A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Beneath progressive pretentions, Barack Obama the national political phenomenon has never been anything other than a tool of the United States’ corporate and financial ruling class. Obama rose to power in Washington with remarkable record-setting financial backing from Wall Street and K Street election investors. Those elites are not in the business of promoting or tolerating politicians who seek to challenge the nation’s dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in a Harpers’ 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 added, “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?’”
An answer to the lobbyist’s question came less than three years later: priceless. In his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind tells a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Obama’s presidency, popular rage at Wall Street was intense and the leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive. The nation’s financial elite had driven the nation and world’s economy into an epic meltdown in the period since Silverstein’s essay was published – and millions knew it. Having ridden into office partly on a wave of popular anger at the economic power elite’s staggering malfeasance, Obama called a meeting of the nation’s top thirteen financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread only to leave pleased to learn that the new president was in their camp. For instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis – workers, minorities, and the poor – Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown.
“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”
The massive taxpayer bailout of the super fat cats would continue, along with numerous other forms of corporate welfare for the super-rich, powerful, and parasitic. This state-capitalist largesse was unaccompanied by any serious effort to regulate their conduct or by any remotely comparable bailout for the millions evicted from their homes and jobs by the not-so invisible hand of the marketplace. No wonder 95 percent of national U.S. income gains went to the top 1% during Obama’s first term.
A Tutorial on Power
It was a critical moment. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry, “pitchfork”-wielding populace at the gates, an actually progressive President Obama could have rallied the populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by moving ahead aggressively with a number of policies: a stimulus with major public works jobs programs; a real (single-payer) health insurance reform; the serious disciplining and even break-up or nationalization of the leading financial institutions; massive federal housing assistance and mortgage relief; and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have re-legalized union organizing in the U.S. But no such policy initiatives issued from the White House, which opted instead to give the U.S. populace what William Greider memorably called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”
Americans also watched as Obama moved on to pass a health insurance reform (the so-called Affordable Care Act) that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single payer “Medicare for All”) to the curb while rushing to pass a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by the arch 1 percenter Mitt Romney. As Obama later explained to some of his rich friends at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council a month after trouncing Romney’s bid to unseat him: “When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans–we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines…People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.” He might have added that his “health care reform” was dreamed up by Republicans, consistent with some of his elite supporters’ likening of the Obama White House to the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.
A year and a half before this tender ruling class moment, the American people watched Obama offer the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” offered during the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis. It was at that point that hundreds of thousands of mostly younger Americans had received enough of Obama’s “blunt lesson about power” to join the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which sought progressive change through direct action and social movement-building rather than corporate-captive electoral politics. (We will never know how far Occupy might have gone since it was shut down by a federally coordinated campaign of repression that joined the Obama administration and hundreds of mostly Democratic city governments in the infiltration, surveillance, smearing, takedown and eviction of the short lived movement – this even as the Democrats stole some of Occupy’s rhetoric for use against Romney and the Republicans in 2012.)
We Were Warned
Liberal intellectuals who have claimed to be “surprised” and “disappointed” by Obama’s corporatist record have either been disingenuous pretenders or bamboozled fools. Obama’s allegiance to the American business elite was evident from the get go. It was well understood by the K Street insiders that Silverstein interviewed in the fall of 2006. It was grasped by the liberal journalist and New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar in the spring of 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, which he told her would “so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” Obama told MacFarquhar that “we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the paulstreettransition, 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 U.S. had long favored the single-payer model? So what if single payer would let people keep the doctors of their choice, only throwing away the protection pay off 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?
This was the slick and slimy, unnamed Obama – granted undue progressive credibility thanks in part to the simple color of his skin – that the 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 of 1996:
“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway.”
Things Democratic Presidential Candidates Have to Say
It is true that Illinois state senator Obama publicly embraced single-payer health care insurance speaking before the Illinois AFL-CIO in late June of 2003. But he didn’t really mean it. It was just fake-progressive rhetoric related to his upcoming campaign for an open U.S. senate seat in Illinois, pronounced before he realized that he had a serious near-term shot at the U.S. presidency (something that became clear only in the summer of 2004) – an ambition that required the jettisoning of such policy commitments in pursuit of Wall Street backing.
Five years later, candidate Obama’s top economic advisor, the neoliberal University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, told Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. to disregard Obama’s populace-pleasing 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, Goolsbee told the Canadian diplomat. As Goolsbee explained, Obama was just saying the populist-sounding stuff Democratic presidential candidate have to declare in order to get nominated and elected. His anti-NAFTA language it was not to be taken seriously as a threat to the corporate globalization agenda that U.S. and Canadian elites – and Barack Obama – shared.
“To Change the World”
Which brings us to Barack Obama’s ongoing campaign to win Congressional approval for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a classically neoliberal so-called free trade agreement that has been under secret construction by multinational corporate lawyers and corporatist government officials for at least a decade. The measure has taken on what New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker calls “special meaning for a president eager to change the world. It [is] a way to leave behind a positive legacy abroad, one that could be measured, [Obama] hope[s], by the number of lives improved rather than [as with his military actions in the Middle East] by the number of bodies left behind.”
The TPP would join the United States along with 11 other nations along the Pacific Rim, including Canada, Mexico, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Australia in a “free-trade zone” covering nearly 40 percent of the world’s economy. The first Black “Eisenhower Republican” President is allied with Congressional Republicans and big business groups in claiming that the TPP will open up foreign markets to American goods and “level the playing field by forcing Asian competitors to improve labor and environmental standards.”
Labor unions, environmental groups, food safety activists, civil libertarians, civil rights groups, and a good number of Congressional Democrats know that’s all manipulative business propaganda. The measure isn’t really about trade or improved standards, they are quite aware. As the liberal economist Paul Krugman has noted, whatever benefits may nor may not befall the U.S. economy from “free trade” between the TPP’s projected signatory nations have “already been realized.” The real thrust and significance of the TPP is about strengthening corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards, something certain to discourage the enactment and enforce of such standards. The progressive economist Dean Baker explained things well last December:
“TPP and [the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Pact – TTIP] are about getting special deals for businesses that they would have difficulty getting through the normal political process. For example, oil and gas companies that think they should be able to drill everywhere may be able to get rules that prevent national or state governments from restricting their activities. This could mean, for example, that New York State would have to compensate potential frackers for the ban that Governor Cuomo imposed last week…Similarly, the financial industry will be looking to roll back the sort of regulations put in place through Dodd-Frank and similar legislation in other countries. Again, if governments want to ensure that their financial system is safe, they may have to pay the banks for the privilege….The pharmaceutical industry and entertainment industries will get longer and stronger patent and copyright protection. And the food and pesticide industries will be able to able to limit the ability of governments to impose safety and environmental regulations.”
“Best of all, these trade deals will set up a new legal structure that goes outside existing system in the United States and elsewhere. All the businesses that didn’t think German or British courts could be trusted to give them a fair deal can turn to the investor-state dispute settlement tribunals established as part of these trade pacts. These tribunals will effectively make their own law. The trade deals allow no appeal back to U.S. courts or the courts of any other country that is included….In short, these trade deals are a real bonanza for business.”
No wonder Obama has done everything he can to keep the details of the TPP and TTIP under wraps. When you realize that the TPP would “affect the lives of millions of Americans, their jobs, their quality of life” (as Diana Johnstone recently noted on CounterPunch), the secrecy is astounding: U.S. Congress persons and some of their staff can see the TPP’s text only if they agree not to take notes or discuss the details in public!
It is also no wonder that Obama wants Congress to give him “fast-track authority” to force a yay or nay Congressional vote on the TPP, with no time for careful consideration and no chance for revisions. Under fast-track rules, there’s no chance for delays or alterations. The pact must be voted up or down in a very short time-frame. “The idea,” Baker noted, “is that with the bulk of the business community promising large campaign contributions to supporters and threatening to punish opponents, most members of Congress would find it difficult to vote no.”
A Rare Moment
Last Friday, the US House voted no on “fast-track” in an indirect way. It was a stunning rebuke and embarrassment for Obama, who lobbied hard for TPP along with corporate America. As the sage left-liberal commentator William Greider noted, “After 25 years of losing out to Wall Street and corporate interests, the party’s faithful constituency base managed to take down their Democratic president and his sweetheart deal with the big money. The left-liberal policy groups and grassroots activists agitating for change stood their ground against the power elites and, for once, they triumphed.” The Eisenhower Republican did not help his case with his characteristically arrogant and self-righteous approach to Congressional Democrats. “Lots of people in the [Democratic] party warned Obama that he was heading into a buzz saw with his Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Greider writes. “He ignored them. Even worse, he got a little nasty with those resisting his proposal—leading voices like Senator Elizabeth Warren. Surrounded by advisers from Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, he scolded labor…”
Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, was deeply insulted. “He’s ignored Congress and disrespected Congress for years,” DeFazio told reporters, “and then comes to the caucus and lectures us for 40 minutes about his values and whether or not we’re being honest by using legislative tactics to try and stop something which we believe is a horrible mistake for the United States of America, and questions our integrity. It wasn’t the greatest strategy.”
Obama and his big business and Congressional Republican allies are coming back for a second try. One thing you can count on: the campaign finance money spigot that flows from the corporate class to the nation’s not-so democratically elected officials is fixed in the “on” position. If anyone cares, a recent CBS-New York Times poll finds that “Americans [are] skeptical of [so-called] free trade. Nearly two-thirds [63%] favored some form of trade restrictions, and more than half opposed giving the president [fast-track] authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could only vote up or down without amendments.”
Washington runs on corporate campaign cash, not public opinion, it is true. Still, this might be one of those rare moments when something approximating democracy prevails in the nation’s dollar-drenched government. As the incisive Georgetown University labor historian Joseph McCartin (himself a onetime Obama enthusiast) told The Guardian, “This is the first time Congress considered a trade deal since we as a country became much more cognizant of surging inequality and the crisis in middle-class jobs. The old playbook of the president being able to get the votes at the last minute doesn’t seem to apply anymore.”
The Icy Waters of Neoliberal Calculation
Whether the Eisenhower Republican in the White House – properly identified neatly two decades ago as a “vacuous to repressive neoliberal” (Reed) – and his corporate allies can still salvage a deal is anyone’s guess. Whatever occurs, I am afraid I must concur with the left economist Robert Urie last weekend on CounterPunch:
“As of the moment of this writing the certainty surrounding passage of ‘fast-track’ authority is waning. What has been unleashed by the push to pass the TPP is impetus toward completion of the capitalist/corporate coup begun in the 1970s. Investor State Dispute Settlement-like mechanisms [shadowy institutions that write global trade rules in accord with corporate interests] exist from past trade agreements and are already being used. Growing catastrophes for global labor and the environment will be at best incrementally inconvenienced by a political setback for ‘fast-track.’ And while ending ‘fast-track’ is a possibly necessary diversion, the capitalist coup and its institutional facts will remain the problem. The next President from either political party will push the same high-capitalist program and the most likely lesson learned from a defeat of ‘fast-track’ will be to better hide the grab for increased corporate power, not to reverse it.”
That’s the depressing reality of the world capitalist system. In the short-term, however, let us appreciate the final crumbling of the myth of a progressive Barack Obama phenomenon and presidency. The myth is perishing in the icy waters of neoliberal calculation – kind of like the Wicked Witch of the West who screamed “I’m Melting, I’m Melting” as Dorothy doused her with a bucket of water near the end of The Wizard of Oz. What a pathetic but predictable finish for Obama: a president elected in the name of progressive “hope” and “change” seeking to “leave behind a positive legacy” by pushing a noxiously authoritarian and eco-cidal “free trade” measure on behalf of the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money over and against public opinion and the common good.
The sooner Obama breaks the ribbon on his presidential library – to be suitably housed at the arch-neoliberal University of Chicago – the better. In the meantime, I would like just one former “Progressive for Obama” member to offer a formal apology for the abject foolishness they exhibited in support of this deeply conservative corporatist Democrat – and for the venom with which so many liberals attacked those of us on the actual Left  who tried to warn U.S. “progressives” and the world about the cold corporate and imperial reality of Obama, Inc. from the start.
Now, of course, the magic wand of fake-populist candidate deception has been passed on to the militant neoliberal corporatist Hillary Clinton. In November of 2012, as Secretary of State, she said that the TPP “sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade.” Currently, however, she is compelled by the dictates of the quadrennial campaign season to pretend to be skeptical about the authoritarian measure. No doubt, Leftists who protest when she moves forward on “the high capitalist program” as U.S. President will be absurdly denounced as sexists by many of her liberal defenders just as Obama’s Left critics have been falsely called racists by many of his liberal fans. Such are the sinister uses of identity politics for the globalist bourgeoisie. Plus ca change, plus c’est la mệme chose.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).
1. Please see the sub-section titled “Insistent Left Warnings” on pages 176-177 in the sixth chapter (titled “We Were Warned”) of my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2014)
Copyright 2015 Paul Street. First published in Counterpunch. Published in Vox Populi by permission of the author.