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The Obama Myth
In Lati America, they’ve got a name for the kind of politics that Sen. Barack Obama represents: neoliberalism with a human face. It’s an attempt to revive an unpopular free-market, pro-business agenda behind the leadership of someone whose personal history suggests an affinity with the exploited and oppressed.
Obama, who was elected senator from Illinois in 2004 and is now perhaps the most prominent African American politician in the U.S., is angling to play a similar role in the U.S. as he weighs a possible run for the presidency in 2008.
Consider the junior senator from Illinois’ own words in his new book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.
Early on, the reader learns that Obama shrugged off his college radicalism during the Ronald Reagan administration. "My friends and I stopped thinking and slipped into cant: the point at which the denunciations of capitalism or American imperialism came too easily," writes the man who declared on the eve of the 2004 elections that he would be willing to support the bombing of Iran.
Elsewhere, Obama offers a caricature of the left’s views in order to assert his own supposed realism. "I would find myself in the curious position of defending aspects of Reagan’s worldview," he writes. "I couldn’t be persuaded that U.S. multinationals and international terms of trade were single-handedly responsible for poverty around the world; nobody forced corrupt leaders in Third World countries to steal from their people."
While critical of Reagan’s wars in Central America and his support for apartheid South Africa, Obama backed the Cold War: "Given the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, staying ahead of the Soviets militarily seemed the sensible thing to do."
The U.S. occupation of Iraq? Obama offers criticism, but no alternative–other than increasing the military budget.
"We need to maintain a strategic force posture that allows us to manage threats posed by rogue nations like North Korea and Iran, and to meet the challenges presented by potential rivals like China," he writes. "Indeed, given the depletion of our forces after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we will probably need a somewhat higher budget in the intermediate future just to restore readiness and replace equipment."
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LIBERALS MAY excuse Obama’s national-security speak as a concession to political realities in the post-9/11 era–and hope that the senator’s contribution will be the renovation of progressive domestic policy.
Obama’s career, however, like that of any successful mainstream politician, is characterized by cold ambition and ruthless opportunism–qualities on full display when Obama challenged incumbent U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush in the 2000 election.
Rush, a former leading member of the Black Panther Party, had once been a rising star in Democratic politics and was a key operative in Bill Clinton’s efforts to turn out the Black vote in the 1992 elections. But after a disastrous failed challenge to incumbent Richard M. Daley in the 1999 Chicago mayoral elections, Rush was damaged goods.
Obama, by then a law professor at the University of Chicago and an Illinois state senator, moved in for the kill. While his campaign platform generally resembled Rush’s own liberal positions, Obama positioned himself as a can-do pragmatist who could deliver more than Rush, the old radical. "Part of what we are talking about is a transition from a politics of protest to a politics of progress," Obama said then.
Rush ultimately crushed Obama by a 2-to-1 margin. But Obama had raised his political profile, picking up several major endorsements, including that of the Chicago Tribune.
Even in defeat, Obama was on the rise. During his long U.S. Senate campaign, it was impossible for grassroots activists in Chicago to miss him. The former community organizer appeared at even the smallest picket lines and protests, right hand permanently extended, repeating the same low-key introduction to everyone: "Barack Obama"
Obama’s efforts won him the loyalty of unions and activists in neighborhoods across Chicago, enabling him to do an end run around the Democratic machine’s system of "promotions," in which loyal operatives get the nod for key offices after putting in their time.
A sex scandal sank Obama’s Republican rival, Jack Ryan, and the Republicans ultimately had to resort to Black conservative Alan Keyes. Obama was promoted by party powerbrokers to give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention and, after taking office, landed a plum assignment on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
* * *
NOW COMES Obama’s book, a well-executed effort at political positioning for the 2008 election–a step or two to the left of Hillary Rodham Clinton perhaps, but well to the right of traditional Democratic liberal standard-bearers.
In fact, Obama’s book explicitly endorses Bill Clinton’s "Third Way"–the attempt to shed the Democrats’ supposed leftist excesses and borrow pro-business policies from the Republicans.
Obama does take Bill Clinton to task for his overtures to the right–the denunciation of the rapper Sister Souljah at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Convention and the execution of mentally disabled Black prisoner Ricky Ray Rector, both in the midst of his 1992 campaign.
But Obama’s book highlights several "Sister Souljah moments" of his own–calculated attacks on his own supporters to establish his mainstream credentials. "I’ve proposed experimenting with merit pay for teachers, for example," he writes, acknowledging that he’s angered the teachers’ unions.
Obama takes the same approach his chapter titled "Race," in which he blames right-wing talk show hosts for race-baiting and opposition to affirmative action, deplores the persistence of racial inequality, and calls for job training for Black youth. But his focus on the alleged breakdown of the Black family drifts into Bill Cosby territory, although Obama avoids the rhetoric he used at a Chicago church in 2005, when he declared that too many Black men are poor fathers. "It’s not clear to me that they’re full-grown men," he said.
On immigration, Obama tries to split the difference in the political debate, backing a guest-worker program that he admits is a "sop to big business." Recently, however, Obama joined other Senate Democrats in a sop to the anti-immigrant right, backing the construction of a 700-mile border wall that he had previously vowed to oppose without "comprehensive" immigration reform.
As Obama makes clear in The Audacity of Hope, we can expect more such moves to the right. He may seek to revive liberalism, but only within the framework of the rightward shift in U.S. politics over the past 30 years.
Obama’s agenda is reheated Clintonism: raising the minimum wage, an expansion the Earned Income Tax Credit, and investment in education, alternative energy and technology–positive steps, perhaps, but certainly no far-reaching social programs. Workers at risk of job loss should have access to wage insurance, he writes, but he doesn’t call for an increase in today’s miserly unemployment benefits.
Although he voted against the Central America Free Trade Area, Obama wants a "new approach" to trade issues–one based on the recognition that "we can try to slow globalization, but we can’t stop it."
Obama does offer some major policy proposals. The health care system should include affordable state-based "model plans" in which insurers would participate–a proposal that recalls the unworkable, corporate-dominated bureaucracy envisioned in Hillary Clinton’s failed 1994 health care proposal.
Obama also decries the inequality exacerbated by Bush’s tax cuts–presented, for political cover, in a passage about his visit with billionaire Warren Buffet, who opposed the cuts. Obama calls on the wealthy to bear their tax burden, but offers no clear proposals to raise those taxes.
And while Obama’s book is well-stocked with anecdotes about workers and the poor, his voting record reflects different priorities. Obama voted for the so-called "tort reform" bill that caps jury awards in wrongful injury lawsuits, one of the few means that working people have to hold corporations accountable for faulty products and negligence.
* * *
LIKE ALL pre-campaign manifestos of presidential hopefuls, The Audacity of Hope is a tedious read. Even Obama’s self-deprecating humor–rare among the oversized egos in the U.S. Senate–comes off like so much market-researched branding.
Indeed, Obama never strays far from the well-worn path of similar books. There’s Obama’s intellectual communion with inspiring figures of the past, a la John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage; the let’s-heal-America-together motif of Jimmy Carter’s post-Vietnam and Watergate book Why Not the Best? and the Democratic Leadership Council pro-business orthodoxy of Putting People First, the campaign manifesto credited to Bill Clinton and Al Gore during the 1992 presidential race.
What makes Obama’s book different is the speed at which he has been catapulted into the national–and international–spotlight.
Obama milks this sudden rise for full effect, portraying himself as an ordinary guy who unexpectedly finds himself a member of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body–a real-life version of the Jimmy Stewart character in the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
In the film, Mr. Smith battles the forces of corruption, restoring faith in the system and offering hope that U.S. democracy can live up to its promise. Obama has written a similar script for himself. The question now is whether liberals desperate for a leader will believe the image–or face the reality.