* What follows is a slightly adapted version of the fifth chapter of my recently released book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (
There is nothing wrong at all in the hopes we have that Obama’s rhetoric speaks to. The problem lies in what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive desublimation” — a hope, a need, that has been buried and denied by an oppressive system, is allowed some room to breathe, then co-opted and redirected back into a form that ultimately reinforces the oppressive system that denied and suppressed out hopes and needs in the first place.
– Juan Santos 
“Since the founding,” Barack Obama told Ken Silverstein in the summer of 2006, “the American political tradition has been reformist, not revolutionary. What that means is that for a political leader to things done, he or she should ideally be ahead of the curve, but not too far ahead.”
It would be an understatement to describe the cautious and traditionalist Obama as “not too far ahead.” He as been behind “the curve” of the
This raises an obvious and uncomfortable question. Why and how has he achieved such remarkable success running as a “progressive” candidate of peace, justice, reform and democracy? Why did so many primary voters “choose” Obama over other Democratic presidential candidates, including ones who could legitimately claim to be more progressive than him like Kucinich and (closer to the center) Edwards? And why did so many voters’ support for Obama take on a “millennial” and even “messianic” feeling and aspect, producing an unusually large quantity of gratuitously adoring behavior and commentary, inspirational for some and disturbing for other observers?
Here (below) are sixteen mutually reinforcing and overlapping explanations for the often fervent mass constituency behind the “improbable” emergence of an “Obama Nation” in 2007 and 2008. In constructing this list, I have taken the liberty of including some personal and speculative reflections based on my own considerable direct experience with Midwestern voters and the presidential campaign in the second half of 2007.
1. The Longstanding Devaluation of Issues in U.S. Political Culture. It may not matter all that much in terms of election outcomes that Obama’s actual issue positions are often to the right of the populace when “issue awareness” – knowledge of and concern for the candidates’ actual policy stands – is as remarkably low as it is in the U.S. In 2004, roughly 1 in 10 U.S. voters chose, in an open question, “agendas/ideas/platforms/ goals” as a top rationale for their electoral decisions. A much larger number and percentage voted in accord with their sense of candidate “qualities” and “character,” including “likeability,” “honesty,” and religiosity. In the period covered by this study (July 27th of 2004 through mid-April of 2008), Obama scored very high among active voters on questions of personal character and attractiveness – questions that seem to have more impact on voters’ choices than policy and ideological “issues” in a candidate- and image-centered elections system and political culture.
That culture is significantly shaped by a corporate media that seems dedicated to the notion that citizens should function as little more than spectators and consumers of history, leaving big and serious questions of policy and ideology to their supposed superiors in the political class, As Noam Chomsky noted in regard to the 2004 presidential election, “news commentary focused on ‘style,’ ‘likabilty,’ ‘bonding,’ and ‘character,’ and on such flaws as Bush’s occasional ‘testiness’ or Kerry’s getting the name of a football stadium wrong….a major triumph of marketing, which permits the leadership to carry out its programs without concern for public opinion.” We have seen how well this stark judgment applies to the 2008 Democratic primaries in chapter two of the present study.
The problem, it is worth noting, has origins dating back to the beginning of American mass politics in the antebellum era. “By 1840,” historian Eric Foner notes, “the mass democratic politics of the Age of Jackson had absorbed the logic of the marketplace. Selling candidates and their images was as important as the positions for which they stood.” As the radical historian Gabriel Kolko noted in his dark classic Main Currents in American History:
“With apathy and infantilism two of the main characteristics of American political campaigns…concern for the ephemeral rather than the candid fundamentals is…a constant in American political dialogue; and it created a nationally underdeveloped politics…Apathy and infantilism aid political hegemony and the stability of machines and hence their utility to politically dominant factions. By linking political issues to the extraneous concerns for race, glamour, religion, or experience, and avoiding central questions of power and purpose in society, the real intellectual and ideological questions of the social order have been wholly obscured and the mass capacity to respond to the problems of that order seriously reduced.” 
“Presidential elections,” Alexander Cockburn noted last March, “are mostly about keeping important issues off the agenda, whether it US complicity in Israel’s atrocious crimes in Gaza or the funds voted by Clinton and Obama for the Iraq War, now arriving at its fifth anniversary, or impeachment of a President destroying constitutional protections.”
2. Deception. Those elections are also very much about fooling voters on important issues. Consistent with the “timeless dance” of America’s “winner-take-all” political culture and party system  (a topic to be addressed in more detailed fashion in the next and final chapter), Obama is by no means unique among other presidential candidates past and present in being a master of flat out policy and issue deception. His real positions on Iraq, empire (more broadly) health care, energy, and trade might actually be centrist and even in some cases quite conservative, but his rhetoric and image have (like those of Hillary Clinton) been “carefully crafted” to tell progressively inclined primary voters that he is one of them. It’s an old game, consistent with Christopher Hitchens’ comments on the “essence of American politics” [14A]. It has been played at one level or other by nearly every major Democratic presidential candidate – Bill Clinton in 1992 was an especially dramatic, textbook example – in recent memory. The Republicans have also long practiced the art of pseudo-populist deception, to no small regressive effect in U.S. political life and policy.
3. Time Poverty and Information Overkill. Time is a severely underestimated “democracy issue” in the U.S., home to the longest working hours in the industrialized world. As the founders of the U.S. labor movement observed in the early 19th century, the democratic legacy of the American Revolution doesn’t mean much to people who lack the time to function as educated and effective citizens. Given the relative absence of serious critical media scrutiny on the considerable conservative content of Obama’s (or Hillary Clinton’s) public record, discovering the darker, more traditional corporate-imperial and racially accommodationist reality beneath his “fresh” and progressive image and rhetoric is an at times exhausting research project. Most working Americans lack time for such an undertaking.
Another part of the problem is the sheer volume of material that has been put out in dominant media about and by the Obama campaign. Myself a veteran researcher and the author of numerous previous books and project studies on complex and detailed matters of policy and history, I have on more than a few occasions gone practically numb trying to wade through the plethora of media commentary and coverage on Obama. Hopefully this book will help fill some of the information gaps for Americans with less time or patience or energy to demystify the Obama phenomenon.
4. Celebrity. Two days before Obama spoke at a mass rally in Iowa City in April of 2007, I was getting ready to leave an Iowa City coffee shop when a young brown-haired female University of Iowa student sitting nearby announced that she “couldn’t wait” to hear him. I asked her if she knew exactly when Obama was going to appear. She gave me an extra flyer.
“So is that who University of Iowa students are going for – Obama?” I asked as I stood to exit.
“Oh totally,” the student said. “We love Barack. Everybody in my dorm is going to vote for him.”
“Wow,” I said, “what’s that all about?”
“Oh,” the young woman said, “he’s just so cool. He’s on television all the time and he’s just really excellent. Nobody ever heard of him before and then boom – there he is, like…I can listen to him all day.”
“He’s really handsome,” another female student chimed in.
“And he’s smart. We hate Bush,” the second student added.
“Yeah, Bush is an idiot,” a third student said.
I asked them what they thought of Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the leftmost candidate in the Democratic primaries. They’d never heard of him.
“What about John Edwards?” I asked, observing that Edwards actually led the Iowa polls and that his positions were more progressive and detailed than Obama’s.
“He’s good-looking,” the first student said. “And I really admire the way his wife is fighting cancer and all. But I’m with Obama.”
“Yeah, and what’s up with that haircut?” the second student added, picking up on the corporate media’s obsession with the fact that the Edwards campaign had spent $400 on an ill-advised grooming session for the former North Carolina Senator.
My “conversation” with the students was nearing its conclusion. “See you at the speech,” I said and left. “Way to engage the issues, kids,” I muttered to myself on the way out.
“Brand Obama’s” pure celebrity-hood has been a major factor in his ascendancy, particularly with regard to younger voters.
5. The Novelty Premium mentioned in the introductory chapter of the present study resonates with the deeper “cult of newness” at the heart of American national mythology. It takes on distinctive meaning when the present seems especially oppressive and wrong-headed, as in the spring of 2008, when an astonishing 80 percent of Americans told pollsters that their country was “headed in the wrong direction.” Here’s how I tried to explain it to an audience of students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in early March of that year:
“We always crave the new and the fresh in America. But we crave it with special passion in special moments of crisis and despair. The great political, cultural, and economic nightmare that is the Bush era is we hope finally coming to an end and with the ever more imminent disappearance of the proto-fascistic arch-reactionary Bush-Cheney administration there’s this great and understandable up-swell of, well… hope. It’s a wave of euphoria as we realize that the Wicked Warlords will soon be dead and we can click our heels and go home again and the that maybe the new fresh prince of politics – the great and wonderful wizard of Oz/Obama – will point the way back to where the present is about the future and not the past as it has always been in the ‘First New Nation.’”
“Obama and his handlers are riding this wave as much as they are creating it. He is the right candidate in the right place at the right time.”
“And when it gets bad enough in the present, everything old gets tarred, especially by young people. We become indiscriminate in our rejection of the ‘old’ and our embrace of the new. Hillary gets tarred. John Edwards gets tarred with the stink of the past. Heck, middle-aged lefties like me get tarred with the stench of being from ‘the past’ – the ‘bad old days.’ You say, ‘Give us something, someone fresh and brand new.’”
“And if there’s one thing about Barack is that he looks new and different: He’s black, technically speaking. His father was from Kenya, but his mother was a white lady from Kansas! He grew up in Hawaii and lived three years in Indonesia! And that name!”
“You get into all of that ‘newness’ and you forget or (more likely) never focus on the more traditional and conservative stuff about Obama: the ruling class indoctrination at Harvard. The corporate connections and big money contributions. The connection to the foreign policy establishment and, well, as I have just shown, to empire. The attachment to class rule I just spoke about. The deception. The traditionalism even or especially on race. It all goes out the window or never gets in the window.”
“Americans are hungry for a freshness,” John Kerry noted last April, “that speaks to the public fatigue with politics as usual.” That elementary observation is truer than usual in the wake of the Cheney-Bush experience.
6. The Intellectual Premium. As the former editor of the Harvard Law Review, a former professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and the author of two serious (and widely read) books, the “refreshingly cerebral” (according to George Will ) Obama is a candidate of certified high intelligence. He would perhaps be the most officially intellectual U.S. president since Woodrow Wilson. Displaying a notably “professorial” style in town hall meetings, he has made a point of reaching out to and surrounding himself – on the model of JFK – with numerous intellectual “stars” (professors Austan Goolsbee and Samantha Power, for example) from the elite academia.
There is nothing inherently virtuous or progressive about possessing and corralling brain power. High intelligence can be (and often is) marshaled to destructive and regressive causes. At the same time, American political culture has long harbored a special suspicion of “pointy-headed” intellectuals.
Obama has nonetheless benefited from being mentally hyper-competent in the wake of the often highly incompetent Bush administration’s “reign of error.” After seeing their country and its global reputation seemingly run into the ground by a former C Student who has often seemed boorishly out of touch with basic aspects of American policy and experience, the nation is ready like no time in recent memory for a Valedictorian chief executive. At the same time, Obama’s intellectual and academic credentials and his skill at flattering the intelligentsia have helped him win strong support from the professoriat and other members of the U.S. intellectual and “coordinator” class, for whom professionally certified brain power is all important.
7. Black Pride. As exit poll data shows , the two leading and most reliable sections of the Obama coalition during the Democratic primary seasons were black Americans and affluent, highly educated whites. Racial factors were critical in both cases. With many black voters, the huge majority of whom have chosen Obama (and who tell pollsters in large numbers that race is a major factor in their choice), it’s been a simple (and understandable) matter of racial pride. Despite some lingering black reservations about Obama on both right and left, the prospect of electing the nation’s “first [actually] black president” naturally carries no small weight in the black community
8. White Psychological Race Wages and the Political Psychology of Race. With affluent Democrats, the racial calculus has been different and more complex. Two days before the heavily Caucasian Iowa caucus, one unusually forthcoming progressive Iowa City Democrat in a heavily academic and 99 percent white precinct told me something I’d been picking up for some time. “Obama,” he reflected, “is a way for highly educated liberal and moderate whites around here to pat themselves on the back and say ‘hey, I’m not too prejudiced to vote for a black guy.’ Look, I hate nuclear power. Your candidate [Edwards] is better on the issues, no doubt about it, but it’s not going to mean a hill of beans with these folks around here. This is their big chance to say something on race.” But it was all premised, he agreed, on Obama being a "good,” that is “middle class” and “not-too fiery black" – one who promised not to offend white sensibilities by confronting white privilege in any meaningful way. Like the racially accomodationist, white-soothing media mogul and mass Obama marketer Oprah Winfrey (who held huge campaign events with Obama in Iowa before that state’s critical Caucus), Obama could capitalize on many middle- and upper-middle-class whites’ repudiation of what I have (in chapter three) called “level-one” (state-of-mind) racism because he reassured them he would honor their reluctance to acknowledge and confront the continuing power of deeper, “level two” (state-of-being) societal and institutional racism in American life.
In my liberal white university town, Obama was something of a Great White Hope. There as elsewhere across the disproportionately white, affluent, educated, and college-town-based white islands of Obama Nation, Kathleen Parker’s observation that Obama “smoothly, strategically, and subtly mines the wells of white guilt” is highly relevant. So, sadly is the following observation from the black conservative Shelby Steele: “It’s all about gratitude. White people are just thrilled when a prominent black person comes along and doesn’t rub their noses in racial guilt. White people just go crazy over people like that.” 
Meanwhile, in what constitutes part of his attractiveness to the predominantly white power elite (see point number 10 below), Obama’s race frankly inhibits many white liberals and progressives from honestly engaging evidence of his conservatism on all of Dr. King’s interrelated “triple evils.” [22A] Obama’s technical blackness has encouraged many voters to see him as more progressive than he actually is, partly because the black community as a whole tends strongly towards the leftward side of the issue and policy spectrum.
Of course, Steele was wrong to generalize about “white people” as a whole. Obama’s white support has been disproportionately affluent. Contrary to claims that his campaign transcended race , Obama’s primary campaign was heavily plagued by racial bloc voting. While he pulled down more than four in every five black votes in most states, he lost the white working- and lower-class and rural vote and he did particularly badly with white voters in the South, reflecting historical tendencies that are well known. A late February Pew Research poll showed that white Democrats would be significantly more likely to defect to the Republican presidential nominee John McCain if Obama was the nominee than if Clinton was. Ten percent of white Democrats surveyed reported they would cross party lines and support McCain if Clinton was the nominee. But twice as many – one in five – said they would choose McCain if Obama was the nominee. Nearly a fourth (24 percent) of white Democrats without college degrees acknowledged they’d defect to the GOP standard-bearer if Obama was the nominee.
It would be comforting (from a progressive standpoint) to think that white working class voters have resisted Obama and preferred Hillary Clinton (and to some extent Edwards, who dropped out before Super Tuesday) because of the Illinois senator’s closeness to capital and empire. I saw some of them of that dynamic working on the surprisingly populist Edwards’ behalf in union households in Iowa. But Hillary Clinton is just as economically conservative and if anything closer to the corporate and imperial elite than Obama. The “other thing” explaining white working- and lower-class voters’ greater reluctance to support Obama is that he is black and the notion of putting him in the White House works against what W.E.B. DuBois once called the “psychological wage of racism”, once usefully summarized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the satisfaction of …thinking you are somebody big because you are white.” Such “satisfaction” is more commonly sought and “required” by whites in the lower reaches of the United States’ steep socioeconomic structure than it is by those in positions of relative wealth, power, and status.
But this does not mean that Iowa City’s liberal middle- and upper-middle-class whites were all that much “better” on race and Obama. There are racism- and classism-preserving white psychological “race wages” above as well as within and below the working class. For some whites in more elite occupational and socioeconomic categories, there exists what might be called a “psychological wage of superficial non-racism” – the boosting of one’s sense of superiority over less well-off whites by exhibiting one’s rejection of uncouth, lower-class racial bigotry (by voting for a certain kind of safe, technically black politician, for example) while simultaneously resisting any substantive challenge to persistent racial advantages accruing to middle- and upper-class beneficiaries of white skin privilege. The Obama campaign was perfectly calibrated for that curious mixture of racial pseudo- benevolence and intra-Caucasian class arrogance.
9. Skin Color and the Illusion of Greater Liberalism. At the same time, the fact that Obama is black has helped deepen his appeal to certain white middle class voters by making him seem more liberal than he really is. According to researchers studying the political psychology of race, voters asked to compare a black and a white candidate with proximately similar political positions will tend to see the black candidate as “more liberal.” According to MSNBC’s exit polls, Obama was supported by 54 percent of Massachusetts Democratic primary voters who identified themselves as “very liberal,” compared to just 36 percent the state’s Democratic primary voters who called themselves “moderates.” By clear contrast, Clinton received 42 percent of the state’s “very liberal” Democratic vote but 62 percent of its “moderate” Democratic tally. In Illinois, Obama beat Clinton 65 to 34 percent with “very liberal” Democrats and got defeated by her 65 to 34 percent with “moderate” Democrats. Across the country, Obama did much better than Clinton with Democratic primary voters who identified themselves as “very liberal,” and Clinton did slightly better with the large number and percentage of Democrats who called themselves “moderates.” Since Obama’s actual policy agenda was generally no more liberal than Clinton’s – and his health care plan was considerably more conservative – it seems likely that many voters were identifying Obama as more liberal because of his race [29A].
10. Managing Mass Hope and Euphoria From the Top Down. African-American voters, star-struck college students, and middle class professors aside, it is supremely important that key people within the intersecting networks of the corporate, political, military power elites bought into “the Obama phenomenon” from and even before the beginning. As I demonstrated in this book’s introduction and second chapter, ordinary voters would never have been in a position to appreciate Obama’s virtues (real and perceived) if he had not been approved in advance by some powerful masters of Laurence Shoup’s “hidden primary.”
For those masters, one argument on the Obama fan John Wilson calls “the far left” posits with some credibility, Obama is nicely suited to stealthily wrap establishment corporate politics and the related American Empire Project in insurgent garb. Once he was properly “vetted” and found to be “reasonable” – to be someone who would not fundamentally question core underlying power structures and doctrines of class, race, and empire – Obama’s multicultural background, race, youth, charisma, and even early opposition to the planned (and ultimately disastrous) Iraq War became useful to corporate and imperial interests in the dark and polarizing wake of the Bush-Cheney regime. His outwardly revolutionary image and “change” persona promises: to divert, capture and safely control current and coming popular rebellions; to stealthily prick and smoothly drain the alternating boils of mass disgust and mass elation (at the impending passing of the Bush regime); to simultaneously surf, de-fang, and “manage” the citizenry’s hopes for radical structural change – perhaps even revolution. By Los Angeles writer Juan Santos’s account in early February of 2008, Obama is distinctively qualified for the critical task of “repressive desublimation” – an essential system-preserving job thanks to the vast popular alienation and revulsion that the proto-fascistic Bush administration and Bush era  have generated and to the great popular expectations raised by the ever more imminent passing of the Bush White House. According to Santos:
“There is nothing wrong at all in the hopes we have that Obama’s rhetoric speaks to. The problem lies in what Herbert Marcuse called ‘repressive desublimation’ — a hope, a need, that has been buried and denied by an oppressive system, is allowed some room to breathe, then co-opted and redirected back into a form that ultimately reinforces the oppressive system that denied and suppressed out hopes and needs in the first place. That’s what Obama represents.”
“The Bush regime was and remains an expression of a conscious plan by the far right — to crush everything that came to life in the upheavals of the cultural revolutions of the 60s era. They meant, as they consciously expressed it, to counter the counter culture, the culture of hope, and offer a new ‘hope’ of a ‘purpose driven life’ in the context of the old traditions of oppression. …The regime of Bush the Lesser was the pinnacle of this effort; he carried the agenda as far as it could go, before it began to fracture and collapse under the weight of its own madness…Literally, in terms of time in office, and as a sweeping reactionary social agenda, the Bush regime is coming to an end. With its end, inevitably, comes a wave of hope and euphoria.”
“This is the wave Obama is riding, the ocean of energy he is trying to steer into an acceptance of the same old deal, the same old wars, the same old systemic racism, packaged as if it were something new. This wave of energy is not something he’s inspired, it’s something he’s riding and that he is uniquely qualified to channel toward his own ends — which are not our ends.” 
That “channeling” is a key part of what we should understand as the service Obama provides to the moneyed elite when Doug Henwood says that the wealthy see him as “the man to do their work.” After noting that Obama is “backed by the biggest Wall Street firms,” the brilliant Left Australian author, journalist, and filmmaker John Pilger made much the same point in his usual eloquent and deeply informed fashion at the end of May 2008:
“What is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s [in 1968]. By offering a ‘new,’ young and apparently progressive face of Democratic Party – with the bonus of being a member of the black elite – he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the U.S. antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent.”[32A]
Unpleasant though it may be to acknowledge, Obama’s race is no tiny part of what makes him “uniquely qualified” to perform the task in question. As Aurora Levins Morales noted in a Z Magazine reflection written for left progressives and titled “Thinking Outside the (Ballot) Box” in April of 2008:
“We’re far more potent as organizers and catalysts than as voters. Our ability to create a world we can thrive on does not depend on who wins this election, it depends on our ability to dismantle profit-based societies in which greed trumps ethics. This election is about finding a CEO capable of holding domestic constituencies in check as they are furthered disenfranchised and…[to] make them feel that they have a stake in the military aggressiveness that the ruling class believes is necessary. Having a black man and a white woman run helps to obscure the fact that …decline of empire is driving the political elite to the right. Both [Obama and Hillary Clinton] represent very reactionary politics…Part of the cleverness of having such candidates is the fact that they will be attacked in ways that will make oppressed people feel compelled to protect them.”
11. The Emperor’s New Clothes? “To Reinvent America’s Image Abroad” Through “Biography.” As suggested in the introduction to this book, there’s a related foreign policy dimension to what Henwood calls “their work.” A considerable segment of the U.S. foreign policy establishment thinks that Obama’s race, name (technically Islamic), experience living (in Muslim Indonesia, as a child) in and visiting (chiefly his father’s homeland Kenya) poor nations overseas will combine with his nominally anti-Iraq War history to help America repackage and advance the imperial project in a softer, more politically correct way around a world that has become more deeply disaffected with the U.S. than ever.  John Kerry, who ran for the presidency four years earlier largely on the claim that he would be a more effective manager of Empire (and the Iraq War) than George W. Bush  was certainly thinking of these critical imperial “soft power” assets when he praised Obama as someone who could “reinvent America’s image abroad.”  So was Obama himself when he said the following to reporters aboard his campaign plane in the fall of 2007:
“If I am the face of American foreign policy and American power, as long as we are making prudent strategic decisions, handling emergences, crises, and opportunities in the world in an intelligent and sober way…I think that if you can tell people, ‘We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in our lives and country. And they’d be right.” 
Obama’s distinctive ethno-cultural and geographic biography is one of his great attractions to the foreign policy elite in a majority non-white world that has been deeply alienated by U.S. behavior during the post-9/11 era (and truthfully before that). Call it “the identity politics of foreign policy.” The Empire wants new clothes and Obama is a good man to wear them.
12. The Dee Grip of American Exceptionalism. It is difficult to advance a critique of Obama’s toxic nat