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Hullabaloo


Friday, October 01, 2010

 
All Things To All People

by digby


If you haven't read Ken Silverstein's heartfelt "exit" post as Harper's Washington editor, do it. He's got a point of view with which it's very hard to quarrel. And I suspect that if I lived in DC, I'd be in the same position. If you have his kind of temperament I think it might be easier to write about politics from afar. There's less social tension if nothing else and it may be a little bit easier to deal with your indignation at the various injustices you see in that world if you aren't simultaneously observing the courtiers eating their cake every day.

But I didn't write this post to highlight yet another disappointed member of the professional left. To be honest, the last thing I care much about right now is navel gazing of that sort and I'm already getting depressed at the prospect of all the finger pointing or credit grabbing in the election post-mortems.

The reason for this post is to draw your attention to a prescient piece of writing from Silverstein which I had completely forgotten I'd read at the time and which may have formed some of my early impressions of Obama. It's called Barack Obama, Inc, the birth of a Washington machine and it's from 2006. It's fascinating to read it again four years later, knowing what we know now.

Since coming to Washington, Obama has advocated for the poor, most notably in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and has emerged as a champion of clean government. He has fought for restrictions on lobbying, even as most of his fellow Democrats postured on the issue while quietly seeking to gut real reform initiatives. In mid-September, Congress approved a bill he co-authored with Oklahoma’s arch-conservative senator, Tom Coburn, requiring all federal contracts and earmarks to be published in an Internet database, a step that will better allow citizens to track the way the government spends their money.

Yet it is also startling to see how quickly Obama’s senatorship has been woven into the web of institutionalized influence-trading that afflicts official Washington. He quickly established a political machine funded and run by a standard Beltway group of lobbyists, P.R. consultants, and hangers-on. For the staff post of policy director he hired Karen Kornbluh, a senior aide to Robert Rubin when the latter, as head of the Treasury Department under Bill Clinton, was a chief advocate for NAFTA and other free-trade policies that decimated the nation’s manufacturing sector (and the organized labor wing of the Democratic Party). Obama’s top contributors are corporate law and lobbying firms (Kirkland & Ellis and Skadden, Arps, where four attorneys are fund-raisers for Obama as well as donors), Wall Street financial houses (Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase), and big Chicago interests (Henry Crown and Company, an investment firm that has stakes in industries ranging from telecommunications to defense). Obama immediately established a “leadership PAC,” a vehicle through which a member of Congress can contribute to other politicians’ campaigns—and one that political reform groups generally view as a slush fund through which congressional leaders can evade campaign-finance rules while raising their own political profiles.

Already considered a potential vice-presidential nominee in 2008, Obama clearly has abundant political ambitions. Hence he is playing not only to voters in Illinois—a reliably Democratic and generally liberal state—but to the broader national audience, as well as to the Democratic Party establishment, the Washington media, and large political donors. Perhaps for this reason, Obama has taken an approach to his policymaking that is notably cautious and nonconfrontational. “Since the founding, the American political tradition has been reformist, not revolutionary,” he told me during an interview at his office on Capitol Hill this summer. “What that means is that for a political leader to get things done, he or she ideally should be ahead of the curve, but not too far ahead. I want to push the envelope but make sure I have enough folks with me that I’m not rendered politically impotent.”

The question, though, is just how effective—let alone reformist—Obama’s approach can be in a Washington grown hostile to reform and those who advocate it. After a quarter century when the Democratic Party to which he belongs has moved steadily to the right, and the political system in general has become thoroughly dominated by the corporate perspective, the first requirement of electoral success is now the ability to raise staggering sums of money. For Barack Obama, this means that mounting a successful career, especially one that may include a run for the presidency, cannot even be attempted without the kind of compromising and horse trading that may, in fact, render him impotent.



There was an alternate vision available, (see Ari Berman's article "Herding Donkey's" in The Nation, but I for one never believed it was going to become a useful governing tool because it was way too dependent on a personal attachment to Obama, and according to article, the administration never particularly wanted it to be. So, Silverstein's piece really captured the essential contradictions in the "idea" of Obama and how he actually practices politics long before he was even considered a potential 2008 candidate.

What this really indicates is that Obama had all these predilections before Rahm ever came on the scene, which makes his departure even more interesting. The question now is whether or not Obama can learn from experience.



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