How Obama Happened: The Real Story


With the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, the question of how Obama happened merits critical reflection.  The explanation advanced by his campaign, the incoming White House public relations team, and, for the most part, dominant U.S. media has advanced two key narratives.  The first one holds that Obama is simply the product of hard, good, and honest work and special talents in a nation that is exceptionally committed to rewarding those attributes.  By this narrative, the new President is a great American success story in the tradition of Horatio Alger – the latest grand example of the Virtuous Nation’s continuing and remarkable openness and equality of opportunity for those who pay their dues to enjoy their piece of the American Dream. Obama toiled hard and nobly, with special talents, and was rewarded in accord with that work and skill in a "magical" country (Obama’s description of the United States) where — according to Obama on election night (citing his victory) — "all things are possible."
The second narrative, attractive to his many progressive supporters, emphasizes selflessness. It focuses on how Obama has supposedly embraced the common good over personal ambition and gain. Obama, the campaign story and official biography, continues, worked for three years as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. He could have become a wealthy Wall Street lawyer with his Harvard Law degree. Instead, he returned to the South Side to work as a voting rights activist and a "civil rights lawyer." He began an eight-year career as a state legislator dedicated to nothing more than dutifully serving his predominantly black and heavily impoverished South Side constituency.


Along the way, the line goes, his noble peoples’ activism carried over naturally into national politics. He became a viable candidate for the U.S. Senate, rocked the nation with his 2004 Keynote Address to the Democratic Convention, and ended up being essentially drafted into the 2008 presidential race by sheer popular demand.
The true history of Obama’s ascendancy is less inspiring and sanguine. His talents and hard work are part it all, to be sure.  But the real story is also and equally about advantages of birth and socialization, remarkable ambition, astonishing good luck, and — last but not all least — the pursuit and landing of sponsorship from rich and powerful elites who rain down good fortune on their carefully Chosen Ones.  


At the same time, it is about mass-marketing, deception, corporate media-love, the special advantage that U.S. power-brokers saw in advancing a certain, power-friendly kind of non-white politician.  It is also about Obama’s willingness to steer clear of any meaningful confrontation with racism beyond the simple fact of his quest to become the nation’s first black president.    

Obama has obviously not risen from the sort of class or race privilege or elite political lineages that produced such past presidents and presidential candidates as Franklin Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, George W. Bush, or Al Gore.  Still, he hardly came from destitution, with no inherited advantages and resources.


Young Obama enjoyed a pleasant existence on the idyllic Hawaiian island of Maui. With a mother who implanted in him an almost exaggerated sense of self-esteem, Obama was raised also by grandparents who were by all accounts loving and supportive. His extended white family used its more-than-negligible financial resources (his maternal grandmother was a banking executive) and family connections to given young "Barry" an elite private prep-school education at Honolulu‘s posh Punahou Academy.  They paid for his undergraduate education at Occidental College in Los Angeles and Columbia University in New York City.
And while his all-too absent parents were a source of considerable angst, they were highly intelligent, intellectually inclined, and highly educated. His father attained an Ivy League economics doctorate before returning to Kenya and his mother did graduate work in anthropology. His mother made a point of repeatedly telling him about his father’s widely recognized brilliance and high academic achievement, assuring the younger Obama too that he was destined for great accomplishments. Young Obama matured amidst considerable cultural capital at home and school.  
All things considered, Obama did not climb to greatness out of a great hole of personal, racial, cultural or socioeconomic misery. His origins are hardly the stuff of Horatio Alger mythology. For what it’s worth, Bill Clinton arguably arose from lower economic and cultural circumstances than Obama. Elected heads of state have recently risen from more truly disadvantaged situation in the significantly more impoverished and unequal nations of Bolivia (home to the indigenous left president Evo Morales and Brazil (whose president Lula da Silva was the son of autoworkers). The "magical" United States has one of the most rigid and immobile class systems in the industrialized world, so that the "American Dream" of upward mobility is actually more commonly lived in the European "Old World" than it is in the U.S.

"Obama Believes in Obama"

Contrary to the selflessness theme in the official Obama narrative, Obama has long lusted for high state power, including the top job. According to his longtime close personal friend and top advisor Valerie Jarrett, in early 2007, Obama has "always wanted to be president.  He didn’t always admit it, but, oh, absolutely. The first time he said it," Jarrett told New Yorker essayist Larissa MacFarquhar, "he said ‘I just think I have some special qualities and wouldn’t it be a shame to waste them…you know, I just think I have something.’"1
During the mid 1990s, Obama participated in a seminar put together by Harvard professor Robert Putnam to gather young, civic-minded intellectuals, activists, and officeholders.  By Putnam’s recollection, Obama "talked so openly about his political future that the group began referring to him, teasingly, as ‘Governor’" and "once gathered around him to ask, ‘when are you running for president?’" 2
In the early 1990s, Obama told Craig Robinson, his future brother-in-law, the following, in Robinson’s words: "I’d like to teach at some point and maybe run for office…he said, no at some point I’d like to run for the U.S. Senate.  And then he said ‘possibly even run for president at some point.’" 3
According to Bobby Rush, reflecting on Obama’s rash effort to unseat Rush from the U.S. Congress in 2000: "He was blinded by his ambition. …Obama believes in Obama.  And, frankly, that has its good side but it also has its negative side,"  Rush told the New York Times in September of 20074
"Eyes on the Prize"

Consistent with these reflections, longtime Illinois state senator Steven Rauschenberger recalled in 2007 that state senator (1996-2004) Obama was "a very bright but very ambitious person who had his eyes on the prize and it wasn’t [Illinois state capital] Springfield." 5  An extensive Chicago Tribune feature on Obama’s statehouse career bore the interesting title, "Careful Steps, Looking Ahead."  The feature’s authors Rick Pearson and Ray Long learned that "from the moment he arrived in the Illinois Senate it was clear to many that he didn’t intend to stay." After just two months in Springfield, Pearson and Long reported, Obama met with the Illinois Senate Democrats’ chief-of-staff Mike Hoffman to discuss "how Obama’s name might play with Downstate voters in a statewide race."  According to Hoffman, "Obama wanted me to know that he had other ambitions." 6
Obama’s desire for power was apparent to many from the way he attained his first legislative seat.  He won an easy victory after forcing all other Democratic contenders off the ballot by challenging their signature petitions – a classic street-smart tactic in Chicago politics. Among the people he pushed out of contention on technical grounds was the highly progressive state senator Alice Palmer, who had invited Obama to run for her state senate seat after she decided to try for the U.S. Congress.  Obama kicked Palmer to the curb after she realized she had no chance against future congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. and tried to re-enter the state senate contest.7
Consistent with Rush, Rauschenberger, and Putnam’s take on him, Obama launched an ill-advised challenge to the popular black South Side congressman Bobby Rush in 2000.  He began scheming for Peter Fitzgerald’s U.S. Senate seat within a year of being badly defeated by Rush. When Democrats won control of the Illinois legislature in 2003, Obama went straight to his powerful mentor and new Illinois Senate Leader Emil Jones to gain his support for the Senate job. 8

 "A Study in Caution and Calculation"

Intimately related to Obama’s powerful ambition was his pronounced tendency to temper his (supposed) "progressive" impulses and preferences.  Numerous accounts of Obama’s Springfield tenure (1996-2004)indicate a calculating conservative and accommodating side that was more than consistent with the centrism that has concerned some of his current day liberal-left supporters. According to Tribune reporters Rick Pearson and Ray Long, state senator Obama "tempered a progressive agenda with a cold dose of realism, often forging consensus with conservative Republicans when other liberals wanted to crusade….A review of his tenure [in Springfield]," Pearson and Long noted, "is a study in complexity, caution, and calculation." 9 While catching "Hell" from black Chicago colleagues who criticized him for being too accommodating and too careerist, he formed close friendships with three white colleagues – two of whom were Republicans – from the Chicago suburbs and "downstate" (rural Illinois).
Arguably more interested in having his name associated with resume-padding legislative victories than with substantive progressive change, he sponsored a distinctly modest 1998 campaign finance "reform" bill.  The legislation required electronic filing of campaign disclosure reports, prohibited the personal spending of campaign dollars by candidates and banned most gifts from lobbyists to legislators but set no limits on contributions from corporations or the exaggerated campaign spending of the state legislature’s four top party officers.
When the state changed its public assistance system in accord with the national welfare "reform" (elimination) introduced in 1996-97, Obama joined Republicans and conservative Democrats and opposed much of the black Illinois legislative delegation by supporting the imposition of "work [punitive low-income wage-labor] requirements" on single mothers receiving family cash assistance.

Obama managed to be absent from the voting floor when a key handgun control bill came up in 1999.  He voted in 2004 (in pursuit of the electoral endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police) with Republicans to support a bill granting retired law enforcement officers the right to carry concealed weapons. 10  He sold his heralded bill requiring that all criminal interrogations be videotaped in the case of capital crimes to law enforcement officials and Republicans on conservative grounds, claiming it would help fix the state’s broken death penalty system.  He also supported the extension of the death penalty to certain types of capital offenses – the killing of senior citizens and handicapped persons, for example.  
Obama played a critical role at the end of his Springfield tenure in helping the insurance industry kill legislative efforts towards universal health coverage in Illinois. Working with Republicans and insurance lobbyists who extolled him for honoring their interests, he worked to water down the state’s "Health Care Justice Act" to mean little more than the setting up of a toothless body to research the supposedly mysterious question of how to provide universal coverage – a panel that gave the  insurance industry significant influence in how the issue would be approached.  
At the beginning of 2004, the state’s progressive health-care advocates had high hopes (thanks to newly attained Democratic dominance in the state’s legislative, executive, and judicial bodies) for passing a bill that would have made it official state policy to ensure that all Illinois residents could access "quality healthcare at costs that are reasonable." Insurers expressed their fear that such language would lead to a "government takeover of healthcare." By the time the bill became law, containing three amendments written by Obama, the health care powers-that-be had little to worry about. The legislation merely established universal healthcare as a policy goal. It designated a task force charged only with studying how to expand healthcare access – a panel that gave (thanks to one of Obama’s amendments) insurers an outsized voice.11
"Aspirations of Doing Something Else in Politics"

One particular set of state-legislative votes especially suggests the accuracy of Rauschenberger’s notion that Obama was more interested in higher office than in the daily work of representing his constituents in Springfield.  As a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, Obama claimed to be a staunch champion of abortion rights. He strongly criticized a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a controversial ban on a late-term abortion procedure.
In the Illinois legislature, however, Obama voted "present" instead of "no" on seven bills restricting abortion.  He subsequently claimed that these noncommittal "present" votes were part of a "progressive" political strategy worked out with liberal groups like Planned Parenthood to provide political "cover" for legislators who could not afford to appear to be "pro-abortion."  But legislators interviewed by the Chicago Tribune recalled no such strategy and noted that Obama needed no such "cover" in his mostly liberal and predominantly black South Side district.  


Obama did think he required "cover," however, for his "higher ambitions" for running a statewide or even national campaign someday. As his good friend and former state legislator Terry Link (D-Waukeagan IL) noted, "a ‘present’ vote helped if you had had aspirations of doing something else in politics.  I think Obama looked at it in that regard." 12
Calculated Low-Risk Progressivism

Insofar as state legislator Obama behaved in accord with many liberal commentators’ concept of him as "true progressive," moreover, it should be acknowledged that he gained his entrée to the world of electoral politics atop a heavily black district where majority opinion ran well to the progressive left of mainstream U.S. sentiment. Black-Americans are the leftmost section of the U.S. electorate. There is little risk involved in taking — or (perhaps more accurately in Obama’s case) seeming to take — progressive positions in predominantly black voting districts.  Running and legislating to some extent as a nominal progressive in such a district would be entirely consistent with higher political ambitions hitched to a more conservative, "vacuous to repressive neoliberal" (left black political scientist Adolph Reed Jr.’s description of Obama in 1996) world view. After all, one has to show their capacity to win elections in order to be taken seriously by the power brokers who control access to more elevated elected positions. When Obama felt his longer political viability for statewide and even national races threatened, he behaved according to the principle of calculation, as with the seven abortion rights bills he failed to support.  
And that’s why Obama was nowhere to be seen around the great Chicago marches held against the actual (no longer just planned) beginning of the U.S. assault on Iraq on the evenings of March 19 and March 20, 2003.  It’s also why his subsequently famous October 2002 speech (an oration that tellingly c

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