Obama’s First Hundred Days: A Critical Assessment From the Left (A Speech)*


* A shortened version of this speech was given at a public forum sponsored by AWARE, the local Anti War Anti Racism Effort in Urbana, Illinois on the evening of April 30, 2009 at the Urbana City Council Chambers.




Thank you for inviting me to speak on the new administration’s first hundred days of centrist rule.  Along with a number of other left writers and speakers over the last two years including Glen Ford, Bruce Dixon, Margaret Kimberly, Pam Martens, Michael Hudson, John Pilger, Chris Hedges, John R. MacArthur, Ken Silverstein, Juan Santos, Matt Gonzales, Alexander Cockburn, Ralph Nader, Anthony Arnove, Lance Selfa, Joshua Frank, and Noam Chomsky, I have been living proof that the FOX News crowd is wrong when it says that all of "the left" is deeply and hopelessly in love with His Holiness the Dali Obama.  It is true, I think, that much of what passes for a left in the U.S. has been unduly captive to the Obama phenomenon but many of us on the actual, so-called hard left have never fallen for the myth of Obama as some sort of progressive Mr. Smith-goes-to-Washington character who is willing and ready to take on the corporate and military power elite. We’ve tended to see him rather as what MacArthur, the president of Harper’s Magazine, calls "a moderate with far too much respect for the global financial class."


Before I get into specifics I want to make six quick caveats or qualifications that might provide some useful context for my remarks. The first caveat as is that for all my harsh judgments, I have never doubted that what Barack Obama has been doing is highly intelligent from the perspective of seeking glory and advancement within the narrow institutional and ideological framework of the dominant U.S. political system and culture.  Obama and his team are masterful political actors and most of what I disapprove of in their behavior is heavily incentivized by that system and culture.


Second, my critique of the Obama administration is informed by a deeper and broader critique of the Democratic Party and its longstanding role of defining and policing the constricted leftmost parameters of acceptable political debate in the U.S. For the last century it has been the Democratic Party’s distinctive assignment to play what the Marxist author Lance Selfa calls "the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive [and potentially radical] segments of the electorate" by posing as "the party of the people." If you buy my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, you’ll see that I find Obama’s political career richly consistent with Selfa’s analysis and with the presidencies of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. 


Third, there are certainly some things Obama has done that I appreciate, like easing the ban on stem cell research, declaring the end of torture practices and the closing of secret prisons, ending White House denial on global climate change, scrapping the global gag rule on abortion counseling, expanding health insurance for children, declaring a wish to reduce nuclear arsenals, setting aside some wilderness land for federal protection and making it easier for women to sue for job discrimination.  I hope he will someday soon be in a position to honor his pledge to sign the Employee Free Choice Act. And I do think it’s historic that a black family now resides in the White House.


Fourth, you’re not going to hear a lot from me tonight on alternative policies and solutions for the simple reason that I’ve got my hands full with understanding Obama’s first 100 days.  If you read my book you’ll see that the last 37 pages are focused on solutions and alternatives.  They include proposals for a more democratic political system and culture beyond our current reigning corporate-managed pseudo-democracy. The last chapter is dedicated to the question of what a left progressive presidency might look like.


Fifth, I am fully aware that 100 days is a short period of time and nowhere near the full measure of a presidency.  I do think that changing circumstances including a resurgent popular protest movement on the left could conceivably push Obama in more progressive directions on the model of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the middle 1930s.


Sixth, my main problem with a lot of liberals and progressives isn’t that they’ve been insufficiently critical of Obama.  Its that so many of them have tended to buy into our nation’s dominant narrow definition of  politics as being about little more than these big quadrennial corporate-crafted, mass-marketed, and  candidate-centered electoral extravaganzas.   My issue is less about their candidate turned president per se than it is about candidate-centered politics more broadly.  I am wearing a political button tonight.  It doesn’t say "I Don’t Like Obama" or "Hillary is an Imperialist" or "I Still Hate Dick Cheney."  It says "Single Payer Health Insurance: Improved Medicare for All."  I wish I had a button saying "Employee Free Choice – For a More Democratic Workplace," or "U.S. out of South Asia," or "Peace Dividend Now."  I would also wear a button saying "Where’s My Bailout Lawrence Summers?"




Two and a half weeks after Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, commented on the President-elect’s transition team and early cabinet appointments with a musical analogy. Obama, Rothkopf told The New York Times, was following "the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right."  In other words, Obama campaigned and gained office with populace-pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric but was going to govern in standard service to existing dominant corporate and military institutions.


The new administration’s record so far is richly consistent with the Rothkopf’s violin parallel. Truth be fully told, it’s "the violin model" with a vengeance.


I’ll start with Obama and the Empire.  Then I’ll move to Obama and domestic inequality and finally to the question of how progressive forces have been responding to it all





The Occupation Lives On


Obama won his epic primary battle with Hillary Clinton largely because he was able to convince much of the Democratic Party’s liberal base to believe in the fairy tale that he was a strong and consistent opponent of George W. Bush and Hillary’s arch-criminal invasion of Iraq. The fantasy lives on. Reading the fine print on Obama’s Iraq plan, however, it is evident that he intends to sustain the occupation of that country into the indefinite future. He will keep at least 50,000 troops in Iraq well after the August 2010 combat troop withdrawal date he campaigned on..  Many of the troops who stay will be in combat units re-designated as "Advisory" brigades, a new classification that George Orwell would appreciate. Obama’s "withdrawal" plan "says nothing about the private contractors and mercenaries that are an essential part of the occupation and whose numbers may even be increased to cover functions previously provided by active-duty troops.  …It will leave in place the world’s largest foreign embassy, as well as the world’s largest CIA foreign station, in Baghdad" (Anthony Arnove). The U.S will maintain critical control over Iraqi skies and a significant naval and air presence "over the horizon." So much for a rapid end to the occupation, long supported by the great majority of Iraqis, not to mention most Americans.



The Doctrine of Good Intentions


Recently, Obama added occupation insult to injury during his visit to so-called "Camp Victory" in Iraq. Consistent with his longstanding support for the Doctrine of America’s Good and Democratic Intentions on the global stage, Obama said that its time for the Iraqis to step up to the plate and "take responsibility" for the "democracy" and "sovereignty" the noble United States has so benevolently granted them. This was a nauseating thing to say more than six years into a brazenly imperial and petro-colonial invasion that Obama is finding ways to continue against the expressed will of the Iraqi people. Beyond the fact that Iraqis have been standing up against the foreign invaders in the name of national sovereignty since the beginning of the U.S. invasion, Obama’s claim of benevolent U.S intent is Orwellian in light of the unimaginable havoc we have wreaked in Mesopotamia, including more than 1 million killed, a vast out-exodus of the professional class and the near-collapse of Iraqi infrastructure, all following in the wake of an earlier devastating U.S. military attack and more than a decade of mass-murderous U.S.-led "economic sanctions. As the respected veteran Middle East journalist Nir Rosen recently said on Democracy Now two weeks ago, we’ve created a Hell in Iraq, not a free democracy.



Kooky Conspiracy Talk on "Af-Pak"


Meanwhile, Obama is increasing the level of imperial violence in Afghanistan and in nuclear Pakistan. He coldly brushed off Afghanistan president Karzai’s early plea for the U.S. to stop killing Afghans and for the U.S. to propose some sort of timeline for ending our illegal occupation of that country. Karzai’s minimal assertions of national independence have irked Obama, who is increasing the U.S. force presence in Afghanistan, a legendary graveyard of empires.  Noam Chomsky reasonably expects Karzai to be placed under the supervision of a U.S. imperial surrogate who will essentially run the country from Washington.


It would be nice to report that the real source of Obama’s irritation with Karzai was that the Afghan president recently signed a law that worsens the terrible oppression of women in Afghanistan.  But when asked about that law, Obama made it clear that women’s rights have little to do with his "new strategy" for Afghanistan, which is all about "defeat[ing] al Qaeda."


At the same time, Obama is expanding the United States’ not-so covert war in Pakistan, As the Middle East expert and University of Michigan historian Juan Cole has been saying of late, Obama has bought into a recycled version of the crackpot Cold War conspiracy and "domino theory."  In Obama’s "updated, al Qaida version" of the domino thesis, Cole notes, "the Taliban might take Kuna Province, and then all of Afghanistan, and might again host al-Qaida, and might then threaten the shores of the United States."


Pakistan is added on to Afghanistan by Obama like Cambodia was added on to its neighbor Vietnam by President Nixon. This time however, the dangerous territorial expansion is openly acknowledged with Obama merging the two nations "into one theater of war, called Af-Pak" (Glen Ford). 


As Cole observes, Obama’s call to arms is no more credible than Dick Cheney and John McCain’s raving about the danger of an "al-Qaida victory in Iraq."  The Taliban and al Qaeda are nowhere close to being able to take over Afghanistan and Pakistan. If anything, Cole notes, the greatest thing working on the weak Pakistani Taliban’s behalf is the occurrence of U.S. Predator drone strikes on Pakistani territory, which help the extremists seem like sympathetic victims to parts of the Pakistani public.

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