The Case for Obama or: are Democrats moving to the right?

Just in time for the DNC, the following is my response to a debate I’ve been having with my liberal friends for years now. This began as a response to an argument made on Facebook by my good friend Saied but I put some time and thought into it so if possible I’d like everyone to see it:

If it’s okay with you, instead of leaving it at “I think your facts are wrong”, I’d like to address point by point the case for Obama that you outlined (when possible using sources that can’t reasonably be dismissed as radical or “extreme”).

Let’s assume that radicals and liberals have roughly the same values and want more or less the same things. The basic disconnect about the question of the Democrats’ rightward movement seems to be this: you say I’m ungrateful after “not getting everything” we want, while I think the facts point towards “getting almost nothing”.

Just so our terms are clear: I’m not sure what moving us “forward” means as long as we’re talking about politics and not the space-time continuum, so the first relevant question for liberals and progressives is “is the Democratic Party moving to the right?” I’ll stick to this question. If it’s relevant for GOP voters to ask about their party, it should be relevant for us too.  Obviously individual Democrats (like Dennis Kucinich) have fundamental disagreements with the Administration, but for the most part Obama’s policies reflect the Democratic party line and there has been no meaningful opposition from within the party to indicate otherwise.

I think we can all agree that on so-called “social issues”, Democrats (along with the rest of the country) stand in contrast to Republicans and have moved leftwards since Clinton signed DOMA and DADT. A lot of gay rights activists (some of whom are protesting the DNC) still have beef with Obama, who still considers gay marriage a states’ rights issue, but I’m not going to get into that here.

Apropos of health care: until the Obama Administration, the individual mandate to buy private insurance was a Republican platform, and Obama’s personal support for single-payer (itself hardly socialized medicine) has gone from qualified to nonexistent. After considerable lobbying behind closed doors even the public option was taken out of the bill. A center-right position has become law, a down-the-line centrist position removed from the bill before it was even put to a vote, and a center-left position consigned (for the time being) to the garbage heap of history.

Regarding raising taxes on the rich: it’s not true in any meaningful sense. Obama has yet to propose, for example, an increase in the capital gains tax, which is where the rich make the biggest killing as far as the tax system is concerned. In terms of renewing the Bush tax cuts, it’s true that the Republican plan is much more obviously plutocratic, but here’s what Matt Yglesias, who covers economics for Slate, has to say about Obama’s plan: “Obama, viewed in isolation, not only has a plan to cut taxes it’s a plan that delivers more dollars worth of tax cuts to richer individuals than to the middle class or the working poor.” Not to mention that Obama’s latest budget proposes to lower the corporate tax rate from 35% to 28% (25% for manufacturing).

Now, about the wars. First of all, withdrawal from Iraq was negotiated in 2008 by the Bush Administration after the Iraqi government got a load of the Iraq war logs released by WikiLeaks.  White House Press Secretary Jay Carney recently disavowed Obama’s own previous claims that the US would withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. Even if this were not the case, the nature of Obama-style empire is much more insidious than the question of the wars Bush started: “Sixty thousand U.S. special operations forces now conduct assassinations, night-raids, training missions, joint operations and exercises in 120 countries around the world, twice as many as when Obama came to power, with deployments in about 70 countries at any given time.” Targeted killings have taken the lives of over 3100 people in Pakistan alone, at least hundreds of whom are civilians. In light of the revelation that the Administration defines “militants” as “all military-age males in a strike zone”, this number is likely several times lower than the real civilian death toll, which is climbing every day in accordance with the escalation of the drone wars in Yemen and Somalia. I committed myself at the outset to keeping this about the points made in Obama’s defense, but this is important to note since it represents an escalation, expansion, and normalization of the War on Terror liberals give Obama so much credit for “ending”.  If intervening militarily in other countries with little regard for the lives of civilians was right-wing during the Bush years, it’s right-wing now.

As for adopting parts of the DREAM Act: if this is supposed to be a defense of Obama’s immigration policy, it simply doesn’t hold water. On one hand, he’s opened the door for undocumented immigrants who join the military or are able to attend (and can afford) college to obtain citizenship. On the other hand, everyone else is still fucked. Obama has deported almost 1.5 million immigrants during his time in office, more than Bush did during his entire 8 years, many of them without due process and after months in terrible conditions in privatized facilities. The relationship of the increasing privatization of prisons to immigration (and drug) policy and its increasingly draconian enforcement is a constant between Administrations and therefore swept under the rug by supporters of both parties.

Finally, there’s education. Obama’s policy has simply not “set a tone” for better education. At best, it’s a continuation of Bush’s disastrous No Child Left Behind policy, repackaged under a new name. At worst, having a Democrat in office has enabled acceleration of the privatization and union-busting  that evoked such outrage from progressives and liberals when a Republican was doing it.

As a final note: I didn’t touch many of the other points of bipartisan consensus which reasonable people should recognize as right-wing and which Obama has contributed to normalizing: the War on Drugs, deregulation (embodied in the so-called “JOBS” bill), energy policy, even more anti-democratic free trade agreements than NAFTA, immunity for Wall Street and Bush-era war criminals, the list goes on. But these are the facts, and they mostly contradict claims that the Obama Presidency has been characterized by gradual progress. If you want to see a programme for gradual progress or a platform of center-left pragmatism, the Green Party’s got you covered. But as long as liberals and progressives vote out of fear and not reason, a vote for Jill Stein will “help Romney”. If, however, everyone who wants to see an Obama Administration without the right-wing policies voted against both conservative parties (to say nothing of Gary Johnson and the Libertarians, who are a topic for another day), we might just see this mythical “gradual progress” become a reality. And I think you and I would both like that.

Edit 9/9/12: Garrett points out that Obama’s deportation numbers after 3.5 years exceed those of Bush’s first 6.5 years, not the full 8 (you can download the DHS spreadsheet by copy-and-pasting this URL: Thanks to Garrett for the correction; make of this updated comparison what you will.


9 thoughts on “The Case for Obama or: are Democrats moving to the right?

  1. Twittered @ you on this. Wanted to fact check your point on immigration. Your source (Forbes) states that the number of people deported under Obama (1.5 mil) is greater than those deported in Bush’s first 6.5 years in office. If you take into account policy change, the Bush administration would have had to get those numbers rolling in the first years. I believe the total number of individuals deported during Bush’s full term ranks in at around 2 mil ( The Forbes article also states that Obama is working through a backlog of persons already tagged for deportation. The numbers still aren’t good, but not exactly as you’ve presented them either. Another consideration: the deportation numbers first saw marked increase in 1997, before Bush took office. I don’t know the context for this increase, but in as far as your argument’s about the party moving to the right, then that would perhaps be a relevant place to look rather than only at the present administration’s policies. As always, I appreciate your posts. Rarely have time to do more than skim, let alone comment, but hey…

    • I appreciate your taking the time! I stand corrected about deportations. And yes, Clinton confirms this trend by having had the most consistently conservative Democratic administration previous to Obama’s. Besides immigration, Clinton gutted welfare (not Reagan), he repealed Glass-Steagall (not Reagan), and he put more black men in prison than Reagan did, to name a few. There’s a lot to be said for Kennedy and especially Truman as well…and when it comes to foreign policy Democratic presidents (including Carter) have funded the same murderous regimes that Republicans have (Israel, Indonesia, Turkey etc.) I’ve already addressed or alluded to the Democrats’ history as a center-right party, especially in this bloated monstrosity (, but I mostly just wanted to keep this one short and about this election cycle.

  2. Surprised not to see what I figured was the standard answer to the question, but I guess you already covered it in conversation: without question “yes!” as Democrats today on a host of issues are to the right of Nixon, who ranks as criminal rightie number one in the liberal imaginaire–despite the fact that his crimes pale in comparison with those of Guantanamo (still open for business), Abu Ghraib and rampant CIA and NSA lawlessness during the Bush years (still unprosecuted) and all the killing of innocent civilians still being carried out by Obama, not to mention his own claim to fame, extrajudicial assassination of American citizens. How many times have the likes of Glenn Greenwald called out liberal hypocrisy in the past few years—the genuine and proper outrage over Bush lawlessness and now the mute silence before some of the very same offenses under Obama (the invocation of State secrecy to break laws with impunity and transparency, etc.)? As you note, liberal politics in the States is still preferable to the madness of the reality-free right, but as you say, it’s this kind of lesser of evils approach that has allowed the Democrats to veer so far right on so many issues. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful and informative post (I enjoyed the links). Maybe I’ll save myself some trouble with my liberal friends and just send them here in the future — let you do the heavy lifting for me! So thanks again!

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