Obama’s Role: To Confuse and Divide the Progressive Base


Hillary Clinton can get as irritated with Barack Obama as she wants.  The truth is she owes him big time.

He’s got a nice little section of the Democratic Party’s progressive base so screwed up it can hardly think straight enough to mount an effective challenge to her corporate-authoritarian agenda and hence to the broader bipartisan corporate-authoritarian agenda that rules America’s oxymoronic “dollar democracy.”


Hillary is not what the angry, restless, and majority working class Democratic base wants and needs.


That base wants a genuinely progressive, populist, and peace-oriented candidate  – somebody who will challenge corporate power, fight for working people, attack and reduce the nation’s widening class and race divisions, and reorient the nation’s priorities away from imperial plutocracy and towards peace, justice, and democracy.


It also needs a winner – a candidate who is certain to hand the vicious, arch-regressive and messianic-militarist Republicans a decisive defeat in 2008.


And Hillary does not fill the bill.


She is a brazenly authoritarian corporate and imperial Democrat. 


She’s a neoliberal champion of such vicious and reactionary policies as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the abolition of poor families’ entitlement to federal cash assistance.    She belatedly rolled out a mild universal health insurance plan (largely lifted from the John Edwards campaign) and then falsely claimed to have made a strong and good-faith effort to advance universal health care during the early 1990s (1).


Having been an Iraq invasion hawk well past the point where many moderate Democrats got off the “war” (2) train,  Hillary has essentially announced (with her call for keeping combat troops in Iraq to “fight terrorism”) her determination to indefinitely continue the bloody, illegal, racist, mass-murderous, and petro-imperialist occupation of Mesopotamia.   She continues to advance the offensive claim that she had no good reasons to know that the Bush administration was lying about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction when she voted to authorize Bush to invade in the fall of 2002 (3). 


She would be certain to support a disastrous and unnecessary Bush administration attack on Iran. She even recently voted in support of the White House’s absurd, provocative, and saber-rattling campaign to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as an “international terrorist organization.”


She is infamously shameless about receiving large contributions from concentrated wealth, including large health and insurance corporations who pay her nicely to stay away from the obvious social democratic solution to the nation’s health care crisis: single-payer Canadian style government health insurance.   


She refuses to support elementary increases in the taxation of privileged folks’ exorbitant incomes to bolster the funding of Social Security.


And she’s a pathological, power-mad liar who chronically misrepresents her positions on key issues.


Given her related high negatives among U.S. voters (imagine), she does not run particularly well in polls opposite the leading likely Republican presidential candidates. However absurd it might seem given the Republicans’ epic and criminal mismanagement of the nation over the last 8 years, the mendacious, war-mongering Rudy Guliani – the most likely Republican presidential candidates – would have a good chance to defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election.  She would be sure to mobilize the arch-reactionary evangelical base that Guliani tends to lose with his positions on “moral issues” like abortion and guns.


The supposedly “inevitable” and “flawless” (according to leading voices in corporate media) Hillary is corporate, authoritarian, soulless, imperialist, and not especially elect-able. The way would seem to be open to someone ready to play 1968 Bobby Kennedy to her LBJ: a charismatic and idealistic insurgent running to her anti-poverty, anti-corporate, and antiwar left.


That’s where Barack Obama comes in. Millions of desperate and deluded Democratic voters have been encouraged to think Obama is that insurgent voice of populism, peace, democracy, and, well, “hope.” The belief is total, unmitigated nonsense.  Obama’s power-worshipping (and power-mad) subservience to dominant domestic and global/imperial hierarchies and doctrines is widely documented and easily discernible – for those who care to look  – in his profuse and openly conservative, cautious, and “Hamiltonian” writings and speeches.  It is amply reflected in his political and policy behavior.  As I have shown in numerous articles to date (4), Barack (“love your oppressor” Obama is a master triangulator and serial deceiver in the insidious corporate-neoliberal Clinton-DLC mode. 


Nonetheless, untold masses have been led to think he is a populist and antiwar insurgent. One hoodwinked Iowa City “progressive” told me that the great antiwar militant for former community organizer Obama will “probably be killed” for his “progressive activism” – “just like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Che Guevera.”  He wasn’t joking.


Another deluded “progressive” recently wrote a childish e-mail to The Nation’s columnist Katha Pollit.  “He was furious,” Pollit writes, “because I’d quipped in an interview that if people didn’t stop making sexist comments about Hillary Clinton, I might just have to vote for her… He went on to excoriate Clinton: she is militaristic and ultranationalistic; she would carry on Bush’s policy of a long-term occupation of Iraq, define foreign policy around the ‘war on terror,’ support the hard-liners in Israel and promote the centrist-Democratic left-smashing ideology of the DLC.  We need to rebuild the left, he concluded, and that’s why he was supporting…Barack Obama” (5)


The confusion of people like Pollit’s correspondent is naturally encouraged by the Obama campaign, which makes sure to link their candidate with progressive- and peaceful- sounding promises he regularly contradicts and which he would be guaranteed to betray instantly upon the assumption of presidential power. 


It is also encouraged by a deadly narrow-spectrum U.S. political culture that elevates superficial candidate imagery over substantive and honest policy, issue, and ideological engagement and inquiry.  That culture leaves voters desperate for someone who seems to represent a people’s alternative to dominant corporate-imperial business-rule-as-usual in the “best democracy that money can [and did] buy.” 


It doesn’t hurt that Obama is technically black, something that seems progressive in and of itself to many naive liberal whites(Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey and Condoleezza Rice notwithstanding), especially in states where actual black people are relatively scarce.  Obama’s technically black identity helps him attract mildly progressive white Iowans and New Hampshire-ites eager to display their often superficial non-racism simply by voting for an African-American.


 If I were more inclined to conspiracy rhetoric, I would say that Obama was created and hired by corporate media, Wall Street, and the foreign policy establishment.  His job? To divide and confound the progressive base and to keep the 2008 election safe for imperial plutocracy by setting up a likely narrow-spectrum contest between corporate Hillary and corporate Rudy. 


That’s probably too simple an analysis. Many of the overnight BaRockstar’s big money sponsors and (let’s be honest) creators have real and understandable concerns about Hillary’s character and electability and have been sincerely taken in by Obama’s persona and elite credentials.  But conspiracies aside, the theory captures the functional reality of how the Obama phenomenon is playing out on the campaign ground – the role it is playing in the current corporate-crafted quadrennial election extravaganza. Obama probably can’t beat Mrs. Clinton. He can, however, mesmerize, divide, race-guilt, race-entice, bamboozle and basically mind-mess the progressive, populist base.  (5A). He can perhaps pretend to be an anti-Clintonian long enough to prevent the emergence of a real Democratic anti-Clintonian insurgent. And for that Hillary, Inc. should be grateful.


 For what its worth – and anyone who fears (with good reason) continuing Republican rule would hope it would be worth a lot – the potential Democratic nominee Republicans least want to face in November is John Edwards.  Edwards decisively defeats all the top Republican hopefuls in simulated election polls.  He has the advantages of being a white southern male and of not being connected to one of the most perverse and power-mad family histories in modern political history (the Clintons). But he also wins support because of his apparently sincere decision to run to Hillary’s (and Obama’s) populist portside.  He has made ending poverty, attacking class/socioeconomic inequality and advancing labor rights the key rallying cries of his campaign.  Calling himself a “real Democrat, not a corporate Democrat,” he says that the only way to advance the party’s traditional anti-poverty and anti-inequality goals is by “fighting and beating” concentrated economic (corporate) power and ending the corporate-“rigged game” of big money domination. He claims to refuse to privilege deficit reduction over poverty reduction and talks intelligently about Americans’ need “to be patriotic about something other than [so-called] war.” Curiously enough given the identity-politicized division of the black electorate between Hillary and Obama, Edwards is the most strident, eloquent, and informed of the Big Three Dems when it comes to discussing and denouncing the forces that generate and sustain deep racial inequality and separatism in the U.S.


  It’s not for nothing that Edwards lacks the massive corporate funding (6) and corporate media love (7) that Hillary and Obama receive or that Edwards is attracting strong endorsements from organized labor, including the United Steelworkers, the New York City Transit Workers and (mostly recently) a large number of state chapters of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).  And it’s not for nothing (or only because of his race and gender) that Edwards has a real chance – despite vastly inferior funding resources – win in Iowa, where candidates have to relentlessly connect with voters face to face (expensive campaign ad buys won’t do the compete trick) to win the caucuses.  He’s doing well with that state’s progressive base because of his strong and eloquently and passionately stated stands – delivered again and again at town hall meetings and county-level party barbecues and the like – against economic inequality, poverty, corporate rule, and the “war.” 


I’m not saying that Edwards is the missing populist insurgent or that he lacks any culpability in the confusion of the progressive base.  His actual policy agenda is less genuinely Left and populist – the inherently “unviable” Kucinich and Gravel are tragically alone in advancing the obvious single-payer health care solution and Edwards is hardly above the embrace of terrible imperial commitments (8) – than what many Americans (quite progressive on specific policy issues) would support. He’s far too wealthy for his own populist good and he recently and terribly joined Hillary and Obama in refusing (at a New Hampshire debate) to commit to ending the United State’ military involvement in Iraq by 2013. And there’s nothing especially progressive about his proclaimed desire to change America so that everyone would have the chance to became as remarkably rich as him.


But even Edwards is too left for the plutocracy at the current stage of authoritarian progression and it interesting to reflect on how remarkably well his labor-oriented “real Democratic” campaign would be doing without the corporate-sponsored, stealth-conservative, and faux-progressive Obama mucking up the liberal and populist ranks.  According to James Ridgeway, in a recent survey of the Edwards campaign:


“By July of 2007, Edwards’s numbers were dropping.  According to most (though not all) polls, he was hovering somewhere around 15 percent, with Barack Obama generally in the high 20s and Hillary pushing 40.  Some commentators have noted that Obama was the unknown variable when Edwards began, three years ago, to carve out a position for himself to the left of Clinton.  Without him in the race, Edwards could claim most of the substantial bloc of voters who find her too conservative or just too Hillary, and the numbers today might look quite different” (9).


Obama’s role and perhaps even his job in the 2008 campaign is not a pretty one. The crossover money from corporate and other traditional Republican funders to both Hillary and Obama – each of whom could well lose to a Republican in November (partly for ugly reasons relating to gender and race, sadly enough) – should be examined in depth.


In the meantime, and sadly perhaps, the most progressive thing happening in the United States’ all-too narrow electoral spectrum is the Edwards campaign’s struggle to de-rail the big Hillary & Obama media and money machines (they have both raised  $80 million candidates so far) in Iowa. Combined with growing union endorsements of Edwards across the nation, an Edwards victory in the pivotal Iowa caucuses could dent Hillary’s fatalism-inducing aura of “inevitability” and help push the tiresome Obama phenomenon (now actually in year four, believe it or not) to the margins. It could attract national support for the most sincerely and substantively “populist” of the top three Democratic candidates – the one with the greatest chance of beating the extremist, arch-regressive, arch-authoritarian, and messianic-militarist Republicans in November of 2008.     Paul Street is a writer, speaker and activist in Iowa City, IA and Chicago, IL.  His latest book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007). He can be reached at [email protected]. 




1.  See Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000), pp. 51-52, on the perverse corporate-triangulationist  character of Hillary and Bill Clinton’s supposedly noble and progressive health care campaign. On the neoliberal and regressive (both socioeconomically and racially) nature of the 1990s Clinton regime, see Robert Pollin, Countours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (New York: Verso, 2003), pp.3-75; Elaine Brown, the Condemnation of Little B (Boston: Beacon, 2002), pp.173-206.


2.  It is long past time to stop calling the U.S. attack on Iraq an American “war.”  The American Empire has been brazenly assaulting Iraq in a direct large-scale military sense since March of 2003, but it has not been attacked by anyone from Iraq.  So where’s the war? “Operation Iraqi Freedom” is flat and criminal imperial aggression, pure and simple.


3. And contrary to her claims that she wanted and expected George W. Bush to exhaust all “diplomatic options” before choosing “war” (naked imperial aggression, that is) against Iraq, she joined 74 other U.S. senators in voting against Senator Carl Levin’s (D-MI) earlier (several hours before the war authorization vote) proposal of an amendment that would have required the White House to follow a diplomatic process (returning to the UN and perhaps again to Congress) before the legislative branch would fully authorize the use of force.  In campaign speeches and meetings where she likes to accuse Bush of having given “short shrift to diplomacy,” Clinton naturally never mentions “her own vote against Levin’s 2002 amendment, the one that would have required the president to pursue a more diplomatic approach before any invasion of Iraq.” See Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., “Hillary’s War,” New York Times Sunday Magazine (June 3 2007), p. 43, 60, and 66. On Hillary’s imperialism and “war” vote claims, see Paul Street, “Who Does Hillary Think She’s Kidding?,” ZNet  (February 14, 2007), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12120; and “Hillary’s War and the Next 9/11,” ZNet (July 5, 2007), available online at www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=72&ItemID=13215


4.  See my following articles: “The Obama Illusion: The ‘Hopes of Slaves’ and the ‘Hamiltonian Ambitions’ of a Corporate-Imperial ‘Player,’” Z Magazine (February 2007);  “Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power,” ZNet (January 24, 2007), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11936; “The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Meaning of the Black Revolution,” ZNet (March 16, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12336; “Barack Obama’s Wonderful Wealth Primary,” ZNet (April 11, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12551; “Sitting Out the Obama Dance in Iowa City,” ZNet (April 28, 2007), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12687; “Imperial Temptations: John Edwards, Barack Obama, and the Myth of Post-World War II U.S. Benevolence,” ZNet (May 28, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12928; “Running Dog Obama,” ZNet (July 29, 2007), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13396; “Obama’s Insults,” ZNet (October 3, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13940; “What Would Obama Have Done? Vote for the War and Lied About It – Just Like Hillary,” ZNet (October 13, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=14030;


5. Katha Pollitt,” How Different Are the Top Three Dems?” The Nation, October 22, 2007.     5A. He is particularly adept at sucking in that base’s more intellectually and academically inclined components. Like his centrist Democratic role model John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Obama is very good at flattering the intellectual class, of which he considers himself a leading member.


6. Among the “big three,” only Edwards will rely on public financing for the remainder of the primary campaign.  This will subject him to spending limits while Hillary and Obama continue to set new records in campaign fundraising and spending. On Hillary & Obama’s funding, see Paul Street, John Edwards and Dominant Media’s Selective Skewering of Populist Hypocrisy,” ZNet ( June 29, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13177; "Sitting Out the Obama Dance;" "Obama’s Wonderful Wealth Primary."


7. See Jeff Cohen, “Are Media Out to Get Edwards?” ZNet (June 3 2007), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=21&ItemID=12981; Street, “John Edwards and Dominant Media’s Selective Skewering."    


8.  On foreign policy, see Street, "Imperial Temptations."   


9.  James Ridgeway, “John Edwards,” pp. 148-149 in Laura Flanders, Richard Goldstein, Dean Kuipers, James Ridgeway, Eli Sanders, and Dan Savage, The Contenders (New York: Seven Stories, 2008)

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