In completing a recent book on the Barack Obama phenomenon, I found much to dispute in the Obama campaign’s description and marketing of the junior U.S. Senator from Illinois. Among the more dubious aspects of his biography and “branding” that I criticize and expose as deceptions are his claims to: come from a disadvantaged and alienated background; to be “from the South Side of Chicago;” have been conceived as a result of the early victories of the Civil Rights movement; have been consistently against the Iraq War from the beginning; represent a popular challenge to big money and corporate control of American politics and policy; “transcend race;” lack an ideology; and embody the spirit and lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..
The Obama portrayed in my study is an openly (for those able and willing to look beneath the marketing campaign) imperial and corporate-neoliberal symbol and agent of business rule, Superpower hegemony, and racial accommodation and denial. Obama, I show, has consistently lined up on the conservative, that is, power-friendly side of each of what Dr. King called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: racism (deeply and institutionally understood), economic exploitation (capitalism), and U.S. militarism.
It’s all very consistent with mainstream journalist Ryan Lizza’s statement at the end of a recent New Yorker article on Obama’s early political career in Chicago: “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” Lizza notes, “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” [Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, July 21, 2008]. (Revealingly enough, this does not stop Lizza from saying that Obama is “ideologically a man of the left.”)
One aspect of the Obama mystique I do NOT question, however, is the Obama campaign’s effort, largely successful, to link its candidate to the record and “Camelot” legacy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK). It’s a reasonable linkage, I think, but not for admirable reasons. Besides also being a relatively young, agile, telegenic, and articulate, Harvard-educated U.S. Senator with little record of substantive policy accomplishment and taste for lofty and outwardly idealistic, JFK inhabited much the same power-serving faux-progressive ideological space in his time as Obama does today. Also worshipped by many liberals and enjoying a strong following with academics and intellectuals, the proto-neoliberal President Kennedy spent much of his time on the cunning, right (starboard), and power-serving side of King’s “triple evils.” This hardly prevented him from being adored as a man of peace and justice by millions at home and abroad – something worth recalling as Obama embarks on his explicitly Kennedy-esque tour of Europe and the Middle East and as preparations continue for Obama to accept his presidential nomination before 70,000 plus chanting fans in a mile-high football stadium that will have to suffice since Mount Sinai is unavailable.
CLASS: “IN THE SERVICE OF CORPORATE CAPITALISM”
Take JFK and economic injustice, the second of King’s “triple evils.” More than a decade before officially neoliberal Democrats emerged to explicitly steer the Democratic Party to the corporate center, JFK’s frequently declared sympathies for the poor and working class took a back seat in his White house to what political scientist and Kennedy chronicler Bruce Miroff called “the real determinants of policy: political calculation and economic doctrine.” As Mirroff noted in his brilliant and largely forgotten study Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy (New York: Longman’s, 1976), “political calculation led Kennedy to appease the corporate giants and their allies in government. Economic doctrine told him that the key to the expansion and health of the economy was the health and expansion of those same corporate giants. The architects of Kennedy’s ‘New Economics’ liked to portray it as the technically sophisticated and politically neutral management of a modern industrial economy. It is more accurately portrayed as a pragmatic liberalism in the service of corporate capitalism” (Miroff, p. 168).
Numerous Kennedy administration economic programs followed closely along lines that favored and had already been marked out by the corporate sector. As Miroff noted:
“His wage guidelines, and other efforts at terminating labor-management conflict over the distribution of income, fit neatly with business’s longstanding objective of holding wage costs steady. His liberalization of depreciation allowances furnished business with a tax break which it had sought unsuccessfully from the Eisenhower administration. His proposed reduction in corporate income and personal income taxes in the higher brackets approached tax reductions earlier proposed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Corporate executives may not have had Kennedy’s ear, but the functional result was not so different than if they had. Economic doctrine and political calculation were enough to make him respond more often to business desires than to those of the economic constituencies that actually supported him.”
The Kennedy administration’s “economic growth” policies conferred significantly greater advantage on the affluent than they did to working-, middle- and lower-class Americans. Seen against the backdrop of JFK’s frequently expressed empathy for America’s underdogs, his administration’s record on economic equity was less than progressive. The regressive nature of his “New Economics’ was cloaked by his recurrent, much-publicized spats with certain members of the business community (the executives of U.S. Steel above all), his repeated statements of concern for labor and the poor, and his claim to advance a purely “technical” and “pragmatic” economic agenda that elevated “practical management” and administrative expertise above the “grand warfare of ideologies” (Miroff, pp. 182-183, 217-218). It was for doctrinal as well as for emotional and calculated political reasons that many of the early proponents of what later came to be known as the Democratic neoliberals (e.g. Senators Gary Hart and Bill Bradley, Governors Bruce Babbit, James Hunt, Richard Lamm, and Bill Clinton, Congressmen Al Gore and Timothy Wirth) made JFK their inspiring role model (see Randall Rothenburg, The Neoliberals: Creating the New American Politics [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984]).
Consistent with the JFK legacy on class, “Obamanomics” has been business-neoliberal from the start. The Wall Street-sponsored Obama appointed the pro-corporate Democratic Leadership Council and University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee (the fellow who told Canadian diplomats to discount Obama’s “campaign rhetoric” against the North American Free Trade Agreement) as his chief economic adviser during the primary campaign. “Obama, Inc.” has brought in the Wal-Mart-applauding economist Jason Furman from the corporatist and aptly named Hamilton Group to serve as his economic policy director. Obama’s health care, economic stimulus and mortgage/foreclosure crisis proposals have all been positioned to the right of those of John Edwards and even the centrist Hillary Clinton, not to mention Dennis Kucinich, the only actually Left candidate in the primaries, And just like JFK, Obama has falsely sold this conservative economic agenda as a form of a neutral “get things done” pragmatism emphasizing “technical expertise” over and beyond mere “ideology.”
RACE: CAUCASIAN-FRIENDLY CAUTION AND CALCULATION
JFK inhabited the same centrist, cautious, cunning, and “pragmatic” place on race, the first of King’s triple evils. He found it politically useful to intervene on Dr. Martin Luther King’s behalf during the latter’s jailing in the election year of 1960 and, later, to wrap himself in the aura of racial progress and equality by offering some partial and belated federal protections to participants in the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). But the Kennedy administration worked hard to discourage, dilute, and divert the CRM and gave some elementary shelter to activists and southern blacks only when Jack and (his youthful brother and Attorney General) Bobby Kennedy calculated that rabid white southern reaction was undermining their ability to sell America’s capitalist and imperial concept of “democracy” in the non-white Third World. Along the way, the Kennedy brothers were inordinately obsessed with alleged Communist connections to King and the CRM.
Subsequent “Mississippi Burning” iconography and revisionism aside, Kennedy was no great friend of the struggle for black equality during the late 1950s and early 1960s. His response to the movement was dominated by the tension between two competing calculations of political pragmatism: (i) the threat of politically alienating white Americans (especially traditionally Democratic white Southerners; (ii) the risk of losing Third World hearts and minds in the supposed U.S. struggle to advance “freedom and democracy” (falsely conflated with capitalism and subjugation to U.S. influence) against supposed Soviet-sponsored “communism” (national independence and social justice in the “developing world”). The actual lives and struggles of black Americans were not an especially relevant consideration in the Kennedy administration’s behavior. When southern racist authorities managed to defeat the black struggle for equality without excessive televised bloodshed and bitterness, as in Albany Georgia, JFK was more than happy to withhold support for the CRM.
Walking in JFK’s cautious and calculating footsteps on race, the technically black Obama has been careful to distance himself from the fact and claim that racial oppression and white supremacy continue to pose steep barriers to black advancement and racial equality in the U.S. He talks about the racism that stokes the fires of living black anger as if it was merely a troubling overhang from the past (Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s ancient era). Obama advances no relevant or explicit policy agenda to take on the deeply entrenched institutional racism that lives on beneath white America’s readiness to elect a president who is “black but not like Jesse.” He has made numerous speeches and comments suggesting the black Americans are personally and culturally responsible for their disproportionate presence at the bottom of the nation’s steep socioeconomic and institutional hierarchies. He has failed to link himself strongly to contemporary Civil Rights struggles around the small-town southern white prosecution of the “Jena 7” and the monstrous 50-shot New York City police murder of Sean Bell. Obama responded to the exoneration of Bell’s killers with a terse statement lecturing black New Yorkers on the need to respect “the rule of law.” Such behavior has provoked the understandable ire of Reverend Jackson, whose psycho-sexualized revenge fantasies are music to the politically pragmatic ears of Obama’s handlers in the “post-Civil Rights era” – when racism is officially over.
EMPIRE: “THE AMERICAN MOMENT MUST BE SEIZED ANEW”
JFK’s foreign policy record is militantly imperial and militarist, contrary to his subsequent hagiographers’ laughable efforts to re-invent him as some sort of Sixties peacenik. That record includes the Kennedy administration’s decision to dramatically and dangerously escalate the international arms race after Kennedy campaigned on the deceptive claim that the U.S. was on the wrong side of a mythical Soviet-American “missile gap.” Kennedy’s nuclear machismo helped bring the world to the brink of annihilation on at least two occasions.
Referring arrogantly to the U.S. as “watchtower on the walls of [global] freedom,” JFK undertook numerous provocative actions meant to overthrow the popular revolutionary government of Cuba. He supported numerous Latin-American dictatorships and oligarchies in the name of “progress” and “democracy.” He “raised the level of [U.S.] attack [on Indochina] from international terrorism to outright aggression in 1961-62” (Noam Chomsky), justifying the use of U.S. airpower to napalm social revolutionaries, defoliate Vietnamese countryside, and “kill a lot of innocent peasants” (Roger Hillsman) with the false claims that “we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless [Soviet-Marxist] conspiracy” and that failure to stop “Communism” in Vietnam would open the gates to Soviet world domination. Contrary to subsequent myths trumpeted by JFK-worshippers like Oliver Stone (who needed to do a movie on the execution” of Dr. King) and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Kennedy had no intent of pulling back from his mass-murderous assault until “victory” was attained (see Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture [Boston, MA: South End Press, 1993], Chapter 1: “From Terror to Aggression”).
Kennedy epitomized the strictly conditional nature of “democracy” as a U.S. foreign policy objective when he remarked that while the U.S. would prefer democratic regimes abroad, it will choose “a [pro-American dictator] Trujillo” over “a [“anti-American” dictator] Castro” if those were the only choices. “It is necessary only to add,” Noam Chomsky noted in 1991, that Kennedy’s “concept of ‘a Castro’ was very broad, extending to anyone who raises problems for the ‘rich men dwelling at peace with their habitations,’ who are to rule the world according to [Winston] Churchill’s aphorism, while enjoying the benefits of its human and material resources.”
Walking in JFK’s imperial footsteps, Obama has advanced mealy-mouthed and ever-shifting positions on Iraq, clearly (however) indicating that an Obama White House will maintain the criminal occupation of oil-rich Mesopotamia for an indefinite period of time. He takes brazenly imperial positions on Israel/Palestine, Columbia, Cuba, Afghanistan, Iran, the “defense” (Empire) budget, and the broad role of the United States (which Obama absurdly calls the “last and best hope of the world”) in the world. Here is an interesting formulation from an essay Obama published in the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations’ journal Foreign Affairs in the summer of 2007:
“The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew… A strong military is, more than anything, necessary to sustain peace…. we must become better prepared to put boots on the ground in order to take on foes that fight asymmetrical and highly adaptive campaigns on a global scale…I will not hesitate to use force unilaterally, if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests …We must also consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense, in order to provide for the common security that underpins global stability – to support friends, participate in stability and reconstruction operations, or confront mass atrocities.”
The article in which these words appeared was published while liberal and left peaceniks all over my home town (Iowa City) were putting up Obama signs next to peace posters quoting Dr. King on how “War is Not the Answer.” Ronald Reagan or JFK couldn’t have given more brash forewarnings of imperial adventurism to come!
In the openly imperial foreign policy chapter of his Kennedy-esque campaign book “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama criticized “left-leaning populists” like “Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez” for thinking that developing nations “should resist America’s efforts to expand its hegemony” and for daring (imagine!) to “follow their own path to development.” Such dysfunctional “reject[ion] [of] the ideals of free markets and liberal democracy” along with “American” ideas like “the rule of law” and “democratic elections” – interesting terms for the heavily state-sponsored U.S. effort to impose authoritarian and corporate-state capitalist policy imperatives on impoverished nations – will only worsen the situation of the global poor, Obama claimed. Obama’s bestselling book and supposed proclamation of “progressive” faith (the candidate used that word to describe himself on numerous occasions in the volume) ignored a preponderance of evidence showing that the imposition of the “free market” corporate-neoliberal “Washington Consensus” has deepened poverty across the world in recent decades. Billions are forced to live in ever-more extreme poverty as Obama’s book audaciously instructed poor and exploited states that “the system of free markets and liberal democracy” is “constantly subject to change and improvement.”
Obama did not comment in “Audacity” on the remarkable respect the U.S. showed for “democratic elections” and “the rule of law” when it supported an attempted military coup to overthrow the democratically elected Chavez government (because of his opposition to the U.S neoliberal agenda) in April of 2002. It is doubtful that Obama’s concept of the democratically elected Chavez is much different than “Kennedy’s concept of a Castro.”
Those who have the time and energy to examine the overwork-plagued U.S. “homeland” might want to note the ever-escalating inequality of U.S. society and the related, ever-deepening insecurity experienced by American working people. Such is the ugly reality of “life,” even in the U.S. – home to what Obama’s book obsequiously called “a prosperity that’s unmatched in history” – under the rule of the neoliberal doctrine that big business upholds and which Kennedy helped advance before the last embers of the social democratic and New Deal traditions had died out in U.S. political culture. Those traditions were snuffed out with no small help from the criminal Vietnam War that Kennedy did so much to escalate.
Obama can have the Kennedy mantle that he craves and hopes to don for the world to see at the Brandenburg Gate (or some other suitable historic location in Germany). Look for Obama to be crowned the new King of Camelot by the last living Kennedy brother on the centrist 50-yard line in Denver next month – a sight to be anticipated with trembling souls by hopeful and dreamy masses at home and abroad. The cunning, corporate and imperial Kennedy legacy is actually what Obama is all about, morally and ideologically speaking, something that would cause trepidation in a western political culture that hadn’t been subjected to the relentless Orwellian erasure of the richly bipartisan crimes of American Empire and Inequality.
Veteran left historian and activist Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality (2004) and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007). His next book is “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics” (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, August 2008 advance order at