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Who's Spoiling Now? The Obama Factor in Undermining Sanders' Superior Electability (Series, PART 2)

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Part 2. The Obama Factor

1. The Referendum Theory

A traditional theory is that open presidential elections are referenda on the departing incumbent. If the President is comparatively unpopular, like Obama has been, then voters are motivated to correct for his perceived deficiencies in their selection of a successor. Bush was dumb; Obama is smart. Obama is ineffectual ...

This tendency to vote against an unpopular president on his way out the door is the political counterpart of the axiom that the military always fights the last war. Even Obama's Nobel prize for nothing seemed to be better justified as the world's ignoble prize of good riddance to Bush. Obama won in a global sigh of relief for at least pretending to be not-Bush.

In Clinton's case this referendum effect might be compounded by a dash of buyer's remorse. As Obama's progressive promise went almost fully unredeemed in action, some might wonder if things might have gone differently had the Clinton option been exercised in 2008. Does she have qualities Obama lacks that would have made a difference? Whether it is about war preparations or choosing a president, sound analysis of what actually did go wrong before is a first step toward perfecting strategy for a different outcome,

Under this referendum theory, the emphasis of Clinton supporters on her mostly fictional experience and leadership skills (see Part 1, Sec. 4) suggests a closely converse match with a very popular but flawed understanding of Obama. Those same voters who are proven to have grossly misjudged Sanders' electability seem to also wrongly attribute Obama's "poor" performance to weak leadership and inexperience. The general public ranks Obama lowest in ability to get things done" (45%) and leadership (49%) and highest in "standing up for his beliefs" (69%). The attributes that get the lowest ratings seem to have stuck most in the public mind, since these ratings approximately match Obama's overall low favorability rankings which hover in the mid to high 40's decile.

That Clinton's supporters hopefully expect that she would pretty much reverse Obama's numbers in this regard, less high-mindedness -- more pragmatic action, is probably not solely attributable to the referendum theory. Some of the 70% and 81% who most value such attributes as experience in getting things done and leadership qualities, and the 91% and 96% who think Clinton has those qualities, might be foreign policy hawks. They would appreciate Clinton's distinctly neocon aggressive warmongering proclivities, compared to Sanders. See Diana Johnstone, Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton (2015).

For some, such attitudes can be interpreted as strong leadership, and war is certainly a dramatic display of doing stuff. A deeper view is that over-reliance on force shows weakness, not strength. Lao Tzu's "supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." But try telling that to consumers of the most effective warmongering propaganda system in the history of the world, ever since Wilson's propaganda machine first whipped up war hysteria. For example, Nixon thought that bombing North Vietnam achieved "zilch" (his word), but that it won him the 1972 election. Bob Woodward, The Last of the President's Men (2015) 114-24. Such mass bloodlust persists today in those 30% of Strangelovian Republicans who revealed in a 2015 poll they would support bombing the fictional Agrabah - a placename designed by Disney to sound Islamic.

Clinton's bellicose posture has been created to help her more in the general election where she has to deal with higher concentrations of such consumers, though it can't hurt her with the well-endowed MIC war-profiteer faction of plutocrats. However Democrats and Independent leaners toward them report 3 to 1 more interest in the economy and other domestic affairs than in the set of foreign policy/terrorism/immigration issues used to stir up insecurity fears more on the Republican side. So any adjustment of the referendum theory - that Clinton wins approval as a perceived antidote for the affliction causing Obama's perceived weaknesses - in order to account for this probable separate neocon factor would necessarily be modest. Clinton probably does gain to some extent from being not-Obama, such as he is generally perceived to be.

The leading progressive public intellectual of our times, who is both a recovered Obama supporter and a current Sanders endorser and campaigner, Professor Cornel West, disagrees with the conventional understanding of Obama's "weakness." Instead West describes Obama as a "counterfeit" who "posed as if he was a kind of Lincoln." It need not be mentioned that the pose was so effective as to be enormously successful, both with West and numerous others of his caliber. Far from being weak and inexperienced, Obama turned out to be like the consummate political operator, Bill Clinton. "Another neoliberal opportunist," or as West identifies Obama's connections more pointedly a "mascot of the Wall Street oligarchs" and a "puppet of corporate plutocrats" whose greatest rewards from those sources, as Bill Clinton's did, likely lie ahead.

Pursuing to its conclusion this theory of Obama's continued electoral relevance in 2016, it is possible that the Democratic nomination could be determined, at least in part, by whether or not the informed historical judgment of Professor West, and many other similarly close observers, will prevail about Obama during the primary season. Or alternatively whether the Obama of the Democratic apologists who is supposedly "sincerely well-intentioned but hapless" or worse, the "realist" President we all somehow misunderstood in 2008 in some inexplicable mass hysteria, will remain the dominant meme.

If primary voters had a different view of Obama, they might well also have a different view of the relative importance of their current set of preferred presidential attributes that they have strangely found to reside in Clinton. That Clinton does not in fact excel on those particular attributes is discussed in Part 1, Sec.4. The point addressed here is how the, albeit unfounded, fears of the presumed weaker leadership, or lesser experience in "how to get things done," of Sanders could give way to greater appreciation of his clear and unquestioned advantage on measures of honesty, values, and authenticity.

What would be the effect of changing Democrats' understanding that Obama does not stand up for his beliefs, but normally "stands up" to conjure a PR smokescreen to hide his lack of sufficient fidelity to those professed beliefs to back them up with action? What if it were more broadly understood that Obama disguises and dissimulates what he does act on most effectively, because it is routinely the opposite of the progressive values he advocates when he stands up? Since his effectiveness and leadership for plutocracy takes place behind a curtain, the people do not see it. The ineptness they do see is a deliberate lie designed to excuse his failure to advance the progressive agenda he lip serves. This is the actual Obama problem for which the all but universally perceived Sanders integrity, not Clinton's lack of it, is the clear antidote.

For example, with respect to Sanders' principal campaign issue, there is no conceivable reason to believe that Clinton would fulfill any campaign promises that might be effective in reforming the corrupt plutocracy that has sustained her family any more than Obama did. Obama violated his campaign promises on this issue in order to instead, in 2014, cleverly lead Democrats to vastly multiply the scope for political corruption to new historic levels in Washington. Democrats do not know that because there was no protest, or even recognition of what had happened, by the allied professional activists who Democratic voters widely depend upon for political information. At the same time Obama refused to make simple, modest, piecemeal executive branch reforms of "dark money," an issue which has received some considerable attention, as discussed in the next section below. Instead he got Congress to take his power away to make those reforms in order to relieve the pressure on him to keep some minor semblance of his promise to change the way Washington does business.

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Rob Hager is a public-interest litigator who filed a Supreme Court amicus brief n the 2012 Montana sequel to the Citizens United case, American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock, and has worked as an international consultant on legal (more...)
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