One of the more recurrent refrains I heard from many of Barack Obama’s progressive supporters in late 2007 and through the recent election went like this: “oh, he has to say and do that stuff to get elected. The corporate and military powers that be will sink him if he acts as left as he really is. Just wait until he gets in: then you’ll see the real progressive deal.”
“That stuff” included Obama declaring his readiness to bomb Iran, saying that black Americans had come “90 percent” of the way to equality, treating Jeremiah Wright’s anger over American racism as inappropriate for the current era, proclaiming that the U.S. invaded Iraq with noble intentions, and saying that “the Surge” was “succeeding beyond our wildest imagination.” Other parts of the Obama campaign package: advancing nuclear power and Ethanol, claiming that leading Wall Street firms and other large corporations were as interested as anyone else in “American renewal” (they “just hadn’t been asked” to help the country, Obama said last year), supporting the unilateral use of military power even in “situations beyond self-defense” (in a 2007 Foreign Affairs essay), and calling for an expansion of U.S.-imperial armed forces.
Neoliberal From the Start
There were four key problems with this alternatively naïve and cynical defense of candidate Obama’s centrism. First, it neglected Obama’s history as a deeply conciliatory and conservative, privilege-friendly politician. From his Harvard Law School days through his state legislative career and his brief stint in the U.S. Senate, Obama has exhibited what liberal journalist Ryan Lizza rightly calls “an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions.”
Those who think Obama is a “true progressive” whose left and democratic orientation has been “squandered” or carefully hidden thanks to his national political ambitions and/or the influence of his political handlers might want to consider an interesting description of the young phenomenon penned by the veteran black political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. just as Obama’s political career began. By Reed’s account, Obama came to the political game with an already advanced and highly cultivated bourgeois taste for incremental change and compromise with concentrated power. Alternately praised (by moderates) as “pragmatism” and “realism” and reviled (by left progressives and radicals) as “selling out” and “cooptation,” his finely honed centrism was a habit of thought that flowed naturally from his elite socialization in a corporate-neoliberal post-Civil Rights era at privileged private institutions like Columbia, Harvard, and the metropolitan foundations (including the Woods Fund of Chicago and the Joyce Foundation) on whose boards he sat and in whose circles he moved (a rarely noted aspect of Obama’s biography) while he worked as a Chicago lawyer.
This is how Reed described the 30-something Obama in early 1996, shortly after the latter won his first election to the Illinois legislature and more than eight years before the world beyond Springfield and the Chicago and Washington money-politics elite discovered the “Obama phenomenon”:
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 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 substances. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway.1
There’s little basis for many progressives’ desire to share some right-wingers’ picture of Obama as a closeted true-progressive waiting for the White House ascendancy to unveil his left agenda.
Second, to quote a Buddhist maxim, “the path is the goal.” The point can be exaggerated, but it is hard to end up on the left turn ramp while driving in the center and right lanes. It is difficult (thought not impossible) to rally the troops for progressive change while steering again and again — however stealthily (see my next point) – to the corporate and imperial right.
Third, the bigger truth is that candidate Obama tended to run to the rhetorical left of his actual policy agenda. Especially during the primary campaign, he sounded far more progressive than he actually was. He posed for the liberal base as an “antiwar candidate” even while he signaled clearly to the foreign policy establishment that he would continue the Iraq occupation for an indefinite period. He ran as an advocate of universal heath insurance even while he advanced a plan that left critical cost-driving power in the hands of the big insurance and pharmaceutical corporations.
Things He Didn’t “Have” to Say and Do
Last but not least, U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Obama repeatedly said and did things more reactionary than required to make a viable presidential run and still pass muster with concentrated power. The imperial plutocracy didn’t require Obama to vote for the expansion of federal domestic wiretapping powers with retroactive immunity to the big telecommunications corporations last spring.
Harsh political power realities did not mean that Obama “had” to tell CNN’s Candy Crowley last summer that the U.S. should never apologize for any of its actions abroad. (Why wouldn’t a supposedly “benevolent” empire want to occasionally and disingenuously apologize for such “occasional” “mistakes” as the recurrent indiscriminate bombing of Afghan wedding parties?).
Obama did not “have” to provocatively tell the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in the fall of 2006 that the American people were “resolved” in support of “well-intentioned” U.S. foreign policy since they “have seen their sons and daughters killed in the streets of Fallujah” (a city that suffered massive U.S. imperial assaults, with a giant civilian death toll, in April and November of 2004).
Obama didn’t “have” to blow up the public presidential election financing system once and for all, though he would have been crazy (from an “in it to win it” perspective) not to given his remarkable private funding advantage over John McCain.
In the process of torpedoing federal election funding, moreover, Obama didn’t “have” to create the dark deception that his fundraising operation constituted “a parallel system of public financing.” The truth of the matter, reported on ABC’s evening news last week, is that Obama got just a quarter off his campaign finance haul from small donors. That was the same share small donors contributed to George W. Bush’s funding take in 2004 — a telling little detail that gets lost in Obama’ recurrent trumpeting of the fact that he received 91 percent of his contributions from small givers. Too bad those small givers comprised just a fourth of his total money.
And Obama hasn’t “had” to go to the remarkable lengths he has gone to deny the depth and degree of U.S. racial disparities and continuing relevance of racism in explaining those inequalities.
I could go on.
“Honeymoans” and Violins
Five weeks away from Obama’s inauguration, some progressives are disturbed to learn that his corporate-imperial cabinet picks epitomize what former Clinton administration official and Kissinger Associates Managing Director David J. Rothkopf calls “the violin model: Hold power with the left hand, and play the music with your right” (NYT, November 22, 2008, A1). It bothers a growing number of Obama’s liberal backers to learn that, as Wall Street Journal editorial board member Matthew Kaminski notes, “the Obama camp says the future president, who won running from the left, intends to govern from the center” (WSJ, December 6/7, 2008, A8).
“This Wasn’t Quite the Change We Pictured,” whines the title of a recent Washington Post editorial by leading left-liberal writer David Corn.2
It’s long past time for Corn and other “concerned” and “disappointed” Obama liberals to trade in their rose-colored campaign glasses for the demystifying shades donned by the ideology-decoding rebels in John Carpenter’s classic left science fiction movie “They Live.” The balmy feel-good people’s rhetoric of the electoral contest has faded as always before the big chill of corporate-imperial governance.
A little more due diligence research on their candidate’s longstanding centrist history and how well it matches the narrow parameters imposed by the American political tradition and party system might have prevented some of the current left and liberal “honeymoaning” (Alexander Cockburn’s useful term3) about Obama. For all his claims to be a noble and “pragmatic” reformer “above the fray” of America’s imperial plutocracy and “ideological” politics, Obama is no special exception to — and is in many ways an epitome of — what Christopher Hitchens called (in his 1999 study of the Bill and Hillary Clinton phenomenon) “the essence of American politics. This essence, when distilled,” Hitchens explained, “consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism.”Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000), pp. 17-18.
It’s nothing new. Relying heavily on candidates’ repeated promise to restore “hope” to a populace disillusioned by corporate control, corruption, and inequality — a standard claim of non-incumbent Democratic presidential candidates — this dark essence of United States political culture goes back further than the corporate-neoliberal era into which Obama came of political age. It is arguably as old the Republic itself, always torn by the rift between democratic promise and authoritarian realities of concentrated wealth and power.
Underlying systemic contradictions related to the deepening economic crisis may well drive Obama to introduce measures that will seem comparatively progressive in relation to the last thirty-five years of U.S. economic policy. For real and genuinely progressive recovery to occur, however, popular agency on the model of the recent factory occupation at Chicago’s Republic Door and Window plant4 will be required, as in previous periods of reform. Today as in the 1930s and 1960s, rank and file citizens’ agency will be a critical element forcing progressive change that can be reasonably believed in.5 Obama may be left-handed but its’ time to stop waiting for a mythical White House lefty and to get to the work of actual left organizing and vision from the bottom up.
- Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000). For an (I hope) useful summary of Obama’s relatively tepid and centrist career as a state legislator, please see Paul Street , “Statehouse Days: The Myth of Barack Obama’s ‘True Progressive’ Past,” ZNet (July 20, 2008). [↩]
- David Corn, “This Wasn’t Quite the Change We Pictured,” Washington Post (December 5, 2008). [↩]
- Alexander Cockburn, “Honeymoans From the Left,” CounterPunch (December 5/7, 2008). [↩]
- Lee Sustar, “Chicago Factory Occupied,” Socialist Worker (December 6, 2008). [↩]
- Howard Zinn, “Election Madness,” The Progressive (March 2008). [↩]