We Were Warned About Barack Obama—by Obama Himself
Posted on Jan 16, 2017
By Paul Street
In the fall of 2014, I attended a meeting of Iowa City progressives called to discuss the possibility of trying to enlist Bernie Sanders to enter the 2016 presidential race as a Democrat. When the 30 or so attendees went around the table introducing themselves, all but two (myself and a Green Party activist) expressed “disappointment” with Barack Obama—a president in whom they’d invested considerable betrayed hope for progressive- and left-leaning change. They looked at me as if I was from outer space when I said the Obama presidency had played out pretty much as conservatively as I’d expected. I did not want to spoil things further by adding that I’d tried to warn them in numerous talks, essays and one book predicting Obama’s right-wing performance as president if elected.
The liberals and progressives in the room had good reasons to feel dissatisfied about the Obama administration. (For my most comprehensive recent reflection on this topic, see my latest Truthdig essay “Obama’s Neoliberal Legacy: Rightward Drift and Donald Trump”.) Little could they have been expected to foresee that one outcome of Obama’s service to the rich and powerful would be the presidential ascendancy of the oligarchic super-predator Donald Trump.
‘What’s the Dollar Value of a Starry-Eyed Elitist?’ (November 2006)
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“It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in a Harper’s Magazine report titled “Obama, Inc.” 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.”
“On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein said, “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?’”
As Silverstein knew and showed, the early Obama phenomenon (dating back to his campaign for an open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois in 2003-04) was intimately tied in with the United States’ corporate and financial ruling class. Obama was rising to power with remarkable backing from Wall Street and K Street election investors who were not in the business of promoting politicians who sought to challenge the nation’s dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines.
‘Deeply Conservative’ (May 2007)
Obama’s allegiance to the American business elite was evident from the get-go. This was well understood by the K Street insiders Silverstein interviewed in the fall of 2006. It was grasped by the liberal journalist and New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar in spring 2007. “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar wrote after extensive interviews with candidate Obama in May of 2007, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. … It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good.”
MacFarquhar cited as an example of this reactionary sentiment Obama’s reluctance to embrace single-payer health insurance on the Canadian model, Obama told MacFarquhar that “we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” So what if large popular majorities in the United States had long favored the single-payer model? So what if single payer would let people keep the doctors of their choice, throwing away only the protection payoff to the private insurance mafia? So what if “the legacy systems” Obama defended included corporate insurance and pharmaceutical oligopolies that regularly threw millions of American lives by the wayside of market calculation, causing enormous disruptive harm and death for the populace?
Saying Populist Stuff He Didn’t Mean (2003 and 2008)
It is true that Illinois State Senator Obama publicly embraced single-payer health care insurance, speaking before the Illinois AFL-CIO in late June 2003. But he didn’t really mean it. Single-payer disappeared from his campaign rhetoric and material as he climbed closer to national power in Washington D.C. Also deleted was his not-so “antiwar” speech against George W. Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq, an oration delivered in downtown Chicago in October of 2002. Obama’s goal of becoming a U.S. senator—and, after that, president (a longstanding ambition of his)—meant jettisoning excessively left-sounding statement in pursuit of the establishment backing required for such an ascendancy.
Five years later, candidate Obama’s top economic advisor, the neoliberal University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee would tell Canada’s U.S. ambassador to disregard Obama’s criticisms of the corporatist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The criticisms were just campaign oratory geared toward winning working-class votes in the Midwest Rustbelt. Obama, Goolsbee explained, was just saying the populist-sounding kind of stuff Democratic presidential candidates had to mouth to get nominated and elected. Obama’s anti-NAFTA language was not to be taken seriously, the economist said.
Vacuous to Repressive Neoliberal Politics (1996)
This was the slick and unnamed Obama—granted undue progressive credibility thanks in part to the simple color of his skin—that the left and black political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. warned people about in The Village Voice at the beginning of the future president’s political career (in the Illinois State Senate) in January 1996:
Little could Reed have been expected to know that Obama would represent the wave of the future in U.S. presidential politics 12 years later.
Beyond ‘Tired Ideologies’ (April 2006)
Just more than a decade after Reed published this prescient assessment, one of the many clues on the coming neoliberal, Wall Street-vetted nature of Obama’s presidency came when he affiliated himself from the start with The Hamilton Project (THP), a key neoliberal Washington, D.C., think tank. THP was founded with Goldman Sachs funding inside the venerable centrist and Democratic-leaning Brookings Institution in spring 2006. Its creator was no less august a ruling class personage than Robert Rubin, the former Goldman Sachs CEO who served as Bill Clinton’s top senior economic policy adviser and treasury secretary. A legendary Democratic Party “kingmaker” who is often half-jokingly called “the wizard behind the curtain” of Democratic economic policy, Rubin was the veritable godfather of late 20th century and early 21st century U.S. neoliberalism. In accord with the “Rubinomics” trilogy of balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation, Clinton joined with corporate Democrats and Republicans to enact the great job-killing and anti-labor North American Free Trade Agreement, slash government spending, eliminate restrictions on interstate banking, repeal the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act (which had separated commercial from investment banking), and prevent the regulation of toxic “over-the-counter” financial derivatives (with the so-called Commodity Futures Modernization Act).
Beneath standard boilerplate on the need for “broad-based economic growth” and “an effective role for government in making needed investments,” THP has remained devoted—in the words of left political-economist Jamie Peck—“to fiscal discipline and free trade, to market-oriented approaches, and to strategies for attacking inequality that are attached from new [social-democratic] entitlement commitments.”
U.S. Senator Barack Obama was the keynote speaker at THP’s opening event in April 2006. Beginning with a special nod of thanks to “the wizard” (Rubin, who sat two chairs to his right), Obama praised Rubin and other Clinton administration veterans in the room. He lauded them for having “taken on entrenched interests” to “put us on the pathway to a prosperity we are still enjoying.” Obama called the new body a “breath of fresh air,” a welcome nonpartisan and non-ideological agent of economic “modernization.” He hailed THP for seeking “21st century solutions” and a practical handle on “what actually works” in a national capital plagued by “tired ideologies” of right and left. It was a classic triangulating “Third Way” neoliberal speech. Obama’s carefully clipped words functioned to “preemptively pacify Wall Street before declaring his presidential ambitions,” according to Peck—ambitions Obama had been harboring from the start of his U.S. Senate career and indeed, long before that.
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