The Luck of O’Bama: Will it Continue?

Unlike the current U.S. President, author of two books about himself to date, I’ve never been all that awed by Barack Hussein Obama. My first impressions of the future president (in my role as a race relations and social policy researcher and advocate in and around Chicago from the mid-1990s through 2005) were similar to those of the left political scientist Adolph Reed. Jr., who wrote the following about a recently elected state senator from Illinois in The Village Voice in January of 1996:


“In Chicago…we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway.”[1] 


Bourgeois, elitist, fake-progressive, neoliberal and, well, boring – that’s exactly how the freshman legislator Obama seemed to me in the late 1990s.


A Special Quality Rarely Noted


According to his longtime close personal friend and advisor Valerie Jarrett, Obama had “always wanted to be president. He didn’t always admit it, but, oh, absolutely. The first time he said it,” Jarrett told New Yorker essayist Larissa MacFarquhar in early 2007, “he said ‘I just think I have some special qualities and wouldn’t it be a shame to waste them…you know, I just think I have something.’”[2]


That Obama enjoys “qualities” matched with success in America’s candidate-centered “winner-take-all” political system is clear. He is tall, square-jawed, handsome, athletic, supremely self-confident, protean, capable of humor, outwardly eloquent, and ambitious.[3] 


But let’s be clear about a special qualification for the presidency that is rarely mentioned in mainstream discourse: subservience to the economic elite, to those famously anointed as “the 1%” last fall. In the harsh, money-soaked reality of “democracy,” officially “elect-able” candidates for top “representative” offices are vetted in advance by what Laurence Shoup calls “the hidden primary of the ruling class.” By prior Establishment selection, Shoup noted in February of 2008, all of the “viable” presidential contenders are closely tied to corporate and military-imperial power in numerous and interrelated ways. They cannot move forward on the path to a serious shot at the White House unless they convince the gatekeepers that they will run safely within the narrow ideological and policy parameters set by those who rule behind the scenes to make sure that the rich and privileged continue to be the leading beneficiaries of the American system.[4]


Obama was deeply inclined to play by those rules as he made the leap from state to federal politics in 2003 and from the U.S. Senate to the presidency. In his tedious, conservative, and autobiographical campaign book The Audacity of Hope (2006),[5] Obama claimed to remember it is as a complete surprise when John Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill called Obama and invited him to deliver the 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address – the speech that really launched his national celebrity and put him on the presidential map. “The process by which I was selected as the keynote speaker remains something of a mystery to me,” Obama wrote. But “this,” Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy noted in 2007, “seems disingenuous,” since the campaign had been told in advance that he was “likely” to get it and because Obama’s manager David Axelrod had been fiercely lobbying for the role.[6]


A bigger problem with the Obama Keynote narrative was the way it deleted the political- and business-class try-out he received prior to his nationally broadcast introduction to the country and the world. As Ken Silverstein noted in an important Harper’s article in the fall of 2006, “If the speech was his debut to the wider American public, he had already undergone an equally successful but much quieter audition with Democratic Party leaders and fund-raisers, without whose support he would surely never have been chosen for such a prominent role at the convention.” A national corporate, financial, and legal vetting of Obama, with an emphasis on the critical money-politics nexus of Washington DC, began in October of 2003. That’s “when Vernon Jordan, the well-known power broker and corporate board-member who chaired Bill Clinton’s presidential transition team after the 1992 election, called roughly twenty of his friends and invited them to a fund-raiser at his home. That event,” Silverstein noted, “marked his entry into a well-established Washington ritual—the gauntlet of fund-raising parties and meet-and-greets through which potential stars are vetted by fixers, donors, and lobbyists.”


Drawing on his undoubted charm, wit, intelligence, and his Harvard Law credentials, Obama passed this preliminary trial of wealth and power with flying colors. At a series of meetings with assorted big “players” from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, Obama  impressed key establishment figures like Gregory Craig (a longtime leading attorney and former special counsel to the White House), Mike Williams (the legislative director of the Bond Market Association), Tom Quinn (a partner at the leading corporate law firm Venable who was one of “the leading lobbyists in town” and a leading Democratic Party “power broker”), and Robert Harmala (another Venable partner and “also a big player in Democratic circles”). Craig liked the fact that Obama was not seen as a racial “polarizer” on the model of past black American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Williams was impressed by Obama’s reassurances that he was not “anti-business” and became “convinced…that the two could work together.” “There’s a reasonableness about him,” Harmala told Silverstein. “I don’t see him as being on the liberal fringe.”


By Silverstein’s account, the “word about Obama spread through Washington’s blue-chip law firms, lobby shops, and political offices, and this accelerated after his win in the March [2004] Democratic primary.”  Elite financial, legal, and lobbyist contributions came into the Obama campaign’s coffers at a rapid and accelerating pace. The “good news” for Washington and Wall Street insiders was that Obama’s “star quality” would not be directed against elite segments of the business class: the intriguing black Senator “from the South Side of Chicago” was himself a player, someone the rich and powerful could work with.[7]  According to Obama’s early biographer and Chicago Tribune reporter, David Mendell:


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