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Change™

April 24th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The pattern of Obama’s method of governing is becoming clearer every day. He ran on a platform of Change, and does everything he can to appear to be delivering that change without actually changing anything. He tackles huge issues like health care and financial reform at home, and pursues lofty goals abroad such as the elimination of nuclear weapons and peace between Israel and Palestine. In each case, it’s easy to imagine that he is in fact making big changes—as long as you’re not paying close enough attention.

You’ve got people on the left who believe he really is delivering on the change he promised, and people on the right who believe that he is changing things so profoundly that America is becoming unrecognizable from what it used to be. Neither group would dispute that he is a transformative president—they only disagree on whether the transformation is positive or negative, and in the case of the tea-partiers, the most disastrous thing ever to happen in the history of America. I disagree with the whole premise. I don’t think he’s actually changing a damn thing.

Let’s start with health care reform, as this is the only major battle that is technically over and that we can speak about definitively. Judging by all the news coverage, particularly of all the tea-party protests of people absolutely furious over the bill, you’d think that Obama had completely altered the very foundation of America’s health care system. And people who don’t follow the news closely might really believe that everything will be different now. But what was really accomplished? I can’t put my finger on it. There’s going to be an insurance exchange set up in a few years, but it will only offer private insurance and will only be available to a small segment of the population. Insurance companies are technically no longer allowed to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions or to take away people’s coverage when they get sick, but there have been several stories in the news over the past few weeks about insurance companies continuing to do both things. Such practices may be illegal now—or they will be in a few years—but the penalty is less expensive than the crime, so they’ll just go on with business as usual.

Now we’re talking about financial reform that’s just as weak and watered-down as the health care bill. The biggest problem with Wall Street is the derivatives trading—selling bogus financial products and betting on them failing. This bill won’t even ban that—it will just force banks to make them public. As if everyone is paying close attention to how much money their banks have tied up in derivatives. At best, it’ll make it easier to see the next financial crisis coming when it does. It certainly won’t prevent it. Banks, like any corporation, have to make as much money as possible for their shareholders. As long as making these bets is permissible, someone is going to do it, and they’re going to make a lot of money from it. To compete, everyone else has to follow suit, even if they don’t want to. A banker might personally be dead-set against these practices but if he wants to keep his job, he has to go along with them. It doesn’t matter how transparent it is—if it’s permissible it will be done.

So ‘financial reform’ will likely be just as empty as health care reform. And now that republicans are beginning to indicate that a few of them might get on board, we can expect the bill to become even weaker. They can pass this slap-on-the-wrist legislation and pretend they all worked together to solve the problem, and in November they can claim that they stood up to Wall Street when in fact they just did exactly what Wall Street wanted them to do, save for a few minor bits and pieces that will be an inconvenience to the bankers at best. Obama can add another ‘legislative victory’ to his list of ‘accomplishments’ and go on posing as the Change president. People who don’t pay much attention will either believe he solved the problem, or in the case of the tea-partiers, that he made everything infinitely worse.

And what about his work on the global stage? For the most part, I’ve been very pleased with what he’s doing in terms of reaching out to the Muslim world and enlisting international cooperation to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation, but how much actual change will come of it? I understand that eliminating nuclear weapons altogether is unrealistic and taking an incremental approach is the only way to go about it, but it just seems like taking on nuclear weapons is a mostly political calculation, as if Obama asked an advisor “What is the least controversial cause I can champion on the world stage and thus boost my international credibility and secure my legacy?” Obviously, reducing the threat of nuclear war isn’t going to draw a lot of criticism—unless of course you’re in the tea-party.

As for the Muslim world, I’m extremely pleased with the tone he’s taking—but we all know that rhetoric is by far the president’s strongest quality. In many cases—such as financial reform—words don’t matter half as much as what you actually do, but when it comes to Muslim perceptions of the United States, words matter a great deal, and Obama typically chooses the right ones. At least it’s a far departure from the previous president, who actually used the word “crusade” to describe our presence in the Middle East. But at the point where words end and actions begin, Obama hasn’t changed anything. Our troops are still in Iraq and Afghanistan and there is no sign that they’ll be coming home any time soon. The war in Iraq was already winding down when Bush left office, so you can’t credit Obama with the troop withdrawal there. At best you can say that had McCain been president, the surge in Afghanistan might have been a little bigger. In any case, regarding military policy there is nothing this president has done that can legitimately be considered ‘Change’.

Obama is not the first president to run on a platform of Change. It’s actually one of the most frequently used political platforms of all time, as the desire for change is always present when the system is so imperfect. It just happened to catch fire in the 2008 elections because everything was so incredibly bad after eight years of Bush that it was inevitable that the candidate who could most credibly promise Change (and who wasn’t named Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinitch) would win. And Obama did more than just promise change—he personified it. A black president would, in itself, be a major change in terms of how we perceive ourselves and how the world perceives us.

To be sure, there has been a major change in the perception of the rest of the world towards us. I lived in Germany when Bush was re-elected, and I lived here again when Obama was elected, and the difference in how people reacted to me after each instance was substantial. In the same respect, the perception Americans have of their own country has also been altered dramatically, though mostly in the case of the tea-partiers who now see their country as some kind of nightmarish socialist dystopia.

But beyond that, nothing is changing. The powers-that-be who really controlled things under Bush are still very much in control under Obama, only now they have to make a few minor concessions here and there so Obama can continue to maintain the façade of a transformative leader. But those of us who are paying attention are not fooled. A president truly interested in change wouldn’t spend so much time talking about compromise and bipartisanship. He wouldn’t be saying that Wall Street and Main Street rise and fall together—he’d be going after Wall Street with fury, inviting their anger and hatred just as FDR did during the Great Depression.

Yes, we occasionally hear tough rhetoric, and when we do we think, “Is this the new Obama?” We wonder if maybe he learned his lesson and is now going to forget about this bipartisanship nonsense and fight for real change. But when he says that he’d rather have a strong bill than a bipartisan bill, it’s much more likely that this is calculated to placate progressives who have been calling bullshit on bipartisanship since the very beginning. Even the changes to his own rhetoric are purely for the sake of appearance.

When all is said and done, we have a president who is going to protect the establishment, and unfortunately there’s no alternative. Republicans also protect the establishment, only they get to do so more openly. Democrats have to walk a fine line between appearing to change things and not really changing anything at all. Obama is a master at this.

Of course I know the objection: “What do you expect? Be patient, he’s doing the best he can. Change has to come incrementally. He’s laying the groundwork for future changes that really will make a difference.” Well, I hope you’re right and I’m just being naïve. But all signs seem to indicate the contrary. I think we have a president more concerned with his own political image and his presidential legacy than actually doing the hard work America needs a president to do. If Obama’s method of governing is really “Change we can believe in” then Fox News’s method of reporting is really “Fair and balanced.”
His brand of Change is just that—a brand.

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