The Obama Illusion
Posted by Lava Cocktail
Monday, June 09, 2008
By Paul Street, Z Magazine Online
Long before any formal announcement (I’m writing this in early January), it was obvious that overnight sensation Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) wanted to be the U.S.’s next chief executive. The “charismatic” Obama was campaigning by at least November 2005, less than a year out of the Illinois state legislature. During 2006, Obama gave grave and “realistic” foreign policy speeches and made appearances on the “Tonight Show,” “Meet the Press,” “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” the covers and/or pages of Time, Men’s Vogue, Marie Claire, Vanity Fair, and Washington Life. He appeared at the early political proving grounds of Iowa and New Hampshire. He reached across political and cultural lines—making a special point of talking to the religious right. He released a self-promotional book (deceptively titled The Audacity of Hope) that screamed presidential ambition beneath false humility and ponderous, power-worshipping prose. He received the praise, money, positive media attention, and public recognition that a serious presidential run requires. His campaign fundraising Midas touch became a factor in the mid-term Congressional elections. The significance of his ambition and ever-rising stature is enhanced by the fact that the Democrats’ presumed frontrunner, Hilary Clinton, is seen by many election experts and brokers as unelectable.
If the Democrats’ candidate in 2008 is Obama, we can be sure that the right-wing Republican noise machine will denounce the nation’s potential first non-white male president as a dangerous “leftist.” The charge will be absurd, something that will hardly stop numerous people on the portside of the narrow U.S. political spectrum from claiming Obama as a fellow “progressive.” Certain to be encouraged by Obama and his handlers, this confusion will reflect the desperation and myopia that shaky thinking and the limited choices of the U.S. electoral system regularly instill in liberals and some squishy near leftists.
So what sorts of policies and values could one expect from an imagined Obama presidency? There is quite a bit already in Obama’s short national career that has to be placed in the “never mind” category if one is to seriously to believe his claim (cautiously advanced in The Audacity of Hope) to be a “progressive” concerned with “social and economic justice” and global peace.
Never mind, for example, that Obama was recently hailed as a “Hamiltonian” believer in “limited government” and “free trade” by Republican New York Times columnist David Brooks, who praises Obama for having “a mentality formed by globalization, not the SDS.” Or that he had to be shamed off the “New Democrat Directory” of the corporate-right Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) by the popular left black Internet magazine Black Commentator (Bruce Dixon, “Obama to Have Name Removed From DLC List,” Black Commentator, June 26, 2003).
Never mind that Obama (consistent with Brooks’s description of him) has lent his support to the aptly named Hamilton Project, formed by corporate-neoliberal Citigroup chair Robert Rubin and “other Wall Street Democrats” to counter populist rebellion against corporatist tendencies within the Democratic Party (David Sirota, “Mr. Obama Goes to Washington,” the Nation, June 26). Or that he lent his politically influential and financially rewarding assistance to neoconservative pro-war Senator Joe Lieberman’s (“D”-CT) struggle against the Democratic antiwar insurgent Ned Lamont. Or that Obama has supported other “mainstream Democrats” fighting antiwar progressives in primary races (see Alexander Cockburn, “Obama’s Game,” the Nation, April 24, 2006). Or that he criticized efforts to enact filibuster proceedings against reactionary Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
Never mind that Obama “dismissively” referred—in a “tone laced with contempt”—to the late progressive and populist U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone as “something of a gadfly.” Or that he chose the neoconservative Lieberman to be his “assigned” mentor in the U.S. Senate. Or that “he posted a long article on the liberal blog Daily Kos criticizing attacks against lawmakers who voted for right-wing Supreme Court nominee John Roberts.” Or that he opposed an amendment to the Bankruptcy Act that would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent. Or that he told Time magazine’s Joe Klein last year that he’d never given any thought to Al Gore’s widely discussed proposal to link a “carbon tax” on fossil fuels to targeted tax relief for the nation’s millions of working poor (Joe Klein, “The Fresh Face,” Time, October 17, 2006).
Never mind that Obama voted for a business-friendly “tort reform” bill that rolls back working peoples’ ability to obtain reasonable redress and compensation from misbehaving corporations (Cockburn; Sirota). Or that Obama claims to oppose the introduction of single-payer national health insurance on the grounds that such a widely supported social-democratic change would lead to employment difficulties for workers in the private insurance industry—at places like Kaiser and Blue Cross Blue Shield (Sirota). Does Obama support the American scourge of racially disparate mass incarceration on the grounds that it provides work for tens of thousands of prison guards? Should the U.S. maintain the illegal operation of Iraq and pour half its federal budget into “defense” because of all the soldiers and other workers that find employment in imperial wars and the military-industrial complex? Does the “progressive” senator really need to be reminded of the large number of socially useful and healthy alternatives that exist for the investment of human labor power at home and abroad—wetlands preservation, urban ecological retrofitting, drug counseling, teaching, infrastructure building and repair, safe and affordable housing construction, the building of windmills and solar power facilities, etc.?
In an interview with Klein, Obama expressed reservations about a universal health insurance plan recently enacted in Massachusetts, stating his preference for “voluntary” solutions over “government mandates.” The former, he said, is “more consonant with” what he called “the American character”—a position contradicted by regular polling data showing that most Americans support Canadian-style single-payer health insurance.
Never mind that Obama voted to re-authorize the repressive PATRIOT Act. Or that he voted for the appointment of the war criminal Condaleeza Rice to (of all things) Secretary of State. Or that he opposed Senator Russ Feingold’s (D-WI) move to censure the Bush administration after the president was found to have illegally wiretapped U.S. citizens. Or that he shamefully distanced himself from fellow Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin’s forthright criticism of U.S. torture practices at Guantanamo. Or that he refuses to foreswear the use of first-strike nuclear weapons against Iran.
Never mind that Obama makes a big point of respectfully listening to key parts of the right wing agenda even though that agenda is well outside majority sentiment (Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Off Center: the Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy). Or that he joins victim-blaming Republicans in pointing to poor blacks’ “cultural” issues as the cause of concentrated black poverty (Obama, The Audacity of Hope)—not the multiple, well-documented, and interrelated structures, practices and consequences of externally imposed white supremacy and corporate-state capitalism. Or that he claims that blacks have joined the American “socioeconomic mainstream” even as median black household net worth falls to less than eight cents on the median white household dollar. Or that he had this to say on the night after the Congressional mid-term elections, when the criminal and reactionary Cheney-Bush administration’s unpopularity with the American people cost the Republicans their majority in Congress: “If the Democrats don’t show a willingness to work with the president, I think they could be punished in ‘08” (Jeff Zeleni, “Democrats Fight to Say, ‘You’re Welcome,’” New York Times, November 5, 2006).
Hitting the Right (Wing) Keynotes
Never mind that Obama’s famous 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address—widely credited for catapulting him to national prominence—expressed numerous reactionary and incorrect notions that make the praise it received from the far right National Review (who called Obama’s oration “simple and powerful”) less than mysterious on close examination. This speech claimed that the U.S. is the ultimate “beacon for freedom and opportunity,” the “only country on earth” where his supposedly “rags to riches” is “even possible.” This despite the fact that the U.S. is actually the most rigidly hierarchical nation in the industrialized world, home to a stultifying corporate plutocracy, persistent and highly racialized poverty, astonishing incarceration rates (also quite racially disparate), and low mobility from lower to upper segments in its steep socioeconomic pyramid.
Obama the Keynoter proclaimed that “every child in America” should “have a decent shot at life,” not that every kid deserves a full and decent life now and thereafter. He told Americans they should be ecstatic over the “miracle” that they don’t live under the iron heel of state repression (he made no exceptions for the nation’s two million prisoners), as if democracy is just the absence of a police state and not the power of the people to run their own society in an egalitarian fashion—talk about low expectations for freedom. He praised a Marine enlisted in the occupation of Iraq for “defending the United States of America” and for (supposedly) expressing “absolute faith in the country and its leaders.” Never mind that such chilling “faith” is the stuff of the very police state whose absence in the U.S. Obama called a “miracle.”
Never mind that Obama’s speech scaled new heights of cringing, pseudo-patriotic nausea-inducement by making disturbing “hope” parallels between: “the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs,” “the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta,” and the “hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him.” The lieutenant referred to in his speech was Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry whose government’s imperial right to “patrol” great rivers on the other side of the world during the 1960s Obama took as axiomatic. The “skinny kid” referred to a young Obama, grooming himself for a Harvard education while attending an elite private school and living with his white grandparents in sunny Hawaii. The connection with singing slaves? A shared belief in what Obama called “God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation—a belief that there are better days ahead.” Yes, the brutalized black slaves of racist antebellum America were looking forward to the glorious white-imperialist rape of Southeast Asia when their faith in “better days” would find glorious realization in the napalming of Vietnamese children, the images of which shocked Martin Luther King, Jr. into denouncing the Vietnam war in strident and forceful terms.
Embracing Imperial Criminality
Never mind Obama’s “mush-mouthed” (Glen Ford and Peter Gamble, “Obama Mouths Mush on War,” Black Commentator, December 1, 2005) pronouncements on the illegal, racist, and imperialist invasion and occupation of Iraq. Obama’s handlers and supporters place considerable emphasis on the claim that the junior senator from Illinois has voiced a “consistent position against the war” and (by extension) the Middle East. The assertion has some technical accuracy; Obama has publicly questioned the Bush administration’s case for war since the fall of 2002. But serious scrutiny of his “antiwar position” shows that the supposedly “pragmatic” and “non-ideological” Obama speaks in deferential accord with the doctrine of empire. In Obama’s carefully crafted rhetoric, Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL) has been a “strategic blunder” on the part of an essentially benevolent nation state. Given his presidential ambitions, it is unthinkable for him to acknowledge the invasion’s status as a great international transgression that is consistent with the United States’ long record of imperial criminality. It is equally unimaginable for him to acknowledge that the war expressed Washington’s drive to deepen its control of strategic petroleum resources—an ambition in direct opposition to the alleged U.S. goals of encouraging Iraqi freedom and exporting democracy.
In a recent address designed to display his foreign policy bona fides, Obama showed his continuing willingness to take seriously the claim that OIL was an effort to “impose democracy” on Iraq, even faulting the Bush administration for acting in Iraq on the basis of unrealistic “dreams of democracy and hopes for a perfect government” (Obama, “A Way Forward in Iraq,” speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs [CCGA], November 22, 2006).
Consistent with his denial and embrace of Washington’s imperial ambitions, Obama has refused to join genuinely antiwar forces in calling for a rapid and thorough withdrawal of troops and an end to the occupation of Iraq. In a critical November 2005 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Obama rejected Rep. John Murtha’s (D-PA) call for a rapid redeployment and any notion of a timetable for withdrawal. Obama’s call for “a pragmatic solution to the real war we’re facing in Iraq” included repeated references to the need to “defeat” the “insurgency”—a goal that means continuation of the war. As commentators Ford and Gamble noted in a critical analysis of Obama’s CFR address: “In essence all Obama wants from the Bush regime is that it fess up to having launched the war based on false information and to henceforth come clean with the Senate on how it plans to proceed in the future. Those Democrats who want to dwell on the past—the actual genesis and rationale for the war and the real reasons for its continuation—should be quiet. Obama and many of his colleagues are more interested in consulting the Bush men on the best way to ‘win’ the war than in effecting an American withdrawal at any foreseeable time.”
Obama’s November speech to the CCGA advocates a vaguely timed Iraq “scenario” in which “U.S. forces” might remain in the occupied state for an “extended period of time.” Obama advances a “reduced but active [U.S. military] presence” that “protect[s] logistical supply points” and “American enclaves like the Green Zone” (site of one of the largest and most heavily militarized imperial “embassies” in history) while “send[ing] a clear message to hostile countries like Iran and Syria that we intend to remain a key player in the region.” U.S. troops “remaining in Iraq” will “act as rapid reaction forces to respond to emergencies and go after terrorists.” This is part of what Obama meant when he told a fawning David Brooks that (in Brooks’s approving language) “the U.S. may have no choice but to slog it out in Iraq” (David Brooks, “Run, Barack, Run,” New York Times, October 19, 2006). Never mind that the recent mid-term elections and a mountain of polling data show that the majority of Americans support rapid U.S. withdrawal, as do the vast majority of the Iraqi people—the purported beneficiaries of Cheney’s “dreams of democracy.”
The only polling data that Obama referenced in his CCGA speech and in the foreign policy chapter of his recent book is meant to illustrate what he considers to be the real danger in the wake of the OIL fiasco: that Americans are leaning dangerously towards “isolationism” and thus turning their backs on the noble superpower’s global “responsibilities.”
At one point in his CCGA oration, Obama had the audacity to say the following in support of his claim that U.S. citizens support “victory” in Iraq: “The American people have been extraordinarily resolved. They have seen their sons and daughters killed or wounded in the streets of Fallujah.”
This was a spine-chilling selection of locales. Fallujah was the site for a colossal U.S. war atrocity. Crimes included the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the targeting of ambulances and hospitals, and the practical leveling of an entire city—in April and November 2004. The town was designated for destruction as an example of the awesome state terror promised to those who dared to resist U.S. power. Not surprisingly, Fallujah is a leading symbol of U.S. imperialism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It is a deeply provocative and insulting place for Obama to choose to highlight American sacrifice and “resolve” in the occupation of Iraq.
Likewise, Obama also praised U.S. occupation soldiers for “performing their duty with bravery, with brilliance, and without question” (CCGA speech). It’s hard to determine which is more disturbing in this comment: Obama’s blindness (intentional or not) to the important and welcome fact that many troops do in fact strongly question the war or his upholding of the unquestioning execution of frankly criminal military orders as a good thing.
“He’s a Player”
Liberal bloggers and writers at places like Daily Kos and the leftmost sections of the corporate-neoliberal punditocracy (e.g., Frank Rich at the New York Times) can speak and write all they wish about the “progressive” potential of a Barockstar presidency. As David Sirota rightly observed last summer, Obama is “interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what’s considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. This posture,” Sirota notes, “comes even as polls consistently show that Washington’s definition of mainstream is divorced from the rest of the country’s (for example, politicians’ refusal to debate the war even as polls show that Americans want the troops home).” It is because of Obama’s “rare ability to mix charisma and deference to the establishment,” Sirota finds (in an overly respectful assessment), that “Beltway publications and think tanks have heaped praise on Obama and want him to run for President.”
But then, Obama would never have risen so quickly and remarkably to his current position of dominant media favor and national prominence if he was anything like the egalitarian and democratic “progressive” that some liberals and leftists imagine. In the corporate-crafted and money-dominated swamp that passes for “representative democracy” in the U.S., concentrated economic and imperial power open and close doors in ways that preemptively suffocate populist potential. Big money is not in the business of promoting genuine social justice or democracy activists (so-called “gadflies” like Wellstone, to use Obama’s description). Viewing public policy as a mechanism for the upward distribution of wealth, it promotes empire and inequality by underwriting what Ken Silverstein calls “the smothering K Street culture and the revolving door that feeds it—not just lobbyists themselves but the entire interconnected world of campaign consultants, public relations agencies, pollsters, and media strategists”—without whose favor and assistance serious presidential bids are next to unthinkable. “All of this,” Silverstein notes, “has forged a political culture that is intrinsically hostile to reform” (Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harpers’ Magazine, November 2006).
Obama (a former editor of the Harvard Law Review) knows this very well. He’s been “trimming his sails,” as he likes to say when he’s telling more genuinely progressive interviewers (e.g. Sirota and Silverstein) why he had to support one corporateor militarism-friendly policy or position after another. He’s been expressing his deep deference for the national and global politico-economic establishment in accord with harsh plutocratic realities. He has had to make his “charismatic” way through Mammon’s polyarchic vetting rounds, impressing the critical gate-keeping powers-that-be with his “reasonable” commitment to working within the existing dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies. He wouldn’t be where he is, practically overnight, if he hadn’t made his “Hamiltonian” (corporate-imperial) safety clear to the masters of national policy and doctrine, who hold the keys to the kingdom. As a Washington lobbyist recently told Silverstein, “Big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player’…. What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?” (Silverstein, 2006).
Consistent with his secret identity as a corporate “player,” Silverstein notes, Obama assiduously supported the ethanol-promoting objectives of the Illinois-based firm Archer-Daniels Midland, which has provided him with private jets on at least two occasions. He has also defended the interests of Illinois’ gigantic electrical firm Exelon, America’s leading nuclear plant operator and a company that has given more than $74,000 to his campaigns. The slim chance that Obama might ever choose “starry eyed idealism”—Silverstein’s lobbyist-informant’s way of describing the elevation of peace and justice over the imperatives of Empire & Inequality, Inc.—has probably become thinner now that Obama has recently joined (thanks largely to his latest book contract) the millionaires’ club.
Paul Street is an independent writer, speaker, historian, and social policy researcher in Iowa. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm Publishers, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005); and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).