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Serious Stuff

Obama Can and Should Have a Second Term

by Somebody Else
January 7, 2011

Richard Greener, novelist and essayist for the Huffington Post, wrote an interesting piece for that news provider's website on December 7, 2010 called "Obama Must Step Aside -- No Second Term." It is evident from the article that Greener is left-of-center in his views, so why would he be opposed to Obama running for a second term? After all, isn't the president our standard-bearer of progressive values in the United States these days?

Not so, argues Greener, who lays out a case against him, pointing out that he has failed again and again to keep his key campaign promises, and that his leadership has actually furthered the regressive agenda of those who openly oppose him. Greener reminds us of past presidents who did not come through on their campaign promises and were limited to one term only. Seeing numerous parallels between them and Obama, the essayist concludes that the writing is on the wall. Obama will have only one term, and according to Greener, deservedly so.

While I agree and sympathize with the author on a number of points, and admire the underlying motive behind his argument, which is to defend and advance the highest and most progressive ideals of the nation, I must respectfully disagree with his insistence that Obama should turn down the almost inevitable offer to lead the Democratic Party in the 2012 presidential election.

Why, might you ask? Well, I can think of no better way to explain myself than by responding point-by-point to Richard Greener's article, which I will do so here.

Greener: Obama didn't give us universal health care. Me: Congress didn't let him have it, and he just barely pulled off health care reform.

When Obama was on the campaign trail, he promised us that he would make universal health care a top priority. True to his word, he did just that. In fact, many political observers and so-called policy experts seriously questioned all the time and effort that Obama put into this bold initiative at the beginning of his presidency. Lest we forget, there were cries of protest from both left and right, as many insisted that fixing the economy and creating jobs were more important than trying to pass major health care legislation.

Initially, Obama kept his promise to encourage Congress to pass universal health care, but the backlash to this proposal was so severe, and the support for it so uncertain, that the president wisely realized that he was headed for certain defeat if he stubbornly insisted upon it. So, he instead worked with the leaders of his party to craft an alternate approach, which admittedly fell far short of universal health care, and instead amounted to a kind of reform rather than a radical transformation, regardless of what the opposition says. Compared to the president's original vision of universal health care, the recently passed bill is much less impressive, but that said, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

After many long months of deeply entrenched Republican stonewalling and conservative Democrat deal making had passed, health care reform had been watered down a great deal, with many of its best provisions either completely stripped from it or rendered largely ineffective. Even so, it only just barely made it through Congress without one single Republican vote, regardless of all the concessions that were made to Republicans in an effort to gain their support.

House Minority Leader John Boehner took the floor the night the bill was passed and screamed "hell no" several times, turned red in the face, and basically let loose with a truckload of hostility that did not originate in his supposed outrage at what Congress was about to impose upon the average American, but rather in his extreme frustration at his inability to derail an historic piece of legislation that did not advance his own narrow corporate-backed political interests. Several European countries with long-established universal health care systems, such as England and Germany, probably looked at John Boehner, shook their heads, and chuckled to themselves about our oftentimes cynical and misguided political process.

At the end of a bruising and lengthy battle, Obama had his health care reform, and he paid a very heavy price for it, as did many members of his own party who set themselves up for defeat in the midterm elections by voting for it.

Was it worth it? It absolutely was. It showed that he had guts and that he was ready to put his political capital at risk in order to fulfill a lofty goal. History will prove that he was most definitely on the right side of the issue.

Should we blame him for not getting us universal health care? No. Even with Democrats holding large majorities in both houses of Congress, there was no way to make it happen. Obama realized what was possible and took a very big risk to get even that. It may keep him from getting a second term. But in my view, he can sleep with a clear conscience as far as health care reform goes.

Greener: Obama didn't keep his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. Me: When Obama was running for president, he overestimated his ability to deal with shadowy behind-the-scenes figures who would rob him of his political virginity.

The American public tends to feel comforted by the idea that the president is an almost all-powerful figure who, as chief of the nation's armed forces, can get the military to do just about anything he wants. In practice, this view probably has much less to do with reality than we would all care to admit.

From its beginnings, the Guantanamo Bay prison has been has been an outgrowth of that secretive, dangerous, and utterly ruthless part of our government and military that has been given extraordinary powers and latitude to do what it deems best. Normal rules and guidelines do not apply -- although they certainly should -- to the Guantanamo Bay prison or to the people who direct and staff it. The United States wrested away that tiny strip of Cuban land generations ago, well before the Cuban Revolution, for nothing more than naked geopolitical interest, at first for the purpose of establishing a strategic military base for monitoring the Straits of Florida. Possession of this land has been and continues to be a clear violation of Cuban national sovereignty.

Over time, the United States found that Guantanamo Bay would serve its interests as a detention center located on technically foreign land and created for housing political prisoners whose presence on United States soil would have raised issues of international and domestic jurisprudence. The CIA and the special forces of the military, both working in conjunction with the highest political leadership in the nation, have dirty business going on behind the scenes, all of which has to do with the raw exercise of ruthless power, and Guantanamo Bay is one of many important locations where they carry out their nefarious activities on behalf of supposed national security interests.

There is no telling what kinds of pressure has been brought to bear upon Obama and what type of seductive and mind-bending rationalizations have been whispered into his ear over the last two years. Have they made thinly-veiled threats to kill him, his wife, and his children if he doesn't cooperate with them on this? I wouldn't put it past them. Have they brainwashed him? Has he succumbed to the intoxication of unlimited power and the crippling paralysis of unbridled paranoia? Or is it that he has he just realized that the political cost of really and truly completely shutting down the prison is too great, that the American public as a whole is still too enthralled with the fantasy narrative of 9/11?

Basically, I am reluctant to judge Obama on the whole Guantanamo Bay issue. I think that it should be shut down for good and that the facility should be given back to the Cuban government. I suspect that Obama feels the same way, but for one reason or another he can't get it done. All we can do is to speculate why. The whole issue is shrouded in a cloud of secrecy that smells of deeply entrenched self-interest, death, cruelty, hypocrisy and lies.

Greener: Obama has failed to extricate us from wars begun by Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan. Me: Similar to Guantanamo Bay, this thing is bigger than the president.

Time and again, presidents have failed to stop wars. Why is this? Quite simply, it is because beginning a war is so much easier for a president than stopping one. Who wants wars? Obscenely powerful oil companies that control our government want wars to obtain cheap and secure access to petroleum-rich areas and thus increase their profit margins. Political and industry leaders who realize that cheap oil runs our economy want wars to safeguard our ability to easily obtain it. Large corporations that provide hardware, goods, and services to the military want wars, generals and politicians looking to advance their careers and interests want wars, and news people hungry for increased advertising revenues want wars. All of it is sad but true.

We can also say that a large number of hoodwinked propaganda-fed citizens want wars. Unfortunately, there are far too many of them throughout the land, flag-waving parents who approve of their son or daughter signing up for military service and being shipped overseas to fight while they themselves stay in the United States driving their gasoline-powered cars, cutting their manicured lawns, watching reality television shows, and preparing themselves for the news that their child is coming home in a flag-draped box. And let's not forget that these hoodwinked propaganda-fed citizens, many of whom consider themselves Democrats, vote in very large numbers.

With regard to Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama is not in control any more than Bush was. He does not have the political power to effectively oppose the combined forces of the wealthiest elite along with a largely deceived population that has bought -- hook, line, and sinker -- the government's official version of events and motives. The military presence of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan is essentially permanent. It has relatively little to do with terrorist threats -- this is mostly only a pretext for obtaining popular support -- and everything to do with competing against Russia and China for preferential access to some of the cheapest and most abundant non-renewable energy resources in the world. No president will be capable of changing this for the foreseeable future, and should he make the attempt, he might very well expect to end up like JFK in Dallas in 1963.

Greener: Obama caved in on his promise to eliminate Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. Me: As time ran out on the current Congress, the president strategically conceded on this matter in order to get other legislation passed.

After the midterm congressional elections, Obama faced the prospect of dealing with a Republican-led House and a Senate with a weakened Democratic majority. He and the lame-duck Congress, which consisted of strong Democratic majorities in both houses, were given a little less than two months to get something done before the Christmas break. Still facing an ailing economy only showing weak signs of recovery and a national jobless rate over ten percent, Obama considered his options.

Evidently, Republicans relished the opportunity to go head-to-head with him on the issue of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. It would completely tie him up until the Christmas break, and the chances of beating him on this one looked positively rosy. The Republicans were ready with their response before the debate even began. They were prepared to argue that the wealthiest Americans employ the largest number of workers, and therefore by eliminating their tax cuts, big business would be adversely affected and would have to lay people off, something that should never be done when the economy is in bad shape -- all complete hogwash, but then again, hogwash is what it's all about in Congress much of the time.

It was looking good for John Boehner and friends. They would get Obama to waste his time, bruise him politically, and hand him a decisive legislative defeat as a Christmas present.

Smartly, Obama did not take the bait. He did not play into their hands. Seeing opportunity in what appeared to be an intractable problem, he quickly and adroitly conceded on the issue of tax cuts for the wealthy, insisting that they would only be extended for another two years. This put a lot of pressure on Republicans to quickly cobble together a bipartisan compromise on taxes, which was signed into law by Obama in very short order -- certain political defeat suddenly and unexpectedly turned into victory.

There was still time left. Taking advantage of his newfound political momentum heading into the final stretch, Obama signed into law a flurry of important bills, including the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," government-funded health care benefits for 9/11 first responders who became ill working at Ground Zero, and a renewal of the START nuclear arms treaty with Russia for which thirteen Republican votes were secured in the Senate. There was even a day or two remaining for taking on the Dream Act, which would have provided a legal pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children, but this was not passed, although Obama did promise to take up the matter again at some point in the future.

None of this would have been possible if Obama had dug in his heels to oppose the extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. As the saying goes, you have to pick your battles, and the president decided that this was one battle he could take up again after 2012.

All of which brings me back to Greener's main premise, which is that Obama should decline running for a second term.

What Greener fails to take into account is the simple fact that the president of the United States does not really single-handedly run the country. His legislative priorities must make it through an elected Congress. This is nothing more than Political Science 101.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, presidential power is largely constrained by elite corporate interests, who themselves in turn set the propaganda-driven interpretation of events and realities.

If you yourself have actually always formed part of this elite group of people who rule the nation, and then you become president, there is no essential conflict between the presidency and the ruling class. This is what happened in the case of George W. Bush the son. Bush channeled his legislative efforts into promoting the interests of that class over those of the masses. Even though Republicans controlled both houses of Congress for much of his presidency, Bush nonetheless failed on a number of important legislative initiatives, such as his proposal to privatize Social Security. We common people do indeed exert some influence over Washington from time to time.

Obama, on the other hand, was not born into the elite class, and as president he has run afoul of its interests in ways that have caused not a small amount of consternation. Just remember John Boehner's angry tirade against health reform and you'll know exactly what I mean. Stepping up on behalf of the average citizen is no easy task for a president, but it is necessary for any moral and ethical leader, despite the risks and obstacles. And there is always the potential for legislative victories to be won for the people over the objections of the wealthy and powerful.

True, many of us wish that Obama would do more, but realistically, there is only so much that he can get done using the office that he holds. For 2012 I'd much rather have a political pragmatist like Obama who has a clear idea of what can and cannot be accomplished, than an uncompromising Democratic idealist like Dennis Kucinich who, while speaking the plainest truth and holding a firmer and more principled stance than any of the major candidates, is completely unelectable. It should go without saying that Obama is a better option than Sarah Palin, whose political discourse makes Bush's seem absolutely inspired, or Mitt Romney, who would try to turn the United States into America, Inc.

Sorry, Richard Greener -- in 2012 you can go ahead and vote for some independent candidate who will not get elected. I'll be looking to stop the Republican Party from taking over the presidency again.

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...