Statehouse Days: The Myth of Barack Obama’s “True Progressive” Past
Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.
- Ryan Lizza, July 21 2008
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.
- Adolph Reed, Jr., 1996
The extent to which many “liberal left” Democrats and hard-right Republicans will go to convince themselves and/or others that Barack Obama is really a left progressive is quite remarkable. “Oh sure,” they say when you point out that Obama is a corporate-sponsored centrist and cite any of number of facts from his U.S. Senate career and presidential campaign to support that elementary observation. “But that’s just a façade he has to put on to get elected. He’s really a left-leaning political actor” – what some liberal leftists will call “a true progressive” and what Obama’s hard-right critics call “a dangerous leftist” and even a “socialist.”
Never mind that Obama’ s policy positions during the Democratic primary “were often to the right of his rivals” . Forget that he has refused to embrace the obvious and widely supported (for decades) progressive health care solution – national single-payer insurance – and that he has failed to advance universal mandates even within the corporate-managed system that he prefers .
Forget his mealy-mouthed and ever-shifting positions on Iraq, clearly (however) indicating that an Obama White House will maintain the criminal imperial occupation of oil-rich Mesopotamia for an indefinite period of time .
Discount the business-friendly nature of neoliberal “Obamanomics,” crafted by Wal-Mart-friendly economists like the University of Chicago’s Austan Goolsbee and the Hamilton Project’s Jason Furman .
Ignore his brazenly imperial positions on Israel/Palestine, Columbia, Cuba, Afghanistan, Iran, the “defense” (Empire) budget, and the broad role of the United States (which Obama absurdly calls the “last and best hope of the world”) in the world, summarized nicely by Obama’s statement that “the America moment is not over” but must be “seized anew”.
Take no notice of his repeated praise of American capitalism, imperialism, and the corporate elite  or of his support for the Patriot Act and the wiretapping of U.S. citizens or his vote to limit working Americans’ ability to recover significant damages from misbehaving corporations or his coolness to gun control or his support for the death penalty or of the disingenuous claims behind his decision to become the first presidential candidate to bypass the public presidential financing system.
No, forget all that – or put it aside – and more, and realize that that’s just what he has to do to get elected.” Because, you see, Barack Obama is a stealth progressive – an actually transformative (or Manchurian) left candidate behind the conservative “front” he has to put up to make it into the White House.
That is the curious belief of many of his ostensibly left supporters and many of his right enemies.
“AN EAGERNESS TO ACCOMMODATE HIMSELF TO EXISTING INSTITUTIONS”
The claim that Obama is a closeted “true progressive” who has been playing the right-leaning game of U.S. politics in order to reach the White House (where he will come out of his left closet) and then spring actually left-leaning values on America and the world seems highly questionable for at least three reasons. First, very few if any people in key positions in the “radically centrist”  Obama campaign seem remotely predisposed to following such a path.
Second, it must have take practically super-human “eyes on the White House prize” restraint for a “truly progressive” U.S. Senator Obama not to have used his already considerable power and notoriety (after 2004) to become a leader (in the Paul Wellstone mode) of left-liberal opposition to the Bush agenda at home and abroad. Instead he did things like:
* vote with Republicans to cap consumer legal damages (“tort reform”).
* confirm the war criminal Condoleezaa Rice as (of all things) Secretary of State.
* lecture “bloggers” (Obama's new code name for the growing number of activists and voters who dare to openly disagree with Him from the left) on their need to show proper respect for U.S. Senators who approved the appointment of arch-reactionary opponents of womens' and civil rights to the rule-for-life Supreme Court.
* distance himself from Rep. John Murtha’s (D-PA)call for early withdrawal from Iraq and from his fellow Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin’s courageous criticism of American Gestapo-like practices in Guantanamo.
* lend his campaign support to pro-war against antiwar candidates in the Democratic congressional primaries of 2006 and otherwise distance himself from the movement against the Iraq War.
* advance the energy agenda of the nuclear and ethanol industries.
Third, Obama’s career prior to his emergence as a national celebrity and politician does not jibe particularly well with the “stealth progressive” hypothesis. During his seven years in the Illinois Senate between 1997 and 2004, Obama developed strong and interrelated reputations for limitless personal aspiration, for working closely with Republicans, for “pragmatic” compromise, and for staying close to the great hidden secret to success under the rules of American “market democracy” – corporate money . As Ryan Lizza notes in an important recent New Yorker sketch of Obama’s early political career, “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them” .
“EYES ON THE PRIZE”: “OBAMA BELIEVES IN OBAMA”
This “eagerness to accommodate” concentrated power is consistent with two core aspects of Obama’s character. The first trait here is his “deeply conservative” (journalist Larissa MacFarquhar’s supposedly flattering description) “respect for tradition” and his “skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly” . The second trait is his preternatural personal ambition, which has led him to attaching himself to dominant elites and doctrines within the reigning power structure.
According to his longtime close personal friend and top advisor Valerie Jarrett, in early 2007, Obama “always wanted to be president. He didn’t always admit it, but, oh, absolutely. The first time he said it,” Jarrett told MacFarquhar, “he said ‘I just think I have some special qualities and wouldn’t it be a shame to waste them…you know, I just think I have something’”.
During the mid-1990s, Obama participated in a leadership seminar put together by the Harvard professor Robert Putnam to gather young, “civic-minded” intellectuals, activists, and officeholders. By Putnam’s recollection, Obama “talked so openly about his political future that the group began referring to him, teasingly, as ‘Governor’ and once gathered around him to ask, ‘when are you running for president?’”
In the early 1990s, Obama told Craig Robinson, his future brother-in-law, the following (in Robinson’s words): “I’d like to teach at some point and maybe run for office..no at some point I’d like to run for the U.S. Semate....possibly even run for president at some point”. According to U.S. Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL), reflecting on Obama’s rash effort to unseat the senior politician from the U.S. Congress in 2000: “He was blinded by his ambition. Obama has never suffered from a lack of believing that he can accomplish whatever it is he decides to try. Obama believes in Obama. And, frankly, that has its good side but it also has its negative side." Obama’s early state legislative rival and occasional enemy Rickey Hendon once said that Obama would “run for king of the world” if he thought that job was open for election .
Consistent with these reflections, longtime Illinois state senator Steven Rauschenberger recalled in 2007 that state senator Obama was “a very bright but very ambitious person who had his eyes on the prize and it wasn’t Springfield” . An extensive Chicago Tribune feature on Obama’s statehouse career bore the interesting title, “Careful Steps, Looking Ahead.” The feature’s authors Rick Pearson and Ray Long learned that “from the moment he arrived in the Illinois Senate it was clear to many that he didn’t intend to stay.” After just two months in Springfield. Pearson and Long found, Obama met with the Illinois Senate Democrats’ chief of staff Mike Hoffman to discuss “how Obama’s name might play with Downstate voters in a statewide race.” According to Hoffman, “Obama wanted me to know that he had other ambitions” .
South Side Chicago Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, an early Obama ally, recently had this to say about Obama to Lizza: “I think he was very strategic in his choice of friends and mentors. I spent ten years of my adult life working to be alderman. I finally got elected. This is a job I love. And I’m perfectly happy with it. I’m not sure that’s the way he approached his public life – that he was going to try for a job and stay there fore one period of time. In retrospect, I think he saw the positions he held as stepping stones to other things and therefore approached his public life differently than other people might have”.
Obama’s desire for personal advancement and power was already apparent to many simply by the way he attained state senate seat. He won an easy victory after essentially forcing all other Democratic contenders off the ballot by challenging their signature petitions – a classic street tactic in Chicago politics. Among the people he pushed out of contention on technical grounds was none other than the actually progressive state senator Alice Palmer, who had initially invited to Obama to run for her seat after deciding to try for the U.S. Congress in 1996 .
Consistent with Rush, Rauschenberger, and Preckwinkle’s take on him, Obama began scheming about running for Republican Peter Fitzgerald’s U.S. Senate seat within at least a year of his drubbing by Bobby Rush. When Democrats won control of the Illinois legislature in 2003, Obama went to his political mentor and key Richard M. Daley ally and new Illinois Senate Leader Emil Jones to obtain his support for a U.S. Senate campaign .
One pivotal set of state-legislative votes suggests the correctness of Rauschenberger’s perspective. As a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, Obama has claimed to be a staunch champion of abortion rights. He has strongly criticized a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a controversial ban on a late-term abortion procedure. In the Illinois Senate, however, Obama voted “present” instead of “no” on seven bills restricting abortion. He has subsequently claimed that these noncommittal “present” votes were part of a “progressive” political strategy worked out with liberal groups like Planned Parenthood and designed to provide political “cover” for legislators who could not afford to appear to be “pro-abortion.” But state legislators interviewed by the Chicago Tribune last year recalled no such strategy and noted that Obama needed no such “cover” in his mostly liberal and predominantly black legislative district on the South Side of Chicago.
Obama did think he required “cover,” however, for his “higher ambitions” for running a statewide or even national campaign someday. As his good friend and former state legislator Terry Link (D-Waukeagan IL) noted, “a ‘present’ vote helped if you had had aspirations of doing something else in politics. I think Obama looked at it in that regard” .
Obama’s much-ballyhooed decision to work after college as a community organizer – a three-year effort to mobilize the political power of black churches (it accomplished next to nothing) in the late 1980s – was hardly inconsistent with his long-term political ambitions. The road to higher office is more effectively paved with a resume emphasizing public service than the pursuit of wealth. At the same time, the prestigious Harvard Law education that came between Obama’s community organizing and state-legislative careers was consistent with the goal of making the elite connections that are required to make a serious run for higher elected office. It would prove very useful in the fall of 2003 and early 2004, when Obama received an early “audition” with the national power elite of election investors – a critical prelude to his more well-known and spectacular introduction to the country as a whole on the night of instantly famous Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic Convention.
“A STUDY IN CAUTION AND CALCULATION”
Intimately related to pre-Rock Star Obama’s powerful ambition was a pronounced tendency to temper his supposed strong “progressive” impulses. According to some left and liberal observers, the future presidential candidate is a onetime “true progressive” who compromised his initial leftward instincts under the pressure of his need to appeal to the conservative forces of money and media consultants. By In These Times writer Salim Muwakkil’s account in the summer of 2007, the earlier Obama was “an indelible progressive” whose “magic” went “missing” as a U.S. Senator. Muwakkil blamed “the cut-and-parse political calibrations employed by his by Obama’s campaign staff” for having “devalued enchantment and put a premium on marketing. His political masterminds have transformed Obama from a political visionary into an electoral product (with demographically designed components) just like every other presidential aspirant.” In Muwakkil’s view, Obama’s presidential campaign handlers were excising and “squandering” the “magic ingredient” in “Obama mania” – the fact that Obama was a longstanding “true progressive who would use his extraordinary time in the limelight to speak unpopular truths about U.S. foreign and domestic policy while unflinchingly reminded the nation of its racial obligations” .
There was some basis for this angle on Obama’s trajectory. As Ken Silverstein noted in late 2006:
“During his first year in the state senate—1997—he helped lead a laudable if quixotic crusade that would have amended the state constitution to define health care as a basic right and would have required the Illinois General Assembly to ensure that all the state’s citizens could get health insurance within five years. He led initiatives to aid the poor, including campaigns that resulted in an earned-income tax credit and the expansion of early-childhood- education programs. In 2001, reacting to a surge in home foreclosures in Chicago, he helped push for a measure that cracked down on predatory lenders that peddled high-interest, high-fee mortgages to lower-end homebuyers. Obama was also the driving force behind legislation, passed in 2003, that made Illinois the first state to require law-enforcement agencies to tape interrogations and confessions of murder suspects. Throughout his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Obama called for social justice, promised to “stand up to the powerful drug and insurance lobbies” that block health-care reform, and denounced the war in Iraq and the Bush White House.”
Reflecting back on this record and Obama’s move “toward the center” while and since running for the U.S. Senate, Obama’s biographer David Mendell wondered at how his “growing legion of followers” could ignore the contrast between the formerly "progressive" state legislator and the "new" Obama who announced his quest for the presidency in Springfield in February of 2007:
“For them, it didn’t seem to matter that since the aggressively liberal state lawmaker had gone to Washington he had taken a dramatic turn toward calculation and caution, or that he had yet to propose anything philosophically new, or that Obama was, in his own words, “a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views,” or that the higher he soared, the more this politician spoke in well-worn platitudes and the more he offered warm, feel-good sentiments lacking a precise framework. It also didn’t seem to matter that in his first two years….he avoided conflict at all costs, spending none of his heavily amassed political capital on even a single controversial issue he believed in” .
But what did Obama really “believe in” beyond, well, Obama, during his years in the Illinois State Assembly? Numerous accounts of Obama’s Springfield tenure have indicated a more hidden, at once calculating, conservative and accommodating side that was completely consistent and continuous with the post-Springfield evolution noted by Muwakkil and Mendell. According to Tribune reporters Pearson and Long, state senator Obama “tempered a progressive agenda with a cold dose of realism, often forging consensus with conservative Republicans when other liberals wanted to crusade...A review of his tenure [in Springfield],” Pearson and Long noted, “is a study in complexity, caution, and calculation” .
While catching “Hell” from black Chicago colleagues who accused him of being too conciliatory and careerist, he formed close friendships with three white colleagues – two of whom were Republicans – from the Chicago suburbs and “downstate.” Obama was more interested in having his name associated with resume-padding legislative victories than with attaining “progressive” victories. He sponsored a distinctly modest 1998 campaign finance “reform” bill. The legislation required electronic filing of campaign disclosure reports, prohibited the personal spending of campaign dollars by candidates and banned most gifts from lobbyists to legislators but set no limits on contributions from corporations or the exaggerated campaign spending of the state legislature’s four top party officers.
When the state “reformed” (slashed) its public family cash assistance system in accord with the right-wing national welfare “reform” introduced in 1996-97, Obama joined Republicans and conservative Democrats and opposed much of the black Illinois legislative delegation by supporting the imposition of work requirements on single mothers receiving family cash assistance.
He managed to be absent from the voting floor when a key handgun control bill came up in 1999 and he voted (in pursuit of the electoral endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police) with Republicans in 2004 to support a bill granting retired law enforcement officers to carry concealed weapons .
An avowed advocate of the state’s right to execute people in certain cases, he sold his bill requiring that all criminal interrogations be videotaped in the case of capital crimes to law enforcement and Republicans on the grounds that it would help fix the state’s "broken" death penalty system. Obama also supported the extension of the death penalty to certain types of capital offense – the killing of senior citizens and handicapped persons, for example.
And, again, he voted “present” instead of “no” on seven bills that rolled back abortion rights.
As for the universal insurance bill that Silverstein applauded the young Obama for championing in a supposed “quixotic crusade,” by May of 2004 Obama had played a pivotal role in certifying its demise. Working with Republicans and insurance corporation lobbyists who extolled him for honoring their interests, he succeeded in watering down the state’s “Health Care Justice Act” to mean little more than the setting up of a panel to research the supposedly mysterious question of how to provide universal coverage – a panel that gave the private insurance industry significant influence in how the issue would be approached. Under an amendment that Obama wrote, Boston Globe reporter Scot Helmman noted last September, “universal healthcare became merely a policy goal instead of state policy.” As Helman learned, “Lobbyists praised Obama for taking the insurance industry's concerns into consideration” as he crafted the legislation.” By the recollection of health care activist Jim Duffett, executive director of the Illinois, “in this situation, Obama was being a conduit from the insurance industry to us.”
According to Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki in the summer of 2007, Obama’s experience with the Health Care Justice “showed him that real change comes not by dividing but by bringing people together to get things done”.
“I’M OPPOSED TO DUMB WARS”
And then there’s the “antiwar” speech that Obama so famously delivered in downtown Chicago. The work of deconstructing Obama’s “fairy tale” (Bill Clinton) “antiwar” mystique begins with taking a closer look at his 2002 speech – an oration I heard live in Chicago’s downtown Daley Plaza. It was an impressive performance, given when he could afford to be more reckless and outwardly progressive – before he had been tapped to join the national power elite. Obama opposed what he called “the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.” He denounced “the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great
Obama’s 2002 speech was accurate and forthright about critical matters. It rightly predicted that invading Iraq would exacerbate Islamic anger and terrorist threats. It correctly observed the politically motivated nature and potentially high length and cost of the planned “war.” It struck an especially progressive chord when it related the Bush administration’s military ambitions to its desire to turn public attention away from pressing domestic problems like poverty and corporate corruption.
But Obama’s Daley Plaza oration, subsequently lodged into the screen doors of Iowa City progressives with peace symbols on their porch, was not an especially anti-war, much less anti-imperial speech. It certainly wasn’t a Left speech of the sort that people in the actual antiwar movement (including myself) were already making by the fall of 2002. Calling Bush’s imminent war “dumb” but not criminal or immoral, it deleted the highly illegal and richly petro-imperialist ambitions behind the Iraq invasion being planned in Washington. It said nothing about the racist nature of the administration’s determination to conflate Iraq with 9/11 and al Qaeda. It omitted the long and terrible record of imperial U.S. policy that had made 9/11 less than surprising to those (including Obama’s own pastor Jeremiah Wright [27) who paid elementary attention to America’s provocative global behavior and Middle East politics. Contrary to the Obama presidential campaign’s later effort to reinvent its candidate as an ally of the antiwar movement (a mailing I received from the Iowa Obama campaign actually told me that I could “join the movement to end the war” by supporting their candidate), his Chicago speech spoke against the planned invasion’s foreign impact in much the same terms as George Bush Senior’s former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and much of the rest of the American foreign policy establishment. It argued that invading Iraq would be a foreign policy mistake – something that would likely not work for United States status and power in the world. It did not mention that the unprovoked occupation being worked up by the White House and Pentagon would be a brazenly illegal and imperial transgression certain to kill untold masses of innocent Iraqis. The leading reasons Obama gave not to invade Iraq – economic cost, uncertain outcomes, risks of regional destabilization, etc. (but not immorality, criminality, and the likelihood that many Iraqis would die) – were widely voiced concerns expressed by many top and conservative foreign policy thinkers .
“HE HAD BIGGER PLANS”
Obama began “muting” his antiwar voice well before election to the U.S. Senate. In 2003, the year the criminal invasion was undertaken, Obama removed his Daley Plaza speech from his Web site. Even that speech’s relatively tepid (compared to those of antiwar activists) objections to the occupation being planned were seen by him and his handlers as too radical for public consumption as he prepared to make his run for the United States Senate. And while Obama may have spoken at a relatively small and elite antiwar rally in the fall of 2002, he was nowhere to be found during the great mass marches (in which I participated) of many thousands against the actual ordering and beginning of the invasion that took place in downtown Chicago on the nights of March 19 and March 20, 2008. By this time, Obama was pursuing Fitzgerald’s soon-to-be open seat in the U.S. Senate – a national office with a statewide voting base. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and the false pretexts on which it was sold might have been widely rejected in the black community from the beginning. But opinion was different and more trusting of the Bush administration in the majority white electorate Obama would have to win support from if he wanted to win a statewide race, an open ambition of his from the beginning of his time in the Illinois legislature .
According to Carl Davidson, a former anti-Vietnam War activist who clams to have helped organize the Daley Plaza rally (put together largely by the wealthy heiress and leading Chicago Democratic activist and “lakefront liberal” Bettylu Saltzman), Obama began stepping back from his “antiwar” positions after the actual invasion of Iraq: “he turned…now we had to set aside whether it was right or wrong to invade, now we had to find the ‘smart’ path to victory, not Bush’s ‘dumb’ path….He wasn’t listening to us much anymore, but to folks much higher up in the DLC orbit. He had bigger plans” .
State senator Obama’s heralded Democratic Party Convention Keynote Address of late July 2004 (more than three months prior to his election to the U.S. Senate) steered well clear of any substantive criticism of the invasion and the fraudulent basis on which it was sold and authorized by Democratic legislators. Its main criticism of Bush’s criminal invasion was that the White House had gone to “war” without “enough troops to win.” It was all very consistent with the John F. Kerry presidential campaign, which advanced a strongly militarist message and ran on the notion that its standard-bearer would be a more competent and effective administrator of the Iraq occupation than George W. Bush. Kerry was going to conduct the illegal policy in a more efficient way .
But Obama’s most telling Iraq war comments during the 2004 convention did not occur during his famous keynote address. One day before he gave his historic speech, Obama told the New York Times that he did not know how he would have voted on the 2002 Iraq war resolution had he been serving in the United States Senate at the time of the vote. Here is the relevant Times passage: “In a recent interview, [Obama] declined to criticize Senators Kerry and Edwards for voting to authorize the war, although he said he would not have done the same based on the information he had at the time.' But, I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports,' Mr. Obama said. 'What would I have done? I don’t know.’ What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made'" .
Obama said something just as telling during the convention to Chicago Tribune reporters Jeff Zeleny and David Mendell. “There’s not that much difference between my position [on Iraq] and George Bush’s position at this stage,” he told the journalists “The difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute.” Zeleny and Mendell added that Obama “now believes U.S. forces must remain to stabilize the war-ravaged nation – a position not dissimilar to the current approach of the Bush administration” .
A PRE-SPRINGFIELD “PENCHANT FOR PRAGMATISM”
By numerous accounts, Obama brought a taste for compromise, “watering down,” and working with conservatives to achieve concrete, resume-building victories with him to the Illinois legislature. Longtime Springfield lobbyist Paul L. Williams told New York Times reporter Janny Scott that “Obama came [to the Illinois legislature] with a huge dose of practicality,” based on the notion that: “OK, that makes sense and sounds great, as I’d like get to the moon but right now I’ve only got enough gas to go this far”. His “penchant” for personally ambitious “pragmatism”  and accommodation was evident at Harvard Law, where he utilized his willingness to give editorial power to arch-conservative members of the Republican Federalist Society to win election to the highly prestigious position of president of that school’s law review. Black students at Harvard Law were especially frustrated by Obama’s reluctance to join them in criticizing the institution’s discriminatory racial practices .
Before Harvard, Obama’s experience as a community organizer taught him that concrete victories were only gained only by playing the game of power in the “world as it is” and not by advocating “pie in the sky” ideals reflecting “the world as we would like it to be” . It was a profoundly unsentimental lesson for him, richly continuous with his later decision to say nothing about rampant corruption in the Richard M. Daley machine and the Illinois legislature – a silence that has hardly prevented him from lecturing Kenya and other African nations on the need to clean up their politics.
ADOLPH REED, JR.’S TAKE IN 1996: “A SMOOTH HARVARD LAWYER WITH VACUOUS TO REPRESSIVE NEOLIBERAL POLITICS”:
If the brilliant Left and black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr.. is to be believed, moreover, Obama’s early and longstanding taste for compromise and accommodation was rooted also in more than practical experience. It also reflected a process of ideological indoctrination. Alternately praised (by moderates) as “pragmatism” and reviled (by left progressives and radicals) as “cooptation,” it was a habit of thought that flowed naturally from his elite socialization in the high corporate-neoliberal post-Civil Rights era at privileged corporate- and Empire-friendly institutions like Columbia, Harvard, and the various metropolitan foundations on whose boards he sat and in whose circles he moved (a rarely noted aspect of his biography) while he worked as a Chicago lawyer. This is how Reed described the 30-something Obama in 1996 in the Village Voice, published eight years before the world discovered the “Obama phenomenon” and before some Left commentators activists (the present writer included) began noting its distinct apparent corporate-neoliberal centrism:
“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. So far the black activist response hasn’t been up to the challenge. We have to do better” .
Insofar as state legislator Obama behaved in accord with Muwakkil and Silverstein’s image of him as a “true progressive,” it should be acknowledged that he gained his entrée to the world of electoral politics atop a heavily black and extremely liberal legislative district where majority opinion on issues certainly ran well to the progressive left of mainstream U.S. sentiment. Black-Americans are the leftmost section of the U.S. electorate  and there is therefore little risk involved in taking – or (perhaps more accurately in Obama’s case) seeming to take – a progressive position on issues in most predominantly black voting districts. Running and legislating to some extent as a nominal progressive in such a district would hardly be inconsistent with higher political ambitions hitched to a more conservative, “vacuous to repressive neoliberal” world view. After all, one has to show a capacity to win electoral contests in order to be taken seriously by the power brokers who control access to upper-level politic offices. When Obama felt his longer political viability for statewide and even national (presidential) races threatened, he behaved according to the principle of calculation, as with the seven abortion rights bills he failed to support. That’s why Obama was missing in (non-) action when the big Chicago marches took place against the real U.S. assault on Iraq.
“AN AWFUL LOT HAPPENS ON THE GOLF COURSE”
Intimately related to Obama’s ambitiousness, tempered statehouse progressivism, his predilection for accommodation, and even to his remarkable apparent luck was and is his special proclivity for staying close to those with the great hidden secret to political success in the U.S. – money. He developed an early reputation “for drawing sustained support from Chicago’s flourishing black-owned financial and investment firms,” many of whose leaders “found common ground in Obama’s Ivy League education, in social networks that crisscrossed the city and in an ethos that celebrated the accumulation of wealth – if,” the story went, “it was used to address the broad inequities faced by black Americans.” These pivotal early leading sponsors included Princeton graduate John Rogers (the fabulously wealthy CEO of Chicago’s Ariel Capital Management), Melody Hobson (Ariel president), and James Reynolds Jr. (co-founder of Loop Capital Markets).
While Obama’s early campaign capacities relied heavily on fundraising efforts with and by Chicago area black professionals and investors like, he moved into ever higher political finance circles as his career extended. He garnered $9,000 from investment advisor Barbara Bowels and $24,000 (for his U.S. Senate campaign) from Chicago Stock Exchange Chairman Andrew Davis and Davis’ wife. Lucy Minor, the wife of Robinson Steel Co. chairman Edward Minor, told Chicago Tribune reporters David Jackson and John McCormick that she invited Obama for a “private visit over sodas” and “signed on the dotted line” with the large contribution. He also received significant start-up dollars from his close friend and patron Tony Rezko, a leading real estate developer and political financier whose later travails with corruption and racketeering charges would be a major embarrassment to Obama .
And he worked closely with and took money from lobbyists and political action committees (PACs), key political players he would later join John Edwards in denouncing Hillary Clinton for associating with. As Tribune reporters Pearson and Long noted, state senator Obama was a regular at “The Committee Meeting” – a Wednesday night poker game attended by “about a dozen lawmakers and lobbyists.” The game was held inside the Springfield headquarters of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, the state’s leading business lobby . At the same time, state senator Obama “studiously took up golf,” the well-known game of choice for businessmen and lobbyists, reporting to his friend and former foundation executive Jean Rudd that “an awful lot happens on the golf
In Obama’s eight years in the Illinois Senate, Boston Globe reporter Scott Helman found, nearly two-thirds of the money he raised - $296,000 of $461,000 – came from Political Action Committees, corporations, and unions. Obama also “tapped financial services, real estate developers, health care providers, and many other corporate interests.” His 2004 Senate campaign received $128,000 from registered lobbyists and $1.3 million from PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics .
Did it matter? By Helman’s account, the story of the diluted Health Care Justice Act showed “how Obama's own experience in lawmaking involved dealings with the kinds of lobbyists and special interests he now demonizes on the campaign trail. Obama's willingness to hear out insurers and their lobbyists is revealing given the posture he strikes today on the presidential campaign trail - that lobbyists, insurance companies, and other big-industry special interests have an outsized and polluting influence on policy-making in Washington.” "At the end of the day," Kim Maisch, Illinois state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, told Helman, "he realized that if he wanted to pass something, you have to work" with lobbyists.
According to Chicago Tribune reporters Jackson and McCormick, moreover, Obama “advocated” in Springfield for the “network of politically active African-American money managers” he “built” in the late 1990s. He responded to the needs of some his key funders when he sat on the seven-member Illinois Senate Select committee on Public Pension Investments. The committee recommended ways to direct more state pension funds to minority-owned financial firms, including two black-owned firms that together gave Obama $16,000 during the three month time he sat on that panel .
A recent Boston Globe report shows that state legislator and early U.S. Senator Obama acted to reward Chicago area real estate (under-) developers like the currently imprisoned Tony Rezko and current Obama for President advisor Valerie Jarret. These and other leading “development” players combined to provide critical financial patronage for Obama’s early career. In return, Obama consistently supported their deceptive, self-interested efforts to advance “affordable” and “mixed income” dwellings as a solution to the inner city housing crisis .
AN EARLIER, “QUIETER AUDITION” WITH THE MONEYED ELITE
Speaking of big money and its role in the making of the Obama phenomenon, this is a good place to note that the Obama campaign’s biographical narrative about the 2004 keynote address (which formally launched the Obama phenomenon four years ago this week) is deceptive in two critical ways. In his bestselling, partly autobiographical, and deeply conservative  campaign book “The Audacity of Hope” (2006), Obama claims to remember it is as a complete surprise when John Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill called Obama and invited him to deliver the 2004 Keynote Address. “The process by which I was selected as the keynote speaker remains something of a mystery to me,” he wrote. But “this,” Washington Post writer Liza Mundy has noted, “seems disingenuous,” since the Obama campaign had been told in advance that he was likely to get it and because Obama’s campaign media manager David Axelrod had been lobbying directly for the assignment .
The biggest problem with the Obama campaign keynote speech narrative is the way it deletes what we might call the ruling-class try-out that he received prior to his nationally broadcast introduction to the country and the world at the Fleet Center in Boston. As Ken Silverstein noted in an important Harper’s article titled “Obama, Inc.,” “If the speech was his debut to the wider American public, he had already undergone an equally successful but much quieter audition with Democratic Party leaders and fund-raisers, without whose support he would surely never have been chosen for such a prominent role at the convention.”
The corporate-financial-legal vetting of Obama on a national scale, with an emphasis on the critical money-politics nexus of Washington DC, began in October of 2003. That’s “when Vernon Jordan, the well-known power broker and corporate board-member who chaired Bill Clinton’s presidential transition team after the 1992 election, placed calls to roughly twenty of his friends and invited them to a fund-raiser at his home. That event,” Silverstein noted, “marked [Obama’s] entry into a well-established Washington ritual—the gauntlet of fund-raising parties and meet-and-greets through which potential stars are vetted by fixers, donors, and lobbyists.” Drawing on his undoubted charm, wit, intelligence, and, of no small significance at the level of the political elite, his shining Harvard credentials, Obama passed this prior and hidden trial – a preliminary primary of wealth and power – with shining colors. At a series of social meetings and at least conference with assorted “players” from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, Obama impressed such key national political class members as Gregory Craig (a longtime leading attorney and former special counsel to the White House), Mike Williams (the legislative director of the Bond Market Association), Tom Quinn (a partner at the leading corporate law firm Venable who one of “the leading lobbyists in town” and a leading Democratic Party “power broker”), and Robert Harmala (another Venable partner and “also a big player in Democratic circles”). Reflecting standard conservative white and business class sentiments, Craig liked the fact that Obama was not seen as a “polarizer” on the model of past African-American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Williams was impressed by Obama’s reassurances that he was not “anti-business” and became “convinced…that the two could work together.” “He’s a straight shooter,” Williams told Silverstein. “As a lobbyist, that’s something you value. You don’t need a yes every time, but you want to be able to count the votes. That’s what we do.”
“There’s a reasonableness about him,” Harmala told Silverstein. “I don’t see him as being on the liberal fringe.”
By Silverstein’s account, the “word about Obama spread through Washington’s blue-chip law firms, lobby shops, and political offices, and this accelerated after his win in the March primary.” Contributions came into the Obama campaign at an accelerating pace. The “good news” for the political class was that Obama’s “star quality” would not be directed against or against the corporate and financial elite in any significant way and that Obama was in fact someone the wealthy Few could work with .
According to David Mendell, who would become Obama’s Chicago Tribune shadow, the good feelings and money from the nation’s political elite continued into the spring of 2004, reinforced by his victory over his white opponents in the race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate:
“Word of Obama’s rising star was now spreading beyond Illinois, especially through influential Washington political circles like blue chip law firms, party insiders, lobbying houses. They were all hearing about this rare, exciting, charismatic, up-and-coming African American who unbelievably could win votes across color lines... David Axelrod, Jim Cauley and Obama’s influential Chicago supporters and fund-raisers all vigorously worked their D.C. contacts to help Obama make the rounds with the Democrats’ set of power brokers...Obama spent a couple of days and nights shaking hands making small talk and delivering speeches to liberal groups, national union leaders, lobbyists, fund-raisers and well-heeled money donors. In setting after setting, Obama’s Harvard Law resume and his reasonable tone impressed the elite crowd. ‘Barack was nervous a couple times, but he wowed them,’ Cauley said. Obama gained the attention of liberal billionaire George Soros, who hosted a fund-raiser for him in New York. Senator Hillary Clinton opened her home in Washington to him.”
“Reasonable tone” was code language with a useful translation for Obama’s new elite business class backers: “friendly to capitalism and its opulent masters.” As Mendell notes, Obama cultivated the support of the privileged Few by “advocate[ing] fiscal restraint” and “calling for pay-as-you-go government” and “extol[ing] the merits of free trade and charter schools.” He “moved beyond being an obscure good-government reformer to being a candidate more than palatable to the moneyed and political establishment”.
“IT’S THE OTHER WAY”: A CENTRIST POSING AS A PROGRESSIVE
Obama’s observers and chroniclers can theorize all they want about when Obama “lurched to the right” or even supposedly shifted from “the left” to “the center.” I’m agree with the assessment offered by Dr. Reed now  and eleven years ago : Obama was center-neoliberal and elitist from the start. There is no core moral, ideological, or philosophical discontinuity between statehouse Obama and presidential candidate Obama. Behind the deeper continuity lay the consistent constants, noted by numerous of Obama’s chroniclers and cohorts, of remarkable personal ambition and related “eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions.”
The folks who tell us that Obama is a “true progressive” posing as a centrist and waiting to jump out of a left closet in the White House have got it completely backwards. To quote the ruthless drug dealer Marlo Stanfield from Obama’s favorite television show “The Wire.” they “want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.” Obama is and has long been a dedicated centrist posing to progressive voters and activists as one of them.
The sham continues at elite levels, even as some of Obama’s false rebel’s clothes are being stripped for the general election to expose his corporate-imperial nakedness to a growing share of an increasingly disillusioned progressive base. Even after finishing a useful investigation of Obama’s early “eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions,” Ryan Lizza childishly (or perhaps cynically) refers to Obama as “ideologically a man of the left”.
This is a revealing statement of how dangerously narrow and right-leaning the dominant U.S. political order’s spectrum of acceptable debate and discourse is at this stage in the evolution of corporate-managed “democracy”  – a topic for another time and place. Still, it’s an old con and confusion in “American democracy, the best that money can [and did] buy.” For all his claims to represent novel post-ideological transcendence of the “old politics,” Obama is no special exception to – and is in many ways an epitome of – what Christopher Hitchens called (in his 1999 study of the Bill and Hillary Clinton phenomenon) “the essence of American politics. This essence, when distilled,” Hitchens explained, “consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism”. Relying heavily on candidates’ repeated promise to restore “hope” to a populace disillusioned by corporate control, corruption, and inequality – a standard claim of non-incumbent Democratic presidential candidates – this dark essence of United States political culture goes back further than the corporate-neoliberal era into which Obama came of political age. It is arguably as old the Republic itself, always torn by the rift between democratic promise and authoritarian realities of concentrated wealth and power .
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Veteran left historian and activist Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Empire and Inequality (2004) and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007). His next book is “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics” (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, August 2008 advance order at
1. Paul Krugman, “The Obama Agenda,” New York Times, June 30, 2008. p. A23.
2. Paul Krugman, “Mandates and Mudslinging,” New York Times, November 30, 2007.
3. Barack Obama, “A Way Forward in Iraq,” Speech to Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Chicago Illinois (November 20, 2006), available online at http://obama.senate.gov/speech/061120-a_way_forward _in_iraq/index.html;
; Barack Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2007), read online at http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20070701faessay86401/barack-obama/renewing-american-leadership.html; Barack Obama, “Moving Forward in Iraq,” Speech to Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, November 22, 2005, read at http://obama.senate.gov/speech/051122-moving_forward/; Lance Selfa, “The New Face of U.S. Politics,” International Socialist Review (March-April 2007); Stephen Zunes, “Barack Obama on the Middle East,” Foreign Policy in Focus (January 10 2008), read at http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/4886; Juan Gonzales, Amy Goodman, and Jeremy Scahill. “Jeremy Scahill: Despite Antiwar Rhetoric, Clinton-Obama Plans Would Keep US Mercenaries, Troops in Iraq for Years to Come,” Democracy Now (February 28, 2008) read text version at www.democracynow.org/2008/2/28/jeremy_scahill_despite_anti_war_rhetoric; Jeremy Scahill, “Obama’s Mercenary Position,” The Nation (March 16, 2008); Paul Street, “The Audacity of Deception: Barack Obama and the Manufacture of Progressive Illusion,” Black Agenda Report (December 12, 2007), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=463&Itemid=1.
4. David Moberg, “Obamanomics,” In These Times (April 2008); Max Fraser, “Subprime Obama,” The Nation (February 11, 2008); Doug Henwood, “Would You like Change With That?” Left Business Observor, No. 117 (March 2008); Paul Street, “Obama’s ‘Shift to the Center’ and the Narrow Authoritarian Spectrum in U.S. Politics,” ZNet Magazine (July 1, 2008), read at www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/18052; Susan Davis, “Obama Tilts Toward Center,” Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2008; Michael Powell, “For Obama, a Pragmatist’s Shift Toward the Center,” New York Times, June 27, 2008; Janet Hook, “Obama Moving Toward Center: Democrat Edging Away From Left on Some Issues in Effort to Woo Independent Voters,” Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2008.
5. Barack Obama, "Renewing American Leadership," Foreign Affairs (July/August 2007), read online at http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20070701faessay86401/barack-obama/renewing-american-leadership.html; Paul Street, “Running Dog Obama,” ZNet (July 29, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/14853.
6. For unpleasant details and sources, see my following articles: “Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power,” ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11936; “Imperial Temptations: John Edwards, Barack Obama, and the Myth of Post-World War II United States Benevolence,” ZNet Magazine (May 28, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12928; ‘Angry John’ Edwards v. KumbayObama,” SleptOn Magazine (December 28, 2007), read at www.slepton.com/slepton/viewcontent.pl?id=1234–; “Obama Speaks: ‘Oh Great White Masters, you Just Haven’t Been Asked to Help America,’” Black Agenda Report (December 19, 2008); “The Audacity of Imperial Airbrushing and Why It Matters,” Black Agenda Report (July 9, 2008), read at www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?ption=com_content&task=view&id=695&Itemid=1
7. John B. Judis, “American Adam: Obama and the Cult of the New,” The New Republic (March 12, 2008).
8. For useful accounts, see Janny Scott, “In 2000, a Streetwise Veteran Schooled a Bold Young Obama,” New York Times, 9 September, 2007, pp. A1, A20; Liza Mundy, “A Series of Fortunate Events: Barack Obama Needed More Than Talent and Ambition to Rocket From Obscure State Senator to Presidential Contender in Three Years,” Washington Post Magazine (August 12, 2007); Janny Scott, “At State Level, Obama Proved to Be Pragmatic and Practical,” New York Times, 30 July 2007, p. A1; Rick Pearson and Ray Long, “Careful Steps, Looking Ahead,” Chicago Tribune, 3 May 2007; David Mendell, OBAMA: From Promise to Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007); Scott Helman, “In Illinois, Obama Dealt with Lobbyists,” Boston Globe, 23 September 2007; Bob Secter and John McCormick, “Portrait of a Pragmatist,” Chicago Tribune, 30 March, 2007; David Jackson and John McCormick, “Building Obama’s Money Machine,” Chicago Tribune, 13 April 2007.
9. Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, July 21, 2008.
10. Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007
11. Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).
12. Mundy, “A Series of Fortunate Events.”
13. Mundy, “A Series of fortunate Events.”
14. Janny Scott, “A Streetwise Veteran;” Pearson and Long, “Careful Steps, Looking Ahead;” Janny Scott, “At State Level;” p. A1.
15. Scott, “At State Level, Obama Proved to Be Pragmatic and Practical.”
16. Pearson and Long, “Careful Steps, Looking Ahead.”
17. Quoted in Lizza, “Making It.”
18. Pearson and Long, “Careful Steps, Looking Ahead;” David Jackson and Ray Long, “Obama Knows His Way Around a Ballot,” Chicago Tribune, 3 April, 2007.
19. Scott, “At State Level.”
20. Pearson and Long, “Careful Steps, Looking Ahead.”
21. Salim Muwakkil, “The Squandering of Obama,” In These Times, August 14, 2007.
22. Mendell, OBAMA, pp. 249-51, quoted phrase on p. 250.
23. Pearson and Long, “Careful Steps, Looking Ahead.”
24. Mendell, OBAMA, p. 250-51.
25. Scott Helman, “In Illinois, Obama Dealt with Lobbyists,” Boston Globe, 23 September 2007.
26. Barack Obama,“Against Going to War With Iraq,” speech delivered in Chicago, Illinois, October 2, 2002, read online at www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/02/28/7343/.
27. Jodi Kantor, “A Candidate, His Minister and the Search for Faith,” New York Times, 30 April 2007, p. A1. On U.S. foreign policy as context for terror attacks on U.S., see Johnson, Blowback.
28. Carl Kaysen et al., War With Iraq: Costs, Consequences, and Alternatives (Cambridge, MA: The Committee on International Security Studies of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, December 2002); Paul Street, Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), pp. 57-63.
29. Pearson and Long, “Careful Steps.”
30. Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama.”
31. Davidson is quoted in Adam Turl, “Is Obama Different?” Socialist Worker Online (February 2, 2007). Davidson’s comment should not be taken to mean that Obama ever questioned whether the Iraq invasion was morally and/or legally “wrong.” Obama has never publicly questioned the invasion in moral or legal terms. Davidson has nonetheless spent hours (as part as his role as a leader of "Progressives for Obama") opposing my Left critique of Obamaism in the readers’ comments section of ZNet this year.
32. Paul Street, “Kerry is Coke, Bush is Crack,” ZNet Magazine (March 24, 2004), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=33&ItemID=5204.
33. New York Times, 26 July, 2004.
34. Chicago Tribune, 24 July, 2004.
35. Janny Scott, “At State Level, Obama Proved to Be Pragmatic and Practical,” New York Times, 30 July 2007, p. A1.
36. Bob Secter and John McCormick, “Portrait of a Pragmatist,” Chicago Tribune, 30 March, 2007.
37. Joe Klein, “The Fresh Face,” Time (October 17, 2006).
38. Ryan Lizza, “The Agitator: The Unlikely Political Education of Barack Obama,” The New Republic (March 19, 2007).
39. 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).
40. See Michael C. Dawson, Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African-American Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).
41. David Jackson and John McCormick, “Building Obama’s Money Machine,” Chicago Tribune, 13 April 2007.
42. Pearson andLong, “Careful Steps, Looking Ahead.”
43. Janny Scott, “At the State Level, Obama Proved to Pragmatic and Practical,” New York Times, 30 July 2007, p. A1.
44. Scott Helman, “PACs and Lobbyists Aided Obama’s Rise,” Boston Globe, 9 August 2007.
45. Jackson and McCormick, “Building Obama’s Money Machine.”
46. Binyamin Appelbaum, “Grim Proving Ground for Obama’s Housing Policy,” Boston Globe, June 27, 2008.
47. For an extensive critical review, see Street, “Audacious Deference to Power.”
48. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown, 2006); Mundy, “A Series of Fortunate Events.”
49. Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006).
50. Mendell, OBAMA, pp. 248-249.
51. Adolph Reed, Jr., “Obama No,” The Progressive (May 2008).
52. Reed, “The Curse of Community.”
53. Lizza, “Making It.”
54. See the haunting and brilliant reflections of Sheldon Wolin in his latest book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).
55. Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000), pp. 17-18. Also less than novel is the Obama campaign’s exploitation and occasional pure embodiment of what might be considered a second great dark “essence of American politics”: the tendency of candidates, party managers, public relations handlers, and media authorities to treat citizens as mere spectators by focusing elections on often trivial questions of candidate character and qualities over substantive matters and issues of policy, power, and ideology.
56. Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition (New York, 1948), pp. 3-56; Herbert Aptheker, The American Revolution, 1763-1783 (New York: International, 1960); Jennifer Nedelsky, Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); Paul Street, “By All Means, Study the Founders: Notes from the Democratic Left,” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies Volume 24, Number 4 (October-December 2003): 281-303.