Sunday, June 22, 2008

Change We Can No Longer Believe In

June 22, 2008, 6:30 a.m.

And see further comment on the topic in Nicholas Johnson, "Holding Obama's Feet to the Fireside Chat," June 24, 2008.

Obama: No Longer "Change We Can Believe In"?

I really doubt that there will be many of Senator Barack Obama's supporters who will stay home, let alone vote for Senator John McCain, because of Obama's recent flip-flops on major issues. And apparently he's counting on that as well since he's just left $85 million of public money on the table.

But can he now continue to count on his supporters' continued financial support, and enthusiastic campaigning, between now and November? That has become more problematical.

As anecdotal evidence, a friend has shared with me an email she received from an Obama supporter in California that reported,

"Barack Obama owes me $600.43. I sent him my [federal government economic] stimulus rebate with the proviso that if he opted out of public finance he should return my contribution. I enclosed a self-addressed envelope with a 43 cent stamp attached."
Another friend who has been a nearly monthly contributor to Obama tells me she swears she's not sending him another dime -- as much because of Obama's switch on FISA as because of his switch on public finance.

At least a part of what brought out Obama's crowds of thousands, the new voters and contributors, and the enthusiasm of the young, was the Robert Kennedy-esque suggestion (some would say "promise") of a new kind of politics, "change we can believe in," the practical implementation of a bottom-up-community-organizing approach to national politics, a small-d democratic replacement for the "to-get-along-go-along" expediency, campaign-contributor-lobbyist-sub-government control, compromise-anything-and-everything-to-win, special privilege, and corporate welfare of which we've all grown cynical and disgusted.

The story is told of Louisiana Governor Earl K. Long
that when asked by a staffer what he could tell some Baton Rouge constituents who had come to the governor's office to claim some of his campaign promises, he replied, "Tell them I lied."

Had Senator Obama presented himself as "just another conventional politician" he, too, could try telling his supporters that he lied, knowing that while they might be disappointed they could certainly not claim to be surprised.

After all, with Congress' approval ratings at an historic 18% low who could fairly claim to be surprised by anything a senator might have done?

But he has marketed himself as something more than that, something better than a conventional politician or manipulative "Pied Piper." So his every change in position, his every abandoned campaign promise, further alienates the supporters who are both disappointed and understandably surprised -- and when his behavior is repeated, ultimately discouraged, disaffected, distant and depressed.

After all, they were promised "Change We Can Believe In." In fact, you can still buy a fan with that message on it from the Obama "store" for $3.00. But the number of "fans" "buying" that slogan may be declining.

Because now, in the course of two or three days, Senator Obama's enthusiastic supporters are discovering that what he has been talking about is not "change we can believe in." We needn't characterize it with the "L" word; let's just say he "misspoke" when he pledged to use public financing to fund his campaign; when he said he opposed spying on Americans and granting immunity to the telephone companies which did so illegally; when he said he would eliminate taxes for the working poor and seniors earning under $50,000; when he said he opposed NAFTA.

If you hadn't noticed, there are a lot of other days between now and November 4. So stay tuned. Remain attentive.

And if you have been, or are still, an Obama supporter you might want to let him know how you feel about changes in the positions you thought you and he were supporting, positions that were important to you. Don't let him take your vote for granted. You know he's going to hear from the lobbyists and major campaign contributors -- regardless of what he says -- and he also needs to hear from you to keep it all in balance and remember who got him to where he is. You can email him here.

Meanwhile, here are brief excerpts from the media's reports regarding these four changes in which his supporters can no longer believe, plus excerpts from a David Brooks column, and my concluding thoughts along with a video of President Bush.

Public Financing of Campaigns

Sen. Barack Obama reversed his pledge to seek public financing in the general election yesterday, a move that drew criticism from adversaries and allies alike but could provide him with a significant spending advantage over Republican rival John McCain. . . .

"It's not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections," Obama said in a video message to supporters, circulated yesterday morning by his campaign. "But the public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken, and we face opponents who've become masters at gaming this broken system." . . .

In the hours after the announcement, McCain indicated he would consider forgoing public financing as well, but he later indicated that he will opt into the system. "We will take public financing," he said on the Straight Talk Express bus. Asked why, he said simply, "Because we decided to take public financing."

But earlier in the day the senator from Arizona lashed out at Obama. "This is a big, big deal," McCain told reporters . . .. "He has completely reversed himself and gone back, not on his word to me, but the commitment he made to the American people." . . .

Yesterday, government watchdog groups expressed disappointment with Obama's move. Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook called $85 million "plenty of money" and warned that private funding -- even in the mostly small sums that Obama relies on -- "comes with the expectations of special access or favors." . . .

"Senator Obama knew the circumstances surrounding the presidential general election when he made his public pledge to use the system," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a co-sponsor of the [campaign finance reform] bill, called Obama's decision "a mistake" but added: "I look forward to working on this and a wide range of other reform issues with him when he becomes president." . . .

Although campaign finance issues rank low on lists of voter concerns, the McCain team pounced on Obama's move, along with his rejection of the 10 town hall meetings that McCain has proposed, as evidence that his claim to represent a "new politics" is empty rhetoric. The campaign circulated Obama quotes praising public financing and accused him of breaking his pledge to negotiate the issue with the GOP nominee. McCain spokesman Brian Rogers dismissed an account by Obama aides of recent talks between the two camps on the issue, saying it was "flat-out false."

"He's broken his word," said Charles R. Black Jr., a top McCain adviser. "He said he believes in the new politics; to me it sounds like the old politics. If you're going to change politics in America, that's a step backward." . . .
Shailagh Murray and Perry Bacon Jr., "Obama to Reject Public Funds for Election," Washington Post, June 20, 2008, p. A1.

Spying on Americans: FISA

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) today announced his support for a sweeping intelligence surveillance law that has been heavily denounced by the liberal activists who have fueled the financial engines of his presidential campaign.

In his most substantive break with the Democratic Party's base since becoming the presumptive nominee, Obama declared he will support the bill when it comes to a Senate vote, likely next week, despite misgivings about legal provisions for telecommunications corporations that cooperated with the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program of suspected terrorists.

In so doing, Obama sought to walk the fine political line between GOP accusations that he is weak on foreign policy -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called passing the legislation a "vital national security matter" -- and alienating his base.

"Given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as president, I will carefully monitor the program," Obama said in a statement hours after the House approved the legislation 293-129.

This marks something of a reversal of Obama's position from an earlier version of the bill, which was approved by the Senate Feb. 12, when Obama was locked in a fight for the Democratic nomination with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Obama missed the February vote on that FISA bill as he campaigned in the "Potomac Primaries," but issued a statement that day declaring "I am proud to stand with Senator Dodd, Senator Feingold and a grassroots movement of Americans who are refusing to let President Bush put protections for special interests ahead of our security and our liberty."

Sens. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) continue to oppose the new legislation, as does Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). All Obama backers in the primary, those senior lawmakers contend that the new version of the FISA law -- crafted after four months of intense negotiations between White House aides and congressional leaders -- provides insufficient court review of the pending 40 lawsuits against the telecommunications companies alleging privacy invasion for their participation in a warrantless wiretapping program after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. . . .

Paul Kane, "Obama Supports FISA Legislation, Angering Left,"
The Trail/Washington Post, June 20, 2008.

Tax Cuts

On the presidential campaign trail, Democrat Barack Obama promises to "completely eliminate" income taxes for millions of Americans, from low-income working families to senior citizens who earn less than $50,000 a year. . . .

To which the folks who monitor the nation's financial situation can only say: Good luck. Because, back in Washington, tax collections are slowing, the budget deficit is rising, and the national debt is approaching $10 trillion. Whoever wins the White House this fall, fiscal experts say, is likely to have a tough time enacting expensive new initiatives, be they tax cuts or health care reform. . . .

Meanwhile, the first baby boomers started receiving Social Security checks in January. Without major policy changes, Medicare and Medicaid are projected to devour half of all federal spending by 2050. But the more immediate problem is the depletion of excess cash in the Social Security trust fund, which has been used for years to cover a portion of the annual budget deficit. Government economists predict that the Social Security surplus will start shrinking in 2011 and dry up completely by the end of the next decade, exposing government-wide budget deficits of a magnitude not seen since Bush's first term.

In a new paper titled "Facing the Music: The Fiscal Outlook at the End of the Bush Administration," University of California at Berkeley economist Alan Auerbach and two co-authors from the Brookings Institution conclude that, if spending grows at historic rates, simply keeping the Bush tax cuts and halting the spread of the AMT [alternative minimum tax] would drive the budget deficit to $481 billion by the end of the next president's first term, or 2.7 percent of the economy. Subtract the cash borrowed from Social Security and other retirement funds, and it would be $796 billion, or 4.4 percent of GDP.

"It's a train wreck," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), a member of the House Budget Committee. "The government is making promises to people right now it knows it can't keep. And you have some candidates piling more promises on top, which are clearly unfulfillable."

Former House Budget Committee chairman Leon Panetta, who served as President Bill Clinton's first budget director, said the financial situation is "much worse" than it was in 1993, when Clinton was forced to abandon promises of a middle-class tax cut before he took office. Instead, Clinton wound up devoting his first State of the Union address to a plan that aimed to tame rising deficits with one of the largest tax hikes in history.

"It's worse because there are a huge number of crises out there that are going to confront the new president," Panetta said, . . .. The likelihood is that it's going to get worse. And the fundamental problem has been that there's very little willpower by Republicans or Democrats to confront the issue." . . .

Obama has not made balanced budgets a priority. Instead, he promises numerous tax cuts likely to make the situation worse, including subsidies for education, child care, homeownership, "savers" and people who work. Obama also vows to extend the Bush tax cuts for families who earn less than $250,000 a year. According to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of Brookings and the Urban Institute, his tax plans would deprive the Treasury of nearly $900 billion in his first term, and increase the national debt by $3.3 trillion by 2018. . . .

The analysis also excludes a possible reduction in corporate tax rates, which Obama first mentioned in an interview this week with the Wall Street Journal. . . .

"They're promising the world with ways to pay for it that are really suspect," Bob Williams, one of the authors of the Tax Policy Center study, said . . ..
Lori Montgomery, "Big Promises Bump Into Budget Realities; New President Won't Have an Easy Time Paying for New Initiatives, Fiscal Experts Say," Washington Post, June 21, 2008, p. A1.

NAFTA

OTTAWA — American presidential hopeful Barack Obama appears to have moderated his opposition to NAFTA just ahead of Republican rival John McCain’s extraordinary visit to Canada to praise the trade pact.

Obama, who said in March he would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement if he’s elected, said he might have gone too far.

"Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified," the Democratic nominee told Fortune magazine in an interview.

Were his attacks on NAFTA a product of that brand of campaign posturing?

"Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don’t exempt myself," he answered.

The admission was published shortly before McCain was expected to pour unvarnished praise on NAFTA, drawing a clear distinction between America’s two combatants for the White House. . . .

North American free trade and Canada played a pivotal role in at least one state — Ohio — during the U.S. primaries.

A Canadian government memo written after a meeting with an Obama adviser suggested the Democrat’s biting opposition to the pact was rooted in politics that would not blossom into policy if Obama becomes president.

That memo was leak to The Associated Press and many of Obama’s own supporters believe it cost him the Ohio primary, which was won by Hillary Clinton.
The Canadian Press, "Obama Softens Stance on NAFTA," The ChronicleHerald [Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada], June 20, 2008.

David Brooks

Although you may find it hard to believe, it really is the case that it was only after I had written and assembled the material above that I came upon David Brooks column of June 20. You should read the entirety of it. It makes what I wrote look like the chants of an Obama cheerleader by contrast. Brooks may be a conservative, but he's my kind of conservative: normally much more both "fair" and "balanced," as well as reasonable, informed and soft spoken, than the network that markets itself with that claim. Here are some excerpts:

Barack Obama is the most split-personality politician in the country today. On the one hand, there is Dr. Barack, the high-minded, Niebuhr-quoting speechifier who spent this past winter thrilling the Scarlett Johansson set and feeling the fierce urgency of now. But then on the other side, there’s Fast Eddie Obama, the promise-breaking, tough-minded Chicago pol who’d throw you under the truck for votes.

This guy is the whole Chicago package: an idealistic, lakefront liberal fronting a sharp-elbowed machine operator. He’s the only politician of our lifetime who is underestimated because he’s too intelligent. He speaks so calmly and polysyllabically that people fail to appreciate the Machiavellian ambition inside. . . .

[O]n Thursday [June 19], Fast Eddie Obama had his finest hour. Barack Obama has worked on political reform more than any other issue. He aspires to be to political reform what Bono is to fighting disease in Africa. He’s spent much of his career talking about how much he believes in public financing. In January 2007, he told Larry King that the public-financing system works. In February 2007, he challenged Republicans to limit their spending and vowed to do so along with them if he were the nominee. In February 2008, he said he would aggressively pursue spending limits. He answered a Midwest Democracy Network questionnaire by reminding everyone that he has been a longtime advocate of the public-financing system.

But Thursday, at the first breath of political inconvenience, Fast Eddie Obama threw public financing under the truck. In so doing, he probably dealt a death-blow to the cause of campaign-finance reform. And the only thing that changed between Thursday and when he lauded the system is that Obama’s got more money now. . . .

If he’ll sell that out, what won’t he sell out? . . .

All I know for sure is that this guy is no liberal goo-goo. Republicans keep calling him naïve. But naïve is the last word I’d use to describe Barack Obama. He’s the most effectively political creature we’ve seen in decades.
David Brooks, "The Two Obamas," New York Times, June 20, 2008.

Concluding Thoughts

Senator Obama and his staff should reflect on these reactions -- and the fact that Senator Clinton has only "suspended" her campaign. He's not yet the nominee, and super delegates can change their votes at any time.

Nor is the only rational response for Obama supporters to suddenly drop him like last week's moldy pizza as a result of these recent flip-flops. He may not be all they thought -- and he promised -- and still be head and shoulders above the mediocre, far better than merely the "least-worst" alternative.

But meanwhile, what are voters in general, and Senator Obama supporters in particular, to make of this behavior? Should they assume that these will be the only four shifts in position, that he is really, deep down inside, the same person he represented himself to be, the same person they believed in? Or should they ask, with David Brooks, "If he’ll sell that out, what won’t he sell out?"

Or is the lesson a much more serious and depressing one? Should they listen much more closely to the lyrics from the 1951 film, Royal Wedding (starring Fred Astaire and Jane Powell), "How Could You Believe Me When I Told You that I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life." Not because of Senator Obama, but because of politics and life in general. Will it always (or virtually always) be the case that offerings of "hope" and promises of "change" -- regardless of context -- are, like the enticement of winning the lottery, as ephemeral and short-lived as the morning fog on a hot summer's day?

There are many contexts and stories leading to the punch line, or "lesson," "Don't ever trust anyone, not even your own father." Is that the great lesson of the Obama campaign? "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me"? Or, as President George Bush puts it, "There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."



Sadly, we can get fooled again -- and again, and again, and again.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli's famous works, The Prince and The Discourses, were published in 1531, four years after his death, and have been read -- and to some extent followed -- by most politicians since. Is it perhaps the case that politics can't be changed? That it has always been thus? Do we have nearly 500 years of history to warn us that the "change we can believe in" was inherently unbelievable?

No, there have been changes, some improvements, and there can be more. But we must work for them -- with or without a President Obama. The changes will only, can only, have only, come from the peoples' sustained efforts.

"When the people lead, their leaders will follow." It's up to us to lead, not to look to the rear of our marching ranks in search of our "leader."

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7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I always had you pegged as a Nader guy....

Joe said...

Great compilation and thanks for it! You can't honestly be surprised by this turn of events. All the facts have been there for all to see in Obama's career: the incredible number of "present" votes; the numerous chsnges of direction in tthe Illinois State House, he inability to actuall speak unscripted or to debate with skill and cunning.

The man is a cipher and yet very attractive to the gullible.

John Barleykorn said...

I wish someone like Warren Rudman and/or Sam Nunn would run representing the Concord Coalition. I am distrubed greatly by the total poor management of the federal government by the two major parties. No one challenges the American people anymore or is honest with them about the problems programs like Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security face. Instead, they fall all over themselves to see who can pander more and make promises that are too expensive.

What happened to this country's leadership? I really wonder at this point if getting away from the parties choosing their candidates internally at the conventions has served the country well.

trish said...

Nick,

Re: your Obama post: These are the right-wing talking points. I can't believe you're falling for them! Obama is going to do everything he can to make sure we do not have a third Bush administration. This is worth a few necessary sacrifices. Personally, I am thrilled to finally have a candidate who is committed to winning, knows how to do it, and who doesn't foolishly hand the country over to the evil Republicans at his first opportunity. Please don't do the Republicans' work for them. Why not beat up on McSame? That would serve the country better.

Daniel said...

Trish:

Are you joking or just seriously naive? The hypocrisy you just demonstrated by reciting the DNC daily fax [comparing McCain to Bush] is pretty damn thick. Btw, Trish (H.D.), that's what the author is talking about is the fact that some of you kool-aid drinkers don't care that he's completely BS'ing you. The guy is and has been full of it.

Anonymous said...

I think it is important to keep the pressure on all of our candidates. I was disappointed when Obama indicated he would not vote "nay" on the FISA bill. He should be aware that he is being monitored by his supporters as well as his opponents. When somebody makes "change" his mantra, I want to see him show us he means it. Sure, I still intend to vote for him but I also intend to watch him. He's only human. Thanks, Nick, for speaking out.

Matt said...

I am very disappointed about the change on FISA. That one is a big mistake, but at least he said he'd carefully monitor it as president. Still, not a move I am happy about. The not accepting public financing is a non-issue. The point of having public financing is to get rid of the chance the candidates will owe big business or a small cadre of people after being elected. Obama's financial supports comes from millions of individuals. He's not beholden to, oh say the oil industry, for instance.

Obama will be different. And I do believe in him.