Obama’s Violin: Calibrating Hope Since the Election

“What’s the Dollar Value of a Starry-Eyed Idealist?”


This article reviews Barack Obama’s record since the day of his election.  That record, we shall see, is deeply consistent with his record-setting corporate election funding, including more than $900,000 from Goldman Sachs and $37.5 million from “FIRE” (the finance, real estate, and insurance industries), and with the fact that like, George W, Bush in 2004, small donors (people giving a total of $200 or less) accounted for just a quarter of his total campaign finance haul.


It matches former Clinton administration official David Rothkopf’s early post-election observation that Obama was following the “violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.”


It fits New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar’s description (in May of 2007) of Obama as a “deeply conservative” individual who “values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good” and Ryan Lizza’s portrait (also in The New Yorker, in July of 2008) of Obama as someone who has been “marked” at “every stage of his political career” by “an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions.” 


If reflects well on the left black political scientist Adolph Reed Jr.’s following description of Obama at the very beginning of the future president’s political career in 1996: “a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics.”


It  fits the comment by a leading Washington lobbyist, who told journalist Ken Silverstein in 2006 that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a “player” for “What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’” (Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s, November 2006).


It jibes nicely with the formerly left Christopher Hitchens’ onetime description of “essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism” and with Edward S. Herman’s observation (in an article titled “Democratic Betrayal”) that Democratic presidential candidates make “populist and peace-stressing promises and gestures that are betrayed instantly on the assumption of power” (Edward S. Herman, “Democratic Betrayal,” Z Magazine, January 2007). 


It speaks favorably to Laurence Shoup’s argument that U.S. politics are structured so that “electable” candidates are vetted in advance by “the hidden primary of the ruling class” so that the rich and privileged Few continue to be the leading beneficiaries of the American system.” (Laurence H. Shoup, “The Presidential Election 2008,” Z Magazine, February 2008).


It matches Sheldon Wolin’s recent description (in his haunting book “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism”) of U.S. culture as a form of incipiently totalitarian “corporate-managed democracy” wherein both wings of the “one-and-a-half party system” operate within a profoundly narrow spectrum that prohibits relevant substantive criticism of business and militarist rule.


It fits former Richard Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips’ description of the Democratic Party as “history second-most enthusiastic capitalist party” and with the Marxist author Lance Selfa’s recent historical depiction) of the Democratic Party as “one of the chief pillars of the [capitalist] system that perpetuates oppression and exploitation” (The Democrats: A Critical History [Chicago: Haymarket, 2008], p.198).


It is consistent with the following judgment in a report issued by research analysts with the leading Wall Street investment firm Morgan Stanley one day after Obama’s presidential election victory: “As we understand it, Obama has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend.”


It is in harmony with former Obama advisor Samantha Power’s description (in an interview in February of 2008 with television talk show host Charlie Rose) of one of Obama’s key tasks once he attained the highest office: “expectation calibration and expectation management” (something Power said “is essential at home and internationally”). As The New York Times candidly noted on February 12, “since Election Night, when he warned of ‘setbacks’ and ‘false starts,’” Obama “has assiduously managed the politics of the moment with an eye toward tempering [popular] expectations.”


And it fits the following observation recently sent to me by a friend who works as a substitute teacher in an inner-city public school system:


"Today, I asked a class for which I was subbing (high-school English students, about a dozen, all-black, at one of the system’s actually nice high-school facilities) what they thought of Obama.  Their initial reaction was one of, for lack of a better way to say it, pride and joy."


"But upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a rather shallow sentiment.  For when I asked them if they expected any real changes under Obama, they all said no."


"So while they are (currently) happy he is in the White House, they know full well that he will be no different from any other president — and it’s not something they only know ‘deep down.’  They know it pretty close to the surface."



As President Elect (November 4, 2008-January 19, 2009)


The highlights of Obama’s violin performance as President-elect included the following:


 * A conservative Election Night speech that said nothing about rampant and rising poverty and economic (or racial or gender) inequality and made a point of dampening down popular expectations with warnings of “setbacks and false starts.” Obama’s victory oration claimed that “change has come to America” because of “this election” and that his ascendancy proved that “democracy” was still “strong” in the U.S.


* A many-sided slew of highly conservative corporate- and military-friendly Cabinet appointments, including noted war Hawk Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Iraq invasion Surge architect Robert Gates (carried over from the arch-criminal Bush administration) atop the “Defense” (empire) Department.  As top economic advisor Obama gave the nod to Lawrence Summers, a leading neoliberal corporatist and the onetime leading architect (under Bill Clinton and Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin) of the financial deregulation that has recently blown up in the world’s economic face – a pick that leading progressive economist Dean Baker likened to “putting Osama bin Laden in charge of the [so-called, P.S.] war on terror.”


* An economics speech (at George Mason University) claiming that “everyone is going to have to give” – a fascinating comment in a nation where the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the wealth, 57 percent of all paper claims on wealth (along with a probably larger share of the nation’s leading policymakers and politicians)  while tens of millions of Americans live beneath the notoriously inadequate federal poverty level and go without health insurance and as the real unemployment rate (including involuntarily part-time workers and those who have quit trying for jobs) climbs toward 20 percent.


* Hypocritical silence on the U.S.-Israel slaughter of innocents trapped in the Gaza strip.  Obama tried to justify this silence of complicity with claims that “institutional constraints” and the need to have just “one president at a time” even as he made regular proto-presidential statements on the economy and wasted no time denouncing the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.


* A “blacklisting of progressives” (as veteran liberal Washington- and Obama-watcher David Sirota noted in Open Left) like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, James Gailbraith, and Dean Baker from top economic posts and advisory positions in preference for neoliberal, Wall Street-approved corporate Democrats like Summers (who as chief World Bank economist once argued that Africa was under-polluted since people didn’t live very long on that continent) and Summers’ unimpressive protégé Timothy Geithner (the new Secretary of the Treasury).


* A threat, issued “right before he came into office,” to “veto any bill that Congress passed rejecting or limiting more bailout funds from going to Wall Street" (Sirota, speaking on the Public Broadcasting System’s "Bill Moyers’ Journal" on January 23, 2009).



As President (January 20-February 27, 2009)


The highlights of Obama’s violin performance as President have included the following:


* An uninspiring and conservative Inaugural Address that avoided the critical and rising problems of poverty, inequality, and the urgent need (consistent with the 1965-68 counsel of Obama’s purported hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) to transfer resources from the “defense” (war and empire) budget to the meeting social needs. This speech claimed that the current economic crisis is a product of “our collective failure,” failing to acknowledge the culpability of the financial industry and (for advancing financial deregulation) elite policymakers including top Democrats like Bill Clinton, Rubin (a leading Obama advisor during the campaign and transition), and Summers.  It said that America “will not apologize for our [heavily imperial, militarist, unequal, mass-consumerist, plutocratic, and ecologically disastrous – P.S.] way of life;”  trumpeted “unity “over “discord” (a profoundly authoritarian sentiment since democracy depends on open public and political conflict); argued that the “goodness of the market” is an issue beyond serious question; claimed that the U.S. was “ready to lead [the world] once more” (with Obama at the helm); and praised the U.S. War on Vietnam as an effort to advance American “liberty” and “prosperity.”  Last but not least, Obama’s first presidential oration cynically called for (certain unnamed) global others (primarily Iran and Hamas and those violently resisting illegal U.S. occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan) to “unclench their fist[s]” while coldly he ignored Israel’s murder of Palestinian civilians and praised “those brave souls who patrol distant deserts and forests” – that is, the Armed Forces engaged in the colonial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. 


* A rapid launching of U.S. attacks that have killed a large number of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, helping build support for the Taliban and terrorist activities in both countries – this in defiance of Afghan President Karzai’s repeated pleas for the U.S. not to hurt innocents and of various calls and opportunities for a peaceful settlement.  These provocations are extremely dangerous when it comes to nuclear-equipped Pakistan, which is now, Noam Chomsky notes, “partially under the control of the radical Islamist elements that [Ronald] Reagan helped install there” (ZNet, February 16, 2009).


* A January 22nd State Department address in which Obama praised “the Arab peace initiative” for containing “constructive elements” that could help facilitate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, called for Arab states to “support the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad,” and stated that “America is committed to Israel’s security.  And we will always support Israel’s right to defend itself.” Obama knowingly deleted the inconvenient facts that The Arab League proposal calls for normalization of relations with Israel only in the context of a two-state solution (with an independent Palestinian nation), consistent with “an international consensus, which the U.S. and Israel have blocked for over 30 years, in international isolation, and still do so.” Obama said nothing about the Palestinians’ right to defend themselves against the significantly greater threats posed by Israel on a regular basis in the occupied territories. He ignored the actual and democratically elected Palestinian government led by the Islamist party’s Hamas (Abbas and Fayyad are with the defeated Fatah Party), lecturing that party on its failure to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.  He said nothing about Israel’s regular and savage use of violence against Palestinians and its refusal to consider a two-state settlement including a Palestinian state. As Chomsky has noted, the “carefully framed deceit” in Obama’s State Department statement “surpasses cynicism.” (N. Chomsky, “Obama on Israel-Palestine: Carefully Framed Deceit,” Z Magazine, March, 2009)


* The sending of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to that famous “graveyard of empires” Afghanistan (“Obama’s Vietnam”), where the new administration is more committed to violence than the last one but still no clear plan.  The cost of Obama’s “good war” (equivalent to $775,000 per U.S. troop according to The Center for Budget Analysis) promises to undermine Obama’s promise to cut the national government’s giant deficit in half over the next four years.  It will further hamstring his efforts to counter the current deepening and epic recession