The Radical Obama

May 7, 2013
Obama and his lucky Penny

Obama and his lucky Penny

Yesterday when I read about Barack Obama’s nomination of union busting, school closing, fund raising billionaire Penney Pritzker for Secretary of Commerce, I was reminded of some words by Pete Hamill I read long ago concerning his take on the nature of politicians. Hamill was writing about former Queens Borough President Donald Manes just after Manes’s grisly suicide as the scandals that ended the Koch years moved closer and closer to Manes, promising to completely expose his public image as a public lie. Hamill, who had known Manes his entire adult life, noted that Manes had mastered the politician’s art of becoming whoever he thought you wanted him to be whenever you wanted him to be it. What Hamill wrote was this: he never knew which Manes to greet because he never knew which Manes he would be talking to. Hamill’s words have stuck in my memory ever since, perhaps because they so precisely encapsulate what seems to be the nature of so many politicians.

But not Obama. The same words welled up in my head yesterday precisely because the phenomenon known as Obama so deftly defies them.

Some process that is related to what Hamill wrote of but is at the same time strikingly different seems to guide many perceptions of Obama. Somehow, Obama doesn’t need to pretend to be whoever he thinks you want him to be. Somehow, no matter what Obama does, even if he does it for years, there are people who pretend that Obama remains what they want him to be. Accordingly, just as Hamill had no idea to which Manes he would be talking, many a time with many a person, I often have no idea which version of Obama people are talking about.
To an extraordinary extent, after more than four years in office, Obama remains to many — or at least to many I know or am somehow in contact with — a projection of their own desires, fears or hopes. This, after becoming the first Noble Peace Prize winner with a kill list; this, long after pointlessly and cruelly prolonging the agony of the innocent in Guantanamo; this, after refusing to prosecute both the Bush administration‘s blatant war criminals who plunged the U.S. into two needless wars or the Wall Street criminals who crashed the world economy, this, after his assault on civil liberties and so much more.

For many Obama continues to be a kind of ambulatory human Rorschach test. For these people, Obama is what they want him to be. No matter what Obama actually does, certain people, including those most hurt by his policies, still cling to the fantasy that Obama‘s words and Obama’s policies have something to do with each other. ( In a similar way, the same something that made intelligent people believe Bill Clinton was lying even when he was telling the truth persuades other intelligent people that Obama is telling the truth even when he’s lying. ) And the Rorschach factor holds as powerfully for those who love Obama as to those who despise him; holds, that is, for Republicans and well as for “Birthers” and Tea Partiers and those who see Obama as a secret Muslim socialist or Nazi or whatever.
But it is not those people of whom I speak.
I am speaking here rather of a group of people who continue to believe in Obama and refuse to define him in terms of his policies and actions, clinging instead to his soaring rhetoric and image. I am speaking of those to whom, as intrepid Black Agenda journalist Glen Ford writes “ Obama acts like a narcotic.” I am speaking of those who, in respect to Obama, have skillfully avoided reality.
Some of the lingering hopes, if dangerous, are understandable. Think of the strange helpless horror of the Bush years. There is no doubt in my mind that millions of Americans were traumatized by the eight year presidency of George W. Bush, eight years in which many, myself included, felt ashamed to be an American. Shame is too powerful and destructive an emotion to carry in you for long. The desire to exorcize the ghost of Bush, his macho idiocy, his endless needless wars, his lies and the fear brought on by the financial collapse that occurred under his watch was, I believe as primal and powerful a factor in embracing Obama as was Obama’s charisma and eloquence: the very charisma and elegance that led so many sensible people to believe in the myth of the one term US Senator with the paper thin resume whose most frequent vote in Congress was neither “yea” or “nay” but “present.”
Think too of the extraordinarily potent symbolism in the election of an African American to the presidency of a nation with a legacy of over 400 years of slavery. Symbolically, this was and remains an immeasurable step in the right direction. In some quarters the symbolism remains just as potent today as it did four years ago, even as African Americans slip further and further into poverty and are incarcerated at alarming rates.
There is a desire to believe in Obama that is almost religious in nature.

I understand this emotion. No one wants to believe this guy is as vapid or weak or treacherous or cunning as Obama proves to be again and again and again. No one wants to believe that the ship of state has been so thoroughly hijacked by the most rapacious and reckless forces on earth: corporations No one wants to know that things are as awful as they are. It is the fear of having no where to turn and no one to turn to. No one wants to feel abandoned or betrayed even, if by every objective criteria, you have been.

And yet this is where we are.

If only for the abomination known as Race to the Top, a policy designed to do nothing less than undermine both the public school system and teacher unions across the country,
Obama should be seen as one of the most corporate minded presidents in U.S. history. But somehow many — who knows how many — do not seem to be getting it. Something stands in the way.
I work in a school in Harlem, New York, where almost everywhere one looks one sees images of Obama looking back at you. The posters were placed there by teachers, even though Obama’s RTTT may force the school to be closed, even if half the teachers are fired as a result of the grossly unfair and unproven evaluation plans mandated by the Obama administration.
And there it is.
Obama is not the anti- American cartoon character his enemies in the Koch brothers’ funded Tea Party want to believe he is.
Obama is not the thwarted progressive his more naïve fans still insist he is.
Obama is not, in any meaningful way, a Democrat.
Obama is not a centrist, a moderate or a pragmatist.
Obama is not a conservative.
Obama is something that has never before risen to the presidency of the United States.
Obama is that which Wall Street and corporate CEOs have dreamed of for decades: Obama is a president of the “party of labor” who is wholly beholden to capital.
Obama is a working man’s worst nightmare.
Obama is a corporatist but not just a corporatist.
Obama is a radical corporatist intent on the complete evisceration of unionism and the eventual privatization of all public life.
And nothing proves than better than Race to the Top.


One Response to “The Radical Obama”

  1. Patrick,

    This is very interesting and insightful, one of the best Obama-bashing pieces I’ve read. It will surely open up a long and productive exchange of ideas. I agree with much of what you say, but I find your overall frame of reference to be oddly naïve in the very way you seem to be so forcefully critiquing. Your premise seems to be that the president of the United States has significant leeway to effect progressive policies and that if someone other than Obama occupied the office things would be appreciably better. As a Marxist, I reject this notion. Yes, every president has some leeway, but the increasing concentration of wealth and institutionalized corporate power under state capitalism has reduced that leeway greatly in recent decades.

    Let’s take FDR as our starting point, surely in some “meaningful way, a Democrat,” in your words. Although Roosevelt had the authority under the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act to stop Ford, ITT, Standard Oil, and other U.S. corporations from doing business with Nazi Germany during World War II, he chose not to. By your standards, this would make FDR a “radical corporatist,” but we know that is not the case. Surely nothing mattered to FDR more than winning World War II, which means that he would have moved heaven and earth to shut down U.S. corporate collaboration with the Third Reich if he could have done so. The only possible explanation for his position was that is was simply not politically possible for Roosevelt, or anyone else who might have occupied the office, to do otherwise. Corporate power overdetermined the outcome, and Roosevelt’s complicity tells us nothing whatsoever about his real policy preferences.

    Now let’s take Harry Truman, arguably the last real Democrat in any “meaningful way.” In 1945, he ordered the incineration of two Japanese population centers with atomic weapons, and then lied to the American public about why he did it, saying that failure to do so would have meant a land invasion of Japan and even greater loss of life. Historians now know that this is a lie because the diplomatic record shows that the Japanese emperor was seeking a way to surrender in the summer of 1945. But Truman chose instead to become a heinous war criminal because the Soviets were redeploying their troops to the Japanese front and were scheduled to enter the war against Japan in August. Truman wanted Japan to surrender _before_ the Soviets got into the war, and also welcomed the chance to demonstrate a weapon of unprecedented destructive power and U.S. willingness to use it. The Hiroshima bombing thus ensured U.S. control of post-war Japan and became the opening salvo of the Cold War.

    Notice that in this case, I am making the strongest possible moral condemnation of Truman, labeling him a “heinous war criminal.” That is because the decision to annihilate Hiroshima and Nagasaki was Truman’s alone; it was not overdetermined by political necessity. FDR most likely would _not_ have made the same decision, nor would many other occupants of the Oval Office. If murdering tens of thousands of civilians with the push of a button and launching the Cold War count in the assessment of Presidents, then Truman surely far outpaces Obama on the scale of evil. And yet on labor issues, Truman was as good as presidents get and Obama is indisputably bad, indeed as bad as presidents get. Does that mean that Truman was a hero and friend of labor, while Obama is vapid, weak, treacherous, and cunning, to use your words? I find such a judgment naïve, ahistorical, and apolitical. The difference in the two presidents’ labor policies overwhelmingly reflects the fact that organized labor was at the peak of its strength under Truman and at its nadir, or very nearly so, under Obama.

    Let me conclude with a few specifics of Obamas record, and where they fit on the “overdetermined” / “freely chosen” continuum. Picking Wall Street insiders (e.g. Larry Summers, Tim Geithner) to head his economic team: overdetermined. Continuing the war in Afghanistan: overdetermined. Auto bailout: freely chosen. Supreme Court appointments: freely chosen. Health care policy: freely chosen (though single payer—the only rational option—was never a possibility in corporate America; the choice was between no health care reform and the highly compromised reform that we in fact got). Race to the Top and education policy: freely chosen. Obama could have stood up to the school reform mafia and chosen Linda Darling Hammond as his education secretary. He chose to accommodate the mafia instead and picked the ignorant and vicious Arne Duncan. Does this make Obama ignorant and vicious? To some extent, for sure, especially ignorant in this area of public policy. More ignorant and vicious than most American presidents? I don’t see it.

    So where does this leave us. Let’s stop looking to the White House for leadership. Let’s recognize that a militant, progressive mass movement—like the Wisconsin uprising in February 2011 and Occupy Wall Street—is our only hope, and do what each of us can to build that movement. While Occupy is quiescent at the moment, it has permanently changed the political identity of the middle class with its 1% / 99% way of defining class. This is not going away. But the progressive movement needs a coherent agenda of policy and institutional reform that can create our preferred future. I try to provide this in my 2012 book, _The Middle Class Fights Back_, including a Green New Deal, unalienated schools, worker owned and controlled enterprises, and other reforms. Only a militant, progressive mass movement can force the hand of Beltway elites, Obama included, and enact this agenda in some form into law. It was that kind of militancy that brought us the New Deal in the 1930s. Short of that, big corporations and the rich will continue to strangle what little is left of American democracy.

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