Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Unite and Conquer

Obama’s latest announcements of people who will make up his administration has left many scratching their heads. There must be a thousand quotes from the campaign when Obama criticized the old ways of Washington and the people responsible, including Bill and Hillary Clinton. Obama repeatedly promised change in terms of political policy on almost every major issue, and this defined his campaign more than anything else. Why then, are we seeing something that almost amounts to a restoration of the Bill Clinton administration? A lot of people thought that Obama had a secret agenda during the campaign, but who would have thought that he was actually a “Bill” in disguise?

Until Barack Obama came along, I thought I had a pretty good handle on figuring out the desires and motivations of most politicians. There are usually a number of things you can point to, like party affiliations, geographical origin, personal history, education and so on. However, Obama has spent most of his career hiding his personal agenda behind a shield of pragmatism, so most of us are left in the dark when it comes to the knowledge of the full spectrum of his actual convictions. Actual convictions are, of course, a much better indicator of what is going to happen when a politician takes office than are campaign promises.

I am going to base my analysis of the issue of Obama’s true convictions on a few things that stand out about him as an American politician. I am further taking it as a given that the American political system, in its present state, does not allow a progressive political movement in the form of a political party. The examples should be seen as functional analogies. Not much else is possible in the world of comparative governmental policy analysis.

Here are a few important examples: Obama worked as a community organizer after having graduated from Harvard, when he easily could have earned an enormous salary soon after graduation at a big law firm. Obama believes that healthcare is a right, and he believes in a more equitable distribution of income in society through a progressive tax code. These examples pertain to some of the most important convictions in what has always been the true essence of domestic politics: the economics of distribution.

Had Obama been a politician in, for instance, Germany, he most definitely would have been a member of the Social Democratic Party. (The Democratic Party would have been labeled as a conservative party in Europe, whereas The Republican Party is so far to the right that it does not have any equivalent anywhere in the rest of the industrialized world).

Conclusion: I am basing my analysis on the assumption that Obama is a progressive Democrat. As such, his true convictions should guide him towards goals such as: increased market regulation, consumer rights, free higher education, guaranteed pensions and so on (it would obviously be a stretch for me to claim that, deep down, Obama believes in all these things, but you get the picture). So why is he filling his administration with people who don’t believe in these things?? (meaning people like Gates, Geithner and Romer) There are only two options. He is either:

1. Weak and/or stupid, or

2. Cunning and/or opportunistic

1. Let’s first seriously explore the first option. Ever since Obama was elected, the political establishment and the press have been screaming about the dangers of too much change. We have heard countless calls for Obama to “govern from the center”, “reach across the aisle” and to “be a centrist”. All these comments are thinly veiled attempts of saying: “don’t pursue an un-American, progressive agenda”. Obama ran on political change, and there can be little dispute over the fact that he ran on change towards the left, not towards the center.

Is it possible that Obama has faced a storm of criticism from politicians, lobbyists and other influential people that has made him bow down to the pressure and abandon large parts of his campaign agenda? Or maybe he thinks that the current economic crisis is so severe that the Democratic “business-as-usual” is a safer play? Does he think that he won’t be able to get Congress on board with his agenda? All are, unfortunately, possibilities. If any of these examples are true, then Obama’s weakness and/or lack of understanding (aka stupidity) of the current political and economic climate has guided him to select people for his administration that have agendas that significantly differ from his own.

2. Obama’s agenda always differed rather greatly from the those of the other significant Democratic Presidential candidates in that it was more progressive, all things considered. Contrary to what I mentioned above, an opposite explanation is possible:

- maybe Obama never really thought that he would be able to push his progressive agenda through, until the economic crisis came

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that such a development came to pass. The story of FDR’s ability to create a host of institutions and pieces of legislation in order to help the common man, as a direct result of the Great Depression, is known to most Americans. However, The United states never went as far as European countries with respect to the creation of a social safety net, and later completely reversed what had been created by FDR. As a result, the social situation with respect to income distribution, consumer rights, poverty relief, healthcare, childcare, eldercare, is currently almost identical to what it was in both The United States and Western Europe in the 1920s.

During the Great Depression, the need for political changes towards a more citizen-friendly country became apparent, and the changes were carried out comparatively swiftly. In America today, there are more parallels to the time of the Great Depression in terms of the political climate. Then as now, the influence and reverence of the capital class was in steep decline. The public disgust of Wall Street firms and executives is a good indicator of this. This tends to create a climate where political need meets political will amongst politicians and voters alike, even if the political system is in a state of permanent gridlock, which is arguably the case in The United States. I come, then, to a stipulation of a general political rule of mine for this country’s political climate:


Presidents in the past, such as Jimmy Carter, have wanted to push through progressive agendas
by appointing outsiders who share their convictions, to important posts in their administrations. What has often become apparent after a while, though, is how difficult it can be to actually get legislation through Congress without Washington insiders. With outsider firebrands, you might have a more philosophically coherent administration, but with political insiders, you might be able to get things done. HOWEVER, if you appoint people who disagree with you, you must make sure that the various views of these people do not translate into legislation that you may not agree with, at the end of the day. Can anyone say “Dick Cheney”? In order to control his administration, Obama must rule the people in it with much authority.

To conclude this rather complicated reasoning: I think it would be pretty hard to say that Obama is stupid, or that he is a complete pushover. By appointing Washington insiders it seems that Obama is seeking efficiency of political action. Obama ran on political change, even though he may not have believed that such change would be possible. The economic crisis has given Obama an opportunity to pursue his true agenda.

Obama is on a quest to unite and conquer.

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