The 2008 Barack Obama campaign reminded some hopeful left and liberal observers of the fantastic, feel-good presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy (RFK). Like RFK in the turbulent summer of 1968, Obama swept up a considerable number of progressives in the illusion that big democratic transformation, peace and justice could be achieved by electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate. In both cases, many on “the left”1 drank heavily and wistfully from the corporate-crafted pitcher of liberal, candidate-centered Kool Aid. It was a great and dreamy seduction.2
When it comes to 1968 analogies, however, there is reason to see Obama’s real relationship with progressives and “the left” as closer to that of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley of the year. Think back to August ’68, more than four months after Daley had uttered his infamous “shoot to kill” order against black Chicagoans who rioted in the wake of the assassination/execution of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Democratic Convention was underway at the old International Amphitheater in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The “anti-[Vietnam] war” candidate RFK – the likely victor in the primary contest (despite his late entry) – had been killed the previous month, leaving the Democrats free to nominate the hawkish Hubert Humphrey for the presidency.
Thousands of anti-Vietnam war protestors had converged on the city, to great media fanfare and Daley was not pleased. One evening during the convention, his cops bludgeoned “the hippies” and anyone else who looked vaguely left or liberal on the sidewalks and streets outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel (where most of the convention delegates stayed during the event) in the city’s downtown. The one-sided “police riot” (as it was later described by a federal commission) crashed protestors and others through some of the hotel’s great glass-plate windows. The assault was captured live on national television, with a crowd chanting “The Whole World is Watching.” I sat stunned as a grade-schooler in Hyde Park (a dreamy liberal neighborhood on the city’s South Side) as the scene shifted from the police state assault at Michigan and Balbo back to the convention floor, where Daley and his Irish-American political gang were seen yelling “fuck you” at a liberal Democrat (Abraham Ribicoff, Democratic senator from Connecticut) who denounced “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago” while nominating George McGovern for the presidency.3
(I should not exaggerate the RFK [dreamy and seductive] vs. Daley [ruggedly abusive] dichotomy when it comes to the relationship between Democrats and “the left” in the 1960s. Daley knew how to wrap his iron fist in the occasional velvet glove and was sometimes an expert practitioner of sophisticated, fake-progressive co-optation. At the same time, the liberal hero Bobby Kennedy had an ugly record of wiretapping, infiltrating, terrorizing and otherwise repressing radical and progressives forces at home and abroad – consistent with the fact that paranoid anti-Communist Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy was the Godfather of his first child.)
“STFU and Give Us Your Money”
In one common narrative, the left-sounding Brand Obama seduced portside Americans with rhetoric and imagery encouraging liberals and even some self-described radicals to believe that he was/is “one of us” and “on our side.” Call this the Barry White story line on how the president charmed silly, star-struck left voters and activists with progressive pillow talk and deceptive rebel’s clothing that included the color of his skin. It has some basis in fact. I saw Obama pose as a left-leaning progressive again and again during the 2007-08 primary campaign within and beyond Iowa.
But there’s another, meaner Obama when it comes to relating to “the left” – a more Barry Bonds-like bully who arrogantly lectures, mocks, disrespects and works to marginalize and repress serious liberals, progressives, and leftists. This nastier side of Obama tells those to his left – not hard to be given his “deeply conservative” nature – to be quiet and sit in the corner while the real men of power do the business of politics. It was recently suggested nicely by a confrontation between the progressive blogger Susan Madrak of Crooks and Liars. She gave top Obama adviser David Axelrod an earful during a conference call in which the administration tried to rally progressive support or Democratic candidates in the November 2010 mid-term elections. Accusing the administration of "hippie-punching" in its response to left critics, Madrak said that “We're the girl you'll take under the bleachers but you won't be seen with in the light of day," Madrak told Axelrod. A left female blogger at Corrente Wire captured the basic message – “shut the fuck up [STFU] and give us your money” – in Axelrod’s response to Madrak:
‘ “[AXELROD:] Let me say this. I really believe this is the most consequential time in our lifetime… We are in a struggle, we are in a fight. We don’t have to agree, but we all have to lock arms and move forward here. [Translation: STFU and give us your money] ….And we get [what]?’
‘“[AXELROD:] Saying we shouldn’t be involved in intramural [What? Grade school recess? What's wrong with this guy?] skirmishes, I couldn’t agree more. [Translation: STFU and give us your money] And that goes on both sides… I’m not lecturing you, I’m speaking to everyone involved on our side. There are big things at stake here. The nature of progressive thought is that we go at it, we trade ideas, and that’s as it should be. But we have to come together [Translation: STFU and give us your money]. … Whatever differences we have pale in comparison to the differences to the folks out there today masquerading as representatives of the American people.” [Translation: Look! Over there! Sarah Palin!]’5
Of course, we should not exaggerate the conflict between the Obama who seduces “the left” and the Obama who punches it down. These two Obamas represent both sides of the coin of the Democrats’ longstanding abusive relationship with the left, the essential message of which is “Honey, I Love You now please be quiet or I will hurt you again with full knowledge that you have nowhere else to go.”
Some of the meaner side of Obama’s relationship with the left was displayed when Obama spoke to Rolling Stone magazine five weeks before the 2010 mid-term elections (when his corporate-captive administration and party took a widely predicted beating at the polls). Admonishing “progressives,” Obama said it would be "inexcusable" and "irresponsible" for unenthusiastic Democratic voters to sit out the midterm elections, warning that the consequences would include the squandering of their agenda. "People need to shake off this lethargy. People need to buck up," Mr. Obama said. The president told Democrats that making change happen is hard and "if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place." Ticking off a list of supposed progressive victories under his premiership, he denounced the “glass-half-empty” view of many progressives as “a debilitating force” that distracted from the real concern: the Republican Party. "It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election," Obama said. The message took on what CBS called “a stern, lecturing tone” after Obama concluded his lengthy Q-and-A session with Rolling Stone but then (according to the magazine) returned unprompted to denounce the progressive voter enthusiasm gap: “The idea that we've got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible.”6
In a similar vein around the same time, Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden expressed his disgust with progressives who did not grasp the urgent necessity of coming out to support Democrats in the mid-terms. “Don’t compare us to the Almighty,’ Biden said: “compare us to the alternative,” which he identified as “the Republican Tea Party.”7
Obama and Biden’s comments came not long after White House press secretary Robert Gibbs’ outburst against what he called “the professional left.” “I hear these people saying [Obama is] like George Bush. Those people,” Gibbs pouted, “ought to be drug tested.” In his rant, Gibbs dismissed the so-called professional left in terms similar to those of a Sean Hannity or a Rush Limbaugh, saying that “They will [only] be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.” Of those liberals who complained – I would say observed – that Obama had caved to the right and to corporate interests on healthcare, financial reform, climate reduction, gay marriage, the Employee Free Choice Act and much more, Gibbs said: “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”8 This was not quite the Dale Carnegie method on “how to win friends and influence people” when it came to seeking support from “the left,” professional and otherwise.
“Paul…I Want You to Know I’m Frustrated Too”
The messages sent to members of “the left” in these pre-election comments were clear:
1. “You are our helpless dependents, powerless victims. You need to stay with us no matter how much we betray and abuse you because the other dominant party will abuse you even more.”
2. “Asking us to act in any substantive way on an actually progressive agenda or even on our carefully calibrated progressive-sounding campaign ‘promises’ is like expecting us to become Gods. So what if we came into office with a sweeping mandate for progressive change and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress? Expecting us to act in accord with our rhetoric is totally unrealistic. Shame on you.”
3. “You must subordinate your political desires and social vision to the top-down electoral calculations of the Democratic Party —- to us. It is dysfunctional for you to think and act independently of our needs.”
4. “It will be your fault, not ours, when the GOP wins big in November.”
Another and related message – “I’m sorry, honey, but I’ve been trying my best and you really need to understand that I’m doing all I can to keep the passion alive…you really need to stay with me” – was evident in the following personalized message that came to me via e-mail from Barack Obama ([email protected]) on October 8t 2010:
“Paul –I come into this election with clear eyes. I am proud of all we have achieved together, but I am mindful of all that remains to be done. I know some out there are frustrated by the pace of our progress. I want you to know I'm frustrated, too. But with so much riding on the outcome of this election, I need everyone to get in this game. Neither one of us is here because we thought it would be easy. Making change is hard. It's what we've said from the beginning. And we've got the lumps to show for it. The fight this fall is as critical as any this movement has taken on together. And if we are serious about change, we need to fight as hard as we ever have. The very special interests who have stood in the way of change at every turn want to put their conservative allies in control of Congress. And they're doing it with the help of billionaires and corporate special interests underwriting shadowy campaign ads. If they succeed, they will not stop at making our work more difficult — they will do their best to undo what you and I fought so hard to achieve. There is no better time for you to start fighting back — a fellow grassroots supporter has promised to match, dollar for dollar, whatever you can chip in today. 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. I didn't run for president because I wanted to do what would make me popular. And you didn't help elect me so I could read the polls and calculate how to keep myself in office. 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. We believed that this was the moment to solve the challenges that the country had ignored for far too long. That change happens only from the bottom up. That change happens only because of you. So I need you to fight for it over the next 26 days. I need your time. I need your commitment. And I need your help to get your friends and neighbors involved. Please donate $3 — and renew your commitment today: https://donate.barackobama. com/OctoberMatch. If we meet this test — if you, like me, believe that change is not a spectator sport — we will not just win this election. In the years that come, we can realize the change we are seeking — and reclaim the American dream for this generation.”
It was interesting to see my manipulative “friend” Barack Obama self-interestedly (all of a sudden, with the mid-terms on their way) resurrect the faux-populist 2007-08 campaign rhetoric of “hope” and “change from the bottom up” – language that had lay curiously dormant over most of Obama’s corporatist term, marked by record levels of Wall Street welfare, an auto-restructuring plan that raided workers’ pensions ad rewarded capital flight, a health ‘reform’ that only insurance and drug companies could love, the undermining of serious carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, a refusal to pursue major green jobs public works programs (even as unemployment reached new post-WWII record levels), the betrayal of promises to labor, and the escalation of “defense” (empire) spending and imperial violence.
Rejecting Their Own Responsibility
Consistent with my abusive relationship analogy, the Obama White House narrative absolve the administration of any responsibility for the lack of enthusiasm of its left victims. As they refused to admit, Obama and the Democrats should have looked first in the mirror to understand the disgruntlement of their “progressive base.” As the left political analyst Lance Selfa explained in last October’s issue of International Socialist Review (ISR):
“The Democrats had large majorities in both houses of Congress, including, for a period of time, a 60-vote majority in the Senate. They had the potential to reset mainstream politics for a generation. Yet, with the Obama administration in the lead, they mainly assumed the role as savior of the corporate system that was teetering on the edge of the economic abyss in late 2008 and early 2009…Since then, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to placate business and its right-wing critics while ladling out thin gruel to its most fervent supporters. Obama stiffed environmentalists when he endorsed the GOP’s “drill, baby, drill” solution to offshore oil drilling —only a few weeks before one of those offshore oil rigs caused the largest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. For supporters of immigrant rights, the Obama administration has mouthed rhetoric in favor of “comprehensive immigration reform” while indefinitely postponing legislation, and deporting more immigrants than George W. Bush’s administration did….[and] the Obama administration has escalated war in one country (Afghanistan), and is still committed, despite claims of withdrawal, to a sizable military presence in the another (Iraq).”
“…It’s very likely that the massive government backing of the financial system saved it from meltdown, but that is cold comfort for the majority of Americans who continue to suffer high unemployment, loss of retirement wealth, and a massive foreclosure crisis. Obama and the Democrats legitimized massive government spending without changing any of the neoliberal assumptions about the aims to which that spending was dedicated. Even though the stimulus bill passed in February 2009 was the largest single spending measure ever passed, it was underpowered from the start. ….the stimulus plan was too small to lift the economy out of its deep hole. And the administration trimmed it further in a largely futile attempt to win “bipartisan” support…. Today, the administration proclaims the necessity of “deficit reduction,” “entitlement reform,” (aka, cutting Medicare and Social Security), and austerity. While this largely reflects the administration’s attempt to carry out big business’s agenda, the White House claims that it is only responding to public concern about the growing federal budget deficit.”9
One did not have to be a radical to be bothered by Obama’s centrist, business-friendly drift and related, highly predictable (and in fact predicted