Obama’s Audacious Deference

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York, NY: Crown, 2006)



Now that Barack Obama has made the obvious next to finally official by declaring a presidential “exploratory committee,” we can be sure that the Republicans Noise Machine will portray him as a dangerous agent of the “left.”  The claim that the centrist, corporate-neoliberal Obama is a man of the left will be totally absurd (see Paul Street, “The Obama Illusion,” forthcoming in Z Magazine, February 2007).


But this will hardly stop numerous commentators on the nominal portside of U.S. politics from claiming Obama as a “progressive” ally. Certain to be encouraged by Obama and his handlers, this confusion will reflect the desperation and myopia that shaky thinking and a narrow-spectrum electoral system tend to induce on the liberal left in the U.S.




A recent example of this misunderstanding can be found in “The Nation.”  In the January 29th issue of that left-liberal weekly, critic George Scialabba includes Obama’s ponderous campaign volume “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts Towards Reclaiming the American Dream” (2006) in a review of books dedicated to defending “democratic governance,” the common good and the legacy of the New Deal against corporate depredation. The books appraised by Scialabba include four manuscripts strongly rooted in the populist, anti-plutocratic tradition: David Sirota’s “Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government” (New York: Crown, 2006); Mark Green’s “Losing Our Democracy: How Bush, the Far Right and Big Business Are Betraying Americans For Profit” (Sourcebooks, 2006); Steven Hill, “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy: An Owners’ Manual for Concerned Citizens” (Polipoint, 2006); and Greg Palast’s “Armed Madhouse” (Dutton, 2006).


At the end of his review, Scialabba claims that “just about all” of Obama’s positions are “reasonable” and “progressive.” He praises Obama as “the most intelligent, honest and idealistic of the Democratic presidential candidates” (George Scialabba, “The Work Cut Out For Us,” The Nation, January 29, 2007, pp. 23-27). 


This does not say much for the depth and degree of the Democratic Party’s progressivism – or Scialabba’s.





It also leads me to wonder if Scialabba bothered to read Obama’s book beyond the dust jacket. Did Scialabba see the part where Obama relates youthful discomfort with his college roommates’ “irresponsible” criticism of “capitalism” and then confesses respect for Ronald Reagan’s supposed success in embodying what Obama calls “American’s longing for order” (p. 31)?


How about the part where Obama commends “the need to raise money from economic elites to finance elections” for “prevent[ing] Democrats…from straying too far from the center” and for marginalizing “those within the Democratic Party who tend toward zealotry” (p. 38) and “radical ideas” (like peace and justice)?


Obama also praises fellow centrist Senators John F. Kerry (D-MA) and Hilary Clinton (D-NY) for “believing in maintaining the superiority of the U.S. military” and embracing “the virtues of capitalism” (p. 38). He applauds his “recognizably progressive” Third Way hero Bill Clinton for showing that “markets and fiscal discipline” and “personal responsibility [are] needed to combat poverty” (pp. 34-35).  That’s an interesting reflection on the neoliberal Clinton administration’s efforts to increase poverty by eliminating poor families’ entitlement of public cash assistance and privileging deficit reduction over social spending (see Robert Pollin, Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity [New York, NY: Verso, 2003). 





Curiously enough for Scialabba‘s identification of Obama with defense of the New Deal, Obama contends that defense of New Deal and Great Society programs is contrary to “the changing circumstances of globalization” (p.38). 


Following the Clintonian path of centrist triangulation, Obama claims that the 1960s New Left expressed the same self-indulgent “more absolutism” (pp. 26-33) that animated the New Right. 


The American people, Obama argues, harbor only modest expectation of their government (p.7), reflecting little concern (by Obama’s account) with traditional left goals of social justice and equality. There’s no room in Obama’s downsized image of popular “hopes” for the citizenry’s widespread disgust at savage socioeconomic inequity in the United States.


In Obama’s brand of “progressivism,” serious concern over the nation’s harsh disparities is consigned to leftist “cranks” and other assorted “unreasonable zealots” – people walking in the “absolutist” footsteps of Marx, the New Left, and (though Obama would never acknowledge this) the democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. 


Since they reasonably reject “ideology” and the “moral absolutism” of both Left and Right, Obama feels, the moderately (barely) hopeful American people know better than to push for equality. They embrace “realistic,” scaled-down ambitions that are marvelously aligned with the neoliberal project of reducing government’s essential functions to serving the needs of the investor class, fighting wars, punishing (and warehousing) the poor and repressing dissent.




I wonder if Scialabba saw the passage where the “progressive” Obams praises the United States’ founders for “recognize[ing] that there were seeds of anarchy in the idea of individual freedom, an intoxicating danger in the idea of equality.” If “everybody is truly free, without the constraints of birth or rank and an inherited social order,” Obama asks, then “how can we ever hope to form a society that coheres?” (pp. 86-87)


How that’s for openly embracing authoritarian class rule?




Then there’s the section where Obama claims that the monumental war criminal, arch-authoritarian and hyper-plutocrat George W. Bush “and the people around him” – a reference that would especially include the filthy rich crypto-fascist Dick Cheney – “to be pretty much like everyone else.” The Bush-Cheney gang-bangers are “possessed,” Obama says, “of the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries as the rest of us.” 


It would be interesting to ask some long-injured Vietnam or Iraq war veterans if they share the same perspective on the Vietnam-War supporting but draft-dodging Bush and Cheney, who had “other priorities” than “serving” in Indochina during the 1960s and 1970s. 


Such veterans shouldn’t harbor bitterness towards their war-evading superiors, Obama says. He argues that “those who are struggling – or those who claim to speak for those who are struggling” are not “freed from trying to understand the perspectives those who are better off.”  The duty to feel “empathy,” he feels, is shared by the “the powerless” and “the oppressed” as well as “the powerful” and “the oppressor” (p. 68). 


Slaves need to understand and empathize with their masters.


At the same time, Obama feels, poor Americans need to understood how well off and “free” they are compared to their more truly miserable counterparts in Africa and Latin America (pp. 54, 150).  Obama deletes less favorable contrasts with Western Europe and Japan, the most relevant comparisons, where dominant norms tolerate slighter levels of poverty and inequality than what is found in the militantly hierarchical U.S.




If Americans have rejected “Jefferson’s advice to engage in a revolution every two or three generations,” Obama says, this “is only because the Constitution itself proved a sufficient defense against tyranny” (p. 93). There’s no room in that formulation for a large number of facts and development relevant to the distinctive weakness of radicalism in U.S. history: America’s rich historical record of repressing radicals (e.g. Haymarket, the Palmer Raids. McCarthyism, COINTELPRO); the extreme racial, ethnic, religious and territorial fragmentation of the nation’s working-class and populace; the alternately deadening and cooptive influences of imperialism, mass consumerism, Winner-Take-All electoral politics, corporate media and more. There’s no room either for the remarkable persistence of tyranny – business-class (corporate-capitalist) and white-supremacist rule, the reign of the military sector, and the rise of a powerful prison-industrial system for example – inside the U.S. today.


Obama is impressively committed to whitewashing the American past in accord with dominant national doctrine. He cites early Americans’ purported faith in “self-reliance,” “hard work,” and “free will” (p. 54)as the source of the early Republic’s “free market” development, ignoring slavery’s role in (a) violating the nation’s proclaimed republican virtues and (b) laying critical capital-accumulationist foundation for the early expansion of the American “free market” empire. He writes warmly of the “grand compromise” (p.75) found in the Constitutional bargain between the Northern and the Southern states – the one that approved and empowered black chattel slavery as the core, defining and federally protected political-economic institution of the U.S. South. He deftly inserts “property rights” (p. 86) into his list of the great “individual liberties” guaranteed by the Founders, deleting a critical conflict that shaped the early republic: that between human rights and property rights, the latter referring to the special, structurally super-empowered citizenship rights granted to the relatively small part of the population that owned large amounts of property.


Obama falsely conflates “democracy” with “the republican form of government” that the Founders preferred as an effective barrier to their ultimate nightmare – popular democracy.  He appears not to understand that the nation’s constitutional fathers saw republican governance as a bulwark against democracy and a more reliable protector of “property rights” and class privilege than monarchical absolutism. He misses and misrepresents the main reason that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and other Founders argued for a geographically extensive nation-state: to more effectively preserve the tyranny of the propertied few and keep the threat of popular democracy at bay (pp. 87-94).


Obama incorrectly claims that Abraham Lincoln was “unyielding in his opposition to slavery” (p. 97). He praises Woodrow Wilson for seeing that “it was in America’s interest to encourage the self-determination of all peoples [emphasis added] and provide the world  a legal framework that could help avoid future conflicts” (p. 283).


Too bad the Wilson administration’s extreme racism found expression in the brutal U.S. invasions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As Noam Chomsky observes, “Wilson’s troops murdered, destroyed, reinstituted virtual slavery and demolished the constitutional system in Haiti.”  These actions followed in accord with Wilson Secretary of State Robert Lansing’s belief that “the African race are devoid of any capacity for political organization” and possessed “an inherent tendency to revert to savagery and to cast aside the shackles of civilization which are irksome to their physical nature.”


“While supervising the takeover of Haiti and the Dominican Republic,” Chomsky notes, “Wilson built his reputation as a lofty idealist defending self-determination and the rights of small nations with impressive oratory.  There is no contradiction [because] Wilsonian doctrine was restricted to people of the right sort: those ‘at a low stage of civilization’ need not apply” for the rights of democracy and self-determination; they remained subject to their racially and culturally superior colonial overlords (Chomsky, World Orders Old and New [New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p.44, and Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues [Boston, MA: South End, 1993], pp. 202-203).


Obama praises U.S. Cold War foreign policymakers for combining “Wilsonian idealism” with “humility regarding America’s ability to control events around the world” (p. 284).  He justifies lovely examples of that “humility” like the U.S. overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954) and the sponsorship of mass-murderous dictatorships in Indonesia and Latin American by recycling the imperial myth that the U.S. was protecting the world against an expansionist and totalitarian Soviet Union (p. 284).  He notes that Saddam Hussein “butchered his own people” (p. 294) but deletes the unpleasant fact that the Iraqi dictator murdered many of his subjects with U.S. support. 


Not content merely to whitewash American history, Obama whitewashes the reactionary whitewashing of the American past in U.S. history texts! “Even the standard high school history textbook,” he inaccurately claims, “notes the degree to which, from its very inception, the reality of American life has stayed from its myths (p.8). 


Wow.  Obama might want to have a look at James Loewen’s bestselling book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong [New York, NY: New Press, 1996]).





I wonder if Scialabba read the part where Obama roots the greatness of America in its “free market” capitalist system and “business culture.”  The American overclass should be gratified by Obama’s claim that the United States’ “greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources” (pp. 149-150). 


It is left to alienated carpers, “cranks” and “moral absolutists” of the “unreasonable” left (Obama’s basic understanding of radicals) to observe the terrible outcomes of “our” distinctively anti-social (and incidentally heavily state-protected) “market system.” Those unfortunate results include the marvelously “efficient,” climate-warming contributions of a nation that constitutes 5 percent of the world’s population but contributes more than a quarter of the planet’s carbon emissions.  Other notable products include the innovative generation of poverty for millions of U.S. children while executives atop leading U.S. “defense” firms rake in untold taxpayer millions for helping Uncle Sam and his Israeli and British friends kill and maim hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. 


It is left the radical lunatic fringe to decry the American System’s not-so efficient allocation of half the nation’s wealth to the top 1 percent of the population.  “Unreasonable” Marxists, left-anarchists and “conspiracy theorists” are left to note that business-ruled workplaces and labor markets steal “individual initiative” from millions of American workers subjected to the monotonous repetition of imbecilic operations conducted for such unbearably long stretches of time that ordinary Americans are increasingly unable to participate meaningfully in the grand “deliberative democracy” (p. 92)that Obama trumpets as the Founders’ great gift to subsequent generations. 




Then there’s the chapter (simply titled “Race”) where Obama tries to cover his ass with white America by claiming that “what ails working- and middle-class blacks is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts.”  Equally soothing to the master race is Obama’s argument that “white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America” as “even the most fair-minded of whites…tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization and race-based claims based on the history of racial discrimination in this country” (p. 247). Part of the reason for this “push back” – also known as denial – is, Obama claims, the bad culture and poor work-ethic of the inner-city black poor (pp. 245, 254-56).  


Never mind that lower-, working-, and middle-class blacks continue to face numerous steep and interrelated white-supremacist barriers to equality. Or that multidimensional racial discrimination is still rife in “post-Civil Rights America,” deeply woven into the fabric of the nation’s social institutions and drawing heavily on the living and unresolved legacy of centuries of not- so “past” racism. Never mind that the long centuries of slavery and Jim Crow are still quite historically recent and would continue to exercise a crippling influence on black experience even if the dominant white claim that black “racial victimization” is a “thing of the past” was remotely accurate (see, for example, Joel Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations [New York, NY: Routledge, 2000] and Michael Brown et al., Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society [Berkeley, CA: University of California-Berkeley Press, 2003]).


White fears that Obama will reawaken the tragically unfinished revolutions of Reconstruction and Civil Rights are further soothed by his claim that most black Americans have been “pulled into the economic mainstream” (pp. 248-49). Never mind that blacks are afflicted with a shocking racial wealth gap that keeps their average net worth at one eleventh (!) that of whites and an income structure starkly and persistently tilted towards poverty. 




I wonder if Scialabba read “progressive” Obama’s claim that “conservatives and Bill Clinton were right about welfare.” The abolished Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, Obama claims, “sapped” inner-city blacks of their “initiative” and detached them from the great material and spiritual gains  that flow to those who attach themselves to the noble capitalist labor market, including “independence,” “income,” “order, structure, dignity and opportunity for growth in peoples’ lives.” He argues that encouraging black girls to finish high school and stop having babies out of wedlock is “the single biggest that we could do to reduce inner-city poverty” (p. 256). 


Never mind the absence of social-scientific evidence for the “conservative” claim that AFDC destroyed inner-city work ethics or generated “intergenerational poverty.”  Forget the existence of numerous studies showing that the absence of decent, minimally well-paid, and dignified work has always been the single leading cause of black inner-city poverty and “welfare dependency.”  Disregard research showing that black teenage pregnancy reflects the absence of meaningful long-term life and economic opportunities in the nation’s hyper-segregated inner-city and suburban ring ghettos.  Forget that the single biggest thing that could be done to reduce inner-city poverty would be to make the simple and elementary moral decision to abolish it through the provision of a decent guaranteed income – something once advocated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and that other dangerous left “moral absolutist,” Richard Nixon.  And never mind the dominant place in the U.S of a structurally “perverted” (as King used to say) social order that grants hundreds of millions of dollars to parasitic hedge fund manipulators and murderous war masters while plaguing those who want to work for democracy, peace and social justice with constant economic insecurity.




Some of the worst parts of Obama’s paean to the U.S. power structure concern foreign policy. On pages 287 and 288, Obama’s power-worshipping praise of the imperial Cold War (the “successful outcome” of which marked “the Greatest Generation’s greatest contribution to us after the victory over fascism”) falls to a nauseating low when he holds forth as follows on the Vietnam War – a savage and racist U.S. assault that killed at least 2 million Indochinese (the proportional American equivalent would have run into the tens of millions):


“The disastrous consequences of that conflict – for our credibility and prestige abroad, for our armed forces (which would take a generation to recover), and most of all for those who fought – have been amply documented.  But perhaps the biggest casualty of that war was the bond of trust between the American people and their government – and between American themselves. As a consequence of a more aggressive press corps and the images of body bags flooding into the living rooms, Americans began to realize that the best and the brightest in Washington didn’t always know what they were doing – and didn’t always tell the truth.  Increasingly, many on the left voiced opposition not only to the Vietnam War but also to the broader aims of American foreign policy.  In their view, President Johnson, General Westmoreland, the CIA, the ‘military industrial complex,’ and international institutions like the World Bank were all manifestations of American arrogance, jingoism, racism, capitalism and imperialism. Those on the right responded in kind, laying responsibility for the loss of Vietnam but also for the decline America’s standing in the world squarely on the ‘blame America’ first crowd – the protestors, the hippies, Jane Fonda, the Ivy League intellectuals and liberal media.”


It is left to hopelessly alienated carpers of the “moral absolutist” left to point out that Vietnam wasn’t America’s to “lose” in the first place and that the U.S assault on Indochina was consistent with the wider U.S. foreign policy aim of subordinating Third World development to the perceived needs of world capitalist order. 


As for the supposed tragedy of the frayed “bond of trust between the American people and their government,” it is left to the aforementioned “unrealistic” carpers and “cranks” to note that the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome” is a healthy thing. It’s wonderful, many progressives know, that the American people subject “their” foreign policy establishment to skeptical scrutiny and turn against a racist, imperialist, and illegal war. It’s fantastic that some of us understand the class basis of the imperialism that Obama sees as the mythological creation of left “caricature” (p. 288). 


Obama cannot acknowledge that the previous supposed “bond of trust” (whose dissolution he mourns) between the American people and “their” government was based largely on Establishment lies calculated to “scare the Hell out of the” citizenry with exaggerated Soviet and international “Communist” threats.  The deceptions were meant to induce the U.S. populace to cower under the permanent umbrella of the National Security State.


Its left to unreconstructed radicals like this reviewer to note that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (whom the technically black Obama loves to quote and cite with the radical content deleted) was among those “on the left” who saw the Vietnam War as an expression of America’s imperialism and racism and its related captivity to what that radical leftist Dwight Eisenhower reasonably identified as the “military industrial complex.” King came to those conclusions and went beyond them by tying it all to race and class rule within the imperial homeland.


It is left for “unreasonable” “zealots” of the radical fringe to note that “biggest casualty” of the war on Vietnam was suffered by THE PEOPLE OF VIETNAM. The terrible U.S. GI body count (58,000 during the war and more through suicide since) pales before the astonishing damage done to Indochinese villages, cities, infrastructure, ecology, agriculture â€“ not to mention the millions killed in more direct fashion.  The number of South Vietnamese civilians murdered just by the CIA’s Operation Phoenix (assassination) program was equivalent to 45 percent of the U.S. body count in Vietnam


With perhaps as many 700,000 Iraqis killed so far by “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (O.I.F.), the people of Iraq can be forgiven if they don’t share Obama’s sense that it was a good thing for the American armed forces to “recover” after Vietnam





Given his terrible take on Vietnam, it should hardly be surprising that Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” is incapable of accurately identifying the Bush administration’s illegal, racist and brazenly imperialist invasion of Iraq as a monumental war crime committed in order to deepen  U.S. control of super-strategic Middle Eastern energy resources.  In Obama’s myopic eyes, O.I.F. is a great strategic blunder – a “dumb” and “botched” (p.308)war but not a criminal one – carried out with “the best of [democratic] intentions” (pp. 290-309).  O.I.F. is a mistaken effort “to impose democracy with the barrel of a gun” (p.317), Obama says. 


The over-obvious petro-imperialist ambitions behind the occupation go completely unnoticed in “The Audacity of Hope.” So does the opposition of most American and Iraqi people to the illegal invasion.


Obama does, however, cite opinion data meant to illustrate what he considers to be the real danger in the wake of the ongoing Iraq crime: that Americans are leaning dangerously towards “isolationism” and thus turning their backs on the benevolent superpower’s “responsibilities” to carry out its noble global mission (pp. 303-304). 





Any doubt the imperialist foreign policy establishment might have about whether Obama shares their opposition to independent development outside American supervision comes on page 315.  I wonder what Scialabba thinks of the passage where Obama criticizes “left-leaning populists” like “Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez” for daring to think that developing nations “should resist America’s efforts to expand its hegemony” and for trying to “follow their own path to development.”  Such dysfunctional “reject[ion] [of] the ideals of free markets and liberal democracy” will only worsen the situation of the global poor, Obama claims (p. 315). 


Obama ignores a preponderance of evidence of showing that the imposition of the “free market” corporate-neoliberal “Washington Consensus” has deepened poverty across the world in recent decades.  Millions are left to live in ever-more extreme poverty as Obama lamely instructs “developing nations” that “the system of free markets and liberal democracy” is “constantly subject to change and improvement.” 


Those who have the time and energy to examine the American “homeland” might want to note the ever-escalating inequality of U.S. society and the related, ever-deepening insecurity experienced by American working people.  Such is the ugly reality of life, even in the U.S. – home to what Obama obsequiously calls “a prosperity that’s unmatched in history” (pp. 149-150) – under the rule of the neoliberal doctrine that Obama upholds. 





Scialabba’s unfortunate reflections aside, Obama’s volume would be more accurately titled “Audacious Deference to Power.”  Whatever its dust-jacket might say about Obama’s desire for “a government that truly represents [ordinary] Americans,” “The Audacity of Hope” is carefully designed to reassure the corporate-imperial plutocracy, the foreign policy establishment and the white majority that an Obama presidency would show proper [Alexander] “Hamiltonian” deference to dominant social, racial, and global structures and ideologies of inequality. Beneath false humility, populist pretensions and consultant-crafted claims of “freshness,” “outsider” status and non-ideological “pragmatism,” “The Audacity of Hope” is the work of an authoritarian corporate-imperial insider.  It is dedicated to recycling timeworn and heavily ideological ruling-class doctrine. It is the product of a relentless ideological triangulator, a clever racial accommodator and a clever political opportunist.


Following in the Third Way footsteps of the similarly slimy pseudo-progressives Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” reflects and builds on his broader record (see Street, “The Obama Illusion”) to suggest strongly that we could count on an Obama presidency “to,” in Edward S. Herman’s words, “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, p. 23). It suggests that the world will still have plenty to fear from an Obamanation. One can only hope that its author’s often tiresome and long-winded prose will limit the damage the book and its author can inflict on American and world history. 




Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is a veteran radical historian, journalist, and activist and anti-centrist political commentator in Iowa City, Iowa. Street is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), and Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, and Policy in Chicago (Chicago, 2005).  Street’s next book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York, 2007).

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