“There is nothing wrong at all in the hopes we have that Obama’s rhetoric speaks to. The problem lies in what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive desublimation – a hope, a need, that has been buried and denied by an oppressive system, is allowed some room to breathe, then co-opted and redirected back into a form that ultimately reinforces the oppressive system that denied and suppressed our hopes and needs in the first place.”
What is it about partisan electoral politics that seems to limit people’s capacity to engage in rational discourse? In recent months I have had numerous conversations about the upcoming presidential election, but rarely do I find anyone who is voting Democratic who is willing to honestly discuss the campaign of Barack Obama. Well, thank goodness Paul Street has been willing to do this with his new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.
Street has an important analysis of the Obama phenomenon, in part, because Street used to be in Chicago and has been able to closely follow the presidential candidate’s rising star ever since he was a community organizer in Chicago. It was illuminating to discover that Obama’s political career has primarily been open of opportunism. Street notes that Obama has been able to run for office at varying levels because of circumstances that allowed him to throw his hat into the political ring without require much work on his part.
Beginning in 1995, Obama was able to run for an Illinois state senat seat because the Black woman–Alice Palmer–who held that position decided to run for a US House seat that opened because of a sexual scandal involving former Democratic Congressman Mel Reynolds. Street notes that Obama was able to win the 13th District Seat in the Illinois Senate because he received support from Alice Palmer. Obama held that seat from 1997 until 2004. In 2003, Peter Fitzegerald, a Republican US Senator, decided not to run for re-election. This was a seat that was previously held by Carol Moseley Braun and who no doubt would have won the seat again, but decided to run for president in 2004. Again, the chance for Obama to advance presented itself again.
The GOP decided to run a guy by the name of Brian Hull, a man who made his wealth as a Las Vegas gambler. Street says that Hull meet with a Chicago-based political consultant named David Axelrod. who was the media strategist for Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley. Axelrod was concerned about Hull’s domestic abuse past and decided to not work on the GOP candidate’s campaign and instead decided to back the ambitious Democratic candidate Barack Obama. It was during this race that the author states Obama developed some of his relationships with wealthy contributors. Street notes that the cultivation of wealthy donors was aided by a clause in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, which allowed candidates to raise $12,000 from individual donors instead of the usual $2,000. Street devotes a whole chapter to Obama’s financial ties under the heading of “Obama’s Dollar Value.” This is an important chapter that documents Obama’s relationship to centers of financial power, particularly Wall Street.
After Street lays the foundation for a critique of how Obama got to where he is today, he then tackles several key points about the Senator and his so-called progressive past. The author methodically provides documentation on Obama’s record while in the Illinois State Senate and the US Senate. Here is a partial listing of how “progressive” Obama has been on key issues:
* Obama has embraced the Supreme Court ruling that invalidated a Washington D.C ban on personal handguns and claimed that the Second Amendment of the US Constitution pertains to private citizens, not just organized state “militias.”
* Obama has declared his belief in the state’s right to kill certain criminals, including child rapists.
* Obama become the first major party presidential candidate to bypass the public presidential financing system and to reject accompanying spending limits (violating his earlier pledge to work through the public system and accept those limits).
* Obama supported a refurbished spy bill that grants retroactive immunity to telephone corporations who collaborated with the White House in electronic surveillance of American citizens (violating Obama’s earlier pledge to filibuster any surveillance legislation containing such immunity).
* Obama appointed the corporate-friendly Wal-Mart apologist and Hamilton Project economist Jason Furman as his economic policy director – something that stood in curious relation to his criticism (“I won’t shop there”) of Wal-Mart’s low-wage anti-union practices when speaking to labor audiences.
* Obama increased his declared support of “free trade,” contradicting his campaign-trail criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
* Obama embraced (in a speech to the powerful pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee – AIPAC) Bush-McCain rhetoric on the supposed Iranian nuclear threat and promising to do “anything” to protect the nuclear occupation and apartheid state of Israel from Iran (a nation previously attacked by Israel).
* Obama called (in his AIPAC speech) for an “undivided” Israel-run Jerusalem despite the fact that no government on the planet (and not even the Bush administration) supports Israeli’s right to annex that UN-designated international city.
* Obama made Iraq “withdrawal” statements indicating that an Obama administration would not leave Iraq.
* Obama vocally supports a major part of the Republican agenda: the granting of public money to private religious organizations to provide social services.
* Obama “flip-flopped” on energy policy by calling for increased domestic and offshore oil drilling after it became clear that McCain was getting traction with voters by calling for such environmentally insensitive drilling.
The other major policy issue that Street examines is Obama’s position on the US occupation of Iraq, which Mediamouse.org has examined in previous articles. In that section of the book, Street talks about Obama’s fundamental position on the US as Empire. Street believes that Obama is equally committed to maintaining the US global position in what the author calls a “Bi-partisan Imperial Consensus.” As is reflected in some of the foreign policy positions mentioned previously, Obama has been clear on his support for maintaining economic sanctions against Cuba, marginalizing Venezuela, increasing US troop presence in Afghanistan, supporting an increased US military presence in Africa, and maintaining our current relationships with repressive governments such as Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Turkey, and Mexico. Obama has also stated that he will not decrease the bloated US military budget.
In the remaining chapters of the book, Street discusses the role of the Obama campaign within the larger US political context, which in many ways is the more important discussion. The author emphasizes that Obama’s ascendancy is due to the way the political class in this country works. First, Street claims that before there are the formal electoral primaries that exist in the US, the elite political establishments hold their own primary, which Street calls the “silent primary.” This is the process where elite political and financial sectors give approval to candidates they feel will further their agendas. This silent primary is then continued through how the major news media presents “legitimate” candidates and filters out candidates that do not fit into the officially sanctioned candidate mold. Street says this is why candidates like Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader get ignored, and why even more independent candidates within the Democratic Party like Dennis Kucinich and even John Edwards received marginal coverage during the primaries. These factors and the constant devaluing of politics in American culture, Street argues, is what has allowed people to truly believe that Barack Obama represents “progressive” politics.
Street ends the book with somewhat of a prescription for how to change the way politics are done in the US. He offers his own 10 point plan, which is important, because it speaks to a more systemic approach to social change that is desperately needed in this country. One of the main issues that Street points to is the need to look beyond what he calls the “Quadrennial Election Madness.” This is not a new idea and plenty of people have been talking about how the presidential cycle undermines real movement building in this country. Street also thinks that there needs to be a revival of class consciousness and a need for a real labor movement in the US, particularly one that is not tied to partisan politics. More importantly, Street calls for radical change. By radical, Street means that the triple evil that Dr. King talked about–white supremacy, militarism, and capitalism must be abolished. It is with this kind of critique that Street is able to say that none of this will happen if Barack Obama is elected president of the United States. It is unlikely that this book will have much of an impact on the upcoming election since it was published so late in the year, but it is a valuable resource for those interested in movements for social change.
Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, (Paradigm, 2008).