Surveying The Landscape: Obama A Center-Right Pragmatic? Or Progressive?

Who is this guy? What is this guy?

I have long argued and have written much the past few days in particular that Obama’s past statements and actions, especially as indicated by his latest picks for a foreign policy team, show him to be a center-right imperialist/empire-ist who will simply do the bidding of, or at least be heavily constrained by, a combination of oil companies, corporate oligarchy and foreign policy establishment.

That he will be exactly that, at least when it comes to foreign policy, “war on terror” memes, and the likelihood of him continuing the imperialist policies of the past six or more decades that are creating the very terrorism that the “war on terror” started by George Bush so misguidedly and murderously has done.

Have progressives been suckered into supporting a President who will really govern from the ‘center-right’, and who is an imperialist hawk in sheeps clothing? A very good salesman, in other words, who has been very successful at coopting and defanging progressives and the antiwar movement?

I’m far from alone in my thinking about this. But hang in here for a bit. There’s an opposing viewpoint coming, further down.

As far back as July 2007 Ira Chernus, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin wrote, in an article published at Tom Engelhardt’s TomDispatch: Democratic Doublespeak on Iraq:

   …what does it mean to “leave Iraq”? Here’s where most of the Democratic candidates come smack up against that hard place. There is a longstanding bipartisan consensus in the foreign-policy establishment that the US must control every strategically valuable region of the world — and none more so than the oil heartlands of the planet. That’s been a hard-and-fast rule of the elite for some six decades now. No matter how hard the task may be, they demand that presidents be rock-hard enough to get the job done.

   So whatever “leave Iraq” might mean, no candidate of either party likely to enter the White House on January 20, 2009 can think it means letting Iraqis determine their own national policies or fate.


   So the Democratic front-runners must promise voters that they will end the war — with not too many ideologically laden ifs, ands, or buts — while they assure the foreign-policy establishment that they will never abandon the drive for hegemony in the Middle East (or anywhere else). In other words, the candidates have to be able to talk out of both sides of their mouths at the same time.

   “The single most important job of any president is to protect the American people,” [Obama] affirmed in a major foreign-policy statement last April. But “the threats we face…. can no longer be contained by borders and boundaries…. The security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.” That’s why the U.S. must be the “leader of the free world.” It’s hard to find much difference on foreign policy between Clinton and Obama, except that Barack is more likely to dress up the imperial march of U.S. interests in such old-fashioned Cold War flourishes.

   That delights neoconservative guru Robert Kagan, who summed up Obama’s message succinctly:  “His critique is not that we’ve meddled too much but that we haven’t meddled enough…. To Obama, everything and everyone everywhere is of strategic concern to the United States.”  To control everything and everyone, he wants “the strongest, best-equipped military in the world…. A 21st century military to stay on the offense.” That, he says, will take at least 92,000 more soldiers and Marines — precisely the number Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has recommended to President Bush.

And of course in the past few days we’ve seen Obama reiterate his statements that he intends to “end the war in Iraq ‘responsibly'”, and also seen him confirm that he will retain George Bush’s appointee Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, as well as bring in Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and former NATO commander General James L. Jones, all complimenting his VP Joe Biden as war hawks.

Not very confidence inspiring of “progressive” foreign policy thinking, to say the least.

In May 2007 Larry Everest wrote at Z-Net in The Bush Veto, the Democrats’ Response, and Why Millions Must Break with the Politics of Empire:

What the Bush Regime portrays as a noble effort to make the world safe from terrorism and bring democracy to the Middle East is actually a vicious war of empire to deepen the U.S. stranglehold on the Middle East and Central Asia –a war that is part of a broader effort to create an unchallenged and unchallengeable imperialist empire.

This goal is not viewed as capricious or incidental by those in charge–whether Democrats or Republicans–rather it flows from the deepest needs and drives of their system: U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and global dominance is crucial for U.S. capitalism’s ongoing functioning and U.S. global power.

So when Bush says, “Even if you thought it was a mistake to go into Iraq, it would be a far greater mistake to pull out now,” he’s expressing a fear — from an imperialist viewpoint – that a U.S. pullout would leave the empire weaker. And he is saying this in opposition to other forces in the U.S. ruling class who, also coming from an imperialist viewpoint, now think it’s a big mistake for the U.S. not to withdraw.

This whole dynamic of riding the anti-war vote to power, then voting to fund an ongoing war while claiming to be ending it, reflect the conflicting necessities the Democrats face. As representatives of U.S. imperialism, they are committed to maintaining U.S. global dominance. Yet they fear the U.S. is sliding toward a strategic debacle of epic proportions and may already have lost the war in Iraq.  So they’re trying to find a way to extricate most U.S. forces and reposition and strengthen the U.S. in the region.

Meanwhile, the Democrats also have to try to maintain the loyalty of their supporters (to both the party and the system), millions of whom have turned against the war and are furious at the Democrats. So we get all the talk of carrying out the “will of the voters” and “moving to end the war”–while horrendous crimes continue to be carried out in Iraq and they do nothing to really put an end to the war.

Here’s an opposing view, from Robert Creamer at AlterNet.

Clues Obama Won’t Govern Center-Right

December 02, 2008

Should progressives beware? Has Barack Obama suckered them into supporting a President who will really govern from the “center-right”? The short answer is no.

Since November 4th there has been growing protestation from right wing intellectuals that America is really a “center-right” nation and that Obama’s victory does not indicate that the electorate has rejected the “center-right” value frame that has defined American politics for the last thirty years.

This line of argument has now extended to the contention that while Obama may have won the nomination and election with the strong support from the left of the Democratic Party, he really intends to govern from the “center-right.” Even the New York Times ran a front-page analysis last Saturday concluding that Obama’s recent cabinet choices, “suggest that Mr. Obama is planning to govern from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with pragmatists rather than ideologues.”

Both of these arguments are complete baloney.

Right wing pundits can comfort themselves with the fantasy that America is a “center-right” nation but it just ain’t so. In fact, all of the polls show that the November election represented a complete repudiation of right wing Bush-Cheney top-down economics and their Neo-Con foreign policy. Over 80% of voters indicated they wanted fundamental change. The polling shows massive majorities in favor of policies that would guarantee health care for all. It shows overwhelming support for policies that give tax relief to middle income Americans and increase taxes on the wealthy. Polls show complete rejection of neocon notions about “preemptive” war and unilateralism. And Americans strongly favor bold government action to stimulate the economy – not the failed laissez-faire economics that have lead to the current economic meltdown.

The fact is that normal people have supported policies like health care for all and bottom up economics for decades. They’ve known for years that economic policies that have lowered their incomes and siphoned off all of our growth to the top 2% were not in their interest. Now the market collapse, potential bankruptcy of the country’s biggest firms, and obvious failure of Neo-Con foreign policy have finally forced even the country’s punditry and

Not only have “center-right” policies proven themselves a complete failure, their intellectual and moral basis has collapsed. How many more bailouts does someone need before he stops believing that the unfettered “free market” will always lead the “private sector” (meaning those who control giant corporations and Wall Street Bankers) to act in the public interest. How many times can corporate CEO’s emerge from their private jets with tin cups in Washington before people begin to question the “center-right’s” claim that the private sector is inherently more efficient that the public sector. Let’s face it, it’s getting pretty tough to justify why Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” deserve to be paid hundreds of millions of dollars while middle class incomes tank; or why a CEO should make more money before lunch on the first day of the year than his minimum wage worker makes all year long.

Obama ran a campaign that clearly and unequivocally described priorities that will turn American in a fundamentally progressive direction. His cabinet picks indicate that he will surround himself with people who have experience and can competently manage the government. They also indicate his absolute commitment to unifying the country to make change. But they do not in any way diminish the fact that America is demanding — and Obama intends to enact — a sweeping progressive program the likes of which we have not seen since the New Deal.

Political consultant, activist and author Mike Lux will publish a book early next year that surveys the history of progressive change in American history. He concludes that progressive changes happen in big batches. Change doesn’t happen incrementally. I think of it as the “Drain-O” theory of history. At key points in history the pressure for democratizing, progressive change overwhelms the forces of the status quo. Then, as the pipes are suddenly cleaned out, massive numbers of progressive changes can finally flow. America is about to experience one of those periods. How much we can accomplish, and how long this period lasts will depend on many factors that we don’t yet know — and one that we do. It will depend heavily on our success in continuing to mobilize the millions of Americans who elected Barack Obama into a movement to enact his program.

Finally, writers and pundits who focus on Obama’s cabinet picks to show he will govern from the “center right” need to have a look at history. Like Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln all installed people in their cabinets who they believed to be effective managers who could deliver. They all had their share of outsiders and progressives, but many were old Washington hands. Yet all of these Presidents faced historic challenges that demanded and enabled them to make fundamental change. And all of them were guided by progressive values that were sharply different from those of Bush, Cheney, and Delay. Obama shares and articulates those values more than any political leader since Robert Kennedy died forty years ago.

Barack Obama will not govern from the “center right”, but he will govern from the “center”. That’s not because he is “moving to the center”. It’s because the center of American politics has changed. It has moved where the American people are. It once again resides in the traditional progressive center that has defined America’s promise since Thomas Jefferson penned its founding document over 200 years ago.++



“Obama ran a campaign that clearly and unequivocally described priorities that will turn American in a fundamentally progressive direction.”?

Was it a “pragmatic” campaign to simply gain the presidency? Is he a Center-Right Pragmatic? Or Progressive?


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    • Edger on December 4, 2008 at 15:06

    Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice,
    Gen. James L. Jones, Robert M. Gates

  1. we don’t know how it’s going to turn out until it starts to turn out. Everything else is speculation. Even what I’m saying. 😉

    • brobin on December 4, 2008 at 16:09

    However, I have a pretty good idea that we can move his ass left, simply due to the fact that he seems in tune with reality to the point that he is taking the time to comb through the government departments to identify the “bad guys.”

    Once he gets an eyeful and earful of what has really gone down in our government, BEYOND what his obvious rank allowed, I think we see some tack to the left.

    Not much, but enough to catch up with what the American people actually want.  

    It’s better to be lucky than good sometimes.

  2. As these terms are relative and have been cooked up by dubious hucksters (propagandists) and reflect a truly warped of the reading tea leaves (polls?) type of branding. I used to be offended at the word progressive, as it was adopted as a way to not be called liberal.

    Liberal under the Republican Reign of Terror was a dirty word. The DLC proclaimed a new way, centrist to brand their corporatist asses. Clinton proclaimed he was a centrist. They merged and called it the center. People started looking at liberals as crazy anti patriotic socialist  wild eyed hippies. Two legs better said the Dems were all Reaganites now. Were all going to get rich and screw the other guy. It’s the economy stupid.

    What Obama is remains to be seen. I hope he governs (not rules) from the real center. The center we are told is right. It is not static, as people when you look at the issues, are much more left then both parties, portray the country. There are regional rifts, cultural ones also which both sides call the ‘real America’. Joe’s are all of us. I think Obama is well aware of this.

    I also think he knows that transition is the key here. If he tries to just throw out what has gone before he will become mired in the political cultural stale mate that has been going on for decades. As for Empire the only way this will go away is if we totally collapse. Maybe we will go broke as the Soviets did. Threats and ‘enemies  are being bandied around to prop up support, they have whipped out the WMD’s as lurking behind every door. He would not be president elect if he didn’t play this game.

    Talking out of both sides of the mouth, makes Hillary the perfect candidate for Secretary of State. I do believe that while they won’t let go of hegemony or geopolitics they will abandon the neocon’s insane policies which only weakened the Empire. Visions of super power will remain. The crown prince’s of the oil lands are in no danger of losing our support. Danger will be promoted as they see danger as a way to keep people behind the Empire.              

  3. over at fivethirtyeight took all of Obama’s proposals and put them on a grid identifying progressive, center left, center, and center right. I don’t know that I agree with his placements, but that goes to shaharazade’s point about how these labels are understood and used.

    What I find interesting about the grid is the fact that its pretty useless to try to identify Obama in one category. It depends on the issue and the proposal. And as we’ve known all along, he’s much more center right on foreign policy and much more center left on domestic policy.

    I could post the grid here but its big. If folks would like me to do that, I’d be happy to.  

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