Obama - Power Challenger or Power Appeaser?

Over the weekend, Barack Obama (D), the [INSERT SUPERLATIVE] Senator from Illinois, delivered his first major presidential campaign speech in New Hampshire. The remarks, which you can see here on C-SPAN's webpage, were covered typically by the national media - more horse race and style rather than actually letting the public know what he actually said on substance. A look at that angle tells us a good deal about Obama's outlook and what he would actually do - or not do - as president.

Most of Obama's speech is a rambling ode to happy-sounding concepts like "democracy" and "unity" and "bipartisanship." It was only toward the end that the audience got a taste of substance on the defining economic issue of the next 50 years: globalization. Here's how Obama started off on that subject (at around 43 minutes into the video of his speech):

"People notice what's going on overseas and they say we are not afraid to compete. But as globalization advances and corporations bottom lines know no borders and our young people are competing against children not just in California or Florida or Illinois they are competing against folks in Calcutta or Beijing."

Sounds good so far - sounds like we're going to get some honest straight talk about how the rules of trade are rigged to protect patents, copyrights and intellectual property, but not to protect human rights, union rights, wage levels or the environment, and that such a tilted playing field unfairly forces Americans to compete with slave labor. But that's not what we get from Obama. He immediately goes on to say the following, and then moves on to another subject:

"At that point parents start saying why aren't we doing everything we can to prepare our young people making them adept at math and science so that they can get the jobs of the future and be the innovators of the future? Why wouldn't we invest in early childhood education to bring every child up to par? Why wouldn't we start paying our teachers more and help develop training for them to recruit the best and the brightest for the classroom? Why on earth would we start increasing the cost of student loans at the precise time we know that our young people are going to be needing a college education more than ever?"

Yes, it is the Great Education Myth - the idea that if we only just made everyone in America smarter, we would solve outsourcing, wage depression and health care/pension benefit cuts that are the result of forcing Americans to compete in an international race to the bottom. As I wrote recently in the San Francisco Chronicle, this is one of the most dishonest myths out there, as the government's own data shows that, in fact, all of the major economic indicators are plummeting for college grads. You can make everyone in America a PhD, and all you would have is more unemployed PhD's - it would do almost nothing to address the fact that the very structure of our economy - our tax system, our trade system and our corporate welfare system - is designed to help Big Money interests ship jobs offshore and lower wages/benefits here at home.

That gets us to exactly why the Great Education Myth is so often repeated by politicians: because it is the one myth that simultaneously looks like an economic panacea to the public and avoids offending the Big Money interests that bankroll political campaigns. Talk of reforming our trade policy to equalize capital protections (copyrights/patents) and human protections (labor/wage/enviro) threatens Corporate America's efforts to use foreign economic desperation to increase the bottom line. Talk of ending massive taxpayer subsidization of job outsourcing threatens the profit margins of the major political donors like General Electric that are benefiting from such gifts. Talk of cutting corporate welfare threatens the corporate welfare queens that write big checks to politicians. Talk of sending more taxpayer dollars to schools even if that prescription will do very little to address the country's structural economic challenges - well, that threatens nobody.

This isn't to say that we should underfund America's schools, or that our education system isn't a priority. Of course it is. But it is downright destructive to peddle the idea that paying teachers more or better funding the No Child Left Behind Act will be the major key to solving the problems inherent in a globalization policy that incentivizes slave labor, sweatshops, union busting and environmental degradation. All this Tom Friedman-inspired Great Education Myth does is raise public expectations to unrealistic levels while and creating a justification for continuing to sell off our country's core economic policy to K Street lobbyists.

Obama, of course, has a mixed record on structural economic policy. He made a solid move by voting against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) on the grounds that it did not include strong enough worker protections. But he wrote a Chicago Tribune op-ed making sure the right people knew "I wish I could vote in favor of CAFTA" and then, in classic fashion, created a strawman argument that an unnamed group of people who voted against CAFTA want to "stop globalization." Obama was also one of a handful of Democratic senators to vote for the Oman Free Trade Agreement - like CAFTA, an agreement with no labor, human rights or environmental protections. Then again, to his credit, he is now talking about pushing universal health care - not an easy issue to talk about with such powerful interests backing the status quo. But Obama has been careful not to actually offer any shred of detail on what exactly he means, and has criticized proposals for a single-payer system, much like the one that congressmen and senators are included in.

Many of Obama's followers get very quickly offended when anyone asks questions about their guy, and they sometimes even accuse people who ask such questions of working for another candidate (I am not working for another candidate). It is as if the entire world should stand aside silently as a lawmaker with all of two years experience on the national stage is coronated as the Democratic nominee for President.

But we, the public, have a right to know who this person is, how he sees the world, and what his attitudes are in dealing with the entrenched interests that are at the root of so many of our country's challenges. We have a right to know the answers to these questions both because elections are about more than celebrity worship and because the answers to these questions will tell us whether a candidate knows what it takes to win the general election. We may recall, the last successful Democratic presidential challenger candidate, Bill Clinton in 1992, won not by appeasing power or preaching nebulous "bipartisanship" - but by voicing populist themes promising to go up against powerful interests that had corrupted Washington.

As I wrote in my profile of Obama in The Nation, when it comes to these structural issues, he is a man who seems caught between his background as a community organizer in touch with real people, and his current existence surrounded by Washington insiders and consultants who, by profession, push politicians to avoid challenging power. Peddling the Great Education Myth is the ultimate way to avoid challenging power. If this is just a fleeting tactic and Obama goes on to get serious about the real heart of our economic challenges, then he may be the great presidential candidate Democrats need. But if this aversion to confronting power previews the rest of his campaign, there will indeed be a major opening for a real populist candidate to win the nomination and the presidency.