Hit the Road, Barack: Some Farewell Reflections

Photo by Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Marc Nozell | CC BY 2.0

The lying neoliberal imperialist Barack Obama’s nationally televised Farewell Address from Chicago last Tuesday was a fitting monument to the deceptive, fake-progressive oratory he wielded so elegantly in becoming a national phenomenon and a U.S. President. As usual, his oratory was plagued by a deep disconnect between his words and his deeds.

“When Ordinary People Get Involved”

“Now this,” Obama said, speaking of Chicago, “is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.”

Nice words. But as president, Obama moved to crush the Occupy Movement in the fall and winter of 2011 (more on this below). He did nothing as president for card check union authorization — the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA,), which he campaigned on and which would have re-legalized serious union organizing in this country. He kicked EFCA to the curb from day one, along with single-payer health insurance (long supported by most Americans) or even a small health insurance public option. He failed fail to offer one iota of support for the great pro-public worker Wisconsin Rebellion of early 2011.

Is that what the arch-authoritarian, super-secretive, and global-corporatist Trans-Pacific Partnership (which Obama spent much of his second term trying to get through Congress) was about: ordinary people getting engaged and coming together to demand change? Sort of like when the nation’s top thirteen bankers – super-opulent capitalists atop the reckless financial institutions that had just pushed the national and global economy over the cliff – came to the White House in March 2009 and Obama calmed them down, saying (I paraphrase) “hey you’ve got a public relations problem.  I’m the only one between you and the pitchforks and, guess what, I’m here to help.”  Like that, Mr. President? (The taxpayer bailout of the finance capitalist parasites would continue and expand, with nothing for the rest of us.)

Ordinary folks coming together to demand change from the bottom up? Like Obama’s Tuesday White House meetings where he has designated targets for his drone assassination, rightly described by Noam Chomsky as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times”? Where he has acted as global-war-on/of-terror judge, jury, and executioner, in brazen defiance of technically irrelevant national and international law? Or like when he decided to offer Republicans even bigger cuts to Social Security and Medicare than the GOP asked for during the deb-ceiling crisis of summer 2011?

“A Hallmark of Our Democracy”

“In 10 days,” Obama intoned in his well-worn clipped baritone, “the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy. The peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected President to the next. I committed to President-Elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me…. Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.”

But what “democracy” was Obama talking about? It is well known and established that the United States’ political order is an abject corporate and financial plutocracy – an oligarchy of and for Wealthy Few. You don’t have to be a supposedly wild-eyed leftist radical me to think this. Just ask the establishment liberal political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern). Over the past three plus decades, these leading academic researchers have determined, the U.S. political system has functioned as “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of and against the will of the U.S. majority and irrespective of which major party holds the White House and/or Congress,  “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”.

As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo two years ago, “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”

Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy” in the U.S., what Noam Chomsky has called “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked.’”

And why should Trump enjoy a smooth transition? Obama’s neoliberal legacy Donald Trump is a thin- skinned megalomaniac and an arch-sexist racist and eco-cidal quasi or real fascist.  What serious progressive or (small d) democratic would wish a monster like that a smooth transition? Serious progressives should call for mass civil disobedience.

Work with arch-capitalist and deeply reactionary ruling class honey badger super-predators and arch-kleptocratic oligarchs and sociopaths like Trump, Steve Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, Rex Tillerson (who admittedly may not get confirmed), and Betsy deVos to “make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.”? That’s like telling someone to sit down for a nice vegetarian meal and chat with Hannibal Lecter. (Though, I must say, much the same can be said for the various ruling class swamp creatures Obama assembled in his White House – and the creepy animals in George W. Bush and Bill Clinton’s administrations and the previous ones.)

“The Wealthy Are Paying a Fair Share”

“The good news,” Obama told his adoring Chicago farewell crowd, “is that today the economy is growing again.”  Growing, yes, in such incredibly unequal ways that the top tenth of the upper One Percent now has as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.  An incredible 95 percent of the nation’s income growth went to the top 1 percent during Obama’s first term (we’re still waiting for likely comparable data on his second one). A recent study shows that 94 percent of the jobs created under Obama have been part-time, contract, and/or temporary positions (“McJobs”). This is not stable or desirable growth.  It is growth that is predicated on and deepens savage New Gilded Age disparities and prepares the ground for future financial meltdowns.  It is also growth that contributes to ever more imminent environmental catastrophe.

“The wealthy,” Obama claimed last Tuesday night “are paying a fair share of taxes.” Yes, he actually said that.  Quick, someone go tell Bernie Sanders that Obama actually said that.

“Health care costs,” Obama exulted. “are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years.”  I doubt that but even if true, that’s some cheap-ass change to trumpet. Premiums are through the roof and it is driving folks crazy.  The nation desperately needs single-payer or at least some kind of a public option instead of that Republican health insurance bill Obama went with in 2009.

Against “Stark Inequality”

“But, for all the real progress that we’ve made,” Obama the fake populist said three nights ago, , “we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class, and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class. (APPLAUSE)…stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind…The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills. Convinced that the game is fixed against them.”

Well, alright and goddamn, now the president was talking!  Except, hold up: isn’t Barack The Empire’s New Clothes Obama the ultimate poster child of how the neoliberal game is fixed across the two state-capitalist U.S. political organizations? With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and an angry, “pitchfork”-wielding populace at the gates, an actually progressive President Obama could have rallied the populace to push back against the nation’s concentrated wealth and power structures by moving ahead aggressively with a number of policies: a stimulus with major public works jobs programs; a real (single-payer) health insurance reform; the serious disciplining and even break-up or nationalization of the leading financial institutions; massive federal housing assistance and mortgage relief; and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have re-legalized union organizing in the U.S.

No such policy initiatives issued from the new White House. Obama and his Citigroup and Goldman Sachs-appointed team opted instead to pick up the ball from Dubya in giving the U.S. populace what William Greider memorably called “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,” Greider wrote, “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.”

Americans also watched as Obama passed a health insurance reform (the so-called Affordable Care Act) 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 the arch 1 Percenter Mitt Romney. As the retired and veteran Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren notes in his indispensable book The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government (2016), “In 2008, Barack Obama the change agent ran against the legacy of George W. Bush. But when he assumed office his policies in the areas of national security and financial regulation were strikingly similar. Even the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans vilify with uncontrollable rage, is hardly different in outline from Bush’s Medicare [legislation] (both expand medical coverage by subsidizing corporate interests).”

Lofgren is critical of Obama’s liberal defenders who blame all his failures on Republican obstruction. “They forget” Lofgren rightly notes, “that during his first two years in office, he had a Democratic majority in Congress.”

In the summer of 2011, Obama offered the Republicans bigger cuts in Social Security and Medicare than they asked for as part of his “Grand Bargain” put forward amidst the elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis. It was after this point that hundreds of thousands of mostly younger Americans had received enough of Greider’s “blunt lesson” to join the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which sought progressive change through direct action and social movement-building rather than corporate-captive electoral politics. We will never know how far Occupy might have gone. It was shut down by a federally coordinated campaign of repression that joined the Obama administration and hundreds of mostly Democratic city governments in the infiltration, surveillance, smearing, takedown and eviction of the short-lived movement – this even as the Democrats stole some of Occupy’s rhetoric for use against Romney and the Republicans in 2012.

After his re-election, Obama spoke to some of his rich friends at an event called The Wall Street Journal CEO Council. “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.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.”

It was a “touching ruling class moment” (Danny Klatch).

The rightward policy drift got worse until Obama was a full-on lame-duck and could make some more progressive sounding noises with knowledge that nothing he claimed to be for (like an increase in the federal minimum wage) was in danger of being passed. By Lofgren’s insider account in The Deep State:

“For six years running, Obama sought bipartisan compromise with the deluded persistence of Captain Ahab, despite abundant evidence that the GOP was in no mood for it…After frittering away those six years when he had at least one house of Congress in Democratic hands, Obama emerged from the 2014 midterm debacle with an epiphany: now was the time to display the populist president that is supporters thought they had elected in 2008…There was only one problem: how was a lame duck president going to get this agenda through the most numerically dominant Republican Congress since 1929? That absurd dilemma sums up the reality of his presidency…Obama may be, like Napoleon III, a sphinx without a riddle: merely an ambitious politician who tested well with focus groups, and who arrived at just the right moment, promising hope and change as a pretext to administer an entrenched system without any conviction.”

The only part of Lofgren’s passage I might take some issue with is the phrase “without any conviction.” Obama brought a fair amount of capitalist, imperialist, neoliberal, and even subtly white-supremacist conviction to his privilege-serving role. Read his deeply conservative and American Exceptionalist, Ronald Reagan-praising 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope or any of the speeches Obama gave to elite business and foreign policy groups during his years as a U.S. senator and presidential candidate (I covered all that material at length in my widely ignored June 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics) Candidate Obama bent over backwards to distance himself from “angry” Black calls for racial justice and equality, preening as a “post-racial” leader ready and willing to blame poor Blacks for their position at the bottom of American society (this too is covered at length in my 2008 book. See the third chapter, titled “How Black is Obama? Color, Class, Generation and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era”).
And recall that Obama spent no small part of his last years in office trying to pass secretive, undemocratic, and global-corporatist Trans Pacific Partnership.

“We Can’t Be Complacent”

“We can argue about how to best achieve these [egalitarian ] goals,” Obama said last Tuesday in his “home town” Honolulu…I mean Chicago. “But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves.”

Well, Obama was complacent about the Wisconsin rebellion and Black Lives Matter and the Fight for Fifteen.  He was very complacent about the fact that median household Black net worth fell to one thirteenth that of white media household net worth under his watch.  I don’t remember him mentioning that. Racial inequality did not spark of a lot of attention from Obama’s presidency.

But he sure wasn’t complacent when it came to crushing Occupy…..or about cracking down on whistle-blowers or about drone-bombing families and wedding parties in the Muslim world…or. wrecking Libya…or provoking Russia…or antagonizing China….or pushing for the TPP.  No complacency there. No sir.

“Our Founders” and Their Love for “Democracy”

“Our founders,” Obama said last Tuesday, “argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity.”

Obama has been mouthing this revisionist American History as long as I’ve covered him, which is too long. One thing he leaves out there is that democracy was the ultimate nightmare of “our founders,” whose chief agents were wealthy aristo-republican slave-owners and merchant capitalists who feared and hated the property-less and property-poor majority and who would hitch their young republic’s economic development on the systematic torture of millions of Black chattel slaves. The last thing they wanted to see break out in the young republic was popular sovereignty.

Drawn from the elite propertied segments of late British colonial North America, most of the delegates to the U.S. Constitutional Convention shared their compatriot John Jay’s view that “the people who own the country ought to govern it.” As the celebrated U.S. historian Richard Hofstader noted in his classic text The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948): “in their minds, liberty was not linked not to democracy but to property.” Democracy was a dangerous concept to them, conferring “unchecked rule by the masses,” which was “sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.” (In Hofstader’s account, the New England clergyman Jeremy Belknap captured the fundamental idea behind the Founders’ curious notion of what they liked to call popular government. “Let it stand as a principle,” Belknap wrote to an associate, “that government originates from the people, but let the people be taught…that they are unable to govern themselves.”)

Hofstader’s take on the Founders was born out in historian Jennifer Nedelsky’s comprehensively researched volume Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism (1990). For all but one of the U.S. Constitution’s framers (James Wilson), Nedelsky noted, protection of “property” (meaning the people who owned large amounts of it) was “the main object of government.” The non-affluent, non-propertied and slightly propertied popular majority was for the framers “a problem to be contained.”

And let us note yet again (this is an old problem I’ve written about more than once) the sick irony of the technically Black Obama calling slave-owners “our Founders.”  As the prolific historian Gerald Horne shows in his book The Counter-Revolution of 1776Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York, 2014), the Founders’ decision to break off from England emerged largely out of the calculation than that Black chattel slave system on which North American fortunes depended could not survive except through secession from the British Empire.  The colonists’ triumph over London helped slavery expand in subsequent years. The color line between white and black was drawn with harsher lines than ever before in the “land of liberty.” “There is a disjuncture between the supposed progressive and avant-guard import of 1776,” Horne notes, “and the worsening of conditions of Africans and the indigenous that followed upon the triumph of the rebels.” The white North American settlers’ (“our Founders’”) counter-revolution was a great slavery success.

“Our Constitution,” Obama pronounced last Tuesday, “is a remarkable, beautiful gift.”  That was a nice gem in the wake of how the Constitution’s explicitly anti-democratic Electoral College has just and for the second time in this century granted the U.S. presidency to a right-wing Republican who lost the majority presidential vote (and Trump lost by close to three million votes). The Electoral College was inserted into the Constitution to, among other things, buttress the power of the slave-owner class.

You Win, Obama…Now Get Out

Sadly, the nation’s absurdly ancient Constitution, is (consistent with its drafters’ big property-centered world view and the contempt for those without property) more of an authoritarian straightjacket than a democratic gift. I’d love to go into more detail on that, but I’m done (a good introduction is Daniel Lazarre’s book Frozen Republic: How the Constitution is Paralyzing Democracy (Harvest Books, 1997). Twelve years of covering Obama’s noxious fake-progressive bullshit (I started with the deeply reactionary Democratic Convention Keynote Address that launched in the Obama phenomenon in the summer of 2004) has worn me out. So here’s a final personal message to the president: I’ve never been able to keep up with your Orwellian duplicities. You and your speech-writers have always been prolific masters of progressive-posing double-speak. You win. Now please get the fuck out of here.

I have no love for the noxious right-wing quasi-fascist about to set up disastrous shop in the executive branch, but it is with great relief that I will watch Obama take his final helicopter flight off the White House lawn.  I just can’t keep up with Obama’s bullshit anymore. And so I say and sing, in the immortal words of Ray Charles: “Hit the road, J[Bar]ack and don’t you come back no more, no more.  Hit the road, Barack, and don’t you come back no more.”


I’m looking forward to not having to catch Hell on “the left” for telling the truth about what a state-capitalist and imperialist low-life the President of the United States is. Eight more days and I’m free again to cuss out the president without looking over my shoulder for liberals and even some leftists wagging their fingers at me.

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