Barack Obama: The Empire’s New Clothes

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Carefully engineered myth and reality clash hard in Obama. But both his policies and advisors will soon tell us how much hope for change is justified—if any.

By Paul Street | [print_link]

Barack Obama and his followers continue to revise the history of his ascendance, pretending his campaign was rooted among the “outsiders.”  The public line is a fiction, as even the most rudimentary research reveals. In fact, Obama’s own words document his intense courtship of the rich and powerful.  Unfortunately, “few if any of” Obama’s staunchest supporters “have bothered to read a single solitary word of Obama’s blatantly imperial, nationalist, and militarist foreign policy speeches and writings,” says the author. “And my sense is they never will.”

“Obama is an act of system-legitimizing brilliance.”

“This is bigger than life itself.  When I was coming up, I always thought they put in who they wanted to put in.  I didn’t think my vote mattered.  But I don’t think that anymore.” 

The speaker of these words is Deddrick Battle, a black janitor who grew up in St. Louis’s notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing projects during the 1950s and 1960s.

Battle was speaking about the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. He was quoted on the front page of last Sunday’s New York Times in a story about the pride many African Americans are naturally feeling in Obama’s candidacy. The story contained numerous examples of American blacks who have been encouraged by the Obama phenomenon to think for the first time that “politics is for them, too” [1].

But, as The New York Times’ editors certainly know, “they” still “put in who they want to put in” to no small extent. The predominantly white U.S. business and political establishment still makes sure that nobody who questions dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines can make a serious (“viable”) run for higher office – the presidency, above all. It does this by denying adequate campaign funding (absolutely essential to success in an age of super-expensive, media-driven campaigns) and favorable media treatment (without which a successful campaign is unimaginable at the current stage of corporate media consolidation and power) to candidates who step beyond the narrow boundaries of elite opinion. Thanks to these critical electoral filters and to the legally mandated U.S. winner-take-all “two party” system [2], a candidate who even remotely questions corporate and imperial power is not permitted to make a strong bid for the presidency. 

Barack Obama is no exception to the rule. Anyone who thinks he could have risen to power without prior and ongoing ruling class approval is living in a dream world.

An Early and ‘Quieter Audition’ with the ‘Moneyed Establishment.’

Conventional wisdom holds that Obama entered national politics with his instantly famous keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But, as Ken Silverstein noted in Harper’s in the fall of 2006, “If the speech was his debut to the wider American public, he had already undergone an equally successful but much quieter audition with Democratic Party leaders and fund-raisers, without whose support he would surely never have been chosen for such a prominent role at the convention.”

The favorable elite assessment of Obama began in October of 2003. That’s when “Vernon Jordan, the well-known power broker and corporate board-member who chaired Bill Clinton’s presidential transition team after the 1992 election, placed calls to roughly twenty of his friends and invited them to a fund-raiser at his home. That event,” Silverstein noted, “marked his entry into a well-established Washington ritual-the gauntlet of fund-raising parties and meet-and-greets through which potential stars are vetted by fixers, donors, and lobbyists.” 

Drawing on his undoubted charm, wit, intelligence, and Harvard credentials, Obama passed this trial with shining colors. At a series of social meetings with assorted big “players” from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, Obama  impressed key establishment figures like Gregory Craig (a longtime leading attorney and former special counsel to the White House), Mike Williams (the legislative director of the Bond Market Association), Tom Quinn (a partner at the top corporate law firm Venable and a leading Democratic Party “power broker”), and Robert Harmala, another Venable partner and “a big player in Democratic circles.”  

Craig liked the fact that Obama was not a racial “polarizer” on the model of past African-American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Williams was soothed by Obama’s reassurances that he was not “anti-business” and became “convinced…that the two could work together.”

“There’s a reasonableness about him,” Harmala told Silverstein.  “I don’t see him as being on the liberal fringe.”

“Elite financial, legal, and lobbyists contributions came into Obama’s coffers at a rapid and accelerating pace.”

By Silverstein’s account, the good “word about Obama spread through Washington’s blue-chip law firms, lobby shops, and political offices, and this accelerated after his win in the March [2004] Democratic primary.”  Elite financial, legal, and lobbyists contributions came into Obama’s coffers at a rapid and accelerating pace [3].

The “good news” for Washington and Wall Street insiders was that Obama’s “star quality” would not be directed against the elite segments of the business class. The interesting black legislator from the South Side of Chicago was “someone the rich and powerful could work with.” According to Obama biographer and Chicago Tribunereporter David Mendell, in late 2003 and early 2004: 

“Word of Obama’s rising star was now spreading beyond Illinois, especially through influential Washington political circles like blue chip law firms, party insiders, lobbying houses.  They were all hearing about this rare, exciting, charismatic, up-and-coming African American who unbelievably could win votes across color lines…..[his handlers and] influential Chicago supporters and fund-raisers all vigorously worked their D.C. contacts to help Obama make the rounds with the Democrats’ set of power brokers. …Obama…spent a couple of days and nights shaking hands making small talk and delivering speeches to liberal groups, national union leaders, lobbyists, fund-raisers and well-heeled money donors.  In setting after setting, Obama’s Harvard Law resume and his reasonable tone impressed the elite crowd.”

According to Mendell, Obama now cultivated the support of the privileged few by “advocate[ing] fiscal restraint” and “calling for pay-as-you-go government” and “extol[ing] the merits of free trade and charter schools.”  He “moved beyond being an obscure good-government reformer to being a candidate more than palatable to the moneyed and political establishment.” [4].

“Reasonable tone” was code language with a useful translation for Obama’s new business-class backers: “friendly to capitalism and its opulent masters.” 

“On condition of anonymity,” Silverstesin reported two years ago, “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?'”

Obama’s ‘Dollar Value’

Since his election to the U.S. Senate and through the presidential campaign, the “deeply conservative” (according to New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar) Obama has done nothing to undermine his “palatability” to concentrated economic and political power. He has made his safety to the power elite evident on matters both domestic and global, from his support for bailing out parasitic Wall Street financial firms with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars (while claiming to be “a free market guy” and proclaiming “love” for “capitalism”) to his refusal to question the morality of U.S. colonial wars and his strident support for maintaining a globally unmatched “defense” (empire) budget that accounts for nearly half the world’s military spending. As Edward S. Herman and David Peterson note in an important recent article, “in 2007-08, Obama has placated establishment circles on virtually every front imaginable, the candidate of ‘change we can believe in’ has visited interest group after interest group to promise them that they needn’t fear any change in the way they’re familiar with doing business” [5].

It’s all very consistent with Obama’s history stretching back to his days as the Republican-pleasing editor of the Harvard Law Review and his climb up the corporate-friendly politics of Chicago.  As Ryan Lizza noted in The New Yorker last July, “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them” [6]. 

Obama enjoyed a remarkable windfall of favorable corporate media coverage.”

Obama’s business-friendly centrism helped him garner an astonishing, record-setting stash of corporate cash.  He received more than $33 million from “FIRE,” the finance-real-estate and insurance sector.  His winnings include $824,202 from the leading global investment firm Goldman Sachs [7].  He has been consistently backed by the biggest and most powerful Wall Street firms.

At the same time and by more than mere coincidence, Obama enjoyed a remarkable windfall of favorable corporate media coverage. That media treatment was the key to Obama’s success in winning support and donations from the middle-class and from non-affluent people like Deddrick Battle.

This does not mean that the Obama phenomenon has raised no concerns among the rich and powerful. As Herman and Peterson note, “Obama’s race, his background, his enthusiastic, and less predictable constituency, and the occasional slivers of populism that creep into his campaign, make the establishment nervous, whereas Hillary Clinton and John McCain clearly posed no such threat.”

Still, the moneyed elite’s most reactionary wing used its formidable media and propaganda system to keep the Obama “movement” safely within conservative boundaries.  It employed a series of neo-McCarthyite anti-radical and related racial scare tactics including the Jeremiah Wright Affair and subsequent public relations campaigns surrounding alleged Obama links to “terrorist” charter-school advocate William Ayers and “radical professor” Rashid Khalidi.  It has sought to link the openly capitalist Obama to the “anti-American” threat of “socialism,” alleging that that he harbors a nefarious desire to “redistribute” wealth.

‘Holding Domestic Constituencies in Check’

At the same time, many in the establishment sensed (accurately) that Obama is particularly well-suited to the goal of wrapping corporate politics and the related American Empire Project in insurgent garb. Their profit- and empire-based system and “leadership” has been behaving so badly that a major image makeover is required to keep the rabble (the citizenry) in line. Once he was properly “vetted” and found to be “reasonable” – to be someone who would not fundamentally question dominant power structures and doctrines – Obama’s multicultural background, race, youth, charisma, and even his early opposition to the Iraq War became useful to corporate and imperial elites. His outwardly progressive “change” persona is perfectly calibrated to divert, capture, control, and contain coming popular rebellions. He is uniquely qualified to simultaneously surf, de-fang, and “manage” the U.S. and world citizenry’s hopes for radical and democratic transformation in the wake of the Bush-Cheney nightmare. As John Pilger warned last May:

“What is Obama’s attraction to big business?  Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s [in 1968].  By offering a ‘new,’ young and apparently progressive face of Democratic Party – with the bonus of being a member of the black elite – he can blunt and divert real opposition.  That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults.  If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent” [8].

“His outwardly progressive ‘change’ persona is perfectly calibrated to divert, capture, control, and contain coming popular rebellions.”

Obama’s race is no small part of what makes him “uniquely qualified” to perform the key tasks of mass pacification for which he has been hired. As Aurora Levins Morales noted in a Z Magazine essay written for left progressives last April:

“We’re far more potent as organizers and catalysts than as voters.  Our ability to create a world we can thrive on does not depend on who wins this election, it depends on our ability to dismantle profit-based societies in which greed trumps ethics. This election is about finding a CEO capable of holding domestic constituencies in check as they are further disenfranchised and… [about] mak[ing] them feel that they have a stake in the military aggressiveness that the ruling class believes is necessary.  Having a black man and a white woman run helps to obscure the fact that …decline of empire is driving the political elite to the right. Both [Obama and Hillary Clinton] represent very reactionary politics…Part of the cleverness of having such candidates is the fact that they will be attacked in ways that make oppressed people feel compelled to protect them” [9].

Imperial ‘Re-branding’

The logic works at the global as well as the domestic level. A considerable segment of the U.S. foreign policy establishment thinks that Obama’s race, name (technically Islamic), experience living (Muslim Indonesia, as a child) in and visiting (chiefly his father’s homeland Kenya) poor nations and his nominally anti-Iraq War history will help them repackage the U.S. imperial project (replete with more than 730 military bases located in nearly every nation on Earth) in softer and more politically correct cover [10]. John Kerry, who ran for the presidency four years earlier largely on the claim that he would be a more effective manager of empire (and the Iraq War) than George W. Bush [11],  was certainly thinking of these critical imperial “soft power” assets when he praised Obama as someone who could “reinvent America’s image abroad” [11A].  So was Obama himself when he said the following to reporters aboard his campaign plane in the fall of 2007:

“If I am the face of American foreign policy and American power, as long as we are making prudent strategic decisions, handling emergencies, crises, and opportunities in the world in an intelligent and sober way….I think that if you can tell people,  ‘We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in our lives and country.  And they’d be right” [12].

What Obama didn’t tell reporters was that his idea of  “prudent” and “intelligent” foreign policy is strongly committed to U.S. global hyper-militarism and world supremacy, including unilateral action whenever “we” deem it necessary to “protect the American people and their vital interests” [13].

Obama’s distinctive biography is one of his great attractions to the mostly white U.S. foreign policy elite in a majority non-white world that has been deeply provoked and disgusted by U.S. behavior in the post-9/11 era (and truthfully before).  He is a perfect symbol of deceptive imperial “re-branding.” According to the power-worshipping and unconsciously imperialist New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof three weeks ago, the election of a black president “could change global perceptions of the United States, redefining the American ‘brand’ to be less about Guantanamo and more about equality” [14].  Never mind that the U.S. remains the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy country in the industrialized world by far, strongly dedicated to maintaining steep socioeconomic and disparity within and between nations and scarred by a domestic racial wealth gap of seven black cents on the white dollar.

Call it “the identity politics of foreign policy.” The Empire wants new clothes and Obama is just the man to wear them.

“If there’s anyone out there who still questions the power of our democracy…”

The first public words out of Obama’s mouth on the evening of his election were richly consistent with his assignment of restoring legitimacy to the American System. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible…..who still questions the power of our democracy,” Obama intoned, “tonight is your answer” [15]. 

Our supposed “left” President-Elect’s first statement was NOT a call for peace, justice, and equality. It wasn’t a call for America to confront the inseparably linked problems (what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “triple evils that are interrelated”) of economic exploitation, racism (deeply understood), and militarism-imperialism.

No, it was a Reagan-like declaration bolstering the American plutocracy’s ridiculous claim that the U.S. – the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society by far – is home to a great democracy and limitless opportunity for all. 

And what’s with the word “still” (used twice) in Obama’s assertion? It’s not exactly like the case for the U.S. being a great popular democracy has been made with special, self-evident strength in recent times!  The last three-and-a-half decades have brought the deepening top-down infliction of a sharply regressive corporate-neoliberal policies that are widely (but irrelevantly) repudiated by the majority of U.S. citizens [16]. 

In this century we’ve witnessed the execution of a monumentally criminal petro-imperialist Iraq Invasion sold to the U.S. populace by a spectacular state-media propaganda campaign (including preposterous claims of noble democratic intent Obama has embraced) that mocked and subverted the nation’s democratic ideals.  Dominant U.S. media’s role in the invasion of Iraq marks perhaps the all-time low point of the “free press” in the U.S. [17].  The “democracy disconnect” – the gap (chasm really) between majority public opinion (which supports things like national universal health care, significant reductions in military expenditure and imperial commitment, massive public works, reduced corporate power, etc.) and “public” policy – is a widely acknowledged problem in American political life [18]. The specter of homeland totalitarianism – please see Sheldon Wolin’s recent book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ, 2008) – has never loomed larger than in the opening decade of the 21st century.  

“If there is anyone out there who still questions the power of our democracy”? Hello? How about: “Is there anybody who seriously thinks we really have a functioning democracy in the U.S.?”

Elections as Change

“In all of the post-election noise,” a student recently wrote me, “I think one thing Obama said in his acceptance speech was completely right on: the election itself is not the ‘change’ but simply the chance to make the changes we have to make.  I know, I know, Obama was the ruling class candidate, but you have to admit that this represents at least symbolically a very good (first) step.”

In the fifth paragraph of his acceptance oration, however, the President-Elect said that “because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”  That line (anyway) makes the election itself change.

Later in the speech Obama said that his election “proved that…a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth” [19]. 

That was very premature.  Whether or not that judgment proves accurate remains to be seen and the answer is up to citizens, not politicians. I’m no where near ready to put Wolin’s book in the basement because of the neoliberal “conciliator” [20] Barack Obama’s election.

I’ve never said Obama was THE ruling class candidate, just A ruling class candidate.  And for what it’s worth, I agree with Herman and Peterson that the Obama phenomenon (not so much Obama but the expectations surrounding him) causes some anxiety in establishment circles [21] – as well it should.

‘Carefully Crafting the Obama Brand’

“Our campaign,” Obama announced last Tuesday night, “was not hatched in the halls of Washington” [22]. 

Yes it was. “One evening in February 2005, in a four-hour meeting stoked by pepperoni pizza and great ambition,” the Chicago Tribune reported last year, “Senator Barack Obama and his senior advisors crafted a strategy to fit the Obama ‘brand.'” The meeting took place just weeks after Obama had been sworn into the upper representative chamber of the United States government.  According to the Tribune’s Washington Bureau reporters Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons, in an article titled “Carefully Crafting the Obama Brand”:

“The charismatic celebrity-politician had rocketed from the Illinois state legislature to the U.S. Senate, stirring national interest.  The challenge was to maintain altitude despite the limited tools available to a freshman senator whose party was in a minority.”

“Yet even in those early days, Obama and his advisors were thinking ahead. Some called it the ‘2010-2012-2016′ plan: a potential bid for governor or re-election to the Senate in 2010, followed by a bid for the White House as soon as 2012, not 2016.   The way to get there, they decided, was by carefully building a record that matched the brand identity: Obama as a unifier and consensus builder, and almost postpolitical leader.”

“The staffers in that after-hours session, convened by Obama’s Senate staff and including Chicago political advisor David Axlerod, planned a low-profile strategy that would emphasize workhorse results over headlines.  Obama would invest in the long-term profile by not seeming too eager for the bright lights” [23].  

This Tribune story suggests a degree of cynicism, manipulation, and ambition that does not fit very well with the progressive and hopeful likeness that the Obama campaign projected. The politician being sold would make sure to seem non-ambitious and humble. But, by Dorning and Parsons’ account, Obama and his team were actually and quite eagerly all about “the bright lights” and “the headlines” in a “long-term” sense.  They were already scheming for the presidency less than a month into his Senate seat.

“For Obama and his team the Senate was largely a marketing platform for the Next Big Thing.”

The image of Obama as a humble and hardworking rookie who got along with his colleagues across partisan lines was part of their marketing strategy on the path to higher – the highest – office. Obama may have just become only the third black to sit in the  U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, but for Obama and his team the Senate was largely a marketing platform for the Next Big Thing – a place to build his image as a “unifier” and “consensus builder.” The term “Obama brand” suggested the commodified nature of a political culture that tends to reduce elections to corporate-“crafted” marketing contests revolving around candidate images packaged and sold by corporate consultants and public relations experts.

The fact that presidential opportunity knocked four years before 2012 does not alter the basic point.

Other “halls” of wealth and power also “hatched” Obama: LaSalle Street (Chicago’s financial district), Wall Street (Goldman Sachs alone gave Obama nearly $900,000 for the 2007-08 campaign), and the monopoly media [24].

Power Elite Cabinet Appointments

Those remaining bizarre individuals on the lunatic fringe who “still question the power of our democracy” are going to be entertained and/or nauseated by “Obama Inc.’s” cabinet appointments. As the balmy populist warmth of Election Day (75 degrees and blue skies as I knocked doors in rural Iowa) gives way to the big chill (it was freezing in Iowa City by Friday) of corporate-imperial governance, Obama has already named the brass-knuckled power-elite enforcer Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff. This is a slap in the face to leftish progressives who think the next president is one of them.

Emmanuel is a former leading member of the corporate-neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Formed by business-oriented elites to increase the Democratic Party’s distance from labor, environmentalism, blacks, and Civil Rights, the DLC’s mission was to steer the party closer to the corporate, imperial, southern, suburban, and racially accomodationist center. It’s goal was to advance post-partisan convergence between Democratic and Republican agendas and to impose economically and racially regressive polices underneath the cloak of “progressive” strategy and “pragmatic” “realism.” 

Emmanuel was a leading Clinton administration agent of the corporate-globalizationist investors-rights bill called the “North American Free Trade Agreement.” He is a leading liaison between corporate funding sources and the Democratic Party.

The son a wealthy Israeli doctor, he is a fierce defender of Israel’s apartheid regime and its illegal occupation of Palestine. 

He played a critical role in favoring conservative and pro-war Democrats over progressive antiwar Democrats during the 2006 congressional primaries.

The rest of Obama’s cabinet appointments should follow in much the same vein. Expect Republican imperialist Robert Gates (who advocated the straight-up U.S. bombing of Nicaragua in the name of the Monroe Doctrine during the early 1980s) to stay on as “Defense” Secretary for at least a year. In the campaign home stretch, Obama bought into the noxious notion that the Bush-Patraeus-Gates “Surge” is “working” (“beyond our wildest dreams” he told FOX News thug Bill O’Reilly) in Iraq  

We will certainly get somebody from the neoliberal Wall-Street-Goldman Sachs-Harvard-University of Chicago-Hamilton Group crowd in Treasury – a seasoned state-capitalist apparatchik who understands the need to bail out the wealthy Few, not ordinary homeowners and workers.  Top Obama economic adviser Lawrence Summers could well be brought in, despite (a) his scandalous claim that females are genetically unfit for science; (b) his claim (as World Bank economist) that Africa was under-polluted since people don’t live very long there anyway; and (c) his critical role (along with Robert Rubin, another possibility at Treasury) in advancing the financial deregulation that helped create the recent meltdown of U.S. and global financial markets. 

Look for a foreign policy post of some sort to go to Richard Holbrooke, a major Iraq War Hawk, largely indistinguishable from Paul Wolfowitz on Iraq and the broader Middle East. Holbrooke’s resume includes authorizing (during his time as a State Department functionary in the Carter administration) the continued sale of arms to Indonesia while its military conducted a genocidal invasion of East Timor during the middle and late 1970s.

I could go on. 

‘I Can’t Read That’

Are progressive people I used to like and take seriously really going to let themselves be turned into hopeless reactionaries and/or fools by the Obama phenomenon?

The progressive filmmaker Michael Moore says this on his Web site: “Never before in our history has an avowed anti-war candidate been elected president during a time of war” [25]. Obama is an “anti-war candidate?” Yes, and Love is Hate. I tried to write Moore to suggest that he read my book’s fourth chapter (titled “How ‘Antiwar’? Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire”), but his mailbox was full.

A left labor historian I’ve worked with has admonished me for criticizing Obama, who (the historian hopes) will bring the Employee Free Choice Act (re-legalizing and expanding unions).  Well, the EFCA is in Obama’s policy book and I’m going to work for it but mark my words: it’ll have to be fought for tooth-and-nail against the likes of Emanuel, Summers, and Obama’s own “deeply conservative” [26] instincts. (This morning on ABC, the neoconservative commentator and Obama fan George Will said that president Obama might well be pleased to see the EFCA fail since it could end up being for the new administration what “gays in the military” was for Bill Clinton).

An old friend used to be a very smart Marxist and was an early member of SDS – a real New Leftist.  She refused to be given – yes, refused to be given – a copy of my very careful and respectful book on the Obama phenomenon. “I can’t read that,” she said.  Some of the names on the back of the book (Adolph Reed Jr., Noam Chomsky, and John Pilger) are former icons of hers (she introduced me to the writings of Adolph Reed, Jr in the mid-1990s.) but now she’s in love with Obama.  “It’s the best thing that could happen,” she says about his election.   She’s repudiated her radical past and agrees with centrist American Enterprise Institute (AEI) “scholar” Norman Ornstein’s recent ravings on how “the left” must not press Obama for very much right now (Ornstein’s AEI-funded admonitions have recently been broadcast again and again across America’s wonderful “public” broadcasting stations (“N’PR and “P”BS) because of, you know, “the economy” and all. 

Paul Krugman in the New York Times (a left-liberal Obama critic during the primary campaign) says there’s “something wrong with you” if you weren’t “teary-eyed” about Obama’s election [27]. Yes, numerous other radicals and I need to be put under psychiatric care because we didn’t cry over the militantly bourgeois and openly imperialist Obama’s presidential selection.

We have the increasingly unglued white anti-racist Tim Wise screaming “Screw You” to Obama’s harshest radical critics [28]  – this after recklessly charging racism against working-class whites [29] Wise 2008b) and Hillary Clinton supporters [30]  who had any issues with (the racially conciliatory) Obama.   

Half-progressive liberals I know in Iowa City (white-academic-Obamaist ground zero) ask my opinion of the election.  I express the slightest hint of substantive, evidence-based left critique/concern and they turn away. 

The local bookstore, run by progressives (left-liberal Edwards supporters during the Iowa Caucus), is wiling to sell my book but “too scared” to have an author event.

Few if any of these people have bothered to read a single solitary word of Obama’s blatantly imperial, nationalist, and militarist foreign policy speeches and writings. And my sense is they never will.  They do not care about such primary sources in the ongoing history of the Obama phenomenon. 

For the last two years talking to many liberals and avowed “progressives” I know about Obama – who I picked to be the next president in the fall of 2006 (I thought he was too simultaneously irresistible to both the power elite and the liberal base not to prevail) – has been like talking to Republicans about George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and 2004: no room for messy and inconvenient facts.

I am hearing people of color identify with the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq in ways that would be unimaginable without Obama. This may be the worst thing of all.

Obama is an act of system-legitimizing brilliance – a tour de force for the ruling class.

He has been chosen to wear the Empire’s new clothes. He is the “managed democracy’s” fake-progressive public relations makeover at home and abroad.

Meanwhile the real heartland white fascists – the ones Wise doesn’t make up – are buying up assault weapons at a record pace.

Such is the dark authoritarian reality of U.S. political culture lurking behind the pride and excitement felt by Deddrick Battle and many other poor and black voters who have been inspired by the Obama phenomenon to think that “politics is for them too.” President Obama can be counted on to use their new faith in reactionary and imperial ways reflecting hidden allegiance to the timeworn elite principle that really big matters of politics and policy are for the rich and powerful – not ordinary citizens. At the end of the day Obama’s job is to keep the restless poor, working class, and global Many safely pacified while serving the needs of the wealthy and imperial Few.  It’s a deadly juggling act that could have terrible consequences. How long he can maintain the illusion of serving the interests of the people and the elite at one and the same time is an open question.

The sooner seriously left agitators and activists can expose the corporate-imperial truth behind the progressive Obama façade to disenfranchised people at home and abroad, the quicker we can get to real social and democratic change beyond the ruling class’s latest quadrennial candidate-centered electoral extravaganza. 

Paul 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, 2007), and most recently Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, September 2008). Paul can be reached at


1. Susan Saulny, “Obama-Inspired Black Voters Find Politics is For Them Too,” New York Times, November 2, 2008, sec.1, p. 1.

2. In deciding against “fusion” electoral options (which would allow a voter to select Obama [or McCain] in the name of the Green Party or any other non-mainstream party), the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the nation has an interest in restricting the number of viable political parties to just two.

3. Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006).

4. David Mendell, Obama: From Promise to Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 248-49.

5. Edward S Herman and David Peterson, “Jeremiah Wright in the Propaganda System,” Monthly Review, September 2008, pp. 3-4; Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). For Obama as “deeply conservative,” see Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). According to MacFarquhar, “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, Obama is deeply conservative.”

6. Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, (July 21, 2008).

7. Center for Responsive Politics, “Open Secrets,” Barack Obama’s Campaign Finance Profile, read at (accessed on November 2, 2008).

8. John Pilger, “After Bobby Kennedy There Was Barack Obama,” Common Dreams, May 31, 2008, read at

9. Aurora Levins Morales, “Thinking Outside the Ballot Box,” Z Magazine (April 2008).

10. James Traub,  “Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny?” New York Times Magazine (November 4, 2007). See also  Liza Mundy, “A Series of Fortunate Events: Barack Obama Needed More Than Talent and Ambition to Rocket From Obscure State Senator to Presidential Contender in Three Years,” Washington Post Magazine (August 12, 2007).

11. See Paul Street, “Bush, Kerry, and ‘Body Language’ v. ‘Message’: Notes on Race, Gender, Empire and Mass Infantilization,” ZNet Magazine (October 12, 2004).

11A. John F. Kerry, “Truly Transformative,” Newsweek (April 28, 2008): 34.

12. Quoted in Traub, “Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny?”

13. For truly ugly details, please see the fourth chapter – titled “How ‘Antiwar?’ Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire” – in my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics. 

14. Nicholas Kristof, “Rebranding the U.S. With Obama,” The New York Times, October 23, 2008, p. A27.

15. Barack Obama, “Remarks on Election Night,” Chicago, IL (November 4, 2008), read at 

16. For one among many sources, see see Jeff Faux, The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future and What It Will Take to Win it Back (New York: Wiley, 2006).

17. For some important recent reflections, see John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney, “The Military/Industrial/Media Triangle,” Monthly Review (October 2008), pp. 15-16.

18. For sources and details, see Paul Street, “Americans’ Progressive Opinions vs. ‘The Shadow Cast on Society by Big Business,'” ZNet Sustainer Commentary (May 15, 2008), read at

19. Obama, “Remarks on Election Night.”

20. MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator.”

21. Herman and Peterson, “Jeremiah Wright.”

22. Obama, “Remarks.”

23. Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons, “Carefully Crafting the Obama Brand,” Chicago Tribune, 12 June, 2007, sec.1. p.1.

24. Ken Silverstein, “Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006); Center for Responsive Politics 2008, Mendell, Obama: From Promise to Power; Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, September 2008), pp. xvii-72.

25. Michael Moore, “Pinch Me,” ZNet (November 5, 2008), read at And what’s with this “time of war” crap? Is Moore dodging IEDs and mortar shells on his way to and from his filming locations or home? Are they imposing nighttime blackouts and rationing scarce war materials in Moore’s hometown of Flint or anywhere else in the U.S.?

The American Empire has undertaken two vicious and one-sided petro-colonial occupations in oil- and gas-rich Southwest Asia. It is not imposing anything like wartime rigors on the imperial homeland. 

26. MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator.”

27. Paul Krugman, “The Obama Agenda,” New York Times, November 7, 2008.

28. Tim Wise, “Good and Now Back to Work,” ZNet (November 6, 2008), read at

29. Tim Wise “This is How Fascism Comes,” Red Room (October 11, 2008), read at

30.  Tim Wise, “Your Whiteness is Showing,” LIP Magazine (June 5, 2008), read at

3 comments on “Barack Obama: The Empire’s New Clothes
  1. fine and well, we have now plenty evidence of what the brand obama will do and may not do from this article and from the writings of paul street and noam chomsky on today’s znet. but if indeed the american public is well to the left of both political parties, why is there so little real change and why does this public not act for better government ? if it can be done in south america where circumstances were truly more dire, why is this highly praised democracy so complacent and immobile ? will we really have to wait till economic disaster strikes home for things to change ? public funds are now being used for shoring up a tottering economic system and the people are angry we are told, but is there any action to get worth for their money ? how far will we have to go being manipulated before common sense strikes out ? ….

  2. “I can’t read that,” she said. Some of the names on the back of the book (Adolph Reed Jr., Noam Chomsky, and John Pilger) are former icons of hers (she introduced me to the writings of Adolph Reed, Jr in the mid-1990s.) but now she’s in love with Obama. “It’s the best thing that could happen,” she says about his election. She’s repudiated her radical past and agrees with centrist American Enterprise Institute (AEI) “scholar” Norman Ornstein’s recent ravings on how “the left” must not press Obama for very much right now ”

    It is impossible to “reform” a system which is broken beyond repair. The present system has never been about giving power to the mob, like most governments, it exists to exploit the masses and enrich a few,
    The heartbreak of the “left” has its roots in this- that “reform” is simply another dead-end willow-the-wisp meant to distract people from the fact that the machine works quite well, thank you, for the few at the top of the heap.
    Very well written piece, I am sending it out to my ever shrinking circle of aquaintences.

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