New Criticals

What Can Obama, and We, Still Do?


October 1, 2013 the Federal government shut down and the main provisions of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, went into effect. This is a continuation of the stalemate created by the 2012 election. President Obama’s reelection ensured that his health reform, the most significant (indeed the only) piece of social legislation since the Great Society measures of the 1960s, would go into effect. At the same time, Republicans’ continued control over the House of Representatives means that Obama has no possibility of enacting significant legislation of any sort.

Indeed we can project ahead. Republicans’ success in winning control of many state legislatures in 2010 meant that they controlled the decennial redistricting process, creating enough gerrymandered seats to ensure Republican control over the House for the rest of this decade, barring an electoral cataclysm. However, Republican extremism also makes it unlikely that their presidential candidate will have a realistic chance to win in 2016, meaning that split government will continue.

Does this mean that we will endure an endless array of government shutdowns, debt ceiling blackmail, and policy paralysis combined with new rounds of budget cuts mandated by the sequester that Obama and the Republicans agreed to earlier this year and which are slated to deepen each year through 2021? The answer, unfortunately, is yes with three big qualifications.

First, Obamacare will go forward. It has a revenue stream from dedicated taxes, much like Social Security, and so is largely immune to annual budget cuts under the sequester or to Republican efforts to cut it. Indeed, the only way Republicans could derail Obamacare is with their current tactics of threatening budgetary and economic chaos unless Obama agrees to end that program. As Obamacare is institutionalized, Americans will come to appreciate access to affordable health insurance and the guarantee that insurance companies can revoke coverage or that unemployment will leave them uninsured. This will shift the balance of public opinion in this country away from the Reaganite rejection of social programs and build a constituency for public control over and greater subsidies for health care. In the past, each new social program has created interest in and confidence about governmental provisions for other social needs. We already see the stirring of demand for Federally provided and subsidized child care, an issue that has been dormant since President Nixon vetoed a universal child care bill that passed Congress in 1971.

Second, President Obama, like any US president, can wield the vast regulatory authority his office has accumulated over decades. Obama’s health care legislation significantly expanded the already substantial Federal regulation over that sector. Through the EPA, Obama has the power to regulate greenhouse gases and thus by fiat impose a conversion to green energy. He can limit or even ban drilling and mining on Federal lands. Obama could expand on the very modest limits recently imposed on for-profit colleges and trade schools in his first term, making more funds available for students to attend public and non-profit universities. The list goes on. In theory, President Obama could double-cross the corporations that backed his health care plan and use his authority under the affordable Care Act to cut into their profits.

Presidents have great autonomy in foreign affairs. Obama could negotiate an agreement with Iran, as it appears he now is trying to do. He could diminish the vast American military presence and aggressive deployments throughout the world. He could shift America’s stance in trade negotiations away from the approach, followed under both Republican and Democratic administrations, of protecting the interests of U.S. financial, pharmaceutical and entertainment firms and instead favor environmental and labor protections in future treaties and in the enforcement of existing trade agreements.

Will Obama take the path of heightened regulation and diminished militarism in his second term? We are unlikely to find an answer by trying to probe his psyche or look for clues in his speeches. It is a mistake to attribute Obama’s shortcomings, as so may journalists do, to his supposed lack of assertiveness, a deep psychological need to find compromise, or too much faith in the judgment of highly credentialed advisors. In fact, even a more aggressive and assertive president could not have accomplished significantly more than he did in his first term. Any liberal Democratic president would operate in a country in which labor unions are weak, other progressive organizations are even less capable at mobilizing voters, and most campaign contributions come from the very wealthy and from corporations that carefully track Congressional votes on the legislation that directly affects their interests. In such an environment, reforms can only be bought with Federal funds that guarantee special interests are held virtually harmless, as was the case with Obamacare. The money for such deals is disappearing as the long recession and tax cut mania, now joined by the sequester, sap Federal revenues.

We need to examine the political pressures that weigh on even a president who will never face the voters again. A reelected Obama remains dependent on a Congress made up of members who still stand in future elections and who as a result are in a continual hunt for campaign funds. The Democratic presidential candidate of 2016 will need contributions and will pressure the Obama Administration not to alienate potential corporate supporters.

And yet… And here we come to the third and biggest reason for optimism. Popular protests could exert countervailing pressures. The Occupy movement raised the issue of corporate power. Future protesters will be effective to the extent they understand that the terrain of conflict in the next four years will be over the promulgation of rules to regulate banks, health care companies, and above all to limit CO2 emissions. For social movements to have impact, they will need to match lobbyists in tracking regulatory decisions and deadlines and bring protesters into the streets at key moments. The protests in front of the White House in late 2011 against the Keystone Pipeline are a model. The skids had been greased for final approval of the pipeline. The protests ensured the postponement of the decision and the pipeline at least until 2013. Obama will take a progressive path in his second term only if protesters can repeat that feat again and again. Those same protests can force members of Congress, and even Republicans, to stand aside as Obama uses his executive power or to pass legislation that responds to rising demands.

The stalemate in U.S. politics will not be broken in the 2014 and 2016 elections. It can end if there is sustained, significant, and, above all, strategically smart popular mobilization. We can wait and watch, or we can work to bring a new politics into existence.