Obama’s Violin

As of this writing in late March, the Barack Obama administration and its allies in the Democratic-run Congress have been attempting to perform system-maintaining acts of co-optation and popular pacification that no Republican presidency or Congress could ever carry out. Lance Selfa reminds us in his recent book The Democrats: A Critical History (Haymarket, 2008) that corporate America would have no reason to embrace a two-party system if there were no significant differencesbetween the two competing “subdivisions” of what Ferdinand Lundberg once aptly called “the Property Party.” The business elite profits from a narrow-spectrum system in which one business party is always waiting in the wings to capture and control popular anger and energy when the other business party falls out of favor. But the two parties are not simply interchangeable. It is the Democrats’ job to define and embody the constricted left-most parameters of acceptable political debate. For the last century, it has been the Democratic Party’s distinctive assignment to play “the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive [and potentially radical] segments of the electorate” by posing as “the party of the people”(Selfa). The Democrats performed this critical system-preserving, change-containing function in relation to the agrarian populist insurgency of the 1890s and the working-class rebellion of the 1930s and 1940s. They played much the same role in relation to the antiwar, civil rights, anti-poverty, ecology, and feminist movements during and since the 1960s and early 1970s. In every case, the movements that arose to challenge concentrated power and oppression and to reduce inequality were pacified, silenced, and ultimately shut down, their political energies sucked into the corporate and militaristic Democratic Party. The standard historic pattern of Democratic Party co-optation and progressive surrender is currently trying to repeat itself amidst epic economic crisis and imperial disruption. Two and a half weeks after Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, commented on the president-elect’s corporatist and militarist transition team and cabinet appointments with a musical analogy. Obama, Rothkopf told the New York Times, was following “the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.” The Obama administration’s record so far is richly consistent with the violin analogy. Dominant, so-called “mainstream” media routinely portray Obama as a “bold” and even “radical” “departure from the past”—a person of what the leading communications authorities call “the left.” This is offensive to people on the actual left. The supposed “peace candidate” intends to increase the United States’ massive “defense” budget this and next year. Reading the fine print on Obama’s Iraq plan, moreover, it is clear that he plans to sustain the illegal occupation of that country well past 2011 and very likely into the indefinite future. To make matters dangerously worse, Obama is actively increasing the level of U.S. violence in Afghanistan and—most ominously—in nuclear Pakistan. The New York Times reports, with no hint of disapproval, that he is considering “expanding the American covert war in Pakistan,” where every U.S. missile attack destabilizes the political situation a bit more. Obama and his so-called “national security” team are planning, the Times reports, to “widen the target area” of their already “extensive [CIA] missile strikes” on that country to include Baluchistan, “a sprawling province that is under the authority of the central government” (March 20, 2009).       Obama is continuing core Bush policies on Israel and Iran. He refuses to pay honest attention to the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people about whose fate he stayed revealingly mute during the savage U.S.-Israel assault on the people of Gaza last December and January. He made no effort to resist the U.S. Israel lobby’s torpedoing of Charles Freeman’s nomination as chair of the National Intelligence Council. Freeman, a veteran national security operative, was brusquely dismissed because he dared to suggest that the Israeli apartheid and occupation state might bear some responsibility for violence and hatred in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Obama dangerously and revealingly resists pressure to investigate and prosecute the monumental war and human rights crimes of the Bush administration. He quietly commits to the officially concealed trillion dollar annual Pentagon budget, a giant subsidy to high-tech industry that pays for more than 760 bases across more than 130 nations and accounts for nearly half the military spending on earth—all in the name of “defense.” The leading Wall Street investment firm and bailout recipient Morgan Stanley reported the day after Obama’s election victory that Obama “has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend.”

To Restore the Old Order That Failed Turning to the home front, Obama refuses to advance the obvious cost-cutting and social democratic health-care solution: single-payer national health insurance (improved Medicare for all). Consistent with his recent description of himself as a New Democrat, Obama’s Treasury Department and the secretive, unaccountable Federal Reserve Bank (to whom the new Administration increasingly wishes to pass the buck of the current financial crisis) will dispense untold trillions of dollars in further taxpayer handouts to the giant Wall Street firms who spent millions on his campaign and who drove the U.S. and world economy over a cliff. According to leading liberal economist James K. Galbraith in the Washington Monthly, Obama’s plan to guarantee the financial, insurance, and real estate industries’ toxic, hyper-inflated assets while keeping existing Wall Street management in place amounts to a massive effort to “keep perpetrators afloat.” By left-liberal writer William Greider’s account, “Obama’s approach so far is devoted to restoring Wall Street’s famous names and his [supposedly non-ideological] advisors tell him this is the ‘responsible’ imperative, no matter that it might offend the unwashed public. Obama evidently agrees” (Washington Post, March 22, 2009). The liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is “filled with a sense of despair” by Obama’s “bank rescue plan,” which “recycles Bush administration policy—specifically the ‘cash for trash’ plan proposed, then abandoned, six months ago by then-Treasury secretary Henry Paulson” (March 23, 2009). The Obama plan rewards reckless and selfish investor class behavior by funneling billions of taxpayer dollars to bankrupt banks. Under the scheme unveiled on March 23, 2009, the public is put on the hook to the tune of $1 trillion. The program amounts to what Krugman calls a coin flip in which investors win if it’s heads and taxpayers lose if it’s tails. As the Times quickly noted, “the Treasury and the Federal Reserve will be offering at least a tablespoon of financial sugar for every teaspoon of risk that investors agree to swallow,” buying up the toxic mortgage assets that the investor class created in the first place. The government (identical to the people in a functioning democracy) will take more than 90 percent of the risk, but private investors reap at least half the reward. Meanwhile, the underlying insolvency of the banks continues, a problem the Obama administration hopes we will forget about as we get dazzled by their fancy and obscure plan. Beneath claims of allegiance to “free market” ideals and “private enterprise,” the Administration’s “bank rescue” design—described by former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich as a continuation of “the most expensive tax-supported fiasco in history” (Salon, March 20, 2009)—boils down to a traditional exercise in Wall Street welfare: socialism for the rich, market discipline and capitalism for the rest of us. It is at heart what Greider calls an effort “to restore the old order that failed,” the dark reality beneath newspaper headlines proclaiming a new age of progressive-style government regulation (“Bill Moyers’ Journal,” PBS, March 27, 2009). Obama’s tepid and undersized stimulus plan (deceptively described as “massive” in much of the business press) is dysfunctionally overloaded with business-friendly tax cuts and too short on labor-intensive projects to put people to work right away. He says nothing about the overdue labor law reform he campaigned on, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). He speaks in support of the anti-union, teacher-bashing, and test-based corporate education agenda, advocating teacher “merit pay” and charter schools. And he makes a public visit (in support of his stimulus bill) to the headquarters of Caterpillar, a provider of bulldozers for illegal Israeli settlements. Caterpillar was also the first large U.S. manufacturer in decades to break a major strike with scabs. Praised by political and media elites for the skill with which he and his handlers are “managing expectations,” Obama fails to advance elementary and urgently needed progressive measures like a moratorium on foreclosures, a capping of credit card interest rates and finance charges, and the rollback of capital income tax rates to 1981 (not just 1993) levels. Even before the inauguration, Obama committed himself to so-called “entitlement reform,” a term that is code language for claiming to cut the federal deficit by chipping away at Medicare and Social Security.

Team and “Vision” Obama’s cabinet is loaded with elite agents of corporate and imperial power. Leading players include Defense Secretary and Iraq warrior Robert Gates, carried over from the Bush administration. National Security Advisor James Jones is a former NATO commander known for advocating increased U.S. control of Middle Eastern oil resources. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a leading Iraq War hawk who approved a Bush plan to attack Iran in late 2007. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was a leading pro-war and “pro-Israel,” anti-Palestinian Democrat during his recent congressional career. Obama’s top economic advisor Lawrence Summers is a leading corporate neoliberal economist and was an architect during the 1990s of the financial deregulation that contributed so significantly to the current economic crisis. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is a Wall Street-approved expert in bailing out large and parasitic financial institutions. Obama’s claim that he will provide the “vision” to move such corporate and imperial operatives in a “progressive” direction is like a baseball manager claiming that he’s going to build a team based on speed and defense with a roster full of clumsy, slow-footed, 280-pound power hitters. Tellingly enough, even mildly progressive U.S. economists like Galbraith, Krugman, and Joseph Stiglitz have been blacklisted from the Obama administration. These unradical but left-of-center economists are too much for the corporate types who hold sway in the current Administration. For economic direction, the new White House prefers regressive corporate-neoliberal hacks associated with the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs and with the conservative pro-business economic think tank the Hamilton Project. John R. MacArthur, the president of Harper’s magazine, noted in late March that Summers and Geithner “are in place precisely to prevent real reform of a banking system that helped put Obama in the White House” (the Providence Journal, March 19, 2009).

Obama’s Challenge: Tamp Down Populist Anger Despite the occasional populist-sounding outburst required to contain widespread popular anger over grotesque economic disparities and corporate corruption, Obama no longer stands up before giant crowds to proclaim that (in a frequent Obama refrain on the campaign trail) “Change doesn’t happen from the top down. Change happens from the bottom up.” After having mobilized citizens to vote out the old Republican regime in the name of progressive and democratic transformation, the in-power Obama team has a different message for the people: calm down and let the political class do its work. This is no time for “anger” and “ideology,” which stand in the way of “getting things done.” The populace is supposed to return quietly and hopefully to remote, divided, and private realms, dutifully executing their paid work assignments (if they still have jobs), buying stuff (largely on credit thanks to the continuing lag of wages behind productivity in the U.S.), and investing their modest savings (if they have any) in the stock market again (as Obama has recently admonished Americans to do). They are to watch their telescreens while the new system-maintaining coordinators (including supposedly “pragmatic” and “non-ideological” technicians like Summers and Geithner) do the serious and sober work of putting the profit system—described by Obama in his 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope as “our greatest asset…a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources”—back on its feet. Summers lectures Americans to heed Obama’s call for an “age of responsibility” by agreeing to dutifully “manage [their] own finances” and “do [their] own jobs…. People,” Summers told NBC’s David Gregory, “need to work hard, they need to play by the rules, and those of us with responsibility for economic policy need to do everything we can to make the economy work.” Appearing on the PBS “News Hour” on the day that the latest phase of the bankers’ bailout was announced, Summers said that Obama “recognize[s] and he share[s] the outrage that people feel at what has happened, at some of the bonuses that have been paid, about some of the irresponsibility that brought us to this point. But he also,” Summers added, “urge[s] that we can’t govern out of anger, that we can’t let our rage, our legitimate anger, stop us from the necessary steps.” A front-page New York Times “news analysis” in March noted that the Obama political and public relations team was “increasingly concerned” about “a populist backlash” that could target the new bailout-friendly White House as well as the investor class. According to Times correspondent Adam Nagourney, “a shifting political mood challenges Mr. Obama’s political skills, as he seeks to acknowledge the anger without becoming a target of it. A central question for Mr. Obama is whether his cool style will prove effective when the country may be feeling more emotional.” Nagourney cited unnamed Obama advisors on how the new White House “risks… backlash as Mr. Obama tries to signal that he shares American anger but pushes for more bail-out money for banks and Wall Street” (March 16, 2009).Consistent with that contradictory and manipulative goal, Obama expressed calculated indignation against “excessive” executive bonuses at AIG (originally approved by Geithner) and made carefully orchestrated visits expressing concern about poverty and job loss to hard-hit places like Pomona, California and Elkhart, Indiana. These were well understood by political and media elites to be public relations (“expectation-managing”) efforts to “get ahead” of “populist rage” over the corporate agenda that continues to hold sway in Washington in the age of Obama.

What Exists of a Popular Left John Judis (no “far leftist,” as Obama’s radical critics are commonly described by his “progressive” supporters) recently argued in the centrist journal the New Republic (in an essay titled “End the Honeymoon”), that a major reason Obama has gone forward with a conservative and inadequate economic plan “is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go” further. “Sure,” Judis writes, “there are left-wing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a trillion dollar-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama’s pocket.” By Judis’s analysis, the U.S. labor movement and groups like moveon.org are repeating the same “mistake that political groups often make: subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the [Democratic] party and its leading politician.” MacArthur observes that many leading U.S. progressives “persist” in “fantas[izing]” that “the president is a Mr. Smith-goes-to-Washington character prepared to ‘take on’ the powers that be.” This is “an absurd reading of Obama,” who MacArthur (rightly) describes as “a moderate with far too much respect for the global financial class” and as “surely the unleft, unradical president.” Consistent with Judis’s critique, moveon.org’s Executive Director Justin Ruben responded in February to Obama’s highly qualified and deceptive Iraq “withdrawal” plans by telling the New York Times that “activists are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt.” Sounding like a docile house pet instead of a serious progressive activist, Ruben said that “people have confidence that the president is committed to ending the war” because “this is what he promised” (New York Times, February 26, 2009). Ruben’s group and the antiwar group United for Peace and Justice and numerous prominent left-liberals bought into the false notion that Obama was “a peace candidate” and have worked to dampen progressive anger over—and mobilization against—Obama’s determination to execute the imperial project. Known for organizing online opposition to the Bush administration’s war policies, moveon.org recently sent its members an e-mail proclaiming the U.S. invasion of Iraq to be effectively over and congratulating members for having helped achieve that wonderful result. Ruben also recently told Nation correspondent Ari Melber that MoveOn has no intention of opposing Obama’s plans to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. As left writer and activist Anthony Arnove notes, “The message being sent [by MoveOn and other liberal groups and dominant U.S. media] to the antiwar movement is, ‘It’s over. We can move on’” (SocialistWorker.org, March 13, 2009). Towards a New Populist Moment? The left Democratic weekly the Nation focuses most of its ire on an easy target—the out-of-power Republicans. It says that “Obama Needs a Protest Movement” (November 13, 2008), not that the people and democracy need one—an excellent expression of so-called liberalism’s deeply ingrained habit of subordinating movement concerns to the needs of the Democrats’ leading politicians. The Nation alsoabsurdly calls Obama’s tepid budget proposal “an audacious plan to transform America” in progressive ways. Many of the Nation‘s so-called left liberals might want to take another look at Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States along with Frances Fox Piven’s and Richard Cloward’s classic Poor Peoples’ Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail to review some elementary lessons on how serious progressive change occurs. These authors demonstrate in rich historical detail how direct action, social disruption, and the threat of radical change from the bottom up forced social and political reform benefiting working- and lower-class people and black people during the 1930s and the 1960s. They show the critical role played by grass-roots social movements and popular resistance in educating presidents and the broader power elite on the need for change. Today, we can be sure that the in-power Democratic Party and president will not move off the corporate and military “center” unless “the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find dangerous to ignore” (Zinn, “Election Madness,” the Progressive, March 2008). For what it’s worth, the Democrats are best exposed as agents of empire, inequality, and “corporate-managed democracy” (Alex Carey’s useful term) when they hold top offices. That’s when their populist and peaceful sounding campaign rhetoric hits the cold pavement of corporate imperial governance. It’s not too late for genuinely progressive activists and citizens to pursue radical-democratic change in defiance of both the profit system and that system’s Democratic Party guardians. Thankfully, we may be heading for something of a new populist moment in the U.S., despite efforts of leading political, economic, ideological, and communications institutions. As giant financial bailouts expose the crippling chasm between the investor and political classes and the broad citizenry, “people everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punchline at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’—a euphemism for whacking Social Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid” (Greider). This is essential raw material for a radical rebellion, one where citizens and workers move from “watching” to demanding and acting in ways too “dangerous to ignore.” Happily enough, there is left-progressive potential in the confrontation between Obama’s progressive-sounding rhetoric and his corporate and imperial commitments. The popular resentment and hopes he rode to power need more genuinely democratic and effective solutions than an Obama (or a Hillary Clinton) presidency could have been realistically expected to provide. Obama and other Democrats have been riding a wave of citizen anger and excitement that goes beyond their conservative worldview and agenda. They have done their best to contain and co-opt that popular and progressive energy, but their lofty political rhetoric seeks to safely channel popular expectations that may well transcend the political class’s capacity for top-down management and control.


Paul Street is a political commentator living in Iowa City, Iowa. He is the author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008).