Sitting Out the Obama Dance in Iowa City

I recently witnessed a disturbing event.  I was among the ten thousand predominantly white Iowans who listened to Barack Obama speak at the scenic “Pentacrest,” on the University of Iowa campus.  



It was a beautiful day in Iowa City. People were dancing and singing and clapping. Barack was in the house, for Earth Day.  The crowd had a certain early 1970s feel about it.  I must have seen at least thirty peace symbols. They were playing U2 on the PA system.


Did Obama have good things to say? Did he say them well? 


The answer is yes on both counts.  He denounced America‘s broken, expensive and unequal health care system and said he would introduce universal health insurance. 


He noted that human-caused global warming is no longer debatable and called for major reduction of carbon emissions through increased reliance on alternative fuels and improved fuel efficiency.


He advocated diplomacy over a foreign policy of “military incursions.”  He criticized “a war [on Iraq] that should never have been authorized.”  He observed that the war is “costing billions” while “diverting” the nation away from addressing its growing domestic problems.   


He called for the end of a “cynical” politics whereby “power trumps principle,” where voters end up selecting “the lesser of two evils,” and where powerful lobbyists and other big money special interests exploit the gap left by the retreat of disempowered citizens from active involvement in public affairs.


He called for citizens to “write a new chapter in American history” by rejecting cynicism for civic engagement.


He said that “we are our bothers and sisters’ keepers,” and quoted Martin Luther King Jr. on how “an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.” 


He said he was motivated to enter politics by the positive example of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), not by any personal hunger for power.  He made repeated positive references to the Movement and to King, concluding with King’s famous statement that “the arc of the universe bends slowly but it always bends toward justice.”


He said that the main lesson of his three years as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago during the 1980s was that “ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”


He criticized the failures of a U.S. educational system that is “leaving children and teachers behind.” 


He called for college tuition assistance, increased funding for early childhood education and higher teacher pay. 


He criticized the notion that “the economy is doing well” when millions of Americans are experiencing job insecurity and stagnating incomes.  He noted that “Main Street” is suffering while “Wall Street” is riding high. 


He called for regular minimum wage increases


He denounced the terrible notion “that government can’t make a positive difference” in peoples’ lives.  He reminded his audience that there is no shortage of basic “things we could do right now” to fix the nation’s deepening social and ecological problems. 


“Now” is “the time,” Obama said, for Americans “to turn the page” on the “old” and “cynical” money- and power-dominated “politics.” We must invent a “new politics” based on “the ties that bind” Americans together in pursuit of “justice and equality.”


He said that the American people are basically good “once they focus” on real facts and things that matter.  He called for citizens to “transform the country” by acting in accord with the historical lesson that “change comes from the bottom up, NOT from the top down.”


Obama can deliver a speech.


Did I mention it was a beautiful day?  At one point, I saw a hawk soar just above the crowd and the Senator; it made a graceful pass and disappeared west, over the Iowa River.





So why wasn’t I dancing and singing along? Why did I have a terrible taste in my mouth two hours after Obama’s speech even as the sun shone and the warm spring breeze passed through my den just a mile east of the Pentacrest?


Part of it was the narcissism of the self-presentation. Obama does this creepy thing after being introduced.  He approaches the stage only after a good 5 minutes of passing through a parting sea of applauding audience members.


Please.  Candidates should stand humbly by the side of the stage and walk up right after being introduced.  I do not attend political rallies to see a pretend savior savoring popular adulation as he dances through the cool stream of the multitude.


Obama’s speech began with fifteen minutes dedicated to the self-serving story of his own life.  That story advanced a charming populist narrative that deleted his elite private education (from a privileged Hawaii high school through Harvard Law) and his ambitious and occasionally brutal (see Jackson and Long 2007, cited in the SOURCES section at the end of this article) quest for higher public office and the private money (Zeleny and Healy 2007) that quest requires. It ended with the Great Barockstar telling crowd that he can’t “transform America” alone.  He is going to “get weary” and “make mistakes” and so we masses will have to “chip in” and help him out every once and a while. 


That’s worse than getting a $400 hair cut.


Please. Save yourself, Senator. 





But the main reason I sat out the Obama dance was that I knew too much about the Senator’s slippery centrist record and agenda to play along with the progressive, humanitarian and populist pretense (See Street 2004 and Street 2007a-2007e).


Take the war question The Senator got his Iowa City audience nicely worked up about the 3300 US troops killed because of the George W. Bush administration’s failed policy in Iraq. Good for him.


But I’ll be damned if he said one word about the 700,000 Iraqis killed so far because of the criminal U.S. invasion. Of course, this is a problem with all of our major party presidential candidates except Dennis Kucinich (see Dixon 2006) as far as I can tell. During the first Democratic presidential candidate debates last night on MSNBC, it was left to Kucinich alone to dare to acknowledge the vastly larger number of Iraqi dead.


Did I say “criminal U.S. invasion?” Obama never acknowledges that Bush committed the supreme international crime when he launched “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (O.I.F): an unprovoked war of aggression. In past foreign policy speeches and in his ponderous, power-worshipping campaign book The Audacity of Hope (New York: Crown, 2006), Obama O.I.F. an “error,” a “mistake,” a “blunder,” a “dumb war” and “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  He refuses to admit what the rest of the world knows: it was and remains a monumentally criminal war (Street, 2007b).


Last night on MSNBC, it was left to Kucinich to call for the impeachment of executive branch officials for deceptively leading the U.S. into the criminal invasion of Iraq.


Obama even claims that war was motivated by a well-intentioned desire to “impose democracy” (Obama 2006, p.317; Street 2007b).  This is a childish fairy tale. Most of the world, including the great majority of Iraqi people, knows very well that O.I.F. was fought to deepen the United States‘ imperial control of Middle Eastern oil. It would be more appropriate to go with the acronym “O.I.L.,” substituting the world “Liberation” for “Freedom” (Street 2007f). It was left to the officially marginalized Kucinich alone last night to acknowledge that U.S foreign policy in the Middle East is “about oil.”





Then there’s the matter of his actual policy and political record. If Obama is such (as many “progressives” seem to need to believe) an “antiwar” candidate, why has he offered so much substantive policy support to the criminal occupation and the broader imperial “war on [and of] terror” of which Bush says O.I.F. is a part?  Here are some highlights from a summary of Obama’s U.S. Senate voting record recently sent to me by the Creative Youth News Team (CYNT 2007), a progressive African American advocacy organization:  


“1/26/05: Obama voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice for Secretary of State.  Rice was largely responsible…for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent victims in unnecessary wars…Roll call 2″


“2/01/05:  Obama was part of a unanimous consent agreement not to filibuster the nomination of lawless torturer Alberto Gonzales as chief law enforcement officer of the United States (U.S. Attorney General).”


“2/15/05: Obama voted to confirm Michael Chertoff, a proponent of water-board torture…[and a] man behind the round-up of thousands of people of Middle-Eastern descent following 9/11. By Roll call 10.”


“4/21/05: Obama voted to make John ‘Death Squad’ Negroponte the National Intelligence Director.  In Central America, John Negroponte was connected to death squads that murdered nuns and children in sizable quantities.    He is suspected of instigating death squads while in Iraq, resulting in the current insurgency.  Instead of calling for Negroponte’s prosecution, Obama rewarded him by making him National Intelligence Director.  Roll call 107″


“4/21/05: Obama voted for HR 1268, war appropriations in the amount of approximately $81 billion. Much of this funding went to Blackwater USA and Halliburton and disappeared.  Roll call 109 [W FOR PRO-WAR VOTE]“


“7/01/05: Obama voted for H.R. 2419, termed ‘The Nuclear Bill’ by environmental and peace groups.  It provided billions for nuclear weapons activities, including nuclear bunker buster bombs.   It contains full funding for Yucca Mountain, a threat to food and water in California, Nevada, Arizona and states across America. Roll call 172 [W].”


“9/26/05 & 9/28/05: Obama failed and refused to place a hold on the nomination of John Roberts, a supporter of permanent detention of Americans without trial, and of torture and military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees.” 

“10/07/05:  Obama voted for HR2863, which appropriated $50 billion in new money for war.  Roll call 2 [W].”


“11/15/05:   Obama voted for continued war, again.   Roll call 326 was the vote on the Defense Authorization Act (S1042) which kept the war and war profiteering alive, restricted the right of habeas corpus and encouraged terrorism.   Pursuant to his pattern, Obama voted for this. [W].”


“12/21/05:  Obama confirmed his support for war by voting for the Conference Report on the Defense Appropriations Act (HR 2863), Roll call 366, which provided more funding to Halliburton and Blackwater. [W]“


“5/2/06:   Obama voted for money for more war by voting for cloture on HR 4939, the emergency funding to Halliburton, Blackwater and other war profiteers. Roll call 103 [W].”


“5/4/06:  Obama, again, voted to adopt HR4939: emergency funding to war profiteers. Roll call 112 [W].”


“6/13/06:   Obama voted to commend the armed services for a bombing that killed innocent people and children and reportedly resulted in the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi… Michael Berg, whose son was reportedly killed by al-Zarqawi, condemned the attack and expressed sorrow over the innocent people and children killed in the bombing that Obama commended. Roll call 168 [W].”


“6/15/06:  Obama voted for the conference report on HR4939, a bill that gave warmongers more money to continue the killing and massacre of innocent people in Iraq and allows profiteers to collect more money for scamming the people of New Orleans.  Roll Call 171 [W].”


“6/15/06:  Obama, again, opposed withdrawal of the troops, by voting to table a motion to table a proposed amendment would have required the withdrawal of US. Armed Forces from Iraq and would have urged the convening of an Iraq summit (S Amdt 4269 to S. Amdt 4265 to S2766) Roll Call 174 [W]“


“6/22/06:  Obama voted against withdrawing the troops by opposing the Kerry Amendment (S. Amdt 4442 to S 2766) to the National Defense Authorization Act. The amendment, which was rejected, would have brought our troops home.  Roll Call 181 [W]“


“6/22/06: Obama voted for cloture (the last effective chance to stop) on the National Defense Authorization Act (S 2766), which provided massive amounts of funding to defense contractors to continue the killing in Iraq.  Roll Call 183[W].”


“6/22/06: Obama again voted for continued war by voting to pass the National Defense Authorization Act (S 2766) for continued war funding.   Roll Call 186 [W].


9/7/06:  Obama voted to give more money to profiteers for more war (H..R. 5631). Roll Call 239 [W]”


“9/29/06: Obama voted vote for the conference report on more funding for war, HR 5631.  Roll Call 261 [W].”


“11/16/06:  Obama voted for nuclear proliferation in voting to pass HR 5682, a bill to exempt the United States-India Nuclear Proliferation Act from requirements of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.  Roll Call 270 [W].”


“12/06/06:  Obama voted to confirm pro-war Robert M. Gates to be Secretary of Defense.  Gates is a supporter of Bush’s policies of pre-emptive war and conquest of foreign countries.  Roll Call 272 [W]” 


“Obama’s voting record in 2007 establishes that he continues to be pro-war.  On March 28, 2007 and March 29th, 2007, he voted for cloture and passage of a bill designed to give Bush over $120 billion to continue the occupation for years to come (with a suspendable time table) and inclusive of funding that could be used to launch a war with Iran.  Roll calls 117 and 126 [W]…Obama’s record shows a minimum of 20 major pro-war votes…”



Wow. I might have worded things a little differently than CYNT at times, but that’s a damning bill of indictment.


Obama’s intra-Democratic political record also defies those who insistent on wrapping him in an antiwar flag. In 2006 Obama lent his celebrity and political finance assistance to neoconservative war Senator Joe Lieberman’s (“D”-Connecticut) struggle against the Democratic antiwar insurgent Ned Lamont.  Obama supported other mainstream Democrats fighting genuinely antiwar progressives in primary races, collaborating with Democratic muscle man Rahm Emannuel’s campaign to marginalize “peaceniks” within the party (see Sirota 2006, Silverstein 2006 and Cockburn 2006).


In a November 2005 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Obama rejected Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) call for a rapid redeployment and any notion of a timetable for withdrawal.  Obama advocated “a pragmatic solution to the real war we’re facing in Iraq” and made repeated references to the need to “defeat” the “insurgency.”  This language meant continuation of the war (Ford and Gamble 2005). 


Earlier that same year, Obama shamefully distanced himself from his fellow Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) forthright criticism of U.S. torture practices at Guantanamo (Street 2005; Cockburn 2006).



And he still refuses to foreswear the use of first-strike nuclear weapons against Iran (Gerson 2007).  As Kucinich pointed out during last night’s debate, this is what Obama’s comment that “all options are on the table” in regard to Iran really boils down to: the potential first black U.S. President is willing to seriously consider the launching of a thermonuclear attack on that country. Debate participant Mike Gravel (a left former U.S. Senator of Alaska)was thinking of that horrific possibility when said the following about the leading Democratic candidates (Obama included of course) last night: “these people scare me.”  





Obama made a big deal in Iowa City about the need to rally support for Congressional legislation claiming to impose a timeline on the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. But the legislation Obama and his Democratic colleagues in Congress are sending up for Bush’s certain veto gives the administration the money it needs to continue and expand the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and possibly to initiate an assault on Iran.  It funds Bush’s audacious, democracy-defying Surge (escalation) to the supplemental tune of $124 billion – considerably more than the White House actually requested. 


The bill subjects the Iraq government to the same “benchmarks” that Bush announced in his nationally televised escalation speech of January 10, 2007. The “benchmarks” include passage of an imperialist and neoliberal petroleum law. Hidden beneath largely diversionary language about “revenue-sharing” across Iraq‘s regions, this law is designed to subject Iraq‘s stupendous oil reserves to domination by Western capital and the American Empire (Juhasz 2007; Gupta 2007; Street 2007g).


The “withdrawal” envisioned by Congress only removes combat troops. In the names of “diplomatic protection,” “counter-terrorism,” and the “training and advising of Iraqi Security Forces” (translation: OIL protection), it leaves U.S bases and forces in Iraq for an indefinite period.  However much they claim to oppose permanent military bases in Iraq, Obama and other leading Democrats within and beyond Congress embrace an American military presence in Iraq for decades to come (Gerson 2007; Street 2006; Street 2007g).


The troops to be moved out of Iraq under Congress’ proposed legislation would not actually “come home.”  Congress’ “antiwar” plan re-deploys GIs from Iraq to other parts of southwest Asia, reflecting the belief that U.S. forces have been over-focused on Iraq in a way that is dysfunctional for the broader and (Democrats think) noble project of U.S. dominance in the oil-rich Middle East (Smith 2007; Gerson 2007; Everest 2007). Antiwar and anti-imperial sentiments have not seized the day in Congress.


Obama can talk all he wants about how O.I.F. is diverting funds and focus from pressing domestic needs. He and other Democratic Party leaders are at least equally concerned with diversion and distraction from the larger and related projects of U.S regional and global dominance – projects they may embrace more intensely than the Republicans right now (Smith 2007).


As David Gerson noted in a recent commentary on Obama’s latest major foreign policy address (to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last Monday), Obama’s plan” for a “phased” and “responsible” withdrawal is “a reaffirmation of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and of the use of Iraq as a ‘host’ for U.S. military bases.”  It could “leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq“(Gerson 2007).





Foreign policy is not the only area in which Obama contradicts the noble principles, elders and values he invokes. Take campaign finance. The junior Senator from Illinois denounces the corrosive influence of private political cash on U.S. democracy while cozying up to Chicago‘s corrupt Big Money Mayor Richard M. Daley (with whom he shares the same high-priced campaign consultant [David Axlerod]) and raking in campaign largesse from the commanding heights of the capitalist class. His top career sponsors include Goldman Sachs, Exelon (a leading Midwestern utility and the world’s leading nuclear plant operator), Soros Fund Management, J.P Morgan Chase & Co., a number of leading corporate law and lobbying firms (including Kirkland & Ellis, Skadden Arps, and Sidley Austin LLP), top Chicago investment interests (including Henry Crown & Co and Aerial Capital Management) and the like (Center for Responsive Politics 2007a). 


“Tort Reform”


Obama’s reliance on such deep-pockets supporters helps explain why he voted for a business-driven federal “tort reform” bill that rolled back working peoples’ ability to obtain reasonable redress and compensation from misbehaving corporations (Sirota 2006; Silverstein 2006). It is certainly part of why he opposed an amendment to the Bankruptcy Act that would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent (Sirota 2006).


It is undoubtedly related to his vote against a bill that would have killed an amendment to the 2005 energy bill that Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste called “one of the worst provisions in this massive piece of legislation.”  Under the amendment, which passed with Obama’s help,

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