Is Obama Starting to “Flame Out?”

Obama dropped the ball.  You could see it in the eyes of the predominantly elite black audience members at the historically black Howard University in Washington D.C. last night, where the Democratic Party candidates came together for a debate centered on black and race-related issues in the U.S.  It was a look of disappointment and even exasperation, saying basically “is that all you’ve  got?  Is that it?”

Here he was – the person with the best shot to become the first black president in U.S. history, facing off with his astonishing media profile and his Harvard Law degree against his Caucasian and Latino (Richardson) rivals in the nation’s leading black institution of higher learning. 

So what did he bring to the venue? Vague platitudes and broad sweeping statements about personal responsibility, public morality and black cultural problems.  A few weak references to the need for positive social policy including the adequate funding of schools and the claim that “I would not be standing here today” if  it wasn’t for the [public school desegregation] Brown v. Board of Education decision.  The non-controversial idea that New Orleans was mistreated by the Bush administration before as well as after Katrina.  A lot of smiles, winks, and bravado. And very little substance or serious engagement with pivotal and interrelated issues of race, class and empire. 

He put the B[arack] and O[bama] in B-o-r-i-n-g.  It’s like Michelle Obama likes to say about her husband: “maybe someday he’ll do something to justify all the attention he’s getting.”  

Yesterday was not the day. 

It was left to Dennis Kucinich, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton to talk in a more detailed way about the depth and degree of racial disparity in the nation, about the persistent role of racial discrimination and institutional inequity, and about specific policies to address those disparities. 

It was left to Kucinich to follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr. by noting (again and again) the pivotal role of military spending and war in the undermining and perversion of the nation’s social priorities and the crippling of government’s ability to meet the social needs that are so disproportionately unmet in the black community.  Kucinich's consistent theme (echoed by Mike Gravell) — the social opportunity cost of militarism and the war — played very well with the audience. 

Only the bizarre and cranky Mike Gravell had the elementary decency to cite National Priorities Project data on schools that could have been built and teachers that could have been hired and other pressing social needs that could have been met in the “homeland"  with the billions spent on the criminal occupation of Iraq.   

It was left to Kucinich to observe the role of oil in the imperial misdirection of America’s government resources by observing that Darfur would be under U.S. occupation if it possessed Iraq’s petroleum reserves.

No wonder the audience generally sat on its hands and stayed tight-lipped while the conservative, power-accommodating Obama spoke. By interesting contrast,  Kucinich and Edwards’ comments were frequently interrupted by applause and favorable comments.

The biggest applause line went to Clinton, however, when she said that “If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34 there would be an outraged outcry in this country.”

Nobody is going to beat a Clinton when it comes to sounding concerned about racism in front of a black audience.

There was a lot of justifiable anger expressed by all the candidates at the terrible Supreme Court decision (issued on the same days as the debate) shooting down even voluntary (not federal-ordered) desegregation efforts in U.S. school districts. Too bad nobody had the guts to embarrass Barack “I wouldn’t be here without Brown v. Board” Obama  by pointing out that he had criticized efforts to enact filibuster proceedings against reactionary Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and that he failed to act to place a hold on the nomination of reactionary Supreme Court chief John Roberts – two essential Bush-appointed components of the terrible 5-4 right wing majority that currently imperils civil, labor and women’s rights on the high court. It would have been interesting to see some sparks fly over that at the Howard forum.

Coming across strong on policy details and on the causes of racial poverty and wealth inequality, Edwards clearly and easily won the debate among the top tier candidates. Kucinich won the second-tier debate and may have tied Edwards for first overall.   Hillary came in third; she’s frankly pretty good at the quick-answer debate format.  

Former NAFTA point man (in the Congress) Bill Richardson had a difficult time, stumbling over his words and repeatedly talking past his time limits.

Watching an all-white post-debate forum of Iowa journalists on Iowa Public Television, I was unsurprised to see Kucinich ignored. Dennis doesn't stand a chance partly because of the way he's treated in dominant (“mainstream”) media.  People in the press and television corps have an ingrained ideological prejudice against a Left candidate. 

The Iowa reporters were right however when they agreed that Obama was uninspiring and that he was outdone (in front of a black audience) by Caucasians Edwards and Clinton. 

I honestly don’t know where I’d rank Obama in the Howard debate.  He was just there, being the same old mush-mouthed, ponderous, and non-committal Barockstar more and more Americans are going to have the opportunity to get tired of in coming months  He’s a man without strong and courageous positions on issues that matter. His whole bland “I don’t really have to say anything I’m just going to be everything to everyone” bit is starting to wear thin.

Listening the other night to a political talk show on my car radio, I heard the slimy former Republican/Clinton political guru Dick Morris say that Obama is "hitting a wall." Obama’s bubble is about to burst.  I hope Morris is right.  Maybe the shine is starting to come off the suspiciously overnight and media-anointed Barocktsar. 

Richardson has been using a clever television advertising campaign to come close to matching Obama’s third-place numbers in Iowa and Obama has been forced to run some television spots.  

The only Obama ad I’ve seen so far shows a number of Republican legislators from Illinois testifying that the Barockstar can “work with people on the other side of the aisle.”  To quote a five-year old I know: “yuk!” The message is that Obama is a pragmatic accommodator who gets things done. It reminds me of Obama’s comment the night that the Democrats rode a wave of mass revulsion against Bush’s corrupt administration and his illegal war on Iraq to majority power in the 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).

Yes, by all means let’s “work with” George W. Bush and his ilk. Can't we all just get along?  Right, that’s what the voters said last November.

While Barack “the oppressed need to empathize with their oppressors” (one of the many eyebrow-raising lines in his conservative campaign book The Audacity of Hope [2006]), Obama is trumpeting his ability to work with the despicable right wing, Elizabeth Edwards is embarrassing the reactionary corporate media witch Ann Coulter on national television.  Elizabeth E. recently called into “Hardball” (MSNBC) to confront (confront, not accommodate) and rightly humiliate the sallow proto-fascist about the viciousness of Coulter’s personal attacks on John Edwards and his family. 

Obama writes in his second book (Audacity of Hope) that Cheney and Bush are normal and nice people like the rest of us.  Oh, okay.

Edwards sounds more reasonable when he talks about the need to put a “decent human being” in the White House for a change.

There’s a name for Obama’s “I can work with Republicans” line.  It’s called triangulation…the Bill and Hill strategy whereby the right gets solid regressive policy victories (ie the nasty, poor-bashing Clinton-Gingrich welfare “reform’ that Obama loves to praise) and the left gets nice soft pseudo-progressive rhetoric.  

The line doesn’t resonate with anybody I know in the pivotal primary state of Iowa. Everybody I talk to here has zero interest in accommodating or working with the right-wing zanies that dominate the Republican Party.  They have no fear of the supposed evil (in Obama’s view) of partisanship.  They just want the Democratic Party to fight back in the interests of the poor and the working- and middle-class against the rich and powerful.  They want to kick Republican butt, to be honest..

They admire Dennis but know he’s unelectable (thanks in no small part to the media and campaign finance powers that be) and see Edwards as the guy most able to defeat the vicious arch-regressive/arch-repressive and messianic-militarist Republicans in November 2008.  

They are increasingly irritated by Obama’s presence in the race and would very much like to seem him fade out.   It’s great to see a black candidate being able to run a serious campaign with multi-racial appeal but Obama is becoming a problem for real progressives. Let’s be brutally honest.  What  is the objective consequence of the Obama campaign? It is to move the electoral process to the right in a moment of populist and antiwar potential.  The overnight pseudo-progressive Barockstar works to block Edwards’ hard fought progressive appeal on the left side of the admittedly too-conservative Democratic Party, confronting Edwards with a second highly funded stealth corporate neoliberal “new” Democrat – this one wielding the powerful weapon of race to deepen the confusion and division of voters who wish the Democrats would stand up and confront the Republicans with a genuinely progressive “real Democrat” for once.   

After the openly Left and officially unelectable Kucinich (who threw his Iowa caucus delegates to Edwards in 2004 and will probably do so again in 2008), Edwards is the closest thing to such a candidate in the Democratic primaries.  It’s not for nothing that Edwards is losing to Hillary-Obama in both the big donor dollar race and in the race for name recognition and favorable attention in dominant media. He’s speaking the languages of labor, the New Deal and the (stillborn) War on Poverty to a noteworthy extent in a time when the labor movement and the notion of positive government action for egalitarian and anti-poverty ends have been officially proclaimed dead and over (drowned in the icy individualist waters of neoliberal calculation) and in a period when the issues of inequality and economic insecurity resonate with a considerable and growing section of the ever more class-fractured citizenry. 

The other thing is that Edwards is a threat to win.  Though you would hardly know it from the dominant national media coverage, he currently leads the polls in Iowa, where grassroots organization, the caucus system, a historically independent electorate and his earlier positive history there – he finished a strong second to Kerry in Iowa in 2004, picking up steam at the end with his powerful “two Americas” theme – are working to his benefit. Even with his comparative media and campaign finance challenges, he’s a real threat to post early victories in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.  Triumphs in these states would boost his national profile and raise the possibility that his dangerous (to corporate ideological gate-keepers) “class warfare” (the FOX News take on his “two Americas” theme) theme would catch hold with an in fact remarkably and increasingly class-polarized electorate. At the same time, since he enjoys lower negative poll ratings than the other two top-tier Democrats, Edwards fares better than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama when matched up against likely 2008 Republican presidential opponents in opinion surveys (Rasmussen Reports 2007).      

The owners and coordinators of the United States’ corporate media empire have good reasons to want to marginalize serious discussion of economic inequality in the U.S. after thirty five years in which the share of U.S. “earnings” appropriated by the richest 1 percent of American has tripled while incomes have stagnated and fallen for the nation’s working class majority.  The most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialized world by far, the U.S. is now at pre-New Deal levels of economic disparity. Reflecting three plus decades of  richly media-enabled class warfare of the unmentionable sort – from the top down – the top 1 percent now owns more than a third of the nation’s wealth. This is something the “mainstream” U.S. media oligopoly would very much like to keep out of sustained and serious public attention.        

 Edwards, whatever his social and ideological limitations (from a Left perspective), is working to place this problem and the intimately related issue of poverty in the foreground.  He appears to sincerely care – and is willing to pay a campaign-finance and related public relations cost for his concern – about these issues. For this and other reasons, dominant U.S. media tend to alternately mock and ignore his campaign. This is supposed to be a militantly regressive corporate-neoliberal age – no questions asked – as far as the nation’s economic and ideological power elite is concerned.  The spectrum of acceptable debate set by that elite has shifted so far to the right that even an Edwards – not just a Kucinich (the most truly Left major party candidate in the race) – gets vicious treatment from dominant communications and cultural authorities.  This says more about how right-wing that media has become than how left Edwards is but Edwards deserves credit for refusing to follow the standard chilling big-money path to corporate-neoliberal centrism. He’s different and better than and actually to the left of dominant media darlings Hillary and Obama, whose susceptibility to the charge of false populism is reduced by the fact that they possess less real populist concern and commitment than Edwards.  

And that perhaps is part of why the Barockstar has been created practically overnight courtesy of Big Money and Corporate Media. His top first-quarter sponsors include global investment players UBS-Americas ($162,200), Goldman Sachs ($146,100), Citigroup ($56,000), Credit Suisse Securities ($47,500), Morgan Stanley ($41,850), Lehman Bros.( $38,400) and Aerial Capital ($37,900).   The second quarter willl be worse, perhaps.  

As the Clinton campaign knows, “if Obama flames out, Edwards rises” (Karen Tumulty and James Carney, “Hillary Pushes Back,” TIME, May 7, 2007, p.43). 

The sooner the flame out comes the better.

Maybe Obama’s Howard disappointment will help fan the fire, though it is questionable how much attenton white majority America paid to a debated focused on black issues at a black university.  In any event, one centrist top-tier big money Democratic triangulator is enough.           

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