Has Obama let down voters?

Business Times - 05 Sep 2009

Has Obama let down voters?

Critics are angry at what they consider his betrayal of a large-scale liberal agenda and are worried the nation would suffer as a result of a shift to the political centre


SUGGESTING that Barack Obama could become another Bill Clinton sounds like a piece of good news and probably cheer-up many fans of the current Democratic president. After all, Bill Clinton ended-up being the only Democratic White House occupant since president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to serve two full terms in office.

And while historians may not remember Mr Clinton as a great president, most of them would almost certainly rate him as a better-than-average one who had led America during a time of relative tranquillity and the most economically prosperous years Americans had known for decades.

Centrist Democrats aka New Democrats have insisted that Mr Clinton's electoral longevity, including his impressive victories in two presidential races should be attributed to his success in maintaining a position as a mainstream Democrat who resisted straying too much in the direction of the political left of his party.

That wing of the party was represented by the late senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, who died last week, and who will be remembered as a unabashed liberal who devoted his years on Capitol Hill to an ambitious progressive economic and social agenda. He had demanded that the government raise the tax burden on the wealthy and distribute more of its resources on funding programmes that would assist the working poor, including by creating a universal health care system.

But Mr Clinton, applying the strategy developed by his then political adviser Dick Morris, operated under the assumption that he could only win elections by 'neutralising' the Republicans by 'stealing' their issues - a balanced budget, tax cuts, welfare reforms and an end to affirmative action, while 'triangulating' the Democrats by abandoning so-called 'class-war dogma' and de-emphasising traditional liberal issues such as economic distribution and government spending on the poor.

Indeed, New Democrats have argued that that strategy coupled with the effort to expand the New Economy and liberalise global trade proved to be effective. It helped Mr Clinton win the electoral support of many voters, including well-to-do professionals and upper-middle class residents of the suburbs who had benefited from the economic boom of the 1990s and who would have otherwise voted for the Republican presidential candidates.

But many progressive Democrats have countered by suggesting that while the New Democracy and triangulation may have worked for Mr Clinton personally, the strategy has hurt the long-term interests of the Democratic Party.

By turning away from their core liberal ideology and trying to embrace conservative economic and cultural positions, the progressives contend, the Democrats have gradually been transformed into a Republican Party II.

In the process, they alienated lower middle class voters who had not benefited from the prosperity of the Clinton years; in fact, many of them lost their jobs as a result of the down-sizing of American businesses and the decline of the manufacturing sector.

Angry at Washington and Wall Street and the 'elites', many of the lower middle class voters were drawn to the populist-cultural agenda of the Republicans with its emphasis on so-called 'traditional values', post-911 nationalism and in some cases, xenophobia during the Bush years.

Now, ironically, it was the pro-business policies that have hurt the economic interests of many of these blue-collar voters. In fact, the financial melt-down and the ensuing economic recession, home foreclosures and high unemployment has devastated an already struggling members of the working class, many of whom started switching their political allegiance to the Democratic Party, backing Senator Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primaries and then voting for Mr Obama in the general election.

Indeed, Mr Obama, recognising the rising political backlash against the Republicans and their economic and social policies, ended-up picking-up the mantle of the progressive Democrats during the presidential campaign of 2008.

While expressing hope that he could work with the Republicans in Washington, he nevertheless accentuated the ideological differences between the two major political parties, blaming the Republican free-market agenda going back to the Reagan presidency for the economic crisis.

He pledged that if elected he would implement a set of ambitious progressive programmes, with the reform of the health care system topping the agenda.

Mr Obama had promised that, unlike Mr Clinton and more like Mr Roosevelt and Mr Lincoln, he would be a transformative president who would dominate his time and accomplish major policy feats in the domestic and foreign arenas.

And with the Democrats taking control of the House of Representative and gaining a majority of 60 seats in the Senate in 2008 - making it almost impossible for the Republicans to torpedo White House's legislative and policy initiatives - it seemed that as far as Mr Obama's prospects for re-orienting American politics and the direction of its economic and foreign policy - the sky would be the limit.

The expectations in Washington and elsewhere was that Mr Obama would press for new and effective regulation of the financial markets; for a new government-backed health care system not unlike those that operate in other advanced industrialised nations; for an ambitious plan to promote climate control; and for a serious effort to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and start bringing American troops back home.

It wasn't surprising therefore that senator Edward Kennedy, the godfather of the Democratic liberals was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Mr Obama.

But a week after laying to rest the veteran senator from Massachusetts and as it is becoming clear that a successful campaign by the Republicans is going to turn Mr Obama's bold plan to reform health care into a series of minor changes in the current health care system, there is a growing feeling among members of the progressive wing of his party that the Democratic president whom they expected to become the new FDR is gradually turning to be a President Clinton II.

Most disturbing to fervent liberal columnists and bloggers has been the failure of Mr Obama to get his health care plan approved on Capitol Hill at a time when the Democrats are controlling both houses of Congress.

Mr Obama has stressed the need to win bi-partisan support for his reform plan and backed the efforts by a group of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats to try fashioning a legislation that would be embraced by members of the two major parties.

But the Republican leaders had apparently no intention to cooperate with the White House on the issue, and working together with the large health insurance companies they launched a huge public relations campaign that included the orchestration of noisy anti-health care reform protests held by phony 'grass-root groups'.

Erosion of support

This Republican strategy seems to have eroded the support for Mr Obama's health care reform plan in Congress, especially among conservative Democrats as well as around the country as reflected by opinion polls indicating that the public has turned against Mr Obama's plan.

At the same time, the effort by the White House to counter this drive by Republicans and the health care industry hasn't been very successful, with Mr Obama failing to project during his public appearances the kind of passion that he had demonstrated during the presidential race.

Hence, most political observers predict that the White House would be forced to discard many important elements of its original plan, and in particular the proposal to establish a public health care insurance group that could compete with the private companies and force prices down.

Which raises the question: Has the pursuit of political expediency a la Mr Clinton been overshadowing Mr Obama's earlier commitment to supposedly strong-held principles?

The growing discontent with Mr Obama among his many supporters on the left extends to other issues beyond the health care reform fiasco.

They are also disappointed with the slow pace of the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and the fact that Mr Obama has been increasing the number of American troops in Afghanistan. They don't like his unwillingness to call for a tougher regulatory regime to watch over the way Wall Street is operating to prevent another financial disaster. And they are disappointed with the speed of the closing down of the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay.

And these critics are not only angry at what they considered to be Mr Obama's betrayal of a large-scale liberal agenda. They are also worried that the Democrats and nation would suffer as a result of Mr Obama's shift to the political centre.

Mr Clinton's main asset was the economic and political reality of the 1990s: a series of developments - the end of the Cold War and the resultant 'peace dividend' at home, the opening of new markets abroad coupled with the lack of global challenger to the US and the high-tech Internet revolution.

These developments had created the conditions for the Clinton Age economic boom and international peace which benefited many sectors and demographic groups that supported the status-quo and helped elect and then re-elect Clinton.

That unipolar moment and that prosperity is gone.

Mr Obama, on the other hand, arrived in Washington in the midst of an economic crisis and during a time when America has been engaged in fighting two costly wars. No one expected even under the best-case-scenario a return to the good economic times of the 1990s and a speedy end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, more and more Americans are becoming disenchanted with the status-quo.

And a US president and a political party that becomes identified with that dreaded status-quo - instead of trying to dramatically challenge it - are bound to be punished by the American voters sooner rather than later.

What is even more disturbing than the potential for electoral setbacks for the Democrats is the likelihood that the Republicans would not be the ones profiting from the backlash against the rivals.

Instead, like during a time of economic uncertainty and political instability, the main beneficiaries would probably be the populist demagogues on the political right and left trying to persuade enraged Americans that they are committed to a 'change you can believe in'.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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