking for a “public option” even in September 2009, when gave a joint address to Congress.  (Barack Obama, Address to a Joint Session of Congress, September 9, 2009)  However, he completely abandoned this demand as Congress approached an actual vote in winter 2009.  The “public option” was not included in the eventual law, and President Obama signed off on this failure in March 2010.   (The final laws that reorganized the health insurance system are H.R. 3590 “The Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2010” and H.R. 4872 “The Health Care Education Reconciliation Act of 2010).  The law today requires each citizen to purchase health insurance but does not provide the “public option” Obama campaigned for in 2008, which will result in many citizens being forced to buy overpriced, unreliable insurance through private corporations that are the heart of the American health care catastrophe.

Taxation was also a major debate in 2008.  Obama took a hard stand against President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, which he accused of mostly benefiting the wealthiest citizens.  Obama repeatedly promised to end such tax cuts for the wealthy and to keep taxes low for the middle class and poor.  “I will give a tax break to 95% of Americans who work every day and get taxes taken out of their paychecks every week. And I’ll help pay for this by asking the folks who are making more than $250,000 a year to go back to the tax rate they were paying in the 1990s.”  (Remarks by Senator Barack Obama on November 2, 2008 at Columbus, Ohio)  Obama proposed that tax rates for the rich should return to pre-Bush levels, saying that the government needs revenue to invest in its infrastructure.  “[N]obody likes taxes. I would prefer that none of us had to pay taxes, including myself. But ultimately, we’ve got to pay for the core investments that make this economy strong and somebody’s got to do it.”  (Third Presidential Debate, held October 15, 2008 in Hempstead, New York)  The Bush tax cuts were set to expire at the end of 2010, which would have sent all taxes back to the 1990s levels.  Conservatives demanded that all tax cuts continue, including the tax cuts for people making over $250,000 per year that Obama had specifically campaigned against in 2008.  President Obama surrendered again to conservative demands in December 2010, permitting tax cuts for the rich to continue until the end of 2012.   (The 2010 tax cut extension was included in H.R. 4853, “The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010”)  Somebody’s got to pay for future investments, but Obama is unwilling to force the wealthy to do it.

Free Trade Agreements, which open international trade by eliminating taxes on imports, was mentioned in the Third Presidential Debate.  Obama focused on the shortcomings of Free Trade Agreements, even agreeing with long-held progressive and union stances that labor rights and environmental protections should be included in such treaties.

I believe in free trade. But I also believe that for far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Sen. McCain, the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement. And NAFTA doesn’t have — did not have enforceable labor agreements and environmental agreements. . . .  [W]e have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn’t being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights, which is why, for example, I supported the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement which was a well-structured agreement.”  (Third Presidential Debate, held October 15, 2008 in Hempstead, New York)

Candidate Obama approached a demand to renegotiate NAFTA and other Free Trade Agreements in his support of labor and environmental standards.  However, President Obama avoided such discussions.  Perhaps most disturbingly, his avoidance of new talks comes without counter-demands from conservatives.  Instead, President Obama appears to have made this decision on his own.  In other words, on the topic of free trade, President Obama cannot even be accused of surrendering to public pressure.

Another major problem is that many of these tax reducing deals are made with the agreement of foreign dictators.  The United States has used and abused foreign nations in order to create cheap products for its own economy since the end of World War Two.   (For more on this history, see John Perkins, Secret History of the American Empire: The Truth About Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and How to Change the World, New York: Plume, 2008, and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, New York: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004)  Some examples are the coups against Iran in the 1950s and support for dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq beginning in the 1970s – and these are merely the countries that the U.S. targeted for oil reserves!  The U.S. government’s stance for the last 60 years has been to support dictatorships if they are friendly to the United States.  Barack Obama took a clear stand against such policies in 2008, even promising to personally end such foreign relations.

[T]he problem, John, with the strategy that’s been pursued was that, for 10 years, we coddled [Pakaistani dictator Pervez] Musharraf, we alienated the Pakistani population, because we were anti-democratic. We had a 20th-century mindset that basically said, ‘Well, you know, he may be a dictator, but he’s our dictator.’ . . .  That’s going to change when I’m president of the United States.  (First Presidential Debate, held September 26, 2008 in Oxford, Mississippi)

Sadly, that has not changed since Obama became president.  The most stunning example is Egypt, where the Obama Administration has reportedly given $1.5 billion per year to a clear military dictatorship that tortures its own citizens in order to stay in control, but which also supports many U.S. foreign policies in the Middle East.  The Obama Administration refused to support the Egyptian democratic protests in early 2011, and Obama himself did not clearly call for the end of that disgusting regime until after its leader had already resigned.  President Obama has been a major disappointment for those who found hope in his promise to end U.S. support for destructive, but pro-Western, dictatorships, and voters should remind him of that in 2012.

Obama seems to understand that the United States has historically supported brutal dictators largely to guarantee American access to oil reserves.  He repeatedly stated in 2008 that his energy policy would focus on relieving and eventually ending U.S. dependence on Middle-Eastern oil.  He proposed two means of accomplishing that lofty goal within 10 years.  First and foremost, Obama promised to invest heavily in renewable energy technologies.  “I’ll invest 150 billion dollars over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy — wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an investment that will lead to new industries and 5 million new jobs that pay well and can’t ever be outsourced.”  (Barack Obama, Nomination Address. Delivered August 28, 2008 in Denver, Colorado)  Not only would this long-term plan end reliance on foreign energy sources, but it would also help the U.S. economic recovery because it would create a massive new internal energy infrastructure that largely has to be built from scratch.

Sadly, the yearly federal budgets that President Obama has signed fall short of his campaign’s promise to invest $150 billion over ten years.  That figure averages out to $15 billion per year, but the first two budgets that President Obama singed fell far short of that promise.  The Budget for Fiscal Year 2010 provided only $2.3 billion renewable energy programs, and that only increased to $2.4 billion in the 2011 Budget!  (Budget of the U.S. Government: Fiscal Year 2011.  The entire Budget can be downloaded at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BUDGET-2011-BUD/content-detail.html.  The $2.4 billion figure appears under the Energy Department’s descriptions of spending on page 70.)  That is a long way from the $15 billion per year that he to implement if elected in 2008.  $2.4 billion is only 16% of his promised $15 billion, and only 8.4% of the overall Energy Department’s Budget in 2011.  That is an unacceptably low amount, and a badly broken promise.  Progressives should give voice to their disappointment in 2012.

Obama’s secondary energy proposal was to increase oil production from reserves already existing in the United States, particularly along its coastlines.  In order to end foreign reliance on Middle-Eastern oil, he said “that means, yes, increasing domestic production and off-shore drilling, but we only have 3 percent of the world’s oil supplies and we use 25 percent of the world’s oil. So we can’t simply drill our way out of the problem.”  (First Presidential Debate, held September 26, 2008 in Oxford, Mississippi)  Obama clearly showed in 2008 that he supports offshore oil drilling, but only within a larger plan of developing renewable energy sources.  Obama promised that new domestic drilling would only be one small piece of a larger solution.  President Obama has held to his promise to increase offshore drilling, notably by opening new areas to offshore drilling beginning in late March 2009.  At the time, he noted that this would be a short-term solution to the nation’s energy needs, but that the long-term solution lies with renewable energy development.

…I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy. And the only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and the long run. To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake.  (Obama’s March 31, 2009 announcement can still be read on Democracy Now!’s website at http://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/gas_drill)

Unfortunately, Obama has given up on his demands for renewable energy even while allowing offshore drilling to increase.  Obama’s inability to push for renewable energy was best revealed by the failure of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, which passed the House of Representatives but was hardly even discussed in the Senate. (There were actually two different bills proposed in June 2009: H.R. 2454 and H.R. 2998.  Both were abandoned within weeks of being introduced in the Senate.)  Even with a so-called “super-majority” in 2009, President Obama did not support the Act heavily enough to push its passage into law.  The result is that offshore drilling, which he wanted to be a minor piece of the solution, has become the major focus of U.S. energy policy.

President Obama has not fought to fulfill the promises he made in 2008.  He has given up, given in, and surrendered his promises for a “public option” in health care, ending tax cuts for the rich, renegotiating labor and environmental protections in Free Trade Agreements, stopping support for foreign dictators, and investing in renewable energy technology.  The only piece of the 2008 platform that President Obama has actually enforced is the promise to increase offshore oil drilling, which conservatives mostly support.  Therefore, President Obama has succeeded in one promise, but given up on five others.  Progressives should send him a clear signal of their disappointment in 2012 if they hope to have an impact on future presidential decisions.

Beyond that, Americans should realize that Obama has repeatedly shown us how ineffective a popular, recently-elected politician is when they are forced to work within an overwhelmingly corrupt electoral system.  We cannot only blame Obama personally for his many political failures since winning the 2008 election; we must also accept the need to change our electoral system if we hope to change our most important government policies.

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