September 2009

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Who's in Charge Here?

by Thomas G. Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's blog "Single Doubt"

Ever since Barack Obama assumed the presidency, I’ve been scratching my head over many of his political decisions. He campaigned on a platform of change but now that he’s reached office he has consistently bent over backward to accommodate Republicans and blue dog Democrats who have no desire to see reform happen and are not open to compromise on the issue. Furthermore, Obama has surrounded himself with advisors and cabinet appointments who seem more aligned with maintaining the status quo than with change. What little change that has come out of the White House so far has been superficial and cosmetic. The players have changed but the message, and more importantly the policies, have remained the same.

Go down the list. The economy? We’ve still got a stranglehold on the Federal purse strings by Goldman Sachs alumni. Hundreds of billions of tax dollars have been handed out to banks who promptly turn around and hand their CEO’s golden parachutes. The government does nothing. Foreign policy? The same generals who were in charge of managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan under Bush are still calling the shots. We’re still spending hundreds of billions of dollars we don’t have on the Middle East with virtually no accountability. Furthermore, the “draw-down” of our forces in Iraq has slowed to a snail’s pace while the escalation of troops in Afghanistan is ramping up. Guantanamo is still open for business. Unsupervised wiretapping of citizens continues unabated. And the so called “justice department” shows no signs of instituting any significant investigations into possible illegal activity surrounding anything the Bush Administration did.

In short, not much has changed under Obama. The longer he is in office the less it looks like anything will. What gives?

Over the past few weeks I have seen just about every type of explanation floated for Obama’s actions (or lack of actions depending on your point of view.) Was Obama not serious when he promised change? Were his words empty promises? Did he lie to us? Perhaps he just doesn’t think we’re in such bad shape that systemic change is required to fix what needs fixing? (This last one seems almost inconceivable given his soaring rhetoric on the campaign trail.) I even just heard a caller on a radio show posit that the healthcare mess and Obama’s backtracking on the “public option” is all a “strategic political masterstroke.” Talk about magical thinking.

Though all these explanations have coursed through my brain, none really hold water. In the past few days, however, a new possibility has been presented to me; one that seems more and more likely.

Obama hasn’t instituted meaningful change because he can’t; he is not in charge.

In his book, Democracy Inc., author Sheldon Wolin posits that America has already undergone a transformational change. We are now a union of state and corporation. “The crux of these changes is that corporate power and its culture are no longer external forces that occasionally influence policies and legislation.” We are now facing a political reality where, the citizenry has become marginalized and government responds more to corporate interests than the voice of the people. In fact, states Wolin, democracy in America has been demoted, “...from a formative principle to a largely rhetorical function within an increasingly corrupt political system.” Wolin’s term for this new form of government is: “managed democracy,” or “inverted totalitarianism.” Unlike totalitarian regimes of the past, there are no brown shirts, no dictators, nor armies of goose-stepping goons. Democracy remains intact. But it is a shell, a sham. The people no longer have any real say in the decision making process. Indeed, even the President and the Congress have a limited role to play. All policy decisions and most legislation are now massaged, influenced, and even dictated behind closed doors by cadres of powerful corporate elites with more money than God.

What else explains why a president who campaigned on a platform of open and transparent government suddenly reverses himself when he gets in office and not only refuses to make public the terms he is negotiating with corporate insurance and drug companies, but like former Vice President Dick Cheney, he won’t even make public who is attending the meetings.

The Obama White House may be slightly less accommodating to corporate interests than the Bush White House was, but there is a strong argument to be made that the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of our government have become little more than tails wagged by wealthy international corporations. Even the mainstream media – the so called “fourth estate” – has become owned by, and thus fawning and sycophantic to, corporate interests.

Virtually every major piece of legislation and presidential policy directive that has come down the pike during the Bush years – and now from the Obama administration – has been written, not to respond to the needs of ordinary citizens, but to aid the bottom line of corporations. Bank bailouts? Loans to GM? No-Bid Military contracts? Even the F-22 fighter plane which the Army didn’t even want was still supported by numerous Senators and Congressmen at the behest of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

Obama’s recent speech to the "VFW" provides a fascinating study into who is really calling the shots. Paragraph after paragraph is devoted, not to explaining his foreign policy, not even to calling the nation to make sacrifices to the two wars we are currently fighting. Instead, Obama extols the virtues of America’s “economic might” He touts the advantages of “his budget,” how he is eliminating waste and saving taxpayer dollars.” He boasts of putting and end to “unnecessary no-bid contracts” and then with barely a pause crows over how “his budget” increases military expenditures and grows the size of the army.

Gone are the oratorical flourishes that motivated and moved ordinary people to vote for him. These days, Obama sounds less like a statesman and more like a corporate bean counter giving a report to the shareholders.

Even when he does call the veterans to action he uses the language of profit and loss. Consider the following two quotes from the speech:

I will only send you into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary.

I will not hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests.

One wonders what are the “vital interests” whose protection is so “absolutely necessary” that Obama wouldn’t hesitate to send brave soldiers to their deaths and spend hundreds of billions of dollars? Defeat of the Taliban? Democracy in Af-Pak-Iraq-istan? Or would contributing to the bottom-lines of Blackwater, Halliburton and Exon-Mobil be justification enough?

The point to all of this is that trying to understand the Obama administration’s actions in terms of liberal, progressive, or conservative politics is useless. On almost every major issue you can name – health-care, the economy, defense – partisanship is not the issue. The deciding issue is money. The politics of the day is not being defined by ideology, but by corporate profits. In order to pass any legislation, Obama is not being forced to court neo-cons, or liberals. He is being forced to Kow-Tow to those corporations whose financial interests will be affected.

The Latin phrase: Cui bono, “who benefits?” is equally applicable to politics as it is to law. The entities that have the real power are the ones who most benefit from a government’s actions; i.e. the ones with the most money. All you need to do to understand Obama’s actions is to ask yourself, who is receiving the lion’s share of the money that is being spent by the government? (I’ll give you a hint. It ain’t you and me.)

Until the citizens stand up and demand that benefits of government favors shift from corporations back to the people, no change is possible.