Silly Goose Expectations: Reflections on Frustrated Left-Liberal Hopes and the Obama Administration
What matters is not who’s sitting in the White House. What matters is who’s sitting in.
- Howard Zinn
Who will save “the progressive movement,” such as it is , from the blathering of Robert Kuttner? According to a recent story on National “Public” Radio, leading “disappointed,” “frustrated” and “betrayed” American “progressives” are reflecting on the (not-so) “liberal” Obama administration’s ongoing imperial and corporatist torpor –- a likely context for more right wing victories in the mid-term elections next November –- with an interesting question: “is it [the problem] Obama or is it us?” By N”P”R reporter Andrea Seabrook’s account, this was the main question discussed by “left wing activists” (Seabrook’s revealing term for liberal Democrats) at a recent conference on Barack Obama’s presidency called by the Washington-based group Campaign for America’s Future (CAF).
“And We Would Just Go Home and Hit the Couch”
CAF conference participant Marquis Jones said "It's definitely us. I mean, we can't look at our elected officials and feel like it's their responsibility. We put them in office to be a representation of us, so it is our responsibility to make sure that they're fulfilling those obligations." According to the leading liberal blogger and pundit Arianna Huffington, another conference attendee, "It seems like yesterday...Barack Obama was going to take office, he was going to change the world and we would just go home and hit the couch.”
Jones goes too far to absolve elected
Still Marquis Jones and Ariana Huffington are right to call for activists to keep the pressure on elected officials beneath and beyond the quadrennial candidate-centered, mass marketed “electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky) that pass for the only politics (“that’s politics” ) that matter in the U.S. As the left political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. argued in The Progressive magazine in the fall of 2007, left activists should focus less on elections and more on building social and political movements for democratic change from the bottom up over longer periods of time”
“It’s a mistake to focus so much on the election cycle; we didn’t vote ourselves into this mess, and we’re not going to vote ourselves out of it. Electoral politics is an arena for consolidating majorities that have been created on the plane of social movement organizing. It’s not an alternative or a shortcut to building those movements, and building them takes time and concerted effort. Not only can that process not be compressed to fit the election cycle; it also doesn’t happen through mass actions. It happens through cultivating one-on-one relationships with people who have standing and influence in their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, families, and organizations. It happens through struggling with people over time for things they’re concerned about and linking those concerns to a broader political vision and program. This is how the populist movement grew in the late nineteenth century, the CIO in the 1930s and 1940s, and the civil rights movement after World War II. It is how we’ve won all our victories. And it is also how the right came to power.”
Serious progressives can consult left social critic Charles Derber’s critique of many progressives’ tendency to fall into “the election trap” (the false equation of progressive change with Democratic Party electoral victories), the late Howard Zinn's bestselling volume A People's History of the United States, and Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s classic study Poor Peoples’ Movement: How They Succeed and Why They Fail (1977) to review some elementary lessons on how relevant progressive transformation occurs. These studies demonstrate in rich historical detail how direct action, social disruption, and the threat of radical change from the bottom up forced social and political reforms that benefited working- and lower-class people during the 1930s and the 1960s. They show the critical role played by grassroots social movements and popular resistance in educating presidents and the power elite on the need for change. “Today, as in the Thirties and Sixties, we can be sure that Obama and the Democratic Party will not move off the corporate center unless,” Zinn noted two springs ago, "the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find dangerous to ignore." Zinn was distressed as he saw “liberals and radicals alike” being “mesmerized” by what he called “the election madness” that “seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go the polls and choose on the two mediocrities that have already been chose for us.”
“There Was Never Any Reason for Expectations”
At the same time, such progressives need to look back in a critical vein on the progressive hopes and values that many liberals and even some leftists childishly projected on to the in-fact “deeply conservative” [9A] Barack Obama in the first place. Noam Chomsky has recently offered a properly harsh perspective on those hopes in an interview on German television:
Interviewer Fabian Scheidler: “President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 while at the same time escalating the wars in
Chomsky: “It's not a comment about him. It's a comment about the expectations. The expectations were based on nothing. I'm one of the few people who isn't disillusioned because I had no expectations. I wrote about his record and prospects before the campaign, just looking at his website. And it was pretty clear that he's going to be a normal centrist Democrat roughly Clinton-style. He never pretended to be anything else. I mean there was rhetoric about hope and change. But it was like a blank slate. You can write on it whatever you wanted. And he is kind of personable. People were desperate for some hope so they grabbed onto it. But there was no basis for any expectations.”
”I mean as you may know he won an award, the award from the advertising industry for the best marketing campaign of 2008. He beat out Apple Computer. And they knew what they were doing. It was a very successful marketing campaign. But like most marketing campaigns you don't take it seriously. If you look at the actual substance there was never any reason for expectations. And what's happened is I think pretty much in line with what could have been anticipated both in domestic and international affairs.” 
I’ll skirt with the appearance of undue vanity by saying that Obama’s “centrist” (right-wing by global and comparative standards) corporate and imperial policy record has been pretty much in line with what I quite specifically anticipated and predicted in my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). Written mainly in 2007 and systematically ignored by the nation’s so-called left-liberal intelligentsia, that book gave numerous reasons – both from Obama’s own record and from the broader “corporate-dominated and militaristic elections system and political culture” he ascended – to find “no basis for any [progressive] expectations [about Obama].”
Bob Kuttner Gets Goosey
Which brings us to Kuttner, the influential editor of the weekly liberal magazine American Prospect and a frequent presence at mainstream “progressive” gatherings. Unlike Marquis Jones and others at the recent CAF gathering, Kuttner told “progressives” to center their understanding of the current deadly conservative stasis on Obama. "We criticize [Timothy] Geithner; we criticize [
That was interesting commentary from Kuttner, who went crazy as a goose with progressive dreams for the president in his own 2008 Obama book. In his revealingly titled volume Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency , he wrote about "how great Presidents overcome great crises" and "what President Obama must do to redeem his own promise and the promise of
“Unique, Even Revolutionary”
As the Obama ascendancy developed, however, Kuttner was hardly alone in unduly idolizing Obama or in failing to grasp the basic Zinn and Piven-Cloward lesson on how progressive change takes place. Consider for example the remarkable post-election commentary of The New Yorker’s liberal pundit and major Obama fan Hendrik Hertzberg. Hertzberg immediately hailed the first black president’s victory as “a global diplomatic asset, a symbol of the resurgence of America’s ability to astonish and inspire” and claimed that “there is already the beginning of a new era…As in 1932 and 1980, a crisis in the economy opened the way for the rejection of a reigning approach to government and the forging of a new one.” Hertzberg scaled the heights of liberal stupidity and personality-centered hero worship by claiming that Obama’s epidermal shade, calm demeanor, advanced educational (indoctrination-a/?) qualification suggested transformative outcomes: “Obama is young, educated, focused, reassuring, and energetic. He is as accomplished a writer as he is a speaker. His campaign was a marvel of discipline, organization, and prescience. He has, as a conservative critic acknowledged, ‘a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament.’ We have had these qualities in our Presidents before, if rarely all in the same person. But Obama’s most visible attribute, the only one mentioned in that Times lead, is unique, even revolutionary: the color of his skin.”
Hertzberg’s faith in the transformative meaning of the “black but not like Jesse” Obama’s skin color was juvenile. As John Pilger explained at the International Socialist Organization meetings in
“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.”
It was likely beyond Hertzberg’s imagination that Obama might have been attractive to the establishment in part because elites sensed that all-too widespread 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 said would be required to attain any meaningful progressive reform in the U.S. 
“Progressives Can Only Hope”
In an essay foolishly titled "Franklin Delano Obama" six days after the election, even liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (an Edwards supporter through the Iowa Caucus) dreamed about "Mr. Obama's chances of leading a new New Deal,” something he thought would “depend largely on whether his short-term economic plans are sufficiently bold. Progressives,” Krugman counseled, “can only hope that he has the necessary audacity.” Subsequently, Krugman wrote that, “We can only hope that our leaders [starting first of fall with Barack Obama]…carry through with real [financial] reform.”
By Kuttner and Krugman’s analysis, “progressives” could “only hope” that the great, wise, and wonderful Wizard of Ozbama and other corporate-sponsored “leaders” would have the boldness to save the day. Hertzberg thought he’d found reason to think that the “first class” and “focused” savior – with “revolutionary” skin color – had been found.
They were terribly mistaken in ways that went beyond Obama’s record and attributes and which point (to return to the big question at the CAF conference) to the main problem being “us” (“progressives”), not Obama. It has always been our challenge, not “Obama’s [or any other politician’s] challenge” to force progressive transformation from the bottom up. As Zinn used to say, “What matters is not who’s sitting in the White House. What matters is who’s sitting in!” 
How ridiculous the progressive hopes that leftists and liberals have heaped on Barack Obama look more than a year and a half into Obama’s militarist and corporatist presidency, wallowing now in Day 50 plus (and counting) of an epic calamity caused by one of the many giant transnational corporations and the broader state capitalist profits system to which the not-so “new” administration is so less wedded than the ones that preceded it.
We Were Warned
“Oh sure,” I can hear defensive liberals and “disappointed progressives” saying: “hindsight is 20-20. We had reasons to hope and dream at the time he was elected.”
I’m sorry, but this doesn’t really wash for me. I did everything I could short of smoke signals and passenger pigeons to raise alarms among “progressives” from the left about the real nature of the Obama phenomenon from the start. And I was not alone. Contrary somewhat to Chomsky’s statement that he is “one of the few people who isn’t disappointed because I had no [progressive] expectations” (of Obama), a considerable number of radical voices tried to caution lefties and serious liberals off “the Obama Kool Aid” from 2005 through the 2008 election. Those voices included John Pilger, Adolph Reed, Jr, Glen Ford, Bruce Dixon, Michael Hureaux, Margaret Kimberly, Juan Santos, Greg Guma, Marc Lamont Hill, Pam Martens, Alexander Cockburn, Jeffrey St. Clair, Kim Peterson, David Peterson, Chris Hedges, Lance Selfa, Joshua Frank, Jeremy Scahill, John MacArthur, David Sirota, Ken Silverstein. and numerous others in such journals as Black Agenda Report, Z Magazine, ZNet, Dissident Voice, Harper’s, The Progressive, Truthdig., AlterNet and SocialistWorker.org. My own voluminous warnings on and against the Obama phenomenon date from late July 2004 – just two days after Obama’s pivotal, career-making keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. My aforementioned book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics was the most ambitious and comprehensive effort before the 2008 election to rigorously demystify the Obama phenomenon – to warn about the Obama re-branding project – from a Left perspective. Along with Lance Selfa’s study The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008), Sheldon Wolin’s chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, 2008), and John R. MacArthur’s You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America (New York: Melville, House, 2008), and the essays of a large number of left political writers (just some of whom are mentioned above), it can reasonably be said to have essentially “predicted” the Obama administration’s betrayal of the Obama campaign’s liberal and progressive base. It did so through a simple insistence on rigorously (some might say “ruthlessly”) situating Obama in the world of what the prolific left author and filmmaker John Pilger calls “power as it is, not as many of us wish it to be.”  The sixth chapter of my next book – The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power – is titled simply “We Were Warned.” It lists no less than twenty key ways in which reasonably attentive citizens were given advance warning – commonly by Obama himself – of the certain corporatist and military-imperialist trajectory of an Obama White House.
The problem is not either “Obama” or mainstream “progressives.” It’s both (please review note 11 below)and more in the broader context of the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. It is, to repeat, our challenge, not Obama’s or any other politicians’, to launch and sustain the epic people’s fight for democracy.
Street will speak on racial politics and the Obama presidency at “Socialism 2010,” the annual meetings of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) at The Palmer House Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago on Friday June 18, 2010 at 4 pm (see http://www.socialismconference.org/chicago/talks)
1 For some unflattering, deeply informed reflections from genuinely left liberals, see Glenn Greenwald, “Has Rahm’s Assumption About Progressives Been Vindicated?” Salon (March 18, 2010) at http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/03/18/progressives/index.html; Justin Raimondo, “Springtime for Obama and the Death of the Old Left,” Antiwar.com (March 22, 2010) at http://original.antiwar.com/justin/2010/03/21/springtime-for-obama/;Jane Hamsher, “The Progressive Movement is Officially Dead,” Firedog Lake (April 30, 2010) at http://fdlaction.firedoglake.com/2010/04/30/the-progressive-movement-is-officially-dead/; Jane Hamsher, “Progressive Caucus Outlines its Plan to Give Coal Lobby Everything It Wants,” Firedog Lake (April 7, 2010) at http://fdlaction.firedoglake.com/2010/04/07/progressive-caucus-outlines-their-plan-to-give-coal-lobby-everything-it-wants/;Jane Hamsher, “Durbin Says ‘Bleeding Heart Liberals’ Should Be Open to Medicare and Social Security Cuts,” Firedog Lake (April 29, 2010), at http://fdlaction.firedoglake.com/2010/04/29/durbin-says-bleeding-heart-liberals-should-be-open-to-medicare-and-social-security-cuts/. Durbin is quoted also in Jackie Calmes, “Obama Tells Debt Commission ‘Everything Has to Be on Table,’ “
2 Detailed at some length in the first four chapters of my forthcoming and next book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (
3 Andrea Seabrook, “Progressives Ask: ‘Is it Obama or Is it Us?” National Public Radio (June 8, 2010), www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127545645
4 Seabrook, “Progressives Ask.”
5 Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009.
6 As Noam Chomsky noted on the eve of the 2004 elections: “A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. ..The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power… In the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.” See Noam Chomsky, Interventions (
7 Adolph J. Reed Jr., “Sitting This One Out,” The Progressive (November 2007).
8 As Charles Derber notes, “the main catalysts for regime change in
9 Howard Zinn, “Election Madness,” The Progressive (March 2008).
9A. See the important, extensive, and early portrait of Obama’s world view and history by Larissa MacFarquhar at the beginning of the 2008 presidential primary campaign: “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar found, “Obama is deeply conservative.”
10 “Kontext Interview by Noam Chomsky” (2010), read transcript on ZNet at www.zcommunications.org/kontext-interview-by-noam-chomsky
11 At the same time, I would take a somewhat less one-sided approach to the CAF conference question (“is it Obama or is it [progressives]”?) than Chomsky. I would not let Obama himself and his handlers off the hook quite so completely. Obama has been actively and consciously (the president is aware of the deceptive dynamics involved) engaged in riding, raising, dashing and managing liberal-progressive and popular expectations. That is of course what smart Democratic politicians do under the
12 Seabrook, “Progressives Ask.”
13 Robert Kuttner, Obama’s Challenge;
14 For a different picture of the reality of the arch-militarist and corporatist presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, see Bruce Mirroff, Pragmatic Illusions; John Pilger, Hidden Agendas (New York: New Press, 1998); Howard Zinn, Postwar America: 1945-1971 (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973); and Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture (Boston, MA: South End, 1993).
15 Henrik Hertzberg, “Obama Wins,” The New Yorker (November 16, 2010) at http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2008/11/17/081117taco_talk_hertzberg#ixzz0qNSgAL5I
16 John Pilger, “Obama and Empire,” speech to International Socialist Organization,
17 John Blake, “Why Obama Doesn’t Dare Become the ‘Angry Black Man,’” CNN (June 8, 2010), http://www.cnn.com/2010/POLITICS/06/08/rage.obama/index.html
18 Paul Krugman, "Big Table Fantasies," New York Times, December 17, 2007;
20 New York Times, April 27, 2009
21 David Zirin, “Howard Zinn: The Historian Who Made History” (n.d.) at http://www.change-links.org/zirinandzinn.html. If Krugman and Kuttner had truly desired a president sincerely willing to challenge Wall Street and advance “radical” solutions, they might have supported the actual left progressives Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney for president. But, of course, genuine left progressives cannot receive a serious shot at victory under the current U.S. electoral set-up.
22 For some specific dirt on corrupt linkages between British Petroleum and the Obama administration, see Andrew Malcom, “The Ties That Bind: Remember Rahm Emmanuel’s Rent-Free D.C. Apartment? The Owner: A BP Adviser,” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 2010, at http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2010/06/rahm-emanuel-bp-gul-oil-spill.html
23 For an interesting “List of Left Wing Articles Critical of Obama,” see http://www.dkosopedia.com/wiki/List_of_Left-wing_articles_critical_of_Obama. Many readers will be surprised to learn that so many left voices spoke and wrote against Obama before his presidential ascendancy. One of the many services dominant media has granted to Obama has been to consistently make serious left criticism of his campaign and administration close to invisible. The so-called mainstream media has succeeded in conflating the term “Obama’s critics” with “the Tea Party movement” and with other Republicans and “conservatives.” Along the way, of course, the still potent right wing talk radio crowd and noise machine has falsely claimed that all of “the left” is strongly on board with Obama.
25: For a mostly appreciative and partly critical review of Wolin, see
26 The prize for earliest left identification of Obama as a fake-progressive neoliberal centrist goes without question to the black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr., who penned a retrospectively fascinating account of Obama in The Village Voice literally at the beginning of Obama’s political career in 1996. See Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 19966), reproduced in Reed, Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (