Status QuObama: A Hundred Days of Fake-Progressive BS and Liberal-Left Surrender
By Paul Street
Created 04/29/2009 – 12:21
The nation’s first Black president proceeds unmolested by the Left as he moves mountains of money in a crusade to save the investment banking class. Anti-war forces dissolve into nothingness as Barack Obama extends the U.S. occupation of Iraq indefinitely. A new theater of war called Af-Pak coagulates in South Asia, yet benumbed “progressives” praise their president as the consummate man of peace. “By demanding nothing of Obama and the Democrats except that they not technically be Republicans, our so-called “progressive” organizations effectively grant advance approval to whatever corporate and imperial policies the new president and the Democrats execute.”
Status QuObama: A Hundred Days of Fake-Progressive BS and Liberal-Left Surrender
by Paul Street
“The new White House, with its first black president, its first black Attorney General, and its first black Ambassador to the UN decided not to be present at the world’s leading forum to address international race relations.”
Barack Obama’s media maven David Axelrod recently told the Los Angeles Times that “Barack Obama wasn’t elected to stand guard over the status quo; he was elected to change it.” Insofar as Axelrod is right on why millions of voters supported Obama, the obvious question is “so what?” Obama was selected by the predominantly corporate and imperial establishment in advance precisely to, well, preserve the capitalist, imperial, and racial status quo.
THE “HIDDEN PRIMARY”
Every four years, many Americans are fooled into investing their hopes in an electoral process that does not deserve their trust. These voters are led by the dominant (so-called “mainstream”) corporate media and the broader U.S. political culture and thought-control system to hope that a savior can be installed in the White House – someone who will raise wages, roll back war and militarism, provide universal and adequate health care, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, produce high-paying jobs, fix the environmental crisis, reduce inequality, guarantee economic security, and generally make daily life more livable.
The dreams are regularly drowned in the icy waters of historical and political “reality.” In the actuality of American politics and policy, the officially “electable” candidates are vetted in advance by what Laurence Shoup calls “the hidden primary of the ruling class.” By prior Establishment selection, all of the “viable” presidential contenders are closely tied to corporate and military-imperial power in numerous and interrelated ways. They run safely within the narrow ideological and policy parameters set by those who rule behind the scenes to make sure that the rich and privileged continue to be the leading beneficiaries of the American system.
“All of the ‘viable’ presidential contenders are closely tied to corporate and military-imperial power in numerous and interrelated ways.”
In its presidential as in its other elections, U.S. “democracy” is “at best” a “guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, consistent with the larger population projects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process. It is an illusion,” Shoup claims – correctly in my opinion – “that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate.” (Laurence H. Shoup, “The Presidential Election 2008,” Z Magazine, February 2008).
While he advances the illusion of change through corporate-controlled elections with a special flair, “Brand Obama” is no special or magical exception to this harsh reality.
As recent reports on Obama’s “first 100 days” make clear, the dominant (so-called “mainstream”) corporate media is propagating the foolish notion that the new president has in fact acted impressively on his purported mandate to “change the status quo.” The deeper reality of the new administration is straight out of Shoup: preservation of the existing order.
My article in last week’s Black Agenda Report (titled “Race Cowardice From the Top Down”) was dedicated to Obama’s deep conservatism on race. This essay focuses on Obama service to the related and combined structures of American empire and capitalism, both of which are of course richly racialized.
OBAMA AND THE EMPIRE
The Occupation Lives On
Obama won his epic primary battle with Hillary Clinton largely because he was able to convince much of the Democratic Party’s liberal base to believe in the fairy tale that he was a strong and consistent opponent of George W. Bush and Hillary’s arch-criminal invasion of Iraq. The fantasy lives on. Reading the fine print on Obama’s Iraq plan, however, it is evident that he intends to sustain the occupation of that country into the indefinite future. He will keep at least 50,000 troops in Iraq well after the August 2010 combat troop withdrawal date he campaigned on.. Many of the troops who stay will be in combat units re-designated as “Advisory” brigades, a new classification that George Orwell would appreciate. Obama’s “withdrawal” plan “says nothing about the private contractors and mercenaries that are an essential part of the occupation and whose numbers may even be increased to cover functions previously provided by active-duty troops. …It will leave in place the world’s largest foreign embassy, as well as the world’s largest CIA foreign station, in Baghdad.” The U.S will maintain critical control over Iraqi skies and a significant naval and air presence “over the horizon.”
“It is evident that he intends to sustain the occupation of that country into the indefinite future.”
So much for a rapid end to the occupation, long supported by the great majority of Iraqis, not to mention most Americans since 2005.
The Doctrine of Good Intentions
Recently, Obama added occupation insult to injury during his visit to so-called “Camp Victory” in Iraq. Consistent with his longstanding support for the Doctrine of America’s Good and Democratic Intentions on the global stage, Obama said that its time for the Iraqis to step up to the plate and “take responsibility” for the “democracy” and “sovereignty” the noble United States has so benevolently granted them. This was a nauseating thing to say more than six years into a brazenly imperial and petro-colonial invasion that Obama is finding ways to continue against the expressed will of the Iraqi people. Beyond the fact that Iraqis have been standing up against the foreign invaders in the name of national sovereignty since the beginning of the U.S. invasion, Obama’s claim of benevolent U.S intent is Orwellian in light of the unimaginable havoc we have wreaked in Mesopotamia, including more than 1 million killed, a vast out-exodus of the professional class and the near-collapse of Iraqi infrastructure, all following in the wake of an earlier devastating U.S. military attack and more than a decade of mass-murderous U.S.-led “economic sanctions. As the respected veteran Middle East journalist Nir Rosen recently said on Democracy Now two weeks ago, we’ve created a Hell in Iraq, not a free democracy.
Kooky Conspiracy Talk on “Af-Pak”
Meanwhile, Obama is increasing the level of imperial violence in Afghanistan and in nuclear Pakistan. He brushed off Afghanistan president Karzai’s plea for the U.S. to stop killing Afghans and for the U.S. to propose some sort of timeline for ending our illegal occupation of that country. Karzai’s minimal assertions of national independence have irked Obama, who is increasing the U.S. force presence in Afghanistan, a legendary graveyard of empires. Noam Chomsky reasonably expects Karzai to be placed under the supervision of a U.S. imperial surrogate who will essentially run the country from Washington.
“Obama is expanding the United States’ not-so covert war in Pakistan.”
It would be nice to report that the real source of Obama’s irritation with Karzai was that the Afghan president recently signed a law that worsens the terrible oppression of women in Afghanistan. But when asked about that law, Obama made it clear that women’s right have little to do with his “new strategy” for Afghanistan, which is all about “defeat[ing] al Qaeda .”
At the same time, Obama is expanding the United States’ not-so covert war in Pakistan. As the Middle East expert and University of Michigan historian Juan Cole has been saying of late, Obama has bought into a recycled version of the crackpot Cold War conspiracy and “domino theory.” In Obama’s “updated, al Qaida version” of the domino thesis, Cole notes, “the Taliban might take Kuna Province, and then all of Afghanistan, and might again host al-Qaida, and might then threaten the shores of the United States.”
Pakistan is added on to Afghanistan by Obama like Cambodia was added on to its neighbor Vietnam by President Nixon. This time however, the dangerous territorial expansion is openly acknowledged with Obama merging the two nations “into one theater of war, called Af-Pak” (Glen Ford).
As Cole observes, Obama’s call to arms is no more credible than Dick Cheney and John McCain’s raving about the danger of an “al-Qaida victory in Iraq.” The Taliban and al Qaeda are nowhere close to being able to take over Afghanistan and Pakistan. If anything, Cole notes, the greatest thing working on the weak Pakistani Taliban’s behalf is the occurrence of U.S. Predator drone strikes on Pakistani territory, which help the extremists seem like sympathetic victims to parts of the Pakistani public.
Standard Double Standards on the Middle East, Race, and Cuba
Obama is continuing core Bush policies on Israel and Iran. He refuses to pay honest attention to the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people, about whose fate he stayed sickeningly mute during the savage U.S.-Israel assault on Gaza last December and January – an attack that conveniently ended on the day of his inauguration.
“Obama refuses to pay honest attention to the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people.”
Obama lectures Arabs on their duty to “unclench [their] fist[s] but says nothing about Israel’s murderously employed fists and refuses to acknowledge the well-known fact that Israel is a heavily nuclearized state in the Middle East. He continues the Bush administration practice of ignoring the Palestinians’ elected government and refuses to acknowledge that continuing illegal Israeli incursions into the West Bank make the official U.S. goal of a two-state Israel-Palestine solution impossible.
Obama is continuing the basic Bush policy of encouraging an anti-Iran alliance between the Israeli occupation state and so-called “moderate” Arab states. These “moderate” states include Egypt’s atrocious dictatorship and Saudi Arabia, the most reactionary government on Earth. All of these states continue to be lavishly funded by the U.S.
Obama has followed in George W. Bush’s footsteps by boycotting the second international United Nations conference on racism, the so-called “Durban II” gathering in Switzerland this month and for the same two basic reasons as Bush. First, the conference dares to raise the issue of slavery reparations. Second, the conference dares to discuss the racism experienced by Arab Palestinians under the apartheid-like system in the occupied territories. And so the new White House, with its first black president, its first black Attorney General, and its first black Ambassador to the UN decided not to be present at the world’s leading forum to address international race relations.
Meanwhile, Obama resorts to off-the-books, so-called supplemental funding of the colonial Iraq and Afghanistan Wars – a deceptive war-financing method that Bush pioneered and which Obama said he would abandon.
He sustains the crushing 47-year trade embargo and the American travel ban on Cuba, rejecting broad Latin American sentiment and even the opinion of some Republicans. He insists on trying to punish and undermine Cuban socialism, which can never be forgiven for daring to modernize and develop outside and against the supervision of Uncle Sam.
A Tortuous Record on Habeas Corpus and Torture
Then there’s Obama’s interesting record on human rights and torture. Last February the Obama administration filed a federal brief that embraced the Bush administration’s position against habeas corpus as long as the “enemy combatants” are seized abroad and flown to the Bagram Air Force prison in Afghanistan instead of to Guantanamo.
Two Thursday ago, the Obama Justice Department expressed its determination to protect CIA torturers from prosecution after it released memorandums on the Bush administration’s extreme torture practices. Those memorandums only saw the light of day because of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. By announcing in advance that it will not go after the direct torturers, the Obama administration has destroyed its ability to use the threat of prosecution as a way of getting CIA personnel to testify against the top officials who formulated the Bush torture policy. It also disturbingly echoes the Nazi’s defense of human right perpetrators on the grounds that the criminals were just following orders.
“The Obama administration has destroyed its ability to use the threat of prosecution as a way of getting CIA personnel to testify against the top officials.”
As the Justice Department released the memos spelling out brutal CIA interrogation methods a couple weeks ago, Obama said that “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past” (New York Times, April 17, 2009). This from a former and supposedly liberal law professor, someone who should be expected to understand that one investigates and punishes past human rights crimes precisely in order to discourage and prevent their occurrence in the present and future. It’s true that Obama subsequently seemed to relent a bit in the face of a wave of civil-libertarian disgust and said that his Attorney General Eric Holder might want to investigate the Bush administration lawyers who approved torture. But don’t look for much from Holder. As one of my regular ZNet readers recently noted, “Holder was a key figure in the early days of Bush’s ‘dark side’ policies, breaking ranks (if one can call the weak Democratic Party opposition ‘ranks’) to support Bush’s denial of Geneva protections to detainees.”
As the New York Times reported nine days ago, citing top White House aides, moreover, Obama “opted to disclose the memos because his lawyers worried that they had a weak case for withholding them and much of the information had already been published in the New York Review of Books, in a memoir by George Tenent, the former CIA Director, and even in a 2006 speech by President George W. Bush.” (New York Times, April 21, 2009, A1).
Now we have Obama and the Democratic leadership in the Senate signaling that they will block efforts to set up an independent commission to investigate the Bush torture policy. Obama spokesperson Robert Gibbs justifies this sickening position by saying that “this is not a time for retribution” and that “we’re all best suited looking forward.”
“My Most Agonizing Decision”
Revealingly enough, when Obama went to Langley last week to reassure CIA staffers of his safety to their interests, Obama said that his decision to release the torture memos was the “most agonizing” call of his presidency so far. I heard that line on the evening news and turned off my television. “Wow,” I said. “The was his ‘most agonizing’ decision so far – reluctantly agreeing under legal compulsion to release documents showing a previous administration’s human right crimes. Not his decision to launch missiles and expand illegal wars certain to kill children and other civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Not his decision to hand out yet more hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to Wall Street parasites while poverty rises across the nation and the world. Not his decision to increase the war and military budget while destitution expands at home and abroad.
OBAMA AND CAPITALISM
“Keeping Perpetrators Afloat”
Turning to the home front, Obama refuses to advance the obvious cost-cutting and social democratic health care solution – single-payer national health insurance (improved Medicare for all). Consistent with his recent description of himself as a “New [that is corporate] Democrat,” Obama will spend untold trillions of dollars on further taxpayer handouts to the giant Wall Street firms who spent millions on his campaign and who drove the economy over the cliff. He is too attached to those firms and to their so-called “free market” ideology to undertake the elementary bank nationalizations and public financial restructuring that are obviously required to put the nation’s credit system on a sound and socially responsible basis. Obama’s plan to guarantee the financial, insurance, and real estate industries’ toxic, hyper-inflated assets while keeping existing Wall Street management in place amounts to a giant effort (according to liberal economist James K. Gailbraith) to “keep perpetrators afloat” at a cost of at least one trillion taxpayer dollars. The program amounts to what leading liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls a “coin flip” in which “investors win if its heads and taxpayers lose if its tails.” The government (identical to the people in a functioning democracy) takes more than 90 percent of the risk but private investors reap at least half the reward.
Fake-Progressive Chest-Pounding/ “No Peace Dividend”
Obama pounds his chest about executive bonuses and makes carefully orchestrated visits expressing concern about poverty and job-loss to places like Pomona, California and Elkhart, Indiana. But it’s all a public relations game crafted to provide fake-progressive cover for his corporate, Wall Street agenda and for his related commitment to the unmentionable 1$ trillion-a-year Pentagon budget, which pays for more than 760 bases across more than 130 nations and accounts for nearly half the military spending on earth – all in the name of “defense.” The leading Wall Street investment firm and bailout recipient Morgan Stanley reported one day after Obama’s election victory that Obama [quote] “has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend.”
“Change Means More of the Same”
Early last April the New York Times published an article with an ironic title: “In Cuba, Change Means More of the Same.” This “news” item reports that “rather than dismantling Cuba’s socialist framework,” Cuba’s President Raul Castro “seems to be trying to make it work more efficiently.” Castro, the Times reports, seeks to keep power concentrated “at the top.” But what is U.S. President Barack Obama – Mr. “Change” himself – trying to accomplish other than to make the American corporate profits system “work more efficiently” without “dismantling the [capitalist] framework” and with power (and wealth) still concentrated “at the top?”
“It’s all a public relations game crafted to provide fake-progressive cover for his corporate, Wall Street agenda.”
As the Times acknowledged last March in an article titled “English-Speaking Capitalism on Trial,” Obama and his neoliberal partner Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, have “focused on ways of revitalizing the [existing] system…. Even as both men have embarked on enormous increases in public-sector spending,”Times correspondents John Burns and Landon Thomas noted, “they have maintained that the solutions to the crisis lie in reawakening the markets and recapitalizing the banks rather than tearing at the system’s foundations. And both, when they respond to private anger at the private sector, have seemed more geared to managing anger than stoking it.”
As the prolific Marxist geographer David Harvey recently observed on “Democracy Now,” “what [the Obama team is] trying to do is to reinvent the same system” – to “reconstitute the same sort of capitalism we have had over and over again over the last thirty years in a slightly more regulated, benevolent form” that doesn’t “challenge the fundamentals”
“Conservative Solutions to Radical Problems”
Meanwhile, Obama’s tepid and undersized stimulus plan is dysfunctionally over-loaded with business-friendly tax cuts and too short on labor-intensive projects to put people to work right away. He says nothing or close to it about the overdue labor law reform he campaigned on, the Employee Free Choice Act, which ought, as Noam Chomsky recently argued, to be at the heart and center of any reasonably progressive economic recovery program. Worse, Obama speaks in support of the anti-union, teacher-bashing, and test-based corporate education agenda, advocating teacher “merit pay” and charter schools. He makes a public visit (in support of his stimulus bill) to the headquarters of Caterpillar, a provider of bulldozers for illegal Israeli settlements. Caterpillar was also the first large U.S. manufacturer in decades to break a major strike with scabs.
“Obama says nothing or close to it about the overdue labor law reform he campaigned on, the Employee Free Choice Act.”
Praised by political and media elites for the skill with which he and his handlers are “managing [betrayed popular] expectations,” Obama fails to advance elementary and urgently needed progressive measures like a moratorium on foreclosures, a capping of credit card interest rates and finance charges, and the rollback of capital income tax rates to 1981 (not just 1993) levels. He won’t let the government enter into the business of making direct mortgage loans. Even before the inauguration, Obama committed himself to so-called “entitlement reform,” code language for claiming to cut the federal deficit by chipping away at Medicare and Social Security – by taking a pound of flesh from the incomes and health of senior citizens.
His federal restructuring of the auto industry is bound to lead to yet more wage and pension cuts for current and retired auto workers. His refusal to undertake such restructuring on Wall Street, which collapsed the economy, reflects the enormous political power of the street’s great firms but many labor progressive also think it may reflect the fact there are no great institutions of working class power like the UAW to be undermined on Wall Street. Consistent with that suspicion, Obama’s aides defend him against the charge that he is wimpy when it comes to confronting powerful institutions by praising him for “picking fights” with “main components of the Democratic base, like organized labor” (New York Times, April 19, 2009, Sec.1, p.1) – as if unions instead of capitalist corporations were the real source of money and power in Washington.
The liberal-progressive economist Robert Kuttner, who hoped passionately for a “progressive” Obama presidency, is sorely disappointed, noting that the new chief executive is advancing “conservative solutions to radical problems.” Kuttner’s thwarted dreams for Obama are summarized in a rapidly written book published before the election under the revealing (see below) title “Obama’s Challenge.”
Socialism for the Rich and Capitalism for the Rest
Meanwhile, a rising number of citizens in “the world’s richest nation” face new challenges in the struggle simply to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. Badly damaged by a vicious 1990s welfare “reform” (elimination) that Obama has repeatedly praised as a great policy success, the nation’s public family cash assistance system is too weak to match the expansion of destitution across America even as the new president advances a new level of Wall Street Welfare. Tent cities, modern-day Hoovervilles for the evicted and foreclosed, have sprung up in more than a dozen U.S. cities. Foreclosures dipped briefly while the mortgage companies waited for the details on Obama’s tepid housing plan. But foreclosures are surging again and unemployment continues to expand as Obama speaks of “glimmers of [economic] hope” and while Fed Chief Bernake claims to discern “green shoots” of recovery.
“Wall Street paychecks and bonuses are soaring back to 2007 levels.”
And yet last Sunday’s New York Times reports on page one that pay at the nation’s leading investment banks, after falling off last year, is, yes, bouncing back to stratospheric heights. Wall Street paychecks and bonuses are soaring back to 2007 levels, thanks in no small measure to the fact that the bankers can borrow cheaply, with all those federal guarantees. It’s party time again on the street, thanks to the $600 billion committed under the TARP, the vast credit lines proffered by the Fed, expanded F.D.I.C. guarantees, the government bailout of AIG, and the like…thanks to not-so Temporary Assistance for not so Needy Banks,
A recent glowing Los Angeles Times assessment of Obama’s first hundred Days reproduces an interesting statement from Obama to the leaders of the banking industry last March. As the financial chieftains began to complain to him about the public’s failure to understand their industry’s need for high levels of compensation, Obama cut them off. “Be careful how you make those statements,” Obama said. “The public isn’t buying that. My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”
As a student who told me about this Los Angeles Times story writes, “The question for me (and I assume for many leftists) is why is Obama using his administration to protect the bankers from the angry rabble (us)? Why doesn’t his administration simply address the people’s needs and leave the bankers to their fate? These are, of course, rhetorical questions. We know that he is serving to protect and legitimate the highly undemocratic and destructive class system of state capitalism through another crisis.”
“What’s the Dollar Value of a Starry-Eyed Idealist?”
It’s not for nothing that Obama received a record-setting $38 million from the financial, real estate, and insurance industries in the last election cycle, including close to $1 million from Goldman Sachs alone. Government Sachs and Morgan Stanley and AIG are not in the business of handing over the White House to progressive enemies of Empire and Inequality, Incorporated.
“Morgan Stanley and AIG are not in the business of handing over the White House to progressive enemies.”
“It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” Ken Silverstein noted 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 reported, “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?'”
The Invisible Color of the Crisis
Two and a half years later, the crisis of black and Latino communities deepens with special pain and invisibility. Following the usual racial pattern in the long history of American business cycles, the Great Recession is hitting people of color harder than it is hitting whites. The rising official black poverty and unemployment rates continue (as usual) to hover around double that of whites.
This “little” problem is rarely discussed in the “mainstream” political and media culture. It doesn’t help, of course, that the new administration stays militantly silent on the nation’s savage racial inequalities and the institutional racism that continues to feed those disparities in the age of Obama, consistent with the extreme race-neutralism of the Obama campaign (see Paul Street, “Race Cowardice from the Top Down ,” Black Agenda Report. April 22, 2009) – this even after Obama’s technically black Attorney General made a speech (last February) arguing that the U.S. in a “nation of cowards” on race.
“The new administration stays militantly silent on the nation’s savage racial inequalities.”
Domestic Private Assault Weapons Live On
With rising economic insecurity, the population becomes more and more dangerously unraveled. Domestic gun violence is in the rise and yet even as we endure a record epidemic of mass shootings, the “pragmatic” Obama has recently suggested that he will abandon yet another campaign promise by failing to fight in Congress to renew the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004.
LEFT” SURRENDER: OUR CHALLENGE, NOT OBAMA’S
“We Were Warned”
Progressive activists and intellectuals are right to be angered about the new president’s short but already clear record of centrist imperial and state-capitalist governance and “expectation management.” But as Naomi Klein noted some weeks ago, they have no right to be disappointed or surprised. Obama’s post-election trajectory is thoroughly predictably given well-known limits and incentive in the dominant, corporate-crafted U.S. political culture and party system and in light of numerous warnings about the Obama phenomenon that various Left activists and intellectuals over recent years.
As Scott Horton noted last March on Antiwar.com , “those who bought into the slogans ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’ last fall should have read the fine print. We were warned.”
Indeed, candidate Obama’s speeches to elite establishment bodies like the Council on Foreign Relations and his presentations to institutions like NASDAQ and wealth funders and newspaper editorial boards sent strong signals of his basic underlying safety to – and belief in – dominant domestic and global hierarchies and doctrines.
“Obama has consistently surrounded himself with elite agents of corporate and imperial power.”
From the start of his campaign and through his cabinet selections and appointments, moreover, Obama has consistently surrounded himself with elite agents of corporate and imperial power, people like James Jones, Rahm Emmanuel, Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner. Obama’s claim that he will provide the “vision” to move such corporate and imperial operatives in a “progressive” direction is like a baseball manager claiming that he’s going to build a team based on speed and defense with a roster full of clumsy, slow-footed 280-pound power hitters.
“Incapable of Action or In Obama’s Pocket”
Furthermore, progressives need to take a certain degree of responsibility for Obama’s behavior. The absence of spine and intelligence on the part of what passes for a Left in the U.S. is quite remarkable. By demanding nothing of Obama and the Democrats except that they not technically be Republicans, our so-called “progressive” organizations effectively grant advance approval to whatever corporate and imperial policies the new president and the Democrats execute.
Real progressive change is our challenge, not Obama’s. But many of us on the left don’t seem terribly interested in meeting the test. As John Judis has argued in even the centrist journal The New Republic, a major reason that Obama has been able to go forward with a conservative and inadequate economic plan “is that there is no popular left movement agitating for him to go” further…”Sure,” Judis writes, “there are leftwing intellectuals …beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I,” Judis argued, “am…referring to movements that stir up trouble and get people angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama’s pocket.” By Judis’ analysis, the U.S. labor movement and groups like “Moveon.Org” are repeating the same “mistake that political groups often make” – the mistake of “subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the Democratic Party and its leading politician.”
“What exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama’s pocket.”
The antiwar movement is disbanding itself, essentially defeated by the nation’s first black president. The Congressional Quarterly claims that the anti-war movement is paying the price of “its own success.” But that’s baloney. As BAR’s Glen Ford points out. “The anti-war movement has hit rock-bottom because of its failure to challenge this particular president, an imperialist with charm, a warmonger with a winning smile. Obama has whipped them, but good.”
This is exactly what John Pilger and I predicted would result from an Obama presidency last year – the abject surrender and pacification of the antiwar movement based on the fairly tale notion of Obama as an antiwar president.
Meanwhile, the dominant U.S. labor federations are on board with Obama’s inadequate corporate health care and economic stimulus plans.. They remain remarkably respectful and relatively mute in their public commentary on Obama’s apparent reluctance to push the EFCA. Grotesquely enough, SEIU president Andy Stern is an open and vicious opponent of single-payer national health insurance, itself supported by most Americans.
Meanwhile, the left Democratic journal The Nation has absurdly called Obama’s tepid budget proposal “an audacious plan to transform America” in progressive ways. Progressive filmmaker Michael Moore proclaimed absurdly that Obama’s auto restructuring plan sends the message that “the government of, by, and for the people is in charge here, not big business.”
“You Can Carp and Gripe”
According to the liberal historian Alan Lichtman, assessing Obama’s First Hundred Days for two Los Angeles Times reporters, “you can carp and gripe. But you really have to go back as far as Franklin Roosevelt for this much coming out of a newly elected president.” Besides forgetting the example of Lyndon Johnson, Lichtman elegantly obliterates the question of the empire- and inequality-friendly content and power-preserving nature of what it is exactly that is and isn’t coming out of the White House. The liberal academic’s pithy comment also managed to identify substantive criticism of the new administration as negativistic fault-finding and complaining – a standard charge against anyone who dares to criticize concentrated power from the left.
“Progressives Can Only Hope…”
“The most progressive aspects of the New Deal owed their existence to working class protest.”
Leading left-liberal Democratic economists/public intellectuals Robert Kuttner and Paul Krugman hope for “a new New Deal” under Obama. They fail, however, to mention the significant extent to which the most progressive aspects of the New Deal owed their existence to working class protest and to related left-wing activism during the 1930s. In a New York Times column titled “Franklin Delano Obama” six days after the election, Krugman wrote that “Mr. Obama’s chances of leading a new New Deal depend largely on whether his short-term economic plans are sufficiently bold. Progressives,” Krugman counseled, “can only hope that he has the necessary audacity.”
Just yesterday (I am writing on the morning of April 28, 2009), Krugman said the following at the end of a column that criticized Wall Street bankers for believing that they will soon be able to return to their pre-2008 norm of making outrageous profits off other people’s money: “We can only hope that our leaders prove them wrong, and carry through with real reform.“
In “Obama’s Challenge,” Kuttner hoped that the onset of “the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression,” will lead Obama to shows his colors as “that rare transformational leader” who “educates” the “people on behalf of expansive uses of progressive government” through the “force of [his] own character,”
Progressives can only hope that the great, wise, and wonderful wizard of Obama can have the audacity to save the day? Hello?
“Only When it Has Encountered Rebellion From Below”
Krugman and Kuttner might want to take a look at Howard Zinn’s bestselling volume A People’s History of the United States or at Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s classic study Poor Peoples’ Movement: How They Succeed and Why They Fail, to review some elementary lessons on how big progressive change occurs. These studies demonstrate in rich historical detail how direct action, social disruption, and the threat of radical change from the bottom up forced social and political reform benefiting working- and lower-class and black people during the 1930s and the 1960s. They show the critical role played by grassroots social movements and popular resistance in educating presidents and the broader power elite on the need for change. As Zinn noted two springs ago, “The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties.”
As Obama himself (along with John Edwards) repeatedly noted during the campaign, in a comment that has not fallen from his lips since he reached the White House, “change doesn’t happen from the top down. Change happens from the bottom up.” And here we might add that change from the bottom up happens through the painstaking creation and expansion of grassroots social forces and organizations beneath and beyond the great quadrennial corporate-crafted mass marketed narrow-spectrum and candidate centered electoral and media extravaganzas that pass for the only politics that matter in the United States.
Paul Street (•••@••.••• ) is a political commentator and author in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefied, 2007), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008).
Moderator: •••@••.••• (comments welcome)