Not “Disappointed” With Obama
As you show in your books, Obama’s achievements fare quite disappointingly when compared to the progressive agenda his candidacy was associated with. Given his personal history and political connections, particularly within the Democratic Party, to what extent was all this surprising? How disappointing was Obama, in your view? On the other hand, given the American political landscape, could he really have done much more?
Street: The first of the two books I’ve published with “Barack Obama” in the title was researched and published well before his election to the White House. That book (Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics – June 2008) predicted that an Obama presidency would disappoint those who naively bought into the notion that his election heralded progressive change. I had no progressive expectations and thus was not disappointed. My prediction was based on my understanding of Obama’s centrist, neoliberal, business- and empire-friendly record in the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Senate and on the actual content of his presidential campaign. My second “Obama book,” bearing the title The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power, illustrated in detail the different ways in which the prediction was born out over the first 14 months of Obama’s presidency.
Obama rose to power in Washington with remarkable and in-fact record-setting financial backing from Wall Street and K Street election investors and with the strong approval of the nation’s foreign policy establishment. Those elites are NOT in the business or promoting or tolerating politicians who seek to challenge the nation’s dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in Harpers’ Magazine in the fall of 2006, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform – a reasonable judgment given well-known facts on the purposes behind election finance at the upper levels. On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’”
For those who chose, against mountains of contrary evidence, to believe that Obama was in fact a progressive idealist. Obama has been, yes a great disappointment. Like many other Left thinkers including Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Adolph Reed Jr., the late Alexander Cockburn, Glen Ford, Doug Henwood, Ralph Nader, Laurence Shoup, Edward Herman, and Chris Hedges, I found it fairly easy to foresee the corporatist and militarist direction of the Obama presidency. That direction is consistent with Obama’s conservative, power-serving essence (cloaked in deceptive progressive rebel’s clothing for electoral purposes) and with the deeper subordination of the nation’s two reigning political parties and political culture to the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.
Could he have done more in a progressive way, had he wanted do, given the political context of the U.S.? It’s hard to know since he never tried. I think a genuinely progressive, anti-poverty, and populist president might have been able to rally a very angry populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by pushing aggressively for a number of policies: a much larger stimulus with major public works jobs programs; a real (single-payer) health insurance reform (the reform he passed should be called “The All Power to the Big Insurance and Drug Companies Act”); the disciplining and even nationalization of key financial institutions; and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (which would have re-legalized union organizing in the U.S.). Would such a fighting and progressive President Obama have succeeded on any or all of this? We’ll never know because he never remotely tried. He does not believe in confronting existing power structures and dominant ideologies. He never did. He came into office determined to tamp down dangerous popular and progressive expectations associated with his election – something that is very clear in his Election Night speech and Inaugural Address.
I think even the moneyed elite itself was somewhat surprised at the extent to which president Obama was determined to shield them from citizen rage. In his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the PulitzerPrize-winning author Ron Suskind tells a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Obama’s supposedly “transformative” presidency, popular rage at Wall Street was intense and the leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive. Obama called a meeting of the nation’s top thirteen financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread only to leave pleased to learn that the new president was in their camp. For instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis – workers, minorities, and the poor – Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown.
“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”
For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’”
As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”
Street: Obama hasn’t been interested in passing reforms beyond a deeply flawed and absurdly complex health insurance bill (recently approved by Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts) that serves the nation’s leading insurance and pharmaceutical corporations above all. During the summer 2011 debt ceiling crisis that preceded and helped spark Occupy Wall Street (OWS), Obama offered the right wing a “grand bargain” that included regressive cuts in Social Security and other social programs far beyond what the Republicans were demanding. Even as it has sought to co-opt the movement’s populist spirit for partisan electoral purposes, the Obama administration was very standoffish towards OWS (it took the same distant posture towards the labor rebellion in Madison, Wisconsin months earlier). The White House helped coordinate the repression and dismantlement of the Occupy Movement in October and November of last year.
For its part, Occupy was not really into pressing Obama or any other major party politician for reforms. It seemed more interested in advancing and embodying or prefiguring radical system change – a “world turned upside down,” so to speak. And once the Democrats determined that the Occupy Movement was not something that they could easily co-opt, they decided to crush it.
The Democrats do seem to find Occupy’s language of the “1%” versus “the 99%” useful in running against the Republicans and especially against Mitt “Mr. 1%” Romney. But this is about electoral advantage – the standard U.S. manipulation of populism by elitism – and has little to with any specific policies or reforms.
Before Obama was elected, did you expect him to be the bringer of change?
Street: Well, let me put a “dialectical” twist on what I said above. I expected change of a curiously ironic and indirect kind. I expected first an elite-directed white-nationalist “right wing populist” rebellion to emerge in the progressive vacuum created by Obama’s initial success in muting liberal and left forces. Then I expected a more genuinely grassroots and left-leaning rebellion to emerge as more and more “disappointed” American received a great lesson from Obama on who really rules the United States (the aforementioned “unelected dictatorships”) beneath and beyond the quadrennial big money-big media-candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas” (Chomsky’s term) that are sold to us as “politics” – the only politics that matters. Consistent with the pre-election reflections of a smart, Brooklyn-based Marxist named Doug Henwood, I expected many Americans to get it that it’s a fantasy to expect democratic or progressive change to come from electing another ruling class-sponsored candidate. I expected some of those people to act accordingly by joining social movements for radical progressive change.
The first expectation was born out with the emergence of “the Tea Party,” which helped fuel the historic right wing sweep in the mid-term Congressional elections of 2010. The second expectation was born out with the rise of Occupy Wall Street, which reflected participants’ realization that American democracy (or what’s left of it) is no less crippled by the dark cloud of big money and the machinations of capital when Democrats hold nominal power than when Republicans do. True, Occupy was crushed but it was a start beyond candidate- and major party-captive electoralism and towards a more Latin American style of social movement politics. I expect the populist, radically democratic Occupy spirit to inform the rebuilding of a U.S. Left that matters in coming years.
When Obama campaigned in campus towns like Madison, Wisconsin in 2007 and 2008, he proclaimed that “change doesn’t come from the top down, it comes from the bottom up.” He stopped saying that once he got into the nation’s top job, as I expected. Still, the confrontation between (a) dreamy candidate Obama and (b) the harsh reality of Obama in the real world of power was very instructive in ways that did create some welcome shifts in the populace.
In 2008, then candidate Obama’s name was associated with hope (as in the famous Shepard Fairey piece) and change; he was considered as the candidate who would change the US completely, reversing Bush’s imperialism and very strong penchant for the plutocracy. How deeply do the last four years change this image among the American people and electors? Can president Obama still mobilize people’s emotions?
Street: Obama’s predictable (and predicted) transition from outwardly progressive, anti-war and expectation-raising candidate to centrist, imperial, and expectation-managing president has (quite predictably) created a significant “enthusiasm gap” among the Democratic Party’s “progressive base.” His image and popularity have suffered. While he is doing his best to present himself as a progressive people’s critic of “Mr. 1%” (more like Mr. 001%) Mitt Romney, he cannot mobilize poor, minority, and working class constituencies to anything like the same degree as he could in 2007 and 2008 or to the degree that might be able to had he taken a progressive direction in the White House. He’s been on the inside making policy from the top down on behalf of the ruling class for more than three years now and that often makes it difficult for him to pose credibly as a champion of the people in their struggle with the Establishment. This does not necessarily mean that he will lose to Romney. If he wins re-election (and he may well – the election seems likely to be close as in 2000 and 2004), it will have more to do with negative attack campaign ads and a sense of Obama being the lesser and known evil (compared to the doltish aristocratic arch-plutocrat and wild card Romney) than with any successful rallying of progressive hopes and expectations around the banner of “hope” or “change.”
As for “reversing Bush’s imperialism,” just ask the survivors of the many Pakistanis, Afghans, Libyans, Yemenis and others killed by Obama’s drones, bombs, missiles, bullets, and invasions. The president has kept the imperial machine set on kill (as Alan Nairn put it a couple of years ago) and has actually expanded the scope of the U.S. global imperial war on/of terror. He has also pushed the military closer to conflict with China. And ask the people of Honduras (and Paraguay) if Obama has reversed the imperial U.S. policy of encouraging and assisting right wing coups in Latin America. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been considerably more aggressive than its predecessor in attacking and violating the civil liberties of antiwar protestors at home.
But anyone who thought Obama was going to reverse U.S. imperialism wasn’t paying serious attention to his speeches, writings, and Senate voting record before the election. U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Obama advertised his commitment to empire and the use of force quite clearly to those willing and able to look and listen.
Obama’s election was also expected to impact lastingly on racial relations within the US, since he’s the first black president. Can such changes be identified? Is it possible to assess that America (or maybe even not just America, but the world) has become less racist? Has there been any real change at all?
Street: Well, not really – nothing much beyond the superficial. To quote Frantz Fanon in his book Black Skin, White Masks: “What matters is not so much the color of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray.” Having black conservatives Colin Powell as Secretary of State, Condolleeza Rice as top National Security Advisor, and Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court Justice under George W. Bush did not alter the fundamental nature of U.S. race relations and neither did electing the conservative Obama to the White House.
Racism and white supremacy are very deeply entrenched in U.S. institutional and cultural life (a topic I have written about at some length in the third chapter of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics and in my 2007 book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History). Anyone who thinks that to put a very cautious and conservative, “race-neutral,” and half-white black politician into the White House is to seriously confront white racism in the U.S. has a superficial understanding of racial oppression in this country.
In some ways, Barack Obama’s election and administration seems to have worsened the nation’s racial problems. The ascendancy of Obama has been seen by many whites as proof positive that the only meaningful remaining barriers to black advancement and equality in the U.S. are internal to “black culture” and the black community itself. Along with other widely white-heralded “race neutral” black American elites like Oprah Winfrery and Colin Powell, Obama has been widely perceived as an epitome of the cultural-Darwinian thesis – as the “good” “guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner” black whose internalization of respectable white values and behavioral codes leads to success that demonstrates that a “color blind” America has answered the call for racial equality of opportunity and that impoverished “ghetto blacks” are victims of their own “bad choices” and “bad culture.”
It is a narrative that Obama has been unwilling to remotely question and more than happy to exploit to his advantage with the majority white racism-denying electorate. As the astute black left commentator Glen Ford recently noted on Black Agenda Report:
“a clear white consensus favors ‘race neutral’ government policies – which, in practice, reject Black grievances based on past discrimination and disadvantage, and set an extremely high bar for complaints of current bias. Such dismissal of essential – and irrefutable – contemporary and historical data can only be rooted in a general white belief that African American culture is what holds Blacks back. Barack Obama either shares this white attitude, or pretends he does for political gain. His singling out of ‘irresponsible’ Black fathers and hectoring of Black parents for feeding their kids Popeye’s chicken for breakfast was a shout-out to white folks that he shared their assessment of Black ‘culture.’ ”
It goes back a long way in Obama’s career. Before and since his election to the presidency, Obama has repeatedly criticized blacks for failing to think and act right and thereby to take advantage of the great opportunities supposedly afforded them by the “magical place called the United States.” He has distanced himself from the supposedly “dysfunctional” and obsolete notion that white supremacy and societal racism continue to oppress black Americans. Claiming that “a rising tide will lift all boats” and explicitly denying the need to address the specific needs of blacks, he has refused to advance any policies that might specially address harsh racial disparities resulting from racist realities – this even as already terrible black poverty, joblessness, foreclosure, homelessness, and abuse-by-police numbers have significantly worsened during his administration. A cheerleader for Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton’s neoliberal-racist elimination of poor families’ entitlement to public family cash assistance (for s-called “welfare reform”), Obama chides blacks for supposed personal and cultural failure but has nothing to say about the Caucasian culture of white supremacy that creates a living (if dangerously cloaked) reality of anti-black racial oppression in the contemporary U.S.
The kind of opposition president Obama has faced is very particular: “birthers”, “accusations” of being a Muslim, the Tea Party, and so on. What does this tell us about the historical figure of Obama?
Street: Well, it tells us less about Obama than it does about how deeply racist and nativist much of the United States remains, even if a majority of the predominantly white electorate (though not a majority of white voters) was ready to select a certain (bourgeois and “post-racial”) kind of black presidential candidate with a technically Muslim name over the terrible John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket in 2008. It tells us that the country is dangerously mired in identity politics, that American racism and nationalism after 9/11 is especially noxious in relation to Islam and the Muslim world; that the Republican Party (what I now half-jokingly call the Teapublican Party and Tea.O.P.) has gone very far to the extreme right; and that popular anger remains all too susceptible to being captured by viciously racist right-wing forces in the absence of a sustained and organized Left political opposition. The fact that people who bizarrely think that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim and radical are commonly cited as at “the opposition” to Obama speaks volumes about how incredibly far U.S. political culture has titled to the right. Majority public opinion on numerous key policy issues (jobs, inequality, social spending, labor rights, taxes, the role of money in elections, the power of corporations and the rich and more) stands well to the progressive left of Obama and the Democrats but the aforementioned dictatorships tolerate no parties to the left of the corporate and imperial U..S. Democrats – “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party” (after the U.S. Republicans). As a result there are no real progressive, even mildly social-democratic political institutions to relevantly capture progressive majority sentiments and the role of the angry and vocal “opposition” falls to the racist, white nationalist and arch-plutocratic paranoids of the ever more viciously right-wing Republican Party. It’s not a pretty situation.