Obama's Violin: Who's Playing, Who's Being Played?

by Paul Street

Delving into the speeches and writings of the President of Change reveals a Barack Obama sharply at odds with the popular image.  On war, peace and a host of other issues the gulf is widening between what many voted for, and what they are beginning to get from the 44th president.


This article originally appeared in Znet.


"What's the Dollar Value of a Starry-Eyed Idealist?"


This article reviews Barack Obama's record since the day of his election. That record, we shall see, is deeply consistent with his record-setting corporate election funding, including more than $900,000 from Goldman Sachs and $37.5 million from "FIRE" (the finance, real estate, and insurance industries), and with the fact that, like George W. Bush in 2004, small donors (people giving a total of $200 or less) accounted for just a quarter of his total campaign finance haul.


It matches former Clinton administration official David Rothkopf's early post-election observation that Obama was following the "violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right."


It fits New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar's description (in May of 2007) of Obama as a "deeply conservative" individual who "values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good" and Ryan Lizza's portrait (also in The New Yorker, in July of 2008) of Obama as someone who has been "marked" at "every stage of his political career" by "an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions." 


If reflects well on the left black political scientist Adolph Reed Jr.'s following description of Obama at the very beginning of the future president's political career in 1996: "a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics."


It fits the comment by a leading Washington lobbyist, who told journalist Ken Silverstein in 2006 that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn't see him as a "player" for "What's the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?'" (Ken Silverstein, "Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine," Harper's, November 2006).


It jibes nicely with the formerly left Christopher Hitchens' onetime description of "essence of American politics" as "the manipulation of populism by elitism" and with Edward S. Herman's observation (in an article titled "Democratic Betrayal") that Democratic presidential candidates make "populist and peace-stressing promises and gestures that are betrayed instantly on the assumption of power" (Edward S. Herman, "Democratic Betrayal," Z Magazine, January 2007). 


It speaks favorably to Laurence Shoup's argument that U.S. politics are structured so that "electable" candidates are vetted in advance by "the hidden primary of the ruling class" so that the rich and privileged Few continue to be the leading beneficiaries of the American system." (Laurence H. Shoup, "The Presidential Election 2008," Z Magazine, February 2008).


It matches Sheldon Wolin's recent description (in his haunting book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism) of U.S. culture as a form of incipiently totalitarian "corporate-managed democracy" wherein both wings of the "one-and-a-half party system" operate within a profoundly narrow spectrum that prohibits relevant substantive criticism of business and militarist rule.


It fits former Richard Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips' description of the Democratic Party as "history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party" and with the Marxist author Lance Selfa's recent historical depiction of the Democratic Party as "one of the chief pillars of the [capitalist] system that perpetuates oppression and exploitation" (The Democrats: A Critical History [Chicago: Haymarket, 2008], p.198).


It is consistent with the following judgment in a report issued by research analysts with the leading Wall Street investment firm Morgan Stanley one day after Obama's presidential election victory: "As we understand it, Obama has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend."


It is in harmony with Obama advisor Samantha Power's description (in an interview in February of 2008 with television talk show host Charlie Rose) of one of Obama's key tasks once he attained the highest office: "expectation calibration and expectation management" (something Power said "is essential at home and internationally"). As The New York Times candidly noted on February 12, "since Election Night, when he warned of 'setbacks' and 'false starts,'" Obama "has assiduously managed the politics of the moment with an eye toward tempering [popular] expectations."


And it fits the following observation recently sent to me by a friend who works as a substitute teacher in an inner-city public school system:


"Today, I asked a class for which I was subbing (high-school English students, about a dozen, all-black, at one of the system's actually nice high-school facilities) what they thought of Obama.  Their initial reaction was one of, for lack of a better way to say it, pride and joy."


"But upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a rather shallow sentiment.  For when I asked them if they expected any real changes under Obama, they all said no."


"So while they are (currently) happy he is in the White House, they know full well that he will be no different from any other president -- and it's not something they only know 'deep down.'  They know it pretty close to the surface."


As President Elect (November 4, 2008-January 19, 2009)


The highlights of Obama's violin performance as President-elect included the following:


* A conservative Election Night speech that said nothing about rampant and rising poverty and economic (or racial or gender) inequality and made a point of dampening down popular expectations with warnings of "setbacks and false starts." Obama's victory oration claimed that "change has come to America" because of "this election" and that his ascendancy proved that "democracy" was still "strong" in the U.S.


* A many-sided slew of highly conservative corporate- and military-friendly Cabinet appointments, including noted war Hawk Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Iraq invasion Surge architect Robert Gates (carried over from the arch-criminal Bush administration) atop the "Defense" (empire) Department.  As top economic advisor Obama gave the nod to Lawrence Summers, a leading neoliberal corporatist and the onetime leading architect (under Bill Clinton and Clinton's Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin) of the financial deregulation that has recently blown up in the world's economic face - a pick that leading progressive economist Dean Baker likened to "putting Osama bin Laden in charge of the [so-called, P.S.] war on terror."


* An economics speech (at George Mason University) claiming that "everyone is going to have to give" - a fascinating comment in a nation where the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of the wealth, 57 percent of all paper claims on wealth (along with a probably larger share of the nation's leading policymakers and politicians)  while tens of millions of Americans live beneath the notoriously inadequate federal poverty level and go without health insurance and as the real unemployment rate (including involuntarily part-time workers and those who have quit trying for jobs) climbs toward 20 percent.


* Hypocritical silence on the U.S.-Israel slaughter of innocents trapped in the Gaza strip.  Obama tried to justify this silence of complicity with claims that "institutional constraints" and the need to have just "one president at a time" even as he made regular proto-presidential statements on the economy and wasted no time denouncing the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.


* A "blacklisting of progressives" (as veteran liberal Washington- and Obama-watcher David Sirota noted in Open Left) like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, James Gailbraith, and Dean Baker from top economic posts and advisory positions in preference for neoliberal, Wall Street-approved corporate Democrats like Summers (who as chief World Bank economist once argued that Africa was under-polluted since people didn't live very long on that continent) and Summers' unimpressive protégé Timothy Geithner (the new Secretary of the Treasury).


* A threat, issued "right before he came into office," to "veto any bill that Congress passed rejecting or limiting more bailout funds from going to Wall Street" (Sirota, speaking on the Public Broadcasting System's "Bill Moyers' Journal" on January 23, 2009).


As President (January 20-February 27, 2009)


The highlights of Obama's violin performance as President have included the following:


* An uninspiring and conservative Inaugural Address that avoided the critical and rising problems of poverty, inequality, and the urgent need (consistent with the 1965-68 counsel of Obama's purported hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) to transfer resources from the "defense" (war and empire) budget to the meeting social needs. This speech claimed that the current economic crisis is a product of "our collective failure," failing to acknowledge the culpability of the financial industry and (for advancing financial deregulation) elite policymakers including top Democrats like Bill Clinton, Rubin (a leading Obama advisor during the campaign and transition), and Summers.  It said that America "will not apologize for our [heavily imperial, militarist, unequal, mass-consumerist, plutocratic, and ecologically disastrous - P.S.] way of life;"  trumpeted "unity "over "discord" (a profoundly authoritarian sentiment since democracy depends on open public and political conflict); argued that the "goodness of the market" is an issue beyond serious question; claimed that the U.S. was "ready to lead [the world] once more" (with Obama at the helm); and praised the U.S. War on Vietnam as an effort to advance American "liberty" and "prosperity."  Last but not least, Obama's first presidential oration cynically called for (certain unnamed) global others (primarily Iran and Hamas and those violently resisting illegal U.S. occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan) to "unclench their fist[s]" while coldly he ignored Israel's murder of Palestinian civilians and praised "those brave souls who patrol distant deserts and forests" - that is, the Armed Forces engaged in the colonial invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. 


* A rapid launching of U.S. attacks that have killed a large number of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, helping build support for the Taliban and terrorist activities in both countries - this in defiance of Afghan President Karzai's repeated pleas for the U.S. not to hurt innocents and of various calls and opportunities for a peaceful settlement.  These provocations are extremely dangerous when it comes to nuclear-equipped Pakistan, which is now, Noam Chomsky notes, "partially under the control of the radical Islamist elements that [Ronald] Reagan helped install there" (ZNet, February 16, 2009).


* A January 22nd State Department address in which Obama praised "the Arab peace initiative" for containing "constructive elements" that could help facilitate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, called for Arab states to "support the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad," and stated that "America is committed to Israel's security.  And we will always support Israel's right to defend itself." Obama knowingly deleted the inconvenient facts that The Arab League proposal calls for normalization of relations with Israel only in the context of a two-state solution (with an independent Palestinian nation), consistent with "an international consensus, which the U.S. and Israel have blocked for over 30 years, in international isolation, and still do so." Obama said nothing about the Palestinians' right to defend themselves against the significantly greater threats posed by Israel on a regular basis in the occupied territories. He ignored the actual and democratically elected Palestinian government led by the Islamist party's Hamas (Abbas and Fayyad are with the defeated Fatah Party), lecturing that party on its failure to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.  He said nothing about Israel's regular and savage use of violence against Palestinians and its refusal to consider a two-state settlement including a Palestinian state. As Chomsky has noted, the "carefully framed deceit" in Obama's State Department statement "surpasses cynicism." (N. Chomsky, "Obama on Israel-Palestine: Carefully Framed Deceit," Z Magazine, March, 2009)


* The sending of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to that famous "graveyard of empires" Afghanistan ("Obama's Vietnam"), where the new administration is more committed to violence than the last one but still no clear plan.  The cost of Obama's "good war" (equivalent to $775,000 per U.S. troop according to The Center for Budget Analysis) promises to undermine Obama's promise to cut the national government's giant deficit in half over the next four years.  It will further hamstring his efforts to counter the current deepening and epic recession


* A decision to appease military commanders by maintaining "relatively high troop levels" in Iraq through December of 2009, keeping "combat troops" (just half the total U.S. force presence in occupied Iraq) in that nation for 19 months (instead of the 16-month withdrawal promise Obama campaign on), and (most callously of all), leaving as many as 50,000 troops there after the withdrawal date of August 2010.  As anonymous administration and Pentagon sources told The New York Times, this considerable "residual" force will include "combat units reassigned as ‘Advisory Training Brigades'" (P. Baker and T. Shanker, "Obama's Iraq Plan Has December Elections as Turning Point for Pullout," New York Times, February 26, 2009, A10).


* The crass violation of Obama's pledge not to appoint corporate lobbyists through the designation of "defense" industry lobbyist William Lynn as Under Secretary of Defense.


* The attempted nomination of former U.S. Senator Tom Daschle to advocate for "health reform" as the head of the Health and Human Services Department (HHSD) - this despite the fact that Daschle traded in on his former legislative positions to "earn" $5.3 million in speaking and (lobbyist) consulting fees (largely paid by corporate interests) over the last two years


* Advancing as Surgeon General CNN's  "television doctor" Sanjay Gupta, a dedicated opponent of single-payer health insurance (a policy long supported by most Americans), a loyal servant of the pharmaceutical industry, and a leading figure in dominant corporate media's obfuscation and denial of the nation's key health care problems. 


* The endorsement (through his Attorney General) of the Clinton-Bush rendition policy and (through his Solicitor General) of Bush's "enemy combatants" policy. 


* An attempt to appoint a Republican (U.S. Senator Judd Gregg) as Commerce Secretary under an arrangement (worked out with the Democratic governor of New Hampshire) whereby Gregg's vacant seat would have been filled (via gubernatorial appointment) by a Republican (Gregg rescinded his acceptance of the post, citing "irreconcilable differences" with Obama's economic stimulus package).


* The decisions to continue the reactionary Bush policy of providing federal grants to community and social service programs operated by "faith-based" (religious) organizations and to equivocate on a campaign promise to condition such assistance on religious organization's agreement not to discriminate in hiring.


* An Obama visit (as part of his economic stimulus sales job) to the Illinois headquarters of Caterpillar, Inc. despite widespread protests over that company's knowing provision of bulldozers used by Israeli authorities to crush Palestinian homes (and occasionally to kill activists like the U.S. peace militant Rachel Corrie)


* The placement of Vice President Joe Biden atop a "Middle Class Task Force" dedicated to making sure that "the middle class is not left behind" by the American economy.  No equivalent task forces were formed or contemplated to study and attack the problems of poverty and economic (or related problems of racial and gender) inequality


* The holding of a carefully choreographed first press conference in which Obama evaded the question of whether he would press investigation of Bush administration crimes. The new president said that "people should be prosecuted if there are clear instances of wrongdoing" (as if there was any serious doubt that monumental crimes against law and morality occurred under the Bush-Cheney administration) and stated his preference for looking "forward" not "backwards" (as if prosecuting past executive crimes does not create progress towards more ethical presidential behavior in the present and future).  Another telling moment in his inaugural press conference came after the new president finished stating some standard U.S.-imperial boilerplate criticizing Iran for funding terrorist organizations and pursuing a nuclear weapon.  When the venerable reporter Helen Thomas asked him, "Do you know any nation in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?" Obama said "I don't want to speculate about that" and then waited for his aides to silence Ms. Thomas. It is of course an open secret that Israel has an impressive nuclear arsenal.


* A diplomatic trip to Canada in which Obama reassured that nation's conservative "leadership" that he had little intention of acting on faux-populist campaign rhetoric meant to garner working class votes by calling for significant adjustment of the regressive, corporate-friendly North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).


* Repeated and continued statements (carried over from the campaign and the President-Elect period) attributing the current economic crisis to "the failed economic policies of the last eight years," ignoring the critical role of corporate-Democratic Clinton-era financial deregulation led by Rubin and Summers.


* An inadequate economic stimulus plan that even The New York Times called "considerably leaner that what is now needed." The scale of the plan and its promised job creation (3 million) comes nowhere close to meeting the real job creation and needs of the American people (of whom 13 million are now officially unemployed, with joblessness rising by a half-million per month). The plan is loaded with regressive tax cuts (mostly directed at business interests and spread across a decade) that will do little to stimulate recovery but plenty to appease the arch-plutocratic Republicans and reward the affluent. According to the left economist Jack Rasmus notes, "Not only is the magnitude of the Obama program insufficient, not only is too large a portion of the program wasted on tax cuts, but even the composition of the spending proposals are not structured to retain or create jobs" (J. Rasmus, "Obama's Economic Plan vs. An Alternative," Z Magazine, March 2009, p. 28).


* An anti-home foreclosure program that falls far short of real need given the dire state of the economy. This plan "does not," even the Times' editors note, "forcefully address the fact that 13.6 million homeowners - and counting - are stuck in mortgages that have balances that are higher than the [deflated] values of their properties" (New York Times, February 19, 2009, A22),  


* Essential continuation of the Bush-Paulson policy (which Obama voted for as a U.S. Senator in the late summer of 2008) of bailing out the giant financial institutions (the same entities that triggered the current economic crisis and led the way when it came to financing Obama's campaign) and denying citizens meaningful input into and oversight of the massive resulting Wall Street Welfare package. The New York Times candidly reported that Obama's corporate-Democratic Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's bailout plan (still to be fully detailed as of this writing) reflected a triumph for unfettered capitalist prerogatives inside the new White House. Times reporters Stephen Labaton and Edmund Andrews noted that Geithner "prevailed in opposing tougher conditions on financial institutions that were sought by presidential aides, including [top Obama political advisor and media expert] David Axelrod."  Geithner fought successfully "against more severe limits on executive pay for companies receiving government aid."  He overcame "those who wanted to dictate how banks would spend their money."  And he "prevailed over top administration aides who wanted to replace bank executives and wipe out shareholders at institutions receiving aid." The new Treasury chief (whose nomination was heartily applauded by Wall Street) "expressed concern that too many government controls would discourage private investors from participating."  According to administration and congressional officials, Geithner told Obama that his government assistance (for the rich) plan "would not work" if it was burdened with "too much government involvement in the affairs of the companies" - corporations whose reckless behavior has undermined the basic economic and social security sought by ordinary citizens whose needs supposedly (under democratic theory) guide the actions of government. (S. Labaton and E. Andrews "Geithner Said to Have Prevailed on the Bailout," New York Times, February 10, 2000, A1, A16).


Geithner's trepidation over the negative impact of the allegedly popular government was apparently shared by Obama.  It won out over more image-sensitive Obama aides (including even Axelrod, to whom Obama owes his office) who worries, The Times reported that "rising joblessness, populist outrage over Wall Street bonuses and expensive perks, and the poor management of last year's bailouts could feed a potent political reaction" if the new White House failed to "demand sacrifices from the companies that receive federal money."


"For all its boldness," Labaton and Andrews observed, the Obama bailout "largely repeat[s] the Bush administration's approach of deferring to many of the same companies and executives who had peddled risky loans and investments at the heart of the crisis and failed to foresee many of the problems plaguing the markets."


A "Reaganesque Exhortation to American Resilience"


On February 24th, Obama gave a nationally televised speech to a Joint Session of Congress.  Interrupted by frequent and loud Democratic applause and standing ovations, this de facto "State of the Union Address" tried to restore hope in the failing U.S. profits system.  It also aimed to sell the president's tepid recovery scheme and his escalated bankers' bailout plan while promising to cut the federal deficit in half by 2013 and recommitting the U.S. to an aggressive and (though he did not say so) expensive posture in the war against "terrorists" (and unmentionable civilians) in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 


Described by The Times as "a Reaganesque exhortation to American resilience," Obama's speech failed to advance or mention numerous basic parts of any reasonably or genuinely progressive responses to the economic crisis. Among many policies and ideas deleted, ignored,  and unmentioned: a poverty and/or inequality task force; the urgent need for universal health care on the superior single-payer model (required to eliminate the more than $1 trillion Americans pay each year to non-health care providers including above all insurance companies); the need to re-legalize unions (starting with passage of the EFCA); a commission to investigate the causes of the current epic financial and economic crisis; a moratorium on home foreclosures; a call for the rollback of usurious credit-card interest rates; the need to restructure global trade agreements in accord with principles of economic and environmental justice; the need to adequately and fairly fund (and thereby easily protect) Social Security; an infrastructure bank to adequately focus rebuilding investments; the urgent need to drastically reduce carbon emissions with a goal of reducing them 90 percent by 2030; major campaign finance reform (including significant new public financing measures) to rollback the wildly excessive influence of big private money on public elections and policy; the need to nationalize leading financial institutions and place them under real citizen control; the need to fire (not simply shame and admonish) leading bank and investment executives; the restructuring of corporate charters to re-direct the nation's leading economic institutions in accord with democratic principles and service to the common good; the need to undo the vicious and regressive (Bill) Clinton-(Newt) Gingrich welfare "reform" (elimination); immediate large-scale and socially useful public works/jobs programs on the model of the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration; the rapid withdrawal of ALL U.S. military forces (including so-called "residual" divisions) from illegally occupied Iraq AND Afghanistan; a massive reduction of the nation's gigantic "defense" (empire) budget (more than $1 trillion per year), which maintains more than 760 military bases in more than 130 "sovereign" nations and accounts for nearly half the military spending on Earth; the fatal ecological limits of "economic growth" on the capitalist (private profit-oriented) model.


Throughout, Obama has remained amazingly silent on his campaign promise to advance the critical and overdue labor law reform - the Employee Free Choice Act (the EFCA) - that is required to re-legalize unions and restore strength to the labor movement (aptly described by John Edwards during the primary campaign as "the single greatest anti-poverty program in American history"). The EFCA is loathed by key segments of the business class and is therefore not currently on the table of recovery policy.


Jack Rasmus has recently proposed a superior alternative recovery plan properly sized and progressively calibrated to meet the current epic recession.  This plan includes: the resetting of mortgage rates and housing loan balances; direct federal lending to homeowners and small businesses; a 1-year moratorium on foreclosures and defaults; an optional program for monthly mortgage payment reduction; the restoration of previous federal ceilings on monthly interest rates charged by credit card lenders; $300 billion for infrastructure jobs with an early emphasis on labor-intensive projects; $200 billion for healthcare and related services and for manufacturing; $300 billion for government jobs; $125 billion a union- and ecology-friendly bailout of the auto industry; $125 billion for emergency unemployment assistance; retroactive windfall taxes on oil and energy companies; capital income tax rate rollbacks to 1981 (not 1993) levels; repatriation of $2 trillion from offshore tax havens; a 6.25 FICA tax on all forms of income reported by the wealthiest 1 percent; nationalization and pooling of employer-provided 401K retirement plans; de-privatization of student loans; and the introduction of a single-payer health plan for the 91 million U.S. households earning less than $160;000 per year (Rasmus, "Obama's Economic Plan).


Niraj JoshiObama's address insisted that his bailout plan (likely to require many hundreds of billions more tax dollars) is "not about helping banks, it's about helping people." This claim is likely to face considerable justified skepticism as long as he and his neoliberal economic team refuse to fire top financial executives and place the nation's commanding financial heights under some reasonable measure of popular control and as long as they continue to advance a recovery plan that is not correctly scaled or progressively structured to meet popular needs.


In the current moment of crisis, Obama said during his February 24th address, "we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment." This comment deserves a useful translation: "policy- and opinion-makers must not act in accord with widespread majority progressive sentiment for reducing the dangerous and undue wealth and power of the financially privileged Few and for transferring resources from the military to the meeting social needs." This was a key hidden message behind his February 24th speech's progressive-sounding shaming of bank executives' excessive salaries and perks and the Charles Dickens-like praise (in that address) he gave to a wealthy banking executive who recently gave away much of his most recent bonus to his employees. 


Tellingly enough, Obama mentioned creating "tax-free universal savings accounts" for all Americans.  As the Times' editorial board noted, this was "a nod to the Republican desire to create some kind of investment vehicles as they consider overhauling Social Security." It was a nod also to the Democrats' many "Blue Dog" deficit hawks, to whom Obama has promised "fiscal responsibility" and the bipartisan pursuit of "entitlement reform" (Orwellian language for the regressive rollback of Social Security and Medicare).


Obama's call for change and recovery through positive government action stood in conflict with his "Blue Dog" promise to cut the nation's federal deficit in half by 2013.



Guns Over Health Care


One day after his celebrated speech to Congress, Obama won praise from the liberal progressive economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman for advancing a "commitment of $634 billion to health care reform.....It's beginning," Krugman wrote on his widely read blog, "to look as if Obama's really going to go through with this --- and if he gets us to universality, his legacy will be secure" (Krugman's blog, "Economics and Politics," February 25, 2009, 5:45 pm).


But Obama's first budget proposal, released on February 26, spreads that $634 billion (less than two thirds of the annual Pentagon budget) over 10 years. As the Associated Press reported, the total amount comes to just "a little more than half the money needed to ensure that every American gets medical care." (R. Alfonso-Zalvidar and A. Taylor, "Obama Seeks $634 Billion Over 10 Years for Health Care," AP, February 25, 2009). The new administration proposes to raise the first half of this relatively modest outlay by slightly scaling back an especially egregious and regressive tax (on itemized deduction) enjoyed by Americans in the nation's highest tax bracket.  The other half will come from "cost savings in Medicaid, Medicare, and other health programs," in accord to some degree with the promise of "entitlement reform." (J. Calmes and R. Pear, New York Times, February 26, 2009, p. A1).


Meanwhile, the Obama administration said it would ask Congress for an additional $76 billion for the two U.S. imperial wars (on top of the $66 already approved for the rest of the current fiscal years.  The Times notes that Obama "builds $130 billion in expenses for the wars into the 2010 fiscal plan" - a sum (the Times did not note) more than double his proposed annual investment for incremental progress not-so universal health care ($64 billion) on a highly flawed model that dysfunctionally (given the new administration's refusal to challenge corporate power by advancing the widely supported single-payer option) leaves critical cost-inflating power in the hands of the nation's leading,arch-parasitic insurance corporations. Overall, the Times briefly and barely reports Obama's budget outline advances an "increase in military spending" (J. Calmes and R. Pear, "Obama Plans Major Shift in Spending," New York Times, February 27, 2009), consistent with Morgan Stanley's report to investors last fall.


The president's long-term deficit-reduction projects are based to no small degree on two highly optimistic assumptions: (1) that the costs of the empire's Southwest Asian wars (of invasion) will fall significantly over the next three years (an expectation that stands in sharp conflict with Obama's  military escalation in Afghanistan-Pakistan); (2) that the recession will end next year and give way to impressive economic growth: 3 percent next year and 4 percent or more over the next three years. There is little basis for the this economic projection, thanks in part to the administration's refusal to embrace the bold sort of financial intervention - involving nationalization - required to restore credit at the rate that such expansion would require.


"None of This Should Surprise Us": OUR Challenge, Not Obama's


Mass protest would seem to be indicated as Obama's passionate promise of democratic "change we can believe in" translates into the escalated and monumental taxpayer rescue of the Few while recovery and "reform" plans fall far short of what is necessary and just. The gargantuan "defense" budget ($1 trillion a year) - set to increase under the supposed (according to a parade of "progressive Democrats") "antiwar president" - remains beyond question (since the new president "agrees there is no peace dividend," as Morgan Stanley reassures investors) while the rising problem of poverty seems stuck on the margins of "mainstream" political discourse. The "world's greatest democracy" grants its populace no meaningful control over the nation's financial institutions even as vast public monies are handed over to the very investment and banking houses whose reckless conduct in service to the rich and powerful Few drove the economic system off the cliff. As the distinguished left intellectual Noam Chomsky notes, "If the government - in a functioning democracy, the public - does not have a degree of control, the banks can put the public funds into their own pockets for recapitalization or acquisitions or loans to government-guaranteed borrowers, thus undermining the alleged purpose of the bailout.  This is what has happened, though details are obscure because the recipients refuse to say what they are doing with the gift from taxpayers.  Indeed, they regard the question as outrageous..." (N. Chomsky, "Elections 2008 and Obama's ‘Vision,'" Z Magazine, February 2009).


Meanwhile, destitution is expanding as (a Times headline reported) "Newly Poor Swell Lines at Nation's Food Pantries," visited now on a regular basis by "a rapidly expanding roster of child-care workers, nurse's aids, real estate agents and secretaries facing a financial crisis for the first time."  Demand at food banks rose by nearly a third in 2008 and "instead of seeing their usual drop in customers after the holidays, many pantries in upscale suburbs this year are seeing the opposite." (New York Times, February 20, 2009, A1). 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 has not matched the rising destitution across America  even as the new chief executive and the rest of the liberal Washington establishment advances a new level of Wall Street Welfare. 


The liberal economist Robert Kuttner, who hoped passionately for a progressive and "transformative" Obama presidency, is sorely disappointed, noting that the new chief executive is advancing "conservative solutions to radical problems." Kuttner's thwarted dreams for Obama summarized in a rapidly written book published before the election under the title "Obama's Challenge"


Progressive citizens and activists are right to be angered about the new president's short but already clear hope-"calibrating" record of centrist imperial and state-capitalist governance and "expectation management." Still, Obama's post-election trajectory is unsurprising given well-known limits in the dominant U.S. political culture and "tradition" and in light of numerous warnings about the Obama phenomenon that various Left activists and intellectuals (see especially the excellent writers at the weekly black-left weekly Black Agenda Report) over recent Niraj Joshiyears (please see my own officially invisible but readily available book "Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics" [Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008]).  Furthermore, all on the progressive Left (however and whenever we came or come to a realistic assessment of the new presidential administration's captivity to Empire and Inequality, Inc.) need to take a certain reasonable degree of responsibility for Obama's behavior to date. Real progressive change is our challenge, not Obama's. The esteemed radical historian Howard Zinn reminded us of a basic point in an essay titled "Election Madness" last March:


"Let's remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.....Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces a popular upsurge, will not move off center. The two leading Presidential candidates have made it clear that if elected, they will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War, or institute a system of free health care for all."


"They offer no radical change from the status quo. They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure. They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live."


"None of this should surprise us. 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 John Judis (no "far leftist," as Obama's radical critics are commonly described by his "progressive" supporters) recently argued in the liberal-centrist journal The New Republic (in an essay titled "End the Honeymoon"), a major reason that Obama has gone forward with a conservative and inadequate economic plan "is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go. Sure, there are leftwing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really 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: subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the party and its leading politician."  Consistent with Judis's critique, Moveon.Org's Executive Director Justin Duben responded to Obama's recently qualified Iraq "withdrawal" plans by telling the Times that "activists are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt."  Duben docilely says that "people have confidence that the president is committed to ending the war...this is what he promised" (Baker and Shanker).


Hope: Real and Fake


Depressing? Perhaps, but we must always start with harsh truths, which cannot be transcended if they are not first acknowledged and understood. And there is real inspiration to be found in interesting developments suggesting real movement toward progressive change beneath and beyond the false "Hope" (a master keyword in Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign as well as Obama's in 2008) propagated for self-interested purposes by politicians: a daring and largely successful workplace occupation (to secure severance benefits and wages from an absconding employer)on Chicago's North Side (at the Republic Window and Door plant on Goose Island) last December, rising popular resistance to rampant foreclosures and evictions;  student occupations at the New School and New York University, plans for a major antiwar march, calling Obama out on his rehashed imperialism and "defense"(empire) budget and on his deadly escalation of the United States' criminal war on Afghanistan (and, more fatefully perhaps, Pakistan) in Washington this March. 


Obama has long been riding a wave of popular anger and excitement that goes far beyond his "deeply conservative" world view and agenda.  He has done his best to contain and co-opt that popular and progressive energy but he can't help but also dangerously feed citizen excitement for goals that transcend his commitment to "existing institutions."  His lofty political rhetoric, containing occasional populist slivers and strident calls for democratic change, channels popular expectations that may go beyond the political class's capacity for top-down management and control. 


Obama can surf the people but the inverse is true as well. Progressive activists and citizens can escape the clutches of Obamanist "repressive de-sublimation" - the containment and exploitation of their hope and anger to re-legitimize dominant oppression structures and - by riding and steering the Obama wave into places (both within and beyond or beneath electoral politics) closer to true progressive ideals.


Left progressives might productively think of "the Obama phenomenon" as a sort of (watered down and strictly electoralist) bourgeois revolution: it will fail to deliver on democratic promises made to a populace it had to rally to defeat the old regime. Now that populace is supposed to return quietly (and hopefully) to remote and divided private realms, doing their little jobs and buying stuff and watching their Telescreens while the new system-maintaining coordinators do their serious work, consistent with the absurdly arrogant Lawrence Summers' comment (last January) to NBC's David Gregory on how ordinary Americans should think about the economic crisis and the new administration:  "President Obama [‘s]...call for an age of responsibility in what government does for all of us as we manage our own finances, as we do our own jobs is, is so very important.  People need to work hard, they need to play by the rules, and those of us with responsibility for economic policy need to do everything we can to make the economy work. And I've got no doubt that our economy's best days are ahead of us...."


Interesting commentary from an "Osama bin Laden" of the neoliberal financial deregulation that has born such fine economic fruit in the last two years!


There is left-progressive potential in Obama's false promises and in his ongoing and impending failures. The energy and hopes he rode and channeled will need more genuinely democratic, liberating, and anti-authoritarian outlets than an Obama (or a Hillary Clinton or a John Edwards) presidency could ever have been expected to provide. As David Harvey has recently argued, the new team's economic plan is doomed to broad failure thanks to the conservative constraints of the dominant U.S. political culture and to related "deep tectonic shifts in the spatio-temporal disposition of capitalist development" (D. Harvey, ‘Why the U.S. Stimulus is Bound to Fail," The Bullet: Social Project E-Bulletin, February 12, 2009, read at http://www.socialistproject.ca/bullet/bullet184.html).


It's up to citizens and activists, not politicians, to carry through on progressive promises Obama is unable and/or willing to fulfill and then to move forward (as we must) to what Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. called (in a posthumously published essay titled "A Testament of Hope") the "real issue to be faced" beyond "superficial" questions: "the radical reconstruction of society itself."  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." 


Among the many reasons we don't hear that very much any more from Obama or other top Democratic politicians, one deserves special mention amidst the current remarkable capitalist breakdown. People engaging in change from the bottom up are often wont to imagine and act on their often previously hidden desires for "a world turned upside down" - for a life beyond pre-historic oppression structures (race, class, gender, political authority, ethnic and eco-hierarchy and domination) any new head-of-state is bound to support. Long live the permanent revolution.


Paul Street ( is a veteran radical ex-historian in Iowa City, IA.  Street's books include Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, September 2008), which can be ordered at: www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987.