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A Silly Question: “Is Barack Obama a Progressive?”*


*Opening comments in a debate with John K. Wilson, a former Barack Obama student and author of the book President Barack Obama: A More Perfect Union (Paradigm, 2009) The debate, held by The Open Univesity of the Left in Chicago on Thursday, August 27th, 2009, was titled, "Is Barack Obama A Progressive?"   

 

Thank you, Open University. I didn’t really write a book about Barack Obama.  I wrote a book about the United States ‘ corporate- and empire-captive, media-saturated dollar democracy in what I knew by late 2006 to be the dawning Age of Obama. 

 

Is Barack Obama a progressive?  John Wilson says "yes," I say "no."  But how much does the question really matter at the end of the day? Obama wasn’t selected to head the United Way or the White Sox. He’s chief executive of the American Empire.  He is a politician above all – one who was selected to sit atop and, I think, to re-brand what the left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin rightly calls "Democracy, Incorporated."

 

Every four years millions of American voters are induced to put their political hats on, to hope a bit, and then to go back to sleep. To hope that a savior or at least a more effective manager can be installed in the White House to raise wages, roll back war and militarism, provide universal and adequate health care, rebuild infrastructure, fix the environmental crisis, reduce inequality, and generally make life more livable.

 

The savior can be named Jack or Bobby or Teddy or Gene or George or Jimmy or Bill or Hillary or John or Adlai or Barack. It doesn’t matter. Under the rules of what Wolin calls "corporate-managed democracy," officially "electable" candidates who want a serious shot at lasting power subordinate themselves to what Ed Herman and David Peterson call "the unelected dictatorship of money," which "vets the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, reducing the options available to U.S. citizens to two candidates, neither of whom can change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial regime."

 

The Obama presidency so far is a chilling object lesson in the reach, power, and bipartisan nature of that "unelected dictatorship." Obama is following what David Rothkopf, a former Clinton official, calls "the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right." In other words, you gain and hold the presidency with populace-pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric but you govern, you make policy, in service to existing dominant institutions.

 

So, you lecture Wall Street on the immorality of their bonuses. You visit Elkhart , Indiana to show solidarity with downtrodden working people. And then you give yet more of the public treasury and commons away to the Privileged Few, justifying the handouts as a noble expression of your "sensible," "realistic," and "pragmatic" commitment to rising above ideological divisions to "get things done" for the American people. 

 

Funny how our "pragmatist"-in chief keep getting things done for the rich and powerful. The mind and soul go numb as yet one more populist-, progressive-, and peaceful- sounding campaign promise gets drowned in the icy waters of corporate and military rule. Its been a strange time for many of Obama’s progressive fans, what with their "peace" president’s blatant escalation of civilian-slaughtering war in South Asia, his indefinite continuation of the Iraq occupation, his increase of the Pentagon  budget,  his advance dismissal of a peace dividend, his advance approval for an Israel attack on Iran, his refusal to move in any serious way against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, his apparent commitment to building a provocative missile shield in Eastern Europe, his embrace of NATO expansion, his ambivalent and tepid response to the right-wing coup in Honduras, his embrace of the War on Drugs in Columbia and Mexico and his continuation of numerous key aspects of George W. Bush’s counter-terrorism program. "Obama," Jeremy Scahill notes, "is a brilliant supporter of empire who has figured out a way to trick people into believing they’re supporting radical change." The president is "an Orwellian character" who "make[s] people think that war is peace."

  

Then there’s Obama’s domestic agenda of, for, and by the wealthy Few. In the May 2009 edition of the centrist Atlantic , Simon Johnson, the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, argued that Obama administration is in Wall Street’s pocket. In an article titled "The Quiet Coup," Johnson noted that the [Bush and Obama administrations have both] "taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us" into a Great Recession. "[The] elite business interests [who] played a central role in creating the crisis…with the implicit backing of the government" [are] "using their influence to prevent precisely [the] reforms that are needed. 

 

"Obama," Noam Chomsky notes, "made sure to staff his economic team with advisors from [the financial] sector." This helps explain both Obama’s willingness to expand the Bush policy of transferring trillions to financial parasites and Obama’s unwillingness to displease the financial sector lobby with clearly indicated progressive measures like seriously restricting executive compensation, re-instituting the Glass Steagal Acts’s separation of commercial and investment banking, closing regulatory exemptions on customized derivatives, banning the notorious credit default swap, and breaking up the "too-big- [and too-powerful]- to fail" banking firms.

 

As bailouts for oligarchs combined with growing destitution amongst the populace last March, William Greider noted that "People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power… They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe.  They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it." But nothing or very little for the lower and working class majority, even with Democrats in power.

 

It is revealing that Obama’s economic stimulus contained no reference to the urgently needed labor law reform he campaigned on, the Employee Free Choice Act, whose critical provisions have already been kicked to Washington ‘s curb under business pressure and with zero protest from Barack Obama.  

 

And then of course there’s Obama’s struggle to advance corporate healthcare reform for and by the nation’s leading insurance and drug companies – an unpopular private-public mish-mash that is all too consistent with the hundreds of millions of dollars that Obama and other leading blue Cross Blue Shield Democrats like Max Baucus have received from the health sector and the finance and insurance industries in the last few years.

 

It’s not for nothing that Obama’s presidential campaign garnered a record-setting $39 million from the finance, insurance, and real estate industries (10 million better than McCain), $44 million from the legal and lobbyist sector (33 million better than McCain), $25 million from the communications and electronics industries (20 million better than McCain), and more than $19 million from the health sector (12 million better than McCain).

 

You don’t need to be a Marxist to be concerned about Obama’s service to economic royalty. Two Sundays ago, the liberal New York Times columnist Frank Rich, something of an Obama fan last year, wrote an editorial noting the absurdity of Republican claims that Obama is a socialist and worrying that "Obama might be just another corporatist, punking voters much as the Republicans do when they claim to be for the common guy."

 

Might be? Obama is advancing what the liberal novelist and political writer Kevin Baker calls a "business liberalism" that "espouses a ‘pragmatism’ that is not really pragmatism at all, just surrender to the usual corporate interests."

 

The left-liberal senior black Congressman and single-payer advocate John Conyers recently described Obama’s health care plan as "crap," adding that "nobody is more disappointed in Barack Obama than I am." 

 

It’s all very consistent with the campaign warnings of a liberal named John Edwards, who said it was a "complete fantasy" to think that meaningful progressive reform could be achieved by sitting down at a big negotiating table with big corporations and Republicans.  Only an "epic fight" with corporate power could achieve such reform, Edwards said.

 

There’s something of a liberal-left Nation magazine campus-town myth that all this surrender to corporate and financial power is contrary to Obama’s deeper and genuine nature as a true, left-leaning progressive. The former community organizer and South Side legislator turned president can’t wait, the liberal-left line goes, for the forces of popular democracy to rise up and make him do the really progressive things he actually wants to pursue. People who buy into this story line might want to look at my book for a very different and detailed take on Obama’s history in Chicago , Springfield , and the U.S. Senate. They might also want to look back at Ken Silverstein’s 2006 article "Obama, Inc." "On condition of anonymity," Silverstesin reported, "one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’"

       

"Every stage of his political career," the liberal journalist Ryan Lizza noted about Obama last year, "has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions." And in a carefully researched New Yorker portrait of Obama based on extensive interviews in May of 2007, Larissa MacFarquhar found that Obama was about as far from being a radical reformer as one could imagine. "In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama," MacFarquhar wrote, "is deeply conservative….It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good. Take health care, for example," MacFarquhar noted, quoting Obama on how the United States ‘ for-profit health insurance companies were too deeply entrenched for us to evict them from their Mafia-like control of our health-care future. 

 

MacFarquhar’s portrait was consistent with how the left black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. described the 30-something Obama in early 1996, shortly after the future president won his first election to the Illinois legislature. Obama struck Reed as "a smooth Harvard lawyer with …vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics" including a "fundamentally bootstrap line" that was "softened by…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 substance."

 

Obama’s response to Edwards’ call for an "epic fight" with corporate rule at a debate in Iowa was what Mike Davis calls "typical eloquent evasion."  "We don’t need more heat," Obama said. "We need more light." That was Goldman Sachs talking, not a "progressive."

 

I am aware of the standard liberal defense that Obama is doing all he can for progressive values under the existing system of business and imperial power.  Corporate Washington, the argument goes, leaves little room for progressive maneuver, Yes, that’s true, but leaving aside the fact that the "deeply conservative" Obama often goes farther than required to appease corporate and military masters, there’s an obvious response to this defense: "Hey, maybe it isn’t about running for president." Maybe it isn’t about climbing to the top of this authoritarian system and helping that system re-brand and re-legitimize itself as a "democracy" where "anything is possible." Maybe it’s about re-building and expanding social movements and creating a more responsive political culture beneath and beyond these big, business-coordinated corporate-crafted mass-marketed narrow-spectrum and  candidate-centered candidate-obsessed electoral extravaganzas the power elite and its dominant  media stage for us every four years.

 

Adolph Reed got it right at the beginning.  And as the brilliant black left Obama critic Glen Ford recently put it in regard to Obama’s predictable conservative trajectory as president, "what begins badly usually ends badly."

 

With all due respect for John Conyers, we might also heed the words of the Tarnac Nine, who wrote the following in their 2007 pamphlet The Coming Insurrection: "To be disappointed one must have hoped for something.  And we have never hoped for anything from business: we see it for what it is and what it has always been, a fool’s game of varying degrees of comfort." 

 

That’s how I’ve felt about the false-pragmatist business liberal Barack Obama since he first leaped on to the national stage in the summer of 2004 and it’s no small part of why I picked him as the next president in the fall of 2006. 

 

 

Paul Street ([email protected])is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008);  Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics. (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008): http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987

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