The Obama Phenomenon: An Interview with Paul Street by Adam Burke and Little Village*
Adam Burke: Iowa City author Paul Street’s latest book “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics” (Paradigm: September 2008), is a critical report on the phenomenal rise of the junior senator from Illinois. Street is a historian and former Chicagoan who previously worked as the research director of the Chicago Urban League. Obama fanatics will read this book t their devotional peril, but this is no slimy hatchet-job like Jerome Corsi’s “The Obama Nation.” Street’s book is thoroughly researched and contains acute analysis of the political games people play. He examines the money horse that all politicians must ride and gives pitch-perfect analysis of race and U.S. politics in a chapter titled “How ‘Black’ is Obama?” Street also looks at the “anti-war” candidate and the conditions of Obama’s rise to the top of national politics. He answered our questions by e-mail.
* Little Village is an independent News and Culture Magazine in Iowa City, Iowa. A shorter version of this interview (below)appeared in the October 2008 issue of Little Village (LV), which can be read online at www.littlevillagemag.com
Burke/LV: Your new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (September 2008) is heavily researched and footnoted; you quote from a wide range of sources; and you've been a critic of Obama since his 2004 DNC keynote address What drew you to this subject?
Street: I figured Obama was a leading future presidential candidate after the Keynote Address – a very conservative speech. Once Kerry lost I considered that Obama would be irresistible for 2008 to certain sections of the power elite and much of the desperate electorate. Along with telegenic charisma and speechmaking ability, I thought his half-black identity, his novelty, his overnight celebrity, his Chicago and Wall Street connections, and the perception (false, as I show in my book’s fourth chapter) that he was an “antiwar” candidate would put him over the top in the primaries.
I’d done a lot of writing over the years on racial politics. I’m from Chicago, where I was the research director at a (post-) “civil rights agency” (the Chicago Urban League) when Obama emerged. I knew a fair bit about the candidate and the local and state political culture that shaped him. Now here I was in Iowa with a front-row seat on the presidential primary.
So I was well-positioned to write about something that was going to be a major development in U.S. political and social history: the Obama phenomenon.
Burke/LV: Your preferred caucus candidate was Dennis Kucinich but some might accuse you of drinking Edwards Kool-Aid before the caucuses. Does every voter put blinders on and drink candidate Kool-Aid to some degree?
Street: I’m personally well to the left of Kucinich and not particularly enamored with U.S. electoral politics. 2008 was my first and last foray into candidate-centered electoralism. I wanted to see what it’s like from the inside and there’s nothing like Iowa for doing that.
I published pieces highly critical of Edwards prior to the Caucus (see P.Street, “Imperial Temptations: John Edwards, Barack Obama, and the Myth of Post-World War II United States Benevolence,” ZNet [May 28, 2007], read at www.zmag.org/ content/showarticle. cfm?ItemID=12928). Still, I agreed with Noam Chomsky that Edwards was probably “the least objectionable” of the “viable” contenders. Edwards ran a semi-progressive campaign that said more about labor rights and class inequality (and against “corporate Democrats”) than anything I’ve seen from a “mainstream” candidate. It wasn’t for nothing that Ralph Nader endorsed Edwards before the Iowa Caucus.
Candidate-centered politics is a big problem: you live and die by the candidate’s image and “qualities,” not by the issues that should matter most. We can all see what would have happened with an Edwards nomination
Burke/LV: Incremental reform vs revolution: Is Barack Obama an incrementalist? Is he an incremental reformer?
Street: Quite explicitly. He’s been careful, conservative, cautious and conciliatory from the word go. Larissa MacFarquahar and Ryan Lizza have written careful pieces that find this about Obama n The New Yorker (hardly a left magazine). Here’s a quote from Lizza last July: "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 replace them." That’s exactly right and is born out in my study.
Later in the same essay Lizza noted that Obama is "an incrementalist,” something MacFarquhar found last year. Her article was titled “The Conciliator.” It related Obama’s Harvard-bred sense that historical change only occurs “very slowly” and in small steps. MacFarquhar also talked about Obama’s belief that populist outrage against concentrated wealth and power is dangerous and dysfunctional – that it “doesn’t make sense.”
That’s an interesting belief on the part of an avowed “progressive” in a time when the top 1 percent of Americans owns 40 percent of U.S. wealth and 57 percent of all returns on wealth (interest, profits, dividends, etc.). But it fits very well with the fact that he has received more than $24 million from the finance, insurance, and real estate industries. Obama has floated to national prominence on a sea of Wall Street cash. He is much closer to the Goldman Sachs/Citigroup/Morgan Stanley crowd than John McCain.
That crowd does not write big checks for “anti-establishment revolutionaries.” It sees Obama as a safe and reliable “player” in the money-politics game – as someone they can trust not to rock the boat with “starry-eyed” ideas about social justice and economic equality. He has been living up to that trust during the current financial crisis and indeed throughout his political career.
Burke/LV: You describe yourself as a reformer AND a revolutionary. How do you negotiate those sometimes opposing perspectives?
Street: Reforms are necessary but insufficient. We either transcend the corporate-managed profits system or we descend ever further into barbarism, totalitarianism, and ecological ruin over the long haul.
Obama projects himself as the pragmatic, cool, calculated and reality-based “post-ideological” and “post-partisan” alternative to the wild-eyed “extremism” of both “the right” and “the left.” We on the left are utopian “cranks” and hot “zealots” in his world view. He wants to “get things done” beyond the madness of “ideology.”
But he’s bought into a reformist ideology which falsely thinks that “democracy” (falsely conflated with capitalism in the American doctrine he has absorbed)can be sustained, justice achieved, livable ecology saved, and peace guaranteed while we “accommodate [ourselves] to existing institutions.” Now that is utopian dreaming! He wants to “get things done” within a system that ceased to be anything but cancerous many decades ago. We have reached a point where revolutionary change beyond the profits system is more than just desirable. It is necessary for the survival of humanity in any sort of decent and desirably recognizable form. It’s fundamental political and institutional change in the direction of a classless society or “barbarism if we’re lucky” (Ivan Meszaros).
Still, we very much need reforms to improve immediate experience and to build towards truly transformative change. As Mike Albert says, the problem isn’t reform, it’s reformism.
Burke/LV: Many people will close their minds to the possibility that this candidate is not everything they imagine. How should people view a politician like Obama?
Street: They should liberate their minds from doctrinal fantasies to see him as just that – a politician, not some kind of transformative, quasi-millennial savior or other such nonsense. This guy has wanted to be president since a young are. He came up through the world of Chicago and Illinois politics. The facile Dr. Martin Luther King analogies should stop.
I think they have stopped to some extent, thanks to his shifts further right after he got the nomination. His vote for the wiretapping (FISA) bill with retroactive immunity for the big telcom corps was a wake-up call (no pun intended) for some progressives.
Here are some other wake-up calls: Obama saying (to CNN’s Candy Crowley last July) that the U.S. has done nothing it should apologize for in terms of foreign policy in the last 8 years; his recent comment (to Bill O’Reilly on FOX News) that “the Surge” has “succeeded beyond our wildest imaginations” in Iraq; his recurrent claim (repeated in a 2-minute “economy video” he sent out a couple of weeks ago) that the U.S. is “spending billions each month putting Iraq back together” (he says we should “stop” doing that) – an interesting take on the mass-murderous Holocaust we have criminally imposed on Mesopotamia. My book includes a number of shockingly reactionary comments like these from Obama – “Barack Obama in his own words,” to quote one of his recent mailings.
This doesn’t mean don’t vote for him if you live in a contested state (John McCain is very possibly worse than George W. Bush. It just means “buyer beware” and get ready to fight and protest, guilt-free, if brand Obama makes it into the White House.
Burke/LV: Iowa City's first African-American mayor Ross Wilburn was an early Obama supporter and, like Obama, a community organizer. I once heard Wilburn talk about how people in Iowa City tended to make assumptions about him based on his skin color, specifically there was a false perception that he was an extreme leftist progressive.
Street: Mr. Wilburn was on to something there. Voters tend to assume a black candidate is more progressive than a white candidate even when there are no real policy differences between them. I saw this in Iowa, where a lot of liberal white voters could not process the fact that Edwards was running to Obama’s left. Obama ran to Hillary’s right on domestic policy (especially on health care but also on housing) and had few meaningful differences with her on foreign policy. Still, liberal voters tended to assume that he was left of her. This was about skin color to no small extent, though it was also about age, name, novelty, and his claim (totally false) to be “antiwar.”
This country very much needs what mainstream politicians like Wilburn disparagingly call “extreme left progressivism” – what a lot of us on the Left would call true progressivism.
Burke/LV: Do you feel Obama has become a vessel for people to pour their own ideologies into, and if so, how has he done this?
Street: Oh sure. It’s what presidential candidates do in a “winner-take-all” system that leaves no room for the full diversity of the real American ideological spectrum, where most people are actually to the left (on basic policy issues) of both of the dominant political parties and of the business sector that tends to control the action behind the scenes.
McCain is doing much of the same thing, trying to get people of diverse orientations to see him as some sort of people’s “maverick.” He’s no such thing, of course.
The campaigns do it with the latest and best methods of market research, advertising, micro-targeting, and image-building. They advertise their candidate as a “man for all seasons.”
It’s nothing new. American presidential politics has involved mass-marketed candidate imagery and cross-ideological voter-cooptation since at least the 1830s. Astute commentators since the Progressive Age have noted that campaigns market U.S. candidates like they sell cars, candy, and toothpaste.
The Republicans recently rolled out their new faux-populist McCain-Palin brand, combining underlying corporate and religious fundamentalism with messianic militarism and false claims to represent ordinary working people versus the special interests. It’s total nonsense. 2+2=5. Love is Hate.
Burke/LV: How realistic is it to think that people will view Obama critically, objectively, and without bias?
Street: Not very realistic BEFORE the election, but you could take that statement and pretty much fill in the blank where you wrote “Obama.” Ditto for “9/11,” “the Iraq War,” “the OJ trial[s],” and “Cubs versus [White] Sox.” People get very strongly identified with their presidential candidates.
If Obama gets into the White House, some of his supporters will see him instantly betraying his more idealistic, populist- and peaceful-sounding campaign promises in the real world of policy. Their chances of being able to demystify Obama will increase. When the rubber of inspiring campaign rhetoric hits the ugly corporate-imperial road of governance, the expectations Obama has channeled and raised could merge with the civic engagement he has excited to provoke some promising popular response.
Burke/LV: How did you decide that Obama's best-selling book, "Audacity of Hope," was "clearly written for members of the U.S. educational and occupational elite"? (page 40)
Street: It’s a fairly highbrow, at least partially professorial book. I’m not saying no working-class people read it, but the main audience is clear. The content is fairly conservative, full of reassurances that he will not disturb dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines. “Progressive” pretensions aside, the educational and occupational elite has little interest in disturbing dominant hierarchies and doctrines. Here’s one of my very favorite passages in “The Audacity of Hope:”
“Calvin Coolidge once said that “the chief business of the American people is business,” and indeed, it would be hard to find a country on earth that’s been more consistently hospitable to the logic of the marketplace…..”
“The result of this business culture has been a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history. It takes a trip overseas to fully appreciate just how good Americans have it; even our poor take for granted goods and services – electricity, clean water, indoor plumbing, telephones, televisions, and household appliances – that are still unattainable for most of the world. America may have been blessed with some of the planet’s best real estate, but clearly it’s not just our natural resources that account for our economic success. Our greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources…our free market system.”
Oh-kay, Senator Obama: that analysis is not looking so good these days. I have a lot of fun with that quote in my book.
Burke/LV: Your book is a broadside against the cult of the presidency. How is "presidentialism" dangerous to the U.S.? How do we escape/transcend the Kool-Aid cult of the presidency?
Street: I don’t really do the imperial presidency. And I think the presidency matters a lot. My main issue is our quadrennial corporate-crafted and candidate-centered presidential election extravanganza. In writing this book I drew inspiration from something Noam Chomsky wrote on the eve of the 2004 elections. “The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria,” Chomsky argued, “hardly represents healthy democratic impulses. Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. 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.”
“In the election,” Chomsky argued, “sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive political culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas...The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in a progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that they can’t be ignored by centers of power.”
Here we are on the eve of another quadrennial personality-centered, mass-marketed election spectacle and again we have two candidates representing establishment parties both of which stand to the right of majority opinion. Neither of the candidates or parties is in the ballpark when it comes to meeting real human needs at home and abroad. One of them (McCain) to too much of a vicious bastard not to block if you live on a contested state, but the deeper point remains.
Burke/LV: Your book is both an indictment of Obama's neoliberal centrism and is a critique of the national corporate-managed political system. “Our” system is sick and it may be that Obama's words of change and hope are just that- words. How does a voter stay engaged without becoming cynical, overwhelmed or discouraged?
Street: Keep a healthy distinction between the “quadrennial extravaganza” and the “main task” that Chomsky talked about. The last chapter of my book is titled “Beyond the Narrow Spectrum” and it includes a ten-point plan for “what is to be done” by left progressives in the immediate sense in regard to the Obama phenomenon. The Afterword of my book is titled “Imagining a Progressive Future” and it includes a 9-point outline of an imagined “Real ‘Change’ Presidency.” Words matter. And the solutions to contemporary problems are not exactly rocket science or string theory.
Burke/LV: Many will put your book on the same shelf as Jerome Corsi's hatchet job, "Obama Nation." How do you explain the difference to those who won't read either book?
Street: That would be like putting a fresh cup of fine, expertly brewed dark-roast coffee in a fine ceramic mug next to a day-old cup of gas- station decaf in a Styrofoam cup. My publisher Dean Birkenkamp wanted more than a quick hit job – he wanted a respectable study that would situate the Obama phenomenon within American political history and hold value beyond the current election cycle. I think I did that here. And in the process of doing that, I expose Corsi’s core claim – that Obama is some sort of “radical left” opponent of “American” values and institutions – as a shamelessly ludicrous neo-McCarthyite fantasy.
Burke/LV: A local independent bookstore here in Iowa City is selling your book, but won't host an author event until after the general election to avoid buyer backlash. Does this say more about the economic state of independent bookstores or the psychological state of Obama-mania in a Midwest university town?
Street: Well, the people in charge of that decision are smart, nice, and progressive people (NOT Obamaists in the Caucus, I might add...left of that) and I am very happy they are selling the book! I am not entitled to an event and have no history as a bestselling author.
Thanks to chain store (Borders and Barnes & Noble) competition and of course Amazon.com, a lot of independent book stores struggle from one financial quarter to the next. That plus the fact that the Iowa City store’s key market – white liberal middle-class university types (including but hardly limited to professors) – has tended to fall excessively into love with Obama means that it probably makes market-sense for them to avoid highlighting an author who is giving a detailed left critique of the Obama phenomenon prior to the election. They don’t want to look like “spoilers.”
Beyond local bookstores, the thing that’s painful but interesting to watch is the stark disparity in market-reach between what a good left author (if I might describe myself that way) and a horrific right-wing author like Corsi can attain. The Republicans have no problem enlisting and setting up hard-right authors to do noxious volumes that make the rounds of the corporate media and end up on the bestseller lists. Not only Corsi's "The Obama Nation" but also now a second and equally idiotic rightist book ("The Case Against Barack Obama") is now a “bestseller.” I’ve seen Corsi on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and fifteen other places. He’s a total imbecile. Meanwhile my careful left Obama study “scares” local progressives (never mind that the book counsels people to vote for Obama in contested states like Iowa)and is questionable whether I will be able to speak about the book or get reviewed in liberal and left media.
I should add that part of how disgusting books like Corsi’s shoot to the top is that publishers like Regnery (who did Corsi’s 2004 Swift Boat book) get hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of purchases from “conservative” (radically reactionary) organizations (the Heritage and Olin foundations and the like). The left has no equivalent sugar-daddies, to say the least.
Burke/LV: Many people think, and it has been repeated in press coverage, that Obama is a better pick in dealing with the financial crisis. Is this a fair assumption?
Street: McCain is a dangerously vile and stupid human being – on economics and everything else. Obama and the economic policy people around him, above all former Treasury Secretary and Goldman Sachs CEO Bob Rubin, are smarter than McCain and his people.
But I wouldn’t get too excited about Obama’s “superiority” on the financial situation. Both of the presidential candidates are errand boys for Wall Street. They are helping pitch a terrible bailout that richly rewards the very parasitic financial institutions that created the mess in the first place. Many of Obama’s top economic experts, including Rubin and Larry Summers, were critical players (behind the Clinton-era financial deregulation that created critical context for the current meltdown and the previous one of 2000-2001.
Obama has received more than $24 million ($2 million more than McCain) in contributions from FIRE (the finance, insurance, and real estate industries) through August of 2008. We can count on him to function as an agent of elite capital unless and until he is compelled to behave in a more progressive, social-democratic fashion by and outraged, organized, and mobilized citizenry.
Financial regulation aside, I don’t think there are any meaningful positive responses that fall short of the nationalization and democratic transformation of the whole financial system – and that is something an Obama would never support.
The 2008 election has already been won – by big capital. Besides selecting the presidential contenders through the financing, sponsorship, and broadcasting/selling of capitalist-friendly candidates (even Edwards, not just Kucinich, Gravel, Nader and McKinney, was too “left” to be taken seriously by the corporate gatekeepers), the big money class has produced a big economic downturn certain to put severe limits on progressive policy options for any new president.
Burke/LV: How and why does the Democratic candidate get the benefit on the economy?
Street: Well, part of its goes back to the Great Depression, when the in-power Republicans under Hoover proved thoroughly incapable of effective and sensitive policy response. The New Deal (Franklin Roosevelt) Democrats were pushed from the left and the bottom up to introduce serious reforms regulating banking and finance, legalizing unions, introducing a partly progressive old-age retirement system and even some direct federal employment through useful public works.
During and since the New Deal era, Democrats have been somewhat better than the arch-plutocratic GOP on economic justice and regulation. Working-class incomes and social equity have done better with Democrats in charge, as political scientist Larry Bartels and other researchers have shown. Sadly though, the Democrats since the early 1970s have tended to think and act likes Republicans-Lite when it comes to economic policy. The most relevant example is the Clinton administration. After winning the presidency on economic-populist promises to “Put People First” (over profits), Clinton rapidly dropped “universal health care” and rushed to pass the regressive corporate-globalizationist North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) Proclaiming that “the era of big government is over,” the Clinton White House did nothing to enhance workers’ bargaining power. It flooded the unskilled labor market with people viciously kicked off of public family cash assistance. It deregulated the banking industry and the complex “derivative” markets and fed the dangerous flow of capital into risky and speculative investments that eventually crashed after Clinton left office. The book on all this is Robert Pollin, Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (New York: Verso, 2003). Neoliberalism is a bipartisan affair.
It was revealing to see Obama (in his 2006 campaign book “The Audacity of Hope”) describe Clinton as “recognizably progressive.” To get a good sense of what Obama means when he says “progressive,” people should read my book’s first chapter. His concept of progressivism is incredibly watered down and friendly to concentrated wealth, as is evident in his standard wealth-pleasing response to the current financial crisis.
Burke/LV: What would have to happen to change your mind about Barack Obama? How could a President win you over?
Street: No “mainstream” (Wall Street-/corporate media-approved) political candidate or office-holder is going “win me over.” My bigger point is that he’s not going to move on a truly progressive agenda unless and until the people make him do so. As Howard Zinn noted last March, "the Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties." Obama is no magical exception to that.
No American progressive worth his or her salt should think their duty to peace, justice, and democracy has been remotely fulfilled just by poking a ballot for Obama. We will have to push a President Obama and the people around him to do anything reasonably progressive – the same as we would have had to do with a President Hillary Clinton. His instincts toward concentrated wealth and power (corporate America, the foreign policy establishment, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, etc.) are deeply conservative.
Burke/LV: Any response to the first debate? Who’s going to win? Can Obama overcome racism to become the first black president?
Street: The debate was BORING beyond words. It had all the standard authoritarian ideological limits. No serious candidate can question the military budget or mention the number of Iraqis killed by the U.S. or the illegal + murderous + brazenly imperialist nature of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan or the inherent social inequalities and toxicity and crisis-prone nature of capitalism or the persistence of deep societal racism or...fill in the blank. As usual, everything that matters was pretty much off the table, everybody beneath the political class hates it and then the pundits proclaim, “see the people don’t care about policy and issues, they vote for silly reasons --- candidate qualities and identity and so on. They are like small children.”
Within the ridiculous narrow parameters, however, I thought Obama "won" the debate. He is clearly the better of the two corporate-military candidates: smarter and less vicious and dangerous and more human. He was “on his game,” so to speak - very smooth.
But I'm not sure how much it mattered in terms of electoral outcomes. Most Americans don't vote primarily on the basis of the painfully narrow range of policy issues that are permitted for discussion. All McCain really needed to do was show up and fill space talking about his "experience" and not look like a complete incompetent. He achieved those basic aims.
And the Democrats can lose debates by winning them. Gore and Kerry both did that with Bush II. It's perverse and it drives liberals crazy (which I almost enjoy a little), but it should not surprise anyone. Lots of working class people dislike liberals’ "smarts" and smooth-talking "eloquence.” This is for reasons relating to the role of elitist educational certification and erudition in the construction of class oppression. Some people will rally to the support of Sarah Palin when they hear her denounced as intellectually and academically inadequate.
The "other" problem is race, of course. A leading academic “racial bloc voting behavior” expert tells me that “if it was Biden-Obama instead of Obama-Biden the Democratic ticket would be up 20 points.” A recent USA TODAY/ABC News/Stanford poll has white people preferring McCain over Obama 56% to 36%. A recent Yahoo/ABC/Columbia poll has racial bias significantly informing many white voters' reluctance to vote for Obama. According to Yahoo/ABC, Obama is losing 6 percentage appoints of voter approval to race prejudice. By my experience in Iowa, that’s a low estimate.
I have no idea who will win the election. Skin color throws the normal calculations out the window this time. This is a new voting frontier. Maybe the recent Republican record and McCain-Palin are so terrible that the race barrier can be overcome, but who knows? Anyone who tells you they can reliably predict this thing is lying.
After covering the 2007-08 season of the Iowa caucuses for C-SPAN and the Iowa Independent, Atom Burke has settled back into eastern Iowa life and started an organic farm. He continues to work as a freelance writer and video documentarian. Veteran radical, ex-historian and activist Paul Street (email@example.com) is the author of Empire and Inequality (2004), Segregated Schools (2005), and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (2007). His latest book (just released) is "Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics" (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, September 2008), order at www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987