The ideological distortion of Barack Obama Barack Obama has restored socialism to its lost place in the political life and debates of American democracy. Sadly, this may be true, but not because the once proud party of Eugene Debs has rallied millions to its red banner, now unfurled by the nation’s first president of color. Rather, “socialism” as buzzword and bogeyman has been interjected, or more accurately re-interjected by the political Right. How and why right-wing commentators have done so is a question beyond the scope of this paper although it could indicate a sign of ideological crisis (White 1998). After the Republican Party’s losses of the US House of Representatives and then the presidency in elections of 2006 and 2008 and more significantly, in the midst of severe global recession, socialism was conjured up anew to satisfy the political and perhaps the psychic needs of capitalism’s most ardent apologists. It will be interesting to see if in light of the 2010 election results, this rhetorical motif remains part of the national political discourse. On the liberal left a sense of disappointment is apparent. Some thought a New Deal-like emphasis on jobs and public works would be central to administrative economic policy, while the results of healthcare reform stir limited enthusiasm among those who have long hoped for it. The modification of the Democratic party’s platform plank on healthcare, eliminating the commitment to universal public insurance at candidate Obama’s behest, went little noticed. The return of the heavily Goldman Sachs inflected Clinton economic team caught somewhat more attention. The most notably missing Clintonite on the domestic policy side was economist and public commentator Robert Reich, arguably the most progressive from the last Democratic administration. Most crucially, progressives
tended to overlook the Obama fundraising base, which it will be argued here, best indicates the administration’s ideological profile. The Obama-as-socialist tag may appear ludicrous to any serious student of history or comparative politics. Even when and where there has been popular enthusiasm, electoral socialism has never transformed a nation from capitalism to socialism nor altered the basic mode of privately controlled economic decision-making. Democratic socialists, at best, have expanded labor rights, economic protections, and have supported liberal political and social reforms that have buttressed the democratic aspects of advanced capitalist regimes (Judt 2009). In other words, socialists in elective office have been in practice an advanced type of liberal capitalism at their best (by their criteria) and catch-all electioneers and allies of imperialism at their worst. In a world where the content of electoral socialism is liberal, US conservatives have insisted upon seeing Soviet-style socialism in liberalism. As Peter Viereck once aptly commented in a critique of fellow conservative Bill Buckley, today’s Red Scare “treats not only mild social democracy but even most social reform as almost cryptocommunism” (Viereck 1951). The actual content of his policies, platform, and administrative personnel all serve to illustrate the Obama administration’s place well within the mainstream of American liberalism, in the sense the administration’s worldview is underpinned by the notion that state action should uphold market economics and individual choice over collectivist alternatives (Hartz 1991). The point here, however, is not to engage in a polemic of the absurd with the new McCarthyism of talk radio nor Tea Partyism nor even to deconstruct the impolitic impact of Machiavellian party strategists (Wilentz 2010). Those who use the socialism trope for political gain are not themselves deceived by it (Halloran 2010). Nonetheless, its usage does serve to highlight as well as obscure important aspects of the present conjuncture in American politics. A scholarly analysis of the ideological content of the Obama administration must necessarily start with the recognition that the politics and policies of Obama’s presidency are shaped by crises. Most obviously and probably most importantly there is the economic slump, a global downturn and the most significant crisis of global capitalism in the post-Cold War era. As such, the downturn challenges at a fundamental level post-Cold War triumphalism. Now loosed upon a world in which there is no Iron Curtain or Great Wall holding back global capital, the economic system of the one superpower appears deeply unstable. Commentators of both the left and the right, albeit for different reasons, share the assumption that the current recession is of a magnitude greater than any other since 1929. This author regards Great Depression comparisons to the recent crisis to be highly overblown. The Great Depression saw the US GDP drop by over 45 percent from 1929 to 1933, while the three quarters of recession in 2008-2009 witnessed a drop of less than 3 percent before growth returned. To date, only one month of double digit unemployment has been officially recorded. That likely understates the problem of underemployment and discouraged workers, but it is nothing like a decade-plus of double digit unemployment,
peaking at an annual rate of 23.6 percent for 1932 according to the official numbers (Bureau of Economic Analysis 2011; Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011). It is, at this writing, simply too soon to tell if this slump will be deep and long. Indeed, the recession is over, but what remains to be seen is if a further decline or perhaps an extended period of sluggish growth may lie ahead. We simply do not know. However, by contrast to the crises of the 1970s and 1980s, this crisis is one-dimensional. There is no “stagflation” to stymie policy prescriptions. To the contrary, deflation appears as a real threat, so to that extent at least the policy prescriptions are more straightforward. As the Republican Party (GOP) returns to control of the House of Representatives in the context of continued slump or sluggish growth in 2010-2012, there will be more economic stimulus in the form of extended tax reductions, and if past behavior predicts what is ahead, further increases in military spending and public construction projects. History, politics, and mathematics belie any likelihood of the end of deficit spending before the return of economic growth. The attentive reader however will have noted already that the phrase “tax reductions . . . further increases in military spending and public construction projects” empirically describes the policy of the Obama administration, as well as his predecessor for that matter. Policy continuity is relatively autonomous from party and ideology, largely a matter of the underlying balance of political power and the necessities of circumstance at the end of the day. Nonetheless, there are relative and incremental policy shifts from party to party and from administration to administration, which will be examined in the next section within the context of a longer historical arc of American politics.