Our Challenge, Not Obama’s

We can’t look for saviors on high to get us out of this mess. We have to do it ourselves.


- Tariq Ali and Anthony Arnove. “The Challenge to the Empire,” Socialist Worker Online (October 20, 2006).  





Far be it from me to criticize a Nobel Prize-winner, but liberal New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman really dropped the ball three weeks ago on how progressives should think and act in relation to the Obama presidency. 


The fumble came in a column titled ”Franklin Delano Obama.” In that column, Krugman wrote intelligently against reactionary claims that Obama must not undertake bold progressive policies. But Krugman fell short and to the conservative side by concluding that “Mr. Obama’s chances of leading a new New Deal depend largely on whether his short-term economic plans are sufficiently bold.  Progressives can only hope that he has the necessary audacity.” [1]


“Progressives can only hope” Obama will be progressive? Krugman might want to take a look at Howard Zinn’s bestselling volume A People’s History of the United States to review some core and (frankly) elementary lessons on how big progressive change occurs: through dedicated activism and the threat of radical reconstruction from below.


Krugman should also read Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s classic study Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed and How They Fail (New York: Vintage, 1979).  It demonstrates in rich historical detail how direct action, social disruption, and the threat of radical change from the bottom up forced social and political reform benefiting working- and lower-class people and black people during the 1930s (the National Labor Relations and Social Security Acts and public relief and pubic works during) and the 1960s (the Civil Rights and Voting Acts and the expansion of welfare benefits).  


Today, as in the 1930s and 1960s, we can be sure that Obama and the Democratic Party will not move off the corporate center unless “the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find dangerous to ignore.” [2]




Krugman is hardly alone among progressive liberals in elevating bourgeois elites – Obama and his Clintonian cabinet and brain trust [3] – over ordinary people in conceptualizing how we should meaningfully address contemporary catastrophes. 


The former longtime pro-labor congressman David Bonior ran John Edwards’ remarkably union-friendly and semi-progressive presidential campaign last year. He is currently a member of Obama’s economic advisory team.


Recently I heard Bonior speak in Iowa City about the prospects for change under the President Elect. Bonior’s main themes were the benevolent, progressive, and “transformational” nature of Obama The Man and the inspiring nature of Obama’s election. 


It was all about Obama and how he – if we all get and stay behind him – will be the next (Franklin) Roosevelt. Bonior said nothing about Obama’s well-documented conservative nature and related corporate funding [4], things he knows all about from his days helping form Edwards’ critique of “corporate Democrats.” Bonior uttered nothing on the need to pressure Obama from the bottom up if we are serious about attaining progressive “change we can believe in.” 





But nobody comes close to American Prospect editor and liberal economist Robert Kuttner when it comes to making the (Franklin) Roosevelt analogy and to top-down Obamaist power-worship. In his recent and revealingly titled book Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, September 2008), Kuttner fantasizes about “how great Presidents overcome great crises” and “what President Obama must do to redeem his own promise and the promise of America.”


“With America facing the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression,” Kuttner argues, “our next president will need to become a truly transformative leader – like Roosevelt and Lincoln…” 


In Kuttner’s view, Obama has the stuff of which greatness is made. He could “be that rare transformational leader,” Kuttner claims,  because “his personal odyssey, writings, and speeches suggest a capacity to truly move people and shift perceptions as well as bridge differences…they suggest more a principled idealist than a cynic.  Anyone who thinks Obama is more weather vane than compass,” Kuttner argues, “has not carefully read his books, followed his history, or watched him in action.”


Kuttner places special emphasis on Obama’s second book The Audacity of Hope (New York, 2006), which, Kuttner says, “combined a desire to unify and heal with a willingness to take principled risks as a progressive.  The book was the opposite of the usual campaign volume written by ghostwriters and carefully scrubbed to send coded messages to the base while blandly reassuring a broader public.”


As far as Kuttner is concerned, “Obama unmistakably possesses unusual gifts of character and leadership.” At the same time, Kuttner hopes the recession Obama is inheriting from Bush will force him to apply his “truly transformative” self in progressive and even “radical” ways that will establish him forever as a great leader of the people.


Interestingly enough, Kuttner dedicated his book to the notorious “presidential historian” Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of loving volumes on Abraham Lincoln, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Kennedy family (along with the Fitzgeralds), and (in process) Theodore Roosevelt.


Ms. Kearns Goodwin is also the author of a Parade Magazine article titled “10 Secrets of Great Presidents.”  Her first “secret:” is “that they “Stay Strong.”


“A President,” Kearns Goodwin told Parade readers last August, “needs the ability to withstand adversity and motivate himself in the face of frustration. From childhood, Lincoln showed a determination to rise above the poverty into which he was born. Despite failures that would have felled most others, he never lost faith that if he refused to despair, he would eventually succeed. Roosevelt, by contrast, grew up with wealth, privilege, and love. His crucible came in a polio attack that left him a paraplegic at 39. While crippling his body, the paralysis expanded his sensibilities. He emerged from his ordeal with greater powers of concentration and greater self-knowledge. Far more intensely than before, he was able to put himself in the shoes of others to whom fate had dealt an unfair hand.” [5]


Consistent with this childish Great Man approach to history, Kuttner’s book contains a chapter dedicated to the proposition that “great presidents” like Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and (he hopes) Obama “animate” and “educate” the “people on behalf of expansive uses of progressive government.”  By using “the moral power of the presidency” to “lead by teaching and the force of [their] own character,” Kuttner argues, these Heaven-sent heads-of-state show the way toward progressive change from on high.  Naturally enough, Kuttner deletes the critical role that grassroots social movements and popular resistance have played in instructing presidents and the broader power elite on the need for change. 


As someone who has closely followed Obama’s history, writings, and speeches (in Chicago and Iowa between 2000 and 2008), I can assure readers that Kuttner’s glowing judgment on Obama’s character is wildly off-base.  A careful and honest examination of the President-Elect’s history reveals a deeply conservative and calculating politician whose idealistic and populist pretense cloaks a strong privilege-friendly aversion to radical change [6]. Like much of the rest of his written and spoken record, Obama’s second book in an exasperating (for actual leftists who can make themselves read it) exercise in centrist equivocation that combines superficially progressive-sounding rhetoric with repeated coded and not-so coded messages expressing firm allegiance to dominant domestic and imperial structures and ideologies. [7] 


“Weather vane” doesn’t even begin to capture Obama’s captivity to concentrated economic and political power, his heavy investment (buried beneath his insistent claims to embrace “pragmatism” over and against “ideology”) in reigning ruling class doctrines, and the great extent to which he will go to deceive [8] certain large segments of the electoral market into seeing him as a progressive tribune of the people.[9]


The bigger problem with Kuttner’s book, however, is that it reveals no understanding that it would take massive popular pressure to get Obama to move in a progressive direction. 


Kuttner engages in the longstanding futile endeavor of “speaking truth to power.” A more relevant progressive endeavor is advancing the project of mobilizing citizens to fight the power.


Like Krugman and Bonior, Kuttner just doesn’t get it. It’s not about trusting and appealing to elites, whatever their real or alleged qualities. It’s not about “transformative leaders” “educating” ordinary people on the need for just and democratic policy. It’s about organizing ordinary working-, lower-, and middle-class people for sustained citizen action, grassroots change, and the “radical reconstruction of society itself” (Dr. Martin Luther King’s phrase near the end of his life). It’s about smart and principled citizens and activists educating politicians and office-holders with insistent, organized rebellion from below.





It’s not “Obama’s challenge.” It’s our challenge to move toward real justice and economic democracy with or without Obama – through him and/or around him. (Meanwhile, Obama’s real challenge is to keep popular hopes safely checked, calibrated, and channeled into modes consistent with continued elite wealth and power).


It’s not about candidate-centered campaigns putting new representatives of the Few into office by coordinating citizen activists from the top down in service to electoral goals. It’s about social movements for reform and radical structural change beneath and beyond bourgeois candidate contests.


It’s not about managing, manipulating, and propagandizing the electorate.  It’s about expanding and mobilizing the citizenry and creating a more participatory, responsive, and democratic political culture beneath and beyond quadrennial corporate-crafted/mass-marketed electoral spectacles.


It isn’t about elites “teaching” us; it’s the other way around – it’s about citizens educating their supposed social and political superiors from the bottom up. (Ultimately it’s about rendering elites obsolete altogether.)





A recent article by Frances Fox Piven in The Nation is titled “Obama Needs A Protest Movement.” [10] 


I really wonder if that was Fox Piven’s chosen title. It sounds much more like something that journal’s bourgeois editor Katrina Vanden-Heuvel or one of Vanden-Heuvel’s editors would have crafted.


As Piven certainly knows (her essay if not her essay’s title shows this), Obama would be happy to ride through two full terms with minimal popular unrest to disturb his comfortable relationship with the corporate, military, and imperial powers that be.


Obama doesn’t need a protest movement, we do.  Popular democracy – something very different than top-down electoral operations run by people like the President Elect’s media maven and image-maker David Axelrod – requires it.


We the people need a regular mobilized grassroots democracy surge beneath and beyond corporate-crafted politics and power elite policymaking. And we won’t get that by following the deferential, power-worshipping counsel recently suggested by Krugman, Bonior, and Kuttner.



Veteran radical historian, educational policy analyst, urban sociologist, political scientist, corporate media critic, essayist, journalist, speaker, instructor, and activist Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of 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); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007) and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008 www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987).




1. Paul Krugman, “Franklin Delano Obama?” The New York Times, November 10, 2008.


2. Howard Zinn, “Election Madness,” The Progressive (March 2008).


3. As New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes notes, “a virtual [Robert] Rubin constellation is taking shape” in Obama’s economic team.  The former Goldman Sachs CEO Robert Rubin was Secretary of the Treasury under Bill Clinton.  For essential background on his regressive corporate-neoliberal Treasury reign – including his successful efforts to advance financial sector deregulation (providing critical background for the recent and ongoing meltdown of U.S. and global financial markets) – see Robert Pollin (on Clinton) Contours of Decent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (New York: Verso, 2003). The top stars in the “constellation” include Treasury Secretary-Select Timothy Geithner (an Under-Secretary for International Affairs under Rubin), Budget Director-Select Peter Orszag (a close Rubin ally),  and top Obama economic advisors Lawrence Summers (Deputy Treasury Secretary under Rubin) and Jason Furman (former director of the Hamilton Group, a “research group” founded by Rubin). Times reporter John Harwood notes that “As he sought the presidency for the last two years, Barack Obama liked to that that ‘change doesn’t come from Washington – changes comes to Washington. Nearly three weeks after his election, he is testing voters’ understanding of that assertion as he assembles a government whose early selections lean heavily on veterans of the political era he ran to supplant.  He showed that in breathtaking fashion by turning to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, his bitter primary rival and the wife of the last Democratic president, for the post of secretary of state.”  The Obama public relations machines claims that the policy vision (emanating from Obama) will remain one of “big change.”  But this, Harwood notes, “disregards the received wisdom” of “Washington insiders” who have long used “the phrase ‘personnel is policy’ for the assumption that the prior loyalties and political tastes of a president’s cabinet and White House staff heavily influence what those appointees are eager, or able, to get done…Because he personally embodies historic change,” Harwood revealingly notes, “Mr. Obama has considerable latitude to eschew symbolic gestures in choosing subordinates.” Harwood here makes an interesting statement by reducing the selection of a non-insider to the status of merely “symbolic gesture.” Later in his article, Harwood quotes Obama’s image-crafter and manager David Axelrod on how the President Elect’s appointments reflect the fact that Obama is “a pragmatist and a problem solver,” not “an ideologue.”  The assumptions here are that anyone left of the corporate-neoliberal Clinton-Rubin-Obama “constellation” is an ineffective person carried away by silly “ideology” and that people like Rubin, Summers, and Obama are not themselves ideological beings. See Jackie Calmes, “Rubinomics Recalculated,” New York Times, November 24, 2008, A1; John Harwood, “Change is Landing in Old Hands,” New York Times, November 23, 2008, sec. 4.


4. Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, September 2008); Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007); Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, (July 21, 2008); Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006); 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.



5. Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Ten Secrets of Great Presidents,” Parade Magazine 8/17/2008




6. Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene  (New York, 2000); MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator;” Lizza, “Making It;” Street, Barack Obama; Chris Hedges, “Corporate America Hearts Obama,” AlterNet (April 30, 2008), read at http://www.alternet.org/election08/83890/corporate_america_hearts_obama/;

Marc Lamont Hill, “Not My Brand of Hope:  Obama’s Politics of Cunning, Compromise, and Concession,” CounterPunch, February 11, 2008; Gonzales, “Obama Craze.”


7. For a detailed review, see Paul Street, “Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power,” Black Agenda Report (January 31, 2007), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=61.



8. For a review of key deep Obama deceptions (on the circumstances of his conception, on his supposed “antiwar” record, on why he refused to let Jeremiah Wright speak before announcing his presidential candidacy, and on his supposed autonomy from corporate and lobbyist influence), see Paul Street, “Barack Obama and The Audacity of Deception: The Manufacture of Progressive Illusion,” Black Agenda Report (December 12, 2007).  My book Barack Obama and Future of American Politics (note 4 above) exposes flat Obama deceptions related to a nuclear plant leak (outside Joliet, Illinois) in 2005 (he falsely claimed to have responded by passing a bill tightening regulation of nuclear emissions), Maytag workers in Galesburg, Illinois (he falsely posed as a champion of their interests), and John Edwards’ supposed captivity to the same special interests Edwards denounced on the campaign trail (because Edwards was supported by television commercials linked to the Service Employees International Union).


9. Paul Street, “Obama Blaming His Left Victims,” Iowa City Press Citizen, July 23, 2008.


10. Frances Fox Piven, “Obama Needs a Protest Movement,” The Nation (December 1, 2008), read at http://www.thenation.com/doc/20081201/piven

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