Remembering Obama


Sometimes you run across an eloquent statement that rings true and false at one and the same time.  Look, for example, at the following comment made by the courageous left journalist Allan Nairn in response to the left broadcaster Amy Goodman’s request that he provide a brief overview of the Obama administration’s first year last January:

“Well, I think Obama should be remembered as a great man because of the blow he struck against white racism, the cultural blow. And he accomplished that on Election Day. That was huge. This is one of the most destructive forces in world history, and by simply—by virtue of becoming president, Obama did it major damage.” 

“But once he became president, by virtue of his actions, just like every US president before him, just like those who ran other great powers, Obama became a murderer and a terrorist, because the US has a machine that spans the globe, that has the capacity to kill, and Obama has kept it set on kill. He could have flipped the switch and turned it off. The President has that power, but he chose not to do so.”[1]


There is something very valuable and powerful in this remark, made on Goodman’s television show “Democracy Now!” I am referring to the richly ironic way in which Nairn simultaneously acknowledges (A) the historic nature of the fact that a black family now resides in the White House – in the top office of the historically arch-racist U.S., and (B) the first black president’s chilling commitment to that nation’s continuing murderous imperial militarism.


This is an important duality to grasp and Nairn puts it very well. Anyone who doubts that Obama has “kept [the machine] set on kill” should consult the impressive record of murder and mayhem that the winner of the latest Nobel Peace Prize has already built across South Asia and in the Middle East.[2] 




Still, I think there are seven key problems with Nairn’s declaration [3], which I find insufficiently critical on numerous interrelated levels.


First, “kept the machine set on kill” is probably an understatement.  As the left U.S. foreign policy critic Edward S. Herman has noted, Obama has very possibly “exceed[ed George W.] Bush’s [global] bullying and power-projection.” As Herman explains:


“Obama’s …Iraq ‘withdrawal’ is a phony, just as his expansion of the Afghan-Pakistan war is real. His collapse in supposedly pushing for a just settlement in Palestine has been complete, ending up with a crude attack on the UN Goldstone Report on Gaza and no resistance whatever to escalated Israeli ethnic cleansing. Israel is once again threatening to attack Lebanon and Syria, with no constraining response from Washington. Obama and his secretary of state are once again threatening Iran with intensified sanctions, if not more….”


“…The U.S. collaboration in the overthrow of the elected, populist government of Honduras was a throwback to the era of U.S. sponsorship of National Security States in Latin America. Bush could hardly have surpassed Obama’s atrocious performance in Haiti, where the U.S. response to their devastating earthquake was almost completely military—a lagged occupation, with minimal food-water-medical-shelter aid, and even obstruction to aid as airports were preempted for the U.S. military occupation forces and the landing of Hillary Clinton.”


“Elsewhere in Latin America, Obama’s policies have been regressive, with more open hostility to left regimes in the region, collaboration in the Honduras coup, and acquisition of seven new military bases in Colombia that all send a message of ‘change’ for the worse.”


“Across the globe, U.S. military bases are expanding, not contracting. The encirclement of Russia and steady stream of war games in the Baltic, Caspian, Mediterranean, and Western Pacific areas continue, the closer engagement with Georgia and efforts to bring it into NATO moves ahead, as do plans for placing missiles along Russia’s borders and beyond.” [4]


It’s not a pretty story. Obama ran on ending the Bush ‘war on terror’ police state and has persisted in conducting and defending against legal challenges many if not most of the same repressive and anti-civil libertarian policies he criticized as a candidate. During the campaign, he told his “progressive” supporters he was (basically) antiwar – even his very underlying promise (to the foreign policy establishment) of continued militarism was evident to trained observers – and then came into pass a record-setting Pentagon budget and to expanded U.S. militarism in South Asia and around the world. 





Second, we should not accept the “once he became president” line in Nairn’s comment.  As I went to some length to (irrelevantly) show in my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (endorsed by leading Left intellectuals and ignored by “Democracy Now!,” The Nation, and other established “left-liberal” media), Obama enlisted as an eager, energetic and eloquent agent and exponent of U.S. military imperialism within and beyond Iraq during his career as a U.S. Senator (2005-2009) and a presidential candidate (2006-2008).  His “anti-war” campaign imagery was deeply fraudulent and he acted powerfully on behalf of the “machine set to kill” in his Senate votes and as an influential politician before his election to the imperial presidency.[5]


After the election and prior to his inauguration, moreover, Palestinians and their supporters watched in disgust as the normally wordy President-Elect stood nauseatingly mute while Israel and Washington massacred thousands of civilians in the open-air Israeli prison called the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009.  As Noam Chomsky noted:


“To these crimes Obama’s response has been silence – unlike, say, the terrorist attack in Mumbai, which he was quick to denounce, along with the ‘hateful ideology’ that lies behind it. In the case of Gaza, his spokespersons hid behind the mantra that ‘there is one president at a time,’ and repeated his support for Israeli actions when he visited the Israeli town of Sderot in July: ‘If missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that.’ But he will do nothing, not even make a statement, when U.S. jets and helicopters with Israeli pilots are causing incomparably worse suffering to Palestinian children.” [6]





Third, it is wishful fancy to think that Obama could have shut down the American global “killing machine.” The two reigning U.S. political parties, the nation’s dominant mass corporate media (a virtual fourth, reality-distorting branch of American government) and the nation’s educational system (K-Ph.D) are ally deeply ensnared in and in thrall to the Military Industrial Complex. Along with the Pentagon and the leading “defense” contractors and their public relations systems, these leading institutional forces would powerfully resist significant cuts in the “defense” (empire) budget and in military operations abroad (what the Pentagon innocuously terms “forward global force projection”). There is no evidence that Obama – who had “been advised and agree[d] that there is no peace dividend,” according the leading Wall Street investment firm Morgan Stanley one day after Obama’s election [7] – had any interest in shutting down the  “machine set to kill.” But it is questionable that he could have done that if he had wanted to and was prepared to face serious risks. The institutional and ideological barriers are simply too high. Superpower’s military regime is more deeply entrenched and powerful than any politician, even a president. [8]





Fourth, Nairn could and probably should have made the same ironic point on Obama’s domestic record. Obama has kept the “corporate-managed democracy’s” [9] state-capitalist policy machine set on “cha-ching” for the rich, powerful, and parasitic Few. The first black president has of course acted in firm accord with what Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money,” which exercises a deadly behind-the-scenes veto power over any who would seek “to change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime.”[10] From labor law non-reform to financial non-regulation to the climate issue and so-called “health reform,” Obama has repeatedly espoused and acted in accord with what the novelist and political essayist Kevin Baker has termed “a ‘pragmatism’ that is not really pragmatism at all, just surrender to the usual corporate interests.”[11] As the perceptive Marxist analyst David Harvey observed on Goodman’s “Democracy Now" one year ago,  "what [the Obama team is] trying to do is to reinvent the same system" – to "reconstitute the same sort of capitalism we have had over and over again over the last thirty years in a slightly more regulated, benevolent form" that doesn’t "challenge the fundamentals."[12] 


Nothing that has happened in the last year should lead an honest observer to question the wisdom of that judgment. The Obama administration has been a monument to what might be called “the audacity of deception” – to the manipulation of democracy by corporate state capitalism.  Obama ran on cleaning up Washington and has come to the nation’s capital to cut one deal after another with big corporations, with concentrated wealth.  His bailouts of financial parasites at elite Wall Street firms (whose veterans and representatives have been ubiquitously present in his administration) have gone beyond anything George W. Bush tried, earning him the moniker “King of Corporate Subsidies” from liberal political scientist Thomas B. Edsall last year. [13] 


He campaigned on the reduction of carbon emissions and then did the bidding of the energy companies by crassly sabotaging the Copenhagen climate talks.[14]


He ran against offshore oil drilling and just called for and initiated steps towards (speaking in front of a fighter jet) offshore oil drilling along the Eastern U.S, coast and in northern Alaska.


The health “reform” he and his fellow corporate Democrats just passed just passed is a corporatist joke [15], a giveaway to the insurance and drug companies with a few bones thrown to his so-called “progressive base.” As has been known by people who care for some time, Obama cut corrupt backroom deals last summer with the drug and for-profit hospital industries. Under the terms of the corrupt bargains, recently described by New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick as “quid pro quo handshake deals on both sides,” Obama agreed NOT to honor his election pledges to pursue a public insurance option, to let Medicare negotiate for lower drug prices and to allow Americans to buy cheaper drugs from Canada. “Even while President Obama was saying that he thought a public option was a good idea and encouraging supporters to believe his healthcare plan would include one,” the liberal attorney Miles Mogulesco recently noted on Huffington Post, the White House “had promised for-profit hospital lobbyists that there would be no public option in the final bill.” By Mogulesco’s account, “there are serious questions about the extent to which Obama, with the help of Rahm Emanuel, used a K Street strategy [relying on inside corporate connections and lobbyists – P.S.] to pursue health care reform.”  The outcome, Mogulesco added, “is a health care bill that is generally unpopular with voters,” who “viscerally sense that the White House and Congressional Democrats may be as concerned with protecting special interests – whether it’s drug companies, private hospitals, or Wall Street banks – as they are with protecting the people.”[16]


There’s no “may be” about it.


Along the way, the Obama administration has insisted that such extreme corporatist and imperial policy is “reasonable,” “sound,” “centrist,” “practical, and ”pragmatic’ and has made to sure to paint out anyone who opposes its vile and authoritarian policies as carping crackpots, “extremists” and “ideologues.”


It’s not for nothing that candidate Obama set new corporate fundraising record and was backed by the biggest Wall Street firms. Plus ca “change,” plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same) – at home as well as abroad.


Again, not a pretty story.





Fifth, Nairn’s comment creates too simple a dichotomy between Obama’s racial identity and Obama’s service to concentrated power (on behalf of U.S. militarism, in Nairn’s powerful statement to Amy Goodman last January).The relationship between Obama’s race and that service more complex and sinister. As the brilliant Left author, filmmaker, and columnist John Pilger noted last July 4th in San Francisco:


“The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery.  However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda.  For what is so often overlooked and what matters, I believe, above all, is the class one serves. George W. Bush’s inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was perhaps the most multiracial in presidential history.  It was PC par excellence. Think Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell.  It was also the most reactionary”. [17]


Pilger anticipated this important insight with a powerful and all-too accurate prediction at the end of May 2008: "What is Obama’s attraction to big business?  Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s [in 1968].  By offering a ‘new,’ young and apparently progressive face of the Democratic Party – with the bonus of being a member of the black elite – he can blunt and divert real opposition.  That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults.  If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent.” [18]


Nearly two years later and more than fourteen months into the not-so antiwar Obama presidency, the “peace movement” inside Superpower’s “homeland” is a feeble joke.  Some of its leading organizations (most notably the laughable co-opted group MoveOn.org) have subordinated themselves almost beyond belief to the first black president [19] and through him to the U.S. foreign policy establishment. There is little if any meaningful opposition to Obama’s corporatist record and agenda. The often pathetic so-called radical Left feels compelled to accept the supposedly “progressive” administration (“for all its faults”) and to defend it against vicious and preposterous attacks from the significantly racist, “socialism”-charging Right. MoveOn even enlisted in the cause of Obama and the corporate Democrats’ health “reform” by picketing the occasionally progressive Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s office to pressure him to go against his initial promise to reject a bill that did not contain a public insurance option. [20] 


 Unpleasant thought it may be to acknowledge, Obama’s race is part of the story behind this sorry surrender. As Aurora Levins Morales noted in Z Magazine in April of 2008:


“This election is about finding a CEO capable of holding domestic constituencies in check as they are furthered disenfranchised and [to] make them feel that they have a stake in the military aggressiveness that the ruling class believes is necessary.  Having a black man and a white woman run helps to obscure the fact that …decline of empire is driving the political elite to the right. Both [Obama and Hillary Clinton] represent very reactionary politics…Part of the cleverness of having such candidates is the fact that they will be attacked in ways that make oppressed people feel compelled to protect them.”[21]


As liberal Obama supporters have battled the dodgy Glen-Beckian right over (often indirectly) presidential skin color during the last fourteen months, the predominantly white business elite that Obama (like all presidents) serves has seen its wealth and power concentrate yet further upward.  The American empire has been re-branded and redeployed in South Asia and around the world.  Meanwhile, few dare to recall or consider that Obama was attractive to the establishment (which vetted him quite carefully in late 2002 and early 2003) in part because elites sensed that the in-fact “deeply conservative” and corporate-imperial Obama’s color and ethno-cultural nomenclature made him seem (to angry, Bush-alienated masses both at home and abroad) much more socially democratic, more antiwar, and more generally and progressive than he really was.[22] Some of these elites likely also calculated that popular racial divisions would be exacerbated by Obama’s candidacy and election.  They also surely knew that white American fears of the “angry black man” would make it difficult for a black president to conduct the “epic fight” with the wealthy Few that “angry” John Edwards correctly said would be required to attain any meaningful, genuinely progressive reform.[23]





“As if Rev. Wright is Stuck in a Time Warp”


Sixth, it is questionable just ho much “damage” Barack Obama has really done (Nairn says “huge” and “major”) to U.S. racism. We should not underestimate the remarkable symbolic racial and related generational relevance of a black American president. Still, the “black but not like Jesse” candidate Obama, it should be recalled, did everything he could to walk and stay on the safe white side of the “post-racial” (really post-Civil Rights) tightrope by fiercely distancing his campaign from the notion that racism is still a powerful and relevant barrier to black advancement and racial equality in American life.  Repeatedly praising the right-wing backlash president Ronald Reagan [24] (a fierce enemy of black Civil Rights), he smartly channeled dominant neoliberal and subtly white-supremacist “personal responsibility” narratives about how poor blacks have created their own misery through bad behavior and inadequate culture.[25]


Obama’s famous and instantly lauded “race speech” in Philadelphia – where he saved his candidacy by distancing himself from his former “angry black” preacher Jeremiah Wright – was quite conservative. As Black Commentator’s Bill Fletcher noted, Obama “attributed much of the anger of Rev. Wright to the past, as if Rev. Wright is stuck in a time warp, rather than the fact that Rev. Wright’s anger about the domestic and foreign policies of the USA are well rooted – and documented – in the current reality of the USA.”[26]


Despite such efforts to appease white sentiment and notwithstanding the sorry record of the Republicans under Bush and Cheney amidst the onset of an epic financial meltdown and Great Recession, the hideously bad Republican presidential ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin still won a good majority of the white vote (particular in the South) on Election Day – hardly a sign of racism’s defeat.


“If Racists Can Ostensibly Lose an Election…”


Since his election, Obama has done nothing to address specific black and other “minority” needs even as the recession has hit nonwhite communities with disproportionate force. [27] As Naomi Klein noted in a September 2009 interview with Goodman, the real behavior of the Obama White House has had nothing to do with the preposterous right-wing charge that Obama was a reparations-activist preoccupied with making white people pay for past racism. “In fact,” Klein observed, “what most reparations activists are talking about, overwhelmingly, are group solutions, investments in communities, in education, in healthcare, precisely the programs that are missing from the Obama administration in its response to the current economic crisis…”[28]


The administration offered no defense of the largely black, minority-based urban activist organization ACORN (recently disbanded under right and liberal pressure) when right-wing media and leading Republicans launched a neo-McCarthyite smear campaign against that group in the spring of 2009. The White House required and received the resignation of the highly qualified black-America “green jobs czar” Van Jones, preposterously smeared as a “communist” and “black nationalist” reparations advocate by the racist, far-right FOX News television host Glenn Beck. As Mumia Abu-Jamal noted, “Jones resigned, to protect a President who wouldn’t protect him.” (Abu-Jamal was “reminded…of Lani Guinier, another brilliant Yale-trained Black lawyer, who got left hanging when racists dubbed her ‘quota queen’ when she was nominated for a post in the Clinton administrations Justice Department” – an apt analogy.) “If racists can ostensibly lose an election, and still dictate policy,” Abu-Jamal added, “then, have they really lost?” [29]


“President Says He Shouldn’t Put Focus on Blacks’ Troubles”


In early December 2009, the nation’s first black president received some interesting criticism from the normally supine Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).  Accusing the White House of ignoring the economic plight of minorities, ten members of the caucus boycotted a key House committee vote on financial regulations.  The group expressed frustration at the White House and Congress’ failure to tackle minority-specific economic problems including an official black unemployment rate of 16 percent (the real rate is much higher), higher than the national rate of 10 percent. “We can no longer afford for our public policy to be defined by the world view of Wall Street,” the CBC pronounced, adding that “policy for the least of these must be integrated into everything we do.”


Obama flatly rejected this criticism in a special interview with USA TODAY and the Detroit Free Press prior to a White House “jobs summit” last December. “It’s a mistake,” Obama told the newspapers, “to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together.”


Just because he happened to be black, Obama was announcing, black Americans should not think that he would be any more willing than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton to acknowledge and act upon the distinctive oppression and inequality experienced by many in the United States’ still highly segregated and relatively impoverished black population. The title of the USA TODAY article reporting Obama’s response to the CBC’s momentary criticism was on point: “President Says He Shouldn’t Put Focus on Blacks’ Troubles.”[30]


The president kept the focus off blacks’ troubles in the highly color-segregated and racially unequal metropolis of Chicago [31] when he tried (without success) to sell his “home city” to the International Olympic Committee as a place “with the warmth of a small town” where “we celebrate what we have in common” – interesting reflections after a black teenager named Derrion Albert was killed in a videotaped beating in a deeply impoverished ghetto neighborhood on the city’s South Side.[32] As social justice and civil rights activists and community organizers across the city had been pointing out for some time, the Chicago 2016 Olympics that the Obamas were working for (along with Oprah Winfrey, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, and some of the city’s leading real estate developers) would have benefited the city’s downtown business elite at the expense of city taxpayers and a good portion of black Chicago.  The city’s Olympic building plans targeted black South Side residents for clearance and removal, threatening to escalate an ongoing gentrification project that has pushed nom-affluent blacks to the margins of the global metropolis and its ever-expanding corporate downtown.[33]


“They All Said No”


Here is an interesting message I received from a teacher of black students in the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) in February of 2009: 


“Today, I asked a class for which I was subbing (high-school English students, about a dozen, all-black, at one of CPS’s actually nice high-school facilities) what they thought of Obama.  Their initial reaction was one of, for lack of a better way to say it, pride and joy.”


“But upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a rather shallow sentiment. For when I asked them if they expected any real changes under Obama, they all said no.”


“So while they are (currently) happy he is in the White House, they know full well that he will be no different from any oth

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