Obama Isn’t Spineless, He’s Conservative: Reflections on Chutzpah, Theirs and Ours



Oh boy – so now he’s really gone and done it.  President Barack Obama has (as widely predicted) “caved-in” to  Republican demands for the preservation of George W. Bush’s arch-plutocratic, deficit-driving tax cuts for the wealthy few (at a cost of $900 billion to the federal treasury) in a tax “deal” that accommodates Republicans (and their wealthy paymasters) on the federal estate tax and cuts payments into Social Security. (Democratic congressman Gary Ackerman rightly calls the “tax deal” the GOP’s “Wet Dream
Act”).1 Adding insult to injury, Obama has (with what the New York Times calls “uncharacteristic emotion”2) accused those on his left (not hard to be) of being “unrealistic” and of “playing politics” with the American peoples’ lives because of their (he thinks) dysfunctional "purist" and selfish desire to see him fight against – instead of compromise with – concentrated wealth.. How dare we insist that he use his office and bully pulpit to resist those who held unemployment benefits and “middle class tax cuts” hostage to the a plutocratic agenda? “In this case,” Obama proclaimed, “the hostage was the American people, and I was not willing to see them get harmed.” 3


Many liberals and progressives are “enraged.” “Disappointed” in Obama’s continuing business-friendly direction, they accuse him of “moral collapse” and criticize his “spineless” failure to “act on the courage of his [supposedly progressive] convictions.” But “collapse” from what previous real progressive convictions? Obama (who first achieved public notoriety by cutting a deal with the far-right Federalist Society to become the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review[4]) isn’t being cowardly in his tax “deal for the American people” (well, for plutocrats) anymore than he’s been spineless while advancing an auto-restructuring plan that raided union pension funds and rewarded capital flight,  pushing through a health “reform” bill that only insurance and drug companies could love, undermining serious global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, prosecuting whistleblowers and harassing antiwar activists, and prosecuting and expanding criminal overt and covert wars in South Asia and around the world.5  No, he’s acting boldly and with chutzpah in accord with his longstanding: “deeply conservative” instincts, and giving the finger and occasional smack to “the left” along the way. Yes, chutzpah – the sort of thing you might expect from a guy who could make a speech in defense of war while (absurdly) receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.6


Here is yet one more opportunity for frustrated left and liberal Obama supporters/ex-supporters to consider the early and ominous wisdom of the eminent left political scientist Adolph Reed Jr.’s take on an unnamed Obama at the beginning of the future president’s political career in early 1996:


“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances.  I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway.”


Ten years later, Ken Silverstein’s fall 2006 Harpers’ essay, “Obama, Inc.” included the following notable passage: “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want, but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity, one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’”It wasn’t for nothing that Obama set new Wall Street and corporate fundraising records in the last presidential election cycle.



“We Don’t Need More Heat”


Disappointed progressives might also want to consult Larissa MacFarquhar’s in-depth account of presidential candidate in May of 2007.  “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 found, “Obama is deeply conservative.”Also worth reviewing is my widely liberal-ignored 2008 book (out well before the election) Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), which offered a detailed, blow-by-blow account of Obama’s longstanding (back to Harvard Law and up through his U.S. Senate career and presidential campaign) deep deference (accompanied by no small condescension and mean-spirited dismissal of the left) to existing dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines. The sorry story continues in my recent book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010) – the perfect Christmas gift for that not-so liberal know-it-all fake-progressive partisan Democrat cousin or uncle or sister-in-law who can't stop making excuses for the center-right Obama administration's abject service to the rich and powerful.


Obama’s “deeply conservative” nature wasn’t detected early on only by “hard leftists” like me. MacFarquhar, no radical, made her observations in the centrist New Yorker. Many of candidate Obama’s conservative standpoints on domestic social and economic issues were noticed and criticized by the establishment center-left economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.  Along with the non-radical John Edwards (a major party candidate, after all) and others, Krugman repeatedly disparaged Obama’s “big table fantasy” (mocked by Edwards as “singing Kumbaya”) that meaningful progressive transformation could be achieved by negotiating with, instead of engaging in a historic conflict with concentrated economic power and the Republicans. “Mr. Obama is widely portrayed, not least by himself, as a transformational figure who will usher in a new era,” Krugman wrote in the spring of 2008. “But his actual policy proposals…tend to be cautious and relatively orthodox.”10 In a July 2008 issue of The New Yorker, the mildly liberal journalist Ryan Lizza noted almost casually that Obama’s political “marked at every stage” by “an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.”11   


“Disappointed” progressives might want to recall the contrast between Obama and the ill-fated Edwards in the pivotal 2007-08 Iowa primary campaign, when the latter candidate won approval from Ralph Nader and electrified town hall audiences by saying (with sincerity or not) that only an “epic fight” with corporate power and corporate politicians of both parties could achieve meaningful progressive change. In a debate in Des Moines, Obama retorted with typical “eloquent evasion” (as Mike Davis put it) by proclaiming that “we don’t need more heat, we need more light.” 


We’ve seen who his bringers of light are: people like Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner of Goldman Sachs, Ben Bernancke of the Wall Street aristocracy, Republican Defense Secretary Robert Gates and numerous other lovely embodiments of Adam Smith’s warning that “the architects of policy protect their own interests, no matter how grievous the effect on others.” “And they are the architects of policy,” Chomsky add. “Obama made sure to staff his economic team with advisors from [the financial] sector.”12



“Bigger Issues Than Politics”


 Moving closer to the present moment, “disappointed” progressives could also look at the speech Obama gave at a community college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on the same day he announced his “tax deal” in the White House. While it received little attention compared to the drama surrounding his “bipartisan” (Republican) tax deal, this oration nicely exemplified the “vacuous to repressive neoliberal” world view informing Obama’s tax “cave-in.” Sloughing off media focus on the recent right-wing mid-term elections, the president announced that he “came to Winston-Salem because I believe that right now there are bigger issues at stake for our country than [mere] politics.” The real issue, Obama said, was to develop a “broader vision that will keep our economy strong and growing and competitive in the 21st century.”  Consistent with his pledge to “meet with business leaders and others to develop specific policies and budget recommendations for the coming year,” the vision presented in the speech was strictly neoliberal. The real problem, Obama argued, is that the United States is in danger of falling behind in the global economy, out-paced by up and coming competitors like China and India.”  The problem is:


‘“fierce competition among nations for the jobs and industries of the future… You’ve got a billion people in India who are suddenly plugged into the world economy.  You’ve got over a billion people in China who are suddenly plugged into the global economy.  And that means competition is going to be much more fierce and the winners of this competition will be the countries that have the most educated workers, a serious commitment to research and technology, and access to quality infrastructure like roads and airports and high-speed rail and high-speed Internet…. [in the previous century, Obama explained,] The business of America was business.  Our economic leadership in the world went unmatched.  Now it’s up to us to make sure that we maintain that leadership in this century.  And at this moment, the most important contest we face is not between Democrats and Republicans.  It’s between America and our economic competitors all around the world.  That's the competition we've got to spend time thinking about.” [12A]


At the core of this passage lay the belief that the dictates of the market – really its masters the giant corporations – must trump the odious twaddle of (what passes for) democratic debate and contestation. Petty and silly partisanship and angry “politics” – the sin of liberal and progressive Democrats (and others) who insist on more reasonably progressive taxation in the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society by far – is beside the point and counter-productive, the president believes.  The real thing is for all good market-based Americans to pull together in a big common effort to maintain national capitalist leverage in flat-world competition with low-wage information workers in India and China we have been pitted against by the march of globalization.  And that means putting away childish things like “partisan politics” and morel concern over savage American wealth inequality (see below) and social injustice.


The solutions offered in Obama’s Winston-Salem lecture were all business- and wealth- friendly.  The president said nothing about the economically (not to mention socially and politically) depressing impact of the shocking upward mal-distribution of resources (reinforced by the tax “deal” he cut “for the American people”) in the U.S. (where the top 1 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined) – the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society in the industrialized world by far. He said nothing about the need to re-legalize and expand the American labor (union) movement, rightly described by Edwards (during the last presidential election cycle) as “the single greatest anti-poverty program in American history” (Obama has refused to lift a finger on behalf of his campaign promise to advance long-overdue labor law reform). He said nothing about developing a coherent national industrial policy and regulating financial behavior and capital flows in accord with democratic and sustainable principles or about international agreements for decent labor and environmental standards (Obama recently cut a regressive, NAFTA-like trade deal with South Korea). He made no case for restoring any of the key public family assistance benefits slashed by the last neoliberal Democrat in the White House (Bill Clinton). He offered no case to act on the necessity (amidst a functional unemployment rate of 16 percent) for  large-scale federal job creation and related major green jobs and public works programs to stimulate the economy, preferring to advance economically dysfunctional business nostrums about the supposedly urgent for deficit reduction.  He cynically trumpeted his demand-depressing pay freeze for federal workers as a solution to the supposedly overwhelming deficit problem. He said nothing about the huge economic and social cost paid by Americans for “their” nation state’s vastly expensive and historically unparalleled military empire (itself a great boon to high tech corporations like Boeing and Raytheon). He trotted out timeworn bourgeois rhetoric about the need for a more educated, technically adapted workforce, leaving out the real problems: capital’s abandonment of American working people and the elite business class’s continuing top-down class war on labor, workers, the common good, democracy, the social safety net, and public welfare.13 Obama was naturally sure to identify the educational progress required in his view with his deeply conservative, corporate-backed assault on the public schools and teacher unions, spearheaded by his arch-neoliberal education secretary Arne Duncan.14


It is quite fitting that he found time to praise the multinational corporation Caterpillar (lauded for agreeing to set up a plant in Winston-Salem) in his address.  Caterpillar was the first large U.S. manufacturer in decades to break a major strike with permanent strikebreakers (scabs) and is therefore one of the most loathed corporations among what’s left of an organized and militant working class in this country.15


Obama is all about boldness and chutzpah, not spinelessness – boldness and chutzpah on behalf of the masters, not the people: their boldness, not ours. The sooner this finally sinks in with “disappointed” liberals and progressives, the sooner this country will the emergence of what a recent left statement calls “the climate for larger and increasingly disruptive expressions of dissent – a development that is sorely needed and long overdue.”16


Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org)is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010).  Street is currently completing a book titled Crashing the Tea Party, co-authored with Anthony Dimaggio. He can be reached at [email protected]




1 Nick Wing, “Rep. Gary Ackerman: Tax Cut Deal Is GOP's 'Wet Dream Act,'” Huffington Post (December 9, 2010) athttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/09/gary-ackerman-wet-dream-act_n_794374.html  


2 D. Herszenhorn and S.G. Stolberg, “Obama Defends Tax Deal, But His Party Stays Hostile,” New York Times, December 8, 2010, A1.


3 Herszenhorn and Stolberg, “Obama Defends Tax Deal;" Paul Krugman, "Obama's Hostage Deal," New York Times, December 9, 2010, at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/10/opinion/10krugman.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper


4 David Mendell, Obama: From Promise to Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 87-92.


5  For a semi-comprehensive account of these and other corporate and imperial perfidies during Obama’s first year in the presidency, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real world of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010).


6 “Nobel-Winning Obama Defends War in Call for Peace,” News headline (December 10, 2009)at http://www.wgal.com/politics/21917001/detail.html


7 Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000).


8 Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006), 40.


9 Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).


10 Paul Krugman,“Loans and Leadership,” New York Times, 28 March, 2008, p. A23.


11 That’s exactly what I saw during my many years in and around Chicago and Illinois politics and policy circles). Lizza’s judgment is born out in the introduction and the first chapter of my previous Obama study and (at greater length) in an Internet essay I published in late July 2008 under the title “Statehouse Days: the Myth of Obama’s ‘True Progressive’ Past.” July 20, 2008, read atwww.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/18224.See also “ ‘ Getting Things Done’ with Obama,” ZNet (December 21, 2008), read athttp://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/20015


12 Noam Chomsky, “Crisis and Hope: Theirs and Ours,” Boston Review (September/ /October 2009), read at http://bostonreview.net/BR34.5/chomsky.php  


12A. "Remarks by the President on the Economy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina," December 6, 2010 at http://whitehouse.gov/


13 Jeff Faux, The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future and What It Will Take to Win it Back (New York: Wiley, 2006).


14 Geoff Berne, “Obama and Charter Schools: the Showdown at Schottenstein,” CounterPunch (June 27, 2009), read atwww.counterpunch.org/berne06262009.html; Henry Giroux and Kenneth Saltman, “Obama’s Betrayal of Public Education? Arne Duncan and the Corporate Model of Schooling,” Truthout (December 17, 2008), read at http://www.truthout.org/121708R


15 Noam Chomsky, “Crisis and Hope: Their and Ours,” Boston Review (September-October 2009), read at http://bostonreview.net/BR34.5/chomsky.php.Following the militantly anti-union president Ronald Reagan’s lead “with the dismantling of the air traffic controllers union,” Noam Chomsky noted. “Caterpillar managers decided to rescind their labor contract with the United Auto Workers and seriously harm the union by bringing in scabs to break a strike for the first time in generations.”


16 See “A Call for Active Support of Protest to Michael Moore, Norman Solomon, Katrina van den Heuvel, Michael Eric Dyson, BarbaraEhrenreich, Thomas Frank, Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Jesse Jackson, Rachel Maddow, and other high profile progressive supporters of the Obama campaign,” at http://protestobama.org

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