July 14, 2009

Obama: Six-month Report card (2)

Yesterday I gave an overview of Obama in action so far. Now for some specifics.
Let’s look at the scorecard:
*The Bailouts – Obama has followed the Bush lead in bank policy. The core of Obama economic policy in general has been the bailouts and a general dedication to coddling and empowering the big banks. In spite of the lies of the TARP, the banks know the debt economy is finished, and they have no intention of lending again. They want only to shore up their capital position, and most of all to unload their toxic assets at prices of their own choosing. They also want to forestall any revived regulation or limits on compensation. They want to continue to exist as Too Big to Fail gangster banks, living on taxpayer protection money for the rest of American history.
Obama has them covered.
The bailout regime has been completely entrenched. It is now a revolving door where any bank can cry wolf, get a big handout in exchange for some feckless warrants, then take back those warrants at lowball prices whenever it chooses. At every step of the way the bank profits and the taxpayers are looted. Meanwhile the administration will keep trying to figure out a way to use taxpayer money to buy all the worthless toxic paper at bank-dictated prices. The only reason Obama hasn’t just used taxpayer money to directly buy the whole lot is that they still feel some political constraint. The second they think they can get away with it, that’s what they’ll do. This is now Obama’s personal policy.
Meanwhile, after all the highfalutin talk of restored regulation, the team’s white paper instead is a brave cry to maintain the status quo. The most important fact is that the administration has now formally declared that it will do nothing to break up the big banks. Too Big To Fail and permanent blackmail is to be an officially recognized natural fact.
(They have made some sounds about a possible “consumer protection agency” for financial products. But no one has done much more than lift a finger for this, while anything meant to dispense loot to the banks, like the PPIP, gets the full court press lobbying treatment. We can see what the real priorities are, and what’s for show.)
It’s hard to remember how not so long ago people really thought things were going to change. Today the bankers have restored confidence and are back to vigorous antisocial lobbying. Facing such an eager-to-please administration, their job is easy.
Why is Obama doing this? Is he confused, deluded into thinking the growth/debt economy actually can be resurrected, and that this is the way to do it? Or is he in fact every bit as much a corporatist as his lieutenants?
*The Global War on Terror – Going on four years now, the American people have clearly expressed their desire to end this stupid imperial war. Obama himself promised to withdraw from the Iraq theater, if not roll back the whole offensive. But it’s clear that Afghanistan is an equally pointless and unwinnable adventure. Escalating the war into the new Pakistan theater is crazy. No one can even articulate what the objective is in Afghanistan, let alone how it is to be accomplished at any remotely acceptable cost in blood and wealth. These same problems are simply compounded in Pakistan.
Is this just because he wants to look tough? Or does he in fact share the neocon agenda? It’s true, if you are ideologically committed to propping up the tower of debt in the time of oil depletion, there’s no alternative to the neocon plan to use aggressive warfare to seize that resource and try to enforce the dollar as reserve currency through direct military intimidation.
These are the twin objectives of the Global War on Terror, of which Obama has taken full personal ownership.
*Health Care – The baseline for anything which can be called real health care reform is a public option and replacing fee-for-service with either fixed salaries and/or payments per entire case. The system also needs a rigorous measure of how effective treatments really are, and cover treatments accordingly.
Only these measures can meet the two main goals of covering the uninsured and lowering costs. And only under these conditions would it be appropriate to consider a universal mandate.
(Actually, single payer would be much better than a public plan. But Obama gratuitously declared that “off the table” before the opening bids had even been made, before the fight had even begun.)
So far Obama has mostly said the right things. He has said he wants a public plan and cost-effectiveness measures. He wants to end the regressive tax deduction for income in the form of employer-supplied health coverage*. He said he wanted to pass such a bill through budget reconciliation.
[*The MSM has accused him of taking over McCain’s proposal on this, after having opposed it during the campaign. The big difference is that McCain wanted only this measure, but to otherwise leave the status quo in place. Obama claims to want it within the framework of a broad reform offensive.]
This would be the right policy and the right tactic.
But since then he has blithely accepted industry lies about how it wants to voluntarily cut costs, and he has gone quiet on reconciliation. Even though polls show a solid majority of Americans support a public plan he has refused to use the bully pulpit. He has refused to mobilize public anger and desire for Change, to use that force to pressure Congress. 
(He has refused to do this across the board, even though his oratory and his ability to inspire have been his greatest, perhaps his only tangible, strengths.)
He seems willing to let the entire reform project be skinned and gutted in Congress, as long as he can eventually sign any old thing and call it “reform”.
The nightmare scenario – keeping the status quo but adding a mandate – looks more and more plausible. This would of course be nothing but another massive giveaway to the feudal insurance racket. It would be tyrannical and unconstitutional. yet it looks like it would be acceptable to our “reformer”.
* We’re seeing the same thing with Waxman-Markey. Here again it’s a legislative show, but the president has the bully pulpit, he has the wherewithal to demand a strong bill, and to refuse to sign it if he doesn’t get one.  
In spite of all of Obama’s excellent rhetoric on climate change, this is a dreadful bill. Its mitigation goals are anemic, far short of the necessary concentration goal of 350 ppm carbon dioxide equivalent. Most of the permits will be free handouts rewarding the worst polluters. There are many other welfare giveaways to the fossil fuel criminals, for example money for the “clean coal” scam.
On a broader front, the bill would do little to prevent the blowing up of a carbon bubble, as the same bankers and traders who have destroyed the global economy with weapons of mass financial destruction now develop a whole new class of derivatives and swaps derived from emission permits and offset certificates. 
Corn ethanol, a net carbon emitter in spite of all the lies about how it was a sink, gets a free ride from this bill. Whereas the EPA was going to gauge its carbon footprint according to its indirect land use effects (that is, the fact that using up more land for ethanol leads to the accelerated destruction of the rain forest, which is a critical carbon sink in addition to its infinite other benefits and beauties), this bill forbids the EPA from doing that for years to come.    
The “cap” includes provision for a huge proportion of offsets. These are often for completely bogus emission reductions. More importantly, the point of offsets is to allow the rich countries to continue their own environmentally destructive high-impact lifestyles by paying the poor countries to remain underdeveloped. It’s simply exporting our vandalism so we can continue to party. This is at the core of the resource fascist gameplan.
Of course the “cap” isn’t really a hard cap. If permit prices became too onerous (i.e., if the mechanism was doing its job), the bill includes so-called off-ramps, to issue more permits to alleviate prices.
We don’t even need carbon legislation. In 2006 the Supreme Court declared that CO2 can be judged a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and that the EPA has the authority to directly regulate it. Earlier this year the administration even made noises about doing just that.
Instead, in one of its most repulsive Bushian features, this bill would strip EPA of its regulatory power.
And what does Obama have to say about all this? His only anger seems directed at those who talk about imposing a carbon tariff on countries which refuse to get on board with a carbon cap, in spite of the fact that none other than the WTO itself has judged that such tariffs would be legitimate.
*Agriculture – America needs millions of small farmers. This is socially, economically, and physically necessary, as we will no longer be able to support industrial monoculture in the days of fossil fuel depletion.
Factory farms are an absolute disaster. They drive out small farmers, they generate a vast environmental devastation zone, they socialize all their socioeconomic and ecological costs. Most dangerous of all, CAFOs are the most intensive microbial breeding grounds on earth. They are places where every day an ever more intense arms race goes on, between the endless pumping of antibiotics and the endless mutations of the germs as they strive to overcome the antibiotics. They are veritable bioweapons factories. They are a clear and present danger.  
A legitimate agriculture policy would ban factory farms and force their cleanup at industry expense. It would put an end to ethanol subsidies and mandates. More broadly it would strip industrial farms of subsidies and disempower agribusiness in general.
It would instead plow massive resources into the empowerment of small farmers and food producers and non-fossil fuel-intensive farming practices. It would assist community gardeners, urban gardeners, Victory gardeners. It would establish a non-GMO seed bank, as a public utility, whose mission would be the preservation and distribution at low cost of diverse natural crop varieties.
It would strip biotech companies of illegitimate patents and of the right to patent the products of nature. Here too, research must be a public utility, and must eschew GE in favor of natural breeding practices.
So does Obama act upon these truths? On the contrary, he’s a longtime friend of corn ethanol, and he appointed Big Biofuel, Big Ag, Big GMO cadre Tom Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary. (Since then he has appointed Monsanto cadres to lower but powerful positions.)
In spite of the media exercise of planting a White House garden, this administration has said and done nothing for the cause of agricultural decentralization and defossilization. Meanwhile several nefarious bills are creeping through Congress, each of which is set up to further concentrate agricultural production, wealth and power, and to drive small producers out. Obama has said not a word in opposition to this.
“Get big or get out” is still the watchword with Obama, just as it has been with every president at least since Nixon.
*Wiretapping, secrecy, detainees, torture – There was already a nasty sign even before the election when Obama flip-flopped on telecom immunity. Since entering office, he’s been downright schizophrenic. He says he’s banned torture, says he deplores it, yet is firmly against indictments or even investigations. He’s also, in defiance of his proclaimed devotion to transparency, suppressed torture photos and evidence of illegal wiretapping and other legal and constitutional violations. It’s clear that here too bringing criminals to justice is off the table (to use what’s evidently one of his favorite phrases).
This is no way to recover America’s honor, in the eyes of the world, and especially in the eyes of decent, real Americans.
Obama wants to shut down Gitmo. That’s good. But faced with the standard congressional obstructionism, he caved in for the time being. (Why exactly would the executive, even where not the “imperial president”, need congressional permission to transfer prisoners from one prison to another? Aren’t there any federal facilities in safely Republican districts?)
He says he’ll hold civilian trials for some detainees. But in the same breath he out-Bushes Bush by claiming the power of “post-acquittal presidential detention”. So even where a defendant is acquitted, Obama reserves the right to keep him locked up forever anyway. Even Bush never claimed that power.
*Mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) – Other than his feckless legislative strategy on carbon mitigation, Obama’s environmental appointments and policy preferences have been good so far, with one glaring exception.
MTR is the worst environmental atrocity in the US. It involves clear-cutting forests to denude hills, literally blowing the tops off those hills, in order to expose coal seams to be strip-mined. The waste is dumped in river valleys, often filling them up completely. The rivers and streams are poisoned or completely buried. This is done in order to eliminate vast numbers of mining jobs and streamline costs in other ways (MTR requires only a small fraction of the workers needed for underground mining). The result has been the complete ecological and socioeconomic destruction of much of West Virginia.
MTR is clearly illegal, a violation of Clean Water Act provisions forbidding such watershed dumping, and requiring substantial buffers between streams and dumping activities. But starting under Clinton, and radically escalating under Bush, the law was simply gutted through extralegal exemptions extended by the administration.
Now Obama has said he wants revised enforcement of the CWA regarding MTR. That was months ago. And since then? In the standard pattern, no action.
At will Obama could halt this nightmare, simply by enforcing the law. But talking is all he seems able to do.
*This wouldn’t be complete without visiting the culture war, so what’s happening with gay marriage? Nothing could be a more pure example of legal equity (married couples get over 2000 legal perks) or simple decency than this issue. Conversely, there’s no coherent basis for being opposed. The only reason can be simple bigotry toward gays, if not out and out hatred. This is a no-brainer for any decent person. Of course, Obama is a politician.
So while during the campaign he said he was opposed to the so-called Defense of Marriage act, he also refused to express affirmative support for gay marriage. Again, this could have been unpleasant but seemingly necessary campaign tactics, except that he’s continued squirming since taking office. Now he refuses to use that by now dusty bully pulpit to even speak out vs. DOM, let alone affirm that gays should have equal legal rights. (Also no movement on don’t ask-don’t tell.)
This appeasement of bigotry is all the more incomprehensible as it has become clear that here as everywhere else Obama does not face any political constraint. Polls show that opposition to gay marriage is rapidly diminishing and becoming isolated among the old. Why is Obama siding with them? Since it’s too much to think he might be a closet homophobe himself, I have to assume it’s yet another example of his pattern of moral and political cowardice.
The correct term for Obama is pusillanimous. This adds to cowardice the connotation that the thing you’re so afraid of is something you shouldn’t even be scared of in the first place. Picture the cliche of the housewife jumping up on a chair screaming because she sees a mouse. That seems to be the nature of Obama’s political timidity and his compulsion toward appeasement.
The other character flaw is his bizarre fetish of “bipartisanship”. Anyone who has been paying attention for the last several decades knows if you want Change, if you want to do anything to help the people toward a better life, you can do nothing with the Republicans. They are nothing more than a compound of obstructionism, nihilism, and vandalism. Bipartisanship toward reform is therefore impossible to achieve and morally disgusting to attempt.
So evidently Obama has not been paying attention. Nor does he seem to be capable of learning a lesson. When his shameful tax cut giveaways (unilateral, before the negotiation even began) failed to win him the eighty (!) votes he said he wanted for the stimulus (was he high?!), but instead only earned him a compromised bill, zero Republican votes, and a kick in the teeth, did he learn anything?
No sir – he was already gearing up to unilaterally rule single-payer off the table. Maybe he thought he could get ninety votes this time.
So everywhere we see the same pattern. Obama claims to want real reform, sometimes he even says the right things in detail. But he then sometimes surrenders much of his position before the fight begins. Then, once the sausage-making starts in earnest, he seems uncomfortable doing anything but drawing back and giving ground. Under no circumstances has he been willing to make a concerted appeal to the public, even though that should be his preferred arena, his stage where he dominates, his trump card.  
What’s worst about all this is how unnecessary it has all been, if only Obama had not been lying when he promised Change. The Republicans were on the ropes, the banks were on the ropes, the people were ready to back a real Change agenda. He had the most commanding stage in the world, and he had the charisma and skill to use that stage to maximum effect. And instead he threw it all away, and by now it’s probably too late.
The feudalists are winning across the board. The Republicans are getting a second wind. Even the yahoos get their enshrined gay-bashing.
The Obama cultists still cling to their nonsense about some alleged master plan Obama has (which apparently involves squandering time we don’t have, wealth we don’t have, his electoral mandate, and all his political capital). As cultists, they at least get some religious validation out of it, I guess.
Only true progressive, true reformists, those who truly want real change, see nothing before their eyes but desolation and crime.
From our point of view, the first six months of Obama’s presidency can be judged only as a betrayal, a waste, perhaps the worst squandered opportunity in American history. 

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