Resisting Left Invisibility in the Age of Obama



As a few of my regular readers know, I am currently involved in a modest self-promoting fundraising effort.  I’m trying to scare up $1500 to pay for a short east coast book tour for my second major left-progressive critique of the Obama phenomenon.  The new volume is titled The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/ books/ BookDetail.aspx?productID=243410). It is a follow up to my summer 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008),  ), a volume that the eminent left political scientist and author Adolph Reed Jr. called “a much needed burst of clear, brisk conceptual air that cuts through the fog of fantasy and wish-fulfillment. [Street’s] meticulously researched, carefully argued analysis of Obama’s career and his politics,” Reed wrote, “performs an important task of demystification. It is also an eloquent and bracing reminder that progressive agendas will not be advanced through vesting hopes and aspirations in candidate-centered politics, that there is no quick and easy substitute for the task of building a serious, institutionally grounded, working-class based political movement —from the bottom up and top down.”  The fundraising project can be surveyed and responded to) at www.kickstarter.com/projects/paulstreet/the-lefts-fiercest-critic-goes-street-on-obama.Please do not hesitate to help out if you wish to see my effort at radical truth-telling on the Obama phenomenon/presidency get a better hearing and achieve more visibility than they have so far [1]. 


Demystification is as required as ever today regarding Obama. A recent New York Times “New Analysis” feeds the media’s longstanding myth of the president as some sort of “left”-leaning “progressive” by absurdly wondering if he will “be willing to refashion himself as a pragmatist who will compromise” on his supposed “taste” for big and activist, egalitarian government “in exchange for small victories”[2]. A recent poll finds that 55 percent of likely American voters think “the word ‘socialist’ describes the president either ‘well’ or ‘very well.’”[3] This disturbing mass belief (fed by the right and dominant media) about the in-fact “deeply conservative” [4] corporate-neoliberal Obama exists despite Obama’s strong service to elite corporate and financial interests who are well represented in his administration and who paid for so much of his presidential campaign, which set new corporate fundraising records.  Like my previous one, my new “Obama book”[5] is dedicated among other things to demonstrating and documenting Obama’s corporate, state-capitalist essence. Anyone who thinks the president is a “socialist” needs to examine the actual meaning of that term (which is never defined in a way that most actual socialists would endorse in the standard polling procedure) and look more closely at his actual record.





Here is some local context for my attempt to raise a comparatively small amount of money dough to take an actually left grassroots critique of the fake-grassroots Obama administration on the road this August.  I currently reside in the rather overly Obama-friendly campus town Iowa City, Iowa, where Obama design work is still visible on the backs and windows of Volvos and Priuses and BMWs at the food coop, which employs a wine buyer who makes regular trips to southern France. Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa. In March of 2008, the “Distinguished Lecture” Series at the “liberal” University of Iowa gave the monumental war criminal and top Republican political strategist Karl Rove 40,000 taxpayer dollars to come sit on a couch and trade insults with liberals and others for one hour at the school’s Memorial Union in Iowa City. Yes, forty grand: more than many of the university’s full-time staff made in an entire year for one hour of vicious nothingness and lies from a smiling, shameless master of war and plutocracy – a man whom his boss George W. Bush once aptly nicknamed “Turd Blossom.”


(The crowd for the Rove event was quite large. I asked Rove (i) how many Iraqis he thought had been killed by the U.S. invasion launched in March of 2003 – the 150,000 or so proposed by some groups (e.g. Iraq Body Count) or the 1 million plus calculated by the British medical journal The Lancet and (ii) what percentage of whatever death measure he picked he was willing to take good Republican “personal responsibility” for. Rove picked the smaller number and dismissed the rest of my question as “an insult to our wonderful troops.” He was later chased out of his post-lecture dinner and from Iowa City by antiwar activists who had come to arrest him.  The activists stood outside his restaurant with bullhorns yelling “Karl Rove you are surrounded, come out with your hands up.” The next day a nice young white middle class liberal kid – a fellow who turned out to be a major Obama fan – complimented me on my exchange with Rove but was taken aback at my response: “Thank you. However, I worry that this sort of event where we beat up on a big bad Republican just reinforces this sense that Obama is going to come in and make it all better.  He’s not going to do that – trust me.”)





In the summer of that same year, the "progressive" head of Iowa City’s main independent bookstore refused to hold an author event for my first "Obama book." She said it “scared” her to see an author criticizing the Democratic candidate from the left. Never mind that the very polite book in question recommended voting for Obama in contested states or that the book had strong endorsement on the back cover from the world’s leading intellectual – Noam Chomsky, who filled Iowa City’s large downtown Englert Theater to capacity in April of 2006 (a tornado rolled through town a few days later) – and other noted progressive thinkers like John Pilger, Charles Derber, and Reed. In late January of 2009, around the time of Obama’s inauguration, a left wing staffer at the bookstore had to fight to have my book included in a display of books – some quite vile and inferior – on the Obama phenomenon and campaign. The display included the right wing lunatic Jerome “Swift Boat” Corsi’s paranoid, racist, and neo-McCarthyite “bestseller” Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality [6].





Last November that same bookstore held a big talk and signing event at the Englert for a vapid book called The Audacity to Win – an opportunistic volume by Obama’s campaign director David Plouffe.  Plouffe at that time was busy denouncing left progressives for criticizing the corporatist nature of the administration’s health "reform." The local Democrats said that his book was “the ultimate insider story of what many consider the most brilliant campaign ever run, by the man who helped design it and made it happen. David Plouffe was not just the architect of the campaign that put Obama in the White House,” the Johnson County Democratic Party claimed, “he also built a grassroots movement that changed the face of democracy itself”[7].


That was a bit much. One of the more nauseating things about the Obama campaign in critical early Caucus-endowed Iowa (the focal point of presidential politics in year before the quadrennial elections) was its repeated insistence on presenting itself as a popular social movement.  In reality, of course, it was a carefully crafted big money, candidate-centered marketing and campaign operation – one in which the “grassroots” operatives (door and phone canvassers and Web handlers) took their marching orders and talking points from the top down. I attempted to attend the Plouffe event but was turned away since I would not pay $40 for a copy of the book.


In his book and at the Englert Plouffe bragged about his campaign’s role in disseminating the story of John Edwards’ “five hundred dollar haircut.”  Edwards (and not Hillary Clinton)finished second to Obama in Iowa, advancing an angry economic populist campaign — endorsed by Ralph Nader on MSNBC in December 2007 [8] — claiming that only an “epic fight” with concentrated wealth and corporate politicians of both parities could win big progressive change.  He mocked Obama’s conciliatory belief that the country’s problems were due simply to partisan nastiness and he ridiculed Obama’s “naïve” promise to negotiate politely with Republicans and big corporations for things like health reform and the reduction of carbon emissions. Obama’s response to Edwards in a debate in Des Moines: “We don’t need more heat, we need more light.”[9] We’ve seen who Obama’s “light” bringers have been: the Wall Street financial lords, the leading energy corporations and the masters of military industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower left office warning us about. The haircut hit hatched by the Obama campaign was meant to discredit Edwards’ insistent critique of Obama and Hillary Clinton as “corporate Democrats.” 





Last March Obama came to Iowa City to celebrate his then just-signed health “reform” bill. He made a surprise visit to the same bookstore, where he was met by the store’s manager Jan, who was known to complain about Obama a bit but who in this moment smiled very widely and said to him "WE ARE SO PROUD OF YOU." This event was recorded with a big photo on the front page of The New York Times [10]. What are campus town “progressives” like her most “proud of” I wondered: the bombing of Bola Boluk, the record-setting transfer of taxpayer $ to parasitic Wall Street behemoths, the betrayal of the Employee Free Choice Act (of labor), the vicious undermining of the Copenhagen climate talks, the record-setting Pentagon budget, the cold escalation (in defiance of majority opinion) in Af-Pak, the “five-front terror war” (Glenn Greenwald) that includes Somalia, Yemen, and Ethiopia, the invasion of Haiti in the name of relief, the support of a vicious right wing coup in Honduras, the roll over of Bush’s police-state policies, the health “reform” that only insurance and drug companies can love, the enhanced removal of immigrants from employment, the appointment of Wall Street friendly centrists to the Supreme Court?…all of the above?





On the same day of Obama’s visit to Prairie Lights I put on some nice clothes and went down to the University of Iowa Field House outside where Obama was giving a speech on behalf of his health bill. There were 200 or so happy Democrats and Obama fans with posters ("We Love Our President”) in front of the building and 200 or so angry "Tea Party" volk ("Save Freedom, Stop Marxism") on the other side of the street. Local television reporters and cameras were all over the place. I went up to one pair of female reporters and said "hey …are you going to give any coverage to actual left perspectives? Not all the criticism of this bill is from the right, you know." They said “yes, of course we will” and “filmed” 2-3 minutes with me. I was very polite and concise. I hit the basic points on how and why it was a conservative and inadequate bill – a sell-out to the big insurance and drug companies – from a true progressive standpoint. I made sure to smile and stay calm, on point.  The clip never ran. The TV spots on the evening news out of Cedar Rapids and Davenport were all about the conflict between the "left" represented by Obama and the right (the “tea party” people…who I spoke with at some length and found close to insane). By the local news accounts the only people who had any real or relevant problems with Obama’s bill were "the tea party,” whatever that term really designates.




Here is another local anecdote that reflects in its own silly little way the dangerously narrow and rightward spectrum of acceptable debate that can result from such skewed news coverage.  Two months ago, I was in the Laundromat on Bloomington Street just off downtown Iowa City, putting some wet clothes in a coin-operated dryer. I caught sight of an old wooden school desk-chair where a political debate seemed to have broken out. Someone had written the following on the top of the desk in a dark black pen: “‘War is Peace’- Barack Obama, Oslo, Norway, December 2009.” “War is Peace” comes from the democratic socialist George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four. In Orwell’s tale, it was a nonsensical phrase (along with “Freedom is Slavery” and “Love is Hate”) that the totalitarian state capitalist government of Oceana seeks to implant in the minds of its subject populace through constant repetition. “Clever,” I thought to myself, reflecting that at least one resident of Iowa City got it that Barack Obama has, as the left author and journalist Jeremy Scahill noted last year, conducted a “U.S. foreign policy that…in many ways advances the interest of the American empire in a way the Republicans could only have dreamed of doing”[11]. I wondered if the author of the Laundromat commentary had read Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech, in which the “peace” president gave what the Associated Press rightly described as “a robust defense of war” [12]– consistent with Scahill’s observation in Chicago last year (at the annual meetings of the International Socialist Organization) that Obama “is a brilliant supporter of empire who has figured out a way to essentially trick a lot of people into believing they’re supporting radical change…Obama,” Scahill added, “is an incredibly Orwellian character.  He can make people think that war is peace.”


There was an interesting message from a liberal written next to the “War is Peace” scribble on the Laundromat desk, however. “Leave your politics to FOX ‘News,’ ‘cause you’re really bad at it asshole.”  Someone else (in different handwriting) had circled the comment and written “Racist Tea Bagger.” The writers of these critical messages were under the preposterous impression that anyone who criticizes the militaristic Obama’s qualifications for a great peace prize must a right winger of the racist FOX News and Tea Party variety.





It’s a tiny and restively juvenile episode, to be sure – this Laundromat graffiti story, but I do think it is symptomatic of something bigger.  For many, the phrase “Obama’s critics” equals “the tea party,” FOX News, and the right more generally. Left criticism and opinion is officially invisible or close to it. In Chicago last May, 10,000 people came out to march on City Hall in an impressive multi-racial and multi-generational display of popular opposition to the corporate-privatizationist school agenda promoted by Barack Obama, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, corporate Chicago, and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. The demonstration did not gain significant media coverage. As the Chicago Labor and Arts Festival Blog reported, “‘Save Our Schools’ was the predominant slogan, as perhaps 10,000 people marched from the Board of Education to City Hall and back.  A crowd large enough to flow into the streets and stop the downtown rush hour traffic along Clark Street.  Yet the evening news had no time to report this major event, instead concentrating their journalism on canned reports of an elderly couple trapped inside their home by years of accumulated debris and waste.  As tragic as this story is, it is dwarfed by the anger and actions of the people of Chicago fighting to withstand a government intent on trapping our young people in the debris of their educational system.”[13] Meanwhile the dominant media had been abuzz with stories about often small gatherings of angry white guys showing up at post offices and car dealerships to proclaim “tea party” war on “leftist” Obama “socialism.”


Multi-colored masses coming out in large numbers to oppose top-down state-capitalist policy from the bottom up – that’s folded into what the late great radical historian Howard Zinn called “The Unreported Resistance.” They are unworthy protestors as far as the reigning news and commentary authorities are considered.  Comparatively small scale protest on behalf of a harsh, right wing version of the status quo – now that’s front-page news.


Making the actual Left and left critique invisible in the media is one of the one of the many ways the power elite plays us, with help from local “progressive” authorities (i.e. Prairie Light Books and the Johnson County Democratic Party) in one-party academic-military-industrial towns like Iowa City.





A final local anecdote.  Three weeks ago or so I was walking into the Iowa City Public Library on a warm summer evening.  In a large conference room off the main hall I noticed a big meeting.  I went into to check it out.  A doctor was speaking – a man dressed up in medical garb.  He was part of a panel presenting on the Democrats’ health “reform.”  He was explaining that the legislation passed was a great progressive victory – a landmark bill, something we should all embrace with pride. And yet “some people,” the doctor noted with raised eyebrows, “think it wasn’t enough, that it didn’t do enough.”  This – the bill passed – was the most we could have hoped for, the doctor explained. Imagine! Some people want everything!! The mostly senior audience nodded in cowed agreement.  I raised my hand, reminding this collection of venerable campus-town liberals of a September 2009 New York CBS poll showing that there was a remarkable CBS-New York Times poll conducted in late September of 2009. Fully sixty-five percent of more than 1,000 Americans randomly surveyed by CBS and the Times responded affirmatively to the following question: “Would you favor or oppose the government offering everyone a government-administered health insurance plan – something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and over get – that would compete with private health insurance plans?”[14] The point of my comment was I think clear: the doctor in front was telling us that majority opinion is irrelevant in the U.S. when it comes to the making of policy by the government, which is identical with “the people” in democratic theory but controlled by the wealthy Few in plutocratic reality.  It was a point the people in the room did not seem ready to engage.  I proceeded into the book collection area.





Such is one of the many prices of manufactured Left invisibility. If you can help (even in a small way) with my own personal effort to make Left critique and prescription more visible in U.S. political and intellectual culture, please go to www.kickstarter.com/projects/paulstreet/the-lefts-fiercest-critic-goes-street-on-obama and throw me a dollar or two (or ten or 200).  You can also look at my new Web site, timed to the publication of my latest book: www.paulstreet.org.  I finally have an answer to the countless people who have asked me “do you have a Web site?” It’s not quite at the level of http://www.whitehouse.gov/ but it’s pretty damn good and I am indebted to Jamaal “Sgt. Justice” Bell for his remarkable work on it.


Paul Street ([email protected])will be interviewed on Latin Waves CJSF 90/1 FM (listen online:http://www.cjsf.ca/pguide/grid/description.php?ID=126 ) at 9:30AM Pacific Time/11:30CST/12:30PM Eastern) on Saturday, July 24. Street will speak on his new book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power at the restaurant and bookstore Busboys and - 5th and K 1025 5th St. NW, WDC 20001 on Monday, August 16th, 2010 6:30 to 8 PM. Street will speak at the Wooden Shoe Bookstore at 704 South Street in Philadelphia, PA on Tuesday, August 17th at 7PM and at Bluestockings Bookstore, a Worker-Owned Bookstore, Fair-Trade Café, Activist Center at 172 Allen Street m NYC, NY (in the Lower East Side of Manhattan) and Wednesday, August 18 at 7 PM  For future dates in Springfield, New Jersey and Boston, see http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/paulstreet/the-lefts-fiercest-critic-goes-street-on-obama/posts





1. The project needs to raise $1500 to be a go but can be funded well beyond that if contributors choose.  If contributors wish to extend my tour or move in into a different region (I have been hearing from comrades in the Northwest and Midwest in recent days) that is not out of the question.



2. Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Obama Pushes Agenda, Despite Political Risks,” New York Times, July 15, 2010. This childish theme of “left” Obama really or potentially moving to the “pragmatic” center goes back a long way in the New York Times and other “mainstream” news outlets.  See, for example, 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.



3. Thomas Rhiel “55 Percent of Likely Voters Think Obama’s a Socialist,” Talking Points Memo (July 9, 2010), at http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/07/shocking-poll-55-percent-of-voters-think-obamas-a-socialist.php  



4. As Larissa MacFarquhar noted as early as May of 2007 in a New Yorker portrait  titled “The Conciliator,” the solutions offered in Obama’s writings, speeches, and town-hall meetings were “small and local rather than deep-reaching and systemic.” At the same time, Obama became practically notorious in mid-2007 for addressing deep social problems with no policy at all, preferring to substitute empty political platitudes and soothing bromides of hope and togetherness for concrete policy action proposals.  “When he talks about poverty,” MacFarquhar noted, “he tends not to talk about gorging plutocrats and unjust tax breaks: he says that we are our brothers’ keeper, that caring for the poor is one of our traditions.” Such refusal to advance large reform – e.g. single payer health insurance on the Canadian model – reflected what MacFarquhar found to be Obama’s “deeply conservative” take on history, society and politics: “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good. Take health care, for example. ‘If you’re starting from scratch,’ he says, ‘then a single-payer system’—a government-managed system like Canada’s, which disconnects health insurance from employment—‘would probably make sense. But we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside’…Asked whether he has changed his mind about anything in the past twenty years, he says, ‘I’m probably more humble now about the speed with which government programs can solve every problem. For example, I think the impact of parents and communities is at least as significant as the amount of money that’s put into education.’” MacFarquhar found that Obama’s “deep conservatism” was why “Republicans continue to find him congenial, especially those who opposed the war on much the same conservative grounds that he did.” She noted that some of Bush’s top fund-raisers were contributing to Obama’s campaign and observed that Obama garnered 40 percent of the Republican vote in his 2004 Senate victory. See Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). For an early description of Obama as “vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal,” see 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). For evidence in support of MacFarquhar’s judgments three and fourteen years ago, see Street, Barack Obama and the Future and Street, The Empire’s New Clothes.


5. The quote marks are because the real subject matter of both books is U.S. political culture and social history, not Obama (who I have never found particularly interesting) per se.  I think I would have written at least one book on the presidential election and/or the first year of the post-Bush II presidency if the winner of the election had been Hillary Clinton or John McCain.


6. Paul Street, “The Madness of Jerome Corsi,” ZNet (August 25, 2008), read at http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/18540


7. http://jcdems.org/wp/?p=269


8. Here is a YouTube clip of Nader’s endorsement of Edwards on MSNBC’s “Hardball” on December 17, 2007 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElQ3xUxSBiU;  Mike Aivaz and Muriel Kane, “Ralph Nader supports Edwards’ anti-corporate message,” Raw Story (December 18, 2007) at http://www.rawstory.com/news/2007/Nader_likes_Kucinich_thinks_Edwards_looks_1218.html. In Nader’s view, “the question” for Iowa and New Hampshire primary voters was “who’s going to fight for you?” “The key phrase” in Edwards’ campaign, Nader felt, “is when he says he doesn’t want to replace a corporate Republican with a corporate Democrats.  That’s very key. He raises the issue of concentration of power and wealth in a few hands that are working against the interests of the vast majority of American people” (see the YouTube clip at 1:43), “You have now excluded Barack Obama from the progressive coalition,” Matthews said. Nader’s reply:” He’s excluded himself by the statements he’s made, unfortunately… [statements that] are extremely conciliatory to concentrated power and big business" (see discussion in clip at 7:15).


9. Edwards and Obama in Des Moines are quoted in Mike Davis, “Obama at Manassas,” New Left Review (March-April 2009).


10. http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/obama-stops-to-browse-at-a-bookstore/


11. Jeremy Scahill and Anthony Arnove, “Rebranding War and Occupation,” Socialist Worker (June 17, 2009), read at http://socialistworker.org/2009/06/17/rebranding-war-and-occupatio


12. Ben Feller, “Obama Accepts Nobel Peace Prize With Robust Defense of War,” Associated Press (December 10, 2010).


13. Lew Rosenbaum, “Chicago Teachers, Students, & Parents Rally Against Budget Cuts,” Chicago Labor & Arts Festival Blog (May 26, 2010) at http://chilaborarts.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/chicago-teachers-students-parents-rally-against-budget-cuts/


14. New York Times-CBS Poll, “Confusion Over Health Care,” survey of 1,042 adults, September 19-23, question number 57, p. 15 of 26, poll results at http://documents.nytimes.com/new-york-times-cbs-news-poll-confusion-over-health-care-tepid-support-for-war#p=15

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