Who Owns Obama?

Show me whose hand you eat from, and I’ll show you whose song you sing.

That’s the proverb that comes to mind when looking at Barack Obama’s recent and not-as-recent flip-flops on everything from publicly financed elections to the recent FISA bill legalizing warrantless wiretapping and email snooping by the government. The bill also gives companies like Verizon, which cooperated with the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping after 9/11, immunity from lawsuits.

In Obama’s announcement that he would opt out of the system of public financing, he claimed that the system “is broken” because of loopholes that Senator John McCain has exploited to raise money from lobbyists and special interest groups. With public financing, Obama would have received $84 million in taxpayer money, gained from the $3 check-off on federal tax returns, which he could spend starting at the close of the Democratic Party’s convention until Election Day.

To deflect criticism of Obama’s flip-flop on the issue, apologists for Obama and the candidate himself have made much of the fact that 45 percent of his money comes from small donors (defined as those who donate $200 or less). He claims that these small donors “will have as much access and influence over the course and direction of our campaign that has traditionally been reserved for the wealthy and the powerful.”

In reality, big contributors have far more influence in and access to the campaign than the voter who shells out $200 because he or she really believes in Obama’s message of change. These small donors did not get advance copies of Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech addressing the Reverend Wright controversy. They do not participate in weekly and quarterly conference calls with the head honchos of the campaign and with Obama himself.

To sit on the “national finance committee” that gets advance copies of speeches and access to the campaign’s decision-makers, donors must bundle contributions of $200,000 or more from friends, associates, co-workers, and employees. The top 79 bundlers for Obama’s campaign, five of whom are billionaires, are responsible for 27,000 checks from individuals for the legal maximum of $2,300. Of those bundlers, 18 work at top law firms and 21 are Wall Street executives and power brokers from Fortune 500 companies. Others include hedge fund executives, Silicon Valley capitalists, Chicago-based developers, and black millionaires.

Of course, that’s not counting the money Obama has raised by exploiting the very same loophole in campaign finance laws that he blasted McCain for. He got $28,500 donations recently by dining with rich couples in Hollywood for a grand total of $5 million in one event. (That money goes to the party, circumventing the $2,300 legal limit on individual donations to candidates, which is a joke since Obama now controls the Democratic Party).

Forget “change we can believe in.” I’ve got a better slogan for the Obama campaign: “hypocrisy made flesh.”

Here’s the picture when individual donors are broken down by industry: Lawyers have donated about $18 million to Obama, the telecom industry has given about $10 million (thereby purchasing his flip-flop on FISA legislation), employees of securities and investment firms have given about $8 million, university administrators and employees have given roughly $7 million, real estate professionals have contributed $5 million, medical professionals have donated $7 million, bankers have given $1.6 million, and hedge fund and private equity managers have given about $1.6 million.

Broken down by individual companies, we find that Goldman Sachs employees gave more to Obama than any other group, followed by the University of California, UBS, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, National Amusements, Lehman Brothers, Harvard, and Google. These institutions would have to be stupid to give millions to a candidate that would deliver real, substantive change at their expense for the benefit of America’s working-class majority. If they’re that stupid, they can write some checks for a guy I know in Venezuela named Hugo Chávez.

Now that the primaries are over, we can see what Obama really stands for: more of the same. More of the same policies that have produced a gigantic disparities in income, growing pockets of poverty, more people without health insurance, the highest per-capita prison population in the world, crumbling infrastructure, a failing education system, inner city decay, and an increasingly aggressive foreign policy.

If you think Obama’s light-speed blitz to the right is bad now, wait until the election is over. Then he won’t have to pretend to give a damn what the voters think and he can repay his top donors for the investment they made in him. Already the Wall Street Journal is salivating over the prospect of Obama presiding over Bush’s third term.

Remember folks, he’s Barack Obama, and Wall Street approved his message.

Pham Binh is an activist and recent graduate of Hunter College in NYC. His articles have been published at Znet, Asia Times Online, Dissident Voice, and Monthly Review Online. He can be reached at: anita_job@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Pham, or visit Pham's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. rosemarie jackowski said on July 15th, 2008 at 2:43pm #

    Seen one Democrat, seen ’em all – and we thought that Obama would be different. Just one more reason to vote NADER.

  2. Jordan Schiele said on July 15th, 2008 at 5:39pm #

    Got Democracy?

    Vote Ralph Nader 2008.

  3. Bill Stella said on July 26th, 2008 at 8:41pm #

    A batch of not-entirely organized thoughts:

    Adhering to the cliched but effective advice “Follow the money” is one of the best ways of knowing what is true and what is smoke and mirrors in politics and society. So kudos for paying attention to money and Obama’s campaign.

    But interpreting the money spent is something else. People can always impose their own interpretations on statistics, whether the evidence is good enough to support it or not.

    Everyone who is going through a disillusionment phase with Obama needs to learn something (and although I prefer to make this point more gently, I can not avoid it because it needs to be learned fast, and reinforced often). That is, where are you getting these illusions and why do you set yourself up for disillusionment?
    Is there something about the word “hope” which causes people to suspend disbelief, or at least critical thinking? The man is a professional politician in a society that requires huge amounts of money at most levels in order to be taken seriously.

    I am not writing to be harsh. I could cite other examples of people buying illusions, but won’t. Perhaps at this point it would surprise folks reading this to know that I am an Obama supporter. (And, of interest, perhaps, to the previous commenters, a registered Green.) He’s not my first choice (which would have been Kucinich or Edwards), but he is a better choice than the rest of the pack. (I’d prefer McKinney to Nader at this point, but she hasn’t exactly built coalitions as strong as Obama has.) Of course McCain is sure to make things worse. If elected, Obama will have his most difficult challenges dealing with those who oppose him, and whether the end result of that conflict makes things worse is impossible for me to tell, but I believe he is up to that challenge (mostly).

    All candidates are flawed. Looking at their flaws, recognizing and evaluating them as best you can as people you are hiring to do a job, that is the electorate’s job. Discovering flaws – even serious ones – should not be shocking or completely off-putting for anyone who has looked at candidates and issues in an election cycle or three. And, in as diverse a society as ours, where “regular people” come in many varieties of class, social circles, and demographics, and where one person’s important issue is another’s special interest, it is not difficult at all to find “hypocrisy” where you may. Whether it really IS hypocrisy is another thing.

    That said, it is great to see writing that crunches some numbers about Obama’s campaign finances. It may be true that Obama makes more choices on the basis of who gave how much to his campaign than we the electorate are comfortable believing.

    But I am unsure whether it is true, as the article interprets it, that Obama in fact flip-flopped about FISA. Much as I want to have believed he was against Dubya’s FISA bill (at the least just because anything Dubya wants is likely to be something to oppose), I do not recall anything publicized where Obama said he was going to vote against the bill. Now, I think it makes sense that he would vote against it. I think it is possible he has said stuff that sounded like we would conclude he’d of course be against it. But I do not think it rises to the level of a flip-flop, nor of hypocrisy.

    I agree with the line “In reality, big contributors have far more influence in and access to the campaign than the voter who shells out $200 because he or she really believes in Obama’s message of change.” However, even if it is only a matter of degree, the number of people making smaller contributions to this campaign remains larger than any in U.S. history. Do not lose sight of that, even when paying attention to how much big money is piling on the bandwagon.

    Obama and his campaign have proven to be shrewd, in a way that capitalist competitors recognize: He has come up with a new and better way to sell his product. Therefore it is no wonder corporations and rich people are now giving money.

    My bias is that that often is not a good thing. But it is NOT AUTOMATICALLY a bad thing.

    It does mean that wealth still has a disproportionate amount of power, that the system needs to change more, that Obama is no “savior”, and that, in other words, there is lots of work yet to be done to make those changes reality.

    But to label the Obama campaign “hypocrisy made flesh”? No more than anyone who has to make difficult decisions, and far less than many.

    Thanks for reading.

  4. wake up! said on September 15th, 2008 at 7:33am #

    I too wish Obama was sincere, but this article only scratches the surface. No one gets to become president without the approval of the Bilderberg group. He has been bought and paid for. Learn more about globalization, the new world order, and eugenics. Even the popular trend of “going green” is part of an agenda to save us from ourselves. Similar to government sponsored terrorism, global warming is a perfect execution of “problem, reaction, solution”. A clever way to manipulate popular opinion and change public policy. It is all about less freedom, destroying the constitution, and full spectrum dominance by global government. Obama will continue the agenda of giving up U.S. power to the U.N. which makes the constitution irrelevant. Then multinational corporations will have a one stop shop to buy laws and “change” policy. It has already been going on for a while under the radar. Look up “codex alimentarius” and “agenda 21” for examples of this. There needs to be a great awakening in this country or it is going to disappear.

  5. wake up! said on September 15th, 2008 at 7:37am #

    This is not a democrat vs republican issue. That type of thinking is how they keep the public asleep while they take the country right out from under us. There is no right or left, they are two sides of the same agenda leaning on each other to keep us busy.

  6. Binh said on September 15th, 2008 at 10:47am #

    Bill, here’s something I think you might want to read re: the lesser evil argument. I submitted it to DV but it was not accepted: