Obama, triangulation and what’s our job for 2012


Here's a provocative quote from moderate conservative Financial Times columnist Clive Crook:

"If the top White House appointments the president announced last week were not calculated affronts to progressive Democrats, they might as well have been. William Daley, who replaces Rahm Emanuel as Mr Obama's chief of staff, and Gene Sperling, who succeeds Larry Summers as head of the National Economic Council, have credentials to arouse the disgust of every left-leaning liberal."

Well, let's take a look.

In simple terms of class, Obama has re-united with the liberal wing of Wall Street in an effort to "triangulate" the resurgence from the right. To do so, he has brought back one implicit (William Daley) and one explicit (Gene Sperling) protegé of Robert Rubin, secretary of the treasury under Bill Clinton and pretty much the liberal architect of the Clinton era's trade and financial policies. In full disclosure, I am not a Robert Rubin hater.

Take trade policy. Trade agreements always involve complex, and often uneven, tradeoffs, some of them very ill conceived. But globalization is an objective process which is fundamentally irreversible, barring world war. It is an inevitable component of capitalist development, foreseen by Karl Marx way back in 1848. Thus removing barriers to trade must also be an irreversible process. Sometimes, for example in the case of NAFTA, serious miscalculations are made. Whether these were deliberate or accidental in the case of NAFTA, who knows, but the agricultural terms of trade were disastrous for Mexican agriculture, and thus, ultimately, for undocumented immigration into the U.S. Nonetheless, to assert that trade has not played an overall powerful and positive role in U.S. economic growth, and that it is not even more important to less developed nations with more dependencies on foreign materials and resources, flies in the face of reality.

It's natural that labor unions, typically on both sides of a trade agreement, tend to oppose each one. Every trade agreement, even the fairest, creates winners and losers. The losers know it immediately and make a lot of noise about it. The winners usually only emerge after the agreement is in effect and working for some time as expected under the terms of trade. Further, while unions on both sides of an agreement tend to oppose it, they do so usually for opposite reasons. Finding common ground across borders on trade questions is a profound question for the left and the labor movement. However, this is not something liberal finance capital is likely to try solving. Obama will not do this either - that's up to us!

For example, Clinton and Rubin, like most on Wall Street, both seriously underestimated the downside of "irrational exuberance" in the financial sector. But, to be fair, most of the waste and exuberance took place after the tech meltdown, after Bush took over, and before Wall Street drove off the cliff with securitized mortgages, and became dominated by useless speculation.

Yet Rubin proved himself an able manager of the 1990s globalization crises (the peso crisis, the Asian meltdown) and a man able to draw serious intellectual and scientific people into economic and financial policy, and train them to be effective at both policy and theory. He was able, also, to prove that drawing down debt during a growth period provided a very large stimulus in the private sector, and played a large role in isolating the Republican-Gingrich forces in Congress on economic policy.

Rubin, and his disciples, took middle ground on many of the neo-liberal disasters associated with the counter-productive policies and practices of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the '90s. He played a strong role in maneuvering Alan Greenspan away from obstructionism. And on social issues, including matters of race, nationality, diversity - his record and that of his protegés stands up.

Given the paralysis in Washington on further government stimulus, rekindling private investment has become, let's admit it, a practical necessity, perhaps the only realistic path to reducing unemployment. At the same time, while alliance with liberal private investment forces may peel off Republican support, its economic impact will be too slow to alleviate the suffering or apprehensions of millions of workers, nor prevent them from panicking over sustained unemployment and low incomes and succumbing to tea party-like diversions created by the Republicans.

Many on the left may draw the conclusion that the new White House appointments are another sellout by the president. I submit the question is irrelevant, the wrong question. We have a serious challenge of left and grassroots unity preparing for the 2012 elections - and the president is not in the same position to be the architect of that as he was when he was a candidate three years ago. The coalition of progressive and center forces reflected in the Organizing for America formation, for example, will be unlikely to re-organize on the same basis it did in the 2008 campaign, since it is now attached to the Democratic National Committee. As a result, it is less the property of Obama the candidate than it is of the DNC leadership - a much narrower spectrum of forces than the original campaign. As important as trade and financial regulation are in the overall economy, our forces will not be primarily motivated by them, at least in any constructive direction. For us, it's jobs, health care, retirement, education and peace - and grassroots unity is our responsibility.

Conclusion: the president's move on Daley and Sperling is inevitable. For him, triangulation is a sensible tactic. Focusing criticism on it instead of on the obstacles to putting together the grassroots structures is a dead end. We need a hundred - or a thousand - candidates on OUR issues. I do not believe the president will be our enemy there. As FDR once said (approximately), "Make me do the right thing."

Photo: President Barack Obama announces Gene Sperling, second from left, as the new director of the National Economic Council, while speaking about the economy at Thompson Creek Manufacturing, which makes custom replacement windows, Jan. 7, in Landover, Md. From left: Heather Higginbottom, nominee for deputy director, Office of Management and Budget; Sperling; the president; Katharine G. Abraham, nominee for member, Council of Economic Advisers; Jason Furman, principal deputy director of the National Economic Council. (AP/Charles Dharapak)


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  • The article gets convoluted trying to find ways to put a positive face on the "new" administration. I certainly do not see that positive face. However, the writer misses the point, concentrating on theory rather on the recent actions of this administration.

    Unfortunately, Obama's Entitlement Commission is front and center now. Their "findings," although not "official," because they only a majority and not a required "super-majority," appear to have been embraced by the president. This is horribly unfortunate, and has inspired a letter, unanamously signed by all state ARA (Alliance for Retired Americans) presidents and directors, which unequivically stated that they "will NOT support President Obama in any way if he follows through with the Entitlement Commission findings, attacking and crippling Social security."

    This commission, again unfortunately, was packed by extreme corporate right-wing forces BY President Obama, as well as congress. It's so-called "findings" include recommendations to cut Social Security benefits, raise the retirement age to 70 and establish "means testing" for eligibility for that important survival program.

    Obama's other recent moves are also extremely disappointing and, I'd submit, carry far more weight than the potential, the theories of possible positives cited in the above article.

    First among these was his appointment of another extra-govt body of corporate CEO's to "discuss how the corporate tax rate gets in the way of creating jobs, and how we can correct this problem."

    Second, Obama met with another group of corporate CEO's to discuss "how to eliminate unnessecary regulations that get in the way of job creation."

    A recent study on the issue of "Social Security and the Future of the Democratic Party" shows an ominous direction for that political party, based on the recent moves by Obama. Its, for the first time since the setting up of Social Security, that Democrats are now trusted less than Republicans to "take care of Social Security!" The study is a literal scream out, demanding that those folks pay attention to the base of that party, that they MUST defend, instead of attack, Social Security. The alternative is the basic destruction of the Democratic Party as an effective national party able to stand in the way of right-wing Republican designs. We ignore, or cover-up, the findings at our own risk!

    The issues are CLASS ISSUES, and even more unfortunately, many here have become infatuated with the individual in the White House, his personality, his "potential," while completely abandoning any pretext of fighting for working folk, against the corporate attacks on worker's wages, benefits, programs benefiting working people and the very ability of working people to even survive in this corporate/capitalist society! Further, this ultimately paternalistic, anti-working class approach is one that does NOT support any possible positive moves by this administration. Instead, it leaves Obama to the tender mercies of his appointed corporate advisors and the organized pressure from the corporate right!

    I can only hope, and work for the possibility, that the left, party and labor movement will shift, putting funds, manpower into building a movement to defend working folk, fighting for real changes. Without this, the so-called "unity" that the author of the above article speaks of will only be on the right, against the people!

    Posted by brucebostick@att.net, 01/21/2011 7:37am (5 years ago)

  • If, or when, Democrats attempt to balance the budget on the backs of the working class (ie cuts to Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, etc)....we have to speak against it. It will not be sufficient to speak against the ultra-right. We will have to speak for our class.

    Posted by Brad, 01/14/2011 12:46am (5 years ago)

  • The recent Obama appointments were not inevitable. Globalization, yes, as capitalism seeks out new and more profitable markets, especially now given the collapse of socialism in the Soviet union. But the apointment of an antilabor, pro-Wall Street economic team is not inevitable nor should it be dismissed so glibly. Saying this gives Mr. Case and other apologists another reason to avoid criicizing the President, as he did on the tax deal.

    Did I really read in the PW that private investment was a "practical necessity" because government stimulus was off the table?

    Since when do communists need to defend the status quo? Real unemployment is near 20% and it's worse for workers of color. We need to call for an emgergency jobs program and not defend Robert Rubin and the Administration. We need to call for expanding our industrial base and stop hemorraging good jobs.

    What kind of "unity" does Mr. Case envision building for 2012? Unconditional support for the President Obama, not matter how far to the right he moves? If he does, and if his views relect the Party leadership, then we will continue to lose whatever influence we still have on workers and young people who are moving towards a Marxist perspective.

    Posted by Les Bayless, 01/12/2011 3:45pm (5 years ago)

  • Yeah see..Obama said that when he first got in office "make me do the right thing"...and we tried, and he didn't.

    Your assumption that things will be different now is in the face of the evidence, and I would like to know how you derive that opinion. It's obviously not from evidence or experience.

    Posted by Jason, 01/11/2011 6:57pm (5 years ago)

  • The present writer would challenge this position by brother John Case and his article as anything similar to a Marx/Engels position of 1848,and the presidency of Zachary Taylor,let alone one in 2011,during the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama.
    Triangulation in this sense,is certainly no Marx/Engels or Leninist concept.
    We understand that brother Case assigns this to the president,Obama,a non-Marxist,but what about brother Case?
    There is a major problem in dismissing executive action and policy stances of presidents,and rationalizing them as "triangulation"whether Taylor or especially Obama,a certain word: d e m o c r a c y.

    There are two basic things which compel the president of the United States of America;

    1) The Constitution of the United States

    2) The voting,active constituency of the elected

    What reasonable person,especially one who voted for president Obama,thinks he has no obligation to foward and fight for "jobs,health care,retirement education and peace- grassroots unity..."?
    President Obama knows this full well,and his progressive executive moves are testaments to this-even if John Case does not.
    The millions and millions of people who watched our president sworn into office know this-they,we,the grassroots are he and he is us,in a democratic republic.
    We share the citizenship responsibilities,as fellow citizens.
    He is president a n d citizen. We are citizens and presidential constituency.
    Marx/Engels in 1848 knew capitalism's world market expansion-they invented its conscious recognition-they also knew,that more importantly,this expansion happens in the context of irresistable class struggle and that the working people had to struggle every step of the way,starting in 1848-now,that the capitalist and imperialist market has expanded to the point of senility,what real and munificent possibilities of victory for the working class do we have?
    Look for the present writer's contributions in peoplesworld and political affairs in this vein in 2011.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 01/11/2011 5:44pm (5 years ago)

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