Biden’s Sordid Metaphor: “Bin-Laden is Dead, General Motors is Alive”

Unleashed for the re-election campaign, the bombastic blowhard Joe Biden earlier this year advanced what he thought was a clever bumper sticker for the 2012 Obama-Biden ticket: “Osama bin-Laden is Dead, General Motors is Alive.”[1] As the Vice President explained at a fundraiser in Florida two months ago: "It's a metaphor for our foreign policy and our domestic economic policy."[2]


I can think of slogans that would do a better job of capturing the essence of the Obama administration. How about “Thousands of Innocent Afghans and Pakistanis are Dead, but the Executives of Lockheed Martin are Thriving”? (We can substitute Goldman Sachs Exxon, JP Morgan Stanley, The Boeing Corporation, and numerous other corporations for Lockheed Martin). Or “Half the County is Low-Income.[3] But Luxury Goods are Flying Off the Shelves?”[4]


A Mafia-Style Hit


But let’s leave campaign catchphrase-making to others and focus on the supposed great achievements Biden wants to emphasize. The killing of Osama bin-Laden one year ago is hardly something to hold up for admiration. It was a Mafia-like “revenge killing” (Noam Chomsky) carried out in brazen defiance of international and Pakistani law. Unarmed and cornered by 79 Special Forces commandoes in criminally invaded sovereign Pakistan, bin-Laden could and should have been detained for trial in accord with established international rules. Instead he was summarily shot to death in what was clearly a planned execution. His body was dumped in the sea in a major insult to Muslim burial rituals and despite legal requirements for a post-mortem examination. The cold and criminal nature of the killing was captured nicely by the headline atop a news account in Lebanon: “The Execution of Bon-Laden: A Settling of Accounts Between Killers.” [5]


But I cannot wonder if there was more at stake than revenge and politics (the Obama team expected to receive a significant approval boost from rubbing out the empire’s official leading public enemy) in the rapid creation and disappearance of bin-Laden’s corpse. A trial might have involved unwanted discussion of matters that the masters of the American Empire would prefer kept in Orwell’s memory hole, including Osama’s onetime service in the U.S. war on the Soviet Union and the fact that he attacked the U.S. not because al Qaeda “hated our freedom” but because it hated America’s many-sided and mass-murderous imperial role (inherited from the British) in the Middle East and Muslim world.[6]



“Not Something You Might Have Expected from an Administration Elected With Union Support”


What about the rescue of General Motors? Leaving aside the eco-cidal madness of Washington investing in the mass carbon-emitting automobile industry while doing nothing or close to it for the green production and transportation conversion America and the world urgently require, it too was a sordid affair. The White House’s restructuring plan for the auto industry in 2009 included letting the company raid union pension funds to pay off wealthy Wall Street investors and permitted General Motors to double its car production for the U.S, market in Mexico, South Korea and China.[7] Under the terms of the bankruptcy settlement that the administration and its “car czar” Steven Rattner worked out with General Motors at the end of May 2009, the company was permitted to grab workers’ pension funds to pay off greedy financial investors who had long advanced the offshoring of American production.


The finance-friendly worker-screwing deal went through, with the administration attacking labor to a degree the auto corporations dared not go by themselves. Looking back on the big auto bailout months later, the New York Times chief financial columnist, Floyd Norris, marveled at how the Obama administration was “teaching capitalism to the carmakers.” Back “in the bad old days, when supposed capitalist were running Detroit,” Norris wrote, the auto industry relied on expanding volume through price cuts and “sweet lease deals,” all designed to maintain cash flows and preserve market share. Faced with a “powerful” union (the UAW), the big three automakers supposedly (by Norris’s account) failed to focus on capitalist profitability, which would have required closing plants and firing workers. The situation was being corrected by the Obama administration, falsely accused of “socialism.” As Norris explained: “The result was a lot of job cutting, not something you might have expected from an administration elected with union support [emphasis added]. The unions lost their generous pay for laid-off workers.” [8] In the Obama version of state capitalism as applied to the auto industry, the state was more ruthlessly capitalist than the capitalists themselves.


Empire, Eco-cide and Inequality at Home and Abroad


The capital-friendly, labor-attacking auto bailout was rolled out in a season when the president’s aides defended him against the charge that he was “wimpy” in confronting powerful institutions by praising him for “picking fights” with “main components of the Democratic base, like organized labor”[9] – as if American unions instead of giant multinational corporations and high finance were the real source of money and power in Washington. At the same time, Obama’s tepid and undersized 2009 stimulus plan was dysfunctionally overloaded with business-friendly tax cuts and egregiously short on labor-intensive projects to put people to work right away. The president said nothing about the overdue labor law reform he had campaigned on, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have been at the heart and center of any reasonably progressive economic recovery program. Revealingly enough, Obama made a public visit in support of his stimulus bill to a Caterpillar factory in Illinois. It was a slap in the face of two groups—the Palestinians and U.S. organized labor. A provider of bulldozers equipped and used by Washington’s hyper-militarized Middle Eastern client state Israel to raze Palestinian homes to make way for illegal Israeli settlements (itself a major problem behind the Islamist rage that helped fuel al Qaeda’s attacks on the U.S.), Caterpillar had been the first large U.S. manufacturer in decades to break a major strike with scabs (in 1992)[10] – an action that earned it special notoriety in American union circles.


Talk about an apt “metaphor for our foreign policy and our domestic economic policy” – a policy of bloody militarism and petro-imperialism abroad and savage inequality and union-busting at home. Reliance on eco-cidal energy use patterns (whose promise to eliminate the human species along with many others is mere cost externality to the business elite) is a common thread across both “our” foreign and “our” domestic policies.


There’s a curious footnote to this squalid story.  The administration’s efforts to spark renewed expansion of the insanely dangerous and expensive nuclear power industry may have been stymied by its recent success in increasing domestic national gas and oil production (through environmentally disastrous means) and by the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year.[11]  The Japanese disaster did grant one great benefit to the Obama campaign, however.  It crippled Japanese automakers enough to let General Motors claim that its gas-guzzling products were number one in the world auto market last year.[12]


Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of many books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007); and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010).



[1]  Dave Boyer, “Biden: Put Osama Obama’s 2012 Bumper Sticker,” Washington Times, February 24, 2012, read  online at http://www.washingtontimes.com/blog/inside-politics/2012/feb/24/biden-put-osama-bin-laden-obamas-2012-bumper-stick/



[2] Steve Benen, “Biden’s 10-Word Pitch,” The Maddow Blog (February 7, 2012) at http://maddowblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/02/07/10343098-bidens-10-word-pitch


[3] CBS News, “Census Data: Half of U.S. Poor or Low Income,” December 15, 2011 6:25 AM at http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57343397/census-data-half-of-u.s-poor-or-low-income/


[4] Stephanie Clifford, “Even Marked Up, Luxury Goods Are Flying Off the Shelves,”  New York Times,  August 3, 2011, read online at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/04/business/sales-of-luxury-goods-are-recovering-strongly.html?_r=1&hp


[5] Noam Chomsky, “The Revenge Killing of Osama Bin Laden,” New York Times Syndicate (June 1, 2011). reproduced in Noam Chomsky, Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance (San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 2012), 273-79.


[6] For honest and intelligent discussion of that role by no less an authority than the CIA’s former top al Qaeda’s analyst, see “Anonymous” (Michael Scheuer)  Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror (Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005).


[7] Floyd Norris, “U.S. Teaches Carmakers Capitalism,” New York Times, November 20, 2009.  William Greider, “Obama’s Weird Idea of Auto Industry Rescue: Use Our Money to Build Factories Abroad,” AlterNew, May 11, 2009, at http://www.alternet.org/workplace/139940/obama’s_weird_idea_of_auto_industry_rescue:_use_our_money_to_build_car_factories_abroad ; Greg Palast, “Grand Theft Auto: How Stevie the Rat Bankrupted GM,” GregPalast.com, June 1, 2009, at www.gregpalast.com/grand-theft-auto-how-stevie-the-rat-bankrupted-gm/


[8] Floyd Norris, “U.S. Teaches Carmakers Capitalism,” New York Times, November 20, 2009.


[9] David Herszenhorn and Jackie Calmes, “Despite Major Plans, Obama Taking Softer Stands,” New York Times, April 19, 2009, read at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/19/us/politics/19lobby.html


[10] “A New Labor Movement?” International Socialist Review, Issue 1 (Summer 1997), read at http://www.isreview.org/issues/01/new_labor_movement.shtml; Noam Chomsky, “Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours,” Boston Review (September–October 2009), at http://bostonreview.net/BR34.5/chomsky.php. Chomsky noted the two-pronged nature of the insult.


[11] Rebecca Smith, “Cheap Natural Gas Unplugs U.S. Nuclear Revival,” Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2012, read online at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304459804577281490129153610.html


[12] Peter Suderman, “Obama Rails Against Bailouts in Speech Defending Auto Bailout,” Reason (January  25, 2012) at http://reason.com/blog/2012/01/25/obama-rails-against-bailouts-in-speech-d 

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