Book review: The Empire’s New Clothes. Barack Obama in the Real World of Power by Paul Street

Two years after his election to the White House, it’s easy to forget just how many seemingly sane and smart people suddenly lost all of their critical faculties when it came to Barack Obama.“He is, in fact, a remarkable human being, not perfect but humanly stunning, like King was and like Mandela is”, gushed the African-American author Alice Walker in the Guardian in 2008.
The American activist historian Paul Street has arguably been the most persistent and sharpest critic of the Obama phenomenon. Analysing “power as it is, not as we want it to be” (John Pilger), in his 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, Street argued Obama was a “relatively conservative, capitalism-/corporate-friendly, racially conciliatory and Empire-friendly centrist”.
In The Empire’s New Clothes he notes that Obama was Advertising Age’s “Marketer of the Year” in 2008. His election was “An Instant Overhaul for Tainted Brand America”, noted the industry journal. Or as former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges argues, “President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising”.
But as Noam Chomsky points out, “it is wise to attend to deeds, not rhetoric” as “deeds commonly tell a different story”. Street closely follows Chomsky’s advice, with the bulk of the book detailing Obama’s woeful record in office. On foreign policy, he quotes independent journalist Jeremy Scahill: “What people… misunderstand about Barack Obama is that this is a man who is a brilliant supporter of empire – who has figured out a way to essentially trick a lot of people into believing they’re supporting radical change”. From his deadly escalations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and interventions in Latin America, Obama’s strategy has largely been a continuation of Bush-era policies. But Brand Obama has been working its magic, with a 2009 German Marshall Fund of the United States poll finding 77 percent of Europeans supported Obama’s handling of foreign affairs (only 19 percent had supported Bush’s foreign policies a year earlier).
In the domestic sphere, Street highlights how the Obama Administration has largely reflected the interests of his presidential campaign’s record corporate donations, from supporting socialism for Wall Street and the free market for everyone else, his disastrous about turn on off-shore drilling, to privatising schools and his fudged health care reform. According to the centrist Democrat Howard Dean, the latter was an “insurance company’s dream”.
As is maybe clear from this review already, The Empire’s New Clothes makes excellent use of an enormous amount of quotes and sources (the book has close to 600 references). In this sense Street’s book does not have the flair and fluency of reasoning that Tariq Ali’s recent The Obama Syndrome does (M Star November 3). However, through the density and persistence of argument (reading it is akin to being mugged repeatedly by reality) Street’s book is arguably the more important work.
A devastating critique that that should be read by everyone interested in American politics – especially those that so foolishly lost their heads in 2008.
The Empire’s New Clothes. Barack Obama in the Real World of Power is published by Paradigm Publishers, priced £15.99.
*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected]


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