News Flash: Obama Lies
News flash: U.S. politicians lie. They lie a lot.
Oh, you knew that.
But try this one: Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is no special exception to the rule. Beneath all his claims to represent a “new kind of politics,” one based on honesty and transparency, he lies too. He does it a lot.
This is less well known.
“FUNDED BY THE AMERICAN PEOPLE”
The latest example is Obama’s decision to choose winning over his word on public campaign financing in the general election.
Just the other day Obama coldly contradicted his earlier promise to go with money from the U.S. presidential public financing system and to accept accompanying spending limits if his Republican opponent did the same. He admitted that he will rely solely on private financing in the general election, making him the first presidential candidate to do so since the public system was set up after Watergate.
There is no mystery about why: the opportunity to financially bury John McCain is irresistible to Obama, who did not imagine that he was going to set obscene new campaign fundraising records, fueled largely by the likes of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase. Obama has raised $265 million – a new record, at this stage – so far, nearly three times as much as John McCain ($97).
When Obama offered his populist-sounding public-financing pledge last year, the reactionary Republican arch-militarist McCain said he would abide by the limits and accept public money.
McCain is in fact going to go with taxpayer funds, agreeing to accept spending limits. There will no such limits for Obama.
Obama’s defiance of his previous oath was announced in a creepy video to supporters in which he praised ordinary Americans for “fueling” his candidacy with donations of “five dollars, ten dollars, twenty dollars, whatever you can afford.” He said, “Let’s build the first general election campaign that’s truly funded by the American people.”
Too bad the system he’s rejecting is funded by taxpayers who give $3 to the presidential election fund when they file their taxes.
Too bad Obama is disproportionately funded by people from the top 1 percent of Americans, who own nearly 40 percent of the nation’s wealth ands who account for more than 80 percent of campaign contributions above $250. Through April of 2008, the Campaign Finance Institute reports, Obama received more than $89 million in contributions of $1000 or more, just $8 million less than McCain’s total take ($97.3).
According to the Center for Responsive Obama’s top contributors include Goldman Sachs (#1 at $571,000), UBSAG (#3 at $365,000), JP Morgan Chase (#4 at $362,000), Citigroup (#5 at $358,000), Lehman Bros. (#7 at 4319,000), Google (#8 at $318,000), multinational corporate law firm Sidley Austin LLP (#10 at $294,000)and nuclear energy powerhouse Exelon (#15 at %236,000}.
Obama’s campaign finance comments are pretty damn disingenuous: not exactly the “straight shooter” talk he claims to represent.
But it’s hardly the first Obama deception to date – not by a long shot. Here (below) are some of the bigger examples of stark dishonesty I’ve discovered in the process of writing a book on the Obama phenomenon and U.S. political culture.
“NUCLEAR LEGISLATION I’VE PASSED”: FALSE POSTURING ON THE BRAIDWOOD LEAKS AND NUCLEAR REGULATION
During the pivotal Iowa campaign, Obama sought to burnish his populist “tinge” by telling a misleading story about his response to an Exelon nuclear accident that outraged Illinois residents in late 2005 and early 2006. On December 1 of 2005, Exelon admitted that it had discovered radioactive by-products of nuclear power in monitoring wells at its Braidwood plant, located in central Illinois. Citizen concerns deepened when radioactive tritium was discovered in a home drinking well near the plant and Exelon revealed that this substance came from millions of gallons of water that had leaked from the plant over many years. Exelon had not been required to report the leaks since the radioactive discharges had not reached the level of what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission called “an emergency.”
Last November, Obama told a campaign crowd in Iowa that he had introduced a U.S. Senate bill that required nuclear plant owners to notify local and state authorities immediately when even small leaks had occurred. The bill, he told Iowa voters, was “the only nuclear legislation that I’ve passed. I just did that last year,” Obama claimed, eliciting “murmurs of approval” .
But, as the New York Times reported in a front-page story two days before Super Tuesday, the truth of what happened after the Braidwood leak was very different than Obama’s self-serving version. “While he initially fought to advance” a bill very much like what he claimed to have “passed,” Times reporter Mike McIntire noted, “Mr. Obama eventually rewrote it to reflect changes sought by Senate Republicans, Exelon, and nuclear regulators. Those revisions propelled the bill through a crucial committee. But contrary to Mr. Obama’s comments in Iowa, it ultimately died amid parliamentary wrangling in the full Senate despite the removal of language mandating prompt reporting. Instead, the bill simply offered guidance to regulators, whom it charged with addressing the issue of unreported links.” As McIntire suggested, this ignominious legislative aftermath contradicted Obama’s campaign claim and followed in natural accord with the following facts :
* Obama had received at least $227,000 in campaign cash from Exelon since 2003.
* “Exelon’s support for Mr. Obama far exceeds its support for any other presidential candidate.”
* Exelon executives met repeatedly with Obama’s staff to discuss Obama’s ultimately diluted and aborted bill.
* Obama’s chief political strategist David Axlerod had worked as a consultant to Exelon since 2002.
MAYTAG AND GALESBURG: “FUNDRAISING, RHETORIC COLLIDE”
In Obama’s stump speech during the long campaign leading up to the Iowa Democratic presidential caucus, the Maytag workers of Galesburg, Illinois played a central role. Obama repeatedly told the story of how their jobs had been shipped to Mexico. “It is a ready applause line, for the Illinois presidential hopeful,” Chicago Tribune reporter Bob Secter noted four days before the Super Tuesday Primaries, “one that he has been reciting almost verbatim since he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004, when appliance giant Maytag was in the process of shutting a refrigerator plant [in Galesburg], putting 1,600 people out of work.” Obama was trying to steal John Edwards’ laborite thunder in Iowa by inveighing against mean-spirited corporations who used trade pacts to replace highly paid union workers with cheaper labor abroad
Despite Obama’s claims of deep concern for Galesburg’s proletarian victims, however, Maytag union members told Secter that Obama had done remarkably little to save the Galesburg workers’ jobs. Those workers belonged to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, whose president noted that “Obama’s support for Maytag workers was more show than substance.”
Maytag employees and former employees were particularly rankled by Obama’s inaction because he possessed a special relationship with a leading Maytag decision-maker. Between 2003 and 2008, Obama received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the family of Lester Crown, one of Maytag’s directors and largest investors. The Crowns and employees of their family-managed holding company (Henry Crown Investments) gave at least $195,000 to Obama’s senate and presidential campaigns between 2003 and 2008. According to Crown, however, Obama never once raised the fate of Maytag’s Galesburg workers with him.
“The high profile treatment given the Maytag situation” by Obama, Secter noted, “is a reminder of the often awkward intersection of the populist rhetoric, complex issues, and the financial realities of presidential campaigning.” It stood in ironic relation to Obama’s repeated criticism of his Democratic presidential rivals for “straying from their own populist images,” as when he hit Hillary Clinton for serving many years ago on the board of the anti-labor Wal Mart Company .
PSEUDO-POPULIST “CAMPAIGN RHETORIC” ON NAFTA AND “TRADE”
When addressing working-class audiences in the primary campaign, Obama recurrently boasted of his purported opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – widely and rightly blamed for massive job and wage losses by organized labor and working class voters but deemed a boon to the U.S. economy by the corporate interests that provided campaign dollars for his campaign. “I don’t think NAFTA has been good for Americans, and I never have,” Obama claimed before the Ohio Democratic primary, where “trade” and NAFTA emerged as leading campaign issues .
The reality of his record on the corporate-neoliberal “investor rights” bill  was considerably less populist than that comment suggested. During his 2004 Senate campaign, he argued for “more deals such as NAFTA,” claimed that one of his primary opponent's call for higher, job-protecting tariffs would “spark a trade war,” and spoke repeatedly of the “enormous benefits” that “accrued to his state from NAFTA”.
In late February of 2008, New York Times business writer David Leaonhardt noted that both Obama and Senator Clinton had been “straddling NAFTA and trade issues.” After quoting an Obama speech telling Youngstown, Ohio workers they’d seen “job after job disappear because of bad trade deals like NAFTA,” Leaonhardt noted that “none of” Obama’s trade agenda was “particularly radical. Neither candidate calls for a repeal of NAFTA, or anything close to it. Both instead want to tinker with the bureaucratic innards of the agreement...It’s a bit of an odd situation,” Leaonhardt added. “They call the country’s trade policy a disaster, and yet their plan starts with, um, cracking down on Mexican pollution” .
Matt Gonzales noted around the same time that Obama had dropped the populist ball when given an opportunity to protect workers from unfair trade agreements. Obama cast the deciding vote against an amendment to a 2005 Commerce Appropriations bill that would have “prohibited US trade negotiators from weakening US laws that provide safeguards from unfair foreign trade practices.” The amendment would have been “a vital tool to combat the outsourcing of jobs to foreign workers” .
Obama’s ambiguous position on “trade” received some especially unwelcome attention in the week before the Ohio and Texas primaries of early March 2008. That’s when his campaign was hit by the revelation that a top Obama staff member had made a revealing comment to Michael Wilson, the Canadian Ambassador to the United States. As the Canadian Television network (CTV) reported on February 27, 2008, the Obama staffer told Wilson to disregard Obama’s populace-pleasing political language on NAFTA and “trade.” That language was geared toward winning working-class votes in Ohio and should not be taken as a serious threat to the corporate globalizatization agenda U.S. and Canadian elites share, the Obama aid wanted the Canadian government to know. According to CTV News, “Barack Obama has ratcheted up his attacks on NAFTA, but a senior member of his campaign team told a Canadian official not to take his criticisms seriously, CTV News has learned...The staff member reassured Wilson that the criticism would only be campaign rhetoric and should not be taken at face value” .
Subsequent inquiry determined that the “staff member” was none other than Obama’s top economic adviser, University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, who also happened to be the chief economist of the regressive corporate-sponsored Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).
Late in the Iowa Caucus campaign, Obama criticized John Edwards for serving the same “Washington special interests” that Edwards claimed to oppose because Edwards received support from independent labor-based groups (“527s”) affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) . Obama knew very well (a) that Edwards had spoken against large corporate interests, not labor and (b) that capital, not labor, exercises dominant influence over the federal government. He also turned around and started taking money from the same exact groups prior to the Nevada Caucus. It was all very disingenuous, to say the least.
WAL MART CON
Especially when speaking before labor audiences, primary candidate Obama has made a point of slamming Wal-Mart for its notorious low-wage and worker-abusing practices. “I don’t shop there,” he said during the primary campaign. Great, but Obama has appointed as his economic policy director Jason Furman – a corporate-neoliberal economist (from the conservative “Hamilton Group”) who has defended the Wal Mart as a blessing for poor Americans . Obama also gave his endorsement in the spring of 2007 to the pro-Wal Mart Alderman Dorothy Tillman, who joined Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in opposing a city council resolution that would have required Wal-Mart and other big-box retailers to pay workers a livable wage in the city of Chicago. Despite Obama’s endorsement, Tillman was defeated by Pat Dowell, who supported the “big box” ordinance, which was vetoed by Obama’s close ally Daley – the business-friendly “mayor for life” with whom Obama shares his chief media consultant (David Axelrod) [14A].
“I BELIEVE YOU CARE”
Speaking to Wall Street leaders at NASDAQ’s headquarters in the late summer of 2007, Obama told financial elites that “I believe all of you are as open and willing to listen as anyone else in America. I believe you care about this country and the future we are leaving to the next generation. I believe your work to be a part of building a stronger, more vibrant, and more just America. I think the problem is that no one has asked you to play a part in the project of American renewal” .
These were strange beliefs to (claim to) hold in light of the actual historical pattern of business behavior that naturally results from purpose and structure of the system of private profit. An endless army of nonprofit charities and social service-providers, citizens, environmental and community activists, trade union negotiators, and policymakers has spent decades asking (often enough begging) the “American” corporate and financial capitalist over-class to contribute to the domestic social good. The positive results are generally marginal and fleeting as the “business community” works with structurally super-empowered effectiveness to distribute wealth and power ever more upward and to serve the needs of private investors and capital accumulation over and above any considerations of social and environmental health and the common good at home or abroad. Holding no special allegiance to the American people in an age of corporate globalization, the economic elite is more than willing to significantly abandon the domestic U.S. society and its workers and communities to serve the ultimate business purpose: enhancing its bottom line .
Obama, no slouch in the brains department, knows all this very well. That means that his NASDAQ comment was a lie.
“NOT FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT”
In his campaign book The Audacity of Hope (2006), Obama tried to demonstrate his distance from black Americans who “angrily” denounce American racism and to curry favor with white middle class voters (many of whom want to think that racism and hence legitimate black anger is a “thing of the past”) by claiming that “What ails working- and middle-class blacks is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts” . I am quite certain that he knew this statement to be thoroughly false in a nation where persistent, many-sided institutional racism continues to inflict wildly disproportionate poverty and misery on the black community . A former community organizer, lawyer, and state legislator on the South Side of Chicago, Obama is too smart and too acquainted with basic social facts of U.S. life to believe his statement in Audacity. That would make his statement a lie.
TO “PROTECT” JEREMIAH WRIGHT
Last February, Obama revoked his then pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s scheduled statement of a public prayer before Obama’s official announcement of his candidacy for the White House. A preacher known for fiery sermons against American racism, poverty, and imperialism, Wright was Obama’s avowed spiritual mentor – his personal agent of religious conversion on the South Side of Chicago in the middle 1980s.
Last April, Obama told New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor that he was “only shielding his pastor from the spotlight” when he booted Wright from the stage . In July, Obama told Newsweek reporters Darren Briscoe and Richard Wolffe that he “may have been over-protective” toward Wright .
But anybody with any political common sense knew very well that Obama had acted to protect his campaign when he asked Wright to stand down. Kantor said as much when she wrote that “Mr. Wright’s assertions of widespread white racism and his scorching remarks about American government have drawn criticism, and prompted the senator to cancel his delivery of the invocation when he formally announced his candidacy in February.”
“SO THEY GOT TOGETHER AND BARACK OBAMA JUNIOR WAS BORN”
But the Rev. Wright story was just a little white lie compared to the big black fib Obama told in Selma, Alabama in early March of 2007. Trying to sound authentically African-American during a speech memorializing the forty-second anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights March at the Pettis Bridge in Selma, Obama claimed that his black (Kenyan) father and white (Kansan) mother married and conceived the future corporate-sponsored BaRockstar because of the great Civil Rights struggles fought in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama. “There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama,” Obama intoned, “because some folks were willing to march across a bridge. So they [his parents] got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born.”
“So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama,” Obama said. “Don't tell me I'm not coming home to Selma, Alabama. I'm here because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me” .
Never mind that Barack Obama Jr. was born in 1961, two years before the famous campaign to desegregate Birmingham, three years before the Civil Rights Act, and four years before the famous Selma march!
It’s true that Obama’s multicultural conception came four years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but his parents “getting together” across racial didn’t have much to do with the Civil Rights Movement. It was more likely a reflection of the fact that his home state of Hawaii was relatively “tolerant” on racial questions – a distant geographic and cultural cry from the racially segregated U.S. South to which Obama absurdly tried to claim strong biographical connection.
McCAIN, IRAQ, THE SYSTEM...
I won’t go here into the deep and dark deception involved in Obama’s “fairy tale” (as Bill Clinton rightly said) claim to have opposed the occupation of Iraq “from the beginning” - a topic I have addressed at some length in an earlier ZNet essay titled “The Audacity of Deception: Barack Obama and the Manufacture of Progressive Illusion (www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/15765) and in my forthcoming (August 2008) book “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.” You can find many more sources and examples in that volume (order at www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987
Don’t get me wrong. For what it’s worth, John McCain is a chronic liar and Olympic-level flip-flopper in his own right – on tax cuts, offshore drilling, lobbyists, immigration reform, and more. He also happens to represent an extremist and dangerous right-wing agenda that progressive voters should resist by voting “for” Obama in contested states. There’s more than "a dime’s worth of difference" between the two candidates, not because the centrist Democratic contender is progressive (he’s corporate-neoliberal and imperial) but because the Republican standard-bearer and party is so dangerously far right. Once, again,as in 2004, this isn’t “Coke” (the Democrats) v. “Pepsi” (the Republicans): it’s corporate-neoliberal Coke versus arch-authoritarian and messianic-militaristic Crack .
I also think that most of Obama’s lies sadly make perfect sense from the perspective of a campaign that is “in it to win it.” The American narrow-spectrum corporate-crafted presidential election extravaganza is not about truth-telling – it’s about corporate-managed deception. This goes back a long way; it’s not new. Anybody who wants U.S. politicians to stop lying should support the following reforms :
* Take private money out of public elections through the full mandatory equal and public financing of federal campaigns
* Introduce proportional representation in the election of state and congressional representatives.
* Provide extra public resources and public access – a form of political party affirmative action – for third, fourth, and fifth parties that have been discriminated against in the past.
* Introduce a parliamentary system whereby the chief executive is selected by and ultimately subordinated to the representative branch of government.
* If a presidential system remains, introduce “instant run off” voting – a mechanism permitting third and fourth parities to avoid functioning as “spoilers” by requiring that winners must receive at least 50 percent of the total vote. Let all voters mark their second and third favorite choices, hold an instant run off between the top candidates until one candidate secures at least 50 percent plus one.
* Permit “fusion” voting, whereby voters are free to support a major party candidate in the name of their own favorite third (or fourth, etc.) party.
* Mandate free media advertisements for all candidates.
* Remove candidate debates from private media corporations and hand them over to publicly funded, publicly elected, and publicly overseen citizen committees.
* Activate antitrust laws to break up the current corporate media oligopoly and distribute political news and information across a broader and more diverse range of print and media outlets.
* Require media campaign coverage to spend a designated relevant and disproportionate amount of time on policy and ideological differences between and among candidates and parties.
* Sharply restrict corporate lobbying.
* Restrict the right of corporations to draft laws governing their industries.
* Make it illegal to use shareholder funds for political reasons.
* Forbid former high-level politicians from becoming business lobbyists for ten years or more.
* Forbid current or former high-level corporate officers from sitting on commissions with regulatory power over their industries.
* Make it illegal for corporations to try to influence their employees’ votes.
* Repeal “investor rights” clauses in trade agreements, which let foreign and multinational corporations sue a national government for passing environmental, safety (job and consumer), labor, and/or anti-discrimination laws.
* Prohibit the granting of subsidies to companies who do not contribute to social and ecological health.
* Institute penalties for companies that extort concessions from workers, communities, and governments by threatening to leave a city, county, state or country.
* Significantly expand public media and provide significant new public subsidies and other resources for alternative and grassroots citizen’s media.
Introducing many of the top reforms suggested above, it should be acknowledged, would almost certainly require a Constitutional Amendment. However they are pursued and implemented, these are meaningful changes that should be consistently advanced by progressives. All of them are consistent with Obama’s recurrent call for Americans to act to change not just policies but also the very process and nature of U.S. politics itself.
Veteran radical historian Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm), Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (forthcoming in summer of 2008).
1. Read at www.cfinst.org/pr/prRelease.aspx?ReleaseID=191].
2. Read at www.opensecrets.org/pres08/contrib.php?cycle=2008&cid=N000096380.
3. Mike McIntire, “Nuclear Leaks and Response Tested Obama,” New York Times, 3 February, 2008, section 1, p. 1.
4. McIntire, “Nuclear Leaks.”
5. Bob Secter, “Obama’s Fundraising, Rhetoric Collide,” Chicago Tribune, February 2008, sec.1, p.7.
6. Public Broadcasting System, PBP News Hour, “Free Trade Agreement is Issue for Ohio Voters” (March 3, 2008), read at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/features/us/jan-june08/nafta_3-03.html
7. For a useful and powerful analysis of NAFTA, 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),pp. 9-37, 45-47, 126-54..
8. Associated Press, February 28, 2008.
9. David Leonhardt, “The Politics of Trade in Ohio,” New York Times, 27 February, 2008.
10. Matt Gonzales, “The Obama Craze: Count Me Out,” BeyondChron: San Francisco’s Online Daily (February 28 2008) read online at www.beyondchron.org/articles/index.php?itemid=5413#more.
11. CTV.ca News Staff, “Obama Staffer Gave Warning of NAFTA Rhetoric,” www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20080227/dems_nafta_080227/20080227
12. Doug Henwood, “Would You like Change With That?” Left Business Observer, No. 117 (March 2008). From here on, I dispense with sources and people are referred to my forthcoming (due out in August) book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm Publishers).
13. Paul Krugman, “State of the Unions,” New York Times, December 24, 2007.
14. Josh Gerstein, “Wal-Mart Defender to Direct Obama’s Economic Policy,” New York Sun (June 10, 2008).
14A. For details, see Paul Street, “Obama’s Forgotten Wal-Mart Endorsement,” ZNet (August 28, 2007).
15. Barack Obama, “Our Common Stake in America’s Prosperity,” New York, New York (September 17, 2007).
16. An excellent account is Faux, The Global Class War.
17. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (New York: 2006), p. 247.
18. For an investigation of this in Obama’s own metropolitan backyard, see Paul Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).
19. Jodi Kantor, “A Candidate, His Minister and the Search for Faith,” New York Times, 30 April 2007, p. A1.
20. Richard Wolffe and Darren Briscoe, “Across the Divide: Barack Obama’s Road to Racial Reconstruction,” Newsweek (July 16, 2007).
21. Barack Obama, “Selma Voting Rights Commemoration,” Selma, Alabama, March 4, 2007. read at www.barackobama.com
22. “Kerry is Coke, Bush is Crack,” ZNet Magazine (March 24, 2004), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=33&ItemID=5204.
23. Much of what follows comes from Charles Derber, Hidden Power: What You Need to Know to Save Our Democracy (San Francisco, CA: 2005)