The U.S. political battle lines for 2010 are already clear. Despite having caused many of the severe problems the country faces, the Republicans and the Right are again in the ascendancy, having shifted the blame for most of the troubles onto President Barack Obama and the Democrats.
But actions by Americans of goodwill could still salvage what looks like a difficult year ahead by recognizing the mistakes made and extracting some lessons learned.
First, it must be acknowledged that in his first year, President Obama repeated many of the early mistakes of President Bill Clinton – by playing it safe on a number of key issues and hoping against hope that the phantom of Republican bipartisanship would materialize.
Like Clinton, Obama gave his Republican predecessors a pass on their foreign-policy crimes and chose a corporate-friendly strategy for dealing with the health-care crisis.
Obama opted to “look forward, not backward” regarding George W. Bush’s policies on torture and aggressive war. Obama proposed but didn’t push for a public option that might have given a real choice to Americans compelled to buy health insurance under the Democratic-passed House and Senate bills.
Obama also treated America’s miscreant big banks with kid gloves; he watered down the stimulus bill to secure a few Republican votes; he took a tepid approach toward global warming; and he expanded one of Bush’s misbegotten wars. Obama even dressed up elements of the Bush Doctrine as “just wars” in his Nobel Peace Prize speech.
Without doubt, Obama could have done better.
He had a legal and moral obligation to undertake serious investigations of Bush-II-era crimes; he could have temporarily nationalized some of the too-big-too-fail banks to deliver a stern message to executives and shareholders; he could have used his bully pulpit to demand a stronger jobs bill; he could have twisted arms for more effective health-care and environmental policies; he could have worked harder to find a different course for the Afghan War.
Yet, from my perspective of having lived in Washington for more than three decades, I can understand why he made the choices that he made – even as we published articles at Consortiumnews.com warning of the likely negative consequences of his excessive caution.
If Obama had gotten tougher, he would have been mercilessly trashed by the powerful right-wing news media and its me-too mainstream counterparts. The only real Washington political pressure that Obama faces is to “steer to the center,” as Washington Post columnist David Broder advised on Sunday.
Indeed, it is a measure of today’s Washington press corps that its top pundits consider Obama’s mushy decision-making of the past year as too left-wing.
One can only imagine what the reaction would have been if Obama had channeled an inner Franklin Delano Roosevelt and put the ruling class on the defensive. The first African-American president would have been denounced – even more than he has been – as a commie, a Nazi, an America-hater or pretty much any other epithet that might come to mind, including many with racial overtones.
Nevertheless, many on the American Left insist that an FDR-style Obama could have rallied the masses and overwhelmed the entrenched powers-that-be. But that is magic thinking, because the Left lacks a political/media infrastructure that could support any politician in such an endeavor.
Over the past three decades, the Left has done little to build a media/think tank infrastructure that can challenge Washington’s center-right conventional wisdom either Inside-the-Beltway or in the cities and towns of Middle America.
The Left has actually reduced its media presence in Washington. For instance, one of the Left’s highest-profile magazines, The New Republic, was sold to neoconservative Martin Peretz, who turned it into an incubator for neocon and right-wing pundits, such as Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes.
The Left has concentrated what little money it does spend on media on West Coast outlets, mostly in San Francisco, three hours behind and 3,000 miles away from the political front lines of Washington.
The Right’s Investments
Meanwhile, the Right has poured billions of dollars into building its own intimidating media infrastructure based largely in Washington and New York, while also reaching out across the country through talk radio, cable television, print outlets and the Internet.
Further tilting the Washington playing field, the Right invests millions of dollars a year in anti-journalism attack groups, such as Accuracy in Media and the Media Research Center, whose job is to identify and destroy honest mainstream reporters who undercut the Right’s propaganda themes.
In this asymmetrical media world – where journalists are constantly under career pressure not to show a “liberal bias” – it should not be surprising that mainstream journalists do whatever they can to avoid coming under attack from the Right. They know that if the Right drives them out of their mainstream media jobs, there is no safety net for them, certainly not on the Left.
Still, many on the Left act as if some other political/media reality exists in Washington and around the United States, that Americans are regularly hearing the case for more progressive solutions when the opposite is true.
So, rather than undertake the hard work of building media that informs the public about the nation’s problems and supports responsible political solutions, the Left finds it easier to bash Obama for not being that knight in shining armor who would slay all the dragons.
In these attacks on Obama, there is an echo from 10 years ago when many on the Left were so furious with the triangulating Clinton that they rejected Al Gore in favor of Ralph Nader. A Nader slogan was that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
At the time, I warned some progressives that a Bush-II presidency would reopen the doors of the U.S. government to the neoconservatives who were hell-bent on resuming the aggressive foreign policies that they had advocated during the Reagan and Bush-I presidencies.
But the prevailing view of these progressives was that George W. Bush really was the moderate Republican of his early press clippings and that he would surround himself with foreign-policy pragmatists, not with neocon ideologues. It was more important, I was told, to teach the Democrats a lesson.
When the Nader campaign siphoned votes away from Gore in key battleground states and Bush muscled his way to a tainted victory in Florida, there was little protest from the American Left, even though Bush had lost the national popular vote and essentially stole the White House. Many progressives simply blamed Al Gore for not running a better campaign or for not devising a better Florida recount strategy.
Even as the disastrous Bush presidency unfolded, the American Left did little to build the kind of national media infrastructure that would be needed to turn the country around. There were a few under-funded efforts, like Air America radio, and some more West Coast media startups, but very little investment was made in challenging the Right’s dominance in Washington.
That was the reality that Obama confronted after he won the presidency.
Despite the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, the national press corps – from Fox News to the Washington Post – was still dominated by rightists and centrists with a heavy dose of neoconservatism on foreign policy. The Republicans also were determined to undermine Obama at every turn.
Obama also took office with the United States in the midst of its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. If Obama had decided to be combative, there was the real possibility that the downward economic spiral could spin the world into a Worse Depression – and the U.S. news media would have heaped blame on Obama.
While this difficult reality doesn’t excuse Obama for failing to meet moral and legal obligations – like enforcing laws against torture – nor for letting the health-care debate meander for the entire year and thus delay other priorities, the media imbalance cannot be ignored either.
It may be satisfying for some on the Left to simply denounce Obama and claim that he is no better than Bush – much like Nader backers previously saw no difference between Bush and Gore – but that misses the point that democracy is not a spectator sport. It’s not enough to sit in the stands and boo.
Nor can one expect a reasonable outcome if one team is well equipped with the finest pads and helmets – and the other goes onto the field with little or no protective gear.
While it might have been an interesting experiment if Obama had simply charged into the fray and tried to rally the public to his side for major progressive reforms, there is little reason to believe that he would have succeeded. And there’s a good chance that some on the Left would still have second-guessed him for not following precisely their preferred game plan.
So, at the dawn of the New Year and a new decade, what can be done?
In my view, first and foremost, there must be a major investment in building a media-political infrastructure that fights for truth and sanity inside the Washington Beltway. That means support for honest journalism and for policy groups on topics from national security to the environment to economic reform.
Such an infrastructure would both support political leaders who do the right thing and hold accountable politicians who don’t.
There also must be expansion of independent means for disseminating important information to Americans across the country, whether through talk radio, cable television, the Internet or print forms. The U.S. mainstream press corps has been too compromised and weakened to be relied upon.
Today, this outreach to rank-and-file Americans is dominated by the Right, which has shown its capacity to rally the Tea Party crowds to support pro-corporate (anti-government) positions that would continue Bush-like policies that have favored the rich and hurt nearly everyone else.
The ugly truth is that until some media symmetry can be restored, politicians – whatever their personal desires to do good – will continue to make concessions to those who wield the power.