Wednesday, January 20, 2010

So Far, Obama Hasn't Delivered the Goods

(In an edited version, this post appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday.)

One year into Barack Obama’s term of office, two remarkable things stand out: how little he has achieved on the core issues on his agenda; and how potent the right-wing has grown during his watch. It’s too early to make a predication, but this has the feel of a one-term presidency about it.

On the four great questions that have shaped his year in the White House---the economy, health care, the war and the environment---Obama cannot claim any clear victories.

Despite the rebound of the stock market and the return to huge bonuses on Wall Street, most Americans remain mired in debt and millions of them are living in depression-like conditions. The economy has come back far enough to reassure the wealthy and the corporate elites that things ought to return to pre-crash ways and that there is no need for radical and sweeping measures of the kind that they were prepared to accept during the great bailouts a year ago.

Food stamps are needed by one adult in eight and one child in four to keep enough food on the table. The real incomes (adjusted for inflation) of wage and salary earning Americans are lower now than they were a decade ago. Members of this crucial constituency are asking themselves what Obama has done for them. Ill-at-ease about the future, many of them are open to alternative political narratives, including those of the populist right. In Midwest industrial states, the rising economic woes of white working class males---at 11 per cent the male unemployment rate is higher than the national average---are pushing some who voted Democrat in 2008 into the Republican column. Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas has pointed to a loss of support for Obama and the Democrats “with a significant portion of the electorate---white working class men.”

Obama’s agonizing congressional struggle over health-care is ending in a draw, at best. While the final version of the reform package---once the Senate and the House of Representatives negotiate a single version of the bill---will convey tangible benefits on millions of Americans, these will be a long time coming. Although millions of people will get health care coverage for the first time and millions of others will have an easier time transferring their coverage when they change jobs and others won’t have to fear being dropped by insurance companies, the changes are very hard to understand. Unlike the start-up of Canadian medicare decades ago, which enabled people to visit the doctor or the hospital without paying bills, the effects of the emerging American system are far from clear to most people. The political right has scored points with the idea that the initial costs will saddle the government with new debts while the average American is puzzled about what the tangible benefits might actually be.

Escalating the war in Afghanistan by sending an additional thirty thousand troops there has divided the very constituencies that backed Obama’s run for the White House. A CNN poll taken in December showed that while a majority of Americans are prepared to back the president’s plan to send more troops, fifty-five per cent of those polled say they oppose the war, while only forty-three per cent back the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. If this sounds contradictory, it is. Most Americans are giving Obama the benefit of the doubt on the issue for the moment, but if the war grinds on, and particularly if there is a sharp increase in U.S. casualties, the underlying doubts among Obama backers are likely to come to the fore. The irony of a president receiving the Nobel Peace Prize while escalating a war has not been lost on millions of Americans.

Closely linked to the war is the national security file. The attempted bombing of a Detroit bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas day has called into question the competence of Obama’s national security team. National security is never a good issue for a Democrat and the president has been forced to play defence as the public mood falls back into panic mode.

On the environment, Obama did manage to salvage a non-binding agreement at the Copenhagen climate change conference. But the deal the president brokered with China, India and Brazil among others was high on aspiration but weak on commitments. The 193 nations with representatives at Copenhagen agreed to “take note” of the accord reached there, whose goals are to limit the world’s average temperature increase to two degrees Celsius and to raise tens of billions of dollars for developing countries to aid them in their fight to limit climate change. Lacking were commitments to hard targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a specific plan to raise the billions for the developing countries. As on other issues, Obama scored better rhetorically than substantively, and this is eating away at his political capital among Americans who had embraced his politics of hope.

Meanwhile, for a party that led the United States into economic collapse, two wars and an ocean of public and private indebtedness, the Republicans and especially the populist right are showing surprising vitality. While it is easy to snicker at movements that deny that Barack Obama was actually born in the United States, and that human activity plays a role in climate change, while insisting that health care reform is a socialist conspiracy or that steep new tax cuts would cure America’s ills, it is a serious error to underestimate the populist right in the United States. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and Lou Dobbs may not yet have the formula to put together a winning run for the White House. And Sarah Palin is not now ready to debate Barack Obama. But the right is successfully touching the heartstrings of Americans who feel left out and fear what the future may bring. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that 33 per cent of independents in the U.S. prefer the right-wing “tea party” movement, made up of opponents of big government, health care reform, and a multilateralist foreign policy to the Democrats who came in at 25 per cent.

While his sweeping intellectual capacity remains in evidence, Barack Obama’s ability to deliver the goods to those who voted for him or at least to convey to them the message that he is on their side is now in serious doubt. He has time to change this. If not, the signs are there that his could be a one-term presidency.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On Markets and Democracy: Harper is Dangerous

Yesterday on BNN, Stephen Harper said that financial markets don’t like the “kind of instability” that goes with confidence votes on such matters as the Speech from the Throne and the budget that could bring down his minority government.

The prime minister’s decision to prorogue parliament actually created the necessity for a Speech from the Throne when the House returns. That’s what automatically follows a period of prorogation. His very action is setting up the kind of confidence vote that he said creates instability.

But that is not what is most important about what Stephen Harper said. In his brief remarks, he showed that he believes that the normal operations of our parliamentary democracy promote financial instability. Sessions of parliament always involve votes of confidence. That is true whether there is a majority or a minority government in office. Canadians chose to elect a minority government. In doing so, they were instructing the parties in the House to work with one another to govern the country. They were saying that they did not have confidence in any single political party to govern on its own.

To serve as prime minister a political leader must respect and defend our system of government. He or she must begin from the premise that to remain in office a government must enjoy the confidence of the majority of the members of the House of Commons. That is the essence of our system.

Stephen Harper was not directly elected by Canadians to serve as prime minister. He is not our president. He and the members of his government are in office solely when they enjoy the confidence of the House.

This is not an academic point. It goes to the very heart of our democracy. It was what Canadians fought for, and some died for, in the 19th century. Before that, the struggle to make parliament supreme went on for centuries in Britain.

Stephen Harper poses a threat to our democracy. If he understands it, he doesn’t respect it.

He would be much more dangerous as the leader of a majority government.

The classic justification for undemocratic rule has always been that it promotes stability. Autocrats have always complained that democracy is messy and unpredictable. Markets can suffer when votes of confidence are held----THAT’S WHAT THE MAN SAID.

Harper’s got to go. The members of the opposition parties should see to that at the first opportunity.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Next Step: Challenging Harper’s Agenda

Having underestimated the acuity of the Canadian people, the Harper government has been placed on the defensive. While the mainstream media cheered them on and their pollsters reassured them that they were on a winning path, Stephen Harper and his ministers blithely assumed that Canadians were not interested in the Afghan detainees scandal and the environment, and that they couldn’t care less about the prorogation of parliament. The accepted narrative of recent months was that Stephen Harper was on the cusp of a majority and all he had to do was to trigger an election while appearing not to want one.

Now, however, there is a full-scale political revolt going on in the country. Canadians are mad as hell about the decision to prorogue parliament. They see it for what it is, a blatant maneuver to stop the questioning of government ministers about the Afghan detainee issue.

In the eyes of Canadians, Stephen Harper is a dictatorial leader, who does not respect the role of parliament in our political system. Even during a minority government, he is incapable of sharing the reins of power with the members of the other parties in the House of Commons.

Now that the people are against him---the Conservatives received the support of only 33.1 per cent of voters in the latest Ekos poll---Harper’s next move will be to try to divide the opposition parties and put the popular movement that opposes him in the ditch.

He’s going to make the case that it is now time for the government to shift gears on economic policy----to abandon stimulus for severe cuts to government spending. For Harper, this will not be a surprising development. He will be returning to type. He was always unenthusiastic about stimulus. He believed instead that economic recovery ought to be achieved by slashing government programs and cutting taxes.

It was a tell-tale sign of where this government’s heart really lay that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty went on proclaiming as late as the end of October 2008, after the federal election was over, that Canada would not have to run a deficit to cope with the economic crisis. By then the stock markets of the world had crashed and the U.S. government (with George W. Bush still in the White House) and that of the UK had undertaken massive programs to bail out failing firms and reflate the economy.

The Harper government’s stimulus budget last winter---a half-hearted one at that---was a political ploy to stave off defeat in the House of Commons. Now that the stock market has recovered, although not to the highs on the eve of the crash, the Conservatives want to return to their small government ways. They want to take the road favoured by the re-energized, right-wing Republicans south of the border.

Just as the free-market economics of the political right got us into the economic crisis in the first place, Conservatives in Canada and Republicans in the U.S. now advocate policies that will prolong it, and that run the risk of making this a double-dip recession.

What we are going to see when the House of Commons reconvenes in early March will be a Speech from the Throne and a budget that lay out an austerity program. The Harper government will declare that the battle for economic recovery has largely been won---a claim that is palpably false---and that it is now time to abandon stimulus for cuts.

That’s where the opposition comes in. The Liberals and the NDP need to challenge the core of Harper’s policy agenda. When they go back to work on January 25, they need to come up with a set of proposals to continue the stimulus required to create jobs so that the recovery involves more than Bay Street. Beyond that, they should point to a broad set of policies to refashion Canadian economic policy, so that the country can adapt to the realities of a world in which the United States will, of necessity, play a less central role. Those policies need to abandon the Harper government’s singular attachment to the petroleum companies and the dead-end concept of Canada becoming an “energy superpower” on the strength of growing oil sands production and exports. The new agenda will have to centre on environmental sustainability, on nothing less than the rebuilding of our cities and transportation systems for a world in which climate change and Peak Oil are the compelling realities. Such an agenda carries with it the promise of job creation. It can place Canada at the centre of the establishment of the green global economy of the 21st century.

The opposition parties should challenge the Conservatives to take up this approach, thereby making the minority parliament work. Should the Conservatives refuse to do so, the Liberals and the NDP should vote no confidence in the government. That would trigger an election, but it would be an election forced by the unwillingness of Stephen Harper and his ministers to adopt an agenda that would allow all of the parties in the House to have a genuine say in the shaping of government policies.

Such an election would be worth fighting. Stephen Harper would lose it.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Canada's Stolen Democracy: Welcome to 2010

Stephen Harper has an aversion to Parliament. When the House of Commons sits, he and his ministers have to answer questions. The body language of the Prime Minister and his ministers, and their surly, disrespectful attitude to those on the other side of the aisle tells the story.

The styles vary. When Harper stands up to answer a question, he does up his jacket in the manner of a butcher securing his apron before he gives an animal the chop. Peter MacKay adopts an unctuous manner at the start of an answer and concludes by sliming an opponent. John Baird bullies and spews contempt. And Jason Kenney plays the jackal, preferring to sink his teeth into dead meat left behind by the others. He’s the one who claimed that York University is such a hotbed of anti-semitism that what goes on there can be compared to “pogroms”. As the grandson of a rabbi who has taught there for the past 38 years, I guess I’m lucky I’m still alive.

The members of the Conservative cabinet are not very bright guys. And they don’t see why they should have to be subjected to cross-examination. Replying to critics is not their strong suit. When the questioning gets too hot as it did before Christmas on the Afghan prisoner abuse issue they don’t shoot the messengers, they just shut them up.

By the time the House rose the Conservatives were dropping in the polls to about 36 per cent, down from the 40 per cent range they occupied about six weeks earlier, and down from their score in the 2008 election. The favourite narrative of the supine mainstream media that Harper is a brilliant political strategist, headed for a majority in the next election, was a little patchy by the time the pundits were going out for eggnog in early December.

Harper does have one golden rule. When the going gets tough, prorogue the House. He did it a year ago to avoid the certain defeat of his government in the Commons. This year he’s done it to get the parliamentary committee investigating the torture scandal off his back.

Before Parliament reconvenes with a new Speech from the Throne on March 3, the Vancouver Olympic Games will have showcased Canada to the world, with Harper playing the genial (for him) host. His strategists believe that this will repair the reputation the nation earned at Copenhagen, as the “colossal fossil”. By then, as well, these geniuses are confident that the ugly tableau of cover-up, the smearing of Richard Colvin and the constant changing of the government story on the prisoner abuse scandal, will have faded from memory.

Stephen Harper likes to think of himself as the manly leader of a sporting nation. Perhaps in the reflected glow of gold medals, the Prime Minister will acquire the warmth he lacks within to endear him to the forty per cent of Canadians he needs to win a majority in an election in 2010.

Harper would not be the first leader in history prepared to enhance his own power by hiding the savaging of his country’s system of government behind the laurels of young athletes.

A year ago, the Prime Minister was prepared to mislead his fellow citizens about the essence of our system of government---the requirement that the ministers of the crown must enjoy the backing of the majority of the members of the House of Commons---to retain power. To stay at the helm, he was quite happy to delude Canadians into believing that the PM is directly elected and that the members of parliament from Quebec aren’t quite equal to the others.

When the history of this era is written years from now, the story is likely to be that of a not very talented gang with values distant from those of the Canadian mainstream, holding onto office longer than they should have because the opposition couldn’t figure out how to unite to deal with them. Some will bear more responsibility for this sorry state of affairs than others.

Just don’t blame the large majority of Canadians who continue to have the sense to reject Harper and his boys, medals notwithstanding. Yes, Canadians care about the economy, the environment, and the prisoner abuse scandal. They are concerned about the reputation of their country in the rest of the world. Give them a way to rid themselves of Harper in the next election and the people will do the rest.