No Left Excuses for Obama

Thanks to a book I did on the Barack Obama phenomenon last year [1], people have been writing me to ask for an assessment of the Obama White House’s "first 100 days."

I’m working on it. It’s not going to be a pretty story.  I will describe in some detail how  the Obama presidency has functioned in accord with my book’s situation of the Obama phenomenon within the corporate-dominated and militaristic U.S. elections system and political culture.  I will show how he has acted on behalf of his ruling class sponsors and allies, who have good reasons to be pleased with their use of Obama to "manage [betrayed popular] expectations." 

Stay tuned: I’ll have something up on the Internet within less than a week [2].

In the meantime, I’ve written this essay to say why I’d like to stop hearing four things some liberal and left intellectuals say about the new president and his administration.  In what follows below, I give sample quotations summarizing basic points I’ve heard and seen some progressives make on Obama, often in his defense.  I subject these points to critical scrutiny in accord with my observation of the Obama record and its place in U.S. political culture to date.


"It’s not his fault that he’s so centrist and conservative: the political system makes him act that way. Obama behaves rationally within the framework of the narrow-spectrum U.S political system, so there is no moral basis for critiquing him from the left.  He has no choice.  It’s the system, not Obama, so leave him alone."

There’s more than a kernel of truth in this point. I for one have never doubted that what Obama has been doing is highly intelligent form the perspective of seeking advancement within the narrow dominant institutional and ideological framework of U.S. politics and political culture.  Obama and his team are brilliant political actors and most of what other leftists and I disapprove of in their behavior is heavily incentivized within and by that framework.

It is true that, as Obama’s media maven David Axelrod recently to the Los Angeles Times, that "Barack Obama wasn’t elected to stand guard over the status quo; he was elected to change it."  But so what? American voters’ quadrennial media-fed dreams that a savior can be installed in the White House — someone who will raise wages, roll back war and militarism, provide universal and adequate health care, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, produce high-paying jobs, fix the environmental crisis, reduce inequality, guarantee economic security, and generally make daily life more livable — are regularly drowned in the icy waters of historical and political "reality."  In the actuality of American politics and policy, the officially "electable" candidates are vetted in advance by what Laurence Shoup calls "the hidden primary of the ruling class."  By prior Establishment selection, all of the "viable" presidential contenders are closely tied to corporate and military-imperial power in numerous and interrelated ways.  They run safely within the narrow ideological and policy parameters set by those who rule behind the scenes to make sure that the rich and privileged continue to be the leading beneficiaries of the American system. 

In its presidential as in its other elections, U.S. "democracy" is "at best" a "guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, consistent with the larger population projects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process. It is an illusion," Shoup claims — correctly in my opinion — "that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate." [3]

This is especially true in the corporate-neoliberal era, perhaps, when the Democratic Party has moved ever farther away from its declared mission of representing workers, the poor, and minorities – the disadvantaged – in their continuing struggles with plutocracy, inequality, empire, racism, and indifference.

Obama is no special or magical exception to this harsh reality. A Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or Bill Richardson presidency would not have been either.  I’m not sure how different a "fighting John Edwards" presidency [4] would have been. 

Obama and his folks generally behave rationally within their own political world view, which is not about challenging existing dominant institutions and doctrines.

As Obama dismissively said about Ralph Nader in the spring of 2008, "it is what it is."

But citing this terrible political reality as an objection to radical criticism of Obama’s centrist, corporate-imperial behavior assumes the legitimacy of trying to gain higher office (and to otherwise rise as an individual) within the system. Being an egalitarian radical in the libertarian socialist tradition, I think that charismatic public personalities like Obama would contribute more to America and the world by resisting dominant power structures than by trying to climb them. As the great American socialist Eugene Debs (admittedly a perennial presidential candidate) used to say (I paraphrase): the point is to rise with the masses, not from them. It’s not about putting a more outwardly progressive and human face on  the American profits system and Empire. It’s about building, re-building, and expanding citizen and working-class power from the bottom up.  It’s about struggling at the grassroots to create a responsive, democratic, egalitarian and issue-based political culture and politics between and across the narrow-spectrum, corporate-crafted, candidate-centered election spectacles so many of us have been trained to see as the sum total of "politics." It’s about confronting what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called "the triple evils that are interrelated: economic exploitation (really capitalism);  racism (deeply understood); and militarism or imperialism along with other and related evils like sexism and eco-cide.  It’s about advancing what King called "the real issue to be faced" beyond "superficial" questions: "the radical reconstruction of society itself." [5] It is about the struggle for "a socialist society in which human needs are not sacrificed for the needs of the rich." [6] 

For what its worth, Obama’s supposed hero Dr. King rejected left-liberal efforts to get him to run for the White House, preferring (he said) to serve as "the conscience of all parties" [7].

At the same time, it is worth noting that Obama has often done more than required to keep the "hidden primary’s" masters content. He wasn’t absolutely compelled by the U.S. political system: to vote (as a U.S. Senator in 2005) to restrict consumers’ ability to successfully sue misbehaving corporations; to vote (as a U.S Senator in 2008) for enhanced federal domestic wiretapping powers under Patriot Act II; to speak (as President now) in hysterical and crackpot terms [8] about the alleged grave and imminent threat posed to world safety by al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan; to file a federal brief (as President  this year) supporting George W. Bush’ position on the denial of habeas corpus to "enemy combatants" flown to the U.S. prison at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan; to endorse the terrible George W. Bush position on "state secrets"; to repeatedly claim that a serious investigation of Bush administration torture practices would amount to a distracting focus on "the past" at the expense of sound policy in the present and future. 

Obama’s positions and actions more than occasionally go beyond the call of ruling class duty, consistent with New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar’s interesting description of candidate Obama as "deeply conservative" in the spring of 2007 [9].


"People have no business being surprised and disappointed by Obama’s pro-corporate and military policies and statements he’s never really tried to hide his centrism.  He’s made it clear that he’s not a populist or progressive and that he’s at best a moderate corporate and imperial Democrat."

I’ve made this very argument myself on more than one occasion. And my Obama book is probably the best single place once could go to find a detailed record of how clearly centrist an even conservative Obama has quite detectably been since the beginning of his political career.

Detectable to intellectuals and other elites, that is. 

This second point is fine and appropriate as long as it is directed at privileged people who enjoyed the time, energy, and skills to read between the lines and see through the "all things to all people" nonsense of the Obama campaign. Many folks don’t possess those advantages. Having seen the remarkable "Brand Obama" marketing operation develop over many months in Iowa (April 2007-January 2008) and having tracked it nationally through the general election , I can report with absolute confidence that the highly skilled Obama team poured a lot of effort into deceptively creating a progressive impression.  Obama was powerfully and falsely sold to the Democratic Party’s liberal and progressive base as a Mr. Smith-goes-to-Washington character eager to take on the corporate and military elite. He may have sent numerous requisite centrist and conservative indications to the masters of the "hidden primary"— indications that are catalogued at some length in my book [10] and easily picked up by left intellectuals trained in identifying them. But the Obama operation simultaneously gave strong progressive indications to a good part of to the electorate.

It would have been foolish not to, from that operation’s "in it to win it" perspective. The "manipulation of populism by elitism" (Christopher Hitchens’ phrase in 1999) is a key part (Hitchens called it "the essence") of American winner-take-all "two party" politics [11] and it is deeply encouraged and enabled by dominant U.S. media, which has powerfully fed the illusion of Obama as some sort of "left"- progressive candidate and (now) president.


"Obama wants us to make him do progressive things by organizing to pressure the administration from the bottom up.  Obama needs a protest movement!"

I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard an excited liberal progressive claim that Obama once told a voter that he would welcome activists organizing to "make" him change the United States’ policy of supporting Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.  The way the story is told, Obama is supposed (during a campaign fundraiser in Montclair, New Jersey in early 2008) to have cited Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous comment to American left and labor leaders who pressed him to undertake an advanced program of labor and social reform: "make me do it." [12].

There are four problems here. First, it is ridiculous to let Obama off the moral hook by seeming to attribute his apparent determination (fairly evident during his federal political career and through his first 100 days) to back Israel’s criminal occupation and apartheid policies to the people’s failure to act.  The notion that activists have to mobilize millions to march on Washington to "make" Obama behave with elementary decency on Israel-Palestine is ethically problematic. We should do everything we can in pursuit of that outcome but the fact remains that the United States’ Middle Eastern policy is morally and legally abhorrent with or without massive protest.  The problem with the "make me do it" line is the insidious way it shifts the onus from the most powerful office on Earth (the U.S. presidency) to relatively marginal activists when it comes to attributing reponsibility for ending terrible crimes.

A second and related difficulty is that it seems highly unlikely that such activists actually can "make" Obama act opposition to the powerful Israel lobby anytime soon.  There is relatively little space in the dominant U.S. political and media culture for much effective activism against Israel’s crimes. Obama’s "make me do it" comment (if he really made it) was certainly proffered with an understanding that activists have little capacity to do so.

Third, the last thing the "deeply conservative" Obama or his corporate and military sponsors want is a mass protect movement.  He was hired and put in nominal control of the American System and Empire precisely to calm popular anger and to "manage [betrayed popular] expectations" at home and abroad. His job, for which he is perfectly suited on numerous levels, is to give the American corporate system and empire a falsely democratic, fake progressive public relations makeover in the wake of the long Cheney-Bush II nightmare – a makeover that pacifies the populace, keeping it off the streets.

Fourth, it’s we the people who need a protest movement, not Obama [13].


"Radicals who criticize Obama from the left are cynical and negativistic carpers who make no serious alternative proposals."

I suppose the charge is accurate in some cases. There are some inveterate cynics and disparagers on what one of my persistent liberal critics has (ridiculously) labeled "the anti-Obama left." But the last 37 pages of my Obama book are all about solutions and alternatives.  They include proposals for a more democratic system and political culture beyond the United States’ current reigning corporate-managed pseudo-democracy [14].  The last chapter is dedicated to the question of what a left progressive presidency would look like.

Anyone interested in a seriously positive and  pro-active  left-progressive take on Obama’s economic policies, replete with a comprehensive list of alternative proposals, can read left economist Jack Rasmus’ useful essay in the March 2009 issue of Z Magazine: "Obama’s Economic Plan v. an Alternative" [15]. They can also attend my forthcoming May Day speech at the Ped Mall in Iowa City, where I will briefly make the case for a people’s economic stimulus and recovery program, something very different from the White House’s corporate-neoliberal plan for preserving the basic underlying structures of Empire and Inequality, Incorporated.

As Noam Chomsky once wrote: "One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: ‘they present solutions and I don’t like them.’" [16].

As for the cynicism charge, a quote from George Bernard Shaw is as useful as ever. "The power of accurate observation," Shaw once wrote, "is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it."

Paul Street’s first book was Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004).  His latest book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).  Street will speak on President Obama’s First Hundred Days at the chambers of the Urbana City Council at 7 pm on Thursday, April 30 in Urbana, Illinois. He will also speak on on "Focus580" (AM 580 in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois) on May 1, 2009 at 10 AM and (tentatively) on "The People’s Economic Stimulus" on May Day in Iowa City (downtown "Ped Mall" some time after 5PM).

1. Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008)
2.  For those who can’t wait, I’ll speak on Obama’s first 100 days at the chambers of the Urbana City Council, Urbana, Illinois, on Thursday, April 30, 2009. My reflections will be broadcast live on UPTV, Channel 6.  For a "first 70 days" assessment, see my article, "Hope Killers? Obama’s Violin, ‘Populist Rage,’ and the Uncertain Containment of Change," forthcoming in Z Magazine (May 2009).

3. Laurence H. Shoup, "The Presidential Election 2008," Z Magazine (February 2008).  See also Edward S. Herman, "Democratic Betrayal," Z Magazine (January 2007); Edward S. Herman, "How Market Democracy Keeps the Public and ‘Populism’ at Bay," ZNet (August 13, 2007), read online at http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/commentaries/3194

4. Thoroughly impossible given Edwards’ odd insistence on loudly highlighting and claiming to oppose class inequality and poverty and to uphold the rights of labor.  See Paul Street, "A Very Narrow Spectrum: Even John Edwards is Too Far Left for the U.S. Plutocracy," ZNet Sustainer Commentary (August 29, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2007-08/29street.cfm;Paul Street, "’Angry John’ v. KumbayObama" Reflections on Iowa, Business Rule. And the Democratic Party’s Democratic Disconnect," ZNet (December 20, 2007) read at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/15969.

5. Martin Luther King Jr., "A Testament of Hope" (1968), in James M. Washington, ed.., A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King,, Jr. (San Francisco, CA: Harpercollins, 1991.

6. Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Haymarket, 2008), p. 197.
7. David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1986), pp. 557-558, 562, 577.
8.  Juan Cole, "Obama’s Domino Theory," Salon (March 30, 2009), read at http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2009/03/30/afghanistan

9.  Glen Greenwald, "Obama and Habeas Corpus: Then and Now," Salon (April 11, 2009), at www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2009/04/11/bagram/index.html; Greenwald, "The 180-Degree Turn of Obama’s State Secrets Position," Salon (February 10, 2009); Larissa MacFarquhar, "The Conciliator," The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).

10. Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, pp. 1-163.

11. "…the Kingfish [Huey Long] had a primal understanding of the essence of American politics.  This essence, when distilled, consists of 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 opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently ‘elitist.’ It’s no great distance from Huey Long’s cry of ‘Every man a king!’ to the insipid inclusiveness of [the Bill Clinton slogan] ‘Putting People First,’ but the smarter elite managers have learned in the interlude that solid, measurable pledges have to be distinguished by a ‘reserve’ tag that earmarks them for the bankrollers and backers.  They have also learned that it can be imprudent to promise the voters too much." Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000), pp. 17-18.

12. Amy Goodman, "Make Obama Keep His Promises," Seattle Post-Intelligencer (January 21, 2009), read online at http://www.seattlepi.com/opinion/396961_amy22.html

13.  Frances Fox Piven, "Obama Needs a Protest Movement," The Nation (November 13, 2008), read at http://www.thenation.com/doc/20081201/piven. Given the content of her essay (without progressive illusion about Obama’s core commitments and values) and her remarkable body of impressive research and writing on popular struggle (see especially her wonderfully radical book, co-authored with Richard Cloward: Poor People’s Movements: Why they Succeed, How They Fail [New York, 1977]), I have a difficult time believing that the author chose the title of this essay.

14. Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton university Press, 2008); Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997);  Herman, "How Market Democracy Keeps the Public and ‘Populism’ at Bay;" Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995; Elizabeth Drew, The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why (Secaucus, N.J.: Birch Lane Press, 1999); Center for Responsive Politics, A Brief History of Money in Politics (Washington DC: Center for Responsive Politics, 1995); Jamin Raskin and John Bonifaz, "The Constitutional Imperative and Practical Imperative of Democratically Financed Elections," Columbia Law Review, 94-4 (1994): 1160-1203; Charles Lewis, The Buying of the President (New York, NY: Avon, 1996); Robert W. McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Paul Street, "Capitalism and Democracy ‘Don’t Mix Very Well’: Reflections on Globalization," Z Magazine (February 2000): 20-24.

15. Read online at http://www.zcomm.org/zmag/viewArticle/20734

16. Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York, NY: Metropolitan, 2006), p. 262.

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