I’ve been writing about Obama’s Legacy Tour (sorry, his second term) from time to time without focusing on the legacy itself. So this post will lay down a marker — in brief, what’s on Obama’s economic legacy list, and what will he get if he succeeds? Consider this the Legacy View from 10,000 feet.
I think the whole of Barack Obama’s two-term economic agenda is topped by these four items:
- Health care “reform” — a privatized alternative to Medicare expansion
- A “grand bargain” in which social insurance benefits are rolled back
- Plentiful oil & gas and passage of the Keystone Sludgepipe (KXL pipeline)
- Passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement
And that’s the list. Privatized “Medicare expansion” (the ACA). Benefits cuts for SS and Medicare. Keystone. TPP. If Obama gets these four, he’s a happy man, and in his mind he goes out in glory.
Notice, by the way, that these are his economic wants. His social agenda — gay rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights and the rest — well, I’ll leave it to you to decide how hard he’s fought for these things, and why he’s fought for them (or not). This piece is only concerned with his economic wants. Why? The reason is here.
Why do I think he wants these things strongly? Occam’s switchblade: Because he acts like it. If you disagree, let’s wait till the Obama show is over, then show me the economic policy he’s fought for harder. (And no, I’m not counting the tepid stimulus tied to the bankers’ Never Go To Jail card. That was on his list (and he won), but it doesn’t top the items above. I think you could argue that this was his forced response to the end of the Bush II crisis, something he had to do before moving onto his own must-have agenda.)
What’s his purpose in pushing for these items?
I’ve examined each of these items separately before, and will again. (For newbies, the TPP discussions are here and here.) But I want to short-form the discussion. What does Obama get out of each of these high-priority items? Taking them one by one, a summary:
■ Privatized “Medicare expansion” (Obamacare or ACA) is a neoliberal solution to a public health care problem. It gives money to billionaires (in this case, insurance and Pharma CEOs) as a privatized way to solve a public need, and it blocks actual Medicare from being expanded to younger people. Win-win for the neolibs. Young people now will never get access to Medicare.
■ The “Grand Bargain” is a pretend way to solve a pretend problem (the deficit) with a disguised real goal — start the rollback of social insurance programs. (See here at 1:30 and elsewhere in the clip; note, that’s 2006.) Rolling back social insurance is a neoliberal wet dream. Clinton was on that path until a certain blue dress got in the way. The next Clinton will be on that path as well. Obama’s been after benefit cuts since his inauguration.
■ Oil and gas production under Obama is off the charts, at a mid-term high. This is obviously a big-time Obama goal, and getting Keystone approved is a clear must-have. Keystone has been fast-tracked since the beginning, and after a speed-bump in which the environmental movement reared its powerful head and asked for the wrong thing, it’s fast-tracked today. The latest government Keystone study was authored by the pipeline’s owner, TransCanada.
Keystone is coming. Make no mistake. Obama wants it bad. It will make him Climate Criminal Number One, but not in his mind.
■ TPP is the latest trade agreement in a gaggle of trade agreements that enshrine capital as the only entity with global travel rights. TPP too is coming, and every billionaire on the planet will pay both the House and the Senate major money to please-please-please make it so. Obama will eagerly sign if they pass TPP through Congress. (For an added why, see below.)
So that’s the big four. Remember that list —
Privatized Medicare expansion (done)
Benefit cuts (in process)
TPP trade agreement (coming)
Did you notice? Every item on that list promotes billionaire wealth. By a lot. Obama got the first one, is working on the second, and he has more than three years to get the last two. Then he’s out of office and into Clinton land.
Post-presidential Obama looks like post-presidential Bill Clinton: World-wide acclaim. Sneaky neoliberal “do-gooder” foundation. Library (with obscure funding). And Bill Clinton money.
Since every item on his list promotes billionaire wealth, he’ll get Clinton money and then some (inflation, don’t you know, plus added value for extra effort). That means he’ll also get the Big-Money–funded foundation (“The Barack Obama More-for-Them Institute”), and of course, the donor-compromised library.
But what about reputation and acclaim? In my estimation at least, likely not. The man may have to live with disappointment after all. As I noted earlier, things are coming to a head, on many fronts. If they do, James Galbraith may be right (as quoted here):
For if and when he ventures out, for the rest of his life, the eyes of all those, whose hopes he once raised will follow him. The old, the poor, the jobless, the homeless: their eyes will follow him wherever he goes.
Because sometimes, there really is justice in the world. And also because, the minute people get that he really is Climate Criminal Number One (after all, he’ll be that Keystone dude till he dies), Obama will be Them, not Us, for as long as post-industrial civilization survives. Roughly the length of the rest of his daughters’ lives, I think, unless James Hansen is really really wrong.
[Updated to clarify phrasing.]
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