In a stunning betrayal of his base that comes as a surprise to all, Barack Obama this week chose to side with wealthy oil and gas interests over the environmentalists that helped get him elected and who — despite the president’s call for the same environmentally destructive offshore drilling they denounced in apocalyptic terms under the Bush administration — will undoubtedly help elect him again when confronted with the specter of a Palin-Beck ticket in 2012. Truly, no one could see this coming.
In justifying his decision to open much of the East Coast and Alaska’s shoreline to new oil and gas drilling on the basis of U.S. “energy security” — one that, naturally, was announced in front of the militaristic backdrop of an Air Force base, as all important national decisions must — Obama cast himself as the sensible moderate, the non-ideological centrist whose only real concern is what works best for America. It’s a familiar approach for the president, and one that grows no less irksome over time.
“There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision, including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling,” Obama said, while acknowledging “there are going to be some who argue that we don’t go nearly far enough.” Ultimately, though, “we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure all and those who would claim it has no place,” he continued. Energy issue are “too important to allow our progress to languish while we fight the same old battles over and over again.”
If you think you may have heard that speech sounds familiar, there’s a reason: you have.
“Now, there will be those that welcome this announcement, those who think it’s been long overdue,” Obama said in February when announcing the awarding of $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for a nuclear reactor in Georgia. “But there are also going to be those who strongly disagree with this announcement,” he said. However, “On an issue that affects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we can’t keep on being mired in the same old stale debates between the left and the right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs.“
Obama embraced the same formulation last December when speaking about his plan to further expand the war in Afghanistan, another major policy announcement delivered on a military base. “First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam,” Obama said, noting that at the other end of the spectrum there are “those who oppose identifying a time frame for our transition to Afghan responsibility.” Ever committed to the middle ground, Obama in that same speech — in the span of two consecutive sentences — announced both that he was sending “an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan” and that in a year and half’s time “our troops will begin to come home” — his devotion to a policy that results in almost-daily atrocities, but purportedly not one that requires an indefinite military occupation as some on the right would like, demonstrating his carefully concocted image of cool reasonableness and showing why those crazy Norwegians handed him a Nobel Peace Prize.
As I’ve written before, though, one should beware of powerful people whose decisions have a major bearing on your life claiming to have been freed of all ideological shackles, guided only by goodness and the ghost of Thomas Jefferson, because what constitutes pragmatic, non-ideological commonsense in Washington is shaped by the kind of people who would voluntarily live in a place like Washington: corporate lobbyists and the once-and-future corporate lobbyists we call lawmakers and congressional staffers. The guiding principles of corporatism and imperialism are so widely accepted inside the Beltway, so beyond the realm of serious debate, that after spending enough time here one could be forgiven for viewing bailouts and empire as the result not of a long-standing ideological commitment to the interests of capital and the arms industry, but the inscrutable product of the passage of Time and the flow of History. But it is supremely silly to act as if decisions to hand taxpayer largesse to private interests or to allow multinational corporations carte blanche to profit from drilling in public waters — or to occupy and drop bombs on poor countries on the other side of the globe — do not reflect certain ideological assumptions and core beliefs that directly pertain to one’s view of relationship of the state to society.
There’s another problem with Obama’s claimed rejection of ideology: the fallacy, oft-embraced by the Chuck Todds of the world, that being equally despised by whatever it is we’re calling the “left” and the “right” these days is a sign of one’s essential moderateness, of a job well done, of an intelligence that transcends partisan bickering in favor of pure rationality. Sometimes, though, Occam’s Razor applies: it could just be a sign you’re an asshole. A federal policy of dropping newborn babies in blenders might anger socialists and Tea Partiers alike, for instance, but only an amoral cretin — a politician, perhaps — would claim that outrage as a sign they are doing The Right Thing.