In The Empire's New Clothes, Paul Street criticizes the foreign policy direction of the Obama administration, and the large degree to which it represents a continuation of the Bush years. But Street's analysis would be sharper if he had included more material on the coincidence of Obama's foreign policy with the administration's response to the recession. Here Obama has been depressingly predictable, and equal to his foreign policy adherence to past mistakes.
At first it may have seemed as if Obama were charting a new course: the stimulus, clamping down on poorly regulated industries, some promises to limit direct future interventions in the markets (once the bailout was complete), and even some amelioration of uneven trade practices, specifically the provisions accompanying the stimulus which required that certain vital products used in government-funded infrastructure projects, including steel, come from America. But the steam soon ran out of the domestic reform engine, just as it became apparent that there would be no real change in direction on the global front. And here's where things really began to look bad for Obama-the-president versus Obama-the-candidate.
On global trade Obama had promised a fresh approach--revisiting old trade agreements that put the U.S. at a disadvantage, doing more to help real development, as opposed to "disaster capitalism" and policies organized around the formation of more exploitive "economic development zones." It was these policies that perhaps had the greatest potential for change on a grand scale, and it was these policies that went by the wayside the moment the candidate settled into the Oval Office. Perhaps they're being held in solitary confinement now in Guantanamo Bay along with all the broken promises on torture and the multiple wars in which we're involved.
Looking a little closer at the history of Obama-the-politician, though, we shouldn't be too surprised that this is the direction things have taken. Tariq Ali, usually known as an analyst of imperialism, includes a striking and insightful critique of Obama's domestic policies in his book The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad. He begins with an examination of Obama's early years in politics. Bobby Rush, who took on Richard Daley for mayor of Chicago, and subsequently found himself payed back by having his district seat challenged by a relatively unknown Daley machine product, Barack Obama, gloats over his drubbing of the future president in the 2000 primaries:
"Barack was just no threat. The forces that created him were the same forces that were always coming after me."
By this Rush means big money and what he terms "the liberal elite cadre or cabal" of Hyde Park. (This is not a bad description, I think, based on my own knowledge of the area and its politics.) But when Obama ran again, on the South Side, he adapted, and later, running for the U.S. Senate and then for the presidency, he raised huge sums from corporations to make sure he wasn't too dependent on one group of political patrons. Ali writes:
"Obama raised more money--most of it, contrary to campaign mythology, in large corporate donations--than Hillary Clinton before and during the [2008 presidential] primaries, and much more than his Republican rival during the actual campaign."
But with his supporters all that mattered was the general tone of criticism, and not its economic or political content. The triumph of emptiness in politics is hardly new. Still Obama's donors included some of Wall Street's and corporate America's biggest players at a time when they were worried about a massive shift to the left in a country that had just witnessed the biggest robbery of public funds by private interests in history. These donors included Goldman Sachs, which gave close to a million dollars, Microsoft which gave more than $800,000, UBS which gave more than half a million, Lehman Brothers (prior to their collapse and absorption) which gave more than $300,000, and JPMorgan Chase which gave close to $700,000. Not to be left out, the telecommunications industry, always worried about their place at the table, chipped in large contributions, and three of the most powerful corporate law firms in the world threw in a total of $15.8 million. This last group of donors is significant because it's largely law firms that do most of the heavy lobbying in Washington on behalf of their clients, a trick that gets them around much of the doubtful campaign regulatory apparatus and does the extra job of making most of these deals secret as privileged legal communication.
Once elected, Obama promptly caved to these interests on healthcare reform, financial reform, and repealing the Bush tax cuts for the rich which would have cut into investments and the bottom line of Wall Street significantly. The move against taxing the rich--or at least not taxing them any more than they were before the Bush cuts, a paltry difference overall--effectively ended any discussion of even the most minor reforms, since the funds for new projects and increased regulatory enforcement would not be available. Starving the government for revenue during an economic crisis in order to weaken it, and make it less likely to be used as an instrument for social change, has always been a strategy of the ruling class. Instead the discussion turned toward debt reduction.
On the methods of Obama for achieving these regressive ends while retaining at least some genuine voter support inside his own party, Ali has this to say (and I think it's worth quoting here at length):
"Unable and unwilling to deliver any serious reforms, Obama has become the master of the sympathetic gesture, the understanding smile, the pained but friendly expression that always appeared to say, 'Really, I agree and I wish we could, but we can't. We really can't and it's not my fault.' The implication is always that the Washington system prevents any change that he could believe in. But the ring of truth is absent. Whether seriously considering escalating an unwinnable war, bailing out Wall Street, getting the insurance company lobbyists to write the new 'health care' bill or suggest nominations to his cabinet and the Supreme Court, the mechanism he has deployed is always the same. A better option is put on the table for show, but not taken seriously. A worse option is rapidly binned. And a supposed compromise emerges. This creates the impression among party loyalists that the prez is doing his best, that a team of serious thinkers is hard at work considering every possibility, but that the better alternative simply isn't feasible. This is followed by the spin doctors coming down hard to defend some shoddy compromise or other." [emphasis mine]
Ali further points out that this entire "strategy" was designed from the beginning to attract a center-right to extreme right conservative audience. Thus the FOX News appearances. Thus the fawning all over the "tea party" in the form of critical attention at the White House and in corporate media in general. Being a corporatist and having always been a dedicated member of that particular sect, Obama must have known what the lack of structural reform would lead to: years of brutal predatory policy aimed at reducing and denigrating labor.
After all, a certain gross attention to Marxist insight on economy--detached from its ethical and class significance--has always been part of the neoliberal toolbox. A politician like Obama, a careerist, astute by establishment standards, must have realized that the banking bailout would not be enough to fortify the position of the ruling investment class. As a result, a system was concocted to allow the near unlimited shoveling of public funds into the system. Recently there has even been open talk about a new "recapitalization" scheme for Bank of America. Evidently some think that a sufficient amount of time has passed to bring up such an infuriating idea. Gross theorizing dedicated to profit and gain is no substitute for real insight and courage.
The business of managing empire at home is messy and as it has become increasingly obvious to many of Obama's supporters from '08, no help is forthcoming. The critical point hasn't been reached by all, though, and that is due by this point in time--in the face of overwhelming pain and economic ruin all around--to the success of one of the most persistent myths about Obama: his image as some kind of twenty-first century advocacy politician. The myth begins with his self-congratulatory autobiographies, but such a claim would not stand up even to the meager scrutiny of corporate media if it threatened the interests of Obama's main corporate backers, the investment banks. Therefore rather than portraying himself as a tireless defender of the poor, or trumpeting his many victories as a community organizer--of which there were precious few, beyond the elimination of asbestos from a single Chicago housing project--Obama prefers to cut the figure of a midwife to hope and change. This puts him near the action, but off to one side, a "pained" observer to the pain of others, who is able to rise above the irrational emotions that the situation understandably calls up in those going through the crisis in order to mastermind an imaginary escape. The neutral tone is important because it removes any real responsibility for the results, or the lack of them.
The situation gives the political right's loud denunciations of Obama as a "socialist" an eery ring--as if what they were really trying to do was to convince as many of their intellectually limited numbers that this is what a socialist's policies look like. And so, the implication goes, what we need to do is to head hard to the right of the administration, that is, to head hard to the right of...the right. But the liberal version of Obama is even more confused. Ali:
"The portrayal of Obama as a good man in a bad world is no more convincing. The argument that compromises are sometimes essential to achieve limited progressive aims is correct. The problem is that Obama, while an extremely intelligent human being, is not a progressive leader by any stretch of the imagination. Wishing that he were is fine but does not bring about the required transformation."
Obama, like all neoliberals, is fond of saying that he believes corporations have a role to play in the fight against poverty. It's pretty obvious what that role is: control. One could say that the "turn" here, to use the post-modernists' terminology, doesn't amount to much more than the acceptance of the status quo.
Tariq Ali, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad. London: Verso, 2010.