How liberals shielded Obama from accountability, and lost everything in the process

As I write this post, the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States is only hours away. The preceding sentence is bizarre, and I’m glad time travel is impossible because there is no way we could explain 2016-17 to people of the past. But we are here. This is the fashionable time to meditate on Barack Obama’s legacy, and solidify thoughts on his presidency in a way that will be picked apart by later historians. What is clear is the very few people got the president they wanted. The political right, of course, but everyone from moderate to leftist has mixed feelings. There will be those that focus on Obama as a symbol and paper over policy matters, which end up the most positive-sounding.

But the past eight years have been deeply troubling, because things could progress in one area and regress in another. Harry Cheadle of Vice.com sums up some of these issues:

The Obama administration continued the bailing out of banks and big business in the wake of the financial crisis. But almost no bankers were ever prosecuted for their role in the collapse of the economy; meanwhile, a program meant to help homeowners whose lives were wrecked by the crisis was poorly supervised and ineffective. Those efforts to close Guantanamo were defeated not just by hardline Republicans but by the White House’s own lack of support. Before Obama defended some undocumented immigrants from deportation, he deported millions of others, to the outrage of advocacy groups. Though Obama claimed credit for working to “reform our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties” during his farewell address, he was perfectly content with the surveillance state before the Snowden revelations forced him to publicly change his tune. His administration continued the long trend of expanding executive branch power, a topic that concerns both the left and libertarians. In 2008, he may have been the anti–Iraq War candidate, but he was not been philosophically aligned with the broader antiwar movement as president, as his expansion of killer drone operations indicates. His administration also supported brutal Saudi Arabian military operations in Yemen—when Obama canceled an arms deal to the Saudis last month, it struck many as not nearly sufficient.

Cornel West, who drifted farther away from Obama over time, becoming one of the big-name endorsements of Jill Stein in the 2016 election. His retrospective (eulogy?) is similar, though with that idiosyncratic tone that West has. He points out something very important, which I want to focus on today. He writes:

The reign of Obama did not produce the nightmare of Donald Trump – but it did contribute to it. And those Obama cheerleaders who refused to make him accountable bear some responsibility.

American politics may on the surface be about ideology, but at the core it’s a fight between two camps that disagree with each other on everything, at least publicly. When a president comes into office, their supporters have a choice to make. They can be demanding, seeking accountability for campaign promises. Or they can rally around the standard and play defense against the other side. Most Obama supporters decided to do the latter, focusing their criticism on Republicans who opposed him. From this emerged a range of standard excuses. Congressional inaction. Republican media. I know people that to this very day expected Obama to “take the gloves off” and push forward no matter what. It’s hard to say this ever happened- almost every major policy change was a half-measure. Wall Street regulation was limited and written with too much special interest influence. The ACA didn’t address pharmaceutical drugs, and didn’t provide a public option to prevent insurers from hiking up premiums each year (which they have done reliably).

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was balanced by intervention in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. His executive order regarding undocumented communities wasn’t that expansive, and previous presidents had done similar or larger things in the past. Government surveillance expanded, whistleblowers were punished (Chelsea Manning had to attempt suicide twice to get a sentence reduction, several years into her unusually long sentence). As much as Obama’s election was historic, local and state police shootings of unarmed people of color has been constant. And despite the issue being something that the executive could really address through the Justice Department, federal action hasn’t done much tangibly. Obama has commuted sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, but most of the scaffolding of the War on Drugs is unchanged.

The congressional obstruction excuse has been omnipresent, always changing the debate away from Obama. Rarely have the cards been on the table. Yes there are obstacles, but is he doing all he could? We can isolate Obama from the Republicans in some cases. He headed the executive branch, and had hundreds of thousands of people who influenced every part of American life. Much of this was, in practical terms, not restrained by Congress. Yes there were all the hearings, but how much of the monolith was taken out by them?

I voted for Obama in 2008, didn’t in 2012, and haven’t been a registered Democrat since 2009. I felt the Democratic Party was fundamentally corrupted in the same way the GOP is. Anna Eshoo, my congresswomen in northern California, authored legislation to give pharmaceutical companies much longer exclusive periods for biologic medicines. Many new medicines are biologic, and include some of the top anti-cancer drugs. They also cost an unimaginable amount of money and are unaffordable to most people, even if they have insurance. Generic biologics will take forever to get on the market, and people are going to die- more now that the ACA will be gutted. The excuse for this sort of work by Democrats is that there are pharmaceutical and biotech companies in her district. That makes it sound noble, but it’s a lot simpler than that. Eshoo, despite being in a super-safe district and no opposition, took cash in exchange for human lives. No GOP obstruction, no political necessity. She cashed in her seniority to get that passed. I guarantee the liberals you know won’t mention her unless she has some sick burn about Trump.

The point of that story is that Obama is not unique. American liberalism is full of these same contradictions. And liberals feared that excessive criticism would tank the administration and give the GOP more power. Well, since Obama took office, the Democrats lost the House, then the Senate, and a Republican succeeds him despite all that.

If progressives ever want a politician to live up to half of what they say, they need to be willing to torch their allies as well as their enemies. Obama faced no real consequences from backpeddling on promises and shifting steadily rightward. Those of us who lie farther to the left would like the help. We called the Obama administration for what it was, good and bad. If there is no accountability, how do you expect to win elections? How can you run candidates that people actually want to follow? How can you laugh at Republican dysfunction while ignoring your own?

The right and left held Obama accountable, with varying degrees of accuracy and fairness. The middle that identified most with candidate Obama in 2007-08 was asleep at the switch. That may have made all the difference.

Austerity destroys progress

So we enter the final week of the Obama Administration. The 2016 election saw key components of the Obama coalition either not turn up or defect to Donald Trump. Mixed with a very underwhelming response to GOP voter suppression by Democrats, Republicans won both the presidency and several easily winnable midwest Senate seats. Whatever the outgoing President was, in symbol or ideology, there is a good chance that much of his planned legacy will be overturned.

What I will remember about the eight years of Obama is the same in America as in other countries. Progressive politics cannot exist in a climate of austerity. The two are mutually exclusive, and failing to oppose and undo austerity will doom progress on economic issues.

On the domestic front, politics was dominated by the budget sequester, cuts to welfare programs, a complete lack of methodical spending on infrastructure, and harsh austerity at the state and municipal levels. Some of this austerity is now decades old, such as freezes on cash payments to families, but most of the action on these issues was towards regression.

Now, the traditional defense is that Obama wanted to reverse austerity, but conservative opposition in Congress prevented that. But I think many people are now looking back and thinking of how much more could have been done at the executive level, but was not. Obama only had two years of a Democratic Congress, but he had six years of a Democratic Senate. He couldn’t be impeached until early 2015. So there was a space for radical action, with the understanding that improving things for working people would translate into political support given time, but that wasn’t in the cards. Obama, and the Democratic Party, are too institutionalized to reverse austerity. They take too much cash from the banks and corporations that benefit from privatization and deregulation. I didn’t expect the kind of economics that showed up in first drafts of Democratic policy proposals. The GOP obstruction defense is a smokescreen, distracting from the shortcomings of Democratic leadership.

And as we have seen in other countries, opposing austerity works. The 2015 UK election saw Labour act much like the Democrats- supporting a less-ghastly version of austerity than the opponents. Their destruction in Scotland by the SNP came because the latter actually talked about social spending rather than budget deficits and cuts. This middle place- not going whole hog for austerity but also not opposing it- has no political base. No party can hold onto power with it, because their results aren’t good enough to keep support, and they’re vulnerable to conservatives outflanking them. Donald Trump’s anti-austerity points on trade left the Democrats surrounded. In the end, that flank was enough to swing several states to Trump, and cause Democratic Senate candidates to underperform and lose in places like Wisconsin and Indiana.

There is no such thing as a progressive austerity. And in the end, what will we fondly remember Obama for, thirty years later? What is his legacy as a progressive? As a president?

#FamilyTestimonies at #O22 in #SanDiego

A great longform piece on the October 22 Day of Action against police violence. I helped transcribe some of the speakers so their stories of family member loss by SD law enforcement can be better grasped.

United Against Police Terror - San Diego

October 22, the 21th Annual National Day of Protest to Stop Police Terror, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. 

Synopsis by Rob Camacho of Step Off Magazine

The date is Saturday October 22nd. While many cities across the country are setting up in preparation for October Fest’s and Fall Festivals, in the San Diego community of City Heights, a movement is growing. The organizers of United Against Police Terror San Diego along with a coalition of other local activist are preparing for a much somber event of dire importance. That event is October 22, the 21th Annual National Day of Protest to Stop Police Terror, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. 

October 22nd is widely regarded as the national day of protest against police brutality in the United States established in 1996. The October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Terror, Repression and the Criminalization of a…

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T+5: A Time Long Thought Past

(these posts will be dated based on days since the 2016 Election. Tuesday, Nov 8 is T-0.)

It is a huge mistake to think that the election marked the birth of a new era in American politics. In the past two years there have been arson attacks on black churches (including one at the beginning of November in Mississippi). Police violence against protesters in particular, and people of color in general have never died down. But the election is still an important line of demarcation.

This series, the Trump Era (TE), is devoted to how the climate is changing. In particular, how the election has provided a de facto justification for white supremacy. The Obama administration had many incidents of vigilante and police violence against unarmed civilians. But the administration did establish that such things were not okay, and there should be consequences to violating the human rights of others.

Since Tuesday, friends of mine have been arrested. One was beaten up by police. Two men have been arrested and charged with attempted murder after a shooting on the Morrison Bridge in Portland. Swastika graffiti is ever-present: schools, religious buildings, dorms, sidewalks. Given that the Trump campaign has often encouraged harassment and the use of force against dissent, these situations can always escalate. And communities should be prepared for that.

Of course, there are still people alive who remember a time when national leaders were proudly fascist. The hope for a progressive era- in which society continues to improve from the nadir near World War II, may now be increasingly naive. Things can always go backwards. The core of Trump supporters once had superior status and power to people of color. They lost this, and to regain this they necessarily have to take the country back in time. When someone says they “want their country back” they mean so in a possessive sense. This means marginalization and regression.

David Neiwert published a book in 2009, The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American RightIts thesis is that conservative media and politicians were moving supporters in a dangerous direction. Opponents were not only wrong, but an existential threat to the American way of life. Vigilante attacks are a symptom that eliminationism is becoming an increasingly mainstream ideology. Donald Trump will be the first modern eliminationist President.

“Wait and see” or “giving him a chance” is a white privileged luxury. For people of color, the costs of being unprepared are total. Liberals who castigated Trump for a year and a half are hypocritical if they stop now. In this situation, unity means submission, since the Trumpists have preached us vs. them.

Trump will not  become president until January 20, 2017. But his era has already begun in full. His supporters will not wait for legal sanction. They will attack because they can. And communities must consider to what degree to they respond.

Balancing between planned and spontaenous

There are two ways of thinking about success in life, which I will explain using a historical example.

One could say that Apollo 11 was the pinnacle of America’s space program. It did something nobody had done before and was previously thought impossible. It also succeeded. It did exactly what the plan said it should do.

Yet there is a second camp, which includes me, which thinks Apollo 13 was the apex of the space program. I say this because it was an example of ingenuity and improvisation, mixed with good prior consideration of potential problems. It is one thing to take a bunch of very specialized components and do exactly what they were made to do. With Apollo, success was certainly the most likely option, especially over any particular failure. What the odyssey of 13 showed was these same components can be repurposed to do something completely different.

In life, all actions and results fall in a continuum between planned and improvised. We often have very specific life plans laid out, with both small and large decisions made well ahead of time. Of course, life plans of any time span and complexity rarely work out, because we cannot predict the actions of others, nor of the universe in general.

There exist people at the far end of the continuum for planning. They fear change and uncertainty, and want to gain control. Others may choose pure improvisation, never committing to any particular course of action until the moment arrives. You probably occupy the middle ground.

Both planning and improvisation are useful, but also incomplete. The disparity is more likely to create conflict in social relationships than synthesis. It is important to acknowledge reality. No matter what we do, our lives will still be over 95% improv, as even minor details like conversation are unpredictable. But the 5%ish that is planned helps anchor us and makes the improv meaningful. In Apollo 13, the detailed plan had to be thrown out, but simulations and worst-case-scenario analysis helped keep the situation from spiraling out of control. This backbone saved the astronauts, but the rigid thinking built by a purpose-built system also nearly killed them.

The Taoist concept of wu wei may seem to fit mostly with spontaneity, but it can encompass both ends of the spectrum. The “non-doing” aspect is also balanced with actions that are natural and not forced. Not all good plans fit the natural flow of things (The iconic quote by George Bernard Shaw:”The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”), but the natural flow should be duly considered. We seek to avoid conflict, but struggle is necessary, and often just. We are forever dynamic within this continuum, seeking both control and realizing it is often an illusion at the time.