Chris reviews Paul Street’s “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics

great many people, including people who should know better, have been taken in by Senator Obama’s agreeable demeanor, charming smile and vague progressive sounding phrases.  Obama tells us he is going to give power to ordinary people and take the political process away from big business. Well, Dr. Street shows, this is a bit problematic given the fact that he has received tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the CEO’s and other high employees of lobbying firms, financial firms, health care companies, and the rest of the usual suspects. Street points to the disingenuous claim of Obama that his presidential campaign is funded by the small donations of ordinary folks. In 2007, around 36 percent of Obama’s donations were under $200. This number was higher than that for McCain or Clinton but did not approach the level of smaller presidential candidates, including the racist demagogue Tom Tancredo, 81 percent of whose donations were less than 200 dollars.

Street shows that Obama acted as a state legislator and has acted as a Senator in very predictable ways given his heavy fundraising success in the corporate world. He pushes corporate friendly measures while alternately playing the populist on the campaign trail.  As a state senator Obama held up a bill in committee that promised to deliver universal health care in Illinois and watered it down so that it merely called for the creation of a commission that would study how health care access might be expanded in the state. His effort was greatly appreciated by health care industry lobbyists. As a US senator he supported Bush’s tort reform bill that further protects corporate abusers. On the presidential campaign trail he claimed to have passed a Senate bill that would have required nuclear operators to immediately report even the slightest leak from their facilities. This was after a radioactive leak into a drinking water supply from an Illinois plant of Exelon, the largest nuclear power plant owner in the country and a leading supplier of Obama campaign contributions. Actually, Obama lied; the bill that he pushed ended up offering only guidance to local regulators as to how to deal with small leaks at nuclear plants that did not reach the threshold of being required to be reported (as the leak in Illinois did not).  Meanwhile Obama argued for free trade pacts like NAFTA on the campaign trail in 04’, then later postured as sympathetic to working folks whose jobs had been negatively affected by trade deals. He expressed a great deal of anguish about job transfers to Mexico from a Maytag plant in Galesburg Illinois. However Obama apparently did nothing to argue on the workers’ behalf with Maytag director Henry Crow of Crown Investments, one of Obama’s leading campaign contributors. It was reported earlier this year that Obama economic advisor (and chief economist of the Democratic Leadership Council) Austan Goolsbee had assured the Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. that Obama’s  jabs against NAFTA were merely campaign rhetoric and shouldn’t’ be taken seriously. Behind the façade, Obama is a loyal servant of international capital.

And what about his opposition to the Iraq War? Street shows that Obama opposes the war not because it is a major crime against humanity but because it has been executed ineptly. He refuses to commit to an unconditional withdrawal of US troops. Street quotes Jeremy Scahill, among others, to the effect that Obama’s claim to be willing to “try” to withdrawal all US combat troops by a year and a half after his inauguration, is misleading. In reality only half of all US troops in Iraq are classified as “combat.” Moreover Obama voted against a bill designed to ban the use of private security firms like Blackwater. This raises the possibility that Obama might expand the use of these private mercenaries in Iraq as he draws combat troops down. Street shows how Obama has foreign policy views that are well within the parameters of traditional American imperialism, though certainly not as crudely expressed as Bush II. After Jeremiah Wright first took national stage, one of Obama’s statements was to the effect that he abhorred any utterance (such as those of Wright’s) that denigrated the great and holy United States.. Street notes the irony of this denunciation by Obama. After all, in 1967, Martin Luther King, Obama’s supposed idol and whose footsteps Manning Marable touchingly believes Obama to be trying to follow, called the United States the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. King stated that the US stood with the rich landowners and multinational businesses against poor people throughout the world.

Street talks about other issues, for instance Obama and race. He notes that Obama ignores the role of institutional racism in American life. Obama has nothing on his agenda for black neighborhoods besides mildly Bill Cosby like lectures. He has nothing on his agenda that will bring living wage jobs (or significant low paying unskilled work for that matter)back to the ghetto or improve the access of ghetto residents to quality food, health care and education.  I was pleased that Street, at the end of the book, lays out a radical progressive agenda, revolving around empowering unions, democratizing mass media, radically revising corporate charters, etc. that the progressive energies co-opted by the Obama campaign might be utilized for. Street stresses that it is not completely impossible that Obama might move in a progressive direction if he is elected. But for this to happen, the “movement” that Obama has inspired–that which so entrances Bill Fletcher and Barbara Ehrenreich and Tom Hayden–has to move beyond starry eyed approval of Obama’s banal eloquence and seriously pressure him to move in a progressive direction.

This book seems like it was rushed together in many places. The prose is often somewhat stiff and verbose.  I would have appreciated more and clearer detail in some places, for instances in discussion of Obama’s health care plan (which is quite bad and is not single payer).

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