Awakening From Obama’s Seductive Spell

President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, expected to cost more than $1 billion, is underway. Given incumbency and likely opponents, he'll probably win. Of course ZNet readers understand that won't make a whit of difference for most Americans. But if you know someone still slumbering in an Obamamania-induced trance, I have a guaranteed spell breaker. Paul Street's book, The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010, paperback) demolishes any remaining misapprehension that Obama is anything other than a Wall Street/military-friendly, seductive-sounding servant of concentrated wealth and power. I assigned it as a text this term in my course "U.S. Workers in the Global Economy" and for many students it was a game changer.


This week, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman expressed deep disappointment in the president and asserted that "Mr. Obama is still clearly clinging to his vision of himself as a figure who can transcend America's partisan differences" (April 11, 2011). Perhaps, but given the facts, Obama's record as president shouldn't come as a surprise: Recycling discredited economic advisors like Rubin and Geithner, rescuing ruthless Wall Street speculators, extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the super-rich, abandoning his healthcare "public option" and quickly selling out to private insurers, going back on his pledge to close GITMO, maintaining 50,000 troops in Iraq while substituting mercenaries for others, a pitifully inadequate stimulus package, doing virtually nothing about the real unemployment rate of 18 percent and shrinking paychecks, a record-setting Pentagon budget, pushing anti-labor trade deals, reneging on his campaign promise to reform management-friendly labor laws and reducing payments to social security. Finally, in Obama's Vietnam, the disastrous and immoral Afghanistan War which costs taxpayers $2 billion per month, 98,000 U.S. troops remain on the ground. In 2010 alone, 499 U.S. soldiers died there and 440 Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. led forces. Last year, U.S. troops in Afghanistan suffered a tripling of amputations of more than one limb. And this is only a short list from Obama's first term which feels more like Bush's third term.


More of Obama's true colors emerged when he refused to utter a word of solidarity with besieged public workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere. This is the same person who, while campaigning in 2007, eloquently proclaimed "If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collective bargaining when I'm in the White House, I'll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself and I'll walk the picket line with you as President of the United States of America because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner." And only a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that corporations could contribute unlimited funds to politicians, Obama named Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, notorious for exporting job and tax avoidance, as his "jobs czar."


However, contrary to complaints from a few disgruntled liberals, Obama isn't a morally compromised, spineless individual, betraying his most cherished ideals. Quite the contrary, Street documents via exhaustive examples that Obama has been consistently to the right of center throughout his public career and is doing what he was groomed to do. It was the combination of a brilliant marketing strategy, beguiling rhetoric, and something approaching a cult of personality that put him over the top in 2008.


Why has all this occurred? You won't find it in high school civics (or college) textbooks but the truth is that one doesn't obtain the nomination for president without first being carefully vetted by our political, media, and corporate masters. Or as Street quotes Lawrence Shoup's apt phrase, this is the "hidden primary of the ruling class." Only after being reassured about the candidate's enthusiasm for advancing the corporate domestic and foreign agenda, does the funding and media attention begin to materialize and this is precisely what occurred with Obama.


After two U.S. image staining Bush-Cheney terms, worried elites undertook an "Orwellian rebranding project" and Brand Obama was their choice for this public relations overhaul. This would be Bush without the baggage but with attractive packaging and major style points. The essence of this Obama rebranding venture was that policies and practices seen as "noxious under the perceived rule of a boorish white Republican from Texas (George W. Bush) become perversely acceptable for many 'progressive' and other citizens when carried out by an eloquent and urban black Democrat from Chicago (Barack Obama)."


The enticing slogan "change we can believe in" helped shore up a system increasingly viewed as illegitimate by more and more angry citizens. And Obama's service to his financial backers was manifest when the new president told a banker's convention, "My administration is all that stands between you and the pitchforks." The fact that Obama was biracial was a bonus because it allowed many white voters to delude themselves into believing that we've put racism behind us and embraced racial equality.


Finally, has anything positive resulted from an Obama-occupied White House? Here I concur with Street that it was important, albeit painful, for voters and particularly younger ones, to experience life under the unvarnished reality of a "New Democrat," corporatist, poseur progressive. Frankly, the sooner they shed any remaining illusions about Democratic presidents being the source of substantive change the better.


What next? Although "peasants with pitchforks" metaphors have their place, we couldn't be better armed than by drawing upon and disseminating the information contained in Street's work. And that dovetails nicely with a quote he recently cited from the late and revered American historian Howard Zinn: "There's hardly anything more important people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens. It is becoming clearer and clearer to many, after the first year of Obama's Presidency, that it is going to require independent action from below to achieve real change."



Gary Olson, Ph.D., is chair of the political science department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Contact: olson@moravian.edu

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