Obama talks to adviser Michael Froman, who was just nominated as US Trade Representative, at the 2010 G8 summit. Photo via the White House Flickr account
Last week, in an utterly unsurprising story, the president of the United States appointed a crew of rich friends with Wall Street ties to key government posts, some of them major fundraisers and donors to his campaigns. They hardly made major headline news—the payback game is an old, old DC tradition—but these nominations underscore again just how empty all of Barack Obama’s lofty promises to change the political culture were.
Obama’s populist shtick was more pronounced in the 2012 election than it was back in his first presidential campaign (even if he left the most gut-wrenching indictments of Mitt Romney’s business record to his nominally independent Super PAC, Priorities USA), so the speed with which he has reverted in the early months of the second term to shamelessly currying favor with entrenched financial interests is jarring. After opportunistically latching on to the rhetoric of anticapitalist movements worldwide, Obama’s 99 percent-loving campaign has given way to an administration that revolves around an all-too-familiar brand of capitalism—and capital-obsessed neoliberalism. Once upon a time, Obama was apparently devoted to reining in the influence of money in politics, but after a couple of elections and some time inside the machine, he doesn’t seem to care about it at all. Instead of fighting against casual corruption, he’s been complicit in it.
Last Wednesday, this took the form of the president choosing millionaire venture capitalist Tom Wheeler to helm the Federal Communications Commission. Wheeler hauled in hundreds of thousands of dollars for each of Obama’s presidential campaigns, even going so far as to move his family to Iowa ahead of the 2008 caucuses, after which he told one reporter that the six weeks he spent there “are going to rank right up there as the best six weeks of my life.” They certainly appear to be paying off nicely.
Wheeler’s résumé also includes a long, successful stint as an investor and lobbyist for the industry he’s been tasked with regulating. Is there any chance he’ll crack down on his former peers? “I know a lot of people who are going to do fabulously well as lobbyists because Tom Wheeler is gonna be chairman of the FCC,” one veteran Democratic Senate aide told me.
On Thursday, the pro-business dog and pony show continued when Obama named Penny Pritzker, the Chicago businesswoman and heiress to the Hyatt hotel fortune, as his next Secretary of Commerce. Pritzker has been behind Obama from way back—she helped corral Wall Street donors to join what was still a rather quixotic campaign in 2007. And though she’s generally described in the press as a Democrat, she and her husband have spread the wealth around to some Republican campaigns as well, like both of the George W. Bush presidential tickets. After all, money knows no political party.
Whether she will be confirmed to the relatively trivial economic position is unclear, but scrutiny over her family’s shady dealings and hatred of unions led to Pritzker withdrawing her name from consideration for the position in 2008. So what, exactly, has changed since then to make her acceptable? The answer is pretty straightforward: Obama’s name will never be on the ballot again, and he’s not worried about placating his left-wing allies anymore. That would also explain his reported plans to push ahead with cuts to Social Security that are vehemently opposed by his liberal base. (Though he’s totally taking back the House in 2014, right guys? That’s when the real, liberal Obama will finally come out!)
In the same press conference where he announced Pritzker’s nomination, Obama said he was appointing former Citigroup executive (and his former law-school classmate) Michael Froman as US Trade Representative. Even if Matt Taibbi’s notorious 2009 Rolling Stone story—suggesting Froman made many of the administration’s key economic hires—may have overstated his role, I’m told potential appointees were, in fact, crossing that banker’s desk. And we know the outcome: an economic policy team that used kid gloves in its dealings with big banks and other financial institutions. Meanwhile, Mary Jo White, the recently confirmed chairwoman of the SEC who promised to leave behind her days as a Wall Street apologist in the new gig, is off to an unsettling start when it comes to regulating complex financial instruments like derivatives.
Obama retains the support of most progressive interest groups, which are working furiously to help him advance immigration reform (generally favored by big business and also supported by some Republicans) and gun control. But his chief claim to liberal greatness since passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 is probably the policy “evolution” that led him to support marriage equality—and that position is also supported by most major corporations. After all, the Defense of Marriage Act causes a lot of bureaucratic problems as well as moral ones, and Wall Street donors have been instrumental in pushing gay marriage into the political mainstream. So Obama’s personal progress on that issue has been consistent with changing corporate mores as much as any concept of justice.
“In 2008 you could sort of hope [Obama] was not going to be phenomenally corrupt,” said another Democratic congressional aide. But, “He believes corporations should run the world. Obama was hired to destroy liberalism and he succeeded.”
The big argument taking place among Beltway reporters and bloggers in recent weeks has been over how much power Obama has when it comes to the gridlock besetting the government. But the genuinely challenging politics of advancing big-ticket items like immigration in the face of unprecedented partisan polarization should not obscure more troubling—and personal, rather than institutional—facts. The growth of income inequality has worsened under Obama, no one has been put in jail for destroying the economy, and cash is sloshing around elections more than ever before. While the mildly redistributive impact of health-care overhaul remains admirable, getting rid of the one part of the sequester that only affects rich businessmen by restoring funding for air-traffic controllers is not.
So while it is true that our political system is dominated by a bunch of conservative old white men from sparsely populated states and a Senate that probably shouldn’t even exist, Obama isn’t necessarily part of the solution. So far in his second term, he’s beginning to validate the left-wing caricature of himself as a technocrat tool of financial elites intent on earning a shitload of money after he leaves office.
Matt Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer whose reporting about politics has appeared in Slate, Salon, the Daily Beast, the Atlantic, the New Republic, and New York mag. You can follow him on Twitter: @matthewt_ny
More on America's 44th President: