“This is bigger than life itself. When I was coming up, I always thought they put in who they wanted to put it. I didn’t think my vote mattered. But I don’t think that anymore.”
The speaker of these words is Deddrick Battle, a black janitor who grew up in St. Louis’s notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing projects during the 1950s and 1960s.
Battle was speaking about the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. He was quoted on the front page of last Sunday’s New York Times in a story about the pride many African Americans are naturally feeling in Obama’s candidacy. The story contained numerous examples of American blacks who have been encouraged by the Obama phenomenon to think for the first time that “politics is for them, too” .
It is a welcome democratic development for people who previously felt disenfranchised to become engaged in the political process. And I have no doubt that expanded black turnout is going to be (I am writing on the Monday before the 2008 election) a major factor in Obama’s victory, something that will remove the more viciously reactionary of the nation’s two dominant business parties from executive power for at least four years.
But, as The New York Times’ editors certainly know, “they” still “put in who they want to put in” to no small extent. The predominantly white U.S. business and political establishment still makes sure that nobody who questions dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines can make a serious (“viable”) run for higher office – the presidency, above all. It does this by denying adequate campaign funding (absolutely essential to success in an age of super-expensive, media-driven campaigns) and favorable media treatment (without which a successful campaign is unimaginable at the current stage of corporate media consolidation and power) to candidates who step beyond the narrow boundaries of elite opinion. Thanks to these critical electoral filters and to the legally mandated U.S. winner-take-all “two party” system , a candidate who even remotely questions corporate and imperial power is not permitted to make a strong bid for the presidency.
Barack Obama is no exception to the rule. Anyone who thinks he could have risen to power without prior and ongoing ruling class approval is living in a dream world.
AN EARLY AND “QUIETER AUDITION” WITH THE “MONEYED ESTABLISHMENT”
Conventional wisdom holds that Obama entered national politics with his instantly famous keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But, as Ken Silverstein noted in Harper’s in the fall of 2006, “If the speech was his debut to the wider American public, he had already undergone an equally successful but much quieter audition with Democratic Party leaders and fund-raisers, without whose support he would surely never have been chosen for such a prominent role at the convention.
The favorable elite assessment of Obama began in October of 2003. That’s when “Vernon Jordan, the well-known power broker and corporate board-member who chaired Bill Clinton’s presidential transition team after the 1992 election, placed calls to roughly twenty of his friends and invited them to a fund-raiser at his home. That event,” Silverstein noted, “marked his entry into a well-established Washington ritual—the gauntlet of fund-raising parties and meet-and-greets through which potential stars are vetted by fixers, donors, and lobbyists.”
Drawing on his undoubted charm, wit, intelligence, and Harvard credentials, Obama passed this trial with shining colors. At a series of social meetings with assorted big “players” from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, Obama impressed key establishment figures like Gregory Craig (a longtime leading attorney and former special counsel to the White House), Mike Williams (the legislative director of the Bond Market Association), Tom Quinn (a partner at the top corporate law firm Venable and a leading Democratic Party “power broker”), and Robert Harmala, another Venable partner and “a big player in Democratic circles.”
Craig liked the fact that Obama was not a racial “polarizer” on the model of past African-American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
Williams was soothed by Obama’s reassurances that he was not “anti-business” and became “convinced…that the two could work together.”
“There’s a reasonableness about him,” Harmala told Silverstein. “I don’t see him as being on the liberal fringe.”
By Silverstein’s account, the good “word about Obama spread through Washington’s blue-chip law firms, lobby shops, and political offices, and this accelerated after his win in the March  Democratic primary.” Elite financial, legal, and lobbyists contributions came into Obama’s coffers at a rapid and accelerating pace .
The “good news” for Washington and Wall Street insiders was that Obama’s “star quality” would not be directed against the elite segments of the business class. The interesting black legislator from the South Side of Chicago was “someone the rich and powerful could work with.” According to Obama biographer and Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, in late 2003 and early 2004:
Word of Obama’s rising star was now spreading beyond Illinois, especially through influential Washington political circles like blue chip law firms, party insiders, lobbying houses. They were all hearing about this rare, exciting, charismatic, up-and-coming African American who unbelievably could win votes across color lines…..[his handlers and] influential Chicago supporters and fund-raisers all vigorously worked their D.C. contacts to help Obama make the rounds with the Democrats’ set of power brokers. …Obama…spent a couple of days and nights shaking hands making small talk and delivering speeches to liberal groups, national union leaders, lobbyists, fund-raisers and well-heeled money donors. In setting after setting, Obama’s Harvard Law resume and his reasonable tone impressed the elite crowd
According to Mendell, Obama now cultivated the support of the privileged few by “advocate[ing] fiscal restraint” and “calling for pay-as-you-go government” and “extol[ing] the merits of free trade and charter schools.” He “moved beyond being an obscure good-government reformer to being a candidate more than palatable to the moneyed and political establishment.” .
“Reasonable tone” was code language with a useful translation for Obama’s new business-class backers: “friendly to capitalism and its opulent masters.”
“On condition of anonymity,” Silverstesin reported two years ago, “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?’”
OBAMA’S “DOLLAR VALUE”
Since his election to the U.S. Senate and through the presidential campaign, the “deeply conservative” (according to New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar) Obama has done nothing to undermine his “palatability” to concentrated economic and political power. He has made his safety to the power elite evident on matters both domestic and global, from his support for bailing out parasitic Wall Street financial firms with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars (while claiming to be “a free market guy” and proclaiming “love” for “capitalism”) to his refusal to question the morality of U.S. colonial wars and his strident support for maintaining a globally unmatched “defense” (empire) budget that accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending. As Edward S. Herman and David Peterson note in an important recent article, “in 2007-08, Obama has placated establishment circles on virtually every front imaginable, the candidate of ‘change we can believe in’ has visited interest group after interest group to promise them that they needn’t fear any change in the way they’re familiar with doing business” .
It’s all very consistent with Obama’s history stretching back to his days as the Republican-pleasing editor of the Harvard Law Review and his climb up the corporate-friendly politics of Chicago. As Ryan Lizza noted in The New Yorker last July, “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them” .
Obama’s business-friendly centrism has helped him garner an astonishing, record-setting stash of corporate cash. He has received more than $33 million from “FIRE,” the finance-real-estate and insurance sector. His winnings include $824,202 from the leading global investment firm Goldman Sachs . He has been consistently backed by the biggest and most powerful Wall Street firms.
At the same time and by more than mere coincidence, Obama has enjoyed a remarkable windfall of favorable corporate media coverage. That media treatment is the key to Obama’s success in winning support and donations from the middle-class and from non-affluent people like Deddrick Battle.
This does not mean that the Obama phenomenon has raised no concerns among the rich and powerful. As Herman and Peterson note, “Obama’s race, his background, his enthusiastic, and less predictable constituency, and the occasional slivers of populism that creep into his campaign, make the establishment nervous, whereas Hillary Clinton and John McCain clearly posed no such threat.”
Still, the monied elite’s most reactionary wing has used its formidable media and propaganda system to keep the Obama “movement” safely within conservative boundaries. It has employed a series of neo-McCarthyite anti-radical and related racial scare tactics including the Jeremiah Wright Affair and subsequent public relations campaigns surrounding alleged Obama links to “terrorist” charter-school advocate William Ayers and “radical professor” Rashid Khalidi. It has sought to link the openly capitalist Obama to the “anti-American” threat of “socialism,” alleging that that the harbors a nefarious desire to “redistribute” wealth.
“HOLDING DOMESTIC CONSTITUENCIES IN CHECK”
At the same time, many in the establishment sense (accurately) that Obama is particularly well-suited to the goal of wrapping corporate politics and the related American Empire Project in insurgent garb. Their profit- and empire-based system and “leadership” has been behaving so badly that a major image makeover is required to keep the rabble (the citizenry) in line. Once he was properly “vetted” and found to be “reasonable” – to be someone who would not fundamentally question dominant power structures and doctrines – Obama’s multicultural background, race, youth, charisma, and even his early opposition to the Iraq War became useful to corporate and imperial elites. His outwardly progressive “change” persona is perfectly calibrated to divert, capture, control, and contain coming popular rebellions. He is uniquely qualified to simultaneously surf, de-fang, and “manage” the U.S. and world citizenry’s hopes for radical and democratic transformation in the wake of the Bush-Cheney nightmare. As John Pilger warned last May
“What is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s [in 1968]. By offering a ‘new,’ young and apparently progressive face of Democratic Party – with the bonus of being a member of the black elite – he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent” .
Obama’s race is no small part of what makes him “uniquely qualified” to perform the key tasks of mass pacification for which he has been hired task in question. As Aurora Levins Morales noted in a Z Magazine essay written for left progressives last April:
“We’re far more potent as organizers and catalysts than as voters. Our ability to create a world we can thrive on does not depend on who wins this election, it depends on our ability to dismantle profit-based societies in which greed trumps ethics. This election is about finding a CEO capable of holding domestic constituencies in check as they are furthered disenfranchised and… [about]mak[ing] them feel that they have a stake in the military aggressiveness that the ruling class believes is necessary. Having a black man and a white woman run helps to obscure the fact that …decline of empire is driving the political elite to the right. Both [Obama and Hillary Clinton] represent very reactionary politics…Part of the cleverness of having such candidates is the fact that they will be attacked in ways that make oppressed people feel compelled to protect them” .
The logic works at the global as well as the domestic level. A considerable segment of the U.S. foreign policy establishment thinks that Obama’s race, name (technically Islamic), experience living (Muslim Indonesia, as a child) in and visiting (chiefly his father’s homeland Kenya) poor nations and his nominally anti-Iraq War history will help them repackage the U.S. imperial project (replete with more than 730 military bases located in nearly every nation on Earth) in softer and more politically correct cover . John Kerry, who ran for the presidency four years earlier largely on the claim that he would be a more effective manager of empire (and the Iraq War) than George W. Bush , was certainly thinking of these critical imperial “soft power” assets when he praised Obama as someone who could “reinvent America’s image abroad” [11A]. So was Obama himself when he said the following to reporters abroad his campaign plane in the fall of 2007:
“If I am the face of American foreign policy and American power, as long as we are making prudent strategic decisions, handling emergences, crises, and opportunities in the world in an intelligent and sober way….I think that if you can tell people, ‘We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in our lives and country. And they’d be right” .
What Obama didn’t tell reporters was that his idea of “prudent” and “intelligent” foreign policy is strongly committed to U.S. global hyper-militarism and world supremacy, including unilateral action whenever “we” deem it necessary to “protect the American people and their vital interests” .
Obama’s distinctive biography is one of his great attractions to the mostly white U.S. foreign policy elite in a majority non-white world that has been deeply provoked and disgusted by U.S. behavior in the post-9/11 era (and truthfully before). He is a perfect symbol of deceptive imperial “re-branding.” According to the unconsciously power-worshipping and imperialist New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof two weeks ago, the election of a black president “could change global perceptions of the United States, redefining the American ‘brand’ to be less about Guantanamo and more about equality”. Never mind that the U.S. remains the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy country in the industrialized world by far, strongly dedicated to maintaining steep socioeconomic and disparity within and between nations and scarred by a domestic racial wealth gap of seven black cents on the white dollar.
Call it “the identity politics of foreign policy.” The Empire wants new clothes and Obama is just the man to wear them.
Such is the dark authoritarian reality lurking behind the pride and excitement felt by Deddrick Battle and many other poor and black voters who have been inspired by the Obama phenomenon to think that “politics is for them too.” President Obama can be counted on to use their new faith in reactionary and imperial ways reflecting hidden allegiance to the timeworn elite principle that really big matters of politics and policy are for the rich and powerful – not ordinary citizens – at the end of the day Obama’s job is to keep the restless poor, working class, and global Many safely pacified while serving the needs of the wealthy and imperial Few. It’s a deadly juggling act that could have terrible consequences. How long he can maintain the illusion of serving the interests of the people and the elite at one and the same time is an open question.
The sooner seriously left agitators and activists can expose the corporate-imperial truth behind the progressive façade to disenfranchised people at home and abroad, the quicker we can get to real social and democratic change beyond the ruling class’s latest quadrennial candidate-centered electoral extravaganza.
Paul Street’s books include Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York, 2007), and most recently Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, September 2008). Paul can be reached at [email protected].
1. Susan Saulny, “Obama-Inspired Black Voters Find Politics is For Them Too,” New York Times, November 2, 2008, sec.1, p. 1.
2. In deciding against “fusion” electoral options (which would allow a voter to select Obama [or McCain] in the name of the Green Party or any other non-mainstream party). The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the nation has an interest in restricting the number of viable political parties to just two.
3. Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006).
4. David Mendell, Obama: From Promise to Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 248-49.
5. E.S. Herman and D. Peterson, “Jeremiah Wright in the Propaganda System,” Monthly Review, September 2008, pp. 3-4; Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). For Obama as “deeply conservative,” see Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). According to MacFarquhar, “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 is deeply conservative.”
6. Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, (July 21, 2008).
7. Center for Responsive Politics, “Open Secrets,” Barack Obama’s Campaign Finance Profile, read at www.opensecetrs.org (accessed on November 2, 2008).
8. John Pilger, “After Bobby Kennedy There Was Barack Obama,” Common Dreams, May 31, 2008, read at www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/05/31/9327/.
9. Aurora Levins Morales, “Thinking Outside the Ballot Box,” Z Magazine (April 2008).
10. James Traub 2007. “Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny?” New York Times Magazine (November 4, 2007). See also Liza Mundy, “A Series of Fortunate Events: Barack Obama Needed More Than Talent and Ambition to Rocket From Obscure State Senator to Presidential Contender in Three Years,” Washington Post Magazine (August 12, 2007).
11. See Paul Street, “Bush, Kerry, and ‘Body Language’ v. ‘Message’: Notes on Race, Gender, Empire and Mass Infantilization,” ZNet Magazine (October 12, 2004).
11A. John F. Kerry, “Truly Transformative,” Newsweek (April 28, 2008): 34.
12. Quoted in Traub, “Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny?”
13. For truly ugly details, please see the fourth chapter – titled “How ‘Antiwar?’ Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire” – in my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.
14. Nicholas Kristof, “Rebranding the