Monday, June 16, 2008

With Friends Like These...

People have called Barack Obama a lot of strange things in the last six months: closet Muslim, not-so closet racist, "terrorist fist-bumper". But now Naomi Klein is calling him a market fundamentalist. Klein, the award-winning journalist and author most recently of The Shock Doctrine, has the strong aversion to the term "markets" common on the far left. So when Barack Obama declared last week on CNBC, "Look. I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market..." it was bound to ruffle some anti-capitalist feathers.

So how free market is Obama? Klein notes that his new head of economic policy, Jason Furman, has said positive things about Walmart, and that his chief advisor, Austan Goolsbee, teaches at the University of Chicago, the high temple of free-market economics. However she conveniently glosses over the important additions of left-leaning economists Jared Berstein and James Galbraith to the Obama team. And she completely fails to mention Obama's voting record on economic issues, most notably that Obama: voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement; advocated raising the minimum wage; attacked Hillary Clinton for supporting NAFTA; voted for, and attacked Bush and McCain for opposing, the recent farm bill, which would increase subsidies by $20bn, make the government buy sugar at twice the world price, and give subsidies to farmers with incomes of up to $1.5 million per year; proposed raising the capital gains tax; advocates fair, not free trade with developing nations (information from

As far as policy goes, Obama is not exactly right-wing. But he isn't a socialist either, and he is not going to usher in a progressive revolution. What Obama is dealing with here is similar to John McCain's problem with the far right, (most notably Rush Limbaugh) who views his support for tax cuts as soft and feel betrayed by his occasional forays into bi-partisanship.

Is there a logic to eating one's own? A cynic might accuse Klein and Limbaugh of riling up their fan-base in order to sell more books and generate more listenership. But there may be something more strategic going on here. People on the far ends of the political spectrum tend to see change only in terms of revolution, not evolution. As a result, compromise is not a realistic option. A center-left Obama administration may push through some progressive goals, but would be inclined to compromise in order to get there. Thus some change will happen, but it will likely end there. Rather, real zealots will wait till the public is really clamoring for change so that a fringe candidate can sweep their agenda through.

Will it work? Probably not. Obama is likely to be the most progressive candidate we'll see for a while. Cutting into his support among progressives will only lead to real "free market" policies.

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