Nobody Home: Money, Politics, and Betrayal
Pity poor “progressive” President Obama and his struggle to raise enough cash to keep up with the big bad business-friendly Republican money machine! According to the New York Times last week, campaign workers in the corporation-like Obama headquarters in downtown Chicago are having a hard time raising dollars from the small donors who gave to Obama in 2008.” This is because “Some of the volunteers who went to work enlisting friends and neighbors [in 2008] have been turned off by unmet expectations and the hard realities of partisan Washington” and because “they have literally lost track of many reliable Democratic voters, particularly lower-income people who have lost their homes or their jobs or both, and can no longer be reached at the addresses or phone numbers the campaign has on file” (J. Rutenberg and J. Zeleny, NYT, March 8, 2012, A1).
That’s not all. A Huffington Post examination of campaign finance data from The Center for Responsive Politics last month purports to show that the president has “been abandoned by the world of finance.” In the final quarter of 2011, Huffington Post reporters Sam Stein and Paul Blumenthal found, Obama received just $127,000 from employees at the nation’s 68 most politically active and influential financial firms. Romney received $1.4 million from those employees during the same period. Over the course of entire campaign so far, Obama has been getting $1 dollar in donations from the financial sector for every $5 given to Romney! Stein and Blumenthal take this disparity to indicate Wall Street’s audacious ingratitude for a president who has served their interests. Those nasty financial dons take exception to the slightest populist-sounding rhetorical slight and to mere notion of slightly raising taxes on millionaires. They have found in Romney an unusually friendly place to run to – a contender who has (as one liberal activist told Stein and Blumenthal) “lived and breathed Wall Street all his life.” (S.Stein and P. Blumenthal, “Obama Wall Street Fundraising Evaporates as Donors Flee to Romney,” Huffington Post, February 2, 2012).
No wonder the president has had to attend 191 elite fundraisers – a new first-term record with 10 months still to go (F. Schouten, ”Obama Tops Recent Presidents in Fundraising Attendance,” USA Today, March 6, 2012, A1).
Oh, well. Small donors don’t win presidential elections (or U.S. Senate or congressional elections either). Big donors – the only ones with the cash to pay for the very escalating and humungous costs of campaigns – do. The Obama campaign knows this very well. In 2008, it created a great small donor myth about itself to justify its refusal to fulfill its promise to honor the spending limits required for participation in the federal public presidential election finance system if their Republican opponent was willing to honor the same limits. John McCain was willing, but the Obama campaign backtracked, claiming disingenuously that its “small donor base” (actually no bigger in a proportional sense than George W. Bush’s in 2004) amounted to a “de facto public financing system.” Meanwhile it set new corporate and Wall Street fundraising records in the 2008 election cycle.
The president’s understanding that it’s all about the big dollar donors has been reflected in the direction of White House policy over the last three years. The Obama administration has been a shining monument to “what some international economists call the ‘virtual senate’ of investors and lenders who ‘conduct moment by moment referendums’ on government policies” (Noam Chomsky, New Statesman, June 28, 2010) For reasons I have documented at length on ZNet and Counterpunch and elsewhere (see, most recently, “Is Barack Obama A Fit Role Model for Black Youth?” at www.counterpunch.org/2012/03/08/is-barack-obama-a-fit-role-model-for-black-youth/), it has given the nation and world a tutorial on who really rules America behind the Oz-curtain of democracy.
The epic transfer of trillions of taxpayer dollars to Wall Street that started under George W. Bush proceeded to record-setting levels under Obama and his Goldman Sachs- vetted economics team headed by Laurence Summers and Timothy Geithner. It was unaccompanied by any comparable aid for the many millions of Americans who were running out of ammunition in the war on destitution. It was matched by no remotely adequate government investment in urgently needed public works and jobs programs, housing assistance, or public family cash assistance. The liberal commentator William Greider put it well in March of 2009, when the Treasury Department announced that the Wall Street mega-firm AIG would be receiving an additional $30 billion in federal assistance on top of the $60 billion it had already received and after news emerged that AIG had paid out $165 million in bonuses to its top managers. “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t,” Greider wrote in The Washington Post: “They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.” Indeed, we have been granted a seminar on the wisdom of a formulation placed in the mouth of a fictionalized Eugene Debs in the original edition of Upton Sinclair’s great early 20th century socialist novel The Jungle: “the two political parties are two wings of the same bird of prey. The people are allowed to choose between their candidates, and both of them are controlled, and all their nominations are dictated by, the same [money] power.”
Ordinary working-, middle-, and lower- class Americans (“the 99%”) who supported Obama in 2008 have gotten little or nothing in return beyond the fading psychological wage of having helped elect the first black president in the land of slavery. They would do well to consider the wisdom of Frantz Fanon 60 years ago, offered in a book titled Black Skins, White Masks: “What matters is not so much the colour of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray.”
Have the president’s “progressive” intentions been blocked by the “hard partisan realities of Washington,” as so many liberal Obama apologists claim? Not really. The already “deeply conservative” [] Obama had a significant Democratic majority in both houses of Congress during his first year in office and steered well to the business-friendly center right anyway, giving away progressive positions in advance across the board. When Obama’s center-right presidency yielded the predictable consequence of demobilizing the Democratic Party’s “progressive base” and thereby enabling an “historic” right wing Republican sweep in Congress in November of 2010, the president moved yet further to the business-friendly right like a hungry shark to a bleeding seal.
It is too soon to agree with Stein and Blumenthal that Obama has been ditched by big finance. Romney has been involved in a contested primary contest, something that has required significant financial backing. Obama has had no primary opposition. At the same time, he has been raising millions from wealthy donors through the Democratic National Committee and stands to garner a vast sum through his super-PACs, giant creatures of the Citizen United decision that permits unlimited corporate giving to candidates. Obama may have echoed irrelevant public opinion by criticizing the Citizen United decision as a threat to something called democracy, but he has naturally chosen to play by its oligarchic rules in his quest for a second term and a shot (he dreams) at Mount Rushmore. The real deep pockets money test will come when Romney and Obama face off against each other, assuming that the proto-fascistic Santorum stain can be contained.
A second Obama term is by no means certain, despite Obama’s loyal service to the Few. The white nationalist Tea O.P. (the radical right Republican Party) might reside on what the New York Times editorial board calls “distant right of American politics” (NYT, March 6, 2012) – they certainly live on the distant starboard of public and policy opinion – but they have a real shot at “taking back America” (well, the White House) next fall. Beyond the possibility that Wall Street prefers the Republican candidate this time, the administration’s liabilities include the climb of gas prices to possibly record-setting levels and the continuing fragility and partiality of the (all-too “statistical”) economic “recovery.” CBS News reported last December that “a record number of Americans — nearly 1 in 2 — have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income” Half the population – 150 million – is either officially poor (50 million) or living at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level (100 million). Consistent with these terrible statistics, a preponderant majority of Americans (82 percent) tell Gallup that they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country – an ominous number for any incumbent president on the eve of a second election. A considerable amount of respected political science research indicates that Obama’s chances for re-election hinge significantly on whether or not real disposable incomes are stable or climb in the two quarters leading into the election.
Obama will do everything he can to pose as a champion of “the 99%” against “Mr. 1%” (actually Mr. .025%) Romney. He will score some points doing so, thanks in no small part to the gaffe-prone Romney’s identity as a parasitic Wall Street aristocrat (a onetime equity capital specialist in the dismantlement of American jobs who has stashed profits tax-free abroad) and to the Republicans’ Kochian, arch-plutocratic agenda. Still, the president’s own corporatist record makes him an “implausible populist” (Time magazine’s Joe Klein last summer). Many of those who have “lost their homes or their jobs or both, and can no longer be reached” (thanks to the exigencies of the “free market” capitalism Obama upheld as “our greatest asset” in his vapid 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope) are not going to be very excited about voting for, much less giving money to, Dollar Obama this time around.
is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011).
 “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,” The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar (no radical) found after a detailed investigation (including many long interviews) in the spring of 2007, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. 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. Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator,” The New Yorker, May 7, 2007. For a history of Obama’s deep conservatism and his related big money -backed rise from the beginning of his career through the spring of 2008, see my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008).