Obama’s Appointments Leave Progressives with a Hard Job in November

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By Bill Bianchi

Back in September and October of 2008, a bunch of us from PDA-Illinois walked the back streets and overgrown lots of west Gary, Indiana to help elect a promising Democrat, Barack Obama, to the White House. Like tens of thousands across the country, we knocked on doors and asked potential voters to support Mr. Obama. We said, ‘after eight years of George Bush the country was headed in the wrong direction, and Obama would change that.”

Change, that was magic idea that everyone hoped for.

Now, two years later, as we approach another election season, I wonder how many of those who worked so hard for the president will feel like returning to those same skeptical voters to ask them, "please vote again for our guys?"  I know I’ll have a hard time just dragging my butt into the voting booth.

One big reason for my reluctance has been Obama’s appointments. Throughout his presidency, no even before, he has filled key government posts with corporate lackeys, lobbyists and conservative ideologues, people guaranteed to block the change we were promising the voters in 2008.

His most recent appointment is a corporate hack from the health insurance industry, Liz Fowler.  President Obama has tapped her to be the deputy director of the Office of Consumer Information and Oversight at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She was an appalling choice, but before I say why, let’s take a brief tour of some of the President’s key appointments.

The first shock to progressives was the President’s choice of Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers as the key deciders on his economic team. Geithner a favorite of Wall Street’s oligarchs served as head of the New York Fed, which oversees Wall Street. During the run up to the financial crisis, Geithner did nothing to reign in the Street’s casino style gamblers and scam artists. Now as Treasury Secretary, Geithner has seen fit to continue Bush’s bailout policies and do little to break up the “too big to fail” banks that caused the financial crisis. Geithner has justly earned animosity from across the political spectrum.

Larry Summers, Obama’s chief economic advisor (1), was one of the original Harvard neo-liberal crowd. As Clinton’s Treasury chief, he preached the gospel of de-regulation that resulted in the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression. He hailed the deregulation of banks and spoke vigorously against regulation of financial derivatives. Today average Americans are paying the price. Through Geithner and Summers, Wall Street’s big shots have been able to maintain strict control of the nation’s financial policy, to the severe detriment of the rest of us.

Then Obama named Ken Salazar Secretary of Interior. Paul Krugman complains that Salazar was appointed, over the objections of environmentalists who worked hard to elect Obama. They feared, rightly, that “his [Salazar’s] ties to extractive industries would make him slow to clean up a corrupt agency.” Unfortunately, Salazar has proved the environmentalists correct, as demonstrated by the BP spill.

More galling were the President’s picks to head the Deficit (Cat Food) Commission (2). Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive economic policy think-tank, reports that Obama’s Debt commission is a “waste of time and taxpayer money and should disbanded.”

Baker asserts that the Commission is doomed because the co-chairs that Obama appointed, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, are biased and incompetent to boot. Simpson, a crabby Republican, publicly expressed his disrespect for seniors on social security when he referred to them as “lesser people”, and most recently he compared the system to a “milk cow with 310 million tits.” Baker says that appointing Simpson is like appointing “someone with racist views to head a civil rights commission.”

Bowles, the Democratic co-chair represents a stunning conflict of interest. As a director at Morgan Stanley, one of the Wall Street bailout banks, Bowles collects $330,000 per year for “very part time labor”. Most likely his goal will be to re-direct some or all of social security funds to Wall Street. If he succeeds, he will have saved the stock market and put the benefits that millions depend on at great risk.

The whole Deficit commission as constituted by Obama represents a serious threat to both Social Security and Medicare. Obama’s Commission appointees are essentially finishing work started by Bush, namely to cut and privatize the country’s premier social programs. Was that the kind of change we worked for in 2008?

Back to Liz Fowler, the point person for the health care special interests.  After serving as a VP for Wellpoint, the largest private health insurer, Fowler served as a chief health counsel for Senator Max Baucus’ Senate Finance Committee. There, she played a key role in drafting the health insurance bill that not only made single payer dead before arrival, but also put the first and last nail in the coffin of the so-called public option.

Now, in her new government position, Fowler will administrate the program that she designed to favor the big HMOs and health insurance corporations.  In other words, wrote Salon blogger, Glen Greenwald, "implementation of the massive health insurance bill just enacted by the Congress will be overseen by a former high-level executive of the nation's largest private health insurer."   Greenwald continues, "Fowler is the very embodiment of the sleazy Revolving Door and lobbyist-dominated politics which candidate Barack Obama endlessly vowed to subvert."

Not all Obama’s appointments are bad. Hilda Solis, Obama’s new Secretary of Labor, appears to be a good bet. She’s comes from working class family and has a solid union background. As such, she’s probably one of the few Labor Secretaries to have a union background. Since taking the post she’s made statements that are encouraging to labor and immigrant workers.

And in his appointments to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomajor and Elena Kagan, Obama has shown some sensitivity to his base.  But he has been careful to pick centrists types who decisions are unlikely to stray far from the safe, sanitized middle zone.

What other appointments can we expect from Obama? Well as the Democrats celebrate passage of the financial reform act, Obama is considering who he wants to head the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, which will have broad powers over the financial industry. Everyone outside of Fox news agrees that Elizabeth Warren is the ideal choice. She’s fair, smart and dedicated to protecting citizens from the rapacious debt slavers who populate American’s financial system.

Moreover, as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel charged with looking investigating the bank bailout, she knows where many bodies are buried. So if he appointed her, the President would do much to repair his tattered image among those people who voted for him.  But guess what? The President can’t seem to make up his mind. His dilemma is well expressed in this dittie:

“Obama dithers and dithers..’ what will the right wing say, what will my savvy businessmen buddies say, will they ever play golf with me again.... Oh dear, oh dear,… who will play golf with me if I appoint her?”

Now, I sure don’t want to help Republicans regain power. For the most part they represent all that’s ugly and biased in American society. But I’m appalled at how frequently Obama appoints people who are tied into corporate power and who work against the interests of the people who elected him.

So as we look forward to November elections, what can we tell voters?  One answer is provided by Carl Davidson, former leader of Chicago’s antiwar movement and now a member of PDA in Beaver County, western Pennsylvania.

Carl says: “For 2010, vote to defeat any Tea Party person and racists, work to defeat any Republicans, work to defeat the Blue dogs, try to elect progressive Democrats and if it makes sense, try to elect the Greens. But do them in that order. Don't do it in such a way that you strengthen the right instead of the left.”

Thank you Carl.
1. In 2009, Summers was appointed Director of the National Economic Council, the principal forum used by the President of the United States for considering economic policy

2. The official name is the, National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform


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