The Cynicism of Hope

If you like cynicism in politics, you’ve got to love Barack Obama.  There’s nothing naïve or fanciful about the way he says one thing to one audience and another thing to a different voter or funding group. It’s all about cold calculation under the perverse, narrow-spectrum, and “winner-take-all” rules of the United States’ corporate-crafted elections system.




Speaking recently to the privileged editors of the Reno (Nevada) Gazette, the supposedly (so the Fox News crowd insists) left-wing Obama sought to give “conservatives” (1) reason to jump on board his “movement” for “Hope,” “Unity,” and “Change.”  He found it useful to give special praise to a leading historical enemy of peace, justice, and racial equality – Ronald Reagan.  Here is a precious quotation from the self-described “progressive” Obama, courtesy of YouTube:


“I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.  He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating.  I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing”




As liberal blogger Mat Stoller notes, Obama “agrees with Reagan’s basic frame that the 1960s and 1970s were full of ‘excesses’ and that government had grown large and unaccountable. Those excesses, of course, were feminism, the consumer rights movement, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the antiwar movement.  The libertarian anti-government ideology of an unaccountable large liberal government was designed by ideological conservatives,” Stoller rightly adds, “to take advantage of the backlash against these ‘excesses.’”


“Reagan was not a sunny optimist pushing dynamic entrepreneurship,” Stoller rightly observes, “but a savvy politician using a civil rights backlash to catapult conservatives to power” (1A).


Obama knows that very well but he’s not about to say it to “conservatives” whose endorsement he’s seeking in Nevada.




Speaking last Sunday to a predominantly black audience in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta(2), Obama’s message the message was very different. Obama had a different hero in mind – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who helped lead the movement that provoked the white “backlash” that Reagan rode to power. After 1960, Ebenezer was the site of many sermons by the famous leader in the struggle for black equality. 


Preaching at Ebenezer one day before the national Martin Luther King holiday,  Obama had his eyes on the upcoming “black primary” in South Carolina.  More than half of South Carolina’s registered Democrats are African-American.


As Obama and his handlers know, black political sentiments stand well to the left of the majority white opinion Obama is trying to win over in his bid for the White House.  Those sentiments are also well to the left of the predominantly white corporate and imperial power-brokers Obama knows to hold the keys to the ultimate establishment job – the U.S. presidency.


And so in his Ebenezer oration last Sunday, there was no praise for Ronald Reagan, who remains understandably unpopular in the black community.  There was no beating up on the “excessive” 1960s, when King and the movement he represented ended legal segregation and won black voting rights in the deep South.


Obama invoked King’s memory to advocate focusing on “common challenges we face – war and poverty, injustice and inequality.” Obama praised Dr. King for “leading by marching and going to jail and suffering threats and being away from his family.  He led by taking a stand against a war,” Obama said, “knowing full well that it would diminish his popularity.  He led by challenging our economic structures, understanding that it would cause deep discomfort.”


“The changes that are needed,” Obama added, “are not just a matter of tinkering at the edges, and they will not come if politicians simply tell us what we want to hear.”


King would have agreed.




But Obama’s policy agenda has been repeatedly and accurately described as militantly “incrementalist” – the very epitome of “tinkering at the edges.”


And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Obama was telling his black listeners in Atlanta what he thought they wanted to hear while he is content to say something else entirely to more privileged audiences.


King: “Something is Wrong With Our Economic System”


It is true that King “challenged our economic structures.”  To be more explicit about it in ways Obama would never dare, the democratic socialist King challenged the moral legitimacy capitalism and called for “the radical reconstruction of society itself” (2A).


King also contrasted the endemic poverty and inequality evident in capitalist America with the much lower poverty levels and greater equality of more social-democratic European states. “Maybe something is wrong with our economic system,” King told an interviewer, observing that (in historian David Garrow’s words) “in democratic socialist societies such as Sweden there was no poverty, no unemployment and no slums” (2B).


Obama: “Our Greatest Asset” – Capitalism


But in his remarkably power-friendly campaign book The Audacity of Hope (New York: 2006), Obama praised the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation – the United States – for the glorious workings of its savagely regressive capitalist system. “It takes a trip overseas,” Obama said, “to fully appreciate just how good Americans have it; even our poor take for granted goods and services – electricity, clean water, indoor plumbing, telephones, televisions, and household appliances – that are still unattainable for most of the world.  America may have been blessed with some of the planet’s best real estate,” Obama added, “but clearly it’s not just our natural resources that account for our economic success.  Our greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources…our free market system.”


How about that?


Never mind the terrible outcomes of America’s distinctively anti-social and incidentally heavily state-protected “free market system” and “business culture.”  Those unfortunate results include the marvelously “efficient,” climate-warming contributions of a business-dominated nation that constitutes 5 percent of the world’s population but contributes more than a quarter of the planet’s carbon emissions.  Other notable effects include the innovative generation of poverty and deep poverty for millions of U.S. children while executives atop “defense” firms like Boeing and Raytheon rake in billions of taxpayer dollars for helping Uncle Sam kill and maim untold hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, Afghan, and Palestinian civilians. 


Obama’s Audacity left it to what he considers the lunatic left fringe to note the American System’s “efficient” allocation of half the nation’s wealth to the top 1 percent of the U.S. population and its systematic subordination of the common good to private profit.  “Unreasonable” Marxists, anarchists and “conspiracy theorists” were left to observe that business-ruled workplaces and labor markets steal “individual initiative” from millions of American workers subjected to the monotonous repetition of imbecilic and soul-crushing operations conducted for such increasingly unbearable stretches of time – at stagnating levels of  material reward and security – that working people are increasingly unable to participate meaningfully in the great “democracy” Obama trumpets as the Founders’ great legacy.


It Depends on Where You Go


As for “a trip overseas” showing how good life is in the U.S. for “even our poor”…it depends on where the “overseas” trip takes you. If it brings the traveler to much of the rest of the industrialized world, where state (so-called “free market”) capitalism’s inherent tendencies towards wealth inequality and corporate rule are considerably more tempered by social-democratic programs and popular movements, the comparison  is generally less than flattering to the United States, reminding the minimally attentive societal observer that the United States’ “unmatched prosperity” is doled out in harshly regressive ways that create relatively high percentages and numbers of poor and uninsured households, drastically long working hours, rampant economic insecurity and generally inadequate and under-funded public services alongside simply spectacular opulence for the privileged few (3).


Of course, one does not have to cross “seas” to appreciate the distinctions indicated here. A trip across the Rio Grande to the proximate “Third World” nation Mexico will yield many examples consistent with Obama’s praise of the United States’ grand “prosperity.”  But a trip to Canada is counter-intuitive for Obama’s narrative, revealing considerably lower poverty rates and broader economic security partly reflecting the fact that Canada possesses a single-payer health insurance system that entitles the janitor as well as the company executive to quality health coverage. 


Tell it to the People in Englewood


It would be interesting to hear how Obama’s paean to “our” glorious “system of social organization” (so-called “free market” capitalism) would go over in a storefront church or community center in the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Englewood.  Part of Obama’s former Illinois  Senate district, Englewood is one of 15 Chicago community eras where more than a quarter of the children are growing up at less than half of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level(4). But, of course, Obama would be unlikely to glorify the profit system in one of those neighborhoods, where people live at the bottom of the wonderful American System’s steep and intersecting hierarchies of race and class. He says one thing to poor and/or black people and another thing to rich white folks, knowing full well that the latter are immensely more powerful than the former. 




Talking to blacks in Ebenezer Church, Obama seemed to get worked up against economic disparity. But in The Audacity of Hope, targeting a more mainstream professional and white audience, he actually praised the Great White Fathers of the U.S. for understanding that “there are seeds of anarchy in the idea of individual freedom, an intoxicating danger in the idea of equality. For if everybody is truly free, without the constraints of birth or rank and an inherited social order,” Obama asked, “how can we ever hope to form a society that coheres?”




It’s no wonder that Obama has been praised as a “Hamiltonian” by the likes of the centrist Republican New York Times columnist David Brooks (4A).




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