Posted on Jan 16, 2017
By Paul Street
President Obama speaking in Omaha, Neb., last year. (Matt A.J. / CC 2.0)
In the fall of 2014, I attended a meeting of Iowa City progressives called to discuss the possibility of trying to enlist Bernie Sanders to enter the 2016 presidential race as a Democrat. When the 30 or so attendees went around the table introducing themselves, all but two (myself and a Green Party activist) expressed “disappointment” with Barack Obama—a president in whom they’d invested considerable betrayed hope for progressive- and left-leaning change. They looked at me as if I was from outer space when I said the Obama presidency had played out pretty much as conservatively as I’d expected. I did not want to spoil things further by adding that I’d tried to warn them in numerous talks, essays and one book predicting Obama’s right-wing performance as president if elected.
The liberals and progressives in the room had good reasons to feel dissatisfied about the Obama administration. (For my most comprehensive recent reflection on this topic, see my latest Truthdig essay “Obama’s Neoliberal Legacy: Rightward Drift and Donald Trump”.) Little could they have been expected to foresee that one outcome of Obama’s service to the rich and powerful would be the presidential ascendancy of the oligarchic super-predator Donald Trump.
‘What’s the Dollar Value of a Starry-Eyed Elitist?’ (November 2006)
But how reasonable was it for “lefties” to have been disappointed by Obama’s noxious service to the rich and powerful? Many smart writers and activists—and not just supposedly wild-eyed left radicals like me—had tried to tell the world about Obama’s allegiance to the nation’s interrelated, unelected, deep-state dictatorships of money, race, class and empire.
“It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in a Harper’s Magazine report titled “Obama, Inc.” in the fall of 2006, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform.”
“On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein said, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’”
As Silverstein knew and showed, the early Obama phenomenon (dating back to his campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois in 2003-04) was intimately tied in with the United States’ corporate and financial ruling class. Obama was rising to power with remarkable backing from Wall Street and K Street election investors who were not in the business of promoting politicians who sought to challenge the nation’s dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines.
‘Deeply Conservative’ (May 2007)
Obama’s allegiance to the American business elite was evident from the get-go. This was well understood by the K Street insiders Silverstein interviewed in the fall of 2006. It was grasped by the liberal journalist and New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar in spring 2007. “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar wrote after extensive interviews with candidate Obama in May of 2007, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. … It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good.”
MacFarquhar cited as an example of this reactionary sentiment Obama’s reluctance to embrace single-payer health insurance on the Canadian model, Obama told MacFarquhar that “we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” So what if large popular majorities in the United States had long favored the single-payer model? So what if single payer would let people keep the doctors of their choice, throwing away only the protection payoff to the private insurance mafia? So what if “the legacy systems” Obama defended included corporate insurance and pharmaceutical oligopolies that regularly threw millions of American lives by the wayside of market calculation, causing enormous disruptive harm and death for the populace?
Saying Populist Stuff He Didn’t Mean (2003 and 2008)
It is true that Illinois State Senator Obama publicly embraced single-payer health care insurance, speaking before the Illinois AFL-CIO in late June 2003. But he didn’t really mean it. Single-payer disappeared from his campaign rhetoric and material as he climbed closer to national power in Washington D.C. Also deleted was his not-so “antiwar” speech against George W. Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq, an oration delivered in downtown Chicago in October of 2002. Obama’s goal of becoming a U.S. senator—and, after that, president (a longstanding ambition of his)—meant jettisoning excessively left-sounding statement in pursuit of the establishment backing required for such an ascendancy.
Five years later, candidate Obama’s top economic advisor, the neoliberal University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee would tell Canada’s U.S. ambassador to disregard Obama’s criticisms of the corporatist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The criticisms were just campaign oratory geared toward winning working-class votes in the Midwest Rustbelt. Obama, Goolsbee explained, was just saying the populist-sounding kind of stuff Democratic presidential candidates had to mouth to get nominated and elected. Obama’s anti-NAFTA language was not to be taken seriously, the economist said.
Vacuous to Repressive Neoliberal Politics (1996)
This was the slick and unnamed Obama—granted undue progressive credibility thanks in part to the simple color of his skin—that the left and black political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. warned people about in The Village Voice at the beginning of the future president’s political career (in the Illinois State Senate) in January 1996:
In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program—the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.
I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway.
Little could Reed have been expected to know that Obama would represent the wave of the future in U.S. presidential politics 12 years later.
Beyond ‘Tired Ideologies’ (April 2006)
Just more than a decade after Reed published this prescient assessment, one of the many clues on the coming neoliberal, Wall Street-vetted nature of Obama’s presidency came when he affiliated himself from the start with The Hamilton Project (THP), a key neoliberal Washington, D.C., think tank. THP was founded with Goldman Sachs funding inside the venerable centrist and Democratic-leaning Brookings Institution in spring 2006. Its creator was no less august a ruling class personage than Robert Rubin, the former Goldman Sachs CEO who served as Bill Clinton’s top senior economic policy adviser and treasury secretary. A legendary Democratic Party “kingmaker” who is often half-jokingly called “the wizard behind the curtain” of Democratic economic policy, Rubin was the veritable godfather of late 20th century and early 21st century U.S. neoliberalism. In accord with the “Rubinomics” trilogy of balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation, Clinton joined with corporate Democrats and Republicans to enact the great job-killing and anti-labor North American Free Trade Agreement, slash government spending, eliminate restrictions on interstate banking, repeal the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act (which had separated commercial from investment banking), and prevent the regulation of toxic “over-the-counter” financial derivatives (with the so-called Commodity Futures Modernization Act).
Beneath standard boilerplate on the need for “broad-based economic growth” and “an effective role for government in making needed investments,” THP has remained devoted—in the words of left political-economist Jamie Peck—“to fiscal discipline and free trade, to market-oriented approaches, and to strategies for attacking inequality that are attached from new [social-democratic] entitlement commitments.”
U.S. Senator Barack Obama was the keynote speaker at THP’s opening event in April 2006. Beginning with a special nod of thanks to “the wizard” (Rubin, who sat two chairs to his right), Obama praised Rubin and other Clinton administration veterans in the room. He lauded them for having “taken on entrenched interests” to “put us on the pathway to a prosperity we are still enjoying.” Obama called the new body a “breath of fresh air,” a welcome nonpartisan and non-ideological agent of economic “modernization.” He hailed THP for seeking “21st century solutions” and a practical handle on “what actually works” in a national capital plagued by “tired ideologies” of right and left. It was a classic triangulating “Third Way” neoliberal speech. Obama’s carefully clipped words functioned to “preemptively pacify Wall Street before declaring his presidential ambitions,” according to Peck—ambitions Obama had been harboring from the start of his U.S. Senate career and indeed, long before that.
America’s ‘Greatest Asset’ (November 2006)
Later the same year, Obama would publish a deeply conservative, nationalistic, American-exceptionalist, Ronald Reagan-praising and 1960s-dissing book titled “The Audacity of Hope.” The title was stolen from a sermon given by his former black pastor Jeremiah Wright, whom candidate Obama would later toss under the bus in a speech declaring that angry black anti-racism was no longer appropriate in “post-racial” America (a curious thing to argue in a nation still deeply scarred by living societal and institutional racism along with widespread racial prejudice). In “Audacity,” Obama rooted the supposed greatness of America in its “free market” capitalist system and “business culture.” He wrote that the United States’ “greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources.”
Obama left it to alienated carpers, “cranks” and “moral absolutists” of the “unreasonable” left (Obama’s basic understanding of radicals) to observe the terrible outcomes of the United States’ distinctively anti-social (and incidentally, heavily state-protected) “market system”: the “efficient,” climate-warming contributions of a nation that constituted 5 percent of the world’s population but contributed more than a quarter of the planet’s carbon emissions; the “innovative” generation of poverty for millions of U.S. children while executives atop leading U.S. “defense” firms raked in untold taxpayer millions for helping Uncle Sam and his Israeli and British friends kill and maim hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians; the top 1 percent’s possession of as much wealth as that held by the bottom two-thirds of the population—stuff like that.
“Unreasonable” Marxists, left-anarchists and “conspiracy theorists” were left to note that business-ruled workplaces and labor markets stole “individual initiative” from millions of American workers subjected to the monotonous repetition of imbecilic operations conducted for such unbearably long stretches of time that ordinary Americans were increasingly unable to participate meaningfully in the grand “deliberative democracy” that Obama naively trumpeted as the founders’ great gift to subsequent generations.
In one of many revealingly right-wing passages in “Audacity,” Obama mused rhapsodically on “just how good” even “our [the United States’] poor … have it” compared to their more destitute counterparts in Africa and Latin America. Obama took this comparison to be evidence for his argument in “Audacity” that U.S. capitalism—“the logic of the marketplace” and “private property at the very heart of our system[s] of liberty [and] social organization”—had brought Americans “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history.” Obama omitted considerably more appropriate contrasts between the U.S. and its fellow rich First World nations in Western Europe and Asia (Japan), where capitalism comes with considerably more social equality, provision and security than can be found in more hierarchical nations like Haiti, Nigeria, South Africa, Honduras, Saudi Arabia and, well, the United States.
This was a very different approach from that of Obama’s purported hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the summer of 1966, King noted the greater poverty that existed in the United States compared to other First World states like Sweden. “Maybe something is wrong with our [capitalist] economic system,” King told an interviewer.
The “beacon to the world” and “city on a hill” had something to “learn from other countries” King was suggesting. The learning process, King felt, meant “question[ing] the capitalistic economy” since “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
The Last Interregnum
I have in this essay focused (for reasons of time and space) mainly on how candidate Obama showed that he would accommodate U.S. business-class power. It was much the same story with candidate Obama on American racism and American empire. As I showed in detail in Chapters 3 (“How Black is Obama? Color, Class, Generation, and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era”) and 4 (“How Antiwar? Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire”) of my June 2008 book “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (BOATFAP),” U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Obama gave numerous indications to the powers that be that he would do nothing beyond continuing to be technically black and graced with a Muslim-sounding name to challenge the nation’s dominant racial hierarches or its murderous imperial policies and doctrines. Nobody who paid serious attention to the future president’s actual writings and speeches (especially the ones prepared and delivered for ruling-class organizations like The Hamilton Project, the Business Roundtable, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Council on Foreign Relations) should have expected anything different.
This—and its implications for the presidency to come—is something I was booked to discuss (with “BOATFAP” in hand) on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” in early December of 2008. After flying to New York City (partly at my publisher’s expense), I was cancelled by cell phone (with no hint of rescheduling) as I walked toward that show’s studio in Lower Manhattan. It was very strange and last-minute.
Would it have made any difference for me to issue my warnings on “Democracy Now!” No. An appearance on “Sixty Minutes” wouldn’t have mattered in the liberal world. Obama-mania was in full fever in the period between “the One’s” election and his inauguration. Fantasies of a new New Deal were rife across portside America. They were soon to be dashed as Obama and Timothy Geithner picked up the ball from George W. Bush and Hank Paulsen in giving the American people what William Greider called in March of 2009 (in a Washington Post column titled “Obama Told Us to Speak But Is He Listening?”) “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned,” Greider wrote, “that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.” And nothing for the rest of us, left to ask, “Where’s our bailout?”
But during the hopey-changey Interregnum, predicting such depressing outcomes was considered excessively negative and impolite in respectable liberal-left circles. Back in Iowa City, as across campus-town America, bamboozled liberals and progressives clung to their image of a left-leaning savior Obama like Melanesian islanders caught up in cargo cults during and after World War II. No amount of historical evidence was going to pry them away from their faith in the future president. Even now, progressives I know insist on fantasizing that “their” president was a left-leaning character stymied by corporate and imperial interests and the Republicans. The coming awfulness of Trump will perpetuate the fairytale.
Part of it had to do with the powerful symbolic hold of Obama’s skin color and a certain bourgeois kind of racial identity politics. Few white liberal-lefties wanted to deal fully and honestly with how little it really means to put few “black faces in high places” (even in the symbolically highest place of all) when material and social conditions are what they are for millions of ordinary Americans in the neoliberal era. The lesson was somewhat available even under Dubya. With Colin Powell as his first secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice as his first national security adviser and his secretary of state, and Alberto Gonzales as his second attorney general, George W. Bush’s cabinet was the most racially diverse on record. Bush’s presidency was also the most reactionary White House since James Buchanan’s.
Why Study History?
And now we have the dawning age of the thin-skinned megalomaniac and quasi-fascist Trump, who tapped popular resentment fueled by Obama’s predicted betrayals. In the meantime, Obama’s farewell address last Tuesday was crafted to keep the fake-progressive deception alive into his post-White House years. Obama is a master at using words to blind supporters to his deeds.
But serious progressives need to fearlessly peer beneath the deceptive words and the Obama myth and look at the actual record. The real history of Obama is something we should learn from before we let the coming anti-Trump resistance be coopted into a great big get-out-the-vote campaign for some new great purportedly progressive Democratic hope like, say, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kristen Gillibrand, Tammy Duckworth, Andrew Cuomo, Chris Murphy or Michelle Obama in 2019-20. It’s a cliché to quote Santayana on how those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them, but the warning applies quite well here.