Why Barack Didn’t Hire Me: On Obama, Niebuhr, and the Manipulation of Populism by Elitism

Maybe the Obama campaign should have hired me.  They could have put me on tour and gotten me on CNN and FOX News and MSNBC, just like – and to counter-  Jerome Corsi.


Think about it. Last month, I published a shiny book situating Barack Obama firmly within the conservative center of the corporate-dominated and militaristic U.S. election system and political culture. The book (available at your local Borders) is loaded with examples of Obama’s “patriotic” commitment to dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines. It shows why Obama will do nothing to pursue radical change in relation to any of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. identified as “the triple evils that are interrelated:” racism, economic exploitation (capitalism), and militarism. It reveals Obama making one key accommodation after another to reigning national authorities and ideology [1]. 


The book is consistent with the prolific Marxist author Mike Davis’s recent dead-on observation that the Obama team’s economic world view reflects “the indoctrinated mindset of Goldman Sachs.”  Obama, Davis ads,  is “chained…come hell or high water, to a global strategy in which ‘victory’ in the Middle East (and Central Asia) remains the chief premise of foreign policy, with the Iraqi-style nation-building hubris of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz repackaged as a ‘realist’ faith in global ‘stabilization’…More than likely,” Davis predicts, a President Obama’s “comprehensive health-care plan will be whittled down to a barebones plan, ‘alternative energy’ will simply mean the fraud of ‘clean coal,’ and anything that remains in the Treasury, after Wall Street’s finished its looting spree, will buy bombs to pulverize more Pashtun villages, ensuring yet more generations of embittered mujahideen and jihadis”[2].


That’s exactly right.  But don’t just take it from a fellow radical. My book is consistent also with the following judgment from centrist journalist Ryan Lizza in the bourgeois weekly The New Yorker: “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them” [3]. 


For what its worth, this is precisely what one would expect from a politician (Obama) who says that he “loves” the protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr [4]. Niehbur’s great life accomplishment was to construct a theology of working within the system.  He argued that responsible “realism” required understanding and moving through– not against – “the structure of nations and empires.”  For the ex-socialist Niebuhr, the most any leader can hope for is to squeeze modest wishes for slight improvement into the really existing framework of power. 


Obama’s hero Niebuhr concocted a formula for compromise with the intolerable – for endless deals with the devil. Neibuhr became “the theologian of [the post-World War Two U.S] establishment,” Noam Chomsky observed, because “he presented a framework which essentially justified just about anything they wanted to” [5]. Anything indeed – like helping overthrow numerous democratically elected governments around the world and killing 2- 3 million Indochinese in the 1960s and 1970s – a great “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Chomsky’s term at the time) that Obama fails to acknowledge or condemn in his power-worshipping musings on U.S. foreign policy past and present [6].


I’ve always loathed Rienhold Niebuhr. 


Here we are three months after I sent my last chapter drafts to my publisher and what are John McCain, his hard-right running mate Sarah Palin, and the “Republican noise [hate] machine” – FOX News, Rush Limbaugh, and the rest – absurdly claiming about Obama?  That he is, among other things, an “extreme leftist” who wants to “redistribute the wealth” and undermine America’s supposed commitment to using military power to defend “freedom” at home and abroad. Wrapped inside a noxious package of white Christian nationalism, this is the central thesis of far-right hit-man Jerome Corsi’s “bestselling” book “The Obama Nation.” In all its moronic and deceptive desperation, the Orwellian GOP and the Fox News crowd is trying to paint the militaristic state-capitalism enthusiast Barack (“I’m a free market guy”) Obama as some kind of a  radical and anti-imperialist.


Obama, Palin suggested the other day, is a “socialist.”  You betchya!


So why hasn’t the Obama campaign signed me up to help them battle the GOP crazies? Why hasn’t Team Obama bought up and distribute hundreds of copies of my book to journalists with a note saying, “see: here’s a real live radical, and like many of his sorry hot-headed ilk, he is very critical of our next president Barack Obama. Here is detailed proof – the perfect antidote to Jerome Corsi – that the Republicans are falsely slandering Senator Obama as a leftist.” 


Wouldn’t that have been great? 


It was never going to happen. The Obama campaign hasn’t needed need any help from me (or any other inherently marginal radical) to beat the ridiculous McCain.  The blustering Arizona senator and his Alaskan hit-lady’s attempts to link their Democratic opponents to a “far left” agenda – to paint Barack Goldman Sachs Obama and the Delaware corporatist Joe Biden out as “socialist” enemies of “Joe the Plumber’s” decent American desire to retain the fruits of his virtuous labor (and the surplus value appropriated from his employees?) – hasn’t really caught on with an electorate that has less tolerance for Republican deceptions than it did in 2004. 


At the same time, I’m not sure Obama minds being (absurdly) called “left” by Republicans right now. The Obama campaign wants to have it both ways with the left, such as it is.  On one hand, Obama wants to use the left as a straw dog – a prop for his Niebuhrian claim (directed at the state-capitalist political class and a certain number of Republican and independent voters) to represent the cool, “pragmatic” and post-partisan alternative to dysfunctional ideological “extremes.” The claim to rise above “ideology” and angry divisions in the name of “unity” and “getting things done for the American people” has been a consistent Obama theme, deeply consistent with the Democrats’ neoliberal rhetoric since John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) [7].


On the other hand, Team Obama wants a significant part of the electorate to think (or perhaps feel) that their candidate heads some sort of left-progressive people’s movement.  With good reason: the American populace is well to the left of both dominant U.S business parties.  As Katherine Adams and Charles Derber show in their recent book The New Feminized Majority, a vast amount of polling data contradicts the widespread assumption that the U.S. is a conservative and imperialist country when it comes to the citizenry [8] – a very different category than the nation’s political and policy-making class. Large U.S. majorities favor things like increased government spending on social welfare, a reduction of corporate power, government-mandated universal health insurance, increased taxation of the rich and corporations, rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, reduced government spending, respect for international law, and the rescinding of America’s self-assigned role as “world policeman.”  With such policy attitudes long prevalent among a population that has been pushed leftward by the extreme plutocracy and militarism of Bush-Cheney (to whom McCain remains stubbornly chained), the Obama campaign might not really mind being smeared as “left” and pro-“redistribution” all that much right now.


After all, the United States is the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation in the industrialized world by far.  Many Americans are justifiably upset about the grotesque disparities that are evident in the imperial “homeland” – the “best democracy that money can [and did] buy.”


Given all this, Obama naturally wants to maintain a misleading populist and peace-sounding façade for Many (working class majority) voters even while reassures the Few of his Harvard-certified and Niebuhrian safety to elite interests.


My book does not fit this deceptive game.  It shows Obama and his marketers working effectively to create a false left impression among certain targeted voters.  As I demonstrate, Obama posed as a left-leaning antiwar and social justice progressive, donning deceptive rebel’s clothing in numerous speeches, town hall meetings, and television commercials through much of the primary campaign.  He claimed falsely to be a dedicated opponent of American empire, war, and inequality, even going to the sickening point of telling Iowa voters that they could “join the movement to stop the [Iraq] war” by Caucusing for him. For all his claims to be a noble reformer “above the fray” of America’s plutocracy and “ideological” politics, the real Obama excavated in my study is no special exception to – and is in many ways an epitome of – what the still-left Christopher Hitchens called (in his 1999 study of the Bill and Hillary Clinton phenomenon) “the essence of American politics.  This essence, when distilled,” Hitchens explained, “consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism” [9].



The Obama campaign wouldn’t be terribly interested in promoting a book that tells the truth about its real positions on issues that matter to the American majority. It is much happier with books like John Wilson’s Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest (Boulder, CO, 2007) and Robert Kuttner’s Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (New York, 2008). Both of these volumes (the first is penned by a former Obama law student) advance a credulous notion of Obama as a “transformational” leader likely to enact some sort of new Progressive Age and/or New Deal when he attains presidential power [10].


Given the public’s increasingly jaundiced take on the right’s personal attacks and lies, the Obama campaign would probably prefer to see people reading Jerome Corsi than me. Corsi’s nutty neo-McCarthyite claims are sort of consistent with the Obama camp’s desire to disingenuously sell their candidate as a leftish progressive to a key part of the electorate. My careful and richly documented history of the Obama phenomenon is not. At the same time, my book is something of an early manual on how to fight Obama from the real left    the actual rank-and-file left that lives on beneath and beyond quadrennial corporate-crafted candidate-centered electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcomes – once he reaches the White House… something I’ve seen as close to inevitable (the race issue has prevented me from calling his election a sure pick) since late 2006.  


For these and other reasons, I do not expect a last-minute call from the Obama campaign. 




1. Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).


2. Mike Davis, “Can Obama See the Grand Canyon?” Tom Dispatch (October 15, 2008), read at www.tomdispatch.com/post/174989/mike_davis_casino_capitalism_obama_and_us



3. Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, (July 21, 2008). See also Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). According to MacFarquhar, “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…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.”


4.  David Brooks, “Obama: Gospel and Verse,” New York Times, April 26, 2007. The closeted neoconservative power-adorer Brooks loved the fact the Obama “loves” Niebuhr, who Obama calls “one of my favorite philosophers.”  Niebuhr was also a great favorite of Hubert Humphrey and Jimmy Carter, among numerous other U.S. corporate imperialists past and present.


5. Johann Hari, “The Men Who Reveal What Obama and McCain Really Think,” The Independent/UK (October 16, 2008).


6. Obama has yet to call the invasion and occupation of Iraq immoral, criminal, and/or imperialist, deigning only to criticize its strategic wisdom even as it appears that the U.S. colonial campaign has killed more the a million Iraqis and maimed and exiled millions more. He has been making it clear to those willing and able to hear that his critique of the Iraq War is that it has damaged what he sees as the inherently “good” United States’ capacity to fulfill its supposed God- and history-ordained mission to rule the world – by unilateral force when necessary. For more details and abundant sources, see Street, Barack Obama, Chapter 4: “How ‘Antiwar?’ Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire.”


7. See Bruce Miroff, Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy (New York: Longman, 1976), published before the term “neoliberal” had come into usage.  It was for doctrinal as well as for  emotional and calculated political reasons that many of the early proponents of what later came to be knows as the Democratic neoliberals ( e.g. Senators Gary Hart and Bill Bradley, Governors Bruce Babbit, James Hunt, Richard Lamm, and Bill Clinton, Congressmen Al Gore and Timothy Wirth) made JFK their inspiring role model. See Randall Rothenburg, The Neoliberals: Creating the New American Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984). An intereseting comment from the left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin: “Neoliberalism emerged [after World War II] as the New Deal’s residuary legatee and found its icon in JFK.”  See Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton university Press, 2008), p. 221. On the Obama and JFK analogy, see Paul Street, “From JFK to Obama,” ZNet (July 24, 2008), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/18254.



8. Katherine Adams and Charles Derber, The New Feminized Majority (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), pp. 60-75. See also Noam Chomsky, Failed States:  The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006) and the remarkable findings in The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, “Global Views” (October 2004).


9. Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000), 17-18. See also Edward S. Herman, “Democratic Betrayal,” Z Magazine (January 2007).


10. For instructive reflections on the historical weakness of the Obama-FDR analogy and on global-capitalist circumstances that undercut dreams of a new New Deal, see Davis, “Can Obama See?”

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