Frank Rich, Barack Obama, and the Corporatist “Punking” of America


Let history record that on August 9, 2009 Sunday New York Times columnist Frank Rich toyed with acknowledging the manipulative, fake-progressive nature of Barack Obama and the broader corporate-managed "democracy" Obama epitomizes.

In an opinion-editorial bearing the provocative title "Is Obama Punking Us?" Rich notes the absurdity of Republican efforts to frighten the electorate by claiming that Obama is a socialist. "They have it backward," Frank observes (without bothering to explain what would be wrong with having a socialist president). "The larger fear is that Obama might be just another corporatist, punking voters much as the Republicans do when they claim to be all for the common guy."

Consistent with "the larger fear," Frank observes that Obama put together an economic team headed "Robert Rubin proteges and Goldman-Citi alumni" who have fueled public cynicism by handing hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to Wall Street parasites and perpetrators. The president has cut a price deal with the same drug company lobbyists Obama mocked as examples of "what’s wrong with Washington" during the 2008 campaign. "Now," Rich wrote, "we know why the president has ducked his campaign pledge to broadcast [health reform] negotiations on C-Span."

It isn’t just about Obama. Rich also notes the broader "bipartisan nature" of the "beast[ly]" "maze of powerful moneyed interests" that has made "change we can believe in" a bad joke in the nation’s capital.

Rich thinks that a health "reform" bill "will pass in a Democrat-controlled Congress," but that the resulting legislation will be "a CAT scan of those powerful Washington interests he campaigned against, revealing which have been removed from the body politic (or at least reduced) and which continue to metastasize." The financial-regulatory package Obama pushes through could render an even darker "verdict on his success in changing the system he sought to reform." (NYT, August 9, 2009, sec. 4, p.8). Rich might have added things that Obama and other parts of the "maze of powerful moneyed interests" in Washington have blocked, like for example, meaningful labor law reform (the Employee Free Choice Act on which Obama campaigned has been kicked to the capital’s curb with no protest from the administration, the re-negotiation of NAFTA, and single-payer health insurance, whose many advocates have been systematically evicted from the health "reform" debate. 


Rich is on to something, no doubt about it. But isn’t a little late in the game for the Sunday Times’ reigning "left liberal" to be figuring this basic sort of stuff out? When exactly did he wake up to the discomfiting but elementary and long-understood fact that American "representative democracy" is crippled by "too much [corporate and military] representation" and "too little [actual popular] democracy" (Arundhati Roy)? It’s more than a century past the time when the prolific American philosopher John Dewey darkly noted (in the age of U.S. Steel. JP Morgan, Social Darwinism, and the Billion Dollar Congress) that "politics is the shadow cast on American society by big business." Its more than seven decades since the left commentator Ferdinand Lundberg noted (even as the New Deal reconfigured mainstream U.S. politics) that "The United States can be looked upon as having, in effect, a single part: the Property Party. This party can be looked upon as having two subdivisions: The Republican Party… (dubbed ‘Conservative’) and the Democratic Party…(dubbed ‘Liberal’)."

It’s more than sixty years since the liberal American historian Richard Hofstader’s widely read The American Political Tradition concluded that "the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major [U.S.] parties has always been bounded by property and enterprise…They have accepted….capitalist culture as [a] necessary quality[y] of man."

It’s nearly three decades since the first publication of Howard Zinn’s bestselling People’s History of the United States, which showed, among other things, how the Democratic Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter presidencies stayed firmly within Hofstader’s "range of vision."

It’s nearly two decades since the former Richard Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips noted that "Part of the reason survival-of-the-fittest periods are so relentless rests on the performance of the Democrats as history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party. They do not interfere with capitalist momentum but wait for excesses and the inevitable popular reaction."

It’s a decade since a still left Christopher Hitchens usefully described "the essence of American politics, when distilled," as the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as most ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of public opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ " [1]

Hitchens’ reflection was most especially aimed at the two-term presidency of Bill Clinton, elected on his promise to "Put People First" (ahead of profits) and in the not-so vaguely reminiscent names of "hope" and "change." As George Bush the First was showing himself to be hopelessly out of "touch with popular concerns," Clinton pitched his White House bid around Jeffersonian promises to the working majority. The new president then proceeded to construct a richly Hamiltonian, corporate-neoliberal administration that served the rich and punished the poor. [2]

Last year the venerable left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin noted (before the election) the tepid, business-captive nature of the Democratic Party and the slight chances for progressive change under the United States’ business-coordinated "democracy" and its "one-and-a-half party system." As Wolin predicted in his book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008): "Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors [will] make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society. By offering palliatives, a Democratic administration contributes to plausible denial about the true nature of the system."

In the United States’ proto-totalitarian election-focused political culture, Wolin elaborated, "the parties set out to mobilize the citizen-as-voter, to define political obligation as fulfilled by the casting of a vote. Afterwards, post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests – the real players – takes over The effect is to demobilize the citizenry, to teach them not to be involved or to ponder matters that are either settled or beyond their efficacy….The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts," Wolin observed, "points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anticorporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf." (Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, pp. 201, 205, 206). 


If Rich is behind the curve on grasping the true nature of U.S. political culture, he’s equally slow and still insufficiently cynical when it comes to grasping Obama’s corporatism.

What’s with "might be" a "corporatist"? "Might be?" Hello?


"Change Means More of the Same"

Early last April the New York Times published an article with an ironic title: "In Cuba, Change Means More of the Same." This "news" item reported that "rather than dismantling Cuba’s socialist framework," Cuba’s President Raul Castro "seems to be trying to make it work more efficiently." Castro, the Times3 reported in highly critical vein, sought to keep power concentrated "at the top." [3]

But what has U.S. President Barack Obama (endorsed by the Times as a change candidate before 2008 election) – Mr. "Change" himself – tried to accomplish other than to make the American corporate profits system "work more efficiently" without "dismantling the [capitalist] framework" and with power (and wealth) still concentrated "at the top?" As the Times acknowledged last March in an article titled "English-Speaking Capitalism on Trial," Obama and his neoliberal partner Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, have "focused on ways of revitalizing the [existing] system…. Even as both men have embarked on enormous increases in public-sector spending," Times correspondents John Burns and Landon Thomas noted, "they have maintained that the solutions to the crisis lie in reawakening the markets and recapitalizing the banks rather than tearing at the system’s foundations. And both, when they respond to private anger at the private sector, have seemed more geared to managing anger than stoking it." [4] As the prolific Marxist geographer David Harvey observed on the left television news and commentary show "Democracy Now" last April, "what [the Obama team is] trying to do is to reinvent the same system" – to "reconstitute the same sort of capitalism we have had over and over again over the last thirty years in a slightly more regulated, benevolent form" that doesn’t "challenge the fundamentals."[5]

"The Quiet Coup"

In the May 2009 edition of the centrist public affairs magazine The Atlantic, Simon Johnson, the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund (no Marxist), argued that the Obama administration was for all intents and purposes in Wall Street’s pocket. In an article titled "The Quiet Coup," Johnson argued that, in the words of the Atlantic’s editors, "the finance industry has effectively captured our government–a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time." By Johnson’s account, "Throughout the crisis, the government has taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us here…[the] elite business interests [who] played a central role in creating the crisis…with the implicit backing of the government" [are] "now using their influence to prevent precisely [the] reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive….The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them."[6]

Chomsky rightly saw this as chilling confirmation of the great 18th century economist and philosopher Adam Smith’s warning that "the architects of policy protect their own interests, no matter how grievous the effect on others."

"And they are the architects of policy," Chomsky added. "Obama made sure to staff his economic team with advisors from [the financial] sector." [7]

"A Blunt Lesson About Power"

As giant financial bailouts exposed the chasm between the investor and political classes and the broad citizenry last March, the incisive liberal-left journalist and author William Greider made a telling observation in a Washington Post column titled "Obama Asked Us to Speak, But is He Listening?":

"People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. 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. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sides nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people [have] watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid."[8]

The "Unleft" President Between Big Capital "and the Pitchforks"

A glowing Los Angeles Times assessment of Obama’s first hundred Days reproduced an interesting statement from Obama to the leaders of the banking industry last March. As the financial chieftains began to complain to him about the public’s failure to understand their industry’s need for high levels of compensation, Obama cut them off. "Be careful how you make those statements, gentlemen" Obama said. "The public isn’t buying that. My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks." [9]

A student who told me about this Los Angeles Times report wrote me with an interesting comment. "The question for me (and I assume for many leftists) is why is Obama using his administration to protect the bankers from the angry rabble (us)? Why doesn’t his administration simply address the people’s needs and leave the bankers to their fate? These are, of course, rhetorical questions. We know that he is serving to protect and legitimate the highly undemocratic and destructive class system of state capitalism through another crisis."

As Harper’s Magazine President John R. MacArthur noted last March, Obama is "a moderate with far too much respect for the global financial class." He is "surely the unleft, unradical, president" [10], even if he is regularly described as an aggressive "leftist" on the preposterous, proto-fascist and still quite racist U.S. right. Currently we are being subjected to the maddening idiocy of watching the crackpot right being taken seriously by the "mainstream" media while it absurdly denounces Obama’s healthcare efforts as "socialist." The mainstream Obama Democrats’ health care agenda is much more accurately described as corporatist. In brazen defiance of majority citizen sentiment, real human need, and the Democrats’ progressive-sounding campaign rhetoric, "Obamacare" leaves the leading parasitic drug and insurance companies in basic underlying control of the nation’s health-care future. [10A]

Obama knows very well that you can’t have meaningful progressive health reform without removing the for-profit insurance vampires from the equation. He said as much quite explicitly late in his career as a state legislator during a speech in downtown Chicago. The solution, he said, was an "everybody in, nobody out" single payer system, of which he said, "I happen to be a proponent." The way to get it, he argued, was for the Democrats to take back Congress and then the presidency.

The federal legislative and executive branches have been "taken back" by the Democratic Party. Sadly, however, the United States’ corporate-managed "dollar democracy" and its narrow "one-and-a-half party system" (Sheldon Wolin) have yet to be taken back from concentrated wealth. Obama’s single-payer speech (viewable on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpAyan1fXCE) was delivered before the future president knew he had a serious shot at the White House. Once you enter the high-stakes, big business-coordinated arena of "in-it-to-win-it" and "winner-take-all" presidential politics, social-democratic principles go out the window. You become subject to what the left writers Edward Herman and David Peterson call the United States’ "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 U.S. regime." (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, "Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond," Electric Politics, July 22, 2009).

There’s no "might be" about it. Obama is a corporatist and has been one since the start, as we shall see below.


The ranks of the "punked" apparently include Rich himself. "Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose chief presidential campaign strategist [Mark Penn] unapologetically did double duty as high-powered corporate flack," Rich ruefully writes, "Obama promised change we could really believe in."

As someone who knew and followed Obama during his years in the legendarily money-saturated and business-corrupted political culture of Chicago and Illinois, I am baffled as to why Rich makes such a sharp distinction between the corporate-captive Hillary Clinton and the purportedly progressive Obama, with the latter supposedly offering real "change we can believe in." Many of us on the actual and therefore officially invisible left within and beyond Chicago had no pre-election and pre-presidency difficulty whatsoever in correctly seeing candidate Obama in the Clinton mode and placing him in the deeper context of "Democracy Incorporated" and Hitchens’ manipulative "essence of American politics."[11]

Ken Silverstein’s prescient November 2006 (more than a month before Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency) Harper’s article "Obama, Inc." captured the corporate-captive nature of the Obama phenomenon quite well. "It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want," Silverstein noted, "but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform."[12] "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?’"[13]

"Tort Reform"

Pre-president Obama gave many strong indications of his underlying corporatism. Obama’s reliance on wealthy supporters certainly helps explain why he voted for a business-driven federal "tort reform" law that rolled back working peoples’ ability to obtain reasonable redress and compensation from misbehaving corporations. The so-called Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA) of 2005 was a Republican bill backed and signed with great gusto by President Bush on February 18, 2005. Opposed by Senators Biden, Boxer, Byrd, Clinton, Corzine, Durbin, Feingold, Kerry, Leahy, Reid, and sixteen additional Democratic U.S. Senators, it closed off state courts as a venue to hear many class action lawsuits. This followed in accord with large corporations’ calculation that such lawsuits had a much lower chance of surviving corporate legal challenge in the "backlogged Republican-judge dominated federal courts." The bill was a "thinly-veiled special interest extravaganza that favored bankers, creditors and other corporate interests" over and against workers, consumers, and the public. [14]

"Opposed by most major civil rights and consumer watchdog groups," David Sirota noted, "this Big Business-backed legislation was sold to the public as a way to stop ‘frivolous’ lawsuits. But everyone in Washington knew the bill’s real objective was to protect corporate abusers." "The bill," Silverstein noted, "had been long sought by a coalition of business groups and was lobbied for aggressively by financial firms, which constitute Obama’s second biggest single bloc of donors." Such firms loathe class action suits, which can instantly impose massive burdens on industries into which they have often poured untold millions of dollars. [15]

As the CAFA Senate vote approached, Senators received an eloquent plea for mercy from more than 40 civil rights and labor organizations, including the NAACP, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Human Rights Campaign, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Justice and Democracy, Legal Momentum (formerly NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund), and Alliance for Justice. "Under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005," this appeal stated, "citizens are denied the right to use their own state courts to bring class actions against corporations that violate these state wage and hour and state civil rights laws, even where that corporation has hundreds of employees in that state. Moving these state law cases into federal court will delay and likely deny justice for working men and women and victims of discrimination." Obama certainly understood the regressive consequences. As Pam Martens noted:

"Senator Obama graduated Harvard Law magna cum laude and was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Given those credentials, one assumes that he understood the ramifications to the poor and middle class in this country as he helped to gut one of the few weapons left to seek justice against giant corporations and their legions of giant law firms. The class-action vehicle confers upon each citizen one of the most powerful rights in our society: the ability to function as a private attorney general and seek redress for wrongs inflicted on ourselves as well as for those similarly injured that

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