What Obama Really Wants – The American Prospect
It’s apparently not enough that Barack Obama commands a megaphone with his every post-presidential utterance. He also got a question at Wednesday night’s presidential debate. NBC News’ Kristen Welker quoted Obama at length in asking Bernie Sanders if the 44th president was correct in saying last week that the country is “less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement. The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”
Sanders, knowing that Obama remains a popular figure among Democrats, responded by saying that Obama is right, that “we don’t have to tear down the system.” But then he explained all the ways the health care system fails ordinary Americans, with 87 million uninsured and underinsured, soaring prices well above those of other industrialized nations, and 500,000 annual medical bankruptcies. It was an indictment of that system and a call to, well, tear it down.
Obama has determined to put his thumb on the primary scale, and he couches his critique in the language of electability, in what voters really want. Practically every Democrat in America wants to eject Donald Trump from the White House, and ask 100 of them and you get 101 theories of how to make that happen. But without doubting Obama’s sincerity that a moderate politics and only a moderate politics can spell victory next November, I can’t help but notice the audiences for his targeted attacks on progressive policy: wealthy donors in the most rarefied, winner-take-all enclaves of America, whether in Washington last week or San Francisco on Thursday.
It’s rather telling that The New York Times quoted Obama’s friend Robert Wolf to unlock the former president’s mindset, when he argued that Obama is “trying to set a tone.” Who is Robert Wolf? The former chairman and CEO of UBS Americas, the U.S. affiliate of the Swiss megabank, who now sits on the board of Obama’s foundation, and owns a venture capital firm and a company offering “drones as a service” on the side.
That’s the milieu Obama lives in today; he hasn’t spent a year on the campaign trail like the candidates have. And his warnings about runaway liberals doing “crazy stuff” just so happen to line up with protecting the profits and lifestyles of those wealthy donors. In doing so, Obama is revealing the limits of his own incrementalism, which cannot surmount a Washington rigged in favor of elites. This has real consequences in politics and policy, for who sits in power and who struggles on the outside. During his own presidency, Obama told a group of bankers that he was the only thing standing between them and the pitchforks. Here we are, sadly, again.
Wolf insists that the president “cares first about electability,” a concept that has dominated political talk this year as if it’s some kind of pinpoint science. Allow me to make one point about this. The two winning Democratic presidential candidates in the past 40 years—Bill Clinton and Obama himself—ran on a narrative of hope, while “electable” nominees who stressed competence and caution, from Michael Dukakis to John Kerry to Hillary Clinton, all lost. Campaigning in poetry is not a privilege available only to moderate technocrats; progressives who express their ambitions can also attract a popular following.
The sample size of modern presidential elections is far too small to make any definitive judgments about what themes and approaches work. Obama’s cautions also overlook the force-of-nature incumbent who will smear any opponent as a godless socialist hell-bent on flooding the country with immigrants and destroying the economy. The idea that any Democratic nominee would be immune from such caricature is absurd, as Pete Buttigieg was fond of saying before Silicon Valley and Wall Street donors started infesting his campaign. Most of the top-tier candidates are running virtually identically against Trump in public polling, suggesting that Trump, not the policy proposals of the Democrat, is the decisive factor.
I’m sure Obama is confident enough in his political radar that he truly believes his path is the only viable one. It’s probably why he intervened to install Tom Perez over Keith Ellison as chair of the DNC. And he has been railing against imagined enemies like “certain left-leaning Twitter feeds” and “wokeness,” not just recently but for years. But there’s something brittle in this approach. A two-term president who engenders generally warm feelings among the population should not be so sensitive to criticism. Perhaps he reveals too much in his prickliness.
The truth is that Obama, who reiterated his comments to donors in San Francisco on Thursday, presided over a country where inequality continued to worsen, where dominant monopolies continued to consolidate, where regions continued to slip behind a handful of cities on the coasts, where all of the post-recession gains went to those at the top. Obama wasn’t the only factor in this sclerotic improvement; he was handed a deep recession by his predecessor and a right-wing Congress two years into his tenure. But those electoral losses, among the largest for a two-term president since World War II, do reflect the inadequacies of market-driven incrementalism to deliver accountability for the sins of the financial crisis and tangible relief to the millions who suffered as a consequence. If it did, the wealthy donors Obama spends time with while criticizing the left would have less in their bank accounts.
Even though Obama routinely expressed throughout his presidency that America has a long way to go to be perfected, even though he praised “good new ideas like Medicare for All” as recently as last September, he seems to see anyone else saying these things as attacking his legacy. One reason why Obama attempts to rally the base for moderates may be in his difficulty abiding a Democratic Party that even intimates that he failed to tangibly benefit the lives of the working class.
It remains to be seen if the dogs will like the dog food this time around. Deval Patrick, an Obama friend and perhaps the candidate closest to Obama’s model of social liberalism and corporate-friendly economics, got two people to show up to his latest campaign event. Michael Bloomberg has no constituency in national politics at all. Joe Biden is coasting on name recognition and constant invocation of Obama’s name, while Pete Buttigieg has surged on his brand of McKinsey PowerPoints and TED talks, which fits the Obama style. It’s certainly possible that Obama’s absence has made Democratic hearts grow fond for someone in his image, and that image will carry the day.
But let’s be honest about the endgame. Obama is intervening on behalf of a cramped, self-censoring politics, one that dreams big but fights small, one that comforts the well-off by assuring them their fortunes will be safe and the game will proceed to their benefit. He has said, according to the Times, that the eventual primary winner “will come back to me when they need me,” and they will. But they might not come back to his policies, and that’s apparently unacceptable.
On the debate stage Wednesday, Democrats played it safe, in what some commentators decided reflected heeding Obama’s message. That message, while amplified by Obama, comes directly from the corridors of power, telling progressives and democratic socialists not to meddle with the primal forces of nature, as Ned Beatty put it in Network. This defense of the reigning economic order, originating with the donor class and media allies, with its effective abandonment of the vulnerable and disenfranchised, with nothing for those struggling to make it in a rigged economy, is a recipe for social and political unrest. From lofty heights, Obama has now become a dampener of hope, a barrier to change, and a threat to progress.