Obama “Shift to the Center” and the Narrow Authoritarian Spectrum in U.S. Politics

The pronounced rightward drift of the American “mainstream” political and ideological spectrum is on vivid display as we begin to approach the climax of the latest corporate-crafted quadrennial presidential election extravaganza. 


Listen to the latest dominant media theme on the Barack Obama campaign.  From the network news and talk shows to the pages of the leading U.S. newspapers, the corporate news and commentary authorities are abuzz with the story of Obama’s move from “the left” to “the center.” 


As recently detailed by the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal,  and the New York Times [1], these are the leading facts indicating his alleged shift from the portside to the “middle” of the political spectrum:


* Obama’s apparent embrace of the Supreme Court ruling invalidating a Washington D.C bad on personal handguns and claiming that the Second Constitutional Amendment pertains to private citizens not just organized state “militias.”


* his declaration of his belief in the state’s right to kill certain criminals, including child rapists.


* his decision to become the first major party presidential candidate to bypass the public presidential financing system and to reject accompanying spending limits. This violates his earlier pledge to work through the public system and accept those limits.


* His support for a refurbished spy bill that grants retroactive immunity to telephone corporations for collaborating with the White House in the practice of electronic surveillance against American citizens. This violates his earlier pledge to filibuster any surveillance legislation containing such immunity.

* His appointment of the corporate-friendly Wal-Mart apologist and Hamilton Project [2] economist Jason Furman as his economic policy director – something that stands in curious relation to his earlier bashing (“I won’t shop there”) of Wal-Mart’s low-wage practices.


* His emphasis on how he’s a supporter of “free trade,” something that seems to contradict his campaign-trail criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).


* His “tweaking” of his claim that he would meet with Iran’s president (he is adding conditions)


* His embrace of Bush-McCain rhetoric on the supposed Iranian nuclear threat and his related promise to do “anything” to protect the military occupation, apartheid, and nuclear state of Israel from Iran (a nation previously attacked by Israel).


* His ridiculous call for an “undivided” Israel-run Jerusalem despite the fact that no government on the planet (and not even the Bush administration) supports Israeli’s right to annex that UN-designated international city


* His latest weak statements on “combat troop” withdrawal from Iraq, indicating that an Obama White House would maintain the immoral and illegal U.S. occupation of that country for an indefinite period.


If the stories on Obama’s “shift to the center” were re-written today (I am writing on Sunday, June 29th), they’d probably have to include news that Obama may well ask Robert Gates, the hard right George W. Bush’s hawkish defense secretary, to stay on into an Obama administration [3].


There’s an unmentionable problem with this “shift to the center” narrative. Obama was already positioned well to the corporate- and Empire-friendly “middle” well before all of these recent developments. 


He was a defender of the death penalty during his career in the Illinois State Assembly (1997-2004).  


He’s never been a strong gun control advocate and stayed noticeably mute on guns and the gun lobby after the horrific Virginia Tech killings last year and after the terrible Northern Illinois University killings this year.


It’s been clear since at least the middle of the primary season that if he won the Democratic nomination Obama would become the first major party presidential candidate to bypass the public financing system.  It’s also been obvious that he would justify that flip-flop by claiming that he was being funded by the American people and not the corporate elite – a claim that is loaded with no small measure of deception.


Consistent with his “categorical” March 2008 denunciation of “any statement that disparages our great country,” the former “civil rights lawyer” Obama voted in July 2005 to reauthorize the Patriot Act, the worst assault on domestic U.S. civil liberties in the last half-century. That legislation permitted wholesale eavesdropping on “homeland” citizens under the guise of fighting terrorism.


Obama’s recent Jerusalem comment was over the top and had to be partly rescinded but there’s nothing new in his current conservative and imperial positions on Iraq, Iran, or Israel.  He has been bending over backwards for four years to show that he is safe for the American Empire Project and our “staunch ally” Israel (and its criminal practices toward the Palestinians) in the Middle East.


He’s long been announcing his fierce support for an aggressive U.S. imperialism in no uncertain terms before such bodies as the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the Wilson Center, and the Chicago Council on Global Relations and in the CFR’s journal Foreign Affairs.  His repeatedly declared eagerness to embrace unilateral interventionism and a giant military ready to “puts on the ground” in “situations beyond self-defense” and to ensure the global dominance of world’s supposed “last and best hope” the United States won him praise from the neoconservative foreign policy intellectual (and John McCain adviser) Robert Kagan long before the end the primaries.  During the long primary season, Obama has proclaimed is blindness to American criminality in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  Proclaiming that “the American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew,” he made no effort to hide his belief that “exceptional” (superior) America is entitled and duty-bound to impose its “leaders” twisted and self-interested concepts of freedom and democracy on the rest of the world [4].


His foreign policy team has been loaded with interventionist and imperial hawks from the start, including people like Anthony Lake (a former Henry Kissinger protégé and a leading strategist behind the bombing of Serbia), Susan Rice (a leading supporter of “humanitarian intervention”), Gregory Craig (who pushed the Clinton administration to embrace “regime change” in Iraq), Samantha Power (a celebrated academic air-brusher and deletion-specialist when it comes to the living history of U.S. global crimes), Dennis Ross (a leading Israel occupation apologist), Sarah Sewell (who helped top Iraq occupation  commander Gen. David Petreaus update the U.S. Army’s counter-terrorism manual), retired General Scott Gration (an Iraq invasion veteran), and retired General James Jones, who is being considered for the vice presidential role under Obama [5]  


His imperial sentiments have hardly been restricted to the Middle East.  Prior to his recent supposed “move to the center” from “the left,” he endorsed U.S. client and death squad regime Columbia’s right to attack “terrorists” in Ecuador and the application of the reactionary “Merida Initiative” (which combines the so-called “War on Drugs” with the so-called “war on terror” to increase repressive state power in Central America). He joined neoconservatives in warning about the ridiculous specter of Iranian – yes, Iranian – influence in South America. He has accused the Bush administration of “losing Latin America” and announced his intention to continue the vicious 47-year U.S. embargo on Cuba. He (in John Pilger’s ominous and accurate words) “described the democratically elected governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua as a ‘vacuum’ to be filled” [6]. 



In the openly imperial foreign policy chapter of his 2006 campaign book “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama criticized “left-leaning populists” like “Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez” for thinking that developing nations “should resist America’s efforts to expand its hegemony” and for daring – imagine! – to “follow their own path to development.” Such dysfunctional “reject[ion] [of] the ideals of free markets and liberal democracy” along with “American” ideas like “the rule of law” and “democratic elections”  – interesting terms for the heavily state-sponsored U.S. effort to impose authoritarian and corporate-state capitalist policy imperatives on impoverished nations  – will only worsen the situation of the global poor, Obama claimed. 


Obama did not comment in “Audacity” on the remarkable respect the U.S. showed for “democratic elections” and “the rule of law” when it supported an attempted military coup to overthrow the democratically elected Chavez government (because of his opposition to the U.S neoliberal agenda) in April of 2002.


Obama also ignored a preponderance of evidence showing that the imposition of the “free market” corporate-neoliberal “Washington Consensus” has deepened poverty across the world in recent decades. Billions are forced to live in ever-more extreme poverty as Obama audaciously instructs poor and exploited states that “the system of free markets and liberal democracy” is “constantly subject to change and improvement.” 


Those who have the time and energy to examine the overwork-plagued U.S. “homeland” might want to note the ever-escalating inequality of U.S. society and the related, ever-deepening insecurity experienced by American working people.  Such is the ugly reality of “life,” even in the U.S. – home to what Obama obsequiously called “a prosperity that’s unmatched in history” – under the rule of the neoliberal doctrine that big business upholds.


Obama’s domestic economic and social policy agenda has been straight down the regressive “free trade” corporate-neoliberal middle from the start of his presidential campaign and before.  As one expression of that business-captive centrist, he appointed centrist (corporate-neoliberal) Democratic Leadership Council and University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee as his chief economic adviser during the primary campaign. His health care, economic stimulus and mortgage/foreclosure crisis proposals were all positioned to the right of those of John Edwards and even the centrist Hillary Clinton, not to mention Dennis Kucinich, the only actually Left candidate in the primaries [7].


Obama’s notion of “universal” health care has from the start fallen far short of the single-payer system supported by most Americans for decades. It leaves the leading insurance companies in ultimate charge of medical coverage and rates.  This is consistent with his role in watering down and killing efforts toward universal health coverage in Illinois – a role for which he received praise form insurance industry lobbyists [8]. 


It’s not for nothing that Obama has attracted the $89 million in contributions of $1000 or more – just $8 million less than McCain’s total take from contributions of any and all sizes. Obama’s grateful top contributors include leading Wall Street firms Goldman Sachs (#1 at $571,000), UBSAG (#3 at $365,000), JP Morgan Chase (#4 at $362,000), Citigroup (#5 at $358,000), Lehman Bros. (#7 at 4319,000), the information giant Google (#8 at $318,000), the multinational corporate law firm Sidley Austin LLP (#10 at $294,000)and the nuclear energy powerhouse Exelon (#15 at %236,000) [9].


Such is the harsh centrist capital- and military-pleasing reality of Obama’s “leftism” prior to his supposed “shift to the center.” 


What’s realty going on is that Obama is moving further right from a position that was already firmly lodged in the “realistic” and “pragmatic” center.  He never would been in a position to make this move if he had not showed his centrist safety and “dollar value” to corporate, financial, and military approval authorities years ago [10].  


Meanwhile, the supposed centrist John McCain is pushing further to the dangerous and extremist starboard side.  He is moving from center-right to hard-right.  He has abandoned his onetime opposition to King George II’s hyper-plutocratic tax cuts and to offshore oil drilling.  Also consistent with his mission of pinning down his party’s far-right base, he has dropped his previous “liberal” approach to “illegal immigration


Meanwhile, we know that the actual American citizenry – the purportedly self-governing masters of the United States’ allegedly export-worthy “democracy” – stands well to the social-democratic and anti-imperial left of both parties on numerous key policy issues foreign and domestic [11].  The near policy and political irrelevance of this progressive U.S. majority opinion is neither new nor surprising.  It is standard and sad American political reality given the harsh imbalance between the extreme power of the Few and the marginalization of the Many that is written into the structure and practices of the United States’ corporate-managed pseudo-democracy [12]. In a time when the long proto-fascistic nightmare of King Dubya and Darth Cheney would seem to have sparked progressive fires, the supposedly “left” Obama phenomenon has proved remarkably useful to the nation’s corporate and imperial overlords [13]. Obama’s early seeming opposition (as a state senator) to the Iraq War, his skin color, his comparative youth and charisma, and his sheer novelty have helped him seem much more “liberal” and “progressive” than he really he is [14].  Vast “progressive” swaths of the American electorate have induced to fall for the great illusion, focusing on the carefully crafted mass-marketed image more than the substance of the candidate and the authoritarian candidate-selection process and political culture that have produced him.


Obama is the likely winner in November. As his ascendancy to imperial power approaches, it is urgent that progressively inclined U.S. citizens peel off the layers of seductive deception to see him and the Democrats for what they really are – partners in corporate and imperial domination and Superpower authoritarianism – and not as what they wish them to be.


My forthcoming “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics” (order at


) is not an effort to help elect the arch-authoritarian messianic militarist John McCain.  It is designed to help progressive and other citizens distinguish myth from reality in understanding the meaning of Obama. Besides giving a deep historical interpretation of Obama’s political and ideological origins and essence, it seeks to help position activists and citizens to respond positively and productively to the Obama phenomenon in coming months and years.




Veteran radical historian Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (forthcoming in summer of 2008). 





1.  Susan Davis, “Obama Tilts Toward Center,” Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2008; Michael Powell, “For Obama, a Pragmatist’s Shift Toward the Center,” New York Times, June 27, 2008; Janet Hook, “Obama Moving Toward Center: Democrat Edging Away From Left on Some Issues in Effort to Woo Independent Voters,” Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2008.


2. The Hamilton Group is a leading “conservative” (business-friendly) economic think tank.  Furman, 37, is linked closely to Robert Rubin, the top Wall Street financial mogul and former Clinton economics advisor and Treasury secretary. Rubin’s regressive views on behalf of “free trade” (including the North American Free Trade Agreement, investor’s rights, wages, welfare and “deficit reduction” gave the Clinton administration “credibility” in the halls of corporate and financial power.


3. Sara Baxter, “Barack Obama May Recruit Defence Chief Robert Gates,” London Sunday Times, June 29, 2008. read at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/us_



4. Barack Obama, “A Way Forward in Iraq,” Speech to Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Chicago Illinois (November 20, 2006), available online at http://obama.senate.gov/speech/061120-a_way_forward _in_iraq/index.html;  Barack Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2007), read online atwww.foreignaffairs.org/20070701faessay86401/barack-obama/renewing-american-leadership.html; Barack Obama, “Moving Forward in Iraq,” Speech to Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, November 22, 2005, read at http://obama.senate.gov/speech/051122-moving_forward/; Lance Selfa, “The New Face of U.S. Politics,” International Socialist Review (March-April 2007); Stephen Zunes, “Barack Obama on the Middle East,” Foreign Policy in Focus (January 10 2008), read at www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/4886; Juan Gonzales, Amy Goodman, and Jeremy Scahill. “Jeremy Scahill: Despite Antiwar Rhetoric, Clinton-Obama Plans Would Keep US Mercenaries, Troops in Iraq for Years to Come,” Democracy Now (February 28, 2008) read text version at www.democracynow.org/2008/2/28/jeremy_scahill_despite_anti_war_rhetoric;

 Jeremy Scahill, “Obama’s Mercenary Position,” The Nation (March 16, 2008);  Robert Kagan, “Obama the Interventionist,” Washington Post, 29 April, 2007, p. B7; Paul Street, “Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power,” ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11936; Paul Street, “The Audacity of Deception: Barack Obama and the Manufacture of Progressive Illusion,” Black Agenda Report (December 12, 2007), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=463&Itemid=1; Paul Street, “Obama’s Good and ‘Proper’ War,” ZNet (March 5, 2008), read at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/16760.



5. Lance Selfa, “Obama’s Circle of Hawks,” Socialist Worker (June 18, 2008), read at http://socialistworker.org/2008/06/18/obama-circle-of-hawks.



6. John Pilger, “In the Great Tradition, Obama is a Hawk,” ZNet Sustainer Commentary (June 15, 2008), read at http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/commentaries/3524.



7. For some useful reflections, see David Moberg, “Obamanomics,” In These Times (April 2008); Max Fraser, “Subprime Obama,” The Nation (February 11, 2008); Doug Henwood, “Would You Like Change with That?” Left Business Observer, No. 117 (March 2008); Paul Krugman, “Loans and Leadership,” New York Times, 28 March, 2008, p. A23; Paul Krugman, “Big Table Fantasies,” New York Times, 17 December, 2007; Paul Krugman, “Played for a Sucker,” New York Times, 16 November, 2007; Paul Krugman, “Mandates and Mudslinging,” New York Times, 30 November 2007; Paul Krugman, “Health Care Horror Stories,” New York Times, 11 April 2008, p. A23.; Paul Krugman, “Responding to Recession,” New York Times, 14 January, 2008; Paul Krugman, “The Edwards Effect,” New York Times, 1 February 2008; Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006).



8. Kip Peterson 2007.  “Democrats Debate Universal Coverage,” Z Magazine (May 2007), available online at http://zmagsite.zmag.org/May2007/sullivan0507.html;

; Matt Gonzales, “The Obama Craze: Count Me Out,” BeyondChron: San Francisco’s Online Daily (February 28 2008) read online at www.beyondchron.org/articles/index.php?itemid=5413#more;

; Scot Helman, “PACs and Lobbyists Aided Obama’s Rise: Data Contrast with His Theme,” Boston Globe (August 9, 2007) read at http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2007/08/09/pacs_and_



9. See data from the Campaign Finance Institute at www.cfinst.org/pr/prRelease.aspx?ReleaseID=191 and from the Center for Responsive Politics at www.opensecrets.org/pres08/contrib.php?cycle=2008&cid=N000096380.


10.  See Silvertstein, “Obama, Inc.,” for an important account of the earlier and “quieter audition” that Obama passed with the nation’s legal and financial authorities and power brokers before he became a national and global phenomenon with his Keynote Address to the Democratic Convention. 


11.  For an I hope usefulsummary of relevant data, see Paul Street, “Americans’ Progressive Opinions versus ‘The Shadow Cast on Society by Business,’” ZNet Sustainer Commentary (May 15, 2008), read at www.zcomm.org/zspace/commentaries/3491.



12. A recent, brilliant, and haunting reflection is Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ” Princeton University Press, 2008).


13. See the interesting and suggestive reflections of Juan Santos on Barack Obama and “repressive de-sublimation” and the restoration of American imperial credibility in Juan Santos, “Barack Obama and the End of Racism,” Dissident Voice,  February 13, 2008.


14. See the fifth chapter (titled “Obama Nation: Sixteen Reasons”) in Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008, order at

www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987, forthcoming in August 2008).

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