The Liberal Apologies for Obama’s Ugly Reign

“Fact and Scrutiny”

So this is how Barack Obama is moving into the final 20 months of his dismal neoliberal presidency, which he once (proudly) described as ideologically akin to the Eisenhower White House. He is nauseating much of his own Wall Street-captive party’s electoral base by trying to push through the absurdly regressive, secretive, eco-cidal, and global-corporatist Trans Pacific Partnership treaty – a massive investor rights measure that promises to reduce wages, deepen inequality, undermine popular sovereignty, and assault already endangered livable ecology in the name of (what else?) “free trade” and “growth.”

The treaty is so toxically capitalist and transparently authoritarian that even the leading right-wing corporate Democrats Bill and Hillary Clinton – champions of the arch-neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – have to keep their distance from it in accord with Mrs. Clinton’s presidential ambitions.

After going on television to childishly claim that U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s elementarily logical and evidence-based “arguments [against TPP] don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny” (harsh if inept words for a top party colleague and ally), Obama was at first unable to persuade all but one U.S. Senate Democrat not to block his bid for “fast-track” legislation, which would grant the president to bring the TPP to an up-or-down floor vote with no amendments. A subsequent re-do secured enough sold-out Democratic votes to combine with unanimous Republican support to succeed in the upper Congressional body.

“A Striking Piece of This President’s Environmental Legacy”

Speaking of ecological ruin, the Obama administration has just cleared the way for the giant climate-changing multinational oil corporation Royal Dutch/Shell to begin drilling for fossile fuels in the Arctic Ocean this summer. Shell got approval to drill in the U.S. portion of the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. Shell’s leases are 70 miles out, in a remote, untouched, and pristine area that provides critical habitats for several rare species and large marine mammals. It’s a treacherous area characterized by extreme storms, likely to cause massive oil spills.

The New York Times described Obama’s decision as “a devastating blow to environmentalists.” It might have added “and to prospects for a paulstreetdecent future.” Environmental groups have long warned against the madness of drilling in the area, which holds 22 billion barrels of oil and 93 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The decision comes just four months after Obama opened up a large portion of the southern U.S. Atlantic coast to new deep-water offshore drilling, the Times notes. The national newspaper of record might have added that it comes five and half years after Obama, elected on a promise (among other things) to reduce climate change, almost singlehandedly undermined desperate international efforts to set binding limits on global carbon emissions in Copenhagen. His environmental record ever since has been calamitous, greasing the eco-cidal skids for the United States’ largely fracking-based emergence as the world’s leading oil and gas producer in the name of an “all-of-the-above” (nuclear included) energy policy and so-called national energy independence.

According to Times environmental reporter Coral Davenport, speaking on the “P”BS Newshour last Monday, the Chukchi Sea announcement “is still a very striking piece of this president’s environmental legacy,” one that has “environmental groups…surprised.”

“Every Four Years”

There are a number of understandable and respectable responses (horror and disgust come to mind) to these latest corporatist White House policies, but surprise is not one of them. This is precisely the capitalist Obama that a good cadre of Left activists and writers tried (none more voluminously than this writer) to warn liberals and progressives about from the beginning of the Obama phenomenon and then presidency. Like the Bill Clinton presidency but with considerable less success to a far less favorable economic and global context and to Obama’s comparative political ineptitude, the Obama administration has been (as predicted) a monument to faux-progressive corporate and Wall Street rule and to the wisdom of left historian Lawrence Shoup’s judgement in early 2008:

“Every four years many Americans put their hopes in an electoral process, hopes that a savior can be elected—someone who will make their daily lives more livable, someone who will raise wages, create well-paying jobs, enforce union rights, provide adequate health care, rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, and end war and militarism. In actuality, the leading ‘electable’ presidential candidates have all been well vetted by the hidden primary of the ruling class and are tied to corporate power in multiple ways. They will stay safely within the bounds set by those who rule America behind the scenes, making sure that members of the plutocracy continue to be the main beneficiaries of the system…It is clear that, at best, U.S. ‘democracy’ is a guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population objects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process.”

“The Republicans Made Him Do It”

Faced with a relentless onslaught of evidence in favor of Shoup’s judgment over the Age of Obama (a subset of the Age of Bipartisan Neoliberal Oligarchy), liberal and progressive Obama defenders have brandished two justifications for their president’s depressingly Big Business-friendly record. The first rationalization claims that Obama has always and sincerely wanted to do genuinely progressive and left-leaning things to roll back the exaggerated power of the wealthy corporate and financial few and to defend the nation’s poor and working class majority and the common good. Alas, the excuse runs, the nation’s great wannabe people’s president and his peoples’ party has been powerless to act on these noble ambitions because of the combined reactionary and checkmating influences of the Republican Party and its big money and big media (FOX News et al.) backers.

But this is a weak defense. Obama and his fellow Democrats had no actual commitment to the progressive- and populist-sounding things he promised on the campaign trail – things that were well within their capacity to enact after Obama and the Democrats’ sweeping victory in 2008. As the liberal author, Harper’s essayist, and former Obama fan, Thomas Frank, observed on Salon last January, it would have been more than good policy if Obama had enacted populist and progressive measures (“the economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced”). It would also have been “good politics,” highly popular with the nation’s mostly white working class majority— something that would “have deflated the rampant false consciousness of the Tea Party movement and prevented the Republican reconquista of the House in 2010.” As the onetime Obama enthusiast Frank had the decency to admit, the financial crisis “worked out the way it did”—with Wall Street unpunished, richer, and more powerful than ever—“in large part because Obama and his team wanted it to work out that way…When historians seek to explain the failures of the Obama years” Frank mused, “they will likely focus on a glaringly obvious, and indeed still more hard-headed explanation that the apologists for Obama’s enfeeblement now overlook: that perhaps Obama didn’t act forcefully to press a populist economic agenda because he didn’t want to. That maybe he didn’t do certain of the things his liberal supporters wanted him to do because he didn’t believe in them.”

Never mind that the privilege-friendly corporate Democratic president Frank described this year is precisely the neoliberal and deeply conservative Obama that a significant number of radical Left writers and activists (myself included) futilely tried to warn Frank and other liberals about from the very beginning

“To Quell the Mob”

My favorite story indicating the depth and degree of Obama’s loyalty to the wealthy Few comes from the spring of 2009. In his important book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind tells a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Barack Obama’s supposedly progressive, left-leaning presidency, popular anger at Wall Street was intense and the nation’s leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive in the wake of the financial collapse and recession they had created. The new president called a meeting of the nation’s top 13 financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came into the meeting full of dread. As Suskind noted:

“They were the CEOs of the thirteen largest banking institutions in the United States… And they were nervous in ways that these men are never nervous. Many would have had to reach back to their college days, or even grade school, to remember a moment when they felt this sort of lump-in-the-throat tension…As some of the most successful men in the country, they weren’t used to being pariahs… [and] they were indeed pariahs. The populist backlash against the financial sector—building steadily since September—was finally beginning to cause grave discomfort on Wall Street. As unemployment ballooned and credit tightened, the country began to look inward, toward the origins of the panic and its disastrous consequences.”

In the end, however, the anxious captains of high finance left the meeting pleased to learn that Obama was totally in their camp. For instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis—workers, minorities, and the poor – Obama sided unequivocally with those who had caused the meltdown. “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…. I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

For the banking elite who destroyed millions of jobs in their lust for profit, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.” When “the bankers arrived in the State Dining Room,” Suskind notes, “Obama had them scared and ready to do almost anything he said…. An hour later, they were upbeat, ready to fly home and commence business as usual” (Confidence Men).

This remarkable episode happened in the White House in a time when, to repeat, the Democrats held the majority in both houses of Congress along with an angry populace ready with good reason for Wall Street and 1% blood. And what did the populace get from this seemingly progressive alignment of the stars? The venerable left liberal journalist William Grieder put it very well in a March 2009 Washington Post Op-Ed: “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”

“Inside the 40 Yards Lines”

They also watched as Obama moved on to pass a health insurance reform that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, kicking the popular alternative (single payer “Medicare for All”) to the curb while rushing to pass a program drafted by the Republican Heritage Foundation and first carried out in Massachusetts by his 2012 Republican opponent Mitt Romney. As Obama later explained to some of his rich friends at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council a month after trouncing Romney’s bid to unseat him: “When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans–we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines…People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.”

A year and a half before this tender ruling class moment, the American people had watched Obama offer the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” offered during the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis of 2011

Republican “Obstruction” as Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

It has all unfolded pretty much as I predicted (easily and with no particular claim to originality or clairvoyance) in my spring 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics. It’s gone ways that are consistent with my account of Obama’s first year in the White House in my follow-up volume The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm Publishers, June 2010).

I was apprehensive about writing the second book when my publisher first suggested it. Did I really want another volume on my resume with the noxious neoliberal Obama’s name in the title? And wasn’t it to too early to write a relevant account of Obama in power? In retrospect, however, I’m glad I followed through on The Empire’s New Clothes – a detailed account of Obama’s predicted betrayals of his progressive “base,” imagery, and campaign promises in different and interrelated realms: race, labor, environment, immigrant rights, civil liberties, war, and empire during his initial eleven months as U.S. president. The book is useful as a record of Obama’s allegiance to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, institutional racism, nationalism, and eco-cide in a time when his party held Congress and the citizenry was angrily primed for progressive and even populist policy – in the time when it was most transparently ridiculous to say that “the Republicans made him” be neo-Hooverian business conservative.

There’s also Thomas Frank’s important point, something I warned about in both my 2008 book and its spring 2010 sequel: the Republicans wouldn’t have had their great Tea Party movement takeover of Congress in 2010 if Obama had actually governed in accord with the progressive and populist sentiments of the mere citizenry (as I predicted he would not in my 2008 book) instead of the dictates of the nation’s corporate and financial masters.

“We Didn’t Make Him Be the Progressive He Wanted to Be”

A second liberal and “progressive” apology for Obama’s corporatism, imperialism, militarism, and eco-cidalism places the blame on the rest of us. It’s our failure, this second storyline goes. The citizenry and activists are at fault for not making Obama be the progressive, populist, environmentalist, and peace-dividend president he really wanted to be. We didn’t compel him to advance the decent, egalitarian, and ecologically sustainable policies he sincerely desired to enact by organizing and protesting from the bottom up.

This justification for Obama’s power-serving presidency is barely less idiotic than “the Republicans blocked him” excuse. It is certainly true that the U.S. “progressive movement” – if such a thing even exists now or existed in 2009 – has failed badly on numerous levels. Any such movement ought to seek to be powerful enough that it has to be taken into consideration by whoever sits in the White House and other top public offices, elected and otherwise. There isn’t much to say for progressive efforts along those lines in the Age of Obama, with some partial exceptions.

Still, there are two critical flaws in this rationalization. The first problem, shared with the “blame the Republicans” narrative, is the silly idea (revealingly shared with the Teapublican “insurgency”) of Obama as a left-leaning politician who wanted to do good progressive, populist, social-democratic, and peaceful things. Any remotely serious investigation of the real Obama and his career (what I undertook in my 2008 volume) would have revealed someone very different: a “deeply conservative” agent and servant of American Empire and Inequality, Inc. masquerading (like fellow arch-neoliberal Bill Clinton in 1992) as a man of the people – an old and deadly character (with a tantalizing racial twist fit for the post-Civil Rights era in Obama’s case) at the long duplicitous heart of U.S. political culture.

The second flaw is that the Obama administration and Democratic Party operatives and elective officials across the country have worked diligently precisely to destroy left progressive movements through a combination of repression and co-optation. Take the Occupy Movement, a populist uprising against the bipartisan corporate and financial oligarchy in the late summer and fall of 2011. It was crushed by a coordinated federal campaign of surveillance, infiltration, and violent assault, with the lion’s share of the repression carried out by Democrat-run city governments across the country. At the same time, Obama and other corporate Democrats did everything they could to steal and incorporate Occupy’s populist message in their fake-progressive campaign against the former “equity capitalist” Mitt Romney and other “1 percenter Republicans” in the 2012 elections.

Hillary Picks Up the Hitchensian Ball

It was nothing new. The “essence of American politics,” a still left Christopher Hitchens noted in his 1999 book on the Clintons (No One Left to Lie To) “is the manipulation of populism by elitism.” The swindle continues. As I demonstrated in a recent essay, Mrs. Clinton is providing an almost picture-perfect illustration of Hitchens’ thesis in her belatedly announced bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. If she’s elected (a distinct possibility given the Republican Party’s devolution into what Norman Ornstein calls “an apocalyptic cult”), we can expect bamboozled liberals and progressives to blame the Republicans for her militantly corporatist, imperialist, and eco-cidal policies. There will also be the charge that the people and the Left bear responsibility for the predictable White House ugliness because we didn’t roll up our sleeves to make her be the progressive president she really wants to be. The double-fanged idiotic liberal apology will be passed on from Clinton41 to Obama43 to Clinton44. Never mind that few things could be more preposterous than to dream that a White House ruled by the militantly pro-Big Business and hawkish Hillary Clinton (who last year praised the blood-soaked arch-imperialist coup-manager Henry Kissinger as a great champion of participatory democracy) could be pushed to the progressive and populist left by U.S. citizens and social movements. Few things except perhaps the belief that Bernie Sanders is going to achieve anything more than help his “good friend” Hillary Clinton campaign in accord with Hitchens’ dictum.

Learn Something

“Read a book,” an old Marxist history professor of mine used to tell students: “you might learn something.” U.S. liberals and progressives might want to read up on recent American political history. They might learn something about how they’ve been manipulated by Democratic politicians and presidents again and again and decide to invest their hopes and energies in a different kind of more genuinely progressive and democratic politics beneath and beyond the big money-big media-major party-mass-marketed-candidate-centered presidential “electoral extravaganzas” that are staged as “yet another method for marginalizing the population” (Noam Chomsky, October 27, 2004) once every four years.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)


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