Hope-Killer for Re-Hire: Brand Obama and the Management of Popular Expectations

Expectation calibration and expectation management is essential at home and internationally. – Samantha Power, a close friend, adviser, and spokesperson of Barack Obama, February 21, 2008

As president, Mr. Obama will have to convey optimism without over-promising….his near-term moves will go a long way towards making the burdens yet to come more bearable. – New York Times Editorial Board, December 22, 2008

Paul… Making change is hard. I know that sometimes it feels like we've come a long way from the hope and excitement of the inauguration, with its ‘Hope’ posters and historic crowds on the National Mall. I will never forget it. But it was never why we picked up this fight. You and I are in this because we believe in a simple idea — that each and every one of us, working together, has the power to move this country forward….That change happens only from the bottom up. – Personalized e-mail message to the author (and a few million other prospective votes) from “Barack Obama” ([email protected]), October 8, 2010

“To Make Life Worse for the Majority”:  Neoliberal Capitalism’s Shift From Exuberance to Pessimism


The emergence in late 2007 and 2008 of the first full economic crisis in the neoliberal stage of capitalism has taken the idealistic swagger away from the masters of the West. The economic elite can no longer sell its profits system as the hope of humanity. As the left political scientist David McNally notes, “Desperation, anxiety, and hopelessness preside. The dominant class seems no longer to believe in itself… Rather than trying to inspire belief in their system, society’s rulers seem to have no higher purpose than maintaining the status quo, squeezing profit and privilege out of a decrepit but well protected machinery of power. They know that talk of growth, development, and human improvement is idle chit-chat. They understand that their task is to make life worse for the majority. In this climate, our rulers grow increasingly spiteful and unaccountable…Society seems bereft of any uplifting human cause.” It’s about reducing, smashing, and deflecting popular expectations, among other things.

This is a departure from the dawn of the neoliberal era, when “politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan strode forth triumphantly, full of evangelical vigor about the righteousness of their crusade on behalf of markets and liberal individualism. But yesterday’s optimism has been replaced by a glum pessimism,”[1] befitting an age of austerity, when economics and politics are all about the big NO: what the people can’t have and will not get even as government spends unprecedented trillions of dollars in propping up the very parasitic financial institutions that did so much to crash the global economy in 2007 and 2008.

It might at first seem odd to see Barack Obama as an expression of this shift from bourgeois exuberance to capitalist cynicism. Was Obama not elected as symbol and agent of Change for the better?  Did millions not hail Obama’s election as heralding a shining new brightness on behalf of newly recognized and empowered masses at home and abroad? Did Obama not break onto the national and global scene with his instantly famous 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address, which proclaimed that the United States was “a magical place” that served as “a beacon of freedom and opportunity” to those who exhibit “hard work and perseverance”? Did his bestselling campaign book not bear a broadly smiling picture of the handsome young politician and bear the inspiring title The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream? Did that book not sing the praises of so-called free market capitalism, praising the U.S. for “plac[ing] the ownership of private property at the heart of our system of liberty” and for being “consistently hospitable to the logic of the marketplace” in ways that created “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history”?[2]  And did candidate Obama identify himself with the buoyant national images of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both of whom held the presidency during periods of significant economic expansion?



“That’s About It. It Isn’t Much”

Yes, but you can’t tell a book by its cover. There was a different Obama beneath the optimistic campaign branding, one who matched the masters’ desire to keep the people pacified and bamboozled as the shit of the coming capitalist crisis hit the fan. This other Obama was appreciated by political operatives from America’s unelected dictatorship of money, who vetted the young political phenomenon[3] and knew that the long neoliberal expansion[4] was hitting its limits and approaching a crash (the signs were clear to insiders well before the plug was pulled). The coming correction would require an unusually fresh new face to provide pseudo-democratic cover for Wall Street bailouts and other plutocratic policies to come[5] – certain to provoke popular anger as millions more faced joblessness, poverty, foreclosure and eviction. It was time for a bigger-than-customary makeover for “Brand USA” at home and (thanks to George W. Bush’s disastrous messianic militarism) abroad.6 

Candidate Obama sent early signals that he understood his hope-managing mission. In The Audacity of Hope, he praised ordinary Americans he claimed to have met for harboring “modest hopes” and low expectations regarding state and society. The outer boundaries of popular demands, as far as Obama could tell in his book, were “that people shouldn’t have to file for bankruptcy because they get sick,” that “every child” should have “a decent shot at life” [emphasis added], and that folks should get “to retire with some dignity and respect…when they get old. That [is] about it. It [isn’t] much,”[7]Obama wrote. Ordinary Americans, Obama claimed, seek little more from government than a few minimal protections and base supports at the bottom end. [8] It was a pretty pallid statement of the American Dream.


“It Takes a Trip Overseas”

Consistent with this minimalism, The Audacity of Hope offered a curious standard of comparison for measuring the “unmatched” bounty brought to Americans by “their” capitalist system: the former Third World, currently labeled “the developing world” (the majority periphery of the world economic system). “It takes a trip overseas,” Obama wrote, “to fully appreciate just how good Americans have it; even our poor take for granted goods and services – electricity, clean water, indoor plumbing, telephones, televisions, and household appliances – that are still unattainable for most of the world.”[9]

But of course, “it” depends on where the “overseas” journey takes the traveler. If it brings the traveler to much of the rest of the industrialized world, where state (so-called “free market”) capitalism’s inherent tendencies towards wealth inequality and corporate rule are more tempered by social-democratic programs and popular movements, the comparison is generally less than flattering to the United States. Such a comparison reminds the minimally attentive societal observer that the United States’ “unmatched prosperity” is doled out in harshly regressive ways that create relatively high percentages and numbers of poor and uninsured households, drastically long working hours, rampant economic insecurity and generally inadequate and under-funded public services alongside simply spectacular opulence for the privileged few.10

Given Obama’s desire to raise money and win approval from the top 1 percent that owns more than half the United States’ financial wealth[11], it made sense that he preferred to compare the U.S. poor with the desperately impoverished masses of Nairobi, Jakarta and Bogota rather than with the comparatively well-off lower classes of Oslo, Paris and Toronto. In the summer of 1966, by contrast, Obama’s supposed role model Dr. Martin Luther King (an actual Left progressive) was most struck by the greater poverty that existed in the U.S compared to other First World states. “Maybe something is wrong with our economic system,” King told an interviewer, observing that (in his biographer David Garrow’s words) “in democratic socialist societies such as Sweden there was no poverty, no unemployment and no slums.”12


No Wars on Poverty

Consistent with his tepid reflections on “how good [ordinary] Americans have it” (based on a revealing comparison with impoverished nations, not other core states) and how little they really want from society (“not much”), candidate Obama avoided strong and sweeping proposals to confront and overcome poverty in the U.S. As The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar noted in a May 2007 Obama portrait titled “The Conciliator,” the solutions offered in Obama’s book, speeches, and town-hall meetings were “small and local rather than deep-reaching and systemic.” Obama became known in mid-2007 for addressing deep social problems like poverty with no policy at all, preferring to substitute empty political platitudes and soothing bromides of hope and togetherness (“we are our brothers’ keeper”) for concrete policy and action proposals. His refusal to advance large scale reforms reflected Obama’s “deeply conservative” take on history, society and politics: “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,” MacFarquhar reported, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. 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.” MacFarquhar found that Obama’s “deep conservatism” was why “Republicans continue to find him congenial, especially those who opposed the [Iraq] war on much the same conservative grounds that he did.” She noted that some of Bush’s top fund-raisers were contributing to Obama’s campaign and observed that Obama garnered 40 percent of the Republican vote in his 2004 Senate victory.13

True to MacFarquhar’s findings, candidate Obama “eschewed the phrase ‘war on poverty’” when he spoke to the editorial board of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel two days prior to the Wisconsin presidential primary in mid-February of 2008. The paper’s editors were advocates of a radical and regressive policy experiment – private school vouchers – but they praised Obama for “preferring…to describe the task [of ending poverty] as a long-haul effort. No one should launch a program,” they wrote, “fight a battle and declare mission accomplished, he seemed to say. Instead, it will require continuous and unflagging efforts along several fronts – taxation, education, economic development, and yes, personal responsibility – to make progress.”[14]  Obama spoke to the Journal-Sentinel board in “reasonable” capitalist language, making sure to assort a proper share of the personal and moral blame for poverty onto the truly disadvantaged. (Here his rhetoric contrasted sharply with that of his early primary election rival, the subsequently scandal-plagued John Edwards, who consistently related poverty at the bottom to extreme wealth at the top and to unjust patterns of inequality, and who spoke not of the traditional duty to merely care for “our poor” but of Americans’ radical obligation and ability to abolish the obscenity of poverty in “the world’s richest nation.”)  This is no small part of what financial and corporate elites (who funded Obama’s presidential campaign in record- setting dollar numbers) liked about the overnight rock-star politician who became the United States’ first black president.15


“Expectation Management is Essential At Home and Internationally”

Another indication of popular betrayals to come emerged in late February of 2008, when leading Obama foreign policy advisor, friend, Harvard professor Samantha Power[16] appeared on the syndicated “Charlie Rose Show.”  Noting that George W. Bush had recently been swamped by cries of “O-ba-ma” during a recent state visit to Africa, Rose asked Power if she was concerned about the “sky-high expectations” much of the world seemed to have for an Obama presidency. There is “a danger” in this, Rose worried. Yes, Power said, noting that Obama was concerned about unrealistic hopes and adding that “that’s why expectation calibration and expectation management is essential at home and internationally.” Behind this disturbing application of elitist, manipulative, and technocratic language to the “management” of domestic and global opinion and hopes lay an obvious if unstated admission: Obama was going to disappoint expectant masses in U.S. and across the world  The peoples’ faith in change needed to be carefully and downwardly “calibrated.”17



Wall Street Dividend, Yes; Peace Dividend, No

In October of 2008, consistent with Power’s candid comment, Obama aligned himself with the wealthy few over and against the American non-affluent many by joining his Republic opponent John McCain in supporting the Bush administration’s highly unpopular decision to hand over 700 billion taxpayer dollars to cover the toxic assets created by the world’s leading financial perpetrators[18] – this even as millions were pushed into destitution by one of the masters’ profits system’s recurrent and inherent meltdowns.[19] The leading Wall Street investment firm and federal bailout recipient Morgan Stanley subsequently (one day after Obama defeated McCain) reported the following: “Obama has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend….we believe, based on discussions with industry sources, that Obama has agreed not to cut the defense budget at least until the first 18 months of his term as the national security situation becomes better understood….The Democrats,” Morgan Stanley’s researchers added,  “are sensitive about appearing weak on defense, and we don’t expect strong cuts.”20

“Defense” was an interesting label for a giant military budget that paid for two mass-murderous occupations (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and 770 military bases located in more than 130 countries. The United States accounts for nearly half (48 percent) of the military spending on the planet. Coming in at $1 trillion (by the measure of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s National Income and Product Accounts) in 2007, American “defense” (empire) spending outweighed domestic U.S federal expenditure on education by more than 8 to 1; income security by more than 4.5 to 1; nutrition by more than 11 to 1; housing by 14 to 1; and job training by 32 to 1. The military accounted for more than 50 percent of all discretionary federal spending – to the great, taxpayer-funded benefit of the owners and managers of such high-tech corporate giants as Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin.

The peace dividend referred to the notion of reversing these “perverted national priorities” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase ) by taking money spent on war and the preparation for war and using it to address such human problems as poverty, ecological crisis, crumbling infrastructure, joblessness, and inadequate education, health, housing, and schooling. The idea of a peace dividend received some attention in the United States around the end of the Cold War, when many progressives hoped that the collapse of the Soviet Union would encourage a shift in public resources from militarism to social health. For nearly half a century, the alleged (mythical) threat posed by Russian “communism” provided the core propagandistic justification for the existence of and use of the extraordinary military power of the United States. With the Soviet specter eliminated, progressives dreamed, the United States could now be realistically pressured to transfer significant new public resources to the meeting of social needs and away from the maintenance of the most spectacular and deadly military-imperial system in history. The dream was strangled in its cradle by the presidential administrations of George H. W. Bush (two wars of invasion—Panama [1989] and Iraq [1990–1991]) and Bill Clinton (an air war on Serbia in 1999) and by dominant U.S. war media. The “military-industrial-media triangle” and its many enablers and allies in church, school, academia, and other wings of so-called civil society rapidly substituted new rationalizations and pretexts for the persistence of a permanently militarized U.S. economy and culture: purported protection and advance of “free markets” and “democracy” (falsely conflated), the U.S, right of “humanitarian intervention,” and the grave dangers posed by terrorists, drug-traffickers, and “weapons of mass destruction.”21


The Violin Model

The victory of perverted corporate and imperial policies was clear in his administration-elect’s staffing decisions. From the start of his campaign and through his cabinet selections and appointments, Obama consistently surrounded himself with elite, hope-killing agents of corporate and imperial power, people such as James Jones (Obama’s national security advisor, a high-ranking Pentagon official rumored to be a Republican), Robert Gates (a Republican carried over from the Bush II–Cheney) administration, Rahm Emmanuel (a fiercely corporate-militarist center-Democratic party operative known for fierce attachment to Israel and ruthless disciplining of antiwar, left-leaning Democrats in the name of “party unity”), Lawrence Summers (a veteran Goldman Sachs–minted neoliberal operative from the Clinton administration who helped design and implement critical aspects of the very financial deregulation that blew up Wall Street in the late summer and fall of 2008), and Timothy Geithner (a veteran Wall Street bailout apparatchik and, like Summers, an acolyte of former Goldman Sachs chief and Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin). Obama’s claim in the wake of his election that he would provide the “vision”[22] to move such corporate and imperial operatives in a “progressive” direction was like a baseball manager claiming that he’s going to build a team based on speed and defense with a roster full of clumsy, slow-footed, 280-pound power hitters. Conventional Washington wisdom has long held with good reason that “personnel is policy.”23

Two and a half weeks after Obama’s victory, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, applied a musical metaphor to the president-elect’s transition team and cabinet appointments. Obama, Rothkopf told the New York Times’ David Sanger, was following “the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.”[24] 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 corporate, state, and military institutions and ideologies.


“Making the Burdens Yet to Come More Bearable”

It was all very consistent with the counsel of Sanger’s bosses at the nation’s most influential, agenda-setting newspaper. In a revealing editorial published three weeks before Obama’s inauguration, the Times editorial board explained that Obama had to walk a fine line in relation to the badly damaged domestic business order he was inheriting from George W. Bush. The next president would need to embrace a level of government intervention adequate to save the profits system while distancing himself from democratic pledges that might encourage the citizenry to rebel. “As president,” the Times lectured, “Mr. Obama will have to convey optimism without over-promising. He will have to inspire confidence, even in the absence of a dramatic turnaround—which is simply not on the cards.” The editorial ended on an interesting note: “While Mr. Obama must continue to level with the American people—the economy is unlikely to turn up until 2010 at the earliest, and even then it will probably rebound slowly—his near-term moves will go a long way towards making the burdens yet to come more bearable.”25

The Times editors had a different take on Obama’s duty to the American Empire. Their  emphasis on Obama’s need to downsize popular hopes in regard to domestic policy stood in curious contrast to the grandiose expectations they held for Obama’s obligation to expand the power of the Pentagon. In a November 16, 2008 editorial, they worried that Obama had inherited an inadequately equipped military. The editors urged the next president: to provide “sufficient troops, ships and planes to reassure allies in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe;” to “ensure [the Pentagon’s] ability…to move enormous quantities of men and material quickly around the world and to supply them when necessary by sea;” and to re-build “a significantly larger ground force” and “a military that is large enough and mobile enough to deter enemies,” among other things.26

Taken together, these two post-election Times editorials were a striking example of King’s “perverted priorities.” The nation’s leading newspaper called for cautious, conservative, and hope-chilling modesty when it came to addressing domestic pain and inequality. It advocated expansion of Superpower’s already gargantuan capacity to deliver death and destruction across a world that is routinely described as “dangerous” in the standard paranoid parlance of imperial militarism.



“Our Collective Failure”

As chief executive, Obama would not disappoint the editors of The New York Times. Further warnings of President Hope’s stealth determination to maintain the economically regressive status quo and wield the machinery of public power on behalf of private wealth came in his Inauguration speech. “Our economy is badly weakened,” Obama said, “a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” This statement cynically served and protected the wealthy financial few by evading the special agency and culpability of Wall Street and government elites, which systematically undermined government’s capacity to regulate the financial industry’s dangerous speculative machinations under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It shaded into vicious victim-blaming by preposterously saying that the country’s broad populace shared equal responsibility with the investor and political class for the nation’s dire economic straits. The U.S. working- and lower-class majority possesses less than negligible power when it comes to the direction, of “our [corporate-managed state-capitalist] economy,” in which the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the wealth and 57 percent of all claims on wealth.27


“A Blunt Lesson About Power”

The rest is history, as they say. Platinum-plated plutocratic history, that is: corporatist betrayal, the “violin model” and concomitant top-down “expectation management” with a vengeance. As the right-wing noise machine has absurdly denounced the 44th president as a “radical leftist” (Glenn Beck once claimed that the president was a “Marxist-Lenninist”), the “Obama, Inc.” administration has proceeded to construct a new historical monument to the old French saying plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same). With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic too-big (too powerful)-to-fail financial institutions that paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight, its undermining of serious global carbon emission reductions at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors), the “change” and “hope” (Bill Clinton’s campaign keywords in 1992) presidency of Barack Obama has epitomized the cynical essence of corporate-managed fake democracy.[28] As William Greider noted in the spring of 2009, “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.”[29] The “right people” include the top military contractors and the Pentagon, of course. The “new” White House has escalated Superpower violence in South Asia, passed a record-setting “defense” (empire) budget, rolled over George W. Bush’s not-so counter-terrorist assault on human rights (in the name of “freedom”), extended the imperial terror war to Yemen and Somalia, disguised escalated U.S. occupation of Haiti as humanitarian relief, aided and abetted a thuggish right wing coup in Honduras, expanded the Pentagon’s reach in Columbia/Latin America, and more – a fascinating record for the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.30


Veal Pen Abuse, Progressive Demobilization, and Elections 2010

According to the left-liberal author and blogger Les Leopold on the eve of last year’s mid-term elections: “It’s open season on Obama, whom so many hoped would lead us out of the neoliberal wilderness. He was once a community organizer and ought to know how working people have suffered through a generation of tax breaks for the rich, Wall Street deregulation and unfair competition. When the economy crashed, he was in perfect position to limit the unjustified pay levels on Wall Street….Instead we got a multi-trillion dollar bailout for Wall Street, no health care reform, no serious financial reforms whatsoever, record unemployment, and political gridlock that will be with us for years to come.”31

Such complaints have always elicited disgust and disdain in Obama’s West Wing. Liberals, leftists, and progressives who had the audacity and decency to question this ugly policy record were shouted down, threatened, mocked, and berated – as “fucking retarded” (Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel)[32] and as in need of “drug test[ing] (Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs)[33] – by administration officials, who delighted in beating up lefties even as they claim to hold the sole legitimate right to progressive hearts, minds, and (of course) votes. Speaking to cowed national progressive and liberal organizations in weekly “veal pen” (progressive activist Jane Hamsher’s term) meetings in 2009, strongman Emmanuel warned of dire consequences – being frozen out of meetings and denied funding – for activists and groups who were “fucking stupid” (Emmanuel’s term) enough to challenge any elected Democratic officials (no matter how conservative) on anything.34

One of the results of this policy and political path was the Democratic Party’s epic demoralization and stand down of its own progressive electoral base – an essential factor in the victory of the hard Republican right in the mid-term elections of November 2010. By the fall of 2010, a large number of Democrats and independent swing voters agreed with Leopold that “Obama hasn’t produced the reforms he promised, while embracing policies like Bush’s ‘war on terror,’ and the Afghanistan war that they abhor.” For a large number of core Democratic supporters, mainstream Democratic liberalism had failed to live up its idealistic campaign rhetoric

The electoral consequences were deadly. In the general midterm contest, the Democrats suffered from significant declines in voter participation on the part of segments of the electorate that played key roles in their triumphs in the 2006 (Congressional)  and 2008 (Congressional and presidential) elections cycles. Union households (predominantly Democratic) comprised 23 percent of the active electorate in 2006; in 2010 they were 17 percent. Their support for Democratic House candidates dropped from 64 percent in 2006 to 60 percent in 2010. Young people (18-29 years olds)were 18 percent of voters in 2008, when two-thirds of them voted for Obama; in 2010 they made up just11 percent of the electorate and they voted 56 to 40 percent for Democratic candidates. Black voters (90 percent Democratic in the 2010 elections) fell from 13 to 10 percent of the voters between 2008 and 2010. By contrast, voters who identified themselves as “conservative” increased their share of the active electorate from 32 to 41 percent between 2006 and 2010. “Conservatives” were more enthusiastic about GOP House candidates last fall than in 2006, when 74 percent of self-identified conservatives supported Republicans. Last November, 84 percent did. And this was all it took for the highly energized and re-branded Republican Party – what I only half-jokingly call “the Tea.O.P.” – to clean up in a mid-term election, when turnout is considerably smaller than during the quadrennial race that includes a presidential contest.35

No big “shift to the right” was required or took place. As the left analyst Charlie Post notes, “An 8 percent shift in an election where only 40% voted—a shift of approximately three percent of the total eligible voters—accounts for the Republicans’ victory.”36


Obama’s Latest Shift Right

Thanks to “the Tea Party’s” role in energizing the pseudo-conservative ultra-Republican base, the dominant media’s partnership in selling the

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