Bad History: Bernie Sanders’ Specious Take on Barack Obama’s “Big Mistake”

Leftish Democrats can’t seem to stop quoting something the nominal “democratic socialist” and (to use an old but in this case accurate Lenninist term) “social chauvinist” Bernie Sanders has been saying about Barack Obama since at least last May. Here’s a useful synopsis of Sanders’ take on Obama from an interview he did two weeks ago on MSDNC, I mean on MSNBC:

“I happen to have a lot of respect and affection for Barack Obama. Obama’s biggest political mistake that he made is after his brilliant campaign in 2008 was that he basically said to the millions of people who supported him, ‘thanks for getting me elected, I will take it from here.’ I will not make that mistake. If I`m elected president, trust me, we`ll be directly involved and working with millions of people who will tell the billionaire class their day is over, they`re not going to get it all. They`re going to start paying their fair share of taxes. We are going to create millions of jobs. We are going to raise the minimum wage. Wall Street will pay a tax on speculation whether they like it or not because millions of people now will be involved in the political process.”

A similar but more elaborate version of Sanders’ Obama breakdown appeared in in an interview he did with the Des Moines Register Star three weeks ago:

“In 2008, Barack Obama ran one of the great campaigns in the history of the U.S.A. A brilliant campaign, an extraordinary campaign, he rallied the American people. But what happened the day after he was elected? Essentially, in so many words, he said ‘Thank you, America for electing me, I’ll take it from here.  I believe that I can sit down, I can negotiate with John Boehner, I can negotiate with Mitch McConnell.  I think they’re fair people and I think we can reach some decent compromises.’ Now, he was wrong in two regards.  These guys never had any intention of seriously negotiating with him and they set more obstructionism than at any point in modern American history.  But second point, given the powers of corporate America and the large campaign donors, you cannot change America unless millions of people are standing behind you, and that is the difference between me and Barack Obama. It is not just, ‘vote for me, I have great ideas.’ It’s ‘you are going to have to be with me the day after the election. Its vote for me because I can’t do it alone.’” [1]

There are five very basic and serious problems with Sanders’ take on Obama’s “mistakes”:

1 No self-respecting and actual leftist should “have a lot respect and admiration for Barack Obama.” Consistent with his longstanding “vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal” (Adolph Reed, Jr. 1996) worldview (that is pro-corporate, pro-Wall Street, and state-capitalist) – honed at Columbia University, Harvard Law, the University of Chicago, the foundation world, and the corporate-financialist Hamilton Project – Obama has betrayed progressive- and populist-sounding campaign rhetoric (indispensable for elections but highly dispensable in making policy) and his “progressive base” from the beginning of his presidency and indeed his political career. The list of those Obama has thrown under the runaway buses of neoliberal capitalism, military empire, and white supremacy is impressive. His resume of perfidy includes:

*the labor movement, betrayed and abandoned on global trade, labor law reform, the Wisconsin rebellion, and the wage- and job-slashing terms of the much-ballyhooed auto bailout.

*environmentalists, abandoned and betrayed on offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing, global carbon emission reduction-efforts, green jobs programs, and more.

*civil libertarians, abandoned and betrayed on Guantanamo, rendition, warrantless wiretaps, secret kills lists, whistleblower protection, domestic drones, the infiltration of protest organizations, and more.

*health care activists, abandoned and betrayed on single-payer, drug prices, and affordable care in general.

*the antiwar community, betrayed by Obama’s provocative wars, militarism, bellicosity, and militarism in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, Eastern Europe, Asia, and (last but not least) Africa.

*Black America, which voted in record numbers for the first technically black president but has gotten nothing from the all-too post-racial Obama as he has presided over the greatest reduction in Black net worth in modern U.S. history.

The main victims of Obama’s predictable and in fact predicted[2] deceptions have not been activists but the broad populace, which has seen wealth and power concentrated yet further upward during his “hope” and “change” administrations. (There is, of course, one group of Americans who have clearly escaped the bus wheels in the Age of Obama: the very predominantly white corporate and financial elite. “Despite all the criticism that President Obama has received lately from Wall Street,” the New Yorker’s perceptive economics writer John Cassidy noted in November of 2010 (the same month when the Tea Party Republican Party took back the U.S. House in the absurd name of fighting “Obama socialism”), “the Administration has largely left the great money-making machine intact. A couple of years ago, firms such as Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs faced the danger that the government would break them up, drive them out of some of their most lucrative business lines – such as dealing in derivatives – or force them to maintain so much capital that that their profits would be greatly diminished…” None of these things – all supported by technically irrelevant majority-progressive public opinion – materialized, reflecting the moneyed elite’s success in defining “realistic” policy options for a president who wanted a second term.)

2. The always corporate-sponsored, neoliberal, imperial, and white-pleasing Barack Obama and his handlers (David Alexrod, David Plouffe and others) did not run a wonderful and well intentioned progressive campaign. They conducted a deeply manipulative big money marketing operation that seduced millions of progressive-leaning Americans into falsely thinking that they were joining a popular movement for social-democratic change by casting a ballot for a smooth-talking and telegenic candidate who – unbeknownst to most voters – was owned by the nation’s corporate, financial, and imperial wealth and power elite. The “deeply conservative” (Larissa MacFarquhar in the The New Yorker in the May of 2007) essence of the candidate and his agenda was evident to anyone who looked beneath the misleading imagery and branding. It was understood by the historically deleted John Edwards campaign, which predicted that a “corporate Democrat[ic]” Obama presidency would do precisely what Sanders accuses it of having done: trying to solve the nation’s problems by “sitting down at a big negotiating table with Big Business and the Republicans” (a strategy that Edwards said would fail since corporate America and the GOP would “eat everything at the table”). It’s not for nothing that Advertising Age hailed the Barack Obama campaign as the “Marketer of the Year” in 2008.

3 The newly elected Obama did not really say “okay I’ll take it from here.” He said “it’s about you” (about the people) and then kept “it” (presidential politics and policy) in the hands of the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire: the Wall Street and Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) crowd. The nation’s wealth and power elite deeply influenced and indeed permeated his campaign, his transition team, and his cabinet. The ruling class had every reason to expect a conservative neoliberal and imperial presidency, which arose on the basis of record-setting campaign contributions from Wall Street. Two and a half weeks after Obama’s victory in the 2008 election, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and member of the CFR, commented on the president-elect’s corporatist and militarist transition team and cabinet appointments with a musical analogy. Obama, Rothkopf told the New York Times, was following “the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.” Obama’s cabinet was loaded with elite agents of corporate and imperial power. Leading players include Defense Secretary and Iraq warrior Robert Gates, carried over from the Bush administration. National Security Advisor James Jones is a former NATO commander known for advocating increased U.S. control of Middle Eastern oil resources. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a leading Iraq War hawk who approved a Bush plan to attack Iran in late 2007. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was a leading pro-war and “pro-Israel,” anti-Palestinian Democrat during his congressional career and had been a front man for the North American Free Trade Agreement in the Clinton White House. Obama’s top economic advisor Lawrence Summers was a leading corporate-neoliberal economist and an architect during the 1990s of the financial deregulation that contributed so significantly to the 2008 economic crisis. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was a Wall Street-approved expert in bailing out large and parasitic financial institutions. Obama’s claim that he would provide the “vision” to move such corporate and imperial operatives in a “progressive” direction is like a baseball manager claiming that he’s going to build a team based on speed and defense with a roster full of clumsy, slow-footed, 280-pound power hitters.

Tellingly enough, even mildly progressive U.S. economists like Paul Krugman, and Joseph Stiglitz were blacklisted from the Obama administration. These unradical but left-of-center economists were too much for the Wall Street 1 Percenters who held sway in “socialist” Obama administration.

For economic direction, the new White House preferred regressive corporate-neoliberal hacks associated with Goldman Sachs and with the pro-business economic think tank the Hamilton Project. John R. MacArthur, the president of Harper’s magazine, noted in late March that Summers and Geithner “were “in place precisely to prevent real reform of a banking system that helped put Obama in the White House” (the Providence Journal, March 19, 2009).

3 It was not really a “political mistake” for Obama to fail to mobilize and empower rank and file progressive citizens and movements. As Jon Schwarz explained on The Intercept last June:

“It’s unlikely that Obama’s demobilization of his supporters was actually a ‘mistake.’ As [early Obama strategist Marshall] Ganz put it in 2010, Obama saw his supporters ‘like a tiger you can’t control’; Ganz speculated that the president’s real goal was simply to ‘keep the machine on for the next election.’ In other words, Obama was acting in accordance with what I like to call ‘The Iron Law of Institutions’ — that is, the people in charge of institutions (as Obama was in charge of the Democratic party and his ‘movement’ in 2009) care first and foremost about their own power within the institution, rather than the power of the institution itself….So while the Democratic party itself would have been much more powerful overall if Obama had kept his grassroots mobilized and involved, Obama himself and his most important donors and supporters would have been less powerful within the Democratic party. So Obama let the enthusiasm and activism surrounding his candidacy dissipate, all his supporters stayed home in 2010 and Obama’s party suffered a catastrophic collapse….But from Obama’s perspective, so what? As Boies Penrose, an early 20th-century Republican senator from Pennsylvania, said when he was told that his slate of anti-reform candidates would lose and destroy the GOP: ‘Yes, but I’ll preside over the ruins.’”

Obama hasn’t merely failed to sustain and organize grassroots movements and honor their wishes. He has coldly ignored and actively repressed such movements when they arose. Recall that Obama refused to offer even mild “bully pulpit” support for the remarkable public worker uprising against right-wing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in early 2011. Obama’s Department of Homeland Security engaged in active coordination of the repression of the Occupy Wall Street movement across the country later the same year.

Obama’s hostility to popular and social movements and organizing is a “mistake” only if one foolishly assumes that the “deeply conservative” and “vacuous to repressive neoliberal” Obama is actually a left-leaning progressive. He is no such thing and never was.

5 “Republican obstructionism” is a convenient and misleading cover for Obama’s deep corporate-financial conservatism – one that ignores Obama’s and the dismal demobilizing dollar Dems’ own central role in the empowerment of the right. The notion that the great supposed wannabe people’s president Obama has been powerless to act on his supposed noble and progressive 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 does not hold up to the record of Obama’s critical first year in office. That first year suggests very strongly Obama 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 onetime Obama fan Thomas Frank observed on Salon last January, it would have been more than good policy (“the economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced”) if Obama had enacted populist and progressive measures. 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.” 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,” the early Obama enthusiast Frank had the decency to admit (though without acknowledging his past hopey-changey-ness), “they will likely focus on a glaringly obvious, and indeed still more hard-headed explanation that the [liberal] 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.”[3]

Never mind that the privilege-friendly corporate Democratic Obama year is precisely the neoliberal and deeply conservative Obama that a significant number of supposedly ultra-radical writers and activists (myself included) futilely tried to warn Frank and other liberals about from very beginning of the Obama Syndrome. In any event, there’s no “perhaps” and “maybe” about it.

The Republican obstructionism that followed Obama’s “squandered” opening 20 months needs to be understood as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. 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 citizenry instead of the dictates of the nation’s corporate and financial masters.

And what did the Republicans obstruct – the single-payer health insurance, the break-up and/or nationalization (or even just serious regulation) of Wall Street, the financial transaction tax, the dramatically increase minimum wage (to $15 an hour), the large –scale green jobs programs, the re-legalization of union organizing, the free college tuition, the serious attack on climate change, the seriously progressive taxation, and the progressive renegotiation of “free trade” (investor rights) agreements that Bernie Sanders is calling for this year, all receiving majority support in public opinion surveys? The significant rollback of the nation’s gargantuan military budget and global imperial footprint in preference for “peace dividend” social spending that most Americans have long supported and that the imperial-social chauvinist Sanders does NOT seriously embrace (tragically enough since his ambitious progressive domestic agenda is crippled without massive transfers from the military-Keynesian budget to social-Keynesian expenditure)? Hardly! No, Obama met Republican hindrance on a corporatist health care “reform” that only the big six insurance companies and Big Pharma could love and that he took from the Republican Heritage Foundation and Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts – and on other mild Big Business-friendly measures that fell far short of progressive by any meaningful historical measure.

There is perhaps some noble, sincerely progressive, left-leaning, and social-democratic content in Sanders’ notion that no U.S. president could enact seriously democratic domestic without a mass popular movement in place to help him battle the corporate and financial powers that be. But why jump into the latest and next big money-big media-major party and candidate-centered quadrennial electoral extravaganza in the absence of such a movement in the first place? Why dedicated one’s eloquence and energy to major party electoralism and the inherently narcissistic, personality-fixated pursuit of higher office instead of to actual popular, rank-and-file movement building beneath and beyond the staggered, corporate-managed election spectacles? Why channel popular energies into the Democratic Party, the timeworn graveyard of social movements? And here’s a further and (sorry) depressing thought: Sanders’ claim that he cannot undertake serious policy moves against corporate America may well have a dark and victim-blaming side. It leaves the door open for a Sanders’ presidency (very much a long shot) to justify its inevitable deep accommodations with the powers that be with the claim that the people didn’t make him be more progressive.


1 If you listen to the Register Star interview closely at 12 seconds in you can hear Sanders clearly pronouncing Obama’s name as “Barack Obomber” – an appropriate term given Obama’s long history of bombing, drone-attacking, and otherwise lethally assaulting people across the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and Africa.

2 For my own efforts in that regard, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008).

3 For a heavily annotated record of Obama’s corporate, imperial, eco-cidal, and objectively white-supremacist performance during his first 15 months in office, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010).

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