This article was written in July and this postscript early in September. The apparent decline in the President’s political strength and that of the Democrats continues. I say “apparent” because the impression rests on fluctuating opinion polling data, and the shallow reporting of journalists without independence of judgement or an historical culture. Half the electorate still thinks well of the President, but the Congress and the political parties (as we approach November elections) have the approval of fewer than half the citizenry. Since electoral participation in the absence of a Presidential contest is usually low (forty percent would be high), presumably only the most motivated will cast their ballots for the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and some critical governorships.
It is the consensus view that the most motivated voters are now those disappointed with, or angrily opposed to, the President. Voter alienation extends to the conventional, sometimes described as “moderate,” Republicans as well. A number of prominent candidates for the Senate or Governorships, some of the Congressional candidates as well, seek radical reductions in the scope of government, even the abolition of Medicare or privatization of Social Security, an end to the Federal role in education, and an intensification of our endemic cultural wars. They propose to eliminate or reduce the power of the courts and government to protect the rights of women and homosexuals, to allow prayer and religious instruction in public schools, to allow local communities to ban the teaching of a critical, progressive and secular view of American history. The Republican Senatorial candidate in Missouri has expressed opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which inter alia ended slavery. The group which now controls a large part of the Republican Party is explicitly xenophobic and seeks to deport the illegal immigrants (perhaps eleven million by now.) It rounds off its program by calling for severe restrictions on medical and scientific research.
The Republican right joins the other Republicans in proposing as a remedy for unemployment lower taxes and of course, lower government spending (the military budget usually excepted). That at least a third of the nation subscribes, sometimes viscerally and in any event without a sense of complexity or the burdens of doubt, to the entire complex of views I have described is certain. That another third, or close to it, has opposite views, adheres to what remains of the New Deal tradition of social reform and reliance on government, is equally certain. Why has this third of the nation and its beliefs sunk below the political horizon, and why does it exercise so little influence on the President, the more so as it constitutes his core electorate and that of many of his closest allies in the House and Senate?
One answer is that the group is geographically concentrated (in metropolitan centers) but socially dispersed. Another is that segments of it are organized, but that its major organizational form since the New Deal of the thirties, the trade unions, are in severe numerical and political decline. A final response brings us back to old discussions of “false consciousness.” Leave aside the more divisive cultural issues, and the hostility and ignorance expressed in the belief that the President is essentially alien. In the universities and the media, in the minds of many citizens, the proponents of freedom for the market, those who depreciate or minimise the positive role of government in the economy, have for the time being won the argument. Doing so was all the easier since there was not that much of an argument. The cautious political approach of the President, the evident biases of his economic advisors, the hesitations ands reservations of much of the Congressional and Senatorial Democratic leadership, did the rest. The President has been unable to impose his own economic agenda since he has capitulated, intellectually, on an essential point—agreeing that deficit reduction and not full employment or economic and social modernization is the nation’s most serious problem.
That has exposed him to attacks for the temporary budgetary stimulus measures he has initiated, and accounts for his support of the commission on the deficit with its secret modus operandi and obvious intention to reduce the benefits to average citizens from Social Security. Yet in recent weeks the President has begun to alter his emphasis. He has repeatedly insisted that the stimulus measure he persuaded Congress to accept last year has kept unemployment from rising much higher. He has said that it is the obligation of the Federal government to assist the states, stricken by budgetary losses, to maintain essential public services: education, health care, security. Now he has evoked the memory of the New Deal by proposing the creation of a national infra-structure fund, a program which over the next years will renew roads and public transport, and introduce the nation to high speed railway systems. He has set the initial annual exenditure at fifty billion dollars—the cost of a naval group built around one aircraft carrier.
It is entirely unclear that the Congress will vote to fund the project —but the proposal has the virtue of dramatising the difference between the parties. Paradoxically, he has made it after the White House and the Democrats agreed that the Congressional and Senatorial candidates should be free to take their distance from the President, an implicit renunciation of his leadership role (and a decision to reserve confrontation for the new Congressional and Senatorial term, in which preparations for the 2012 Presidential contest will immediately begin.) In extremis, the President may have decided to fight.
It is possible that he and his advisors consider that their chances of victory are not entirely small—victory having been defined by the media and the political elite as Democratic retention of majorities in the House and Senate. Given the demonstrated capacity of the media and the experts to get to the surface of events and remain there, the situation may indeed be more open than the current consensus allows.
Meanwhile, the world beyond our borders continues on its own way. The President has announced the completion of a “withdrawal” from Iraq and assumption by the Iraquis of responsibility for their own governance. The announcement is, of course, fraudulent. Fifty thousand American troops remain in Iraq as “advisors” or “trainers.” Tens of thousands more civil employees with military functions remain there still Daily bombings and killings attest to the persistence of extreme conflict in the devastated nation.
Further east, the President plans a similar withdrawal (and a similarly untruthful account of the stabilization of the society) from Afghanistan. There, however, he has a formidable opponent—not the Taliban but the US commander, General Petraeus, who may well have Presidential ambitions in 2012 himself. Two factors, however, may curb the enthusiasm of the loquacious General for yet more immersion in the Afghan quagmire. One is public tiredness (I do not use the term, opposition): a majority does not see the point of yet another endless war. The second is constituted by profound differences within the foreign policy and military apparatus, some centered on a general conviction the nation is globally, over extended, and some entailing a different scale of priorities.
The President has launched yet another peace initiative involving Israel and the Palestinians. He has done so after first advancing to a point beyond that permitted by the Israel lobby (reduced in influence but still powerful) and then retreating before Israel’s refusal to cooperate with him. On the face of it, the negotiation is doomed to failure, as the two sides do not agree on essential matters like Israel settlements, the partioning of Jerusalem, and the right of return of the Palestinians. The exclusion of Hamas, the fragile nature of support for the Palestinian government in the occupied territories, makes the venture even more questionable. It may give the President time to build support for a firmer approach to Israel. support already quite strong in the American elite (exasperated with the arrogance of Israel) The President can count, too, on increasing divisions in the American Jewish community.
The President has resisted, with strong support from his military advisors, Israel pressures for a US attack on Iran (or assistance with an attack by Israel itself.) He has compensated for this with the strenuous pursuit of sanctions against Iran on account of its nuclear program—a matter on which reliable evidence is difficult to obtain. Covert operations against Iran are also proceeding—parallel with a certain amount of negotiation, some of it equally covert or unacknowledged. Now, however, Yemen has been added to the list of states which harbour Islamist threats to the US. The problems of civil order and political stability in Pakistan make it a protectorate whch we cannot protect.
The President is for the moment and the indefinite future a prisoner of the legacies he inherited. One is the general US project of exercising hegemony in the mid-east, from the Lebanon to Afghanistan. The second is the “war on terror” (including its remarkably destructive effects on US jurisprudence.) These enterprises are increasingly brought to a standstill by external constraints (the refusal by Turkey to act as a US satellite, and Russia’s determination to maintain its influence in Central Asia, with Chinese economic penetration of the region a possibility on the horizon). The President’s successes, as with the closer alliance with India, follow the inner logic of statecraft which any US government would follow. After all, Rumsfeld’s abrupt dismissal and the arrival of Gates at the Pentagon was a defeat, under Bush, for the most aggressive of the unilateralists. Gates’ retention and influence are at least as much evidence for the power of the apparatus as for Obama’s capacity to take independent decisions.
There are areas in which he has broken with his predecessor, as in the dimunition of conflict and the fashioning of arms control agreements (subject to the difficult process of Senatorial approval) with Russia, and a somewhat more realistic approach to China.
The themes of human rights, and indeed of economic development, have been convincingly de-emphasized. Still, Obama has been unwilling (perhaps because he thinks himself unable in his first term to do so) to begin a total re-evaluation of the US global role—despite the economic constraints which makes our military expenditure a form of systematic disinvestment in the nation’s future. It remains to be seen what he might do in a second term, should he obtain one. A Republican Presidency from 2012 onward would result in the resumption of systematic discord between the US and much of the rest of the world and especially, the European Union. For the moment, however, American politics are dominated by short term perspectives and momentary calculations.
Many in our political elite indeed can think in a larger context, but consider that asking the citizenry to do so would place an impossible burden upon its intellectual capacities. That on this they might be correct is an exceedingly sad commentary on our democratic experiment.