[Marxism] Barack Obama, conservative - The Washington Post

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Nov 23 08:10:00 MST 2019

On 11/23/19 9:56 AM, Dennis Brasky wrote:
> Since the Post has  a very limited number of articles it allows before 
> insisting upon payment for a subscription, if possible, can this article 
> be copied here?
> Thanks
> Dennis Brasky

Right. I have a sub to the WP and will make sure to forward the whole 
article as I do with the NYT in the future.


Barack Obama, conservative
The left and the right still misunderstand his politics.
By David Swerdlick
NOVEMBER 22, 2019

The Democrats who want to be president can’t quite figure out how to 
talk about the most popular figure in their party. Former president 
Barack Obama casts a long shadow over the 2020 primary campaign: 
Preserving Obama’s legacy is the heart of former vice president Joe 
Biden’s pitch to voters — which has allowed his rivals to mark him as 
complacent. More left-leaning candidates, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren 
(Mass.), say the next president needs to do more to push for health-care 
reforms and combat income inequality — but lately, she’s struggling to 
sell her proposals. Onetime Obama Cabinet secretary Julián Castro has 
ripped his former boss’s record on immigration and deportation. 
Meanwhile, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg raced to have a 
reporter correct a story that misquoted him citing “failures of the 
Obama era.” Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) said in Wednesday’s debate that 
it’s crucial to “rebuild the Obama coalition” because “that’s the last 
time we won.” Picking and choosing which parts of Obama’s tenure to 
embrace, and how firmly to embrace them, has become a delicate game in 
the primary season.

And now Obama himself is working to cool down what he sees as an 
overheated political climate. In October, at a panel discussion for his 
foundation, he warned against the pitfalls of “woke” cancel culture, 
telling a gathering of young activists that “if all you’re doing is 
casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.” This month, 
at a gathering of influential Democrats, he cautioned the 2020 
contenders against pushing too far, too fast on policy: “This is still a 
country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement.”

Outlook • Perspective
David Swerdlick is an assistant editor for Outlook and PostEverything 
Follow @Swerdlick
That remark helps explain why so many of the candidates’ proposals seem 
so far to the left of Obama. The former president was skeptical of 
sweeping change, bullish on markets, sanguine about the use of military 
force, high on individual responsibility and faithful to a set of 
old-school personal values. Compare that with proposals from his 
would-be successors: Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, free college, 
a wealth tax, universal basic income.

Given the political climate, it’s no surprise to see the party’s base 
clamoring for something dramatic. But the contrast between Obama’s 
steady approach and the seeming radicalism of his Democratic heirs can’t 
just be chalked up to changing times. It’s because the former president, 
going back at least to his 2004 Senate race, hasn’t really occupied the 
left side of the ideological spectrum. He wasn’t a Republican, 
obviously: He never professed a desire to starve the federal government, 
and he opposed the Iraq War, which the GOP overwhelmingly supported. But 
to the dismay of many on the left, and to the continuing disbelief of 
many on the right, Obama never dramatically departed from the approach 
of presidents who came before him.

There’s a simple reason: Barack Obama is a conservative.

Obama’s perspectives don’t line up with every position now seen as 
right-of-center: He joined the Paris climate accords, he signed the 
Dodd-Frank financial regulations, and he’s pro-choice. He flip-flopped 
to supporting same-sex marriage, highlighting the significance of marriage.

But his constant search for consensus, for ways to bring Blue America 
and Red America together, sometimes led him to policies that used 
Republican means to achieve more liberal ends. The underlying concept 
for his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, with its 
individual mandate, was devised by the right-wing Heritage Foundation 
and first implemented at the state level by Mitt Romney, then the 
Republican governor of Massachusetts. Obama wanted to protect Americans 
from the effects of a prolonged recession, so he agreed, in one of his 
defining votes as a senator, to a bailout of banks — and as president, 
he prioritized recovery over punishing bankers for their role in the 
financial crisis. In his first inaugural address, he affirmed the power 
of the free market “to generate wealth and expand freedom.”

Until the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012, Obama studiously avoided any push 
for gun control. Indeed, in his first term, he signed laws that loosened 
restrictions on bringing firearms to national parks and on Amtrak. 
Though cast as a “dithering” peacenik who led “from behind,” he stuck 
with his thesis that the imperative “to end the war in Iraq is to be 
able to get more troops into Afghanistan,” and he prosecuted a drone war 
in Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

Obama’s approach to politics was marked by a circumspection that went 
even deeper than policies. To be conservative, as philosopher Michael 
Oakeshott, a movement hero, once put it, “is to prefer the familiar to 
the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the 
actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the 
distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the 
perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” The former president 
channeled the sentiment faithfully when he said recently that “the 
average American doesn’t think that we have to completely tear down the 
system and remake it.”

He believes, fundamentally, that the American model works — even if it 
hasn’t been allowed to work for everyone. In some cases, the government 
should help expand the American Dream to individuals and communities to 
whom access has been denied. In others, Americans can achieve the dream 
if only they have the will to surmount obstacles on their own. His 
second inaugural address was a thoroughly conservative document, 
underscoring equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of outcome. 
Republican former House speaker Newt Gingrich praised it at the time, 
saying, “Ninety-five percent of the speech I thought was classically 
American, emphasizing hard work, emphasizing self-reliance, emphasizing 
doing things together.”

Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2008 with wife Michelle and 
daughters Malia and Sasha. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
In his first year in office, Obama gave a back-to-school address that 
Republicans panned in advance as big-brotherism, even though its central 
idea turned out to be: “At the end of the day, the circumstances of your 
life — what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, 
what you’ve got going on at home — none of that is an excuse for 
neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude in school.”

He once argued that in certain circumstances, government programs 
created welfare dependency, saying that “as somebody who worked in 
low-income neighborhoods, I’ve seen it, where people weren’t encouraged 
to work, weren’t encouraged to upgrade their skills, were just getting a 
check, and over time, their motivation started to diminish.”

In remarks commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on 
Washington, Obama went out of his way to lecture that, after the civil 
rights era, “what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the 
chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead, was too often 
framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency 
in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your 
child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.” 
You’d never hear that sentiment expressed by Sen. Bernie Sanders 
(I-Vt.), for whom structural inequality explains nearly every American ill.

Obama cast himself as a role model for young black men and repeatedly 
stressed that not all inequities in American society are attributable to 
discrimination, racial or otherwise. This posture helped earn him 
currency with the black electorate (in particular, older black voters), 
which votes overwhelmingly for Democrats but skews moderate to 
conservative on several issues.

He embraced respectability politics as a way to signal how conventional 
it was to have a first family of color: the many Norman Rockwell-worthy 
photo-ops, such as the 2009 portrait by Annie Leibovitz, a study in 
wholesome family living; their annual vacations on Martha’s Vineyard, 
summer haven of the black elite; dialing back his storied “cool,” as 
when he displayed his stiff dance moves during an appearance on “Ellen,” 
laying claim to the mantle of the everyman dad. Asked what he thought 
about Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift’s 2009 MTV Video Music Awards 
acceptance speech to shower praise on Beyoncé, Obama offered no 
mitigating analysis, saying simply, “He’s a jackass.”

Obama called out racism in the criminal justice system. He met with 
Black Lives Matter activists, and his Justice Department used consent 
decrees to rein in police departments. For this, right-wing media often 
portrayed him as a cop-hater; former Milwaukee County sheriff David 
Clarke, a Fox News fixture, called him “the most anti-cop president I 
have ever seen.” But the president routinely extolled law enforcement, 
including at the 2015 convention of the International Association of 
Chiefs of Police, when he said: “I reject any narrative that seeks to 
divide police and communities that they serve. I reject a story line 
that says when it comes to public safety, there’s an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ 
” After George Zimmerman’s acquittal, Obama — who said that “Trayvon 
Martin could have been me 35 years ago” — defended the system, saying 
“we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”

For most of his presidency, Obama governed with a Republican Congress 
dedicated to preventing his reelection and thwarting his agenda. Most 
efforts entailed compromise. Still, he made bargains that the rhetoric 
of current Democratic candidates would seem to foreclose. In 2010, Obama 
and Republicans traded a two-year extension of former president George 
W. Bush’s tax cuts, along with a payroll tax holiday and an extension of 
unemployment benefits, that paved the way for the repeal of “don’t ask, 
don’t tell.” He later agreed to the Budget Control Act of 2011, known as 
“sequestration,” which brought down year-to-year deficits by slashing 
federal spending in exchange for GOP votes to raise the debt ceiling.

Obama was a believer in big government, but his views showed many 
similarities to those of Republican presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, 
who fought corporate monopolies and later led the Progressive Party; 
Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the 
Federal Aid Highway Act, creating the interstate highway system; and 
establishment archetype George H.W. Bush, a veteran of Congress, the 
United Nations and the CIA who broke his “no new taxes” pledge, rescued 
savings and loans, and declared an import ban on semiautomatic rifles.

Obama did advance priorities that progressives cheered: He tripled the 
number of women on the Supreme Court. He announced rules imposing limits 
on oil and gas emissions and an aggressive plan limiting coal-fired 
power plant emissions. He supported anti-discrimination protections for 
LGBT employees and introduced rules that protected some young 
undocumented immigrants from deportation. (He achieved many of these 
policies through executive fiat, meaning they could be — or have already 
been — easily reversed.) But none of these changes revolutionized 
governance or structurally reordered American life. None of them were 
meant to.

The difficulty Democratic candidates have in grappling with Obama 
reflects the dissonance he’s generated for a decade: The center-left 
adores him, but to the far left, he’s a sellout. He’s being rethought on 
the center-right, but he remains the bete noire of the far right, which 
morphed from the (putatively) government-hating tea party wing to a 
strongman-loving core.

It’s largely due to an enduring misunderstanding of what Obama 
represented. Notwithstanding the “Change we can believe in” slogan that 
propelled his rise, his aim was never to turn things upside down. 
Favoring “the familiar to the unknown,” as Oakeshott wrote, was Obama’s 
disposition and also his political project: expanding traditional 
priorities — the familiar American Dream, not a reconceived one — to 
Americans for whom they had been denied. That meant building, gradually 
and at times almost reverently, on his predecessors’ foundation.

That has forced Democrats to sort out who they are — and how to fuse 
Obama’s appeal with an agenda that reaches further than he ever tried, 
or intended, to go.

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