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Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is a journalist, media critic and founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College

July 25th, 2011 8:24 AM

Obama is NOT “Caving” to Corporate Interests

In a campaign almost as frenzied as the effort to get Barack Obama into the White House, liberal groups are now mobilizing against the White House and reported deals that would cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. They accuse President Obama of being weak and willing to “cave” to corporate and conservative forces bent on cutting the social safety net while protecting the wealthy.

Those accusations are wrong.

The accusations imply that Obama is on our side. Or was on our side. And that the right wing is pushing him around.

But the evidence is clear that Obama is an often-willing servant of corporate interests -- not someone reluctantly doing their bidding, or serving their interests only because Republicans forced him to.

Since coming to Washington, Obama has allied himself with Wall Street Democrats who put corporate deregulation and greed ahead of the needs of most Americans:

  • In 2006, a relatively new Senator Obama was the only senator to speak at the inaugural gathering of the Alexander Hamilton Project launched by Wall Street Democrats like Robert Rubin and Roger Altman, Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary and deputy secretary. Obama praised them as “innovative, thoughtful policymakers.” (It was Rubin’s crusade to deregulate Wall Street in the late ‘90s that led directly to the economic meltdown of 2008 and our current crisis.)
  • In early 2007, way before he was a presidential frontrunner, candidate Obama was raising more money from Wall Street interests than all other candidates, including New York presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.
  • In June 2008, as soon as Hillary ended her campaign, Obama went on CNBC, shunned the “populist” label and announced: “Look: I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market.” He packed his economic team with Wall Street friends -- choosing one of Bill Clinton’s Wall Street deregulators, Larry Summers, as his top economic advisor.
  • A year into his presidency, in a bizarre but revealing interview with Business Week, Obama was asked about huge bonuses just received by two CEOs of Wall Street firms bailed out by taxpayers. He responded that he didn’t “begrudge” the $17 million bonus to J.P. Mogan’s CEO or the $9 million to Goldman Sachs’ CEO: “I know both those guys, they are very savvy businessmen,” said Obama. “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system.”

After any review of Obama’s corporatist ties and positions, the kneejerk response is: “Yes, but Obama was a community organizer!”

He WAS a community organizer. . .decades before he became president. Back when Nelson Mandela was in prison and the U.S. government declared him the leader of a “terrorist organization” while our government funded and armed Bin Laden and his allies to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.  That’s a long time ago.

It’s worth remembering that decades before Reagan became president, the great communicator was a leftwing Democrat and advocate for the working class and big federal social programs. 

The sad truth, as shown by Glenn Greenwald, is that Obama had arrived at the White House looking to make cuts in benefits to the elderly. Two weeks before his inauguration, Obama echoed conservative scares about Social Security and Medicare by talking of “red ink as far as the eye can see.” He opened his doors to Social Security/Medicare cutters -- first trying to get Republican Senator Judd Gregg (“a leading voice for reining in entitlement spending,” wrote Politico) into his cabinet, and later appointing entitlement-foe Alan Simpson to co-chair his “Deficit Commission.” Obama’s top economic advisor, Larry Summers, came to the White House publicly telling Time magazine of needed Social Security cuts.

 At this late date, informed activists and voters who care about economic justice realize that President Obama is NOT “on our side.”

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- widely seen as “America’s Senator” -- is so disgusted by recent White House actions that he called Friday for a challenge to Obama in Democratic primaries: “I think it would be a good idea if President Obama faced some primary opposition.”

Although Sanders has said clearly that he’s running for reelection to the senate in 2012 – not for president -- his comment led instantly to a Draft Sanders for President website.

Imagine if a credible candidate immediately threatened a primary challenge unless Obama rejects any deal cutting the safety net while maintaining tax breaks for the rich. Team Obama knows that a serious primary challenger would cost the Obama campaign millions of dollars. And it may well be a powerful movement-building opportunity for activists tired of feeling hopeless with Obama.

It’s time for progressives to talk seriously about a challenge to Obama’s corporatism. Polls show most Americans support economic justice issues, and that goes double for Democratic primary voters.

If not Bernie, who? If not now, when?

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