External Affairs

Barack Obama, No Longer a Liberal Hero

US President Barack Obama. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

US President Barack Obama. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Washington: President Barack Obama came to office in 2009 as the very epitome of progressive values. It seemed as if his mere presence as the first African American in the Oval Office would cleanse the past, fix the social divide, punish the guilty and force a semblance of balance between corporate interests and regular folk.

There were celebrations in the streets, the Democratic Party was beside itself with joy having pulled off a historic first and the average Joe and Jane were patting themselves on the back. Even the rest of the world was delighted. Rock star receptions awaited Obama wherever he went. He even bagged an anticipatory Nobel Prize for peace for merely expressing the right sentiments about the Muslim world.

But as Obama heads into the last phase of his presidency, he is at war with the liberals in his own party over a trade deal that many feel would hurt American workers, weaken environmental and food safety standards, make generic medicines more difficult to get and make the internet more a preserve of corporations than people. Ironically, after being in near-constant battle with the Republicans for six years, Obama has their near unanimous support for the trade deal. It is the Democrats he can’t convince.

Soft on big banks

The disillusionment within the Democratic left has been building over time — it was subterranean before but now it has burst into the open. Almost as soon as Obama got into the thick of his first term, his liberal credentials were being questioned. Many complained that he wasn’t hard enough on the Wall Street ‘banksters’ who brought America and the world the 2008 financial crisis. No one seemed to be going to jail despite the calamitous effects on thousands of moms and pops who lost their homes overnight. Many of them were loyal Democratic Party supporters.

By 2014, the Obama Administration had managed to send one Credit Suisse banker to jail for 30 months. Even the judge admitted that Kareem Serageldin was a “small piece of an overall evil climate within the bank and with many other banks.” Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, AIG – all did and hid much worse but were not successfully prosecuted.

Preet Bharara, the Indian American prosecutor from New York with a formidable record of convictions, basically went after insider traders – relative small fries in the big financial matrix.

There have been several other instances since to disappoint the liberal Dems — the widespread snooping by the National Security Agency, harsh actions against whistleblowers and journalists and the failure to prosecute even a single CIA operative for using torture during the height of the “war on terror” despite launching a formal investigation in 100 cases and after promising that “nobody is above the law.”

But the discontent – hitherto apparent only on certain websites –was in full flow this month over a mega trade deal that Obama is pushing. The labor unions abhor it because they fear more jobs will flee the US and the left-ish Democrats fear it gives too much power to the corporations.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) attempts to link the US with 11 countries from Canada to New Zealand, Chile to Japan, Malaysia to Vietnam in a single trade pact. It is expected to set ‘new standards’ on food, environment, the Internet, intellectual property, labor and pharmaceuticals. It reportedly gives tremendous power to corporations to sue governments – or so it is said, since no one really knows for sure because of the immense secrecy surrounding the negotiations.

Congressmen and senators can read the text only inside a secured, soundproof room but without their aides. They can’t copy any documents nor call any of their advisers from inside to seek clarifications. No phones or laptops are allowed. And they can’t talk to the public about what they read. Even George Bush senior had made the text of the North American Free Trade Agreement public.

Obama considers the TPP as an integral part of his “pivot to Asia” and a key legacy of his presidency. It is so important as to be part of his national security strategy. Supporters of TPP say that it would expand exports and “raise” standards, especially in China’s key trading partners, which in turn would create pressure on China to meet some of those standards. Once that is done, China would be more open to multinational companies. The TPP excludes China and also, incidentally, India. While China is openly mentioned in various pro-TPP analyses, India is not but one can presume the same idea applies.

Sweetheart treatment of big business

Enter Elizabeth Warren, a fellow Democrat and a US senator from Massachusetts. Warren has gone hammer and tongs against the TPP, picking holes and exposing the sweetheart treatment of industry. She wants the text to be made public so the US Congress can read it carefully, understand the complex, legal language and cross references over hundreds of pages, consult their experts and be able to judge whether it is good for the American people.

A former Harvard law professor, Warren worked closely on the 2008 financial crisis, first as the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to oversee the massive Troubled Asset Relief Program or TARP and later as a special adviser to the Secretary of the Treasury in the Obama Administration. She won a senate seat from Massachusetts in 2012 and is recognized as an influential public policy figure. In short, she knows what she is talking about.

Yet, last week Obama condescendingly dismissed her critique of TPP as “bunk,” as if she were a nobody, knowing nothing. He called her a “politician like everybody else” after referring to her as “Elizabeth” not Senator Warren as tradition would dictate. Obama pushing the wrong button on etiquette drew immediate ire from Warren’s ally, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Brown pointedly asked if the president would have referred to a male senator by first name.

Warren says the TPP undercuts 2010 financial industry regulations – something that she helped shape in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. It also gives enormous power to corporations to sue governments, including the US government, if certain regulations in a country threaten profits. The mechanism is called Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) and its judgment apparently can’t be appealed.

If true, a government’s ability to protect and intervene in the public interest would be severely limited. Not just Warren, but Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, also has raised concerns about ISDS. Even Hillary Clinton, a presidential hopeful for 2016, mentioned it as troubling in her book. But Clinton has kept studiously quiet on the Obama-Warren row even though she supported the TPP as secretary of state.

According to Warren, the fear of hefty penalties under ISDS has already caused some member countries to change their regulations rather than face the unknown. “ISDS gives a special break to giant corporations, a break that nobody else gets,” she told The Washington Post’s “Plum Line” blog. Her fellow traveler, Sen. Brown has talked of a “betrayal of workers and small business in our communities… it’s a betrayal of what we should be standing for.”

While Warren is the face of the rebellion against Obama, the anti-TPP sentiment is widespread. Non-profit consumer advocacy organizations such as Public Citizen, which has an entire arm (Global Trade Watch) to monitor trade deals, have been vehemently opposing the TPP. Lori Wallach, director and founder of Global Trade Watch, said on the left-leaning Democracy Now television program, that the Obama Administration had decided to “side with the 500 corporate trade advisers.”

Wallach was referring to the 566 members of 28 government-appointed “trade advisory committees” that are providing inputs to the US Trade Representative, Michael Froman, on TPP negotiations. According to the blog, The Intercept, those with the most access to the negotiations are industry trade committees dominated by big companies such as Apple, General Electric, At&T, Dow Chemical, Walmart and Nike.

Data analysis published by The Washington Post published in February 2014, suggests that 85 % of the committee members are from private industry and trade associations. Voices less aligned to big business are lost in the wilderness.

“The labor movement, the environmental groups, everyone has just worked incredibly hard to try and get the administration to adopt the vision that the president had as a candidate,” Wallach said. “Instead, they doubled down on the same old, same old. So, of course, the entire Democratic base is on the warpath against fast track for the TPP. It’s a future we will not tolerate for ourselves, for our families…”