The Audacity of Sleaze: Profiles in Corruption

Photo by Carlos Pacheco | CC BY2.0

It actually doesn’t take a lot of courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential.
— Barack Obama, Acceptance Speech for the Kennedy Library Foundation’s “Profiles in Courage” Award, May 7, 2017

What could be more absurd than Drone War King Barack Obama getting an award for courage?

The speech that Obama gave after getting the 2017 “Profiles in Courage” prize from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation last Sunday – that’s what.

The Venality of Hope

In his ponderous address, Obama showed that his aptitude for grandiose, fake-progressive oratory has not been extinguished by dips with Richard Branson in the cool Caribbean (more on that below). Obama’s brash Orwellian chutzpah was on grand display. He praised freshly elected Congresspersons for having the “political courage” to “save the financial system…even when it was unpopular” in 2009.

Yes, these dauntless peoples’ representatives had the epic valor required to boldly defy public opinion by expanding a major taxpayer bailout to the well-heeled Wall Street parasites who crashed the national and global economy through their selfish and reckless behavior –opulent bloodsuckers who grant lucrative salaries, speaking fees, and other neoliberal disbursements to not-so public officials who do their bidding while “serving” (the Few) in government.

Ask Obama. Ex-prez “O” has been spotted kiteboarding with Branson, the British billionaire airline mogul, who is leading the charge for the privatization of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. Obama’s been seen boating in the Pacific with Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Bruce Springsteen on a $300 million luxury yacht owned by recording mogul billionaire David Geffen.  The Obamas reached an eight-figure publishing deal ($65 million) for his-and-her memoirs on their years in the White House. And Obama will speak for $400,000 at a Wall Street health care conference in September, hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald LP.

Nothing says, “show me the money” like POTUS on your resume. Call it the Audacity of Sleaze.  The Venality of Hope.

“The Ultimate Owner”

It’s nothing new. Offering politicos big paydays after they’ve spent years working at moderate taxpayer-ceilinged salaries in not-so “public service” is a significant and timeworn way in which the finance-led corporate sector gets what it wants from government.  As Mike Lofgren noted in his widely-read volume The  Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government. “Wall Street may be the ultimate owner of the Deep State and its strategies, if for no other reason than that it has the money to reward government operatives with a second career beyond that is lucrative beyond the dreams of avarice – certainly beyond the dreams of a government salaryman” (emphasis added).

Smart “public” officials who want to live comfortably after stints on the government side of the great state-capitalist revolving door know better than to seriously antagonize the ruling class that lives on deeply behind the marionette theater of electoral and parliamentary politics in the “visible state.”

Smart, and so damn courageous. What fearless pluck they show when they let the needs of the rich prevail over those of the working-class majority!

In Obama’s case, we see the special resolution wanted to take stupendous payouts from corporate and financial masters even though doing so walks you and the not-so progressive party you claim to champion right into the right-wing’s wheelhouse.  Obama’s big cash-in is the perfect story for Breitbart, FOX News and white nationalist talk radio, which delights in news showing the globalist elitism of top Democrats.

“How Can I Help?”

One neat Orwellian moment in Obama’s acceptance speech came when Obama said that “it actually doesn’t take a lot of courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential.”

Read that again.  It’s some pretty sweet rhetoric coming from Mr. Mendacity of Hope.

Delivered as a reproach to degenerate Republicans working to get rid of his signature health insurance reform, Obama’s statement took me on a trip down memory into “Wall Street Barry’s” first years in the White House. The nation’s first half-white president had risen to power on a sea of financial sector green, with record-setting bankrolling from Wall Street and K Street election investors. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in a Harpers’ Magazine report titled “Obama, Inc.” in the fall of 2006, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’”

An answer to the lobbyist’s question came less than three years later: priceless. In his indispensable book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (2011), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind told a remarkable story from March of 2009. Three months into Obama’s presidency, popular rage at Wall Street was intense and the leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive. The nation’s financial “elite” had driven the nation and world’s economy into an epic – and millions knew it. Having ridden into office partly on a wave of popular anger at this staggering capitalist malfeasance, Obama called a meeting of the nation’s top thirteen financial executives. The banking titans came to the White House with their fails between their legs. full of dread.

But they left pleased to learn that the new “progressive” president was 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 masters of finance. who had destroyed millions of jobs, there was, as Suskind put 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” (emphasis added).

Such gutsy valor!

“You’ve Got to Meet Real Socialists”

The new “progressive” president acted like something out of a text assigned by one of the Marxist professors he was strangely attracted to as an undergraduate student. 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 White House, which opted instead to give the U.S. populace what William Greider memorably called “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” Americans, Greider wrote in the Washington Post, “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..” Americans also watched as Obama moved on to pass 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 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 “touching ruling class moment” (Danny Klatch), the American people 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. It was at that point that hundreds of thousands of mostly younger Americans had received enough of Obama’s “blunt lesson about power” 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 since 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 Obama stole some of Occupy’s rhetoric for use against Romney and the Republicans in 2012.

Such bravery. Such striking progressive lionheartedness.

Trans-Pacific Courage

The massive taxpayer bailout of the super fat cats would continue, along with numerous other forms of corporate welfare for the super-rich. It was unaccompanied by any serious effort to regulate their conduct or by any remotely comparable bailout for the millions evicted from their homes and jobs by the not-so invisible hand of the “free market.” There was not even the tiniest little financial transaction tax required! No wonder 95 percent of national U.S. income gains went to the top 1% during Obama’s first term.

During his second term, Obama showed enough pluck and nerve to relentlessly seek Congressional approval for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a classically neoliberal so-called free trade (really investor rights) agreement that had been under secret construction by multinational corporate lawyers and globalist government officials for at least a decade. It was highly unpopular (for some very good reasons) with the citizenry but highly favored atop the corporate and financial sectors.

Fearless and progressive audacity indeed.

“A Time of Cynicism About Our Institutions”

“We live,” Obama said last Sunday, “in a time of great cynicism about our institutions… It’s a cynicism that’s most corrosive when it comes to our system of self-government, that clouds our history of jagged, sometimes tentative but ultimately forward progress, that impedes our children’s ability to see in the noisy and often too trivial pursuits of politics the possibility of our democracy doing big things.”

Good God, but who writes and/or speaks sentences like that? How does Obama talk so straightforwardly about this cynicism after sitting atop a presidency that epitomized the ruling class capture (combining ideological and cognitive takeover with financial debasement) that turns everyday people sour on a political order wherein “government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it” – and little for the rest, who really need and deserve it?  How does the man dissociate from his own history with such effortless, fake-progressive ease?

All this from Obama just as he is diving into a great post-presidential victory lap and soul-numbing cha-ching orgy that offers yet more proof of his capitalist indoctrination and moral debauchery. Obama is perhaps the ultimate poster child for the term corporate sell out.

He is a leading agent of the very cynicism he cynically denounces. The man has no shame.

What System of Self-Government?

Just what “system of self-government” and “democracy” does he purport to be talking about? You don’t have to be one of those scary Marxists young Obama used to admire and hang around with to acknowledge that U.S. politics and policy are subject to an “unelected dictatorship of money.”  Over the past three plus decades, the liberal political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern) reported six years into Obama’s presidency, the U.S. political system has become “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 or even against the will of the U.S. majority and regardless of which party holds the White House or Congress. “The central point that emerges from our research,” Gilens and Page wrote, “is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence” (emphasis added).”

As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM), “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.” (Maybe it’s not “their government”?)

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

The Real Issue to be Faced

What is so terrible and unhealthy about “cynicism” regarding such institutions as, say, the United States’ party and elections systems? I’m not sure how “our [whose?] institutions” could be any more deserving of skepticism and distrust than they are right now.

I was very impressed by this comment from Yasser Louati, talking to Amy Goodman about the election of the neoliberal investment banker Emmanuel Macron as President of France: “France does not need an umpteenth new president; it needs a new republic, a new constitution, a new organizing of institutions.”  Much the same can be said about the United States. Political institutions that claim to be “democratic” whole offering voters a binary choice between regressive and dissembling neoliberal shills like the Clintons, Obama, Macron on one hand and neo-fascists like Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump on the other hand do not deserve our respect.

Impeaching or otherwise removing the orange-haired beast (and thereby placing the white nationalist Christian fascist Mike Pence in the Oval Office) won’t alter that basic reality.  The United States doesn’t need a new and 46th president; it needs a democracy, a new constitution, a new organizing of institutions.

Obama’s pretend hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the end of his life with the belief that the real faults in American life lay not so much in men as in the oppressive institutions and social structures that reigned over them.  He wrote that “the radical reconstruction of society itself” was “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters.  He had no interest, of course, is running for the White House of all things.

(For what it’s worth, the Civil Rights leader and democratic socialist King  refused to cash in on his fame after receiving his Nobel Peace Prize.)

“We’ve Got Some Soul-Searching to Do”

“Those of us who consider ourselves progressives,” Obama said last Sunday, “those of us who are Democrats, we’ve got some soul-searching to do to see what kind of courage we show.”

Well, yes. To quote some characters in one of Obama’s favorite television shows, The Wire:  “true dat” and “In-deed.”

So, like…does “O” think he’s some kind of a role model for deep soul-searching on just what it means to be a progressive Democrat?

“We lose sight sometimes of our own obligations, each of ours,” Obama added, “all the quiet acts of courage that unfold around us every single day, ordinary Americans who give something of themselves not for personal gain but for the enduring benefit of another.”

Personal gain –  like the tens of millions of dollars the now super-wealthy Obamas are raking in after helping the ruling class give the nation’s working class majority “a blunt lesson about power”?   Wouldn’t it  be more honest and thus better to just openly give the citizenry a raised middle finger and say “I want my winnings and [another line from The Wire] Fuck Y’all”?

Even the fake-Independent pseudo-socialist and Democratic Party sheepdog Bernie Sanders had no choice but to criticize the moral and political implications of Obama’s coming Wall Street speech. “I just think it does not look good,” Sanders told CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux: “I just think it is distasteful — not a good idea that he did that.” In-deed.


“I think,” Obama intoned at the Kennedy Library, “of every young activist who answers the injustices still embedded in our criminal justice system not with violence, not with despair, but with peaceful protests and analysis and constructive recommendations for change.”

Oh, non-violence – like Obama’s criminal bombing of Bola Boluk, which tore dozens of children to pieces? Like his drone war program, rightly described by Chomsky as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times?” Like when he ordered the killings of the American citizen and influential Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and then (two weeks later) al-Awlaki’s American-born 16-year old son Abdulrahman in Yemen – two among many imperial homicides that led the Nobel Peace Prize winner to half-jokingly tell White House staffers that it “turns out I’m pretty good at killing people”? Like the savage attacks on Occupy encampments that Obama’s Department of Homeland Security helped coordinate with Democratic Party-run city governments across the country in late 2011?

Obama might also have told his Kennedy Library audience how “it actually doesn’t take a lot of courage” to kill and terrorize Muslim villagers with drones and bombs launched from distant  air-conditioned command centers and great flying fortresses that are free to wreak havoc without so much as a single opposing deterrent in the sky or on the ground.  After all, the militant Cold Warrior John F. Kennedy had the “courage” to order numerous terrorist attacks on the people of revolutionary Cuba, to initiate the deadly U.S. “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky’s description of the so-called Vietnam War during the 1960s), and to help bring the world within a hair’s break of nuclear annihilation in October of 1962.

“Constructive recommendations” for tackling savage racist mass incarceration (what Obama downplays as “the injustices still embedded in our [whose?] criminal justice system”…like his at best marginal calls for reduced sentencing restricted to nonviolent offenders?

“We Move it in the Direction of Justice and Equality”

“I’ve said before,” Obama intoned, “that I believe what Dr. King said, that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,’ but I’ve also said it does not bend on its own. It bends because we bend it, because we put our hand on that arch, and we move it in the direction of justice and freedom and equality and kindness and generosity.”

Yeah, like when Obama assured the nation’s top and heedless financial freeloaders that he was on their side and then proceed to govern in accord with their wildest wishes for absolution and restoration to the point where the top tenth of the upper U.S. 1 Percent ended up with as much wealth as the bottom U.S. 90 Percent? Like when Occupy was smashed and the dollar Obomber Democrats rigged the primary election game (sorry to sound “cynical”) against the actually progressive Sanders campaign so that Hillary Clinton could carry the arch-neoliberal banner into a disastrous loss to the neofascist Frankenstein and freak-show who Obama provoked into running for the presidency at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner? Like when Obama coldly excluded single-payer health insurance advocates from the national health care reform process in 2009? Like when he made it his special business to push the TPP? Like when he expanded the Wall Street bailout with no strings attached for the financial Few and no bailout for the working class Many? Like when he refused to issue an apology for murdering children in Bola Boluk? Like the al-Awkaki killings? Like all that and so much more?

I won’t go into all the vapid historical nonsense Obama’s acceptance speech purveyed about that supposed liberal and progressive icon John F. Kennedy – a militant corporatist and imperialist who had no special love for the Civil Rights, peace, and social justice activists of his era.  People who still care about such historical matters can start into the dark realities of JFK and his administration with these books: Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture (Boston: South End Press, 1999); Bruce Mirrof, Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy (Longman, 1979); Howard Zinn, Postwar America, 1945-1971 (a forgotten classic).

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