Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Obama Sleeping Pill v/s the Bush Kool-Aid

As we head into the election stretch, the narrative on offer from Obama’s party is congealing and persuading some skeptical voters, perhaps enough to stave off total disaster. I, mercifully, am spared the sludge being generated on the airwaves in industrial quantities by not having a television, but the general content of this rather limp message seems to be comprised of the following:

1. We (Obama & Co.) have done a very decent job, and our main failing is working too hard and not communicating our achievements. We were distracted (so busy!) and inexperienced as political salespeople.
2. You people (our voting base) are so demanding, you’re never satisfied. Why, when we pass a historic health care reform, you bitch because it isn’t perfect.
3. A scary monster is inside that closet. If you don’t stick with us, it will come out and get hold of you. Don’t forget, we are the party of the people [unions, gays, women, minorities, the poor], not those venal, corrupt, corporate-serving other guys.

There are several problems with this campaign starting with the historical issue of our two-party duopoly, which leaves no way to register the kinds of dissent many, if not most of Obama’s original supporters feel. But aside from that structural obstacle, the Obama team IMHO is sowing the seeds of a longer-term debacle in two ways.

Its failure to put forth and hammer away at a compellingly combative counter-narrative to the Tea Party/Republican hysteria may put at risk even the modest achievements of the last two years. The health insurance rewrite is already under massive attack by right-wingers and some states who are determined to dismantle it piece by piece. Their success in restricting abortion access over the decades since it was declared a right by the Supreme Court should convince us that this is not an idle threat.

It wasn’t enough to simply pass a piece of legislation; we also needed to understand why it was the right thing to do so that it can be defended coherently. Obama’s team gets a big red ‘F’ on that especially considering the barn-sized targets that exist in the health insurance arena if anyone had cared to take aim at them.

One particular sign of weakness is the spectacle of Democratic candidates apologizing for supporting the thing in the first place.

Secondly, the campaign narrative is, in many very key aspects, a baldfaced lie. For example, Obama has not ridden to the defense of average homeowners but instead chucked them under the bus for the convenience of the megabanks. This sorry example is extremely telling because it shows how our white knight is invidiously strengthening and consolidating the corporate dominance over our lives that Bush advanced more openly.

A number of bloggers attended a private meeting at the Treasury Department a while back and have reported on the highly revealing conversation that took place with officials there. Here is an excerpt from an account by one of them:

On HAMP, officials were surprisingly candid. The program has gotten a lot of bad press in terms of its Kafka-esque qualification process and its limited success in generating mortgage modifications under which families become able and willing to pay their debt. Officials pointed out that what may have been an agonizing process for individuals was a useful palliative for the system as a whole. Even if most HAMP applicants ultimately default, the program prevented an outbreak of foreclosures exactly when the system could have handled it least.

This begins to sound like the Treasury officials—those guys appointed by Obama to defend the little people—used struggling homeowners as cannon fodder to stave off defeat, very much like the boss sends troops in the ‘volunteer’ army off to extend-and-pretend in Afghanistan. But it gets worse:

The program was successful in the sense that it kept the patient alive until it had begun to heal. And the patient of this metaphor was not a struggling homeowner, but the financial system, a.k.a. the banks. Policymakers openly judged HAMP to be a qualified success because it helped banks muddle through what might have been a fatal shock.

Now the indifference to Foreclosuregate from the Administration begins to make real sense. HAMP was not designed to actually help people work out easier terms and avoid getting thrown out onto the street. It was a bank-friendly program to give dangerously illiquid institutions, not citizens, a little breathing room. So abuses by servicers gouging out a few more months of payments and fees from families that are collapsing into destitution is a small price (for someone else) to pay. Or as the blogger puts it:

I’m sure they [Treasury] would have preferred if the program had worked out better for homeowners as well. But they have larger concerns, and from their perspective, HAMP has helped to address those.

So there we have it: Obama as the friendly face of a mortgage banking system determined to claw its way back from the precipice to which it had pushed itself and the rest of us, not to restore homeownership but to save its own sorry ass and grotesque privileges. Obama as Mr Nice, the biracial hope of the downtrodden, whose enforcers are blithely collaborating with the looting of middle-class families.

There may be other areas where the Obama government is playing a more humane role, and it would be nice to hear about them. But again and again, one is struck by how much seamless continuity has been stitched between the bad old Bush years and our disappointing present. So while it will be painful to see people turn in this electoral cycle to the cynical snakes on the other team, one cannot fail to sympathize with those who are sitting this one out on principle.

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