Sunday, 22 November 2009

Obama, As Predicted


November 22, 2009 By Paul Street

Paul Street's ZSpace

Those who bought into the slogans ‘Hope' and ‘Change' last fall should have read the fine print. We were warned.

- Scott Horton, March 4, 2009 [1]


Barack Obama's deluded liberal fans love to say that his election to the presidency was an improbable long-shot. They're still pinching themselves about the existence of a black U.S. president. "Who would have thought it?" they still ask.

Well, I did, for one. As one of Obama's earliest[2] and most persistent left critics, I actually thought a first black U.S. chief executive in the form of Barack Obama was a likely occurrence (in 2012 or even 2008) once John F. Kerry was defeated in November of 2004. My expectation that Obama would be "Empire's New Clothes" is no small part of why I wrote an inordinately large number of essays and ultimately a book on the Obama phenomenon between the summer of 2004 and the 2008 election.[3]

I was not alone in seeing Obama as enjoying more than an outside chance at the White House in the near future. Other Left observers knew about Obama's longstanding outsized ambition and his related "deeply conservative" [4] ideological orientation and power-accommodating nature.[5] We were aware of his early (late 2003-2004) and close vetting by the national political and financial class[6] and of who really selects viable presidential candidates and winners - the corporate and imperial establishment.[7] And we knew also that, as the brilliant left commentator and author-filmmaker John Pilger noted last June, Obama's racial identity could be a "very seductive tool of propaganda" working on behalf of the ruling class. "What is so often overlooked and what matters above all," Pilger ads, "is the class one serves. George W. Bush's inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was perhaps the most multiracial in presidential history. It was PC par excellence. Think Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell. It was also the most reactionary."[8] As left black poet and political essayist Michael Hureaux observed in the comments section of Dissident Voice in February of 2008

"I had a hunch this was coming when I watched his speech at the convention four years ago, my wife and I both sat and took it in and looked at each other and said, almost word for word, ‘He's good, he's very good.' The rakish JFK style jabs, the clearly studied rhetorical grace. What better gift to the empire than JFK in sepia? All last year, numerous discussions with people from the old new left who told us, ‘He'll never get a shot at it because of racist US etc,' to which we maintained, ‘But what better figure to have out there than one to restore faith in the imperial project, but someone with a black face? They managed to live with Powell and Rice, why not Obama?'" [9]

For some of us in possession of such dark appreciation of the politician and his context, Obama was understood early on to be a distinctly possible if not probable next president - despite or even because of his race. We felt that he offered the U.S. power elite and its authoritarian business and military order and global empire a much needed re-packaging - a symbolic overhaul and "re-branding" - that none of the other serious presidential contenders in the mix could safely provide to the same degree required in the wake of the Cheney-Bush nightmare. For me and a few other lefties I knew/know, there was little all that unlikely or surprising or remarkable about Obama's rapid climb to the top of the American Empire. It all made perfect sense. The same goes for Obama's performance as U.S. president so far.


In late December of 2006, a young progressive Democrat and recent college graduate stated to me his intention of seeking employment with one of the Democratic presidential campaigns that would soon be setting up shop in Iowa. My initial response was to ask "why?" I expressed my timeworn radical-Left distrust for American electoral politics and for the Democrats. All my life, I noted, I'd seen the Democratic Party and the broader corporate-managed political culture of which it (the "leftmost" of the nation's two dominant business parties) is a major part deceive progressive voters and citizens, betraying populist campaign rhetoric and drowning popular dreams for a more just and democratic society in the icy waters of corporate and imperial hegemony. "If you must participate in all that," I said, "work for Ralph Nader or whoever the Greens put up. They won't win but at least you can feel good about yourself in the morning."

This "cynical"[10] lecture delivered, I offered some opinions on which Democratic candidates might be most worthy of support and which (a very different question) were most likely to prevail. The closest thing to a Left-progressive and antiwar candidate in the party's primary field, I said, was Dennis Kucinich. But Kucinich wouldn't have enough money to hire more than an activist or two in Iowa. He had no chance of getting past the U.S. election system's big money/big-media gatekeepers[11] to win the nomination or even a single state during the primaries.

Hillary Clinton would have plenty of money to hire activists. She would get massive financial support from the corporate and financial sectors, critical to success under America's openly plutocratic "dollar democracy." But I could not recommend working for someone as tightly connected to corporate power and the military as her. Hillary was a major war hawk.

Regarding her chances of winning the nomination, I felt that Hillary was too identified with "the old" (the 1990s and the two Bill Clinton presidential terms of that decade) for an election that was going to be very much about selling "the new" in the wake of the long national and global nightmare of the George W. Bush administration. She was directly connected to an especially critical dimension of that nightmare by her 2002 U.S. vote authorizing Bush to invade Iraq - a vote for which she would remain stubbornly unapologetic and which was certain to be a sticking point among the liberal base that tends to wield unusual influence during the early Democratic primaries.

The least objectionable and most "progressive" of the viable Democratic candidates, I argued, was John Edwards. Edwards' rhetoric suggested that he would campaign against poverty, economic inequality, and corporate power and for the labor movement to a remarkable degree. Whether the multi-millionaire former U.S. Senator really meant it, I felt, was unclear. Edwards could be counted on, I thought, to spout many of the same terrible (from my perspective) core foreign policy ideas - the standard imperial language - as other leading Democratic and Republican candidates. But Edwards, the son of Piedmont mill worker, was staking out an unusually advanced (for a major party candidate) position of "fighting" for the poor and the working class against concentrated wealth and power. I felt he had a real chance of winning at least Iowa, where he made a strong late showing with his "Two Americas" (the wealthy Few versus the rest of us) theme in late 2003 and early 2004. At the same time, I figured that Edwards' "populist" rhetoric would doom his candidacy in the critically important realms of campaign finance (dominated by the wealthy and corporate Few) and corporate media. Corporate America and Wall Street were not about to permit the triumph of a candidate who spoke about "fighting the rich" in the name of democracy and ending poverty. The reigning communications authorities (General Electric-NBC, Viacom-CBS, Disney-ABC, News Corporation-Fox, Time-Warner et al.) could be counted on to mock and marginalize his campaign rhetoric (sincere or not) on behalf of economic justice.

Edwards was also badly scarred amongst the liberal primary base by his past position on the Iraq invasion. As a U.S. Senator (D-North Carolina) in the fall of 2002, Edwards did not merely join Hillary in voting to give George W. Bush the right to use military force as he pleased in Iraq. He (quite despicably) helped draft the ill-fated congressional war authorization document! (In contrast to Senator Clinton, Edwards would apologize again and again for his former pro-war position, but his regrets came too late in the wake of the abject imperial fiasco that was "Operation Iraqi Freedom" - a richly bipartisan affair, like the equally illegal Afghanistan invasion and U.S. torture practices before and after 9/11.)


"If you want to work for the next president," I told the aspiring Iowa campaign staffer in late 2006, "go with Obama." Barack Obama, I argued, came from the same disagreeable (for a leftist like me) centrist, corporate -neoliberal, and military-imperial moral and ideological space as Hillary. This was clearly discernible from Obama's recent policy and political record as an Illinois state senator (1996-2004) and U.S. Senator (2005-2006) and from the content of his many speeches and writings, including his recently published "memoir" and (more to the point) campaign book The Audacity of Hope (released in the fall of 2006).[12] Well understood by the elite political operatives who had been vetting Obama since late 2003 (as journalist Ken Silverstein showed in Harpers' Magazine in November of 2006 [13]) - even before he became an overnight sensation with his instantly acclaimed Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston - this Clintonian centrism would help him secure the elite financial and institutional support required for victory. It was richly consistent with, and reflective of, his grandiose political ambitions, of strivings that were well known in Chicago and Illinois' elite black and Democratic Party circles.

Five Advantages Over Hillary

Obama's power-elite backing would only increase, I felt, as it became ever more clear to political insiders and investors that Obama possessed five great and interrelated advantages over Hillary Clinton. First, he was a significantly more charismatic public personality than her. The uninspiring Senator Clinton was no match for the dashing young Keynote hero with the "odd name" when it came to wowing a television or convention-hall audience.

Second, the United States' incredibly powerful corporate media seemed uncommonly spellbound by Obama. The junior senator from Illinois had been riding a remarkable wave of media love since his deeply conservative [14] Keynote Address. I expected that love to deepen and expand in the presidential campaign - an invaluable advantage whose importance could not easily be overstated.

Third, and intimately related to that media approval, Obama was widely and falsely perceived as a strong and dedicated opponent of Bush's unpopular Iraq War. This was a critical plus in the primaries, where the Democratic Party's liberal and progressive base held significant sway. It let the in-fact imperial and militarist Obama appropriate "peacenik" consciousness that would have more appropriately worked to the advantage of more genuinely antiwar candidates like Dennis Kucinich, Cynthia McKinney, Ralph Nader, and (curiously enough) Ron Paul. With its strong attachment to Obama and its powerful tendency (shared with the broader U.S. political culture it both shapes and reflects) to privilege superficial matters of candidate character and "qualities" over substantive policy issues, dominant U.S. media seemed unlikely to disabuse progressive voters of the "fairy tale" (as Bill Clinton would rightly put it before the New Hampshire primary in mid-January of 2008) that Obama was a "peace candidate."

Fourth, Obama was widely seen as a left-leaning social-justice progressive. This false image was encouraged by his racial identity, his occasionally populist- and progressive-sounding rhetoric, and his short stint (after graduating from Columbia University and before attending Harvard Law during the 1980s) - heavily advertised in his campaign imagery - as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. This would also give him a significant edge among primary voters, who had been pushed to the left by the harshly plutocratic and messianic-militarist Bush administration. It let the in-fact corporate-centrist Obama benefit from social-democratic voter sentiments that would have more appropriately aided Edwards and (more genuinely left) Kucinich. Again, the media could be counted on not to expose the liberal and progressive fantasy.

Novelty Dividend

Fifth, it struck me that Obama was going to garner a big advantage simply from the fact that he was new to the national political scene. An "overnight sensation" who entered the national stage just two and half years ago, he was supremely fortunate not to have been in the U.S. Senate when that body voted to authorize Bush to use military force against Iraq (a vote that Obama candidly admitted he might have supported in the summer of 2004). This "novelty dividend," immeasurably enhanced by his race and by his "exotic" (technically Muslim) nomenclature, would be a great plus in a period when the existing political order fails in spectacular ways. Like toothpaste and automobile brands, U.S. politicians generally benefit from being perceived as "new and improved." But the benefit of seeming "fresh" and new-fangled takes on special importance in times of political and policy breakdown. A political system that had gone sour would prove to be a special plus for the candidate who could most credibly claim to not have been part of it. (Ironically enough, Obama was deeply attached to the American corporate and imperial status quo, something that struck me as clearly indicated by his past record and which has certainly been born out by his subsequent record as president.)

The value of this "freshness" windfall, I sensed, was well understood at the elite level, in ways that mattered. In the wake of the Bush-Cheney disaster, the American corporate-capitalist system and its intimately related global Empire required a public relations makeover - a "re-branding," in advertising parlance - that Obama was uniquely qualified to provide among the existing field of Democratic candidates. (Beyond my general underlying Marxist suspicion that the U.S. capitalist system was overdue for a major economic crisis and recession[15], I had little idea that the economy would go into recession (in the fall of 2007) and experience an epic financial sector meltdown on the eve of the election - developments that would deepen the system's need for "re-branding.") At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist (I am no such thing), it struck me that Obama offered the U.S. ruling class and American System an irresistible advertising and imagery overhaul no other candidate could begin to match.

A Killer Combination

Obama, it seemed to me, was poised to profit from a killer combination in U.S. politics. He joined widespread popularity and a related illusory progressive identification among the citizenry to strong approval from elite financial, corporate, and military elites who determined his basic safety to existing dominant domestic and global hierarchies and doctrines. Sophisticated corporate and military power brokers, I was sure, calculated that his deceptive (as they knew, after vetting him) progressive imagery and related newness would be useful when it came to "managing [popular] expectations" that were certain to be heightened by the passing of the Cheney-Bush regime and era. "Who better," I thought I could hear members of the political and investor classes saying.... "who better than Obama - with his outwardly progressive credentials, his ‘community organizing' past, and his non-traditional racial identity - to be the public face for the long-predicted massive taxpayer bailout of high finance? Who better than Obama (with his supposed ‘antiwar' record and his Islamic-sounding name) to provide cover for the reconfiguration of U.S. military control of strategically hyper-significant Middle Eastern oil resources in the wake of Bush's Iraq fiasco? Who better to safely channel popular angers and to attach alienated segments of the citizenry to the corporate and imperial state and to refashion America's image around the world?"

To make Obama's ascendancy seem more likely (to me at least) in the winter of 2006, it was clearly going to be the Democrats' year in 2008. The Republicans under Bush, Cheney, and Karl Rove had deeply alienated much of the electorate with their arch-authoritarian militarism and with their related regressive and repressive domestic policies. To make matters worse for the Republican Party in 2008, the G.O.P.'s candidate field (likely and declared) was remarkably weak. It was hard to imagine such highly flawed candidates as Rudolph Guliani, John McCain or Mitt Romney overcoming the Bush-Cheney legacy and the center-left drift of the electorate (itself highly evident during the 2006 congressional elections). It was clearly going to be time for the Democrats to be returned to presidential power and try their hand at managing the American System and Empire.

NOT Disqualified by Race and Name

Many liberal, progressive and other observers thought that Obama's blackness and technically Muslim name (including the middle name "Hussein") would doom his candidacy in a majority white nation that had been attacked by Islamic extremists (led by a man named "Osama") on September 11, 2001. America, they argued, was simply too racist to elect a black man with an Islamic sounding name. Obama's color and name, the argument ran, disqualified him in advance. This was a common claim of Edwards and Clinton activists in heavily Caucasian Iowa in the long lead-up to that state's pivotal 2008 presidential Caucus. It was a key part of the "improbable quest" and "impossible dream" narratives to which Obama's liberal fans have been so attached.

I had a different perspective, consistent with my opening quotes from Pilger and Hureaux. More than forty years after the peak legislative accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, I felt, the nation's white majority was unwilling to meaningfully confront racial inequality and the institutional racism and living historical white privilege that sustained persistent steep black-white disparity in the U.S. "Post-Civil Rights" "white America" was all-too fiercely attached to the false notion that racism no longer posed significant barriers to black advancement and racial equality in the U.S. It was, however, ready to vote in large numbers for a certain kind of black presidential candidate - one with special qualities who made a point of distancing himself from traditional black concerns, style, and rhetoric and indeed from the issue of race and the problem of racism. It was prepared to significantly back a smart, unthreatening, expertly crafted "black but not like Jesse [Jackson]" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" candidate like Barack Obama. This was particularly the case among the younger sections of the white electorate. At the same time, I knew, the ever rising non-white (primarily black, Latina/o, and Asian-American) percentage of the U.S. voting population (whites' share of the active U.S. electorate fell from 90 to 74 percent between 1976 and 2008 [16]) meant that Obama would not necessarily require a majority of the white vote to win the presidency.

Just as importantly given my understanding that top U.S. politicians are fundamentally [s]elected by the investor class [17], I also felt that Obama's color and name enhanced the U.S. power elite's sense of his suitability for the project of post-Bush II American re-branding. The "first black president" story line would be an irresistible narrative for image-makers eager to restore the nation's sense and representation of itself as a model democracy where "all things are possible" and no deep or insuperable barriers to equality can be found. Along with Obama's purported antiwar history, his Muslim name and his brief childhood stay in Indonesia held great value in terms of tamping down "anti-American" (anti-U.S. Empire) feelings in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Islamic world more broadly - sentiments that had further fanned by Washington's deeply criminal and more than incidentally bipartisan invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

With his distinctive promise to de-fang popular resistance to American Empire and Inequality at home and abroad, a properly elite-vetted Obama struck me as something of a ruling class dream come true in the post-Bush environment. He would make a marvelous vehicle for wrapping core conservative, system-maintaining policy continuities in the deceptive flag of progressive "change."


Kucinich and Even Edwards' Rapid Marginalization

Looking back on the 2007-08 presidential campaign in the wake of events and developments since Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics went to press - the general election and the Obama administration's first ten months in power - I (at the risk of sounding overly self-congratulatory) am struck by great extent to which my late-2006 expectations (and concerns) have been born out by subsequent events. Truth be told, I'm taken aback at how right (from the left) I was.

Edwards mounted a fairly impressive if rapidly forgotten "angry populist" campaign notable for stunning platform oratory and detailed policy prescriptions. To be sure many of those prescriptions were less progressive than Edwards' fiery rhetoric, some of which was hard to believe coming from the mouth of an opulent trial lawyer who had sat on the board of a leading Wall Street hedge fund (the Fortress Group). Still, I came (like Ralph Nader)[18] to be somewhat impressed by the extent to which Edwards was willing to run to the aggressively economic-populist left of the "corporate Democrats" (as Edwards and Nader both called them) Clinton and Obama. Repeatedly referring to the labor movement as "the greatest anti-poverty program in American history" and proclaiming (in a paraphrase of Franklin Roosevelt's 1935-36 campaign rhetoric) that he sought and welcomed the hatred of the rich, Edwards rightly (in my opinion) mocked Obama's "Kumbaya" notion that meaningful progressive policy change could be attained by conciliating and "finding the middle ground" with corporate interests and the Republican Party. Edwards in 2007 and early 2008 mounted what the prolific Marxist author and political analyst Mike Davis rightly calls "the most chemically pure pro-labor candidacy in a generation." According to Davis in a recent retrospective on the election:

"However one feels about Edwards' character (as exposed in yet another bedroom scandal uncovered by right-wing bloggers), he was the only major primary candidate [to run as] insurgent with an ideologically distinctive platform - in his case, angry economic populism. The former senator from North Carolina (the son of a Piedmont millworker turned into a millionaire lawyer) staked out a programmatic space that had been vacant since Jesse Jackson's mobilization in the 1980s: the priority of economic justice for poor people and workers. Discarding the banal euphemisms of his 2004 vice-presidential campaign, he spoke directly of exploitation and the urgency of unionization, proposed a new war on poverty, denounced ‘Benedict Arnold CEOs' who exported jobs, and, in a debate with Obama and Clinton in Iowa, argued that it was a ‘complete fantasy to believe that a progressive agenda could be advanced by negotiation with Republicans and corporate lobbies.' Only an 'epic fight' could ensure healthcare reform and living wages. (Obama's response was typical eloquent evasion: ‘We don't need more heat. We need more light.')." [19]

Thanks to its fighting, anti-plutocracy tone, Edwards's campaign predictably mocked and marginalized (even prior to the exposure of his marital infidelities) by the dominant corporate communications and funding authorities. He was rendered officially "unviable" (along with the quirky Kucinich, who absurdly threw his supporters to Obama) by the middle of January 2008, [20] well before Edwards' bedroom shenanigans were exposed.

Corporate Money and Media on the Democrats

Corporate money and media sided on the whole with the Democrats in 2007 and 2008 [21], reflecting the Few's determination that the Republican Bush-Cheney fiasco called for putting the other dominant U.S. business party in power for a term or two.[22] The Obama presidential campaign set new corporate fundraising records, bypassing and probably blowing up the nation's public presidential election-financing system. His take included $39 million from the finance, insurance, and real estate ["FIRE'] sector [23] and nearly $1 million from the leading investment firm Goldman Sachs (a big political and policy player that is not in the business of handing over the White House to leftist or even mildly progressive enemies of American plutocracy) alone.[24] But just as significant and telling as such sponsorship was the remarkably favorable free coverage and commentary that Obama received from the nation's dominant media [25], which passed on the opportunity to sink his candidacy by going and staying strong with Clinton and right-wing Republican efforts to "Swift Boat" Obama on his past connections to the "controversial" black preacher Reverend Jeremiah Wright (who was savagely pilloried in and by the media for having dared to tell taboo truths about U.S. racism and foreign policy and their consequences) and the former radical activist Bill Ayers. America's powerful corporate communications authorities fell more heavily for Obama[26] than for any presidential candidate and president since John Kennedy.

Overcoming Race - Enough to Beat a Damaged and Terrible Republican Ticket

It didn't help the Republicans' chance of success that they ran a transparently inadequate presidential ticket, headed by a blustering and exceedingly aged arch-militarist who chose an egregiously unqualified, far-right governor (Alaska's bizarre Sarah Palin) as his running mate. "Multi-tasking on his beloved Blackberry or plugged into his MP3 player during his morning workout," Davis notes, "Obama was easily cast as an epitome of those 21st-century competencies that some psychologists claim may represent a human evolutionary leap, while McCain, with his self-confessed computer phobia and archaic elocutions (‘My friends...') was prone to caricature as an escaped Alzheimer's patient."[27]

Obama's race and nomenclature did not in fact undo him in his contests with the unattractive candidacies of Hillary Clinton and McCain-Palin. To be sure, race and racism posed serious problems for the Obama campaign, which tellingly lost the majority white vote to both Hillary and - in a chilling statement on the persistence of flat-out white racial prejudice in the United States - to the ridiculous and scary McCain-Palin tandem. Still Obama sufficiently overcame white electoral bias to win, scoring especially well with younger Caucasians (so called Millennials, ages 18 to 29), and garnering a critical boost from non-white voters. As Davis notes:

"the ultimate fulcrum of the election was...the voting day unity of the Blacks and Latinos in a renewal of the ‘Rainbow Coalition.' Nationally, whites cast 700,000 fewer votes than in 2004, but African-Americans almost three million more, thus providing Obama with a third of his winning margin...Obama's sensational popularity among young Latino voters (76 percent in Florida and 84 percent in California), testifies to the growing importance of non-white or mixed identity as a cultural norm - as has long been the case in Obama's home state of Hawaii - as well as increased cultural and social integration of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and immigrants of all kinds in big-city neighborhoods and older suburbs. Obama was clearly seen as opening the gates of opportunity to the larger Hip-Hop nation, including the possibility of a future Latino or Asian president." [28]

Demographic factors aside, the brilliant "race-neutral" Obama campaign and their legendarily calm and collected candidate played the race issue to perfection. They masterfully balanced his skin color's attractiveness to certain parts of the electorate and the investor class against white anxieties over the perceived threat of black anger and against "post Civil Rights" white America's reluctance (refusal really) to deal in any substantive ways with the continuing significance of anti-black racial oppression in American life. Obama and his handlers brilliantly walked the racial tightrope, using race to their advantage and keeping its potentially fatal power at bay during and in the wake of the controversy that emerged over his past linkage to Reverend Wright in the spring of 2008.

Any chance that McCain might overcome his challenged candidate qualities, changing electoral demographics, the terrible Bush record, and the stunning unpopularity of the Republican Party was undermined by his vice-presidential pick and by the onset of an epic financial crisis on the Republicans' watch in September of 2008. McCain responded to the economic meltdown with shockingly ill-conceived comments. He was unable to remember how many homes he owned and preposterously proclaimed that "the fundamentals of the economy are good" - terrible mistakes that Team Obama instantly and effectively pounced on. McCain's running mate Sarah Palin was found to have been a highly problematic state governor and fumbled basic questions (she was unable to remotely identify any key components of The Bush Doctrine, for example) in disastrous interviews with ABC's Charles Gibson and CBS' Katie Couric. Still, the onset of recession and the sub-prime mortgage and housing crises in 2007 had probably already provided the last nail in the Republicans' electoral chances, pushing millions of economically vulnerable white and Latino suburbanites and others our of the electoral "red" (Republican) and into the electoral "blue" (Democrat) for 2008. [29]

A Centrist, Corporate-Imperial Presidency Facing Minimal Popular and "Left" Resistance

Since the inauguration, Obama as president has governed as predicted - well to the corporate, imperial, and racially neutral center-right. Heralded by Advertising Age for giving "tainted brand America" an "instant overhaul" (as open, progressive, egalitarian, and democratic) Obama has if anything out-done my "cynical" expectations (dating to the origins of the largely media-created "Obama phenomenon"[30]) on the extent to which he would betray his many progressive supporters (some deluded and some not) and his more progressive-sounding campaign promises. Washington under Democratic rule and the Obama administration (since January 20, 2009) provides potent evidence for left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin's take last year ( before the election) on the chances for progressive change under the United States "corporate-managed democracy" and "one-and-a-half party system." As Wolin predicted with haunting prescience in his chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), "Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors [will] make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society." In the United States' election-focused political culture, Wolin elaborated:

"the parties set out to mobilize the citizen-as-voter, to define political obligation as fulfilled by the casting of a vote. Afterwards, post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests - the real players - takes over The effect is to demobilize the citizenry, to teach them not to be involved or to ponder matters that are either settled or beyond their efficacy....The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anticorporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf."

It's all been deeply enabled by a dominant national corporate media and propaganda system, of course, with disastrous consequences abroad as well at home. Just ask the survivors of the many hundreds of innocent Pakistani civilians who have been killed by Obama's drastically escalated "secret" Predator drone war, for example [31]. By the New Yorker writer Jane Mayer's account, Barack Obama had embraced and deployed the controversial killer drone program with remarkable zest. "During his first nine and a half months in office," Mayer noted, "he has authorized as many CIA aerial attacks in Pakistan as George W. Bush did in his final three years in office [emphasis added]....So far this year, various estimates suggest, the CIA attacks have killed between three hundred and twenty-six and five hundred and thirty-eight people. Critics say that many of the victims have been innocent bystanders." [32]

The first two CIA Predator assaults of the Obama administration occurred on the morning of January 23, 2009 - the president's third day in office. The second strike ordered by the "peace" president on that day mistakenly targeted the residence of a pro-government tribal leader, killing his entire family, including three children. "In keeping with U.S. policy, "there was no official acknowledgement of either strike." Thanks to the CIA/Xe Services/White House program's official secrecy, Mayer added, ""there is no viable system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. is not at war." [33]

Obama's predictable (and predicted) betrayals of his more leftish campaign rhetoric and imagery have met only minimal and half-hearted opposition from what's left of a U.S. left. Unjust wars and occupations, mega-bankers' bailouts and other regressive policies that were seen as intolerable under the nominal rule of a boorish moron from Texas (George W. Bush) have become acceptable for many "progressives" when carried out by an eloquent and urbane black Democrat from Chicago (Barack Obama). A recent pathetic example - one of many - comes from the so-called liberal-left journal The Nation, whose bourgeois editor Katrina Vanden Huevel proclaims the following in an editorial titled "Obama, One Year On:" "Whatever one thinks of Obama's policy on any specific issue, he is clearly a reform president committed to improvement of peoples' lives and the renewal and reconstruction of America... Progressives should focus less on the limits of the Obama agenda and more on the possibilities that his presidency opens up" [34].

Ms. Vanden Heuvel announces here that she has fallen prey to what Chris Hedges, author of the recent book Empire of Illusion, calls "Brand Obama." As Hedges wrote last May:

"Barack Obama is a brand. And the Obama brand is designed to make us feel good about our government while corporate overlords loot the Treasury, our elected officials continue to have their palms greased by armies of corporate lobbyists, our corporate media diverts us with gossip and trivia and our imperial wars expand in the Middle East. Brand Obama is about being happy consumers. We are entertained. We feel hopeful. We like our president. We believe he is like us. But like all branded products spun out from the manipulative world of corporate advertising, we are being duped into doing and supporting a lot of things that are not in our interest."

"... The Obama campaign was named Advertising Age's marketer of the year for 2008 and edged out runners-up Apple and Take it from the professionals. Brand Obama is a marketer's dream. President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what the advertiser wants because of how they can make you feel [or because of crass and calculating motivations related to funding and perceived access to power at the upper ranks of the liberal Establishment - P.S.]." [35]

In the absence of meaningful anger and protest on the left, the dodgy Republican right wing and its still-potent "noise machine" is absurdly left to soak up and express much of the legitimate "populist rage" that ordinary Americans quite naturally feel over Washington's continuing captivity to concentrated wealth, corporate-direction, and the military-industrial complex in the Age of Obama.

Resentment abhors a vacuum. [36]

This great left failure is, in part, a great, "expectation-managing" accomplishment of the fake-progressive Obama phenomenon and presidency. Obama was seen as a desirable candidate by the establishment partly because of his promise to encourage that failure.

This left malfunction was foreseen. After noting that Obama was "backed by the biggest Wall Street firms," the prolific left commentator and author-filmmaker John Pilger wrote the following at the end of May 2008:

"What is Obama's attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy's [in 1968]. By offering a ‘new,' young and apparently progressive face of Democratic Party - with the bonus of being a member of the black elite - he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell's role as Bush's secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent." [37]

For my part, I wrote as much about "the Obama phenomenon" as I did before the election (see note 3, below) because I was concerned about Obama's special capacity to co-opt and stand down the antiwar movement and progressive forces (already in a terrible weakened state) more broadly. Obama had always struck me as an especially seductive corporate militarist in fake-progressive "rebel's clothing" and thus as a distinctive threat to popular-democratic force. I was certain that he would prove to be an especially potent pacifier for the peace and justice activists and progressive citizens. Given the fact Obama had no meaningful ideological or policy differences with his fellow centrist corporate Democrat Hillary Clinton and that he actually ran slightly to her right on domestic policy, in fact, I would later come, along with the left and black political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. [38], to see the former First Lady as the "lesser evil" in her epic nomination battle with Obama. A Hillary Clinton presidency, I reasoned, would do every bit as much (however limited) policy "good" as a president Obama but would not possess the same capacity as Obama to shut down progressive politics and protest and - intimately related to that pacification role - to deceptively "re-brand' and re-legitimize American capitalism, racism, secxism, eco-cidalism, and imperialism at home and abroad.


This great service to dominant domestic and global hiearchies notwithstanding, the new centrist corporate-and military president has been consistently dogged with the preposterous but potent right-wing charges that he is a "socialist," a radical black "white-hater," and an enemy of American global power. And this too, was foretold. As I noted in the preface to my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics:

"By the time this volume hits the bookshelves, I am aware, its portrayal of Obama as a relatively conservative, capitalism-/corporate-friendly, racially conciliatory, and Empire-friendly ‘centrist' will strike some readers as counter-intuitive. The nation's still-potent right-wing Republican attack machine will already be regularly and unreasonably assailing Obama as a ‘far left' candidate, a ‘socialist,' a ‘black nationalist,' and a dangerous ‘anti-American' enemy of God, Country, the Family, and Apple Pie! Obama will also be subjected to no small measure of ugly racial bigotry. The racial fears and bias and toxic color prejudice - already evident across the Internet as I draft this preface in early June of 2008 - that his presidential candidacy will arouse will sometimes make it seem like the Obama phenomenon represents a real and substantive challenge to racial hierarchy in the U.S."

"These unpleasant facts will make more difficult than it would be otherwise to understand the Left critique of "the Obama phenomenon" that comes in the chapters that follow..."

If only American politics wasn't so damn and boringly predictable, consistent with the old French saying: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose - the more things change, the more they stay the same. "And so it goes," as Kurt Vonnegut used to say.

So it goes, that is, unless and until the populace enters the picture and turns it upside down through dedicated mass, grassroots activism beneath and beyond the quadrennial, mass-marketed, corporate-crafted, and candidate-centered "electoral extravaganzas" [39] and re-branding exercises that pass for meaningful democratic politics in the United States.

Paul Street ( is the author of many books, articles, chapters, reviews, and speeches. His next volume is provisionally titled "Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power and the Politics of Progressive Betrayal" (2010).


*Readers will have to activate the URLs below on their own; the author lacks the time and energy to make them active in-text.

1. Scott Horton, "Finding Ways to Stay in Iraq,", March 4, 2009.

2. Paul Street, "Keynote Reflections," (Featured Article), ZNet Magazine (July 29th, 2004), available online at

3 My efforts included "The Pale Reflection: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Meaning of the Black Revolution," ZNet Magazine (March 16, 2007), read at;

"Barack Obama's Wonderful Wealth Primary," ZNet Magazine (April 11, 2007), read at; "Sitting Out The Obama Dance in Iowa City," ZNet Magazine (April 28, 2007), read at;

"Imperial Temptations: John Edwards, Barack Obama, and the Myth of Post-World War II United States Benevolence," ZNet Magazine (May 28, 2007), read at; "Barack Obama's White Appeal: and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era," Black Agenda Report (June 20, 2007), read at; "John Edwards and Dominant Media's Selective Skewering of Populist Hypocrisy," ZNet Magazine ( June 29, 2007), read at; "Running Dog Obama" ZNet Magazine (July 29, 2007), available online at; "Democratic Iraq Betrayal: Treachery on the Campaign Trail," ZNet Magazine (August 12, 2007), read at; "Obama's Forgotten Wal Mart Endorsement," ZNet Magazine (August 28, 2007), read at; "Obama's Insults," Empire and Inequality Report No. 25, ZNet Magazine (October 3, 2007), read at;

"Obama's Role: To Confuse and Divide the Progressive Base," Iowa Campaign Report, ZNet Magazine (October 20, 2007), read at;"What Would Obama Have Done? Voted for the War and Lied About It - Just Like Hillary," ZNet Magazine (October 13, 2007), read at;"Leading Democrats: ‘Expropriate the Expropriators' (A Satire)," ZNet Magazine (November 10, 2007), read at; "Obama and Pluralist Illusion," ZNet Sustainer Commentary (October 31, 2007), read at; "Trapped By Their Own Militarism?" Democrats Bare Their Back for the American Right," ZNet Magazine (November 15, 2007), read at; "Establishment Politics in ‘Rebel's Clothing': Corporate Power, Populist Pandering, and the Ironies of Identity in the Democratic Presidential Race," ZNet Magazine (November 18, 2007), read at; "Obama's Latest ‘Beautiful Speech,'" ZNet (March 22, 2008), read at; "The Audacity of Reaction," ZNet (March 19, 2008), read at; "' No Refuge But in Audacity' Barack Obama and the Democratic Party's Holocaust Denial," ZNet (April 23, 2008), read at; "News Flash: Obama Lies," ZNet (June, 22 2008), read at;

"No More Excuses": Putting Obama's Blackness to Racist Use (June 16, 2008), read at; "Hidden Revolutionary Sentiment in the Heartland - a Reason for HOPE," ZNet (May 3, 2008), read at; "The Pastor v. The Politician," ZNet (May 1, 2008) read at; "Race and Class in the Democratic Primaries," ZNet (April 25, 2008), read at; "Obama's ‘Shift to the Center' and the Narrow Authoritarian Spectrum in U.S. Politics," ZNet (July 01, 2008), read at; " ‘ Anyone Out There?'" ZNet (November 10, 2008), read at; "Redistribute the Wealth?," ZNet (October 29, 2008), read at; "John Kennedy, Barack Obama, and ‘the Triple Evils That Are Interrelated,'" Black Agenda Report (July 23, 2008), read at temid=1; "The Audacity of Imperial Airbrushing: Barack Obama's Whitewashed History of U.S. Foreign Policy and Why it Matters ," ZNet (July 6, 2008), read at

4. I owe the phrase "deeply conservative" to Larissa MacFarquhar, "The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?," The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). In an in-depth account of Obama published in the spring of 2007, MacFarquhar (no leftist) reported that, "In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative."

5. For left critiques (other than my own) of Obama along these lines, please see Adolph Reed, Jr., "The Curse of Community," Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000); Adolph J. Reed Jr., "Sitting This One Out," The Progressive (November 2007); Adolph Reed, Jr., "Obama No," The Progressive (May 2008); Ken Silverstein, "Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine," Harper's (November 2006); John Pilger, "After Bobby Kennedy (There Was Barack Obama)," Common Dreams (May 31, 2008), read at 2008/05/ 31/9327/; Glen Ford and Peter Gamble, "Obama Mouths Mush on War," Black Commentator, December 1, 2005, read online at; Glen Ford, "Barack Obama The Warmonger," Black Agenda Report (August 8, 2007),; Glen Ford, "Obama's ‘Race-Neutral' Strategy Unravels of its Own Contradictions," Black Agenda Report (April 30, 2008),; Marc Lamont Hill, "Not My Brand of Hope: Obama's Politics of Cunning, Compromise, and Concession," CounterPunch February 11, 2007; Alexander Cockburn, "Obama's Game," CounterPunch (April 24, 2006), read at; Matt Gonzales, "The Obama Craze: Count Me Out," BeyondChron: San Francisco's Online Daily (February 28 2008) read online at; Juan Santos, "Barack Obama and the End of Racism," Dissident Voice, February 13, 2008; Bruce Dixon, "Holding Barack Obama Accountable," Dissident Voice (February 15, 2008), read at; Pam Martens, "Obama's Money Cartel," CounterPunch (February 23, 2008) read online at; Pam Martens, "The Obama Bubble: Why Wall Street Needs a Presidential Brand," Black Agenda Report (March 5, 2008); Chris Hedges, "Corporate America Hearts Obama," AlterNet (April 30, 2008), read at

6. Ken Silverstein, "Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine," Harper's (November 2006). See also David Mendell, Obama: From Promise to Power (New York: Harpercollins, 2007): 248-250.

7. Laurence H. Shoup, "The Presidential Election 2008," Z Magazine (February 2008); Edward. S Herman, "How Market-Democracy Keeps the Public and ‘Populism' At Bay" (2007), read at; Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, "Riding the ‘Green Wave' at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond," Electric Politics, July 22, 2009.

8. John Pilger, "Obama and Empire," speech to International Socialist Organization, San Francisco, CA (July 4, 2009).listen to selected passages at

9. Michael Hureaux, comment on Juan Santos, "Barack Obama and the End of Racism," Dissident Voice, February 13, 2008.

10. "The power of accurate observation," the Irish dramatist and socialist George Bernard Saw once said, "is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it."

11. Herman, "How Market Democracy Keeps the Public and ‘Populism' at Bay."

12. For a detailed review and radical critique of The Audacity of Hope, see Paul Street, "Audacious Deference to Power," ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), read at

13. Silverstein, "Barack Obama, Inc;" Mendell, Obama, pp. 248-250.

14. Paul Street, "Keynote Reflections," (Featured Article), ZNet Magazine (July 29th, 2004), available online at

15. I am reminded here of the old joke about the Marxist who predicted eleven of the last four recessions.

16. Mike Davis, "Obama at Manassas," New Left Review (March-April 2009), p. 24.

17. Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Edward. S Herman, "How Market-Democracy Keeps the Public and ‘Populism' At Bay" (2007), read at

18. On MSNBC's "Hardball" on December 17, 2007, Nader told political talk show host Chris Mathews that Obama had "excluded himself from the progressive coalition by the statements he's made, unfortunately. He's a lot smarter than his public statements, which are extremely conciliatory to conciliatory to concentrated power and big business...The people of Iowa and New Hampshire have to ask themselves: who is going to fight for you." Explaining why he was endorsing Edwards in Iowa, Nader noted that "Edwards raises the question of the concentration of power and wealth and power in a few hands that are working against the majority of people" In Nader's view, "the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire have to ask themselves a question: ‘who is going to fight for you?'"

19. Davis, "Obama at Manassas."

20. For some real-time reflections, see Paul Street, "John Edwards and Dominant Media's Selective Skewering of Populist Hypocrisy," ZNet Magazine ( June 29, 2007), read at; "A Very Narrow Spectrum: Even John Edwards is Too Far Left for the U.S. Plutocracy," ZNet Sustainer Commentary (August 29, 2007), read at ; "A Message From the Corporate Plutocracy," ZNet (February 5, 2008), read at

21. Paul Street, "Corporate Money on the Democrats: The Bad News," Z Magazine (December 2007); Center for Responsive Politics, "Money Wins Presidency and 9 of 10 Congressional Election in Priciest Election Ever" (Washington DC:: Center for Responsive Politics, November 5, 2009), read at; NEED MORE CITES

22. Lance Selfa, "Politics of Change or Politics as Usual?" International Socialist Review, vol. 61 (September-October 2008, read at "The challenge for the elites that have benefited so much from the neoliberal era," Selfa noted, "is to support a change in U.S. politics that will address the parts of these crises that impinge on their ability to reap profit and power, while containing popular demands for reforms to health care, workplace rights, or military spending that would challenge them. That is where the Democratic Party proves its usefulness to the people who run U.S. society. All things being equal, big business prefers Republicans, whose generally open pro-business stances aren't usually balanced against appeals to labor or the poor. But the current Republican Party—saddled with responsibility for unpopular policies, mired in corruption, and having demonstrated its incompetence in managing the affairs of state—has run its course as a vehicle for carrying out, and winning support for, big business's agenda. In the language of Madison Avenue that every pundit seems to have adopted these days, the Republican ‘brand' is damaged. And business knows when it's time to pull a bad brand from the shelf."

23. Center for Responsive Politics [CRP] "Barack Obama: Sector Totals," read data online at (accessed May 30, 2009).

24. Center for Responsive Politics , "Barack Obama: Top Contributors," read data online at (accessed May 30, 2009).

25. Project for Excellence in Journalism, Pew Research Center, The Invisible Primary Invisible No Longer: a First Look at Coverage of the 2008 Presidential Campaign (October 29, 2007), read at;

Project for Excellence in Journalism, "Winning the Media Campaign: How the Press Reported the 2008 General Election" (October 22, 2008), read at;

26. Bernard Goldberg, A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (and Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media (Regnery, 2009). I disagree with the noxious arch-reactionary Goldberg's preposterous claim that Obama, the Democratic Party, and the mainstream U.S. media are leftist. I agree, however, with his notion of a media-Obama love affair.

27. Davis, "Obama at Manassas." For a devastating portrait of McCain, see Tim Dickinson, "Make Believe Maverick," Rolling Stone (October 16, 2008), read at

28. Davis, "Obama at Manassas."

29. Davis, "Obama at Manassas."

30. Street, "Keynote Reflections."

31. Jane Mayer, "The Predator War," The New Yorker (October 26, 2009), pp. 36-37.

32. Mayer, "Predator War," p. 37.

33. Mayer, "Predator War," pp. 37-38.

34. Katrina Vanden Heuvel, "Obama, One Year On," The Nation (November 23, 2009), pp. 6-7.

35. Chris Hedges, "Buying Brand Obama," Truthdig (May 3, 2009), read at

36. For important reflections on the dangerous far right opportunity created by the progressive vacuum resulting from "left" quiescence and irrelevance, see Noam Chomsky, "Noam Chomsky and the Workers Solidarity Movement Discuss Politics Over Breakfast" (November 10, 2009), at; Walden Bello, "The G20 After the Crash," International Socialist Review (November-December 2009), pp. 23-23. As Bello says, "there is [currently] space for a great deal of questioning of what direction economies should be going and to put forward a demand for greater popular control of the economy. Progressives should go beyond just a critique of neoliberalisma nd push for more thoroughgoing social transformation that would people in control of the economy. If they don't do it, then there are others that will do it from the right wing. There is a big danger in many countries, which lack a strong progressive leadership for envisioning such a future and leading a fight for it, that the right will take advantage of the fears created by the chaos of the financial crisis and promote solutions of an exclusionist and tribal sort....Globally there is a mass of people, young and old from different classes, who are waiting to be mobilized. We better get them, because if we don't, other unsavory forces on the right are going to get them. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do history and politics." Chomsky is struck by the disturbing fact that in the starkly business-dominated U.S. it is only the "crazy" right that is articulating any sense of popular outrage over things like rising unemployment and Wall Street bailouts under Obama. The situation reminds him somewhat of pre-Nazi Germany.

37. John Pilger, "After Bobby Kennedy (There Was Barack Obama)," Common Dreams (May 31, 2008), read at

38. Adolph Reed, Jr., "Obama No," The Progressive (May 2008), read online at

39. Noam Chomsky, Interventions (San Francisco: City, Lights, 2007), pp.

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