Obama Needs Our Help


January 14, 2010
Yes! Magazine


Browse in Politics Washington

I think it was the late Paul Sweezy who said that you could make Leon Trotsky the CEO of Exxon and the company wouldn’t change much. The behavior of that company, as with any corporation, is built into its DNA, which is encoded for the unrelenting pursuit of gain. A CEO can make changes at the edges. But Exxon still will be Exxon, for pretty much the same reason that a goat isn’t going to fly.

I’ve been thinking about Sweezy’s comment in light of the recent complaining about Obama on the Left. It’s gotten pretty intense, and it’s what the Left in America does best—feel victimized and disaffected. I understand the disappointment. I have been especially dismayed at Obama’s inability to do—and in fact apparent disinterest in doing—the thing I thought he’d do best, which is define the debate. On medical insurance, for example, he’s given his big speeches and then let his opponents drive the issue through the daily news cycle. As a result, advocates of health insurance reform have been on the defensive throughout, which is quite an achievement considering the insurance mess that exists today.

We all could make a list of let-downs. But to be disillusioned, you have to be illusioned first. I spent many years in Washington, both in Congress and outside it, and I’m surprised that Obama has been able to do as much as he has. Given the political and institutional realities he faces, I’m not sure he could have done much more, even if he were the avatar of progressive dreams that many wanted to him to be.

That’s especially the case considering the lack of ground support that he and other Democrats have received. When I worked for the Democratic caucus in the Senate, I regularly heard politicians bemoaning the lack of such support, in contrast to the armies on the other side. I remember one of the more progressive senators talking about an experience back home. This senator was getting hammered by the Right for a stand on some issue. “Then I looked behind me,” the senator said, “and no one had my back. There was no one there.”

That’s a common experience on Capitol Hill for progressive politicians, and one that should make us all look in the mirror before we get up on our critical high horses. It explains a lot about the disappointments in Washington. Say Obama had proposed a single-payer system for medical insurance, a Canadian-type system of the kind that the American Left dreams of. And say he had gone for broke in his pitch for public support. Does anyone think Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, and the rest would have been dazzled into submission? Or that the grand debate that many yearn for actually would have occurred?

More likely the President would have been rolled. We’d be hearing endless comparisons to the well-intentioned but ineffectual Jimmy Carter. Obama knows that. He knows he can’t shoot his political wad when there are a lot of other issues in the queue. When even a tepid public option can’t get through the Senate, it’s hard to argue that the political ground has been prepared for a step as big as single-payer. Yes, Obama could have come out stronger. He could have done more to drive the debate. But if the voters of Connecticut aren’t breathing fire at a Lieberman, that’s not Obama’s fault. It’s theirs—and ours.

(Where was our Tea Party? Medical insurers today are a lot more like the old British tea monopoly than Medicare is.)

The problem runs deep. There is a quaint belief that when we elect a president, that president runs the government and the country. He or she says jump and the country jumps. That’s not how things work. For one thing, the Constitution was designed more to stymie positive action than to encourage it. That’s what the elaborate system of “checks and balances” is for. The men who wrote the Constitution were by and large landed gentry who feared the rabble, and wanted an institutional bulwark for the status quo.

The result was the federal government. It can be made to jump, somewhat the way a cow can be made to run—which is to say not often, and not for long. (Visits to the Agriculture Department and the old Interstate Commerce Commission early in my Washington years reinforced for me how government agencies become mausoleums of yesterday’s idealism. The Environmental Protection Agency, which has become a bastion of economists and lawyers, is much that way today.) Add the influence of moneyed interests—and a Supreme Court that has declared political money to be the equivalent of speech and hence subject to the same First Amendment protection—and it’s amazing that Washington does anything positive at all.

On top of it all is the institutional penumbra in which the president operates. This is where things get really hairy. Two major forces in American life—the federal bureaucracy and the private corporation—escaped the founders’ scheme of checks and balances because they did not exist when the Constitution was written. Not surprisingly, they have emerged as dominant—especially the corporation, which in many ways has more power than the government itself.

When the two congeal into a national security establishment, democracy enters a twilight zone, in which few things are what they seem. In his recent book Family of Secrets, my friend Russ Baker explores the intrigue at the intersection of defense, intelligence, finance, and oil. It is a teeming shadow world, always present and yet rarely seen.

Baker shows, for example, how John Kennedy challenged the Pentagon and the CIA, and then suffered the consequences. (A more detailed account of this part of the story is James Douglass’s excellent JFK and the Unspeakable.) He tells how Nixon, too, was a target of these same forces, which were not happy with, among other things, his opening to China.

But it is the JFK example that is most pertinent today. Kennedy lost confidence in the generals and spy bureaucracy over the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis. He canned Alan Dulles, the head of the CIA, and began to see folly in the agency’s desire to escalate in Vietnam. But the generals and the CIA had other ideas. JFK’s ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, worked with the CIA to engineer a coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, then the president of Vietnam, even after Kennedy had decided he didn’t want to go that route. Kennedy was so concerned about CIA bugging that he held important conversations outside the Oval Office. (Alexander Butterfield, who revealed the existence of Nixon’s White House tapes, had CIA connections.)

The hostility toward the president extended even to the Secret Service. Abraham Bolden was the first African American Secret Service officer to serve at the White House; Kennedy himself had chosen him for the job. Bolden said later that his white colleagues would joke about how they would get out of the way if a bullet ever came at the president. (As Davidson points out, this is pretty much what would happen in Dallas.)

Like all presidents, Obama is dependent upon a permanent government that is supposed to serve him, but that has its own agenda and bases of power. Presidents come and go. The security state endures, and knows how to deal with those who don’t cooperate.

Obama has to be aware of this, and the rest of us should be too. It should temper our displeasure with him or any president who does not go as far as we would like. It is an unfortunate reality that presidents must navigate a minefield that we can barely see. Like the CEO of Exxon, they face multi-layered pressures and built-in constraints.

All this said, there still is one out. Even campaign contributors know that a politician cannot commit political suicide on their behalf. Sufficient grassroots pressure can override them, to some degree at least. And while the spooks may try to subvert such democratic efforts, they know that when they can’t, politicians must pay heed. To put this another way, the story of presidential achievement is in large measure the story of the movements that both pushed that action and made it possible. Lincoln had the abolitionists, Lyndon Johnson the Civil Rights movement.

Even Franklin Roosevelt was pushed into proposing Social Security in large part by Francis Townsend and his Townsend Plan, which would have given every citizen over 60 a pension of $200.00 a month (a large sum back then) paid for by a national sales tax on business transactions. Townsend generated a real grassroots movement; FDR’s Social Security seemed moderate by comparison.

Of course, FDR was willing to be pushed in this direction. In fact he welcomed it; the same can be said for most Democrats today.

I saw this when I worked in Congress. There is a solid core of senators and representatives who would love pressure to go further than they think most voters are ready to support. But carping criticism and indignant blogs won’t do it. They need a real functioning constituency that can deliver votes, stand up to opponents, and act as a counterpoint to the powers of the status quo.

I think Obama, for all his caution, would welcome such a push as well, more than any president we are likely to have for a very long time.

Jonathan Rowe wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jonathan is a contributing editor for YES! Magazine, a fellow for On The Commons and founding co-director of the West Marin Commons.