ZNet Book Interview: Demystifying Obama

Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008)


ISBN: 978-1-59451-631-3


URL: www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987



“All those interested in truth rather than seduction should read urgently this wise book by Paul Street, who peels away the mask of the ‘Obama phenomenon’ and reveals power as it is, not as many of us wish it to be.”

—John Pilger, Director of the film, “The War on Democracy.”



1. Can you tell ZNet, please, what "Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics" is about? What is it trying to communicate?


The book is an attempt to demystify Barack Obama and understand his emergence and candidacy in the context of U.S. political culture and history.  Everybody knows that the rise of Obama is loaded with relevance for American social and political history. But what is “the Obama phenomenon,” exactly? Its nature and meaning remain shrouded in fantasy, wishful thinking, projected aspirations, and (on the right) preposterous neo-McCarthyite accusation.


My book situates Obama firmly within the United States’ longstanding corporate-dominated and militaristic U.S elections system and political culture. It provides an overdue in-depth investigation form the left of the Obama phenomenon’s substantive content and limits in relation to corporate power (a key subject in Chapter 1), class inequality (also in Chapter 1), institutional racism (Chapter 3), and imperial U.S. foreign policy (Chapter 4 – please see the Table of Contents at the end of this interview).


I find that the Obama campaign epitomizes three core essences of American politics:  (1) “the manipulation of populism by elitism” (the still-Left Christopher Hitchens’ phrase in 1999); (2) the privileging of corporate-crafted, mass marketed candidate image (branding) over substantive matters of policy and ideology; (3) the absence of serious left options within the American “winner-take-all” party system. 


“Brand Obama,” I argue, is no special exception to the basic essence of American presidential politics. Every four years, many Americans invest their hopes and dreams in an electoral process that does not deserve their trust. These voters hope that a savior can be installed in the White House – someone who will raise wages, roll back war and militarism, provide universal and adequate health care, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, produce high-paying jobs, fix the environmental crisis, reduce inequality, guarantee economic security, and generally make daily life more livable. 


The dreams are regularly drowned in the icy waters of historical and political “reality.”  In the actuality of American politics and policy, the officially “electable” candidates are vetted in advance by what Laurence H. Shoup calls “the hidden primary of the ruling class.”  By prior Establishment selection, all of the “viable” presidential contenders are closely tied to corporate and military-imperial power in numerous and interrelated ways.  They 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. 


After examining the historical meaning of the Obama phenomenon, my book explains Obama’s remarkable ascendancy.  The fifth chapter is titled “Obama Nation: Sixteen Reasons” and gives a concise treatment of why Obama emerged when it did.  Here are some of the key sub-headings in that chapter: “Deception,” “Media Love Matters,” “The Novelty Premium,”  “Skin Color and the Illusion of Greater Liberalism,” “Managing Mass Hope and Euphoria From the Top Down,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes?,” “The Power of American Exceptionalism,” and “Little That Seems Viable to His Left.” 


I should add that the book’s introduction gives a short history of exactly how Obama came to be an “overnight” sensation.  It traces Obama’s career from his short community organizing period through his early vetting (in late 2003 and early 2004) by the national political, business, and lobbying class, his celebrated (and militantly centrist)Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic Convention and the publication of his second book (“The Audacity of Hope”), which kicked off his presidential campaign in late 2006.


Last but not least, my book suggests ways in which left progressives and others might respond productively to both the limits and the opportunities of the Obama phenomenon. 


The book’s Afterword, written after Obama secured the Democratic nomination, is titled “Imagining a Progressive Future.” It discusses what a real progressive “change” agenda would look like whether or not Obama wins in November.  


The book is designed to help citizens and activists distinguish fuzzy myth from harsh reality in understanding the meaning of the “ruling class candidate” (as a Denver convention protestor accurately described him last week, prior to being arrested) Barack Obama. I agree with the Left political scientist Adolph Reed Jr., who says the following on the back of the book: “progressive agendas will not be advanced through vesting hopes and aspirations in candidate-centered politics.”  As Reed elaborates, “there is no quick or easy substitute for the task of building a serious, institutionally grounded working-class based political movement…”


At the same time, my book cautiously holds out the possibility that the Obama phenomenon could help (in Charles Derber’s words on the back of the book) “oxygenate the grassroots movements that are the true architects of change.”  It cautiously recommends that voters select Obama to block the dangerous and extremist John McCain in contested states, though I must add that I penned this advice before Obama lurched further to the right in dramatic ways during July and August of 2008. 


The book also suggests that there could be some radical potential in Obama’s lofty and more progressive-sounding rhetoric, which has channeled and raised some expectations we can expect an Obama candidacy and a possible Obama White House to disappoint. The historian Barrington Moore once noted that rising and dashed expectations are critical ingredients in the making of modern revolutions.



(2) Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?


I guessed Obama would be a presidential candidate sooner rather than later when I saw him give his Keynote Address. When John (“I am NOT a Redistribution Democrat”) Kerry got beat, I thought that a good chunk of the ruling class and a fair portion of the Democratic electorate would find Obama irresistible.  I set aside a couple file drawers for Obama stories and speeches. When it was clear he was running for the White House, I figured I had the makings of a decent political monograph.  I started drafting proposals and ended up back with my first publisher, Paradigm.  Last February, we planned a volume that would situate Obama within the deeper history of the (corporate-imperial) Democratic Party and the American party system and political tradition.


Paradigm was encouraged by the fact that I have been in good places to see the rise of Obama up close. I was an urban social policy researcher producing project studies on various Illinois issues Obama deliberated upon (chiefly campaign finance and welfare “reform”) in the Illinois state legislature during the late 1990s.


Between 2000 and 2005, I was the research director at a predominantly black civil rights and social service agency located in the historical heart of Chicago’s South Side black ghetto.  I occasionally worked with black legislators and had some very marginal involvement with state senator Obama.  I organized a fall 2002 conference where he spoke on incarceration and job issues, referring to a study I did on racially disparate mass imprisonment and felony-marking. I managed a project study (on school technology) he funded through the state. 


I knew the Obama phenomenon before it hit the national scene and I knew it from within the black community (white though I may be), where it was common to see Obama as excessively “bourgeois” and as too close to the Chicago (Richard M. Daley) Machine and to other centers of white, political, corporate, and academic power. 


Between August 2007 and January 3rd 2008, I did (largely at the instigation of a close relative) a fair amount of volunteer work for the semi-progressive John Edwards presidential campaign. This was a little odd given by own left-Marxist/anarchist background and sympathies (still intact), but it was a good move, book-wise. It afforded me a lot of voter contact with Obama supporters in Iowa City (where I live) and in Muscatine County in eastern Iowa. 


There’s nothing like Iowa when it comes to seeing the presidential campaign, for better or worse. And Iowa City was sort of an Obamanist “ground zero.” I had a number of strange conversations with privileged white Obama “progressives” – something that set off some alarms and helped spark me to write this book.


Fighting the Obama campaign (in what I rightly figured was a losing battle) block-by-block and house-by-house for votes (Caucusers) forced me to keep tabs on Obama’s statements, speeches, and supporters in ways that turned out to be useful for writing about the Obama phenomenon. It was also a great deal of fun.


Paradigm publisher Dean Birkenkamp wanted a book that would be more than a quick Left hit job — a radical version of what “Jerome Corsi, Ph.D” has recently done from the right in his atrocious book “The Obama Nation.”  Dean wanted a serious readable but academically respectable study that would place the Obama phenomenon within the larger context of American political history and hold value beyond the current election. I really think I did that here.


Amusingly enough, my original title (ultimately rejected but briefly mocked up for a draft cover) was “Obama Nation.”



(3) What are your hopes for Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics? ]? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?


I hope this book will help citizens and activists shed illusions about Obama’s “progressive” claims.  I hope it will spark them to remember that Democratic Party politicians and presidents soften their attachment to capitalism and war only when challenged (as in the 1930s and 1960s) by popular rebellion from below. I hope it will encourage readers to differentiate between (i) the secondary question of how to respond to the limited “choices” offered by the corporate-managed electoral “democracy” and (ii) the more urgent problem of rebuilding and expanding grass roots social movements and changing the political culture across and between election cycles.  I hope it will help clarify critical differences between (i) Obama and the Democratic Party’s persistent corporate-imperial centrism and (ii) an actual Left, true-progressive change agenda.  If Obama wins, I hope my book will encourage an organized and outraged citizenry to put regular powerful and guilt-free pressure on an Obama White House and (more significantly) to develop alternative popular power centers and democratic capacities beneath and beyond electoral politics.  I hope it will help readers understand a President Obama’s likely “progressive” failures and betrayals in light of his repeatedly demonstrated allegiance to dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines.


John McCain is a profoundly dangerous presidential candidate representing an extremist, arch-plutocratic and messianic-militarist party.  Still, Obama is attractive to a large section of the U.S. power elite because he promises to pacify and co-opt angry citizens and activists and re-establish confidence in the legitimacy of the current political order by reinforcing the argument that “the system” still “works.” 


Our current corporate-managed and imperial democracy doesn’t work for any but the privileged Few. It is a grave threat to human survival and peace and justice at home and abroad. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right forty years ago when he called for the "radical reconstruction" of society and the "radical redistribution of political and economic power" in the U.S. The path of that reconstruction is long and leads well past my own time on this planet, but it is clear to me that millions of people in the world’s most powerful nation are being dangerously hypnotized and repressively de-sublimated yet again by the false hopes and colored lights of the narrow-spectrum corporate-run election extravaganza.   


If Obama loses, and he could (racism would be the main reason, I think), it will be important for progressively inclined citizens and activists to understand that it was corporate-imperial centrism, not the Left and not the People, that got defeated. They must not interpret an Obama defeat to mean that the People and/or the Left tried and failed and that it is therefore okay for them to give up and retreat into private experience and concerns. If he wins, citizens and activists need to understand the severe limits of what triumphed and be prepared to fight and organize on a daily basis beneath and beyond quadrennial candidate-centered and corporate-crafted election spectacles.






Preface (p. ix)

Introduction: “A Man for All Seasons?” The Dark Essences of American Politics (p.xvii)


Chapter 1: Obama’s “Dollar Value” (p. 1)

Chapter 2: The Other Hidden Primary (p. 59)

Chapter 3: How “Black” is Obama? Color, Class, Generation, and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era (p.73)

Chapter 4: How “Antiwar”? Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire (p.123)

Chapter 5: Obama Nation: Sixteen Reasons (p. 165)

Chapter 6: Beyond the Narrow Spectrum: Citizens, Politicians, Change, and the Obama Phenomenon (p. 183)


Afterword: Imagining a Progressive Future (p. 207)


Appendix A: Americans’ Progressive Policy Attitudes (p. 223)

Appendix B: Barack Obama’s “Shift to the Center” in June of 2008 (p. 227)

Notes (pp. 228-272)




“Street punctures widely held myths in this unflinching and unsentimental account of Obama’s centrist, corporate-friendly policies. But Street offers some saving grace here: a new Obama administration may oxygenate the grassroots movements that are the true architects of change, opening up space for hope.”

—Charles Derber, Coauthor of Morality Wars and The New Feminized Majority


“All those interested in truth rather than seduction should read urgently this wise book by Paul Street, who peels away the mask of the ‘Obama phenomenon’ and reveals power as it is, not as many of us wish it to be.”

—John Pilger, Director of the film, The War on Democracy


“That the Obama phenomenon is of considerable significance in American social and political history should hardly be in doubt. But what exactly is it, and where might it lead? This lucid and penetrating book situates it firmly within the ‘corporate-dominated and militaristic U.S. elections system and political culture,’ explores in depth its substantive content and its limits, and draws valuable lessons about how these might be transcended in the unending struggle to achieve a more just and free society and a peaceful world. It is a very welcome contribution in complex and troubled times.”

—Noam Chomsky


“Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics is a much needed burst of clear, brisk conceptual air that cuts through the fog of fantasy and wish-fulfillment. His meticulously researched, carefully argued analysis of Obama’s career and his politics performs an important task of demystification. It is also an eloquent and bracing reminder that progressive agendas will not be advanced through vesting hopes and aspirations in candidate-centered politics, that there is no quick and easy substitute for the task of building a serious, institutionally grounded, working-class based political movement —from the bottom up and top down.”

—Adolph Reed Jr., University of Pennsylvania

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