Robert Gibbs and the Professional Not-So Left



Recently White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’s railed against what he called “the professional left.” “I hear these people saying [Obama is] like George Bush. Those people,” Gibbs pouted, “ought to be drug tested.”  In his petulant little self-pitying rant, Gibbs dismissed the so-called professional left in terms similar to those of a Sean Hannity or a Rush Limbaugh, saying that “They will [only] be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.” Of those liberals who complain – I would say observe – that Obama has caved to the right and corporate interests on healthcare, financial reform, carbon emissions,  gay marriage, the Employee Free Choice Act and much more, Gibbs said, “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”


Just for the record, I’m not a big Kucinich fan. If I was the in-power Leon Trotsky, the prophet re-armed of 21st century America, I would not dismantle the entire Pentagon.  I’d keep at least half the budget for promotion of radical democratic revolution at home and abroad. Those seven Columbian military bases Obama got last year would be put to work advancing land redistribution, collective ownership and workers’ control.


Still, I do share with most Americans a longstanding preference for Canadian style single payer health insurance –Improved Medicare for All. And my new book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power  records numerous key policy parallels and continuities between the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  Indeed, the original title of this book was going to be “The Re-Branding” and I seriously considered a cover photo showing Bush and Obama’s faces eerily merged.


So yes, maybe I should be watching for the knock on my door and the DEA officials to give me a plastic cup and a two hour deadline to fill it under the supervision of Robert Gibbs. At the same time, I would like propose a different sort of drug test.  Let’s call it the “ObamaLaid” (Glen Ford’s term) test. This test would be for all “those [supposedly left-liberal] people” who oppose criminal wiretappings, immoral and illegal wars, plutocratic bankers’ bailouts and other vile policies when they are implemented in the name of a white Republican moron from West Texas but who become strangely silent when those same policies are enacted by people working beneath the picture of an eloquent black Democrat from Chicago.  As Cindy Sheehan noted last year, thinking of all the liberals she could no longer interest in opposing Washington’s imperial policies, “Wars that were wrong under Bush become acceptable under Obama.” She could have made much the same point in relation to numerous Orwellian police state policies, to bankers’ bailouts, to U.S. enablement of criminal right wing coups in Latin America, and to much more that is documented at length in my new book.  


It must be drugs. Just what authoritarian, democracy-disabling narcotic is it that makes you capable of hating terrible policies only if they are being carried out by one brand of politician and incapable of doing the same when the same policies – or much the same, slightly modulated – are conducted by a different brand of politician beholden to the same dominant social hierarchies and doctrines as the one you don’t like? A progressive mind is a terrible thing to waste on partisan and identity-based politics. 


“Like Bush’s America,” the great radical writer and filmmaker John Pilger noted last year, “Obama’s America is run by some very dangerous people.” Thanks to the re-branding that has come with the ascendancy of an attractive, young, fresh, smiling, black (but not like Jesse) president with a technically Muslim name , this harsh reality has gotten dangerously cloaked and hidden in the minds of many. Fake-progressive ObamaLaid is a powerful drug and a great reminder that race, as well as gender and even class are potent and seductive tools of propaganda.




Robert Gibbs’ attack on the “professional” left was, as the wonderful left-liberal writer Glenn Greenwald noted, “one of the most petulant, self-pitying outbursts from a top official in recorded memory, half derived from a Sean Hannity rant.” It was monumentally insulting to the millions of Americans who are struggling to keep their heads above water as the other capitalist party in power, the corporate Democrats, fail to provide anything close to adequate relief to those caught on the deepening wrong side of the profits system. 


I’m not always the biggest fan of Bob Herbert, the liberal New York Times columnist but last Saturday Herbert penned a richly deserved and memorable smack down of Gibbs and the White House. “The Obama administration seems to be feeling sorry for itself,” Herbert noted. “Robert Gibbs, the president’s press secretary, is perturbed that Mr. Obama is not getting more hosannas from liberals.” Further:


“Spare me. The country is a mess. The economy is horrendous, and millions of American families are running out of ammunition in their fight against destitution. Steadily increasing numbers of middle-class families, who never thought they’d be seeking charity, have been showing up at food pantries…..schools are hemorrhaging resources because of budget meltdowns, and teachers are losing jobs, and libraries are finding it more and more difficult to remain open, American youngsters are falling further behind their peers in other developed countries in their graduation rates from colleges and universities.”


“This would be a good time for the Obama crowd to put aside its concern about the absence of giddiness among liberals and re-examine what it might do to improve what is fast becoming a depressing state of affairs.”


Exactly right. It was disturbing to hear the administration whining about “left” criticism as more and more American families and children slip into deep poverty and as the White House and the Democrats, fail to provide anything close to adequate relief to those caught on the deepening wrong side of the profits system




There’s another and equally disturbing question here. Who is the “professional left” that Gibbs claims to loathe and which he and others in the corporate-neoliberal and militarist Obama administration periodically take shots at as part of the triangulation agenda they inherited from the Clintons? As David Sirota recently observed on Huffington Post, “The [real] fact is that much of the ‘American Left’ is organized around the Democratic Party and specifically around Obama. The professional Left,” Sirota says and I agree, “are all the major, well-funded liberal interest groups (what Jane Hamsher sometimes refers to as ‘the veal pen’) and [those groups, Sirota correctly notes] have repeatedly shown themselves to be more loyal to the Democratic Party and Obama than to their alleged policy/ideological missions…That kind of Left,” Sirota adds, “is not built like successful social movements of the past.”  It “doesn’t,” Sirota adds, ‘have the structure, independence or stomach for oppositional politics…’” or even for telling and perceiving basic truths about the new administration.


Look, for example, at the no-so left-liberal weekly magazine The Nation, whose Publisher and Editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel actually said the following last November: “Whatever one thinks of Obama’s policy on any specific issue,” Vanden Heuvel proclaimed in The Nation, “he is clearly a reform president committed to improvement of peoples’ lives and the renewal and reconstruction of America… Progressives,” Vanden Heuvel announced, “should focus less on the limits of the Obama agenda and more on the possibilities that his presidency opens up.” This was a fascinating comment more than 10 months into an administration that had already set new corporate welfare records, and administration that had approved an auto-restructuring plan that rewarded capital flight, a “new” White House that had already made clear its determination to pass a health ill that only insurance and drug companies could love, that had already revealed its determination to undermine serious global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, that had already showed it would not pursue major green jobs public works programs even as unemployment reached new post-WWII record levels, and that it would not pursue the labor law and global trade reforms Obama had eloquently promised to working class audiences in 2007 and 2008.  Talk about the veal pen. There are many other examples.


Look at left icon Michael Moore, who developed an epic liberal man crush on Obama in 2007 and 2008 and much of 2009.  Last December Moore admonished leftists for raining on the president’s big Nobel Peace Prize day by having the audacity to note that the prize winner was a war president – this as civilian survivors from Obama’s escalated South Asian war told harrowing tales of children and wedding parties blown to pieces by the not-so antiwar president’s predator drones, bombs, and attack helicopters


For me and others on the actual left, the so-called hard left – not even on Gibbs’ radar screen – it has been hard to hear reflexive liberal defense granted to a president who has behaved so clearly in accord with the dollar-marked approval that corporate lobbyists and election investors had granted him since he was first carefully vetted on and around K Street and Wall Street in 2002 and 2003.  As one Washington lobbyist told left journalist Ken Silverstein in 2006: “big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’” The moneyed elite could see basic things that much of our so-called professional left could or would not. Of course, big money capitalists and political investors have strong material reasons to be grounded in reality when it comes to who holds office and who doesn’t. The calculations are different for some on what passes for a left.


Paul Street ([email protected]) 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 www.paulstreet.org

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