Whose Black President?

Consider the following quote from Progressive magazine editor Matthew Rothschild last October: “With economic pain at the highest level ever seen by most Americans, and with minorities especially hard hit, we’re seeing a revolt not by people of color, not the unemployed, nor the foreclosed upon.  Instead, we’re seeing a revolt by the white middle class.  It’s a revolt against the very notion of a positive role for government in helping people.  It’s a revolt against Latin American immigrants.  It’s a revolt against Muslim Americans.  And it’s a revolt against our black president.”

Written before the Wisconsin uprising and its offshoots would have compelled Rothschild to qualify his judgment by noting the rebellion of Midwestern public sector workers and their sympathizers in February and March of 2011, this passage offered a useful perspective on the significantly racist Tea Party phenomenon and the nothingness of the Democratic Party and the United States’ “progressive movement” in 2009 and 2010.

Getting Things Done…for the Rich and Powerful

But why did Rothschid feel compelled to say “our black president?” Barack Obama has belonged to Wall Street, corporate America, and the Pentagon from the beginning. Consider his first year in the White House – a study in the triumph of corporate-imperial conservatism. With its expansion of the monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down parasitic financial institutions, its passage of a health “reform” bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that raided union pension funds and rewarded capital flight, its undermining of global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its green-lighting of escalated strip mining and hazardous deepwater oil drilling, its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies (remember the Employee Free Choice Act?) and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors), and its appointment of a Deficit Reduction Commission “headed [in economist Michael Hudson’s words] by avowed enemies of Social Security” (Republican Senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton chief of staff Erskin Bowles), Obama’s “change” and “hope” (corporatist Bill Clinton’s campaign keywords in 1992) presidency epitomized the power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money.”

Along the way, the “new” White House escalated Superpower violence in South Asia, passed a record-setting “defense” (Empire) budget, rolled over George W. Bush’s not-so counter-terrorist assault on human rights (in the name of “freedom”), extended the imperial terror war to Yemen and Somalia, disguised escalated U.S. occupation of Haiti as humanitarian relief, aided and abetted a thuggish right wing coup in Honduras, and expanded the Pentagon’s reach in Columbia/Latin America – a fascinating record for the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. It called progressives who dared to criticize these and other White House policies “fucking retard[s] (former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel) who require “drug testing” (former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs).  Leftists and sincere liberals were accused of being “purists” who do not live in the real world, who make “the perfect the enemy of the good” and fail to grasp the necessity of “compromise” to “get things done.” Never mind that much of what the administration did involved compromises made before Republican opposition was aroused and has been no damn good at all.

A Vacuous to Repressive Neoliberal Player

It was all too richly consistent with Obama’s career from his law school days, when the future president climbed to the head of the Harvard Law Review by cutting a deal with right wing students linked to the arch-reactionary Federalist Society. The black and left political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. met Obama at the beginning of his political career (1996) and found the newly minted state senator “a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics” marked by “small-scale solutions to social problems…..the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway.” It’s not for nothing that candidate Obama set new Wall Street and corporate fundraising records, consistent with the following comment of a leading Washington lobbyist to Ken Silverstein in 2006: “big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player…What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’” In the spring of 2007, The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar painted the following picture of the future president after a series of in-depth interviews with candidate Obama: “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….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.”

The Language of the Right Wing as the Language of the President and Both Parties

When Obama’s center-right corporate-imperial presidency yielded the predictable consequence of demobilizing the Democratic Party’s “progressive base” in the mid-term elections and thereby enabling an “historic” right wing sweep in Congress, the president quickly moved yet further to the business-friendly right like a hungry shark to a bleeding seal. Claiming (falsely) that “the American people had spoken” in the Republicans’ Tea Party-fueled electoral triumph of November 2010, Obama agreed to sustain George W. Bush’s deficit-fueling tax cuts for the rich beyond their sunset date of 2010.  Accepting the false business and Republican claim that “overpaid” public sector workers were a leading force behind rising government deficits and economic stagnation, Obama froze federal worker salaries and benefits.  He published an Op-Ed in the plutocratic editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal – an essay that praised “free market capitalism” as “the greatest force for prosperity the world has ever known” and said that government places “unreasonable burdens on business” that have a “chilling effect on growth and jobs.” (The tone of his editorial suggested that it wasn’t neoliberal deregulation that sparked the financial collapse, but all those pesky government rules that crush growth).Obama signed an executive order calling for a government-wide review of regulations to remove or revise those that supposedly inhibited business. He appointed JPMorgan Chase’s William Daley – a leading agent of the corporate-globalist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) under Bill Clinton – as his chief of staff.  He put Goldman Sachs’ Gene Sperling (another legendary neoliberal) at the head of the National Economic Council.  He tapped General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to head his new “President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness” – an ironic selection since fewer than half of GE’s workers are employed in the United States and less than half its profits come from U.S. activities.

Obama’s January 2011 State of the Union Address falsely claimed that American business was plagued by the highest corporate tax rate in the world and promised to slash that rate “without adding to our deficit.” He offered no bold, large-scale economic stimulus, antipoverty or public works programs to address the mass unemployment and economic destitution still stalking the land. In February, he quickly signed a “deal” that stripped $40 billion from the federal government’s 2011 outlay (the biggest losers were the Environmental Protection Agency and high-speed rail).Unbowed by a terrible summer jobs report suggesting a likely return to technical recession and the urgent necessity of major counter-cyclical government jobs and social assistance programs, Obama has responded to Republican threats to block the raising of the debt ceiling by advancing a hideously regressive long-term  austerity program to the right of what even the average Republican voter wants. He hit the fairways with Republican Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to offer a “grand bargain” to reduce federal spending by $4 trillion over ten years, predominantly on the basis of Social Security and Medicare cuts, including a rise in the age of Medicare eligibility.  (Republicans weren’t even suggesting cuts to Social Security: this was something Obama apparently desired for its own sake).  Claiming falsely that Congress’ failure to tackle what he (sounding like a good Republican) calls “entitlement reform” will endanger seniors’ ability to receive Social Security checks, “Obama has come,” Michael Hudson notes, “to bury Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not to save but kill them.”

Preparing to run for re-election as a “moderate” in 2012, Obama appears to share the G.O.P’s ’preposterous claims that the deficit, not unemployment, is the top economic issue facing the U.S. He says that “Government has to start living within its means, just like families do. We have to cut the spending we can’t afford so we can put the economy on sounder footing, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs.” As activist and writer Shamus Cooke notes, “This is the language of the right wing, now the language of both the Democrat and Republican parties. In reality, the U.S. government could easily access trillions of dollars in revenue; it simply chooses not to. Both political parties refuse to discuss how raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations could easily fix the current deficit issue on both the federal and state levels.” This is quite true, just as the ongoing elite-manufactured “crisis of Social Security” could be solved simply by lifting the regressive cap on payroll taxes and taxing investment income.

A Silly Narrative

Obama keeps “caving in” to the Republican Party, much to the all-too credulous dismay of many liberals and progressives who cling to the childish notion that the president is really one of them. One of the more ridiculous aspects of this summer’s debt-ceiling drama has been the claim of certain Democratic pundits and spin doctors (e.g. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell) that Obama never really meant to institute draconian Social Security, Medicare and social spending cuts – that the “grand bargain” he offered was really just a clever ploy to expose the Republicans’ real partisan and arch-regressive agenda. This is a preposterous claim,  as was seen when Obama subsequently signed on to the bipartisan “Gang of Six” budget plan, which “offered huge tax breaks for some of the wealthiest people in the country, while lowering Social Security benefits for retirees and the disabled” (Dean Baker)

We are familiar by now with the standard liberal defense. The president, an all too persistent story line goes, is a progressive, left-leaning man of liberal instincts boxed in by cra-a-a-zy Tea Partiers who “took over the Republican Party” and left him no choice but to shift rightward to “get something done.”’ This narrative ought to be understood as embarrassing nonsense. “The Tea Party” is an expression of the long-term rightward drift of the ever more radical, pseudo-conservative Republican Party, for which “deficit reduction” is just a tool in its long-term war on those parts of government that do not serve the rich. Consistent with his longstanding identity as a corporate and imperial “player,” the deeply conservative Obama governed from the big business-friendly, Teapublican-accommodating center-right in his first year, when the Democrats held both houses of Congress, including a filibuster-proof Senate majority. He and his party stood down progressive organizations, energies, and voters (another promise kept to corporate and Wall Street sponsors) in 2009 and 2010, leaving the door open for the Republicans’ Tea Party-re-branding and triumph – a victory that helped Obama move yet further into his right-leaning, privilege-pleasing “comfort zone” (Glen Ford).

What Matters Above All

It is historic that a black family has resided since 2009 in the White House. But let’s be clear about whose black president Obama really is at the end of the day: theirs, not ours. As John Pilger noted two years ago: “The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters, I believe, above all, is the class one serves [emphasis added]. George W. Bush’s inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was perhaps the most multiracial in presidential history. It was PC par excellence….It was also the most reactionary.”

Paul Street is the co-author with Anthony DiMaggio of the newly released Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm Publishers, 2011). He is also the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010.) Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).