Note to “the Left”: Obama Hates You
The 2008 Barack Obama campaign reminded some hopeful left and liberal observers of the fantastic, feel-good presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy (RFK). Like RFK in the turbulent summer of 1968, Obama swept up a considerable number of progressives in the illusion that big democratic transformation, peace and justice could be achieved by electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate. In both cases, many on “the left”1 drank heavily and wistfully from the corporate-crafted pitcher of liberal, candidate-centered Kool Aid. It was a great and dreamy seduction.2
When it comes to 1968 analogies, however, there is reason to see Obama’s real relationship with progressives and “the left” as closer to that of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley of the year. Think back to August ’68, more than four months after Daley had uttered his infamous “shoot to kill” order against black Chicagoans who rioted in the wake of the assassination/execution of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Democratic Convention was underway at the old International Amphitheater in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The “anti-[Vietnam] war” candidate RFK – the likely victor in the primary contest (despite his late entry) – had been killed the previous month, leaving the Democrats free to nominate the hawkish Hubert Humphrey for the presidency.
Thousands of anti-Vietnam war protestors had converged on the city, to great media fanfare and Daley was not pleased. One evening during the convention, his cops bludgeoned “the hippies” and anyone else who looked vaguely left or liberal on the sidewalks and streets outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel (where most of the convention delegates stayed during the event) in the city’s downtown. The one-sided “police riot” (as it was later described by a federal commission) crashed protestors and others through some of the hotel’s great glass-plate windows. The assault was captured live on national television, with a crowd chanting “The Whole World is Watching.” I sat stunned as a grade-schooler in Hyde Park (a dreamy liberal neighborhood on the city’s South Side) as the scene shifted from the police state assault at Michigan and Balbo back to the convention floor, where Daley and his Irish-American political gang were seen yelling “fuck you” at a liberal Democrat (Abraham Ribicoff, Democratic senator from Connecticut) who denounced “Gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago” while nominating George McGovern for the presidency.3
(I should not exaggerate the RFK [dreamy and seductive] vs. Daley [ruggedly abusive] dichotomy when it comes to the relationship between Democrats and “the left” in the 1960s. Daley knew how to wrap his iron fist in the occasional velvet glove and was sometimes an expert practitioner of sophisticated, fake-progressive co-optation. At the same time, the liberal hero Bobby Kennedy had an ugly record of wiretapping, infiltrating, terrorizing and otherwise repressing radical and progressives forces at home and abroad – consistent with the fact that paranoid anti-Communist Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy was the Godfather of his first child.)
“STFU and Give Us Your Money”
In one common narrative, the left-sounding Brand Obama seduced portside Americans with rhetoric and imagery encouraging liberals and even some self-described radicals to believe that he was/is “one of us” and “on our side.” Call this the Barry White story line on how the president charmed silly, star-struck left voters and activists with progressive pillow talk and deceptive rebel’s clothing that included the color of his skin. It has some basis in fact. I saw Obama pose as a left-leaning progressive again and again during the 2007-08 primary campaign within and beyond Iowa.
But there’s another, meaner Obama when it comes to relating to “the left” – a more Barry Bonds-like bully who arrogantly lectures, mocks, disrespects and works to marginalize and repress serious liberals, progressives, and leftists. This nastier side of Obama tells those to his left – not hard to be given his “deeply conservative” nature – to be quiet and sit in the corner while the real men of power do the business of politics. It was recently suggested nicely by a confrontation between the progressive blogger Susan Madrak of Crooks and Liars. She gave top Obama adviser David Axelrod an earful during a conference call in which the administration tried to rally progressive support or Democratic candidates in the November 2010 mid-term elections. Accusing the administration of "hippie-punching" in its response to left critics, Madrak said that “We're the girl you'll take under the bleachers but you won't be seen with in the light of day," Madrak told Axelrod. A left female blogger at Corrente Wire captured the basic message – “shut the fuck up [STFU] and give us your money” – in Axelrod’s response to Madrak:
‘ “[AXELROD:] Let me say this. I really believe this is the most consequential time in our lifetime… We are in a struggle, we are in a fight. We don’t have to agree, but we all have to lock arms and move forward here. [Translation: STFU and give us your money] ....And we get [what]?’
‘“[AXELROD:] Saying we shouldn’t be involved in intramural [What? Grade school recess? What's wrong with this guy?] skirmishes, I couldn’t agree more. [Translation: STFU and give us your money] And that goes on both sides… I’m not lecturing you, I’m speaking to everyone involved on our side. There are big things at stake here. The nature of progressive thought is that we go at it, we trade ideas, and that’s as it should be. But we have to come together [Translation: STFU and give us your money]. ... Whatever differences we have pale in comparison to the differences to the folks out there today masquerading as representatives of the American people.” [Translation: Look! Over there! Sarah Palin!]’5
Of course, we should not exaggerate the conflict between the Obama who seduces “the left” and the Obama who punches it down. These two Obamas represent both sides of the coin of the Democrats’ longstanding abusive relationship with the left, the essential message of which is “Honey, I Love You now please be quiet or I will hurt you again with full knowledge that you have nowhere else to go.”
Some of the meaner side of Obama’s relationship with the left was displayed when Obama spoke to Rolling Stone magazine five weeks before the 2010 mid-term elections (when his corporate-captive administration and party took a widely predicted beating at the polls). Admonishing “progressives,” Obama said it would be "inexcusable" and "irresponsible" for unenthusiastic Democratic voters to sit out the midterm elections, warning that the consequences would include the squandering of their agenda. "People need to shake off this lethargy. People need to buck up," Mr. Obama said. The president told Democrats that making change happen is hard and "if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place." Ticking off a list of supposed progressive victories under his premiership, he denounced the “glass-half-empty” view of many progressives as “a debilitating force” that distracted from the real concern: the Republican Party. "It is inexcusable for any Democrat or progressive right now to stand on the sidelines in this midterm election," Obama said. The message took on what CBS called “a stern, lecturing tone” after Obama concluded his lengthy Q-and-A session with Rolling Stone but then (according to the magazine) returned unprompted to denounce the progressive voter enthusiasm gap: “The idea that we've got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible.”6
In a similar vein around the same time, Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden expressed his disgust with progressives who did not grasp the urgent necessity of coming out to support Democrats in the mid-terms. “Don’t compare us to the Almighty,’ Biden said: “compare us to the alternative,” which he identified as “the Republican Tea Party.”7
Obama and Biden’s comments came not long after White House press secretary Robert Gibbs’ outburst against what he called “the professional left.” “I hear these people saying [Obama is] like George Bush. Those people,” Gibbs pouted, “ought to be drug tested.” In his rant, Gibbs dismissed the so-called professional left in terms similar to those of a Sean Hannity or a Rush Limbaugh, saying that “They will [only] be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.” Of those liberals who complained – I would say observed – that Obama had caved to the right and to corporate interests on healthcare, financial reform, climate reduction, gay marriage, the Employee Free Choice Act and much more, Gibbs said: “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”8 This was not quite the Dale Carnegie method on “how to win friends and influence people” when it came to seeking support from “the left,” professional and otherwise.
“Paul…I Want You to Know I’m Frustrated Too”
The messages sent to members of “the left” in these pre-election comments were clear:
1. “You are our helpless dependents, powerless victims. You need to stay with us no matter how much we betray and abuse you because the other dominant party will abuse you even more.”
2. “Asking us to act in any substantive way on an actually progressive agenda or even on our carefully calibrated progressive-sounding campaign ‘promises’ is like expecting us to become Gods. So what if we came into office with a sweeping mandate for progressive change and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress? Expecting us to act in accord with our rhetoric is totally unrealistic. Shame on you.”
3. “You must subordinate your political desires and social vision to the top-down electoral calculations of the Democratic Party ---- to us. It is dysfunctional for you to think and act independently of our needs.”
4. “It will be your fault, not ours, when the GOP wins big in November.”
Another and related message – “I’m sorry, honey, but I’ve been trying my best and you really need to understand that I’m doing all I can to keep the passion alive...you really need to stay with me” – was evident in the following personalized message that came to me via e-mail from Barack Obama (firstname.lastname@example.org) on October 8t 2010:
“Paul --I come into this election with clear eyes. I am proud of all we have achieved together, but I am mindful of all that remains to be done. I know some out there are frustrated by the pace of our progress. I want you to know I'm frustrated, too. But with so much riding on the outcome of this election, I need everyone to get in this game. Neither one of us is here because we thought it would be easy. Making change is hard. It's what we've said from the beginning. And we've got the lumps to show for it. The fight this fall is as critical as any this movement has taken on together. And if we are serious about change, we need to fight as hard as we ever have. The very special interests who have stood in the way of change at every turn want to put their conservative allies in control of Congress. And they're doing it with the help of billionaires and corporate special interests underwriting shadowy campaign ads. If they succeed, they will not stop at making our work more difficult -- they will do their best to undo what you and I fought so hard to achieve. There is no better time for you to start fighting back -- a fellow grassroots supporter has promised to match, dollar for dollar, whatever you can chip in today. I know that sometimes it feels like we've come a long way from the hope and excitement of the inauguration, with its ‘Hope’ posters and historic crowds on the National Mall. I will never forget it. But it was never why we picked up this fight. I didn't run for president because I wanted to do what would make me popular. And you didn't help elect me so I could read the polls and calculate how to keep myself in office. You and I are in this because we believe in a simple idea -- that each and every one of us, working together, has the power to move this country forward. We believed that this was the moment to solve the challenges that the country had ignored for far too long. That change happens only from the bottom up. That change happens only because of you. So I need you to fight for it over the next 26 days. I need your time. I need your commitment. And I need your help to get your friends and neighbors involved. Please donate $3 -- and renew your commitment today: https://donate.barackobama. com/OctoberMatch. If we meet this test -- if you, like me, believe that change is not a spectator sport -- we will not just win this election. In the years that come, we can realize the change we are seeking -- and reclaim the American dream for this generation.”
It was interesting to see my manipulative “friend” Barack Obama self-interestedly (all of a sudden, with the mid-terms on their way) resurrect the faux-populist 2007-08 campaign rhetoric of “hope” and “change from the bottom up” - language that had lay curiously dormant over most of Obama’s corporatist term, marked by record levels of Wall Street welfare, an auto-restructuring plan that raided workers’ pensions ad rewarded capital flight, a health ‘reform’ that only insurance and drug companies could love, the undermining of serious carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, a refusal to pursue major green jobs public works programs (even as unemployment reached new post-WWII record levels), the betrayal of promises to labor, and the escalation of “defense” (empire) spending and imperial violence.
Rejecting Their Own Responsibility
Consistent with my abusive relationship analogy, the Obama White House narrative absolve the administration of any responsibility for the lack of enthusiasm of its left victims. As they refused to admit, Obama and the Democrats should have looked first in the mirror to understand the disgruntlement of their “progressive base.” As the left political analyst Lance Selfa explained in last October’s issue of International Socialist Review (ISR):
“The Democrats had large majorities in both houses of Congress, including, for a period of time, a 60-vote majority in the Senate. They had the potential to reset mainstream politics for a generation. Yet, with the Obama administration in the lead, they mainly assumed the role as savior of the corporate system that was teetering on the edge of the economic abyss in late 2008 and early 2009...Since then, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to placate business and its right-wing critics while ladling out thin gruel to its most fervent supporters. Obama stiffed environmentalists when he endorsed the GOP’s “drill, baby, drill” solution to offshore oil drilling —only a few weeks before one of those offshore oil rigs caused the largest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. For supporters of immigrant rights, the Obama administration has mouthed rhetoric in favor of “comprehensive immigration reform” while indefinitely postponing legislation, and deporting more immigrants than George W. Bush’s administration did….[and] the Obama administration has escalated war in one country (Afghanistan), and is still committed, despite claims of withdrawal, to a sizable military presence in the another (Iraq).”
“...It’s very likely that the massive government backing of the financial system saved it from meltdown, but that is cold comfort for the majority of Americans who continue to suffer high unemployment, loss of retirement wealth, and a massive foreclosure crisis. Obama and the Democrats legitimized massive government spending without changing any of the neoliberal assumptions about the aims to which that spending was dedicated. Even though the stimulus bill passed in February 2009 was the largest single spending measure ever passed, it was underpowered from the start. ….the stimulus plan was too small to lift the economy out of its deep hole. And the administration trimmed it further in a largely futile attempt to win “bipartisan” support…. Today, the administration proclaims the necessity of “deficit reduction,” “entitlement reform,” (aka, cutting Medicare and Social Security), and austerity. While this largely reflects the administration’s attempt to carry out big business’s agenda, the White House claims that it is only responding to public concern about the growing federal budget deficit.”9
One did not have to be a radical to be bothered by Obama’s centrist, business-friendly drift and related, highly predictable (and in fact predicted) betrayal of the Democratic Party’s working class and poor constituencies. The liberal Democratic New York Times columnist Bob Herbert – a longstanding Obama supporter – expressed his disgust with the Democrats after Scott Brown’s Tea Party-assisted victory in an Op-Ed titled “They [the Democrats – P.S.] Still Don’t Get It.” “The door is being slammed on the American dream and the politicians, including the president and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill,” Herbert wrote, “seem not just helpless to deal with the crisis, but completely out of touch with the hardships that have fallen on so many.” Herbert wondered if ”there is anything” that could ever again “wake [the Democrats] up to their obligation to extend a powerful hand to ordinary Americans and help them take the government… back from the big banks, the giant corporations and the myriad other predatory interests that put the value of a dollar high above the value of human beings.”11
It isn’t just “the left” (“professional” and otherwise) that would have been right to feel insulted by the lectures from Obama, Biden, and Gibbs. Equally disrespected by the White House’s political commentary were the millions of poor and insecure Americans left to ask “where’s our bailout?” while the administration whined over liberal and left disapproval and proved that the government had plenty of money to spend as long as the “right people” (those who already have huge piles of money) wanted it. As Herbert noted in the wake of Gibbs’ rant last August:
“The Obama administration seems to be feeling sorry for itself. Robert Gibbs, the president’s press secretary, is perturbed that Mr. Obama is not getting more hosannas from liberals.”
“Spare me. The country is a mess. The economy is horrendous, and millions of American families are running out of ammunition in their fight against destitution. Steadily increasing numbers of middle-class families, who never thought they’d be seeking charity, have been showing up at food pantries…..schools are hemorrhaging resources because of budget meltdowns, and teachers are losing jobs, and libraries are finding it more and more difficult to remain open, American youngsters are falling further behind their peers in other developed countries in their graduation rates from colleges and universities.”12
The Veal Pen
It’s been all-too consistent with the advice Obama got from his legendarily brusque and authoritarian former chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel in connection with the struggle for the passage of the Democrats’ corporatist “health reform” bill: “ignore the progressives.”13 The recommendation – qualified only by some deceptive rhetoric on supposed White House wishes for something vaguely identified as a “public option” – was followed on the whole during the “reform” process. Leading single-payer advocates were not even invited to the top-down health care debate.
Still, as Obama’s interview with Rolling Stone and his recurrent efforts to sound progressive suggest, it has hasn’t all been about “ignoring” progressives as far as the administration is concerned. It has also been about cajoling, deceiving, and threatening them. More than a year ago, The Nation’s liberal-left Washington editor Christopher Hayes noted that “the Obama White House” was “no different” from previous Democratic administrations in wishing to discourage those to the left of the Democratic Party from exerting pressure on the White House. The oft-repeated claim of many liberals and leftists that the new president really wanted the American people and the left to push him in a progressive direction – consistent with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s supposed onetime statement to union activists: “Now go out and make me do it”14 – was a convenient myth, Hayes felt. “From day one,” Hayes noted, “the [Obama] administration has pursued a strategy of keeping its progressive allies on the White House playbook.” It held a weekly Tuesday night meeting called The Common Purpose Project (CPJ) where representatives from “dozens of well-established progressive groups” (MoveOn, Human Rights Campaign, Change to Win, AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, etc) met with White House representatives to get their marching orders on policy and political strategy.15 The CPJ was run by the Beltway public relations firm Blue Engine Message & Media, which worked to “enforce message discipline among liberal organizations and coordinate closely with Progressive Media, another part of the pro-Obama messaging and strategy operation.”16
According to participants who spoke anonymously to Hayes, the communication at the Tuesday meetings “tend[ed] to go in one direction” – from the top down. “They [the White House operatives, P.S.] wanted to make sure the advocates are informed,” one “progressive” informant told Hayes, “and there’s a lot of message control. But there’s not a ton of dialogue back and forth.” The chance of meaningful dialogue including commentary “from the bottom up” was not enhanced by the fact “many of the groups…seem happy enough [merely] to be in the room and wary of openly confronting the administrations in such open forum. By numerous accounts, the exchange of ideas between “progressives” and the administration was profoundly unequal, colored by the understanding that access to the meetings (and to elite donations) would be denied to those who did not stay “on message” with the White House. “If access is the carrot the White House dangles in front of the progressive groups,” Hayes learned, “being frozen out of meetings or, worse, having funding squeezed, is the stick. ‘There’s no question that the big [Democratic Party] donors are funding the groups that are helping to pass the president’s programs,’ said one attendee. ‘And they’re not particularly interested in funding groups that are challenging the president’s program.” The best way to get on the “big donors” and the White House’s bad side was to criticize elected Democrats. In August of 2009, for example, Obama’s chief of staff Emmanuel chastised some Tuesday meeting attendees for having dared to target conservative (“Blue Dog” Democrats who were vacillating on health care reform. Any “progressive” who “goes after Democrats,” Emmanuel said, was “fucking stupid.” “When [progressive] groups are hitting [Democratic Congress] members,” one Tuesday meeting attendee told Hayes, “they [the members] go and cry to the White House. Then the White House comes to the meeting and says Don’t go after our allies.”
By Hayes’ account, the White House’s “shielding of [conservative] Blue Dog [Democrats] from progressive pressure groups” had the “perverse – and maddening – effect of imperiling the very policies (public option, a good cap-and-trade bill) it claims to want passed.”17 As of late October 2009, even MoveOn – an institutional monument to the dog-“call of Obama” – was chastised by its White House masters for raising money for ads that criticized conservative Democrats.
Refusing to participate in this one-sided “dialogue” with the White House, progressive blogger Jane Hamsher of FiredogLake gave “the [establishment Beltway] left’s” weekly, sessions with the Obama administration a memorable nickname – “the Veal Pen,” meant to evoke the image of immobilized baby calves waiting for slaughter.18
“One of the Great Things About the United States”
The Obama administration hardly “ignored progressives” when it recently (last September 24th) ordered FBI raids on the homes of antiwar activists in Minneapolis and Chicago (the also attempted to intimidate activists in California, Iowa, and North Carolina. This action went beyond anything carried out by the George W. Bush administration, which actually (unlike the Obama White House) faced considerable mass antiwar activism in its first term (In a similar vein, Obama has gone far beyond Bush II when it comes to prosecuting federal whistleblowers working to expose the truth on American war and human rights’ crimes at home and abroad). During the neoliberal 2009 G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh two Septembers ago, Obama praised that city’s officials for “having managed…a very tranquil” gathering while thousands of global justice protestors faced a new form of high-tech repression there. As Obama offered menacing “revelations” on the supposed Iranian nuclear “threat,” highly militarized police attacked so-called anti-globalization (pro-global justice) protestors with batons, pepper-gas, tear-gas, and “LRAD” – the “Long Range Acoustic Device.” Never before deployed inside the territory of the United States, the LRAD was placed atop an armored police vehicle to emit a sharp piercing sonic noise that seemed to threaten to shatter protestors’ eardrums.19 It was part of a new publicly financed, privately developed arsenal of proto-totalitarian “non-lethal crowd control technologies” – a chilling new munitions store that is highly lethal to the popular right of free assembly. The new despotic technologies of repression have been developed for the Pentagon and local “law enforcement” agencies by such “defense” contractors as Raytheon. 20
In the aftermath of the G-20 protests, Obama’s FBI arrested a New York City-based activist named Elliot Madison for an interesting reason. Madison was seized for using the popular social networking site “Twitter” to help protestors avoid arrest while voicing disapproval of corporate globalization in the streets of Pittsburgh. It was a fascinating transgression. “Twitter” was hailed by corporate U.S. media and politicians for its role in helping expose state repression and organize citizen action in Iran after contested elections in that country in July of 2009. When used as a tool of dissent within the U.S., Twitter elicited an authoritarian response from the administration. Madison’s apartment was ransacked by federal “counterterrorism” agents, who confiscated “anarchist books and pictures of Marx and Lenin.”21
Obama added ideological insult to civil liberties injury by telling a reporter that the Pittsburgh protestors were Quixotian crackpots. He denounced the global justice activists for being “generically [against] capitalism,” “the existing global financial system,” and “free markets.” “If they had been paying attention to what was taking place inside the summit itself,” Obama told the reporter, the activists would have realized that the elite power brokers were working hard at “making the market work for all.”22 Here Obama crassly dismissed and disregarded many protestors’ principled and sophisticated critique of specifically neoliberal and state-capitalist globalization – something rather different than generic opposition to “capitalism” (certainly a worthy target of resistance in and of itself, to be sure) and “markets” per se. As one thoughtful progressive blogger reflected at the time, the president’s comments were deeply contemptuous of the left and its very real concerns – concerns relating to concrete difficulties faced by millions in the wake of the epic neoliberal meltdown:
‘Obama took the bait, and spoke of the protesters as if they were simply "opposed to capitalism." He didn't call the protesters "pinko commies," but he might as well have. "If they'd paid attention to what was going on inside..." Could Obama have come up with a line that sounded any more arrogant than that if he tried?’
’I don't think Obama gets it. As much as anything, the anger of protesters is directed at the way capitalism has been mismanaged -- or rather not managed at all -- over the past several decades. Obama ought to have acknowledged that in the aftermath of a global economic crisis, protesters have a lot to be concerned about. Obama might have said that citizens of the world need to be vocal in asking how well world leaders are managing the economic recovery, inquiring about the lack of any new financial industry regulations. Had Obama given this kind of a thoughtful response, he would have sounded less like a representative of Singapore or the People's Republic of China, and more like an American president.’
’Recall President Clinton's remarks in the aftermath of the massive Seattle WTO meeting protests of 1999: "Those who heard a wake-up call in Seattle got the right message," he said. "I do not agree with those who view with contempt these new forces seeking to be heard in the global dialogue." ’
‘Today, at least to my ears, Obama came across as one of those who views "with contempt these new forces seeking to be heard in the global dialogue." The president's brazen insensitivity shocked me….’
“One of the great things about the United States,” Obama added in his comments to the reporter, “is that you can speak your mind and you can protest.” That was an interesting comment to make as activists plugged their ears against the federally subsidized LRAD, while hippie-punching Chicago police on loan to Pittsburg captured local college students for hunting prize photos[23}, and as the FBI prepared to persecute the dastardly tweeter Elliot Madison. .
Of course, you don’t have to be a left anarchist or Marxist “anti-globalization” protestor to be (in the words of one of my favorite T-shirts) “Too Left for Obama” (and other top Democrats). During the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver, Colorado, the Democratic Party chiefs in charge of the Obama nomination celebration determined that Jimmy Carter – the thirty-ninth President of the United States – was too radical for the good of the party. Carter’s reasoned critique of U.S. client state Israel’s apartheid policies was deemed so “controversial” that the Democrats took the unprecedented step of banning a former Democratic president (!) from the convention’s speakers’ platform. Meanwhile, hundreds of left protestors faced violent repression in the streets of Denver – an ugly fact that received minimal media coverage and naturally elicited no outcries from the floor of the convention hall.
“Too Far From the Center”
Obama’s mean-spirited actions and attitude toward ‘the left’ are hardly just a product of his period in the White House. Obama first achieved notoriety during the late 1980s by doing an end run around progressive law students and forming an alliance with far right members of the Federalist Society to become the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. As a U.S. Senator, Obama worked with Emmanuel and other big political forces to promote “realistic” (centrist and pro-war) over “unrealistic” (“progressive” and antiwar) Democratic candidates in the 2006 congressional primaries – a sign of things to come. U.S. Senator Obama once dismissed the former progressive U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone as “a gadfly” in what interviewer and essayist David Sirota called “a tone laced with contempt.” As Sirota observed, “this clarified Obama’s support for the Hamilton Project, an organization formed by Citigroup chair Robert Rubin and other Wall Street Democrats to fight back against growing populist outrage within the party. And I understood why Beltway publications and think tanks have heaped praise on Obama and want him to run for President. It’s because he has shown a rare ability to mix charisma and deference to the establishment.”24
In his significantly conservative campaign book The Audacity of Hope (2006), Obama related his youthful discomfort with his college roommates' "irresponsible" criticism of "capitalism" and then confessed respect for the left’s arch-enemy Ronald Reagan's supposed success in embodying what Obama called "American's longing for order" (p. 31). Obama commended "the need to raise money from economic elites to finance elections" for "prevent[ing] Democrats...from straying too far from the center" and for marginalizing "those within the Democratic Party who tend toward zealotry" (p. 38) and "radical ideas" (like peace and justice). Obama’s book praised fellow centrist Senators John F. Kerry (D-MA) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) for "believing in maintaining the superiority of the U.S. military" and embracing "the virtues of capitalism" (p. 38). He claimed in The Audacity of Hope that the 1960s New Left expressed the same self-indulgent "moral absolutism" (pp. 26-33) that animated the New Right. In the brand of "progressivism” trumpeted in his book, serious concern over the nation's harsh class and race disparities was consigned to leftist "cranks" and other assorted "unreasonable zealots" - people walking in the "absolutist" footsteps of Marx, the New Left, and (though Obama would never acknowledge this) the democratic socialist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Since they reasonably reject "ideology" and the "moral absolutism" of both Left and Right, Obama argued in Audacity, the moderately (barely) hopeful American people know better than to push for equality.
The Totally Dysfunctional “He Wants Us to Push Him From the Left” Line
No matter how fiercely Obama demonstrates his determination (consistent with his longstanding “deeply conservative” instincts) to govern from the center-right, a dedicated cadre of liberals and progressives will persevere with the line that it’s our own damn fault. Obama, the line goes, is just waiting for “the left” to get it together and “make” him introduce decent, socially democratic and peaceful policies. “We need to push him from the bottom up and the left,” the line goes: “if he keeps on bombing Afghan children, betraying workers and the poor, feeding militarism, transferring wealth to the already super-rich, then we have nobody to blame but ourselves for not giving him the progressive push he wants and needs to do the right/left things.” This is a mistaken and dysfunctional narrative in at least three ways. First, it absurdly absolves the president from moral responsibility for trying to use his office in a decent and democratic fashion (it remains his decision to serve the perverted imperatives of Empire and Inequality, Inc. over and against the common good and human rights at home and abroad.) Second, “the left” at the present point possesses nothing remotely close to the power required to make Obama (or any other top national official) do (or not do) much of anything (there’s a massive amount of difficult movement-building and institutional change that would have to occur before progressive forces could have that kind of impact in the U.S.). And last but not least, it misunderstands Obama and other top Democrats. They don’t want to be pushed or prodded by progressives, radicals, and serious liberals at all. They have no respect or regard for us. We are “the girl” they “take under the bleachers but …won't be seen with in the light of day" (Madrak). They don’t look forward to the time when we have the capacity and willingness to meaningfully pressure them from the bottom up. They work effectively to prevent the development of such willingness and capacity. They think we are hysterical, undisciplined, wild-eyed fanatics and unrealistic windmill-tilters. They want us to STFU and give them our time, votes, and money, with the understanding that our needs and agenda are irrelevant and that we are “all in this together” against Sarah Palin and the Tea.O.P. They relate to us like an abusive, controlling partner. It is long past time for serious lefties to leave them once and for all. How many more “hippie punches” do we need to take to the gut from the likes of Rahm and Barack et al before we get it that they hate us: I encourage serious lefties to reciprocate the feeling.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org)is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010). Street is currently completing a book titled Crashing the Tea Party, co-authored with Anthony Dimaggio. He can be reached at email@example.com
1 I will use quote marks around the phrase “the left” on more than one occasion in this essay. This is meant to indicate my sense that this the term is thrown around quite irresponsibly in U.S. political culture and my related sense that (contrary to the dominant mythology) there is not particularly organized, cohesive, autonomous and significant actual left in the U.S. at present.
2 To be sure, while the original rock star politician RFK was assassinated before he could fully re-exhibit his deeply conservative corporate and imperial allegiances – evident in his earlier political history – in the oval office, Obama made the ascendancy and delivered the predictable “disappointments” to those who foolishly invest progressive hopes in America’s quadrennial electoral extravaganzas
3 I should not exaggerate the RFK (dreamy and seductive) vs. Daley (violent and abusive} dichotomy when it comes to the relationship between Democrats and “the left” in the 1960s. Daley knew how to wrap his iron fist in the occasional velvet glove and was a fairly expert practitioner of sophisticated, fake-progressive co-optation. At the same time, the liberal hero Bobby Kennedy had an ugly record of wiretapping, infiltrating, terrorizing and otherwise repressing radial and progressives forces at home and abroad – consistent with the fact that paranoid anti-Communist Wisconsin Senator was the Godfather of his first child.
4 I owe this description to Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). On the basis of extensive interviews with then candidate Obama and other in-depth research, MacFarquhar found that “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.”
5 Greg Sargent, “Liberal blogger directly confronts David Axelrod, accuses White House of ‘hippie punching,’" The Plum Line,” Washington Post, September 23, 2010; Jambert, “Axelrod to Susie Madrak: ‘Honey, you know I love you! Now STFU and give me that money!,’” Corrente Wire (September 23, 2010) at http://www.correntewire.com/
6 “Obama: Democratic Voter Apathy Inexcusable,” CBS News (September 28, 2010) athttp://www.cbsnews.com/
7 Michael O’Brien, “Biden: ‘The Republican Tea Party is the Alternative,” The Hill (September 20, 2010) at http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-
8 Chip Reid, “Gibbs’ ‘Professional Left’ Remarks Reveal White House Frustration,” CBS News (August 11, 2010) at http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-
9 Lance Selfa, “Preparing for a Republican Comeback?” International Socialist Review (September-October 2010).
10 See, for one example, Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), 56-58.
11 .Bob Herbert, “They Still Don’t Get It,” New York Times, January 23, 2010.
12 Bob Herbert, “Fire and Imagination,” New York Times, August 13, 2010.
13 Glenn Greenwald, “Has Rahm’s Assumption About the Progressives Been Vindicated?” Salon (March 18, 2010) at http://www.salon.com/news/
14 See Amy Goodman, “Push Obama to Follow Through on Peace Vows,” Capital Times (Madison, WI(), January 22, 2009, read at http://www.commondreams.org/
15 Christopher Hayes, “Tuesdays With Rahm,” The Nation (October 26, 2009), 6-8.
16 Sourcewatch Encyclopedia, “Common Purpose Project” (n.d.), read at http://www.sourcewatch.org/
17 Hayes, “Tuesdays,” 8; Hamsher, “White House.”
18 Hamsher, "White House May be Dictating.”
19 For haunting video and sound of the first use of LRAD in the USA in Pittsburgh in September of 2009, see “Long Range Acoustic Device,” September 26, 2009 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?
20 Mike Ferner, “With Shot and Shell, or ‘Modular Crowd Control Munitions,’” ZNet (December 15, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.
21 Ed Pilkington, “New York Man Accused of Using Twitter to Direct Protestors During G 20 Summit,” The Guardian, October 4, 2009.
22 Jotman.com, “Obama’s Comments on G20 Protestors,” Jotman.com (September 26, 2009) athttp://jotman.blogspot.com/
23 “Chicago Cops Investigated Over G-20 Photo,” MSNBC (October 16, 2009) at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/
24 David Sirota, “Mr. Obama Goes to Washington,” The Nation (June 7, 2006)http://davidsirota.com/index.