Dissident U.S. author Paul Street was interviewed by Brazilian journalist Leonardo Sequeira via e-mail between 10 AM and 12 PM on September 18, 2009. The interview took place before: the awarding of the Olympics to Rio/Brazil (not Chicago/US), the Orwellian granting of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama, Obama’s claim at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh(where militarized police dispersed protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, batons, and an eardrum-piercing “crowd control” machine mounted in the turret of a tank) that Iran had been caught with a “secret nuclear weapons facility,” the U.S.-led burial of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Goldstone Report (on Israel’s war crimes in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009), and the efforts U.S. negotiators to weaken rich nations’ commitment to serious carbon emission reduction measures at global climate meetings (held in late September and early October)in Bangkok.
Q (Sequeira): Is Obama losing credibility in the U.S.?
A (Street): Yes, to some extent he is. His approval rating fell from 69 percent to 52 percent between January and late August of 2009. That is a very rapid decline by comparative historical standards. The “honeymoon” is over. According to surveys, most U.S. citizens surveyed now disapprove of Obama’s economic policies and of his (very weak and corporate-friendly) efforts at “health reform.” A growing number oppose his determination to escalate and expand the U.S. war in (maybe I should on) Afghanistan, which is something he quite clearly promised to do during the 2007-2008 campaign.
The fall in Obama’s popularity over the summer of 2009 partly reflects a growing sense that he is unable and/or unwilling to undertake policies and actions necessary to stem increasing unemployment and to provide universal affordable and high quality health care to the citizens. Obama is an effective public speaker and a highly “charismatic” and intelligent, telegenic personality. But a silver tongue and good, youthful looks only go so far when the U.S. official unemployment rates heads toward 10 percent (an honestly calculated rate would be closer to 20 percent) and thousands are losing their health insurance and homes each day – all this as the “defense” (empire) budget (at least $1 trillion per year and responsible for nearly half the military spending on Earth)) has actually increased, while an increasing number of U.S. soldiers are dying (needlessly) in Afghanistan, and as the biggest banks get bigger and richer thanks to the actions of the Obama economic team, which is itself made up largely of Wall Street insiders.
One of Obama’s problems is that his campaign and the media built an almost Messiah-like aura around him. The democratic and social expectations surrounding his election were inordinately high, particularly in the wake of the George W. Bush –Dick Cheney administration, possibly the most incompetent and grossly plutocratic White House in U.S. history. The higher the expectations for “change” from a president, the bigger the fall in popularity and credibility when that president is revealed to be another all-too immortal and limited politician who functions in service to existing dominant domestic and global hierarchies and doctrines.
Q. If so, is it entirely his fault?
A. No. The deep underlying problems with U.S. capitalism are beyond the control of any single politician or policy maker. Obama walked into power amidst the unfolding of an epic financial meltdown and a related historic “Great Recession” that was obviously not his creation. He inherited two ugly colonial wars (the first one of which, Afghanistan, he completely embraced from the start and promised to expand, of course) initiated by Bush and Cheney and a vast government deficit that was fed by the Bush administration’s combination of massive military spending with giant tax cuts for the wealthy. He also inherited a deep popular skepticism of the federal government resulting from years of scandal and corruption under Bush and Bill Clinton. He deals with a Congress that is itself deeply beholden to corporate and related military interests (this applies to Democrats no less than to Republicans), with a corporate media that is opposed to any serious progressive policies, and with a fanatical right wing movement and media (far-right “talk radio” and FOX News television) that is significantly racist and make bizarre accusations, claiming, for example, that Obama is a “socialist. He is a corporatist.
Still, Obama has created some of his own problems. He and his business-oriented staff have been too ideologically conservative, cautious, and centrist to do the sorts of things required to produce a meaningful economic recovery and to put money in the hands of the poor and working classes. He has been unwilling to pass truly substantive new financial reforms (including the at least temporary nationalization of leading financial institutions) or to advance large public works projects or the labor law reform that are desperately needed to put money and purchasing power back in the hands of the nation’s working class majority. His corporate-managed “health reform” is nowhere close to what is required to cut costs and provide affordable and quality coverage to everyone. It leaves the big insurance and drug companies – and behind them, the big financial institutions – in basic charge of the nation’s health fare future. If Obama was serious about health reform he would advance single-payer government insurance on the model of Canada, kicking the private insurance mafia out of the health care business altogether. But he isn’t serious about it
In the May 2009 edition of the centrist U.S magazine The Atlantic, Simon Johnson, the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, argued that Obama administration is in Wall Street’s pocket to a degree that was preventing him attacking the recession to the degree required. In an article titled "The Quiet Coup," Johnson noted that the [Bush and Obama administrations have both] “taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us” into a Great Recession. “[The] elite business interests [who] played a central role in creating the crisis…with the implicit backing of the government" [are] "using their influence to prevent precisely [the] reforms that are needed” to end the recession. The Atlantic’s editors concluded that “the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. “
Obama is the latest embodiment of a recurrent problem with U.S. politics. Every four years millions of American voters are induced to put their political hats on, to hope a bit, and then to go back to sleep. To hope that a savior or at least a more effective manager can be installed in the White House to raise wages, roll back war and militarism, provide universal and adequate health care, rebuild infrastructure, fix the environmental crisis, reduce inequality, and generally make life more livable. The savior can be named Jack Kennedy (1960) or Bobby Kennedy (1968) or Teddy Kennedy (1979) or Gene McCarthy (1968) or George McGovern (1972) or Jimmy Carter (1976) or Bill Clinton (1992) or Adlai Stevenson or Barack Obama, It doesn’t matter. Under the rules of American “corporate-managed democracy,” officially “electable” candidates who want a serious shot at lasting power subordinate themselves to what the left U.S. writers Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money,” which “vets the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties, reducing the options available to U.S. citizens to two candidates, neither of whom can change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial regime.”
Q. There were people who thought Obama could keep alive the dream of Martin Luther King of rebuilding a free and equal society. In one interview Larry King Live aired on November 5th of 2008, Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of Luther King, didn’t hide his happiness by seeing the first Afro-American president on history. Was the dream real?
A. Most Americans know next to nothing about the real Dr. King, a self-declared democratic socialist who came near the end of his life to the conclusion that American social (class and race) inequality expressed “systemic rather than superficial flaws” suggesting “that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” King agreed with the New Left that, in his words in 1967, “only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather in men or faulty operations.”
This is not even remotely the perspective of Obama, who has regularly and repeatedly expressed his “love” for the supposedly noble and “efficient “American system” of purportedly “free market” capitalism.”
It is historic that a black family now resides in the White House in what was once a land of black chattel slavery but Obama and King are very different historical characters. King was a democratic socialist who would be leading protests against the state capitalist policies of Obama and the congress were he alive today. Sadly, Martin Luther King III has been a rather selfish and bourgeois character, quite unlike his leftist father. I should add that the real radical reality of Dr. King is deleted from standard history texts and curriculum in the United States. So are the socialist beliefs of Albert Einstein and Hellen Keller for example.
Progressive activists should always remember that the most important thing about a particular politician or policymaker is not merely his or her color or ethnicity or gender or religion (or non-religion) or age but rather – as the left author and filmmaker John Pilger put it last spring – “the class he or she serves.” As Pilger noted, the George W. Bush administration went to unusual lengths to include black Americans (e.g.Condi Rice and Colin Powell) in top policymaking positions but was still one of the most conservative and dangerous U.S. administrations of all time.
Anyone who said Obama was going be the 21st century version of Dr. King was revealing deep historical ignorance Comparing a politician like Obama to the likes of great social justice and movement leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcom X or Frederick Douglass is like comparing an orange with apples.
Q. Is Obama a myth? If he is not a myth, what is he in reality?
A. Obama is a calculating politician, like Bill Clinton or for that matter like George Bush I and George Bush II though he’s a lot smarter than the last two). The notion that Obama is some sort of progressive and antiwar/anti-empire “left” actor…now, that’s a total myth. His campaign sold and exploited this myth to win liberal and “left” support in the Democratic primary campaign but the deeper reality is clear since the election. And it was quite clear to many of us well before the election that he was a centrist at best – someone who would be considered right-wing in many, perhaps most nations in the world. As a campaigner, Obama liked to say that “change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down.” Since he reached the pinnacle of U.S. and global power, he doesn’t say that much if at all anymore.
As the left-liberal U.S. political scientist Sheldon Wolin predicted in his book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism last year: “Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors [will] make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society.” In the United States’ election-focused political culture, Wolin elaborated, “the parties set out to mobilize the citizen-as-voter, to define political obligation as fulfilled by the casting of a vote. Afterwards, post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests – the real players – takes over The effect is to demobilize the citizenry, to teach them not to be involved or to ponder matters that are either settled or beyond their efficacy…The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anticorporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf.”
That formulation has been born out pretty well, I’d have to say. I don’t think the story would be any different if Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination and the presidency. And by the way, if we had a Hillary Clinton White House today, the American right would be stridently and absurdly accusing her of being a “socialist” president as well.
Q. If you could list the topics we (the media) should cover in, what would be your top five list?
A. Non-U.S. media in connection with the Obama story? If so, then I would say:
1. Obama, the Democratic Party and the bipartisan nature of America’s “corporate-managed democracy” and the narrow, big-business spectrum (possibly totalitarian at this stage) of U.S. political culture. Examine the outlines and consequences of Herman and Peterson’s “unelected dictatorship of money.”
2. Obama and the re-branding and re-legitimization American military empire (as well as corporate rule). Obama as an Orwellian character who can (as the left U.S. journalist and author Jeremy Scahill says) “think that war is peace” and who leads some voters to think they are embracing radical change when they are actually supporting a politicians who is extending war and empire.
3. How much have American race relations really changed, if at all, because of the election of America’s first black president? Is there any sense in which Obama’s election might actually be bad for much of the U.S. black population, which remains very disproportionately poor and incarcerated and highly segregated by race and class and now sees the racism behind its oppressed status made more invisible and officially “over” than ever before thanks in part to the rise of the “first black president?”
4. The impact of the Obama presidency on social movements in America: is he sparking or suppressing social protest and rank-and-file organizational activity inside the U.S.?
5. The impact of Obama on global perceptions of the U.S and on the behavior of other nations. Is the “Obama illusion” (the false belief that Obama is a left progressive agent of equality and peace in the Dr. King tradition) perhaps actually more widespread overseas than it is in the U.S. itself? How is it influencing the behavior of politicians and policymakers in other countries? In my experience its harder to talk reasonably about Obama with people outside the U.S.; the level of childish hopefulness is actually higher in other countries by my experience, interestingly enough.
Q. In the same interview with Larry King, rev. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, mentioned a comparison made by young people, especially the white evangelicals. Some polls show that Obama won 32 percent of this group whose age is between 18 and 29. In other words, they thought he was a kind of Messiah or Moses. Now, the media treat him like a sinner. What happened?
A. This question is not quite clear to me. I don’t see the media treating Obama as a “sinner” quite yet! Dominant U.S. media has seemed more willing to report his difficulties and flaws as his popularity has declined, I suppose. Obama was remarkably popular among younger voters in 2007 and 2008. His support with young adults is naturally going to fade as the growing unemployment specter hangs over the heads of college and high school graduates and as Obama appears unable or unwilling to offer meaningful solutions.
Q. A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy shows that some candidates like Obama had a more favorable coverage than others. How did he escape from media coverage?
A. I read that study. Candidate and early president Obama probably had the most favorable media coverage since Jack Kennedy in 1959-61. For a while, it seemed almost like a fawning love affair. Reporters and media managers like an eloquent, intelligent, handsome, youthful, energetic, and optimistic leader. Many were “star-struck” to a degree that seemed almost ridiculous. After the really terrible Bush-Cheney fiasco, they shared and fanned a great national hunger for something and someone "new" – for a U.S. public relations makeover starting at the level of the White House Obama enjoyed a spectacular "novelty dividend” that media helped create and sell. By comparison, John McCain and Hillary Clinton were the old and stale product lines that had to be pulled off the shelves along with Bush and Cheney. Now the over-exposed Obama (it’s been Obama, Obama, Obama 24/7 on U.S. television and in the press for a long time now — it gets ridiculous) has lost some of his novelty and has been exposed as yet another kind of boring and conservative, big money, corporate-backed politician – another droning, pain-in-the-rear officeholder, glad-hander, speech-maker, etc.
Q. How do you evaluate the coverage on first lady Michele Obama? Was the media trying to make her a new Mrs. Jackie Kennedy?
A. Sure. The Jackie Kennedy analogy has been quite strong. From a feminist perspective its pretty offensive is my sense. Michelle Obama was an urbane, highly educated (also Harvard Law, for what that’s worth) big city professional in her own right before the “Obama phenomenon” went nationwide and global in 2004. But during and since the 2008 election cycle, she’s been trivialized and domesticated to no small degree – relegated to the “fashion” margins in very patriarchal ways.
Q. Some of the American newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other media outlets made a commitment with their public by covering Obama’s first 100 days. What was the result of that coverage? Was that coverage worthy?
A. The intensive coverage and analysis of a new president’s “first 100 days” is a silly tradition in U.S. journalism. It’s nothing new. One hundred days is a very short period, too brief to meaningfully evaluate the trajectory of a new administration. I found the “first 100 days” reporting in the leading press outlets fairly shallow. It praised Obama for being some sort of welcome “non-“and post-ideological” and non-partisan policymakers with nothing more than a “pragmatic” interest in getting things done.” That “analysis” deleted Obama’s primary service to the rich and powerful within and beyond Wall Street. It said little about his cold betrayal of his liberal and progressive voting base, which was already quite clear. It helped sustain his very high approval ratings.
Still at one point in late March, the Washington Post published an excellent commentary by William Greider. Greider wrote the following:
“People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sides nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people [have] watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid”
Greider’s column was titled “Obama Told us to Speak – Is He Listening?” good question.
Q. Obama, one of the most popular presidents on earth, said in a lunch at the Group 20 summit in London held on 9th April of 2009 that the title belongs to Lula. However, it title doesn’t apply to our president. At least it is what our media thinks about Lula. Does the same thing happen with Obama? What the American media think about Lula?
A. I think it’s safe (and sad) to say that Brazilian politics is very much a non-topic in U.S. media. At the same time, insofar as Latin American politics get any relevant coverage in the U.S., Lula and other Latin American heads of state are totally eclipsed by the official U.S. “enemies” Hugo Chavez and (to a lesser extent) Cuba and by drug crime and gangs in Mexico. There was a brief flurry of coverage on Honduras, with the dominant U.S. media essentially supporting the right-wing coup against Zelaya, but that story has pretty much disappeared from the news. There’s nothing being said about the repression underway in Honduras. It’s very sad.
I don’t know who is more popular but I do know that Lula rose to power from the working class and from the social movements. Obama is much more of a “top-down” and corporate creation. He has no background or experience in the working class and only the most marginal and brief connection to social movements. The Obama “movement” was a strictly elite-run and of course electoralist, candidate-centered operation, with activists getting narrowly defined “get-out-the-vote-and-elect-Barack” marching orders and directions from slick, professional and middle- and upper-class campaign and marketing experts. I am personally much more impressed by the genuine grassroots democracy demonstrated in the elections of Lula, Morales (Bolivia), and Correa (Ecuador) than I am by “Obama’s Inc’s” ascendancy.
Q. Did the media buy the slogan Yes we can?
A. Well, sort of, but only insofar as it meant that “we” could defeat one pro-big business and pro-military party (the Republicans) and candidate (McCain) with another such party (the Democrats) and candidate (Obama). It didn’t buy (or sell) “Yes we can” in terms of building social movements and fighting for democracy in American workplaces and institutions more broadly on a daily basis beneath and beyond the quadrennial, corporate-crafted, mass-marketed, narrow-spectrum (all viable candidates being required in advance to embrace state capitalism) candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky’s term) that too often pass as the only real “politics” that matter in the U.S..
Q. So, can we?
A. Sure, provided that, among other things, we learn, as Chomsky counsels, to define politics more meaningfully, in terms of dedicated rank and file activism and organization beneath and beyond the corporate-managed dollar democracy’s carefully staged show-elections, regardless of their outcomes. There’s a lot more to be said on what’s involved in terms of political strategy and how to re-structure U.S. politics so that public opinion might matter more than it does at present…but that’s another interview.
Paul Street ([email protected])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), Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics. (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008): www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987