*The essay below is extracted from the May 2010 postscript to my book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010) – the perfect Christmas gift for that not-so liberal know-it-all fake-progressive partisan Democrat cousin or uncle or sister-in-law who can't stop making excuses for the center-right Obama administration's abject service to dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines. Surely the deeply conservative Obama’s predictable (and widely predicted) “cave-in” (two days ago) to Republican demands for the continuation of George W. Bush’s arch-plutocratic tax cuts for the rich (in a “deal” that also includes reduced pay-in to the Social Security fund and a big "concession" to the Republicans on the federal estate tax) ought to be the last nail in the coffin of liberal-left faith that Obama is (in the words of Katrina Vanden Huevel, the multi-millionaire editor of The Nation, last fall), “clearly a reform president committed to improvement of peoples’ lives and the renewal and reconstruction of America” (Katrina vanden Heuvel, “Obama One Year On,” The Nation, November 4, 2010 athttp://www.thenation.com/
It was a relief to complete the main intensive research for this book in the middle of December 2009. Well before the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration, my feeling of validation over the fact that the core argument of my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics had been supported by the centrist, right-leaning and corporate-imperial “re-branding” path of the Obama presidency had given way to a sick feeling of political depression. It’s one thing to predict a terrible authoritarian outcome. It is another thing altogether to live through that outcome and to see little if any positive and democratic popular response to it.
My previous “Obama book” advanced something of a mixed message on what the meaning of an Obama presidency might be for the left- progressive politics and movements with which I have long been identified. On the one hand, Barack Obama and the Future advanced dire warnings on the next president’s remarkable capacity to pacify and co-opt already weakened progressive U.S. movements and politics.1 Obama, it seemed to me and others, was potential poison for “the left,” or what was left of it. On the other hand, my earlier volume held out the promise that corporate-imperial Obama might “oxygenate” (left social critic Charles Derber’s term) grassroots social justice and antiwar movements by provocatively raising and then betraying popular hopes for progressive change. At the same time, I hoped that Democratic Party victories at both the White House and the congressional levels in 2008 would enhance the progressive movement potential of younger citizens by giving them a graphic lesson in the bipartisan nature of American corporate-managed fake democracy and imperialism – by demonstrating that the Democrats were deeply complicit in defending and advancing the same core ruling domestic and global power structures and doctrines as the Republicans.3
“What Exists of a Popular Left”
Across the fist fourteenth months of Obama’s positioning in the real world of presidential power, my warnings proved a better guide to political reality than my hopes. It’s been about suffocation, not oxygenation. The problem wasn’t so much that Obama had fulfilled my expectations of his service to reigning power structures and ideologies. That was as foreseen. The bigger difficulty is that Obama’s (predictable and in fact predicted) progressive betrayals transpired with only minimal opposition from what passes for a “left” (what we might, following George Orwell, call “the so-called left”)4 in the United States. The administration and the corporate Democratic Party have faced minimal pressure from “progressive” forces, who have been predictably ignored by centers of power. Those “forces” (if that’s really the right word) cling to the curious notion that “now” – a remarkable period of massive economic, ecological and imperial crisis and opportunity, loaded with radical-democratic implications – “is not the time” to fight aggressively for big left ideals and radical re-structuring. They hold (some out of cynicism and some from naivete) also to the delusional belief that the self-described “New Democrat” Barack Obama is somehow their voice and “friend” in the White House on behalf of a “people’s agenda.”5
The outlines of progressive capitulation were clear to one perceptive observer less than a month after Obama’s inauguration. As John Judis argued in The New Republic last February, “there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go…. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama's pocket.” By Judis’ analysis, the U.S. labor movement and groups like “Moveon.Org” were repeating the same “mistake that political groups often make: subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the [Democratic] party and its leading politicians….”6
“The Obama Disease”
Nothing has occurred in the first fourteen months of Obama’s presidency to seriously question the wisdom of that judgment. For the American “so-called radical left” (John Pilger),7 unjust wars and occupations, mega-bankers’ bailouts and other regressive policies that were seen as intolerable under the perceived rule of a boorish moron from Texas (George W. Bush) were all too acceptable when carried out by an eloquent and urbane black man from Chicago (Barack Obama). The mini-progressive rebellion that I thought I was witnessing at the end of 2009 came to very little indeed. No substantive progressive and left challenges were mounted to Obama’s military escalations, Obama’s corporatism, and/or Obama’s repressive police-statism. The antiwar activist and journalist Justin Raimondo captured the depressing reality after what was left of an antiwar “movement” held small protests marking the seventh anniversary of the ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq in mid-March of 2010. After noting that no more than a few thousand marched in Washington along with an “altogether poor turnout” in other major cities – far less than the tens of thousands who marched in mid-March in 2006 and 2007 – Raimondo observed the paralyzing impact of “the Obama cult of personality” even on some who attended the antiwar march in Washington:
‘Even among those who attended the protests, there were some whose opposition to this administration’s foreign policy is squishy at best. …Shirley Allan of Silver Spring, Md. carried a sign that read, “President Obama We love you but we need to tell you! Your hands are getting bloody!! Stop it now.”'
'Ms. Allan’s sign says more about her than it does about the issue she purports to address. To confess to loving a political leader whose hands are even a little bit bloody is quite a revealing statement to make, and it just about sums up why the crowd was smaller than on previous occasions. The hate-Bush crowd has quickly morphed into the love-Obama cult of personality, and the so-called progressives have deserted the antiwar movement in droves. Our multiple wars just aren’t an issue inside the Democratic Party.’
‘On the non-Marxist left, the triumph of the Obama cult is complete. Only the old-fashioned Leninists, such as the main organizers of the ANSWER rallies, have come out in visible opposition to Obama’s wars. Even the Marxist left, however, is not immune to Obama-mania: the other major antiwar coalition, United for Peace and Justice, led by veterans of the old Communist Party, USA, issued a euphoric statement upon Obama’s election and has been essentially moribund as an active antiwar organization ever since.’
‘It was in this kind of political atmosphere, then – one of near complete political isolation – that rally attendees heard Cindy Sheehan wonder whether “the honeymoon was over with that war criminal in the White House.” Sheehan’s remark was met, according to AP, with merely “moderate applause.” Ms. Allan was not among the applauders.’ 8
Reading Raimondo’s essay, I flashed back to the early Fall of 2009. In late September of that year, the progressive television show “Democracy Now” interviewed with Kehban Grifter, a young activist who was among a modest number protesting the corporate-globalizationist G 20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “What we’re here doing this week,” Grifter said, “is distributing our work and trying to talk to people about coal and climate change and globalization. And unfortunately, it seems like a lot of folks aren’t turning out for these sort of mobilizations as much anymore. Maybe they’re depressed, maybe they’re cynical, maybe they’ve still got Obamaitis. We’re on the outside here.”9
Hearing Ms. Grifter’s comment online, I was reminded of an e-mail exchange in early 2007 I had with a leading left thinker who made passing reference to what he called “the Obama disease.” The point of is disparaging term was that Obama was a standard corporate and military regime Democrat, but one with an extraordinary ability to convince progressives that they would somehow be in power if he was to become President of the United States.
I was reminded also of reports from attempted mass antiwar marches in Washington in March of 2009. Led by the once formidable UFPJ, the protest was poorly attended. It drew only a few thousand even as Obama transparently escalated and expanded imperial violence in “Af-Pak,” after he made clear his determination to increase the Pentagon budget and sustain the Iraq occupation, and even as he went forward with a highly unpopular bailout package for Wall Street. Dejected organizers reported difficulty getting significant numbers of people to turn out against a White House that was perceived as “left” and antiwar. UFPJ’s outgoing director Leslie Cagan reported that her “progressive” and “activist” people weren’t protesting anymore because “its enough for many of them that Obama has a plan to end the war and that things are moving in the right direction.”10
The brilliant Australian author, columnist, and filmmaker John Pilger called months before Obama’s election. “An Obama victory,” Pilger wrote in Mat 2008, “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.” 11
Re-Branding Bush Policy with a Pretty Progressive Face
Interest in opposing the Empire’s New Clothes has not arisen since to any appreciable degree across the nation’s “progressive” community. It hasn’t been for a lack of actionable issues, including (alongside numerous continued and terrible incidents of civilian “collateral damage” in Afghanistan and
* Obama’s escalation of the United States’ military presence in Yemen, “now” (in Glenn Greenwald’s words) “another predominantly Muslim country (along with Somalia and Pakistan) in which the military is secretly involved to some unknown degree in combat operations with any declaration of war, without any declaration of war, and arguably without any Congressional authority.”12
* Obama’s explicit exclusion of Iran from his declaration that the U.S. would not make a nuclear first-strike attack on a nun-nuclear nation. This exclusion was reasonably grasped in the Muslim world and especially in Iran as a threat of a first nuclear strike on Iran.
* Obama’s promise in mid-March 2010 to veto any congressional legislation to enhance legislative oversight over the White House and military’s unconstitutional intelligence-gathering through illegal surveillance activities, including warrant-less eavesdropping.13
* Obama’s efforts (through his Department of Justice) to obtain from Yahoo “all e-mails” sent and received by multiple Yahoo accounts “despite the fact that the DOJ has never sought, let alone obtained a search warrant, and despite there being no notice of any kind to e-mail users” – this in bold defiance of federal law.14
* Obama’s decision to prosecute National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Thomas Drake, whose leaks helped the Baltimore Sun expose NSA efforts to discard key privacy provisions to ensure that the agency would not illegally eavesdrop on the domestic calls of U.S. citizens.15
* Obama’s decision to authorize the CIA and military to summarily assassinate U.S. citizens “strongly” suspected of “organizing or carrying out actions against the U.S. or U.S. interests.”16
In April of 2010, Glenn Greenwald offered an eloquent reflection – richly consistent with the argument of the present volume – on the absence of any meaningful “progressive” resistance to Obama’s assassination program:
‘Here again, we see one of the principal and longest-lasting effects of the Obama presidency: to put a pretty, eloquent, progressive face on what (until quite recently) was ostensibly considered by a large segment of the citizenry to be tyrannical right-wing extremism (e.g., indefinite detention, military commissions, "state secrets" used to block judicial review, an endless and always-expanding "War on Terror," immunity for war criminals, rampant corporatism — and now unchecked presidential assassinations of American citizens), and thus to transform what were once bitter, partisan controversies into harmonious, bipartisan consensus.’17
“Ignore the Progressives”: Vindicating Rahm Emmanuel
Things haven’t been much better on the front of domestic social and economic policy. Where has the nation’s liberal and progressive political institutional infrastructure been to capture and channel what dominant U.S. media tended to arrogantly dismisses as dysfunctional “populist rage” as Obama and much of the rest of the political class have acted in accord with the standard state capitalist principle of government subsidy and protection for the rich and market discipline for the poor and working class?