Monday, January 20, 2014

It's Never "Different This Time"

In 2004, I worked as a copy editor for a political journal that traveled to Boston and New York to cover the Democratic and Republican conventions. The writers, naturally, got to go into the convention halls to cover the action, while the rest of us worked in rented office space nearby and had to nab whatever passes were left over if we wanted to check out either convention in person. I got to watch a speech one night at the RNC, but that was it. I think John McCain was speaking. But for some reason, Michael Moore was there -- at the RNC! -- and I remember giving him a thumbs-up as he walked toward an exit directly under my seat. But for the most part, all of us non-writers watched the events from both conventions on TV, like the rest of the country did.

And I still remember walking past the office TV when some guy named Barack Obama got up before the DNC and gave an impassioned speech. He stopped me in my tracks as I listened in. Other co-workers walking by stopped and did the same. As he wrapped up his speech, I remember somebody nearby saying, "Wow, he just knocked it out of the park."

At that time in my life, it never would have occurred to me to even consider voting Democrat -- I was a recovering Republican who'd cast my lot with the Libertarians -- yet I had to agree. It was a great, impassioned, emotional speech. It served its purpose of getting the party loyalists at the convention stirred up -- and in retrospect, it certainly was the first crucial step in Obama's rather rapid ascendance to power over the next few years.

I understand why people were excited about his presidential campaign in 2008. Not only did Americans want to wipe the slate clean after a disastrous eight years of Bush/Cheney, but they heard and saw in Obama the promise of a brighter future. He talked a good game. And in the end, he made history.

But looking back over the past five years, I wonder how many of those same voters who were enraptured with him, who pinned so many of their hopes for better things on him, now feel a sense of disappointment. 

Granted, Obama was never my guy. But as someone who doesn't put party before principle, I often wonder to what extent the party faithful will make excuses for their candidates. It's human nature to do so, I suppose, as people generally don't like to admit they were wrong, and loyalty to the tribe (in this case, a political party or ideology) is a powerful human instinct.

A couple of different things got me thinking about this over the weekend. First, there was an article by David Sirota about Obama's changing stance on health-insurance reform. As most of us political observers know, Obama once supported a single-payer system, only to later deny that he ever did. And according to Sirota, Obama eventually flipped his view so completely that by 2009, he was actively working to silence any discussion of single-payer. And that's how we ultimately ended up with a public-private Frankenstein of a law that benefits insurers and pharmaceuticals while driving up premiums for many Americans who are already scraping to get by. 

The other thing that popped up in the past few days was Obama's speech about "reforming" the NSA. Here I'll just remind you once again that Obama talks a good game. He's good at saying nothing while making you think he just promised you the moon.

I'll let the incomparable Glenn Greenwald administer the takedown:
And now we have the spectacle of President Obama reciting paeans to the values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards. ... But those pretty rhetorical flourishes were accompanied by a series of plainly cosmetic "reforms". By design, those proposals will do little more than maintain rigidly in place the very bulk surveillance systems that have sparked such controversy and anger. ...

Ultimately, the radical essence of the NSA – a system of suspicion-less spying aimed at hundreds of millions of people in the US and around the world – will fully endure even if all of Obama's proposals are adopted. That's because Obama never hid the real purpose of this process. It is, he and his officials repeatedly acknowledged, "to restore public confidence" in the NSA. In other words, the goal isn't to truly reform the agency; it is to deceive people into believing it has been so that they no longer fear it or are angry about it. ...
That, in general, has long been Obama's primary role in our political system and his premiere, defining value to the permanent power factions that run Washington. He prettifies the ugly; he drapes the banner of change over systematic status quo perpetuation; he makes Americans feel better about policies they find repellent without the need to change any of them in meaningful ways. He's not an agent of change but the soothing branding packaging for it.
And that's how he gets away with saying one thing but doing another.
  • It's how he promised as a candidate to protect whistleblowers but as a president has prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other administration in U.S. history. In the most egregious examples, Bradley Manning sits in prison, while the perpetrators of the criminal acts he exposed walk free, and Edward Snowden sits in virtual exile in Russia for exposing the depths of the NSA's unconstitutional activity.
  • It's how he said he wasn't "going to scramble jets to get a 29-year-old hacker," but then did just that, forcing down Bolivian President Evo Morales' private jet after leaving Russia, on suspicion that Snowden was on board.
  • It's how, as a candidate, he criticized Hillary Clinton for supporting an individual mandate -- likening it at one point to trying to solve homelessness by forcing people to buy homes -- and then turned around and supported one after getting elected.
  • It's how he laughed at George Stephanopoulos when the latter characterized the mandate's non-compliance penalty as a tax. "I absolutely reject that notion," Obama said. But when the only way the Supreme Court could salvage the mandate was by framing the noncompliance penalty as a tax, you never heard Obama say another word about it.
  • It's how he could campaign on the promise to label GMOs but then appoint a former Monsanto executive, attorney, and lobbyist to be America's food-safety czar. And that was before he signed the Monsanto Protection Act into law.
  • It's how he could criticize George W. Bush's record on civil liberties and human rights, but then keeps Guantanamo open, renews a Patriot Act he once criticized, oversees a "kill list" and signs off on those to be targeted, has ordered the assassination of American citizens (including a 16-year-old boy) with no due process, and has signed into law -- three times now -- an authorization to hold anyone, even Americans, indefinitely without trial or charge. And that's not to mention the ongoing drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, the number of which far exceeds those ordered under Bush, and under which many innocent women and children have been killed.
You're left to sit back and wonder how it came to this. Was he always a villain with a silver tongue? Did power corrupt him? Was he bought by corporate interests? Told to play along by the military-industrial complex?

Well, he has another golden opportunity to prove his integrity to us in light of the ruling that struck down net neutrality -- without which the Internet could end up looking a lot like cable TV, with consumers forced to buy "bundles" for access to the websites they want. Moreover, ISPs could get large companies to pay up for access to a "fast lane," leaving small companies and start-ups either out in the cold, or stuck in a "slow lane" that means they'd take forever to load. You might have to select from data plans, like you do with your phone, and pay for any overages at the end of the month. ISPs could even start blocking access to certain services -- say, a competitor's website, or an activist site or personal blog critical of that ISP.

That's what we're looking at, now that net neutrality is dead.

Obama is said to be a supporter of net neutrality, and a White House spokesman after the ruling stated that he "remains committed to an open internet, where consumers are free to choose the websites they want to visit and the online services they want to use, and where online innovators are allowed to compete on a level playing field based on the quality of their products."

So the question is, will he do anything? Will the rhetoric match the words this time? The court ruling seems to have extended to the FCC a chance to revisit its own classifications in an attempt to salvage net neutrality, but there will be immense political pressure from the ISPs that have wanted net neutrality dead for ages, in pursuit of greater profit.

If, as it seems, Obama caved to corporate pressure when it came to health insurance and GMO labeling, can we trust him to stand up to corporate power when it comes to net neutrality? Can he influence the FCC to do the right thing?

The answer may give us some hope that he retains some semblance of independence, or it could be the final verdict against him. Time will tell.

Of course, he could also grant clemency to Edward Snowden, as The New York Times suggests. That would be an even more courageous accomplishment. But I'm not holding my breath -- especially considering how many people in our government want Snowden dead.

In any event, one thing is clear, and that is that you should never listen to what a politician says. Just watch what he does. That's always been true, of course, but it becomes even more important to remember when you're dealing with a charismatic figure who could sell ice cubes to Eskimos.

And that's why this cycle repeats itself over and over again. People who look to our elected leaders for change will be swayed by a persuasive narrative that uses lots of emotional buzzwords. Voters will fall prey to the promises. They'll vote the new person into office in hopes that this time it will be different. And, of course, it won't be. I see it happening all over again with Elizabeth Warren, the darling of the left. She says all the right things. She's fired up with moral indignation at the state of our nation. And by golly, she's going to bring forth the positive forces of government to do something about it.

Problem is, we heard the same kinds of things from Barack Obama back in 2008. And we see how that's worked out.

Glenn Greenwald's simple suggestion? (Emphasis added.)
As is always the case, those who want genuine changes should not look to politicians, and certainly not to Barack Obama, to wait for it to be gifted. 
I couldn't agree more. If politicians were going to "save" us, they would have done it a long time ago. Instead, they keep making things worse.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to sit back and wonder when people are going to catch on.

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