I have always identified as a Democrat. When I heard Barack Obama speak at the Democratic convention in 2004, I blurted out to the person I was with that he would be our first African-Amercan president. I cheered when he won the Democratic nomination and wept as did many others when he was elected president in 2008. The fact that this country, founded on the backs of slaves, elected an African American was an extraordinary achievement—for him and for us. Like many here and around the world, I was profoundly moved. I believed Barack Obama was dedicated to progressive change, and was first and foremost, motivated to help the struggling poor and middle classes. He said many things during the campaign that led me to believe that.
The danger of idealizing those who would seek to be president
I believed what Barack Obama said—that he wanted to end adventurous wars, reform Wall Street, raise taxes on the wealthy, and give us a public health care option. I breathed a sigh of relief—finally, there would be a politician in whom I could place my trust, who would be dedicated to my well being as well as the wellbeing of the majority of Americans. He was different. He was a progressive and a former community organizer. He was intelligent, articulate, and youthful. He was not like any other candidate I had experienced in my lifetime. And most of all, he was not Bush. Yet, sadly, I would discover later, that there are many aspects of his administration that are seamless extensions of the Bush administration.
In retrospect, I saw Barack Obama as a projection of the person I wanted him to be—a person who deeply cared about me and had my best interests at heart. I projected onto him the qualities of a savior, one who would restore sanity to a country in chaos. He was not like other politicians—he was not like Hillary Clinton, and he was certainly not like John McCain. Unlike previous candidates who were fully vetted creations of the elite, he seemed to be his own person. He would be a people’s president. He was breaking the toxic and corrupt mold of American politics. He was a man of humble means who came up from nowhere, the child of a broken home. He understood our struggles. He would set the country on the right track after the nightmare of the Bush years and restore our democracy and political process. It’s embarrassing to me now, but these were my thoughts and feelings.
An award-winning Madison Avenue campaign
There was a reason I projected such positive qualities and motivations onto Barack Obama. I was encouraged to do so by his beautiful Madison Avenue packaging, his grassroots campaign (that later, I learned, shut out and denigrated every progressive organization in the country), his gorgeous website, his hip and sophisticated use of technology, my ability to email him and let him know my thoughts and ideas, his beautiful smile, his moving rhetoric about “change I could believe in” which, in hindsight, was extremely vague. His campaign was smart, even brilliant. The young, hip “Yes, We Can!” music videos were seductive. I found myself wanting one of the iconic Shepard Fairey designed Obama posters emblazoned with the word “Hope,” but, sadly, they were sold out.
My personal needs and vulnerabilities meshed with the message the Obama campaign was delivering. I was an older single woman, and a freelancer. I needed cheaper health insurance, and a more fair tax structure. I wanted a powerful, progressive leader whom I could look up to and trust. I was tired. I wanted to relax and be taken care of by Barack Obama who, I imagined, would deliver us from the horror of Bush, the dismantling of financial protections and the job outsourcing of Clinton, and the demonization of government by Reagan.
The Wall Street stamp of approval
Yet given American political reality, what I imagined was pure fantasy. Since Kennedy and Johnson, we have had Wall Street backed presidents in the White House. And Barack Obama, it turns out, is no exception. Johnson enacted some of Kennedy’s progressive agenda, but then the door shut on the American people, and as Wall Street and corporate influence accelerated, the working and middle classes deteriorated.
The reality I discovered is this: the elite financial powers that heavily fund campaigns will not let someone be a presidential candidate who is not fully vetted and loyal. If you want to be president, you have to court them and obtain their backing, which, I discovered later, Barack Obama did extensively in many meet and greet events with Wall Street CEOs. His votes in the Senate were carefully chosen to signal banks and corporations that if they funded him, he would take care of them as president. Anyone who does not court power in our current system—such as Dennis Kucinich—is ignored and/or politically destroyed.
And for the elite in this country, party is irrelevant. Whoever is the right person, at a particular time in history, to manage the mass of ordinary Americans and deliver a corporate/bank friendly agenda will do. Giving the majority of Americans what I would call “faux progressive” legislation after the egregious over-stepping of the Bush years would be allowed, but nothing that threatened the corporate bottom line, or the never-ending hovering of money upward toward the top 1%. Nothing that effectively redistributed income in a country with an ever-yawning income gap and a hollowed out middle class would be tolerated.
Some examples of faux progressive corporate friendly legislation
A good example is the The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which focuses on reform of the private health insurance market. Among other things, it provides better coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, allows young adults to stay on their parent’s plans, and improves prescription drug coverage in Medicare. Eventually, it is supposed to provide universal coverage though a mandate to buy insurance. But, it was written by a former health care executive, and in return for policy tweaking, it effectively provides a $900 billion windfall for the health insurance industry. It ended up being the bill President Obama wanted—one that he had negotiated, not with Republicans, but with the industry. The back and forth with Republicans was theater. Health insurance CEOs broke out the Dom Perignon and declared victory when it passed. Is it better that what we had? Sure, but nowhere near what this country needs.
Could President Obama have gotten a bill through that had a public option? Technically yes, if he had provided the strong charismatic leadership he demonstrated in his campaign, taken the case to the American people (who, according to polls, clearly wanted it) and had someone else besides industry friendly Senator Baucus in charge of writing the bill. He may even, through educating the public, have overcome media blowback from the industry. But this “what if” flies in the face of the reality of his corporate backed presidency. If he had fiercely fought for a public option, it would have taken place in some parallel universe, not in the America we have today.
Another example is President Obama’s tepid and mixed Wall Street reform bill. Right now, gas prices are high, not because of supply and demand, but because of Wall Street speculation. The bill called for caps to be applied to speculation in the commodity markets, specifically gas and oil, by early this year. The Obama administration missed its deadline. When President Obama talks about rising gas prices he has yet to name Wall Street speculation as the cause. Instead he says he will crack down on price gouging at the pump—a distraction from the Wall Street culprits, his donors, whom, so far, he is protecting.
After the election, the disillusionment
President Obama’s cabinet picks were appalling. He appointed the very people whose radical polices caused the economic meltdown, and installed other corporate friendly professionals, ex-politicians and lobbyists for important cabinet positions. He brought in an extraordinary number of Goldman Sachs alumni. Obviously, this was not the change I was hoping for. In one of my states of grief (denial) I imagined he was playing a brilliant game of three-dimensional chess, inviting enemies into the inner sanctum with the intention to win them over to a progressive view. But that momentary video game fantasy quickly evaporated, and the horrible feeling that I had been “had” morphed into a prolonged period of anger.
My anger has passed, but I’m left with a fierce desire to understand how this happened, not only to me but also to millions of Americans who believed Barack Obama was someone else than he was. My energy is focused on trying to understand how those with money and power operate in the United States and how they affect the presidency and the political process. I am open to any positive actions the president takes, but I no longer have any illusions about him. Unless he follows what he says with positive action, I take what he says with a grain of salt.
One political party with two branches
As ex-Governor Jesse Ventura says, Washington is a lot like pro wrestling, where so-called fierce adversaries are close friends and colleagues outside the ring. The spectacle of two parties fighting it out, one for big business and one for working families, is for the nightly news and the little people back home. In the seat of power, the real agenda is who can win the most corporate funding for the next campaign. It’s also who can play the game best: Balancing the demands of constituents against the demands of donors and somehow keeping both happy. The trick is to present all legislation to your constituents as beneficial to them whether it is or not.
When candidates pay back their campaign donors with legislation that supports their needs, or water down legislation to a level acceptable to them, they can look forward to a very lucrative job for one of those donors as a lobbyist or “consultant.” So, if you are a senator or congressperson, there’s a huge incentive to let those lobbyists into your office.
There are exceptions . . .
There are many Democrats who still fight the good fight, who continue to work for the welfare of the ordinary citizen—for example, Dennis Kucinich (who only takes union money) or Bernie Sanders (who happily defines himself as a socialist). The 80 members of the Progressive Caucus in the House deserve credit for trying, often unsuccessfully, to put forward a progressive agenda. Among other things, their initiatives acknowledge and address the needs of the poor who make up 30% of the population and whose numbers are growing—this, unlike President Obama, who never acknowledges the existence or needs of this huge underclass. We have our first African-American president, yet the poor and minorities of this country are as invisible and neglected as they were under Bush.
The billion-dollar presidency
Barack Obama raised $750 million in the last election with the majority coming from banks and corporations. He will raise over $1 billion in the next election cycle. It defies credulity that he can raise such mind-blowing amounts of money from corporations and banks and not be first and foremost obligated to serving their interests. He has said more than once that he is a “free-market guy” that he “admires the savvy businessmen of Wall Street,” and considers Reagan a role model. What about that did I not get? During the campaign, I discounted these statements because they did not compute with my progressive fantasy.
One of President Obama’s job creating efforts was to invite CEOs from big corporations to the White House and ask them, politiely, to hire people. Another was taking CEOs abroad on a trip to India where contracts would result in more jobs being outsourced in India. Like Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and Ben Bernanke, he believes in the ability of the free market, and private enterprise, to solve unemployment. The Stimulus package stemmed the tide, but it was woefully inadequate. Basically, President Obama doesn’t believe in large-scale government intervention in the economy. Otherwise he would have proposed and championed a jobs bill that was effective and up to the task.
Many feel that President Obama means well, but is hamstrung by the GOP and other forces around him. My observation is that it is strange to imagine the most powerful man in the world as so impotent. I say, rest assured, he is basically doing what he wants to do.
Even though the Democratic Party has some well-motivated and earnest politicians, it has become significantly corrupted by corporate money. “Corrupt “may seem like an extreme word, but when politicians serve the needs of the elite at the expense of hundreds of millions of Americans, in exchange for campaign money and the potential of lucrative jobs in the future, then I think the word is appropriate. In my mind, businesses and corporations have a right to ask for what they want, but politicians must weigh corporate interests against the more important needs of the majority of Americans, and the welfare of the country as a whole. In order to make this determination, money has to be taken out of the elective process. Because money has corrupted the process, the majority of our politicians, Republican and Democrat, have become, to varying degrees, the political retainers of the elite. I’m sad to say, I put President Obama in that group. In my view, either you stand up for majority of the American people in word and action, or you don’t. Either you provide real and meaningful progressive leadership, or you don’t. Washington is about compromise, but without clear progressive proposals being on the table, and without genuine presidential support for them, we end up having a conversation about center right vs. far right policies.
I am no longer a Democrat
Now, two and a half years after President Obama’s election, I have moved considerably to the left because I see the problems of this country as systemic. As far as i can tell, the country is being run by oligarchs, and by the two political parties that serve them. As a result, I no longer call myself a Democrat. I choose to call myself a progressive. I now stand outside the party system, and pressure for what is “necessary” for a humane society rather than what is “possible” or “allowed” by corporate owned Washington and corporate captured statehouses. We are at a time in history where the concept of the “common good” or “common welfare” is branded as evil and “socialist.” I feel it is time to demand, without apology, policies that serve the majority of the people. We should not let corporations and banks lie and intimidate, or break the law. And, we should not let corporate Democrats, who, along with Republicans, are considering cutting the social safety net, go unchallenged.
The people of this country owe a great debt to the union members, the socialists, and the real Democrats of the past who fought against the very forces who have once again taken over this country. They stood up to the banks and corporations, and their bought politicians and demanded policies that served the interests of the country as a whole rather than the tiny elite. Recently, we had a resurgence of their spirit and energy in the union members who demonstrated in Madison Wisconsin. It is with these progressives, then and now, that I stand, and with whom I find my identify.