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Barack Obama’s Deceptive Left Impression


The deception conducted by political "elites" is about more than specific factual lies.  It is also and perhaps more significantly about the creation of a sense, a feeling, an impression, an atmosphere, and/or even a mood. 

Look at how the Cheney-Bush administration and the Pentagon worked with congressional allies and corporate media to manufacture early consent for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The war masters concocted and disseminated a large number of specific and materially false claims – factual lies – to build their case for "war."

But it took more than that. Beyond the cooked intelligence, the White House and its partners and "free press" enablers created a sense and atmosphere of imminent danger.  They generated the false impressions that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was linked to 9/11 and al Qaeda and that Iraq and the Arab and Muslim worlds posed grave threats to ordinary Americans. They set the mood for a bloody invasion. 

Another and different example comes from the supposedly "antiwar" presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Facing criticism from some of his leftmost supporters for his latest right-leaning actions and statements (on gun control, the death penalty, campaign funding, Iraq, Iran, Israel-Palestine, Latin America, federal wiretapping, economic policy…the list goes on), Obama has admonished his "friends on the left" for failing to pay sufficiently close and careful attention to him over recent months and years.  Obama wants those increasingly irritated supporters and (more importantly) the corporate forces that manage the U.S. electorate to understand that his version of "progressivism" has never been left. 

He’s got a point. From the beginning of his political career (in the Illinois legislature in 1996) through his historic presidential campaign, Obama has been a dedicated centrist.  He has shown himself (for those willing and able to see) to be deeply respectful to – and invested in – dominant hierarchies and doctrines of class, race, nationality, religion, gender, and global power. A close and careful analysis of his record shows that he is man from whom the lords of capital and the masters of empire have nothing to fear.

Many progressive Obamanists have been woefully derelict when it comes to investigating the historical record that shows this to be true. Some of them have gone to remarkable lengths to advance the silly idea  that the real Obama beneath that record is a stealth "true progressive" -a Manchurian leftist doing "what he has to in order to win the presidency." Many of them have a painfully  pale and partial sense of what they mean when they call themselves "progressives." And many have fallen prey to the illusion that Obama must be a left-leaning progressive because of the color of his skin.   

Still, I do not entirely blame many progressive Obamanists for becoming excessively invested in "their" corporate candidate.  Obama likes to complain that voters see him as a blank sheet on to which they project their own particular world view and aspirations. But he knows very well that he and his corporate image and marketing consultants have done their best to sell Obama as a man for all moral and ideological seasons (as well they "should" given the ideology-blurring logic of the American "winner-take-all" "two party" and candidate-centered elections system).  And Obama knows very well that his campaign has responded to widespread progressive sentiments and anger (fed by eight incredibly reactionary and plutocratic years under George W. Bush) by working to create the false impression among certain targeted audiences that he is a progressive, populist, and peace-oriented opponent of Empire and Inequality, Inc.

I observed Obama pose as a left-leaning antiwar and social justice progressive again and again across Iowa during the long lead-up to his pivotal Caucus victory in that state.  I saw his faux-left act in numerous large speeches, small town halls meetings, and in countless television commercials.  In those speeches and ads, Obama played up his brief history as a community organizer and "civil rights lawyer" and deceptively trumpeted himself a strong opponent "from the beginning" of the Iraq "war." He tried to steal John Edwards’ "populist" thunder by railing against NAFTA, Wal-Mart ("I wouldn’t shop there"), Maytag (for abandoning workers in Galesburg, Illinois and Newton, Iowa), and the control of U.S. government by corporate interests – "the folks who write the big checks." Obama deleted his long record of accommodation with – and sponsorship by – powerful economic and political interests like (leading nuclear plant operator) Exelon, Lester Crown (a leading Maytag director), Henry Crown Investments, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Bros., UBS, Arial Capital, Google, the insurance lobby, Richard M. Daley, a number of corrupt Chicago real estate [under-]developers (including Tony Rezko), and the Council on Foreign Relations.  He railed against big money control of U.S. politics even as he underpinned his soon-to-be record-setting funding base with massive bundled investments from the giants of Wall Street and while he took his economy policy counsel from pro-"trade" (corporate-neoliberal) economists from the University of Chicago and Harvard.  From the start, "Obamanomics" has been a distinctly corporate-friendly tendency in the militantly centrist tradition of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and the Hamilton Group – something few voters would have guessed after hearing one of Obama’s populace-pleasing speeches during the primaries.

When primary candidate Obama denounced the "old politics of Washington," he  talked about driving out the oil, insurance, and pharmaceutical lobbyists, not collaborating with Republicans on federal wiretapping, limiting consumer damages in civil lawsuits, and sustaining the criminal occupation of Iraq for an indefinite period.  At one point last fall, I actually received a mailing from the Iowa Obama campaign telling me that I could "join the movement to stop the [Iraq] war" by caucusing for Obama.  Never mind that Obama was (and remains) a fiscal and political supporter of the criminal occupation.

My efforts to educate Iowa Democratic voters about the progressive Obama illusion stumbled on (a) the limits of my own persuasiveness and (b) the determination of many of those voters to accept almost as a matter of faith that Barack Obama was a left-leaning progressive.  But both the voters and I were both up against (c) the Obama campaign’s carefully crafted and well-funded effort to sell ("brand") their candidate to certain targeted voters and activists as some sort of left progressive.

Should "left" Obama supporters have looked more deeply and critically into the reality of their candidate’s record and world view beneath his image?  Sure. Should they do the same now? Absolutely.

But Obama and his campaign are leading agents in the manufacture of left illusion among progressive Democrats. There’s an ugly undercurrent of blaming your own victim in Obama’s recent criticism of his leftmost backers.  

Beneath this insulting treatment lurks Obama’s sense that he can take left progressives’ support for granted in light of the alternative: Mad Bomber McCain.

He might want to re-think that. Obama’s recent and ongoing lurch right, including his terrible vote for federal wiretapping (with retroactive immunity for telecommunications corporations), is costing him with left-leaning voters – not a small group.

Obama is the likely winner in November. As his ascendancy approaches, it is urgent that progressively inclined U.S. citizens peel off the layers of seductive deception to see Obama and the Democrats for what they really are – partners in corporate and imperial domination.

My forthcoming book "Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics" (order at   www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987) is not an effort to help elect the arch-authoritarian messianic militarist John McCain.  It is designed to help progressive and other citizens distinguish myth from reality in understanding the meaning of Obama. Besides giving a deep historical interpretation of Obama’s political and ideological origins and essence, it seeks to help position activists and citizens to respond positively and productively to the Obama phenomenon in coming months and years. That starts by differentiating the really existing Obama from the Obama that many wish to see. 

Veteran radical historian Paul Street ([email protected])lives in Iowa City, IA. Street is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, order at:  www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987

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