The (Fading) Call of Obama. By Paul Street

Via: ZNet.
Now that Barack Obama is being exposed like never before as a tool and agent of concentrated wealth, business class rule, and militarism, 2009 is ending on a distinct note of liberal disenchantment. His “progressive base” is restive over his actions to an unprecedented (to use Obama’s favorite word [1]) degree as the president of “Yes we can” has morphed (as widely predicted on “hard left”) into the pallid symbol of “No We can’t – as the clarion of “change” has emerged as another Democratic office-holder whose outwardly progressive campaign pledges translate into corrupt, corporate and imperial nothingness in the real world of power.


The signs of liberal and progressive anger at Obama (“The Empire’s New Clothes,” as I described immediately him after his election to the presidency) are hard to miss. The former sixties radical and “Progressives for Obama” (PFO) co-founder Tom Hayden announced that he was “scraping the Obama sticker off my car” after the president gave his West Point Afghan War Speech three weeks ago. [2] Formed by such leading left-liberal lights as Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Cornwell West, and Barbara Ehrenreich, PFO has dropped its president’s name from the organization, re-christened “Progressive America Rising.” [3]

The editor of the liberal-left magazine The Progressive has noted that Obama’s West Point oration read as if had been penned by “Bush’s speechwriters”[4], connecting The One to the liberal-loathed image of Dubya – consistent with the left commentator Alexander Cockburn’s observation that “war [is] war, whether the battle standard is being waved by a white moron from Midland, Texas or an eloquent black man from Chicago.”[5]

The congressional Black Caucus has undertaken some criticism of, and confrontation with, the first black president for placing “Wall Street’s agenda” above the needs of black and other minority citizens. [6]

The ACLU recently issued a blistering indictment of Obama’s handling of Bush administration war crimes the ACLU said the Obama White House refused to prosecute and went to extraordinary lengths to cover up. [7]

There has been considerable liberal and progressive criticism of the weak, corporate-captive climate “deal” (with no binding restrictions on carbon emissions from the industrialized states that have created the climate crisis) that Obama came back from Copenhagen with in mid December of 2009 – an outcome that was already indicated in the administration’s previous efforts to undermine serious global climate reform.[8]  The criticism is well founded, for, as the leading climate activist and intellectual George Monbiot notes, “The immediate reason for the failure of the [Copenhagen] talks can be summarized in two words: Barack Obama. The man elected to put aside childish things proved to be as susceptible to immediate self-interest as any other politician. Just as George Bush did in the approach to the Iraq war, Obama went behind the backs of the UN and most of its member states and assembled a coalition of the willing to strike a deal which outraged the rest of the world. This was then presented to poorer nations without negotiation; either they signed it or they lost the adaptation funds required to help them survive the first few decades of climate breakdown.”[9]

Many left-liberal activists, bloggers, politicians, and organizations – including even the often pathetically Obama-obedient MoveOn – are arguing that no bill at all is preferable to the weak, stripped-down and corporate-captive “health reform” (aptly described by even the centrist Democrat Howard Dean as a “gift to the insurance companies”!) currently being pushed by Obama and other top Democrats.[10]  A recent e-mail circulated to tens of thousands by the progressive Democrat activist Jane Hamsher (Firedog Lake) says that “The Senate’s [Obama-endorsed] health care bill must be killed…This is not reform. This is a con job.”

A recent essay on the historically Obama-happy liberal Web site The Huffington Post concludes as follows: “I don’t honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn’t figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he’s not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he’s going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they’re seeing right now is ‘liberalism,’ and they don’t like what they see. I don’t, either.”[11]


Will the liberal and progressive disillusionment with Obama continue and deepen? Let’ hope so. Few things have been less pleasant to behold in the last few years than what the radical filmmaker and author John Pilger has termed “the Call of Obama” to people of “liberal sensibilities.”

“It is not unlike a dog whistle,” Pilger noted last October: “inaudible to most, irresistible to the besotted and boneheaded.” As an emblematic early example, Pilger quoted a comment from the noted liberal Hollywood superstar George Clooney, who said the following on the Charlie Rose Show in December of 2006: “He walks into a room and you want to follow him somewhere, anywhere.”[12]


There have been many examples since Clooney, including numerous Obama followers with considerably more elevated intellectual qualifications than Clooney. One such example is Robert Kuttner, the leading left-liberal public intellectual and editor of the weekly liberal policy and politics journal The American Prospect. Kuttner’s dreams of Obama were summarized in a rapidly written book published just before the election under the title Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency. [13] In this volume, Kuttner wrote about “how great Presidents overcome great crises” and “what President Obama must do to redeem his own promise and the promise of America.” With the U.S. facing “the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression,” Kuttner argued, “our next president will need to become a truly transformative leader – like [Franklin] Roosevelt and Lincoln.”  In Kuttner’s view, Obama had the stuff of which greatness is made: the new president “unmistakably possesses unusual gifts of character and leadership.”

Obama, Kuttner fantasized, could “be that rare transformational leader,” Kuttner claimed, because “his personal odyssey, writings, and speeches suggest a capacity to truly move people and shift perceptions as well as bridge differences…they suggest more a principled idealist than a cynic.” Consistent with this Great Man approach to history – Obama’s  Challenge was dedicated to “presidential historian” Doris Kearns Goodwin – Kuttner’s book contained a chapter dedicated to the proposition that “great presidents” (like Lincoln,  Jack Kennedy,  Johnson and Obama) “animate” and “educate” the “people on behalf of expansive uses of progressive government.”  By using “the moral power of the presidency” to “lead by teaching and the force of [their] own character,” Kuttner argued, these Heaven-sent heads-of-state show the way toward progressive change from on high.  Kuttner fantasized that the recession Obama inherited from Bush would spark him to apply his “truly transformative” self in progressive and even “radical” ways.

He boldly blew through a rich historical record indicating that the future president was a “deeply conservative” agent of empire and inequality, incorporated – a willing tool of corporate-managed fake democracy and military, state-capitalist re-branding whose main challenge was to capture, contain, and tamp down (certainly not encourage) progressive sentiments amongst the restive citizenry.[14]


Another example is Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of the liberal weekly public affairs magazine The Nation. “Whatever one thinks of Obama’s policy on any specific issue,” Vanden Heuvel proclaimed last month, “he is clearly a reform president committed to improvement of peoples’ lives and the renewal and reconstruction of America… Progressives should focus less on the limits of the Obama agenda,” Vanden Huevel intoned, “and more on the possibilities that his presidency opens up.”[15]

How Vanden Heuvel could have come to include the word “clearly” in light of the President’s numerous rightward and center-leaning policy decisions was something of a mystery, assuming that The Nation’s top authority meant what she wrote. As one totals up the president’s cumulatively reactionary record of policies (and non-policies) on numerous specific issues – energy, health, war, labor rights, war, militarism – it becomes rather difficult to sustain the image of Obama as anything but a business and war president, certainly not a people’s reformer. It was difficult to see a leader of America’s so-called radical left so easily hooked by the deceptive marketing that left author Chris Hedges has written about in connection with the president:

“Barack Obama is a brand.  And the brand designed to make us feel good about our government while corporate overlords loot the Treasury, our elected officials continue to have their palms greased by armies of corporate lobbyists, our corporate media diverts us with gossip and trivia and our imperial wars expand in the Middle East. Brand Obama is about being happy consumers. We are entertained. We feel hopeful. We like our president. We believe he is like us. But like all branded products spun out from the manipulative world of corporate advertising, we are being duped into doing and supporting a lot of things that are not in our interest.”

“… President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising.” [16]


In some cases even people who call themselves Marxists have run to Obama’s whistle. Last November, Carl Davidson, a former Sixties Maoist turned “Marxist” Web-master of “Progressives for Obama,” wrote a widely circulated essay claiming that Obama’s victory in the presidential election was “a major victory” for left progressives. Badly misusing the terminology of the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, Davidson claimed that the Obama administration represented the rise of “an emerging historic counter-hegemonic bloc” containing elements of Marxian/proletarian “class struggle.”  He strained the bounds of credulity by claiming that the new Obama presidency represented a decisive break with both neoliberalism and corporate liberalism and that the new White House was torn by a major tension between forces representing the capitalist class’s “old hydrocarbon sector” and forces representing a progressive new left-leaning “green sector.”[17]  As the left journalist Arun Gupta quipped, “Obama must have missed Davidson’s memo,” for the Obama White House had committed to spending $1 trillion a year on the Pentagon but just a “few billion on green jobs, mainly as subsidies to big corporations like the big three [automakers].”[18]

Last January, United for Peace and Justice leader and top U.S. Communist Party official Judith LeBlanc actually called President Obama’s appointment of Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan last January “an exciting moment for the peace movement, because its possible diplomacy will be the first step…It’s incredibly important that the antiwar movement reach out to this envoy,” LeBlanc said, “and speak directly to the White House about our concerns.” [19]  This was remarkable commentary given Holbrooke’s rather unsavory history as a leading U.S. foreign policy operative and commentator over the years – a record that included critical support (in his role as Under-Secretary of State for Asian Affairs in the Carter administration) for Indonesia’s U.S.-supported atrocities (bordering on genocide) against East Timor in 1975, promising (in his role as Bill Clinton’s special envoy to the Balkans) immunity to Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic (according to Karadzic himself and to former Bosnian foreign minister Mohammad Sacirbey), helping lead (in his role as special envoy to Kosovo) the “diplomatic” charge to the U.S. bombing of Serbia in 1999,  providing Democratic support for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and serving as a pro-war foreign policy advisor to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. As Holbrooke took up his appointment with a ringing endorsement from the Communist Party’s LeBlanc, a left U.S. newspaper reported that “Angry protesters gathered in Mehtarlam, capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Laghman Province, to protest deaths of at least 16 civilians in a U.S. raid on a village Jan. 23. The same day, across the border in western Pakistan, a senior Pakistani official said two U.S. missile attacks may have killed up to 100 civilians. In Washington, administration officials refused to answer whether President Obama had okayed the missile strikes.” [20]


“This Exceptional Man”

Speaking of self-declared anti-capitalists for Obama, we also have the remarkable example of liberal-left filmmaker Michael Moore, who preposterously proclaimed that Obama’s auto restructuring plan sent the message that “the government of, by, and for the people is in charge here, not big business.” [21] Moore’s release of “Capitalism: A Love Story” – a movie which proclaims that “capitalism is evil and you can’t regulate evil” (I agree) – was oddly accompanied by statements of his attachment to the strongly pro-capitalist and distinctly “unleft” Barack Obama. [22] As the New York Times reported last September 20, “After [and advance] screening in Toronto, Mr. Moore took questions from audience members eager to know exactly what they should do.  He offered some broad suggestions, stressing that he was worried that Democrats in the United States would begin to abandon Mr. Obama (whom he enthusiastically supports) now that the election is won.” [23]

Moore’s Toronto comment was consistent with Moore’s his spring 2008 endorsement of the future president.  In a message on his Web site during the primary season, Moore badly confused the explicitly corporatist Senator from Illinois [24] with a significant and vast social justice movement and called for a “nation of millions to stand behind” Obama’s supposed effort to seize control of “our government” from “corporate America”:

“There are those who say Obama isn’t ready, or he’s voted wrong on this or that. But that’s looking at the trees and not the forest. What we are witnessing is not just a candidate but a profound, massive public movement for change. My endorsement is more for Obama The Movement than it is for Obama the candidate.”

“That is not to take anything away from this exceptional man. But what’s going on is bigger than him at this point, and that’s a good thing for the country. Because, when he wins in November, that Obama Movement is going to have to stay alert and active. Corporate America is not going to give up their hold on our government just because we say so. President Obama is going to need a nation of millions to stand behind him.” [25]

Giving Obama a 2008 Bailout Pass

“Capitalism: A Love Story,” which focused heavily on Washington’s epic 2008 taxpayer giveaway to Wall Street parasites, was true to this statement. It treated Obama as a progressive-populist threat to the business elite, showing no sense of the president’s longstanding corporate vetting and loyalties and failing. In the movie, Moore worried about all the money gifts financial firms decided to “throw at” the supposed left threat Obama in late 2008, deleting the Obama phenomenon’s pursuit of and dependency on corporate and Wall Street approval and sponsorship from the very beginning  Moore expressed anxiety about the power of top administration neoliberals like Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, seeming oddly perplexed about the fact that Obama had personally appointed them and oblivious to the possibility that the new president shared their basic world view.

Moore’s “Capitalism” gave Obama a remarkable and revealing pass on the 2008 financial bailout that provided the movie’s central drama. The movie avoided any direct reference to Obama’s critical support for the initial Bush-Paulsen bailout or the depth and degree of the Obama administration’s continuation and indeed expansion of massive state-capitalist welfare for the privileged financial few.

It was a telling omission. The first version of the Bush administration’s proposed bailout of Goldman Sachs and other leading Wall Street firms in September of 2008 sparked a major populist rebellion throughout the country.  A wave of mass citizen disgust are in response to the White House’s effort to frighten the populace into handing over $700 billion to cover the toxic assets created by financial perpetrators and at the remarkable attempt to place the bailout and Bush’s Treasury Secretary literally above the rule of law, codified in Section 8 of the original bailout package, which read as follows: “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.” The Bush-Paulsen-Wall Street money and power grab truck many observers and citizens as nothing less than an attempted financial “coup.” As Jason Linkins noted on The Huffington Post, “Section 8 is a singularly transformative sentence of economic policy. It transfers a significant amount of power to the Executive Branch, while walling off any avenue for oversight, and offering no guarantees in return. If the Democrats end up content with winning a few slight concessions, they risk not putting a stop-payment on the real ‘blank check’ – the one in which they allow the erosion of their own powers.” [26]

In his first public remarks about the Bush-Paulsen proposal, candidate and soon-to-be President Elect Obama offered “qualified support.” In an interview on his campaign plan, Obama “offered guarded praise of how Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. is managing the crisis.”  While Obama was “critical of how the crisis began,” New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny noted, “Mr. Obama offered kind words for the instincts and judgment exercised by Mr. Paulson in recent weeks. The two have spoken on the phone nearly every day for the past week about the problem.”

“He has been put in a situation where there are no great options,” Obama said of Paulsen. “I think he’s a serious person. I think he is not an ideologue. I think he’s very practical-minded and he wants to solve the problem” [emphasis added]. ‘” [27]

This highly instructive comment folded Paulsen into the  “pragmatic” and “get things done for the American people” (Wall Street) narrative that the Obama campaign was using to describe its brand and to differentiate that brand from alleged “ideological” extremists on the left and the right,

Obama came to reject the remarkable extra-judicial powers proposed in Section 8, but he counseled Democratic congresspersons to vote for both versions of the historic fall 2008 bailout packages, including the second one that passed with a majority of Democratic votes in the House and Senate. [28]


One of the core characteristics leading “left” liberals’ obedience to Obama has been a deep-seated belief that Obama’s conservative and centrist policymaking is not what he’s really all about. In the writings and speeches of leading U.S, left-liberals like Vanden-Heuvel and Nation writer John Nichols [29], a wishful myth about the president could be detected.  This legend held that his surrender to corporate and imperial power was contrary to Obama’s “true” nature as a true, left-leaning progressive. The “former community organizer” and South Side legislator turned president can’t wait, the liberal-left line goes, for the forces of popular democracy to rise up and make him do the really progressive things he actually wants to pursue. [30]

“Pretty Much the Same Progressive Guy”

The real problem behind the right-center corporate-imperial direction of the re-branded White House in the Age of Obama, some left-liberals argued, had nothing to do with Obama himself. Thus, to give one example, the liberal Democratic Portland, Oregon congressman Earl Blumenaur told The New York Times in mid-October of 2009 that “the Barack Obama I campaigned with is [still today] pretty much the same guy” – an ally of what Bluemenaur called “the progressive agenda.” Times reporter Carl Hulse described Bluemenaur as “one example of what might be called the Frustrated Left, a substantial caucus of congressional Democrats who dreamed”  that Obama and the Democrats’ 2006 and 2008 victories would “yield quick advances for progressive policy goals.” The reasons this agenda wasn’t progressing very well despite Obama’s election and big Democratic majorities in Congress? According to Bluemenaur, it was all about the external environment: the economic crisis and unanticipated right wing “upset and outrage” had created “an environment that is unprecedented and would press anyone’s skills.”[31]

“Barack Would Shock You If You Could Crawl Inside His Head”

The desire of some “progressives” to believe that President Obama is on their team has often bordered on the truly ridiculous. Here is an actual e-mail conversation between a left liberal journalist (“LLJ” below ) and a left-anarchist acquaintance of mine (“LAA”) that took place after the former published an early assessment (indeed a grading) of the Obama presidency in the late summer of 2009:

LAA: You did not grade Obama’s continued give-away to Wall Street, in my opinion a grade of Z to the nation.

LLJ: I share your opinion about Wall Street – not only on the giveaways, but on his Wall Street cabinet appointments…

LAA: Who knows what he really thinks? Clever, personable, young aggressive and a great orator as his today’s speech in Ohio proves, but talk is cheap and deeds horribly difficult. He is a conservative centrist as his books prove, so he does not surprise me at all. The problem remains that he deludes the nation into an acceptance of the same old policies with some superficial concessions.

LLJ: I can’t prove it, of course, but when you ask “what he really thinks” in his heart of hearts, if I were betting $100, I would bet that his TRUE feelings are way, way way to the Left of what you (and many others think).

I base this on his age (a hip, youngish man, with new thinking), his ethnicity, his years as an inner-city community organizer, his long-time relationship to the Univ. of Chicago (which is strongly leftist academic, almost as much as Berkeley), and the people who have influenced him on the way up, many of whom are famously progressive.

I honestly think Barack would shock you if you could crawl inside his head [32]  Of course, he’s too smart and cautious to ever let these feelings get out, knowing the Right’s media machine would crush him.  Nope, I can’t prove any of what I say.  I just think it.

The erudite idiocy of the liberal intellectual’s belief that “Barack” (Obama’s supporters often tend to fantasize that they are on a first name basis with the president) was “left” was transparent.  The journalist based his opinion on, among other things, Obama’s “ethnicity” (as if being black precluded being essentially conservative like, say Colin Powell or Bill Cosby of Clarence Thomas), on the preposterous belief that the University of Chicago (notorious as the breeding ground and headquarters of arch-regressive neoliberal economics) is “strongly leftist-academic” (with an implicit image, also false, of the academy itself as leftist), and, in the end, an intuitive sense that is beyond “proof” and which “I just think.”  Never mind that Larissa MacFarquhar – a  properly “mainstream” journalist with no evident leftist sentiments – made a serious and more-than-intuitive attempt to “crawl inside [Obama’s] head” in the spring of 2007 and found, after extensive interviews, that the future president was “deeply conservative.”   By MacFarquhar’s account, Obama was a profoundly cautious, power-respecting conciliator prone to prefer the persistence of traditional social and institutional hierarchy over positive social progress and to question government’s capacity to quickly solve social problems like poverty:

“In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good. Take health care, for example. ‘If you’re starting from scratch,’ he says, ‘then a single-payer system’—a government-managed system like Canada’s, which disconnects health insurance from employment— ‘would probably make sense. But we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside’…Asked whether he has changed his mind about anything in the past twenty years, he says, ‘I’m probably more humble now about the speed with which government programs can solve every problem. For example, I think the impact of parents and communities is at least as significant as the amount of money that’s put into education.'” [33]

“Those Things That he Believed in Are Still There”

Moore articulated the “he’s one of us” narrative in a late September (2009) interview with the progressive Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein. [34] In his conversation with Klein, Moore worried (with good reason) about the outsized influence of the “corporate agenda” on Obama. Still, Moore said that Obama has “shown us, I think, in his lifetime many things about where his heart is” – on the left progressive side of the spectrum in Moore’s opinion.  “I think that those things that he believes in are still there,” Moore told Klein. “Now, it’s kind of up to him. If he’s going to listen to the [Robert] Rubins and the [Timothy] Geithners and the [Lawrence] Summerses, you and I lose.” [35]

What “things that he believes in” did Moore mean, exactly? Moore did not elaborate.  As I wrote in a left Web commentary:

“Does Mike’s category of ‘things he believes in’ stretch to include the president’s repeated explicit embrace of the profits system Mike now claims to reject?  Does it include the belief that the U.S. is a great and unquestioned force for ‘good in the world,’ uniquely qualified to run the world’s affairs and beyond serious scrutiny and apology when it comes to its imperial project, with its occasional ‘mistakes’ like the crucifixion of Southeast Asia and the murder of Mesopotamia?  And what in the name of God does Michael mean by ‘if he’s going to listen to the Rubins and the Geithners and the Summerses?’ ‘If’?! Hello? Has Mike been actually paying attention to the economic and financial and health care policies of the Obama administration?” [36]

Klein asked Moore to comment on the fact the Obama “is the person who appointed Summers and Geithner, who you’re very appropriately hard on in the film. And one year later, he hasn’t reined in Wall Street. He reappointed Bernanke. He’s not just appointed Summers but has given him an unprecedented degree of power for a mere economic adviser…..”

“I worry about this idea that we’re always psychoanalyzing Obama,” Klein added, “and the feeling I often hear from people is that he’s being duped by these guys. But these are his choices, and so why not judge him on his actions and say, ‘This is on him, not on them’?”

Moore could offer no real response except to say something I heard more than once from left-liberal Obamaists: “I don’t think he is being duped by them; I think he’s smarter than all of them.”[37]

Meanwhile, around the same time, Obama chuckled with CNN’s John King over how foreign leaders from center-right governments told him that he’d be “considered a conservative” in their countries [38] – consistent with Noam Chomsky observation ten months before that “With the rhetorical flourishes stripped away. Obama presents himself as more or less as a familiar centrist Democrat, roughly on the Clinton model.”[39]


“The Man He Imagined His Father Was”

Speaking of psychoanalysis, nobody has run to the “call of Obama” more dutifully than the liberal author and blogger John K. Wilson.  In his worshipful 2009 book President Barack Obama: A More Perfect Union, Wilson matter-of-factly proclaims that “the disagreements between Obama and progressives are more about tactics, not values and convictions.” [40] Wilson seemed to think he knew about Obama’s core left-“progressive” convictions in part because he had been a student of Obama’s at the University of Chicago during the early 1990s.  The dashing, 30-something professor Obama struck Wilson as “thoughtful, soft-spoken, and knowledgeable” as well as “rational, sincere, and honest.” [41] Now, after the election, Wilson saw his former teacher as the harbinger of “a new form of politics, one that is simultaneously progressive and popular and politically effective” because it rejected “liberal-hating leftists'” supposed belief that “the progressive movement is all about positing a utopian society than achieving social change” [42] – a preposterous caricature of actual left politics and ideology.[43] Wilson’s paean to the great, supposedly “left” pragmatist-in-chief ended on a curiously pop-psychological (or perhaps pop- psychoanalytical) note that treated the American citizenry as the children of its father in the White House. It seemed curiously aligned with the corporate-Obamaist “expectation management” project:

“As a child, Barack Obama idolized his absent father, only to experience the inevitable disappointment when he encountered the truth about the man’s foibles and flaws. However, Obama’s disappointment only strengthened his determination. In the end, Obama became the man he imagined his father was, a brilliant, selfless public servant who cared for his family and his troubled country.  The American people have also faced absent leaders who disappointed them.  For more than a generation, we have watched president after president treat the Oval Office like a personal empire, compromise the principles they swore to uphold, and be uncompromising in the pursuit of their personal desires and the interests of their friends and donors.”

“Obama will inevitably disappoint those who idolize him.  But what he brings us is the hope of a country that will try to perfect itself and live up to its espoused ideals of equality and justice, and the dream of having a president we can admire and trust.” [44]

This was a disturbing passage, on numerous levels.

The Huffington Post Speaks on “Why Obama Deserves His Nobel”

To see the power-worshipping “call of Obama” to liberals at work, one can also review the Nobel-related commentary of an actual psychoanalyst Dr. Leo Rangell and foreign relations professor Robert Ashgar on the progressive, “left Democratic” Web site Huffington Post (HP). In an HP essay title “What Did He Do?”  Rangell explained that normal and common-sense distinctions between words and deeds were beside the point when it comes to understanding why war president Obama deserved his Nobel Peace Prize. Rangell’s praise of his president was profound:

“A thing it not only what one can touch; it can also be what you feel.  A mood is a thing, an entity.  It comes from somewhere and lead to something…”

“…President Obama did much at once.   His very election affected a major change, altering the mood of the country and the world from cynicism and doubt to optimism and hope.  Rationality entered the seat of power.  The perception of a bully was altered the likelihood of a friend.  Nations are to argue with reason.”

“This was ‘doing’ a great deal, in one move, by bringing about one event.  It was on this basis that the Nobel nomination was made, actually a few weeks, not eight months, after Obama acceded to his new post.”

“But more is in the offing, in progress, not assured but awaiting future developments. The president has announced his wishes, intentions, and would be decisions on most areas of conflict, health, economics, immigration, moral and ethnical issues.”

“The Nobel Peace Prize did not depend on the outcome of these intentions….Obama joins many other leaders who, in his words, have been transformative.”[45]

Rangell’s ode to Obama’s imagery and rhetoric, praiseworthy without reference to “outcomes” in the doctor’s view, was a troubling act of symbolic fellatio granted by a purportedly progressive intellectual to a sitting president. It was rivaled by Rangell’s fellow liberal-Democratic Huffington Post columnist Robert Creamer’s preposterous claim – systematically refuted on a painstaking case by case basis in the second chapter of the present volume – that Obama “deserved” his Nobel because he had acted “to win the election – and once elected, to chart a course for American foreign policy that is fundamentally different, in both substance and tone, from that of the Bush-Cheney years.”[46]

The liberal U.S. foreign relations professor Robert Ashgar was more tempered in his Huffington Post reflections on “Why Obama Deserves His Nobel.” “As for the Nobel folks,” Ashgar argued, in an act of profound understatement, “they certainly could have waited a few years to honor Obama, and could have gung their honor on some more tangible achievements…But what truly deserving champion of peace did they slight this year in the process? None to my knowledge….They are free to use their award to honor someone who symbolizes their goals on the global stage.  They have done so. And as Americans, we can be proud.” [47]

Ashgar failed to note any of Obama’s numerous actions and policies that violated the Nobel committee’s purported goal of peace.  He betrayed a shocking degree of ignorance by denying that any more truly deserving “champions of peace” existed in the world.  The list of more worthy recipients was long but it would most prominently have included Chomsky, the prolific Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy, or (a person suggested by Chomksy) the exceptional Afghan activist Malai Joya, consistent fighter for human rights, particularly for women, under the Soviet invasion of her country, during the reign of the Taliban and now against the U.S. invasion and the “return of the warlords under the [American-backed] Karzai government.” [48]

“This is a Great Day for Him and All of Us”

Speaking of the Nobel, Moore seemed to break the spell the president held over him on the day that the Oslo Orwellians gifted Obama with the Nobel Peace Prize. “Congratulations President Obama on the Nobel Peace Prize,” Moore wrote sarcastically, “now please earn it.” Moore seemed to have grasped at least some of the wisdom of Noam Chomsky, who would distinguish between idealistic, progressive-sounding “words” and  imperial  “deeds” when it came to Obama’s foreign policy. Within two days, however, Moore was apologizing for his momentary outburst on the leading liberal blog DailyKos.  In a post titled “Get Off Obama’s Back…Second Thoughts from Michael Moore,” the filmmaker penned a short, backtracking statement of regret for his lapse:

“Friends, Last night my wife asked me if I thought I was a little too hard on Obama in my letter yesterday congratulating him on his Nobel Prize. ‘No, I don’t think so,’ I replied. I thought it was important to remind him he’s now conducting the two wars he’s inherited. ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘but to tell him, “Now earn it!?” Give the guy a break — this is a great day for him and for all of us.”‘”

“I went back and re-read what I had written. And I listened for far too long yesterday to the right wing hate machine who did what they could to crap all over Barack’s big day. Did I – and others on the left – do the same?” [49]

This was a sad reflection.  Beyond the juvenile suggestion that Obama needed to be “reminded” of his “two wars,” it gave no remotely evidence-based counter-argument to the notion that the in-fact militarist and imperial president portrayed in the second chapter of the present volume did not deserved the award. Moore was moved to recant his initial skepticism by his spouse informing him that “this is a great day for him and us” and by the fact that the right wing was brutally critical (for its own reactionary reasons) of the Nobel award going to Obama. Moore’s backtracking hit me as an almost violent, 126-word assault on elementary moral-intellectual sensibilities. It was frightening to see a “left” icon stoop to this level of irrational power worship.


Michael Moore isn’t just some silly, whiskey-addled campus-town liberal with an Obama bumper sticker in which the first letter of the president’s last name is written as the Peace symbol. He’s an influential “left” icon, rightly or wrongly – someone whose opinions hold water with a considerable part of the often all too vaguely progressive citizenry. When Moore and, for that matter, The Huffington Post get (involuntarily or voluntarily) “punked” and “bamboozled” by “Barack,” so do untold masses of others who watch his movies and follow his spoken and written commentary on his Web site and in numerous interviews on television and radio.

Much the same could be said for Bono, another major-league “faux-gressive” [50] celebrity who ran to the sound of Obama’s “dog whistle” with a wagging tale. In an October 18, 2009 New York Times Op-Ed that un-apologetically bore the title “Re-branding America,” the legendary U2 lead singer and global anti-poverty activist criticized those who believed that the Nobel committee along with “Norway, Europe, and the world” hold on to “a fantasy version of the president.”  Bono explained “why I think the virtual Obama is the real Obama” – a special leader who “might deserve the hype.”  The reason was that Obama had voiced support for the Millennium Development Goals,” including “the eradication of poverty in our time” during a speech to the United Nations in September of 2009. Obama’s endorsement of these objectives in two sentences “didn’t make many headlines,” Bono wrote, “But for me, those 36 words are why I believe Mr. Obama could well be a force for peace and prosperity…” [51]

Nearly one year after Advertising Age honored Obama for providing “An Instant Overhaul for Tainted Brand America,” Bono wrote shamelessly from Brand Obama’s advertising copy. Clinging to the magic allure of progressive imagery over irrelevant corporate-imperial substance, Bono held forth on how the new president embodied the democratic and humanitarian essence of “America” the “idea:”

“Many have spoken about the need for a rebranding of America. Rebrand, restart, reboot. In my view these 36 words, alongside the administration’s approach to fighting nuclear proliferation and climate change, improving relations in the Middle East and, by the way, creating jobs and providing health care at home, are rebranding in action.”

“These new steps — and those 36 words — remind the world that America is not just a country but an idea, a great idea about opportunity for all and responsibility to your fellow man.”

Bono showed not even the slightest sense of distancing irony in regard to the public relations terms “rebranding,” “restart,” and “reboot.” Those very terms give the game away to serious observers, of course. They suggest and indeed explicitly signify commodified, mass-marketed superficiality – changes in appearance over transformations in substance.  But Bono, who has certainly benefited from no small amount of carefully crafted marketing and public relations over the years, embraced the language eagerly, without any hint of skepticism. Besides failing to note the many ways in which Obama had already violated Millennium Development (and other progressive) goals over his tens months in the White House, Bono neglected also to note that the “many” who “have spoken about the need for a rebranding of America” have been located primarily and most significantly in the U.S. capitalist and imperial power elite. They are situated amongst the privileged Few, who wish precisely to contain, co-opt, and safely channel and marginalize popular and truly progressive energies and anger in ways that limits “change” to the power-friendly spheres of style, rhetoric, appearance, and image.  Bono wrote, of course, as if everything that had actually taken place in Obama’s first nine months in office had been tossed down George Orwell’s totalitarian “memory hole” the moment they occurred.

But every dog has his day.  The “call of Obama” appears to be much less potent as we move into the second year of war and shockingly unchallenged social disparity and eco-cide under The Empire’s New Clothes and the broader American system of empire and inequality he represents.  As the mid-term Congressional elections and 2012 loom ever larger – against a background of Republican resurgence fueled in part by the populist rage and activist vacuum on the liberal left – we can expect lesser-evil-ist sirens of warning (against terrible Republicans) to transcend positive attraction in liberal calls for us to line up behind our supposed champions and defenders in the White House and the Democratic Party.  Those of us who remain thankfully deaf to the sirens, whistles and advertising campaigns of the powerful see our mission and responsibility differently – to build, re-build, and expand grassroots citizens’ power beyond the masters’ quadrennial, corporate-crafted, mass-marketed, candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas” and “re-branding” exercises.

Paul Street ( the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), Segregated School: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008). Street’s next book is titled The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010 – spring).


1. Carol E. Lee, “The White House’s Unprecedented Use of ‘Unprecedented,” Politico (November 25, 2009), noting that “The Obama White House is addicted to the [use of the word] ‘unprecedented.’ ”

2. Tom Hayden, “I’m Stripping the Obama Bumper Sticker Off My Car,” (December 3, 2009), read at

3. Glen Ford, “Progressives for Obama Changes Their Name to Omit Their President,” Black Agenda Report (December 15, 2009), read at

4. Matthew Rothschild, “Obama Steals Bush’s Speech Writers,” The Progressive (December 2, 2009), read at

5. Alexander Cockburn, “Into the Tunnel,” CounterPunch (September 5, 2009), read at

6. Justin Hyde and Richard Wolf, “President Says He Shouldn’t Put Focus on Blacks’ Troubles,” USA TODAY (December 4, 2009), 4A.

7. Jason Leopold, “Blistering Indictment Leveled Against Obama Over His Handling of Bush-Era War Crimes,” Truthout (December 12, 2009).

8. See Naomi Klein, “Obama’ Bad Influence,” The Nation (October 14, 2009), read at

9. George Monbiot, “Requiem for a Crowded Planet,” The Guardian (UK), December 21, 2009.

10. On MoveOn’s opposition to the health reform bill in Mid December of 2009, see “MoveOn Calls on Members to Help Block Health Care Bill,” CNN Politics (December 18, 2009), at

11. Drew Weston, “Leadership, Obama-Style,” The Huffington Post (December 22, 2009), read at

12. John Pilger, “War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength,” New Statesman (October 15, 2009), read at;Ed O’Keefe, “Clooney Loves Obama,” ABC News (December 22, 2006), read at

13. Robert Kuttner, Obama’s Challenge; America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, October 2008).

14. He would have done well to put down Kearns-Goodwin and pick up a copy of Howard Zinn’s bestselling volume A People’s History of the United States or Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s classic study Poor Peoples’ Movement: How They Succeed and Why They Fail (1977).  These books review some elementary lessons on how progressive change 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 broader power elite on the need for change. As Obama himself (along with John Edwards) repeatedly noted during the presidential campaign, in a comment that has not fallen often from Obama’s lips since he reached the White House, “change doesn’t happen from the top down.  Change happens from the bottom up.”

15. Katrina Vanden Heuvel, “Obama, One Year On,” The Nation (November 23, 2009): 6-7.

16.  Chris Hedges, “Buying Brand Obama,” Truthdig (May 3, 2009), read at

17. Carl Davidson, “Bumpy Road Ahead: Obama and the Left,” The Rag Blog: The Latest in News and Views From the Progressive Front (November 18, 2008), read at For a devastating critique by an actual Marxist, see Louis Proyect, “Marxists for Obama: A Bumpy Road Ahead,” Louis Proyect: the Unrepentant Marxist (November 20, 2009), read at”For Gramsci, ” Proyect noted, “the goal was not to work within hegemonic blocs in alliance with the bourgeoisie, but to create counter-hegemonic blocs led by the working class and a (genuine) vanguard party…for those who take their Gramsci seriously, the task today as it was in the 1920s is to challenge the dominant powers…. If Davidson is intent on maneuvering within the hegemonic bloc, that of course is his privilege as long as he understands that this has nothing to do with Marxism.”

18. “Arn Gupta Asks, ‘What Antiwar Movement?'” (New York City, September 24, 2009), view and hear at

19. Marylin Bechtel, “‘Give Diplomacy a Chance’ in Afghanistan,” People’s Weekly World, January 29, 2009, read at judith leblanc and richard holbrooke&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us#

20. Bechtel, “‘Give Diplomacy a Chance.'”

21. Michael Moore, “‘We the People’ to ‘King of the World’: ‘YOU’RE FIRED, ‘” (April 1, 2009), read at

22. See Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), pp. 40-54; Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (New York, 2006), pp. 149-150; John R. MacArthur, “Obama is Far From a Radical Reformer.” The Providence Journal, March 19, 2009, read at; Kevin Baker, “Barack Hoover Obama: The Best and the Brightest Blow it Again,” Harper’s Magazine (July 2009); Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007); Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006).

23. Bruce Headlam, “Capitalism’s Little Tramp,” New York Times, September 20, 2009.

24. See Street, Barack Obama, pp. 1-58.

25. Michael Moore, “My Vote’s for Obama (If I could Vote),” (April 21, 2008), read at

26. Jason Linkins, “Dirty Secrets of the Bailout: 32 Words None Dare Utter,” Huffington Post, (September 22, 2009), read at

27. Jeff Zeleny, “Obama: No Blank Check on Bailout,” New York Times, September 22, 2009, read at

28. As Ralph Nader – a horrid “ideologue” of the obsolete Left as far as Obama was concerned (Paulsen was by contrast “serious and “practical-minded”) – noted on the eve of the election: “In late September, Senator Obama said to the Democrats – vote for the bailout. Senator McCain said to the Republicans – vote for the bailout. President Bush said to the Congress – vote for the bailout. See (no date).  See also “Nader/Gonzales Warn Against Blank-Check Bailout,” KSFY Television News, Sioux Falls, South Dakota (October 2, 2008), read at

29. John Nichols, “How to Push Obama,” (January 12, 2009) at

30. For some interesting critical reflections on this belief, see Christopher Hayes, “Tuesdays With Rahm,” The Nation (October 26, 2009), 6-8. The Washington-based Hayes reported that “the Obama White House” was “no different” from previous Democratic administrations in NOT wanting grassroots and left pressure.The oft-repeated claim of many U.S liberals and leftists that the new president really wanted the American people and the left to push him in a progressive direction – consistent with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s supposed onetime statement to union activists: “Now go out and make me do it” – was a convenient myth, Hayes felt. “From day one,” Hayes noted, “the [Obama] administration has pursued a strategy of keeping its progressive allies on the White House playbook.”  The administration has held a weekly Tuesday night meeting called “The Common Purpose Project” (CPJ) where representatives from “dozens of well-established progressive groups” – MoveOn, Human Rights Campaign, Change to Win, AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, etc. – have met with White House representatives to get the top-down line on policy and political strategy. The CPJ is run by the Beltway public relations firm Blue Engine Message & Media, which works to “enforce message discipline among liberal organizations and coordinates closely with Progressive Media, another part of the pro-Obama messaging and strategy operation.” According to participants who spoke anonymously to Hayes, the communication at the Tuesday meetings “tend[ed] to go in one direction” – from the top down.  “They [the White House operatives, P.S.] want to make sure the advocates are informed,” one “progressive” informant told Hayes, “and there’s a lot of message control.  But there’s not a ton of dialogue back and forth.” The chance of meaningful discussion including commentary “from the bottom up” was not enhanced by the fact “many of the groups…seem happy enough [merely] to be in the room and wary of openly confronting the administrations in such an open forum.” By numerous accounts, the “dialogue” between “progressives” and the administration has been  profoundly unequal, colored by the understanding that access to the meetings and to elite donations will be denied participants who do not stay “on message” with the White House’s definition of acceptable debate and activism: “If access is the carrot the White House dangles in front of the progressive groups,” Hayes learned, “being frozen out of meetings or, worse, having funding squeezed, is the stick. ‘There’s no question that the big [Democratic Party] donors are funding the groups that are helping to pass the president’s programs,’ said one attendee. ‘And they’re not particularly interested in funding groups that are challenging the president’s program.”

The best way to get on the “big donors” and the White House’s bad side is to criticize elected Democrats.  In August of 2009, for example, the macho White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel chastised some Tuesday meeting attendees for having dared to target conservative (“Blue Dog” Democrats who were vacillating on health care reform.  Any “progressive” who “goes after Democrats,” Emmanuel was reported to have said, was “fucking stupid.”

“When [progressive] groups are hitting [Democratic Congress] members,” one Tuesday meeting attendee told Hayes, “they [the members] go and cry to the White House.  Then the White House comes to the meeting and says ‘Don’t go after our allies.’ ”

The principled left-liberal activist Jean Hamsher scathingly describes the Tuesday meetings as “the veal pen.”   By Hayes’ account, the White House’s “shielding of [conservative corporate] Blue Dog [Democrats] from progressive pressure groups” has had the “perverse – and maddening – effect of imperiling the very policies (public option, a good cap-and-trade bill) it claims to want passed.” As of late October 2009, even MoveOn (an institutional monument to the dog-“call of Obama” through most of 2009) was chastised by its White House masters for raising money for ads that criticized conservative Democrats.  It still continued to regularly attend the Tuesday “message” sessions.

31. Carl Hulse, “Frustrated Liberal Lawmaker Balances Beliefs and Realities,” New York Times, October 18, 2009.

32. Before writing this essay I stopped in a bookstore and saw liberal Obama fan  Sasha Ambrasky’s book Inside Obama’s Brain (New York: Portfolio, December 2009 – issued for Christmas). The dust jacket says the following: “Abramsky explains the origins of Obama’s extraordinary poise, focus, and self-confidence; his powerful storytelling and speaking skills; and his empathetic listening style. He shows why Obama’s experiences as a community organizer are widely misunderstood and more influential than many people realize. And he explores how Obama found a unique way to bridge America’s racial divides.”  I started to read the book and then had to put it down, saying “oh my God” as I returned it to its place.  Clearly Ambrasky would deserve mention alongside this anonymous liberal (“LLJ”) and other liberals (John K. Wilson, Leo Rangell, Robert Ashgar, and Michael Moore and others) discussed in this essay. With a December publication date, the book was written before the recent liberal disillusionment set in.

33. MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator.”

34. See Naomi Klein, “America’s Teacher,” The Nation (September 24, 2009), read at

35. Klein, “America’s Teacher.”

36. Paul Street, “Michael Moore and Barack Obama: A Love Story,” ZNet (October 9, 2009), read at

37. Klein, “America’s Teacher.”

38.  CNN, “State of the Union with John King: Interview With President Barack Obama” (September 20, 2009, 9 am, ET, read at

39. “Noam Chomsky Interviewed by San Francisco Examiner” (November 21, 2008), read at

40. John K. Wilson, President Barack Obama: A More Perfect Union (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2009), 114.

41. Wilson, President Barack Obama, vi.

42. Wilson, President Barack Obama, 126.

43. More then merely misrepresenting left politics and ideology, Wilson advances chilling fake-progressive rationalizations of reigning imperial doctrine. He writes that left “antiwar critics were disappointed by Obama’s failure to lead a crusade against the war in Iraq once he we elected to national office.  However,” Wilson argues, “quixotic stands are not Obama’s political specialty.  He is far more interested in finding pragmatic solutions, not public grandstanding.” Obama, Wilson assures readers, “understands why wars without allies are dangerous in the long term for the U.S.” Wilson’s treats left calls for “Troops Out Now” as a romantic, impractical demand – a silly “crusade” that amounts to little more than showboating. Wilson identifies those who criticize Obama’s militarism as childish carpers and windbags.  Consistent with the standard doctrinal limits of “mainstream ” power elite discussion, Wilson fails to mention the criminal, immoral, and imperial nature of the Iraq invasion and occupation.  By citing only the “danger to the U.S.” in “wars without allies,” Wilson replicates and applauds Obama’s heavily ideological refusal to criticize U.S. foreign and military policy on anything but “pragmatic” nationalist and imperial grounds.  Any deeper moral (and legal) criticism of the Empire and its reprehensible, objectively mass-murderous colonial wars is defined in advance as foolish, hopeless, and publicity-seeking chest-pounding.  See Wilson, President Barack Obama, 47-48.

44. Wilson, President Barack Obama, 209.

45. Dr. Leo Rangell, “What Did He Do?” Huffington Post, October 11, 2009.

46. Robert Creamer, “Obama’s Nobel Prize is Really a Tribute to American Voters,” Huffington Post (October 10, 2009), read at

47. Robert Ashgar, “Why Obama Deserves His Nobel,” Huffington Post, October 9, 2009, read at

48. Noam Chomsky, “War, Peace, and Obama’s Nobel,” In These Times, November 5, 2009.

49. Michael Moore, “Get Off Obama’s Back …Second Thoughts From Michael Moore,” Daily Kos, October 10, 2009, read at…second-thoughts-from-Michael-Moore

50. This term belongs, I believe, to Cindy Sheehan.

51. Bono, “Rebranding America,” The New York Times, October 18, 2009, read at


1 thought on “The (Fading) Call of Obama. By Paul Street

  1. Pingback: Fading Obama « WealthShare Society

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