“What’s past is prologue…” to a paralyzed and polarized Congress unwilling to communicate across a partisan divide and enmeshed in a game of political one-upmanship that might send a hopelessly unqualified individual with neither the character, the demeanor, or the temperament to sit on the highest court in the land.
To see how the past has made its presence known, we might go back as far as thirty years to that democratic wunderkind, Bill Clinton, who jumped on the inequality train as it was leaving the station and transformed it into national policy. Doing the bidding of the wealthy donors who had lavished millions on his campaign, he deep-sixed the Glass-Steagall Act which twenty years later cost bankers zero and taxpayers trillions. Removing government oversight from risky financial products completed the rout.
But that past fits more the rubric of ancient history. The more recent past, the eight-year reign of Barack Obama, is the real prologue. Let’s go back to 2008. For the dispirited and frightened, his campaign promises were a life belt thrown to Americans drowning in a sea of troubles. The detritus of the Bush years — two wars, an economy gone south, millions of families facing foreclosure, lost savings, millions, including seventeen million children, starving to death. Obama came in America’s hour of greatest need. He beguiled us with his oratory, and with the whole world watching promised —“Tonight [November 4, 2008]…change has come to America…This is our time, to put our people back to work…to promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream.”
His appeal was targeted to the traditional democratic base: workers, students, women, older Americans, poor Americans, and middle class Americans sliding down an economic hidey-hole. What did they want? No more and no less than what he promised them on the campaign trail —affordable health care, a functioning social safety net, full-time jobs with a living wage, an end to the surveillance state, to militarized policing, to perpetual war.
That was then, a continuum of promises made and promptly broken and this is now — eleven Republican men glaring stonily in the distance as a woman tells of her sexual assault by a Supreme Court nominee picked solely for his right-wing politics.
It comes together when you realize that a disillusioned base is like a keg of dynamite. You never know when it’s going to blow. When Obama didn’t make a stab at that hope and change thing, when it became obvious that wealthy bankers and powerful Wall Street moguls who had invested millions in his candidacy were at the head of the line when it came to return on investment, they fell out of love with him.
How did the Democrats make such a hash of their future prospects? It didn’t help that the income gap between Obama’s donors and the rest of us kept widening. Four of the six wealthiest individuals [all men] in the world are Americans. Facts don’t lie: the incomes of the top 1% grew 37% from 2009 to 2015 to an average of $1.4 million. For the rest of us a measly 7.6% income gain to $48,500 in the same time period. By 2011, at the end of Obama’s first term, 75% of Americans agreed that “The big banks got bailed out but the middle class got left behind. Our economy works for Wall Street CEOs but not for the middle class. America isn’t supposed to only work for the top one percent.”
No wonder that three months before the 2016 election, 90% of adults responded to a Gallup poll identifying the economy and jobs as their major concerns. This was Obama’s chance to give his base the hope that had been MIA during his entire presidency. In too little, too late mode, he did little more than restate what democratic voters were living — “the gap between rich and poor is bigger now than it’s been…since the 1920s. Small comfort to those looking over at the gated communities where the wealthy and privileged lived high on the hog.
It wasn’t long before the most disillusioned decided to bet on a new horse —Donald J. Trump.
If workers, particularly in battleground states, like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, could have monetized Obama’s campaign promises, good jobs, good pay, and loads of benefits they undoubtedly would have become DFLs (democrats for life). Unfortunately, the signs of another Obama end-run around his campaign promises hove into view shortly after he crossed the Oval Office welcome mat. From the nominee who claimed “Politics didn’t lead me to working folks, working folks led me to politics” the labor movement had little to show for eight years of a democratic administration. Shortly after cashing the $400,000 check labor had contributed to his 2008 campaign (believing in Obama’s fealty to their cause, labor leaders failed to extract the same ROI guarantee the big money did), EFCA (employee free choice act) which would have given workers the right to join a union if the majority signed up for one died unsung and unheralded. No matter what candidate Obama’s website said: “Obama is a co-sponsor and strong advocate of the Employee Free Choice Act [EFCA]… [that he] will sign into law as president,” President Obama’s refusal to support EFCA put it on a glide path to nowhere. Another campaign promise down the drain.
Obama wasn’t finished trashing union voters. Here’s Campaign Obama— “If American workers are being denied their right to…collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes…I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President…because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner” (2007). When the governor of Wisconsin announced new moves to weaken collective bargaining rights among public sector employees, now-President Obama sang a different tune — “I think everybody’s got to make some adjustments. A presidential lackey put the final nail in labor’s coffin stressing “the need for people to come together…and sacrifice together.” Sacrifice —reserved for those who aren’t big donors to the democratic party.
Union members have long memories. In 2016, Donald J. Trump won Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes with labor’s help and his victories in other Rust Belt states included the votes of many disaffected democratic voters.
It didn’t take long for democratic voters to realize what really mattered to Obama and his cronies: filling democratic coffers ahead of the next election. To that end, Obama made sure everybody got something—the voters broken promises, and phony reforms dressed up to look like bipartisanship; the 1% everything money could buy.
The growing attrition of support among the democratic base contributed to democratic losses in two midterm elections and to everyone’s surprise, the 2016 presidential election.
Likely voters weren’t the only ones in line to be screwed. The poor, disabled and elderly didn’t stand a chance in the Obama universe. In 2014, President Obama formerly known as the Hope and Change President dashed all hopes for change by slashing the food stamp budget by $8.7 billion, a move that cost 850,000 families $90 per month. Justified by the Obama propaganda machine as a necessary bipartisan “adjustment,” many in his own party weren’t buying it— “Poor people are getting screwed … and Democrats … aren’t doing enough to push back. I wish there had been more of a fight from the White House…” (Rep. Jim McGovern D-MA).
Need we add that the popular Obama, Michelle, had one credit on her resume she kept uncredited — serving as a board member on a Walmart-linked company. (In 2007, in anticipation of her new role as America’s first lady-cum-saint, she stepped down)
In 2016, half of those classified as “poor” chose to go fishing rather than to the polls.
The ravaging of traditional democratic strongholds swung into high gear with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), Obama’s self-described signature accomplishment (even the most deluded of the democratic faithful found that pill too hard to swallow) rewarded the major players in the health care racquet —the insurance companies (compulsory insurance) the drug companies (zero pricing oversight) and hospitals, medical centers, doctors (no cost controls). Middle class Americans, who were supposed to be the beneficiaries, got saddled with compulsory health insurance accompanied by exorbitant premiums, unconscionable drug prices, unaffordable deductibles and copays and penalty premiums based on age.
Hillary Clinton’s steadfast refusal to commit to universal health care cost her democratic votes in battleground states.
What about young people, a traditional force in the democratic base? Not just the forty-four million leaving college owing a collective $1.5 trillion with few ways to repay it. But a whole host of others who worked tirelessly on get-out-the-vote efforts for Obama in 2008. These young warriors were thanked for their service by Obama-instituted student debt “reforms” that left thieving loan servicers in the driver’s seat. Throughout his two terms, Obama refused to man-up and advocate for tuition-free college (like in most of the world’s countries)
One-third of millennials, an unusually high percentage, voted for Trump. In critical battleground states, Clinton was on the receiving end of Obama’s failure to address the mounting debt problem.
The dashed hopes and false promises of the Obama years coupled with the democrats’ failure to nominate a candidate with more popular appeal (although they had one), was a losing combination particularly in critical battleground states. Ironically, Trump won by taking a leaf from the Obama playbook, offering his base a stew of phony promises and false assurances and reeling in enough votes from the democratic base betrayed by Obama and turned off by Clinton. In a further irony, Clinton lost by putting her faith in the strategy of an overly-optimistic staff, in her flawed estimation of her own invulnerability, and perhaps most costly, in her refusal to criticize the failures of the Obama administration.
What has changed with the change in leadership? Not overly much, America is still a neo-liberal war machine ruled by oligarchs through their donations to both major parties. More insubstantial things, like spirit and motivation, have changed radically. Republicans are in charge and determined to course-correct what they see as the leftward drift of social policy. With another far-right justice sitting on the Supreme Court, the progress of the neo-liberal agenda — cuts in the social safety net, climate denial, assault on women’s rights, more wars, more unwanted surveillance and less public education — can be accelerated. Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s latest pick, originally considered a shoo-in, has run up against the courage of one woman. Will he make it? Considering that our elected leaders are a pack of craven cowards, it’s difficult to see how he can lose.
The far-right express has roared into Washington intent on doubling down on Obama’s blighted vision—a plutocracy ruled by the rich and powerful, burdened by perpetual war, crumbling infrastructure, environmental degradation and millions of down-on-their-luck Americans. In the vacuum created by democratic missteps, anything is possible.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
(“The Second Coming,” W.B. Yeats)
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