Reflections on Race, Class, Empire, and the First Black President (and a Comment by Allan Nairn*)
THE MACHNE STILL “SET ON KILL”
Sometimes you run across an eloquent statement that rings true and false at one and the same time. Look, for example, at the following comment made by the courageous left journalist Allan Nairn in response to the left broadcaster Amy Goodman’s request that he provide a brief overview of the Obama administration’s first year last January:
“Well, I think Obama should be remembered as a great man because of the blow he struck against white racism, the cultural blow. And he accomplished that on Election Day. That was huge. This is one of the most destructive forces in world history, and by simply—by virtue of becoming president, Obama did it major damage.”
“But once he became president, by virtue of his actions, just like every US president before him, just like those who ran other great powers, Obama became a murderer and a terrorist, because the US has a machine that spans the globe, that has the capacity to kill, and Obama has kept it set on kill. He could have flipped the switch and turned it off. The President has that power, but he chose not to do so.”
There is something very valuable and powerful in this remark, made on Goodman’s television show “Democracy Now!” I am referring to the richly ironic way in which Nairn simultaneously acknowledges (A) the historic nature of the fact that a black family now resides in the White House – in the top office of the historically arch-racist U.S., and (B) the first black president’s chilling commitment to that nation’s continuing murderous imperial militarism.
This is an important duality to grasp and Nairn puts it very well. Anyone who doubts that Obama has “kept [the machine] set on kill” should consult the impressive record of murder and mayhem that the winner of the latest Nobel Peace Prize has already built across South Asia and in the Middle East.
Still, I think there are seven key problems with Nairn’s declaration , which I find insufficiently critical on numerous interrelated levels.
First, “kept the machine set on kill” is probably an understatement. As the left U.S. foreign policy critic Edward S. Herman has noted, Obama has very possibly “exceed[ed George W.] Bush’s [global] bullying and power-projection.” As Herman explains:
“Obama's …Iraq ‘withdrawal’ is a phony, just as his expansion of the Afghan-Pakistan war is real. His collapse in supposedly pushing for a just settlement in Palestine has been complete, ending up with a crude attack on the UN Goldstone Report on Gaza and no resistance whatever to escalated Israeli ethnic cleansing. Israel is once again threatening to attack Lebanon and Syria, with no constraining response from Washington. Obama and his secretary of state are once again threatening Iran with intensified sanctions, if not more….”
“...The U.S. collaboration in the overthrow of the elected, populist government of Honduras was a throwback to the era of U.S. sponsorship of National Security States in Latin America. Bush could hardly have surpassed Obama's atrocious performance in Haiti, where the U.S. response to their devastating earthquake was almost completely military—a lagged occupation, with minimal food-water-medical-shelter aid, and even obstruction to aid as airports were preempted for the U.S. military occupation forces and the landing of Hillary Clinton.”
“Elsewhere in Latin America, Obama's policies have been regressive, with more open hostility to left regimes in the region, collaboration in the Honduras coup, and acquisition of seven new military bases in Colombia that all send a message of ‘change’ for the worse.”
“Across the globe, U.S. military bases are expanding, not contracting. The encirclement of Russia and steady stream of war games in the Baltic, Caspian, Mediterranean, and Western Pacific areas continue, the closer engagement with Georgia and efforts to bring it into NATO moves ahead, as do plans for placing missiles along Russia's borders and beyond.” 
It’s not a pretty story. Obama ran on ending the Bush ‘war on terror’ police state and has persisted in conducting and defending against legal challenges many if not most of the same repressive and anti-civil libertarian policies he criticized as a candidate. During the campaign, he told his “progressive” supporters he was (basically) antiwar – even his very underlying promise (to the foreign policy establishment) of continued militarism was evident to trained observers – and then came into pass a record-setting Pentagon budget and to expanded U.S. militarism in South Asia and around the world.
BEFORE HE BECAME PRESIDENT
Second, we should not accept the “once he became president” line in Nairn’s comment. As I went to some length to (irrelevantly) show in my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (endorsed by leading Left intellectuals and ignored by “Democracy Now!,” The Nation, and other established “left-liberal” media), Obama enlisted as an eager, energetic and eloquent agent and exponent of U.S. military imperialism within and beyond Iraq during his career as a U.S. Senator (2005-2009) and a presidential candidate (2006-2008). His “anti-war” campaign imagery was deeply fraudulent and he acted powerfully on behalf of the “machine set to kill” in his Senate votes and as an influential politician before his election to the imperial presidency.
After the election and prior to his inauguration, moreover, Palestinians and their supporters watched in disgust as the normally wordy President-Elect stood nauseatingly mute while Israel and Washington massacred thousands of civilians in the open-air Israeli prison called the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009. As Noam Chomsky noted:
“To these crimes Obama's response has been silence – unlike, say, the terrorist attack in Mumbai, which he was quick to denounce, along with the ‘hateful ideology’ that lies behind it. In the case of Gaza, his spokespersons hid behind the mantra that ‘there is one president at a time,’ and repeated his support for Israeli actions when he visited the Israeli town of Sderot in July: ‘If missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that.’ But he will do nothing, not even make a statement, when U.S. jets and helicopters with Israeli pilots are causing incomparably worse suffering to Palestinian children.” 
COULD OBAMA REALLY HAVE “FLIPPED THE SWITCH”?
Third, it is wishful fancy to think that Obama could have shut down the American global “killing machine.” The two reigning U.S. political parties, the nation’s dominant mass corporate media (a virtual fourth, reality-distorting branch of American government) and the nation’s educational system (K-Ph.D) are ally deeply ensnared in and in thrall to the Military Industrial Complex. Along with the Pentagon and the leading “defense” contractors and their public relations systems, these leading institutional forces would powerfully resist significant cuts in the “defense” (empire) budget and in military operations abroad (what the Pentagon innocuously terms “forward global force projection”). There is no evidence that Obama – who had “been advised and agree[d] that there is no peace dividend,” according the leading Wall Street investment firm Morgan Stanley one day after Obama’s election  – had any interest in shutting down the “machine set to kill.” But it is questionable that he could have done that if he had wanted to and was prepared to face serious risks. The institutional and ideological barriers are simply too high. Superpower’s military regime is more deeply entrenched and powerful than any politician, even a president. 
THE STATE-CAPITALIST POLICY MACHINE STILL SET ON CHA-CHING
Fourth, Nairn could and probably should have made the same ironic point on Obama’s domestic record. Obama has kept the “corporate-managed democracy’s”  state-capitalist policy machine set on “cha-ching” for the rich, powerful, and parasitic Few. The first black president has of course acted in firm accord with what Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money,” which exercises a deadly behind-the-scenes veto power over any who would seek “to change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime.” From labor law non-reform to financial non-regulation to the climate issue and so-called “health reform,” Obama has repeatedly espoused and acted in accord with what the novelist and political essayist Kevin Baker has termed “a 'pragmatism' that is not really pragmatism at all, just surrender to the usual corporate interests.” As the perceptive Marxist analyst David Harvey observed on Goodman’s “Democracy Now" one year ago, "what [the Obama team is] trying to do is to reinvent the same system" - to "reconstitute the same sort of capitalism we have had over and over again over the last thirty years in a slightly more regulated, benevolent form" that doesn't "challenge the fundamentals."
Nothing that has happened in the last year should lead an honest observer to question the wisdom of that judgment. The Obama administration has been a monument to what might be called “the audacity of deception” – to the manipulation of democracy by corporate state capitalism. Obama ran on cleaning up Washington and has come to the nation’s capital to cut one deal after another with big corporations, with concentrated wealth. His bailouts of financial parasites at elite Wall Street firms (whose veterans and representatives have been ubiquitously present in his administration) have gone beyond anything George W. Bush tried, earning him the moniker “King of Corporate Subsidies” from liberal political scientist Thomas B. Edsall last year. 
He campaigned on the reduction of carbon emissions and then did the bidding of the energy companies by crassly sabotaging the Copenhagen climate talks.
He ran against offshore oil drilling and just called for and initiated steps towards (speaking in front of a fighter jet) offshore oil drilling along the Eastern U.S, coast and in northern Alaska.
The health “reform” he and his fellow corporate Democrats just passed just passed is a corporatist joke , a giveaway to the insurance and drug companies with a few bones thrown to his so-called “progressive base.” As has been known by people who care for some time, Obama cut corrupt backroom deals last summer with the drug and for-profit hospital industries. Under the terms of the corrupt bargains, recently described by New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick as “quid pro quo handshake deals on both sides,” Obama agreed NOT to honor his election pledges to pursue a public insurance option, to let Medicare negotiate for lower drug prices and to allow Americans to buy cheaper drugs from Canada. “Even while President Obama was saying that he thought a public option was a good idea and encouraging supporters to believe his healthcare plan would include one,” the liberal attorney Miles Mogulesco recently noted on Huffington Post, the White House “had promised for-profit hospital lobbyists that there would be no public option in the final bill.” By Mogulesco’s account, “there are serious questions about the extent to which Obama, with the help of Rahm Emanuel, used a K Street strategy [relying on inside corporate connections and lobbyists – P.S.] to pursue health care reform.” The outcome, Mogulesco added, “is a health care bill that is generally unpopular with voters,” who “viscerally sense that the White House and Congressional Democrats may be as concerned with protecting special interests – whether it's drug companies, private hospitals, or Wall Street banks – as they are with protecting the people.”
There’s no “may be” about it.
Along the way, the Obama administration has insisted that such extreme corporatist and imperial policy is “reasonable,” “sound,” “centrist,” “practical, and ”pragmatic’ and has made to sure to paint out anyone who opposes its vile and authoritarian policies as carping crackpots, “extremists” and “ideologues.”
It’s not for nothing that candidate Obama set new corporate fundraising record and was backed by the biggest Wall Street firms. Plus ca “change,” plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same) – at home as well as abroad.
Again, not a pretty story.
“THE CLASS ONE SERVES”
Fifth, Nairn’s comment creates too simple a dichotomy between Obama’s racial identity and Obama’s service to concentrated power (on behalf of U.S. militarism, in Nairn’s powerful statement to Amy Goodman last January).The relationship between Obama’s race and that service more complex and sinister. As the brilliant Left author, filmmaker, and columnist John Pilger noted last July 4th in San Francisco:
“The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters, I believe, above all, is the class one serves. George W. Bush’s inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was perhaps the most multiracial in presidential history. It was PC par excellence. Think Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell. It was also the most reactionary”. 
Pilger anticipated this important insight with a powerful and all-too accurate prediction at the end of May 2008: "What is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s [in 1968]. By offering a ‘new,’ young and apparently progressive face of the Democratic Party – with the bonus of being a member of the black elite – he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent.” 
Nearly two years later and more than fourteen months into the not-so antiwar Obama presidency, the “peace movement” inside Superpower’s “homeland” is a feeble joke. Some of its leading organizations (most notably the laughable co-opted group MoveOn.org) have subordinated themselves almost beyond belief to the first black president  and through him to the U.S. foreign policy establishment. There is little if any meaningful opposition to Obama’s corporatist record and agenda. The often pathetic so-called radical Left feels compelled to accept the supposedly “progressive” administration (“for all its faults”) and to defend it against vicious and preposterous attacks from the significantly racist, “socialism”-charging Right. MoveOn even enlisted in the cause of Obama and the corporate Democrats’ health “reform” by picketing the occasionally progressive Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s office to pressure him to go against his initial promise to reject a bill that did not contain a public insurance option. 
Unpleasant thought it may be to acknowledge, Obama’s race is part of the story behind this sorry surrender. As Aurora Levins Morales noted in Z Magazine in April of 2008:
“This election is about finding a CEO capable of holding domestic constituencies in check as they are furthered disenfranchised and [to] make them feel that they have a stake in the military aggressiveness that the ruling class believes is necessary. Having a black man and a white woman run helps to obscure the fact that …decline of empire is driving the political elite to the right. Both [Obama and Hillary Clinton] represent very reactionary politics…Part of the cleverness of having such candidates is the fact that they will be attacked in ways that make oppressed people feel compelled to protect them.”
As liberal Obama supporters have battled the dodgy Glen-Beckian right over (often indirectly) presidential skin color during the last fourteen months, the predominantly white business elite that Obama (like all presidents) serves has seen its wealth and power concentrate yet further upward. The American empire has been re-branded and redeployed in South Asia and around the world. Meanwhile, few dare to recall or consider that Obama was attractive to the establishment (which vetted him quite carefully in late 2002 and early 2003) in part because elites sensed that the in-fact “deeply conservative” and corporate-imperial Obama’s color and ethno-cultural nomenclature made him seem (to angry, Bush-alienated masses both at home and abroad) much more socially democratic, more antiwar, and more generally and progressive than he really was. Some of these elites likely also calculated that popular racial divisions would be exacerbated by Obama’s candidacy and election. They also surely knew that white American fears of the “angry black man” would make it difficult for a black president to conduct the “epic fight” with the wealthy Few that “angry” John Edwards correctly said would be required to attain any meaningful, genuinely progressive reform.
A POST-CIVIL RIGHTS PRESIDENT
“As if Rev. Wright is Stuck in a Time Warp”
Sixth, it is questionable just ho much “damage” Barack Obama has really done (Nairn says “huge” and “major”) to U.S. racism. We should not underestimate the remarkable symbolic racial and related generational relevance of a black American president. Still, the “black but not like Jesse” candidate Obama, it should be recalled, did everything he could to walk and stay on the safe white side of the “post-racial” (really post-Civil Rights) tightrope by fiercely distancing his campaign from the notion that racism is still a powerful and relevant barrier to black advancement and racial equality in American life. Repeatedly praising the right-wing backlash president Ronald Reagan  (a fierce enemy of black Civil Rights), he smartly channeled dominant neoliberal and subtly white-supremacist “personal responsibility” narratives about how poor blacks have created their own misery through bad behavior and inadequate culture.
Obama’s famous and instantly lauded “race speech” in Philadelphia – where he saved his candidacy by distancing himself from his former “angry black” preacher Jeremiah Wright – was quite conservative. As Black Commentator’s Bill Fletcher noted, Obama “attributed much of the anger of Rev. Wright to the past, as if Rev. Wright is stuck in a time warp, rather than the fact that Rev. Wright's anger about the domestic and foreign policies of the USA are well rooted – and documented – in the current reality of the USA.”
Despite such efforts to appease white sentiment and notwithstanding the sorry record of the Republicans under Bush and Cheney amidst the onset of an epic financial meltdown and Great Recession, the hideously bad Republican presidential ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin still won a good majority of the white vote (particular in the South) on Election Day – hardly a sign of racism’s defeat.
“If Racists Can Ostensibly Lose an Election…”
Since his election, Obama has done nothing to address specific black and other “minority” needs even as the recession has hit nonwhite communities with disproportionate force.  As Naomi Klein noted in a September 2009 interview with Goodman, the real behavior of the Obama White House has had nothing to do with the preposterous right-wing charge that Obama was a reparations-activist preoccupied with making white people pay for past racism. “In fact,” Klein observed, “what most reparations activists are talking about, overwhelmingly, are group solutions, investments in communities, in education, in healthcare, precisely the programs that are missing from the Obama administration in its response to the current economic crisis...”
The administration offered no defense of the largely black, minority-based urban activist organization ACORN (recently disbanded under right and liberal pressure) when right-wing media and leading Republicans launched a neo-McCarthyite smear campaign against that group in the spring of 2009. The White House required and received the resignation of the highly qualified black-America “green jobs czar” Van Jones, preposterously smeared as a “communist” and “black nationalist” reparations advocate by the racist, far-right FOX News television host Glenn Beck. As Mumia Abu-Jamal noted, “Jones resigned, to protect a President who wouldn't protect him.” (Abu-Jamal was “reminded…of Lani Guinier, another brilliant Yale-trained Black lawyer, who got left hanging when racists dubbed her ‘quota queen’ when she was nominated for a post in the Clinton administrations Justice Department” – an apt analogy.) “If racists can ostensibly lose an election, and still dictate policy,” Abu-Jamal added, “then, have they really lost?” 
“President Says He Shouldn’t Put Focus on Blacks’ Troubles”
In early December 2009, the nation’s first black president received some interesting criticism from the normally supine Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Accusing the White House of ignoring the economic plight of minorities, ten members of the caucus boycotted a key House committee vote on financial regulations. The group expressed frustration at the White House and Congress’ failure to tackle minority-specific economic problems including an official black unemployment rate of 16 percent (the real rate is much higher), higher than the national rate of 10 percent. “We can no longer afford for our public policy to be defined by the world view of Wall Street,” the CBC pronounced, adding that “policy for the least of these must be integrated into everything we do.”
Obama flatly rejected this criticism in a special interview with USA TODAY and the Detroit Free Press prior to a White House “jobs summit” last December. “It’s a mistake,” Obama told the newspapers, “to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together.”
Just because he happened to be black, Obama was announcing, black Americans should not think that he would be any more willing than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton to acknowledge and act upon the distinctive oppression and inequality experienced by many in the United States’ still highly segregated and relatively impoverished black population. The title of the USA TODAY article reporting Obama’s response to the CBC’s momentary criticism was on point: “President Says He Shouldn’t Put Focus on Blacks’ Troubles.”
The president kept the focus off blacks’ troubles in the highly color-segregated and racially unequal metropolis of Chicago  when he tried (without success) to sell his “home city” to the International Olympic Committee as a place “with the warmth of a small town” where “we celebrate what we have in common” – interesting reflections after a black teenager named Derrion Albert was killed in a videotaped beating in a deeply impoverished ghetto neighborhood on the city’s South Side. As social justice and civil rights activists and community organizers across the city had been pointing out for some time, the Chicago 2016 Olympics that the Obamas were working for (along with Oprah Winfrey, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, and some of the city’s leading real estate developers) would have benefited the city’s downtown business elite at the expense of city taxpayers and a good portion of black Chicago. The city’s Olympic building plans targeted black South Side residents for clearance and removal, threatening to escalate an ongoing gentrification project that has pushed nom-affluent blacks to the margins of the global metropolis and its ever-expanding corporate downtown.
“They All Said No”
Here is an interesting message I received from a teacher of black students in the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) in February of 2009:
“Today, I asked a class for which I was subbing (high-school English students, about a dozen, all-black, at one of CPS's actually nice high-school facilities) what they thought of Obama. Their initial reaction was one of, for lack of a better way to say it, pride and joy.”
“But upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a rather shallow sentiment. For when I asked them if they expected any real changes under Obama, they all said no.”
“So while they are (currently) happy he is in the White House, they know full well that he will be no different from any other president -- and it's not something they only know ’deep down.’ They know it pretty close to the surface.”
These students were expressing their solid sense of the difference between (i) symbolic black representation and (ii) substantive engagement with the interrelated and underlying forces of economic inequality and institutional racism in daily American life beneath and beyond the quadrennial, corporate-crafted, candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky’s excellent term) that pass for the only politics that matter in the U.S.
“The Final Piece of Evidence” That Racism is Over
Actually, however, Obama’s racial meaning and impact could well be worse than “no real change.” Obama’s presidency has brought some changes for the worse when it comes to racial inequality. The election of a technically black president has reinforced the longstanding conventional white illusion that racism has disappeared and that the only obstacles left to African-American success and equality are internal to the black community – the idea that, in Derrick Bell’s words, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.” 
The white-run political culture’s regular rituals of self-congratulation over the defeat of overt and de-jure racism have long reinforced the dominant post-Civil Rights white sentiment that the United States no longer has much of anything to answer for in regard to its treatment of black America and the ubiquitous white notion that racism is something only from the relatively irrelevant and distant “past.” But nothing can trump the ascendancy of a black man to the nation’s highest office when it comes to selling that belief. The black Urban Studies professor Marc Lamont Hill said it well in an important CounterPunch critique (titled “Not My Brand of Hope”) in early February of 2008:
“After Obama's recent success with white voters, particularly his win in Iowa, many have announced America's transition into a post-racial moment…an Obama presidency is already being treated as a racial talisman that would instantly heal the scars of a nation wounded by racism.”
“For whites, an Obama victory would serve as the final piece of evidence that America has reached full racial equality. Such a belief allows them to sidestep mounds of evidence that shows that, despite Obama's claims that ‘we are 90 percent of the way to equality,’ black people remain consistently assaulted by the forces by white supremacy. For many black people, Obama's success would provide symbolic value by showing that the black man (not woman!) can make it to the top. Although black faces in high places may provide psychological comfort, they are often incorporated into a Cosbyesque gospel of personal responsibility (‘Obama did it, so can you!’) that allows dangerous public policies to go unchallenged.”
As one white Obama supporter told The Washington Post at a campaign event, he hoped that an Obama presidency would help America “erase all this nonsense about race.”
Division, Diversion, and Delirium
How nice to imagine that racial oppression is something so nonsensical and superficial that it could be expunged by the mere act of putting into the White House a technically half-black politician who went out of his way not to threaten majority white cultural and ideological sensibilities surrounding race and other and related matters.
But that’s not all. It gets worse. To the detriment of racial justice, Obama’s racial identity has helped provide fake-progressive cloaking for his service to the unelected, interrelated, and significantly white-supremacist dictatorships of money and empire. It has helped inhibit progressive “activists”– reluctant to be seen as attacking the nation’s first black president and eager to defend him (for all his administration’s considerable corporate and imperial faults) against the significantly racist Right – from, well, acting against that service.
At the same time, the first black president’s alliance with concentrated wealth has reinforced some working class whites’ tendency (richly encouraged as usual by right wing activists and media) to associate black equality and Civil Rights (however imperfectly and deceptively identified with Obama) with white upper-class elitism and privilege, not with the cause of popular solidarity of the Many against the Few.
And if all that isn’t bad enough, we have what the black left writer Glen Ford calls “the Obama Delirium Effect” on part of black America. The Obama presidency has convinced a significant number of black Americans – long the leftmost ethno-cultural segment of the U.S. citizenry and electorate (for some very good reasons) – to turn a blind eye to persistent harsh race disparities. Citing PewCenter findings showing that the Obama phenomenon and presidency create a powerful illusion of black advancement even as black economic circumstances deteriorate, Ford warns that “ObamaL'aid is a mind-altering substance, a hallucinogen. It makes Black people see progress when they are actually facing disaster. Obama-on-the-brain also behaves like an opiate, blocking out pain. African Americans’ ability to apprehend political and economic danger is compromised by Obama-induced delusion, while the opiate effect prevents Blacks from knowing where and how badly they have been hurt. That’s a fatal combination.” It is deadly, among other things, to the continued viability of a progressive and independent black politics that is willing to meaningfully resist the corporate, imperial and still objectively white-supremacist policies of the federal government.
“A GREAT MAN?”
Seventh, I cannot support Nairn’s statement that “Obama should be remembered as a great man.” That’s certainly not how the survivors of the president’s deadly, immoral and illegal attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen feel about the not-so new U.S. president. As one young Pashtun man told Al Jazeera on the day the Nobel Peace Prize was handed to the head of the re-branded American Empire: "Obama has only brought war to our country. Peace prize? He's a killer." The man spoke from the village of Armal, where a crowd of 100 gathered around the bodies of 12 people, one family from a single home. The 12 were killed, witnesses reported, by U.S. Special Forces during a late night raid.
"Why are they giving Obama a peace medal?" another village resident asked. "He claims to want to bring security to us but he brings only death.”
Al Jazeera went to the Afghan village of Bola Boluk, where Obama’s bombs butchered dozens of civilians last spring. "He doesn't deserve the award," a young woman said. "He bombed us and left us with nothing, not even a home." 
“Content of Character” vs. Color of Skin
In 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. said that he dreamed of a day when Americans would judge each other on the basis of “the content of their character,” not “the color of their skin.” We would do well to remember King’s admonition when we examine the historical meaning and role of “killer” Obama.
For what its worth, I worked for civil rights and racial justice in black Chicago as best I could atop the research department of the corporate- and Mayor Daley-captive Chicago Urban League from 2000 to 2005. In that capacity I (who once during the late 1990s had to listen to professor Obama’s give a tedious state-level lecture for the vicious neoliberal policy called “welfare reform” ) was in a position to closely observe (and had some incidental contact with) Obama in his Chicago and Springfield years. He did not strike many in black Chicago as a particularly noble or reliably progressive character. He was widely seen there as something of an abject narcissist and opportunist – a bourgeois, corner-cutting resume-builder with his real eyes on the prize of national office, very possibly the presidency. Prior to his overnight national celebrity status (solidified in the summer of 2004 at the Democratic National Convention), he met considerable disapproval in the city’s black community, where he was considered too “bourgeois,” too “close to [the] downtown [corporate elite],” “too Hyde Park" (home of the reactionary University of Chicago, where Obama taught Constitutional Law part-time) and “too close to [the city’s arch-authoritarian corporate mayor Richard (“Kim Il”)] Daley.
“A Smooth Harvard lawyer with Vacuous-to-Repressive Neoliberal Politics”
Few if any of Obama’s original “progressive” cheerleaders at white, upper-middle-class “left-liberal” venues like The Nation and Huffington Post seemed to have read or taken seriously the brilliant black and left academician Adolph Reed Jr.’s telling description of the future president just as Obama’s political career began on the South Side of Chicago. By Reed’s account, young Obama came to the game with a highly cultivated bourgeois taste for compromise and accommodation with power. The freshman state senator’s finely honed centrism flowed naturally from his elite socialization in a corporate-neoliberal post-Civil Rights era at privileged private institutions like Columbia, Harvard, and the metropolitan foundations on whose boards he sat and in whose circles he moved (a rarely noted aspect of Obama’s biography) while he worked as a Chicago lawyer. This is how Reed described the 30-something Obama in early 1996, shortly after the latter won his first election to the Illinois legislature and more than eight years before the world beyond Springfield and Chicago and the Washington elite (which started closely vetting and cultivating Obama in late 2003) were introduced to the “Obama phenomenon”:
“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 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 substances. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway.” 
Obama’s presidency (like his U.S. Senate career) has been richly consistent with black Chicago and Dr. Reed’s first impressions. The deception and betrayal that he and his presidency have consistently exhibited in defense of dominant domestic and global hierarchies and doctrines certainly suggests something other than “greatness” on the part of Barack Obama. The fact that his technical blackness did not doom his candidacy is surely emblematic of significant cultural progress in the U.S., but Obama has been more a beneficiary than agent of that progress and he does not seem particularly interested in pushing the envelope of racial advancement beyond the simple fact of his election.
Paul Street’s next book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), will be released next summer. Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of 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 School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era ( New York : Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics ( Boulder , CO : Paradigm, 2008). Street can be reached at email@example.com
* Please see notes 1 and three below
1. “‘Obama Has Kept the Machine Set on Kill’ –Journalist and Activist Allan Nairn Reviews Obama’s First Year in Office,” Democracy Now! (January 6, 2010), read at http://www.democracynow.org/2010/1/6/obama_has_kept_the_machine_set
2. For my own dark summaries, see (three weeks before Nairn’s interview) Paul Street, “Blood on the Nobel: On Words, Deeds, and Imperial Re-Branding,” ZNet (December 14, 2009), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/blood-on-the-nobel-by-paul-street and “The Enemy At Home,” Z Magazine (April 2010): 34-36. For a more extensive record and commentary, see chapter 2, titled “The Empire’s New Clothes,” in Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes:: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, forthcoming in July or August, 2010). If you read the entirety of Nairn’s interview with Goodman (which I highly recommend), you learn a great deal about numerous and interrelated ways in which Obama has embraced the bloody military project he inherited from George W. Bush and other previous U.S. presidents
3. I am aware that this essay’s critique of Allan Nairn’s single and brief comment four months ago is quite belated. In my defense, this article isn’t really about Nairn but about race, class, empire, and the Obama phenomenon and presidency. My exercise here of somewhat over-comprehensively assessing and criticizing Nairn’s short comment (from yes, nearly four months ago) is useful in terms of drawing out the meaning of Obama in relation to the relevant reigning power structures. In this essay, for better or worse, I will refer to Nairn’s comment in the present, not the past tense (as in “Nairn fails to grasp” instead of “Nairn failed to grasp.” I mean no disrespect whatsoever to Nairn, an excellent Left journalist and activist who has courageously exposed U.S. imperial crimes.
4. Edward S. Herman, “Obama and the Steady Drift to the Right,” Z Magazine (March 2010), p. 9.
5. Please see Chapter 4, titled “How ‘Antiwar’? Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire,” pp. 123-163 in Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).
6 Noam Chomsky, “Elections 2008 and Obama’s Vision,” Z Magazine (February 2008).
7. Source: Morgan Stanley Research, Aerospace & Defense, Heidi Wood et al., “Early Thoughts on Obama and Defense” (November 5, 2008), read at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/business/governmentinc/documents/ObamaDefense.pdf
8. Compare Nairn’s comment with the following trenchant analysis from Herman: “Couldn't Obama have changed course, betrayed the establishment instead of the public interest, and altered the structure of national priorities? Couldn't he have used his powerful platform to make the case for real change, mobilizing the masses, and, with their support, moved us in a new direction? Of course, there is no evidence that he really wanted to do this, but I don't believe he could have done it even if he had wanted to and was prepared to take heavy risks in the process.”
“The institutional obstacles are too great. Not only the Republicans, but a large fraction of the elected Democrats are in thrall to the financial and business community, MIC, and pro-Israel lobby. They would have refused to go along with severe cutbacks in the Pentagon budget, massive outlays for public works and subsidies-bailouts for ordinary citizens, or a single payer health-care system. The business community would have gone on strike, with probably serious capital flight and layoffs. Cutbacks in military operations abroad would have resulted in hysteria in the media about Democratic weakness and betrayal, possible disorder, and maybe a military coup to restore order. Even slow and careful moves along these lines would be furiously opposed and would likely precipitate a political crisis.”
“The institutional constraints on even moderate liberal change are, I believe, very great at this point in U.S. history.” See Herman, “Obama and the Steady Drift.”
Herman here is talking about more than just stopping the killing. He’s discussing the chances for a related and many-sided progressive transformation in American politics and society under Obama. Still, I think the point applies also just to the more narrow objective of stopping the killing. On coup-chances in the U.S., see the interesting discussion in Andrew Bacevich et al., “American Coup d’Etat: Military Thinkers Discuss the Unthinkable,” Harpers’ (April 2006) at http://www.harpers.org/archive/2006/04/0080995
9. This useful term belongs to Sheldon Wolin, appearing in his book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008) and Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 139. As Wolin predicted with haunting prescience before the election in his book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, “Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors [will] make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society.” In the United States’ election-focused political culture, Wolin elaborated: “the parties set out to mobilize the citizen-as-voter, to define political obligation as fulfilled by the casting of a vote. Afterwards, post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests – the real players – takes over The effect is to demobilize the citizenry, to teach them not to be involved or to ponder matters that are either settled or beyond their efficacy….The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anticorporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf.”
10. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009.
11. Kevin Baker, “Barack Hoover Obama: The Best and the Brightest Blow it Again,” Harper’s Magazine (July 2009).
12. Marxist Geographer David Harvey on the G20, the Financial Crisis, and Neoliberalism," Democracy Now (April 2, 2009). See also John Burns and Landon Thomas, "English-Speaking Capitalism on Trial," New York Times, March 29, 2009, section 4, p.4.
13. Thomas B. Edsall, “Barack Obama: King of Corporate Welfare,” Huffington Post, April 24, 2009. “No matter what else he achieves or where he falls short,” Edsall noted, “Barack Obama can lay claim to the title of King of Corporate Subsidies...Using any variety of measures, the Obama administration has broken all records in the distribution of tax dollars to American businesses, primarily banks, automobile manufacturers and insurance companies...The tidal wave of dollar bills has stunned folks on all sides of the political spectrum.” See also Chomsky, “Elections 2008 and Obama’s ‘Vision.’”
14. According to the leading British climate activist and intellectual George Monbiot, “The immediate reason for the failure of the [Copenhagen] talks can be summarized in two words: Barack Obama. The man elected to put aside childish things proved to be as susceptible to immediate self-interest as any other politician. Just as George Bush did in the approach to the Iraq war, Obama went behind the backs of the UN and most of its member states and assembled a coalition of the willing to strike a deal which outraged the rest of the world. This was then presented to poorer nations without negotiation; either they signed it or they lost the adaptation funds required to help them survive the first few decades of climate breakdown.” See George Monbiot, “Requiem for a Crowded Planet,” The Guardian (UK), December 21, 2009.
15. For my own detailed analysis, see Paul Street, “Health Reform: Theirs and Ours,” ZNet (March 24, 2010), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/health-reform-theirs-and-ours-by-paul-street; “Corporatist Health Reform as an ‘Attack on Economic Inequality’: Harsh Plutocratic Realities Beneath Progressive Fantasy at and Beyond The New York Times, ZNet (March 31, 2010), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/corporatist-health-reform-as-an-attack-on-wealth-inequality-by-paul-street.
16. M. Mogulesco, “New York Times Reporter Confirms Obama Made Deal to Kill Public Option,” Huffington Post, March 16, 2010; David Kirkpatrick, “Obama is Taking an Active Role in Talks on Health Care Plan,” New York Times, August 12, 2009.
17. John Pilger, “Obama and Empire,” speech to International Socialist Organization, San Francisco, CA (July 4, 2009). View and hear the segment quoted at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/john-pilger-obama-is-a-corporate-marketing-creation/
18. John Pilger, “After Bobby Kennedy (There Was Barack Obama),” Common Dreams (May 31, 2008), read at www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/05/31/9327/
19. For poignant critiques of MoveOn’s pathetically co-opted foreign policy positioning from last year, see Anthony Arnove, “Moved on From the Struggle,” Socialist Worker (March 13, 2009), read at http://socialistworker.org/2009/03/13/moved-on-from-the-struggle; Glen Ford, “First Black President Defeats U.S. Antiwar Movement,” Black Agenda Report (April 15, 2009), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/?q=content/first-black-president-defeats-us-antiwar-movement; John Pilger, “Power, Illusion, and America’s Last Taboo” (July 4, 2009), read at http://www.johnpilger.com/page.asp?partid=545. “The tragedy,” Pilger noted, “is that Brand Obama appears to have crippled or absorbed the anti war movement, the peace movement. Out of 256 Democrats in Congress, thirty are willing to stand against Obama’s and Nancy Pelosi’s war party. On June 16, they voted for $106 billion for more war…In Washington, the Out of Iraq Caucus is out of action. Its members can’t even come up with a form of words of why they are silent. On March 21, a demonstration at the Pentagon by the once mighty United for Peace and Justice drew only a few thousand. The outgoing president of UPJ, Leslie Cagan, says her people aren’t turning up because, ‘it’s enough for many of them that Obama has a plan to end the war and that things are moving in the right direction.’ And where is the mighty MoveOn these days? Where is its campaign against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? And what exactly was said when, in February, MoveOn’s executive director, Jason Ruben, met President Obama?”
20. See Sabrina Eaton, “Re. Dennis Kucinich Draws Fire from the Left Over Health Care Reform,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 12, 2010, read at http://www.cleveland.com/open/index.ssf/2010/03/rep_dennis_kucinich_draws_fire.html. Thanks to Jane Hamsher of FiredogLake for alerting me to this pathetic episode.
21. Aurora Levins Morales, “Thinking Outside the Ballot Box,” Z Magazine (April 2008).
22. Please see Street, Barack Obama, xix-xxviii. 169-176.
23. Paul Krugman, "Big Table Fantasies," New York Times, December 17, 2007; Paul Street, "'Angry John' Edwards v. KumbayObama," SleptOn Magazine (December 28, 2007), read at http://www.slepton.com/slepton/viewcontent.pl?id=1234; Mike Davis, "Obama at Manassas," New Left Review (March-April 2009).
24. For some fascinating “liberal” praise of Reagan, see Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown, 2006]), 31-32, where Obama reflects on how “[Reagan’s] critics” dysfunctionally “carped” about the policies of the man who “changed the trajectory of America” away from the radical tendencies of the frightening Sixties. For more disturbing information on Obama’s attachment to Reagan, see Street, Barack Obama and the Future, 96-98.
25. Among many possible citations, see Chapter 3, titled “How ‘Black’ is Obama? Color, Class, Generation, and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era,” pp, 73-121 in Street, Barack Obama and the Future.
26. Paul Street, “Obama’s Latest ‘Beautiful Speech,’” ZNet Magazine (March 20, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/16947; Bill Fletcher, “Obama Race Speech Analysis,” Black Commentator (March 20, 2008), read at http://www.blackcommentator.com/269/269_cover_obama_race_speech_analysis_ed_bd.html
27. Celine-Marie Pascale and Katie Beran, “Nowhere to Fall,” Z Magazine (October 2009).
28. See “Democracy Now!” show transcript for September 14, 2009 at http://www.democracynow.org/2009/9/14/naomi_klein_on_minority_death_match
29 Mumia Abu-Jamal, “Imagine Being Van Jones,” ZNet Magazine (September 22, 2009), read at http://axisoflogic.com/artman/publish/Article_57003.shtml
30. Justin Hyde and Richard Wolf, “President Says He Shouldn’t Put Focus on Blacks’ Troubles,” USA TODAY (December 4, 2009), 4A.
31. Please see my widely ignored book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman&Littlefield, 2007).
32. “Remarks by the President and First Lady to the International Olympic Committee” (Copenhagen, Denmark, October 2, 2009), read at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-the-President-And-the-First-Lady-to-the-International-Olympic-Committee; Rubin Navarette, Jr., ”Obama’s Silence on Chicago Crime,” October 2, 2009 http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/10/02/navarrette.chicago.obama.olympics/index.html#cnnSTCText.
33. David Zirin, “Olympics in Chicago: ‘Obama’s Folly”?” The Nation (September 22,2009); No Games Chicago, Press Release. April 2, 2009, read at http://nogames.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/rally_press_release.pdf; ABC 7 News, “Michelle, Oprah Arrive in Copenhagen” (September 30, 2009), http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/local&id=7040148;Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis. pp. 51, 107. 164, 172, 260, 293, 296
34. Derrick Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform (New York, NY: OxfordUniversity Press, 2004), 77-78.
35. Marc Lamont Hill, Hill, “Not My Brand of Hope: Obama’s Politics of Cunning, Compromise, and Concession,” CounterPunch (February 11, 2008).
36. Quoted in John B. Judis, “American Adam: Obama and the Cult of the New,” The New Republic (March 12, 2008), 24.
37. See Glen Ford’s disturbing reflections (and accompanying black opinion data) in his commentary “Living a Black Fantasy: The Obama Delirium Effect,” Black Agenda Report (January 20, 2010), read at http://blackagendareport.com/?q=content/living-black-fantasy-obama-delirium-effect.
38. Aljazeera English, "Afghans Anger at Obama's Nobel Peace Prize," YouTube (December 10, 2009) qt www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBHrnQTinGY&feature=related
39. Which ended the guarantee of public family cash assistance for deeply poor and disproportionately black women and children.
40. Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York, 2000).