Can we talk about the real Obama now?

Sam Smith
November 5, 2008

Over the past few weeks I’ve been a good boy. I’ve placed everything having to do with the real Barack Obama into a futures file and spent my time on the far grimmer matter of the real John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Now the party is over and it’s time for people to put away their Barack and Michelle dolls and start dealing with what has truly happened.

This, I admit, is difficult because the real Obama doesn’t exist yet. He follows in the footsteps of our first postmodern president, Bill Clinton, who observed the principles outlined by scholar Pauline Marie Rosenau:

Post-modernists recognize an infinite number of interpretations . . . of any text are possible because, for the skeptical post-modernists, one can never say what one intends with language, [thus] ultimately all textual meaning, all interpretation is undecipherable.. . . Many diverse meanings are possible for any symbol, gesture, word . . . Language has no direct relationship to the real world; it is, rather, only symbolic.

As James Krichick wrote in the New Republic, “Obama is, in his own words, something of a Rorschach test. In his latest book, The Audacity of Hope, he writes, ‘I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.’ ”

This is remarkably similar to Ted Koppel’s description of Vanna White of TV’s Wheel of Fortune: “Vanna leaves an intellectual vacuum, which can be filled by whatever the predisposition of the viewer happens to be.”

Obama has left the same kind of vacuum. His magic, or con, was that voters could imagine whatever they wanted and he would do nothing to spoil their reverie. He was a handsome actor playing the part of the first black president-to-be and, as in films, he was careful not to muck up the role with real facts or issues that might harm the fantasy. Hence the enormous emphasis on meaningless phrases like hope and change.

Of course, in Obama’s postmodern society — one that rises above the purported false teachings of partisanship — we find ourselves with little to steer us save the opinions of whatever non-ideologue happens to be in power. In this case, we may really only have progressed from the ideology of the many to the ideology of the one or, some might say, from democracy to authoritarianism.

The Obama campaign was driven in no small part by a younger generation trained to accept brands as a substitute for policies. If the 1960s had happened like this, the activists would have spent all their time trying to get Martin Luther King or Joan Baez elected president rather than pursing ancillary issues like ending segregation and the war in Vietnam.

Obama himself took his vaunted experience in community organizing and turned its principles on its head. Instead of empowering the many at the bottom, he used the techniques to empower one at the top: himself.

It is historic that a black has been elected president, but we should remember that Obama was not running against Bull Connor, George Wallace or Strom Thurmond. Putting Obama in the same class as earlier black activists discredits the honor of those who died, suffered physical harm or were repeatedly jailed to achieve equality. Obama is not a catalyst of change, but rather its belated beneficiary. The delay, to be sure, is striking; after all, the two white elite sports of tennis and golf were integrated long before presidential politics, but Washington – as Phil Hart said of the Senate – has always been a place that always does things twenty years after it should have.

There is an informative precedent to Obama’s rise. Forty-two years ago Edward Brooke became the first black senator to be elected with a majority of white votes. Brooke was chosen from Massachusetts as a Republican in a state that was 97% white.

Jason Sokol, who teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in History News Network:

|||| On Election Day, Brooke triumphed with nearly 60 percent of the vote. Newspapers and magazines hummed with approval. The Boston Globe invoked a legacy that included the Pilgrims, Daniel Webster, and Charles Sumner, offering the Bay State as the nation’s racial and political pioneer.

Journalist Carl Rowan was among the unconvinced. For whites, voting for Brooke became “a much easier way to wipe out guilt feelings about race than letting a Negro family into the neighborhood or shaking up a Jim Crow school setup.” Polling numbers lent credence to Rowan’s unease. They showed that only 23 percent of Massachusetts residents approved of a statewide school integration law; just 17 percent supported open housing. ||||

That’s the problem with change coming from the top, as Obama might have heard when he was involved in real community organizing. It also helps to explain why there have been no more Catholic presidents since John Kennedy. Symbolism is not the change we need.

Getting at the reality of Obama is difficult. He performs as the great black liberal, but since he is one half white and one half conservative, that doesn’t leave him a lot of wiggle room.

To be sure, in the Senate he got good ratings from various liberal groups, but two things need to be remembered:

First, liberals aren’t that liberal any more. Thus getting a 90% score merely means that you went along with the best that an extremely conservative Democratic Party was willing to risk. This is not a party that would, in these times, have passed Social Security, Medicare or minimum wage. In fact, many liberals aren’t much interested in economic issues at all – especially that portion of the constituency that controls the money, the media and the message.

Second, politicians reflect their constituency. Obama’s constituency is no longer Illinois. He has a whole new set of folks to pander to.

There is one story from Chicago, however, that remains relevant. A citizen walks into his alderman’s office looking for a job. “Who sent you?” he asks. “Nobody,” he replies. Says the staffer: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

Who sent Barack Obama remains a mystery. He has risen from an unknown state senator to president in exactly four years and that only happens when somebody sends for you.

The black liberal image falters on a number of other scores including Obama’s affection for extreme right wingers like Chuck Hagel and an obvious indifference to anybody who votes like, say, a state senator from Hyde Park. Think back over the campaign and try to recall a single instance when Obama reached out to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party or to the better angels of the Congressional Black Caucus. Instead his ads attacked as ‘extreme’ the single payer health insurance backed by many of his own supporters, he dissed ACORN and Colin Powell was as radical a black as he wanted to be seen palling around with.

The key issue that has driven Obama throughout his career has been Obama. He has achieved virtually nothing for any other cause. His politics reflects whatever elite consensus he gathers around himself. This is why his “post partisanship” needs to be watched so carefully. If Bernie Sanders and John Conyers don’t get to White House meetings as often as Chuck Hagel, Obama will glide easily to the right, as every president has done over the past thirty years. If liberals, as they did with Clinton, watch without a murmur as their president redesigns their party to fit his personal ambitions, then the whole country will continue to move to the right as well.

Since the real Obama doesn’t exist yet, it is impossible to predict with any precision what he will do. But here is some of the evidence gathered over the past months that should serve both as a warning and as a prod to progressives not to take today’s dreams as a reasonable facsimile of reality:

Business interests

Advisor Cass Sunstein told Jeffrey Rosen of the NY Times: “I would be stunned to find an anti-business [Supreme Court] appointee from either [Clinton or Obama]. There’s not a strong interest on the part of Obama or Clinton in demonizing business, and you wouldn’t expect to see that in their Supreme Court nominees.”

Obama supported making it harder to file class action suits in state courts. David Sirota in the Nation wrote, “Opposed by most major civil rights and consumer watchdog groups, this big business-backed legislation was sold to the public as a way to stop ‘frivolous’ lawsuits. But everyone in Washington knew the bill’s real objective was to protect corporate abusers.”

He voted for a business-friendly “tort reform” bill

He voted against a 30% interest rate cap on credit cards

He had the most number of foreign lobbyist contributors in the primaries

He was even more popular with Pentagon contractors than McCain

He was most popular of the candidates with K Street lobbyists

In 2003, rightwing Democratic Leadership Council named Obama as one of its “100 to Watch.” After he was criticized in the black media, Obama disassociated himself with the DLC. But his major economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, is also chief economist of the conservative organization. Writes Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer, “Goolsbee has written gushingly about Milton Friedman and denounced the idea of a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures.”

Added Henwood, “Top hedge fund honcho Paul Tudor Jones threw a fundraiser for him at his Greenwich house last spring, ‘The whole of Greenwich is backing Obama,’ one source said of the posh headquarters of the hedge fund industry. They like him because they’re socially liberal, up to a point, and probably eager for a little less war, and think he’s the man to do their work. They’re also confident he wouldn’t undertake any renovations to the distribution of wealth.”

Civil liberties

He supports the war on drugs

He supports the crack-cocaine sentence disparity

He supports Real ID

He supports the PATRIOT Act

He supports the death penalty

He opposes lowering the drinking age to 18

He supported amnesty for telecoms engaged in illegal spying on Americans

Conservatives

He went to Connecticut to support Joe Lieberman in the primary against Ned Lamont

Wrote Paul Street in Z Magazine, “Obama has lent his support to the aptly named Hamilton Project, formed by corporate-neo-liberal Citigroup chair Robert Rubin and other Wall Street Democrats to counter populist rebellion against corporatist tendencies within the Democratic Party. . . Obama was recently hailed as a Hamiltonian believer in limited government and free trade by Republican New York Times columnist David Brooks, who praises Obama for having “a mentality formed by globalization, not the SDS.”

Writes the London Times, “Obama is hoping to appoint cross-party figures to his cabinet such as Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator for Nebraska and an opponent of the Iraq war, and Richard Lugar, leader of the Republicans on the Senate foreign relations committee. Senior advisers confirmed that Hagel, a highly decorated Vietnam war veteran and one of McCain’s closest friends in the Senate, was considered an ideal candidate for defense secretary.

Richard Lugar was rated 0% by SANE. . . rated 0% by AFL-CIO. . . rated 0% BY NARAL. . . rated 12% by American Public Health Association. . . rated 0% by Alliance for Retired Americans. . . rated 27% by the National Education Association. . . rated 5% by League of Conservation Voters. . . He voted no on implementing the 9/11 Commission report. . . Vote against providing habeas corpus for Gitmo prisoners. . .voted no on comprehensive test ban treaty. . .voted against same sex marriage. . . strongly anti-abortion. . . opposed to more federal funding for healthcare. . .voted for unconstitutional wiretapping. . .voted to increase penalties for drug violations

Chuck Hagel was rated 0% by NARAL. . . rated 11% by NAACP. . . rated 0% by Human Rights Coalition. . . rated 100% by Christian Coalition. . . rated 12% by American Public Health Association. . . rated 22% by Alliance for Retired Americans. . . rated 36% by the National Education Association. . . rated 0% by League of Conservation Voters. . . rated 8% by AFL-CIO. . . He is strongly anti-abortion. . .voted for anti-flag desecration amendment. . .voted to increase penalties for drug violations. . . favors privatizing Social Security

Ecology

Obama voted for a nuclear energy bill that included money for bunker buster bombs and full funding for Yucca Mountain.

He supports federally funded ethanol and is unusually close to the ethanol industry.

He led his party’s reversal of a 25-year ban on off-shore oil drilling

Education

Obama has promised to double funding for private charter schools, part of a national effort undermining public education.

He supports the No Child Left Behind Act albeit expressing reservations about its emphasis on testing. Writes Cory Mattson, “Despite NCLB”s loss of credibility among educators and the deadlock surrounding its attempted reauthorization in 2007, Barack Obama still offers his support. Even the two unions representing teachers, both which for years supported reform of the policy to avoid embarrassing their Democratic Party ‘friends,’ declared in 2008 that the policy is too fundamentally flawed to be reformed and should be eliminated.”

Fiscal policy

Obama rejected moratoriums on foreclosures and a freeze on rates, measures supported by his primary opponents John Edwards and Hillary Clinton

He was a strong supporter of the $700 billion cash-for-trash banker bailout plan.

Two of his top advisors are former Goldman Sachs chair Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers. Noted Glen Ford of black Agenda Report, “In February 1999, Rubin and Summers flanked Fed Chief Alan Greenspan on the cover of Time magazine, heralded as, ‘The Committee to Save the World.’ Summers was then Secretary of the Treasury for Bill Clinton, having succeeded his mentor, Rubin, in that office. Together with Greenspan, the trio had in the previous year labored successfully to safeguard derivatives, the exotic ‘ticking time bomb’ financial instruments, from federal regulation.”

Robert Scheer notes that “Rubin, who pocketed tens of millions running Goldman Sachs before becoming treasury secretary, is the man who got President Clinton to back legislation by then-Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, to unleash banking greed on an unprecedented scale.”

Obama’s fund-raising machine has been headed by Penny Prtizker former chair of the Superior Bank, one of the first to get into subprime mortgages. While she resigned as chair of the family business in 1994, as late as 2001 she was still on the board and wrote a letter saying that her family was recapitalizing the bank and pledging to “once again restore Superior’s leadership position in subprime lending.” The bank shut down two months later and the Pritzker family would pay $460 million in a settlement with the government.

Foreign policy

Obama endorsed US involvement in the failed drug war in Colombia: “When I am president, we will continue the Andean Counter-Drug Program.”

He has expressed a willingness to bomb Iran and won’t rule out a first strike nuclear attack.

He has endorsed bombing or invading Pakistan to go after Al Qaeda in violation of international law. He has called Pakistan “the right battlefield … in the war on terrorism.”

He supports Israeli aggression and apartheid. Obama has deserted previous support for two-state solution to Mid East situation and refuses to negotiate with Hamas.

He has supported Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, saying “it must remain undivided.”

He favors expanding the war in Afghanistan.

Although he claims to want to get out of Iraq, his top Iraq advisor wrote that America should keep between 60,000 and 80,000 troops in Iraq. Obama, in his appearances, blurred the difference between combat soldiers and other troops.

He indicated to Amy Goodman that he would leave 140,000 private contractors and mercenaries in Iraq because “we don’t have the troops to replace them.”

He has called Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez an enemy of the United States and urged sanctions against him.

He claimed “one of the things that I think George H.W. Bush doesn’t get enough credit for was his foreign policy team and the way that he helped negotiate the end of the Cold War and prosecuted the Gulf War. That cost us $20 billion dollars. That’s all it cost. It was extremely successful. I think there were a lot of very wise people.”

He has hawkish foreign policy advisors who have been involved in past US misdeeds and failures. These include Zbigniew Brzezinski, Anthony Lake, General Merrill McPeak, and Dennis Ross.

It has been reported that he might well retain as secretary of defense Robert Gates who supports actions in violation of international law against countries merely suspected of being unwilling or unable to halt threats by militant groups.

Gays

Obama opposes gay marriage. He wouldn’t have photo taken with San Francisco mayor because he was afraid it would seem that he supported gay marriage

Health

Obama opposes single payer healthcare or Medicare for all.

Military

Obama would expand the size of the military.

National Service

Obama favors a national service plan that appears to be in sync with one being promoted by a new coalition that would make national service mandatory by 2020, and with a bill requiring such mandatory national service introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel.

He announced in Colorado Springs last July, “We cannot continue to rely on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives we’ve set. We’ve got to have a civilian national security force that’s just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded.”

On another occasion he said, “It’s also important that a president speaks to military service as an obligation not just of some, but of many. You know, I traveled, obviously, a lot over the last 19 months. And if you go to small towns, throughout the Midwest or the Southwest or the South, every town has tons of young people who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s not always the case in other parts of the country, in more urban centers. And I think it’s important for the president to say, this is an important obligation. If we are going into war, then all of us go, not just some.” Some have seen this as a call for reviving the draft.

He has attacked the exclusion of ROTC on some college campuses

Presidential crimes

Obama aggressively opposed impeachment actions against Bush. One of his key advisors, Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School, said prosecuting government officials risks a “cycle” of criminalizing public service.

Progressives

Unlike his deferential treatment of right wing conservatives, Obama’s treatment of the left has been dismissive to insulting. He dissed Nader for daring to run for president again. And he called the late Paul Wellstone “something of a gadfly”

Public Campaign Financing

Obama’s retreat from public campaign financing has endangered the whole concept.

Social welfare

Obama wrote that conservatives and Bill Clinton were right to destroy social welfare,

Social Security

Early in the campaign, Obama said, “everything is on the table” with Social Security.

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As things now stand, the election primarily represents the extremist center seizing power back from the extremist right. We have moved from the prospect of disasters to the relative comfort of mere crises.

Using the word ‘extreme’ alongside the term ‘center’ is no exaggeration. Nearly all major damage to the United States in recent years – a rare exception being 9/11 – has been the result of decisions made not by right or left but by the post partisan middle: Vietnam, Iraq, the assault on constitutional liberties, the huge damage to the environment, and the collapse of the economy – to name a few. Go back further in history and you’ll find, for example, the KKK riddled with members of the establishment including – in Colorado – a future governor, senator and mayor after whom Denver’s airport is named. The center, to which Obama pays such homage, has always been where most of the trouble lies.

The only thing that will make Obama the president pictured in the campaign fantasy is unapologetic, unswerving and unendingly pressure on him in a progressive and moral direction, for he will not go there on his own. But what, say, gave the New Deal its progressive nature was pressure from the left of a sort that simply doesn’t exist today.

Above are listed nearly three dozen things that Obama supports or opposes with which no good liberal or progressive would agree. Unfortunately, what’s out there now, however, looks more like a rock concert crowd or evangelical tent meeting than a determined and directed political constituency. Which isn’t so surprising given how successful our system have been at getting people to accept sights, sounds, symbols and semiotics as substitutes for reality. Once again, it looks like we’ll have to learn the hard way.

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2 thoughts on “Can we talk about the real Obama now?

  1. <>“First, liberals aren’t that liberal any more.”<>How true. I used to consider myself very conservative. But the rest of the country has sprinted past me to the right so far that I am now a leftist.

  2. <>“First, liberals aren’t that liberal any more.”<>How true. I used to consider myself very conservative. But the rest of the country has sprinted past me to the right so far that I am now a leftist.

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