Swans Commentary » swans.com March 14, 2011  



Taking Obama's Measure


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



Hodge, Roger D.: The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism, HarperCollins, 2010, 259 pages, ISBN 978-0-06-201126-8

Ali, Tariq: The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad, Verso, 2010, 153 pages, ISBN-13 978-1-84467-449-7

Street, Paul: The Emperor's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power Paradigm, 2010, 274 pages, ISBN 978-1-59451-845-4 (paperback)


(Swans - March 14, 2011)   Starting in 2005, just after things had turned completely sour in Iraq, a visit to your local bookstore would reveal a plethora of books about how rotten George W. Bush was. Eric Alterman's The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America and David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush were fairly typical offerings, amounting to the printed version of what could be heard any evening on MSNBC.

While people like Alterman and Corn viewed Barack Obama's election as a kind of Second Coming, it took not much longer than a year for disillusionment to sink in. Criticisms of Obama, however, do not go for the jugular as they did with Bush. No matter how many terrible things he does, there will be a lemming-like march in 2012 to line up behind him in order to stave off Republican control of the White House. Liberals have trouble understanding that it is exactly the "centrist" politics of the current administration that will lead to its ouster, if such an ouster takes place.

Given the abysmal record of the Obama presidency so far, which amounts to Bush's third term in many respects, it is testimony to his continued hold on liberal America that only three critical books have emerged from the left. (The ones emanating from the right are exclusively crackpot exercises making the case that Obama is spearheading a drive toward socialism.)

Of the three, Roger Hodge's The Mendacity of Hope is likely to be the only one for sale in Barnes and Noble or Borders. Published by HarperCollins, it has been widely reviewed in the mainstream press. The author was formerly an editor at Harper's Magazine, which has no connection to the publisher HarperCollins although they were initially part of the same company launched in the early 1800s by James and John Harper. Today Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation owns HarperCollins, an outlet obviously calculated to make money based on whatever sells -- right or left.

That being said, it is doubtful that HarperCollins would have had the slightest interest in Tariq Ali's The Obama Syndrome or Paul Street's The Empire's New Clothes, the two other books reviewed here. Ali and Street approach the Obama administration from the standpoint of Marxism, an ideology that will not get you in the front door at HarperCollins. Ali's book was published by Verso, where he has been an editor for decades. Street comes to us courtesy of Paradigm Publishers, a left-oriented scholarly imprint that will likely never be able to afford a quarter-page ad in The New York Times Book Review or The New York Review of Books. That being said, readers trying to make sense of arguably the most reactionary Democratic president since Grover Cleveland should seek out all three books.

Roger Hodge's approach to Obama is very much in keeping with the editorial outlook of Harper's Magazine, a publication that I have subscribed to for over 30 years. Launched by the Harper brothers in 1850, it occupied a spot on the political spectrum very close to The Nation Magazine founded in 1865. But there are significant differences. First and foremost, The Nation functions as a semiofficial organ of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and hews closely to the "lesser evil" ideology that has helped to sustain the two-party system. For its part, Harper's is far more critical of the Democrats, a function of the kind of patrician radicalism that is closely associated with Lewis Lapham, its editor from 1976 to 2006.

Lapham's great-grandfather was one of the founders of Texaco Oil and his grandfather the mayor of San Francisco. Educated at ruling-class private schools, Lapham has much more of a sense of noblesse oblige than found in the Democratic Party today. It hearkens back to FDR, who had no qualms about reading the riot act to Wall Street in the 1930s. Even if the bankers did not understand their long-term class interests, FDR would make sure that they would be protected.

In 1980 the magazine came close to folding, with problems endemic to print publications -- especially those that choose not to feature stories about Jennifer Aniston or Tom Cruise. It was rescued by John R. MacArthur, whose grandfather -- his namesake -- was deemed one of the three richest men in the country in 1978. Through the auspices of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, John R. MacArthur rescued the magazine and became its publisher. Like Lapham and Roger Hodge, John R. MacArthur has little use for Obama, writing one excoriating article after another for the Harper's Web site or print publications like Obama: a Very Smooth Liar. In this piece, he observes: "The way things are going, Pakistan could become the new Cambodia and Obama the new Nixon."

While Hodge's entire book is an eye-opener, it is chapter two that finds its target and scores a bull's eye. Titled "Barack Obama, Inc.," it documents the sleazy corporate ties of a politician who has fed at the trough during his entire career. Hodge writes:

In a number of key legislative battles, Obama sent unmistakable signals that he was open for business. In 2006, for instance, he voted for enormous loan guarantees for energy companies, guarantees that exposed the government to billions of dollars in losses if those companies were ever to default on their obligations -- and that directly benefited Exelon, one of his most significant patrons. Following a controversy in Illinois over undisclosed leaks from nuclear plants, Obama made a great show of criticizing Exelon and introduced legislation mandating stricter disclosure laws. Later, during his presidential campaign, he bragged that the bill had become law; in fact, Obama had watered down his own bill after meeting with Exelon's representatives.

Hodge is less successful in attempting to theorize the origins of Barack Obama's presidency or any other of the same stripe, including that of Bill Clinton who has served as Obama's model despite demagogic attempts to run against Clinton's legacy in 2008. Hearkening back to the early days of the American republic, Hodge sees Obama as channeling the presidency of Alexander Hamilton who saw government's role as furthering the interests of bankers over the rest of the population.

The answer to such Hamiltonian malfeasance is a return to the principles of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, presidents who supposedly challenged the moneyed interests. Hodge regards them as heroes of their day:

They were not proto-socialists, though they did, in keeping with a powerful strain of republican thought, insist that a balance of property must be maintained, that one element of society should not become so wealthy that it could assimilate the state to itself or withdraw behind iron gates and neglect the community at large.

There is something utopian about such hopes. The wealthy are assimilating the state not because they are philosophically attuned to Alexander Hamilton but because we are living in the age of monopoly capital. In the early days of the republic, economic power was much more dispersed. The United States was composed of yeoman farmers and small manufacturers, all of whom would be naturally attracted to Jeffersonian democracy. By the late 1800s, America had become transformed. John D. Rockefeller and the rest of the robber barons had figured out that the state must serve their economic needs, which largely involved curtailing democratic rights at home and building an empire abroad. They backed Republican politicians like Teddy Roosevelt or William Howard Taft who understood the needs of monopoly capital. But Democrats were just as eager to cater to the Rockefellers. Grover Cleveland went on the warpath against trade unions and colonized Hawaii. Like Barack Obama, his true successor, Cleveland was a Democrat.

Just as the cover of Tariq Ali's Clash of Fundamentalisms had a photoshop image combining George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden's faces, The Obama Syndrome does the same thing with Bush and Obama. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but no image -- no matter how adroit -- can ever replace the crystalline prose of this devastating dismantlement of Obama. Tariq Ali has always had a radar-like ability to hone in on hypocrisy and Obama has inspired him to new heights.

The book is relatively brief (156 pages, including a 30-page appendix) but covers the broken promises and corporate/militarist agenda of the Obama administration more than adequately.

The first chapter, "An Unprecedented Historical Event," is a perceptive analysis of Obamamania that reminds us of what real change entails. Ali provides a succinct overview of the black liberation movement that serves as a useful counterpoint to the "post-racial" message of the Obama presidency. The fact that black household income was only 56 percent of that of whites did not perturb Obama. By repeating a mantra of "change," voters were seduced into believing that the word had meaning. Perhaps the sheer awfulness of the previous administration was sufficient for them to take a chance on Obama, despite all the evidence that he was nothing but a cog in the Chicago Daley machine.

In chapter two, "President of Cant," Ali addresses the question of whether the American empire has altered, two years into the Obama administration. While I am persuaded that the model for Obama's presidency is Grover Cleveland, consciously or unconsciously, Ali makes a good case for seeing it in terms of Woodrow Wilson:

If sonorous banality and armor-plated hypocrisy are the hallmarks of this president's style, that does not make the style less functional for the task of servicing and repairing the imperial institutions over which Obama and Hillary Clinton now preside. Nothing grated more on international opinion than the lack of requisite unction with which Bush and Cheney all too often went about their business, exposing allies and audiences otherwise well disposed toward American leadership to inconvenient truths they would have preferred not to hear. Historically, the model for the current variant of imperial presidency is Woodrow Wilson, no less pious a Christian, whose every second word was peace, democracy or self-determination, while his armies invaded Mexico, occupied Haiti and attacked Russia, and his treaties handed one colony after another to his partners in war. Obama is a hand-me-down version of the same, without even Fourteen Points to betray.

Of course, it is an open question whether any Democratic president has departed from this norm, except for FDR who moved sharply to the left in order to stave off a working-class revolution. Even in this best of cases, it is difficult to make the case for Roosevelt's foreign policy if you are a maverick like Howard Zinn, who became disillusioned with the "good war" after seeing the results of his payloads as a young bombardier in the air force. (Ali's book is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Bensaid and Howard Zinn.)

Perhaps the expectation that Obama would implement some sort of new New Deal was even more foolish than thinking he would reverse the course of empire. In the final chapter, "Surrender at Home: a One-Dimensional President," Ali dispenses with this nonsense. As an astute psychologist, he has figured out exactly how Obama managed to keep the liberal base in the veal pen, a term coined by Jane Hamsher who after voting for Obama became one of his sharpest critics (one suspects that the Firedoglake blogger might find reason to vote for the "lesser evil" in 2012). Ali describes the codependent relationship this way:

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 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.

Paul Street deserves some kind of prize for being the first on the left to deliver the goods on Obama. While people like Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald deserve credit for exposing Obama as a charlatan not long after he began appointing people like Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers, and Rahm Emmanuel to key posts, Street had Obama's number long before that.

When the rest of the liberal left was aflutter with Obama's speech to the 2004 convention, Street saw things differently:

The world view enunciated in Obama's address comes from a very different, bourgeois-individualist and national-narcissist moral and ideological space. Obama praised America as the ultimate "beacon of freedom and opportunity" for those who exhibit "hard work and perseverance" and laid claim to personally embodying the great American Horatio-Algerian promise. "My story," one (he says) of rise from humble origins to Harvard Law School and (now) national political prominence, "is part," Obama claimed "of the larger American story." "In no other country on Earth," he said, "is my story even possible."

Street's first book on Obama was written in 2008 when he was still a candidate. As a long-time resident of Chicago and a staff member of the Urban League (Street is white), he was in a unique position to penetrate the public relations halo that surrounded Obama. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Street discussed some of the thinking that went into the chapter "How Black is Obama":

I remember Obama as a state Senator, and I worked in black communities in the Urban League. You'd be amazed how unpopular Obama was initially. You didn't hear people say Obama was "too white." Instead, he's "too bourgeois." I heard that a lot. He got killed by Bobby Rush in a U.S. congressional primary in 2000. Rush said again and again, Obama went to Harvard, he lived over in Hyde Park, etc. As Obama's star was rising, you heard a lot of "he didn't really come from the community," or "he didn't rise from the community." Obama was handed to black America rather more than he arose from black America. Obama was more African plus American than he was African-American.

At 221 pages, The Empire's New Clothes is a substantive work that belongs in the bookshelf of any activist who must relate effectively to students, workers, or community activists still confined in the veal pen. Despite the right turn taken in the aftermath of the midterm elections, there are still many Obama supporters in the trade unions, on campus, and elsewhere. Back in my wild and woolly Trotskyist youth, we used to distribute "truth kits" about popular Democratic Party liberal candidates such as Eugene McCarthy or Robert F. Kennedy. In some ways, The Empire's New Clothes can be described as a truth kit on steroids.

Street's research is especially useful now that Obama has groveled before the Chamber of Commerce. Unlike some who still have illusions that Obama can rise to the occasion and become a second FDR, Street makes the case that there is long-standing evidence that he had more in common with Herbert Hoover or even Calvin Coolidge, citing this passage from the gaseous The Audacity of Hope:

Calvin Coolidge once said that "the chief business of the American people is business," and indeed, it would be hard to find a country on earth that's been more consistently hospitable to the logic of the marketplace...

The result of this business culture has been a prosperity that's unmatched in human history. It takes a trip overseas to fully appreciate just how good Americans have it; even our poor take for granted goods and services -- electricity, clean water, indoor plumbing, telephones, televisions, and household appliances -- that are still unattainable for most of the world. America may have been blessed with some of the planet's best real estate, but clearly it's not just our natural resources that account for our economic success. Our greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources... our free market system.

On almost every page of Paul Street's thoroughly researched book, there is some eye-opening revelation that surprised even an old Obama-hater like me. Street has the goods on how Obama "triangulated" the ouster of Zelaya in Honduras even as he was posturing as a friend of democracy. In fact the circumlocutions on display recently around the uprising in Egypt came out of the same playbook.

Street is also very strong in documenting Obama's long-standing tilt toward Arab reaction, a repudiation of the nonsense on display at The Nation Magazine where he is hailed as a midwife to the Egyptian revolution. Street points out that Obama refused to call Mubarak an "authoritarian" when pressed for his take on the dictator, and dubbed Saudi Arabia's king Abdullah a paragon of "wisdom" and "graciousness."

The concluding chapter of The Empire's New Clothes is titled "The Sorry Surrender of the So-Called Radical Left." (To Street's everlasting credit, he is not one to mince words.) It excoriates Moveon.org and other such compromised outfits and individuals. The book ends with a warning that a failure to create a genuine opposition to Obama will lead to continued frustration and more gains for the Tea Party. Students of history will, of course, recognize that the fascist movement grew in the 1930s for pretty much the same reason. In the absence of a bold and uncompromising left, the confused worker or shopkeeper will gravitate to right populist demagogy.

While I have only the highest recommendations for all three books, I do want to put forward what might seem like a provocative point -- especially with respect to Tariq Ali's and Paul Street's excellent contributions.

Street was a supporter of John Edwards in 2008 and much of his initial disgust with Obama grew out of what he witnessed in Iowa that year when he was campaigning for Edwards. In Street's estimation, Edwards would have been a much more effective president than Obama or Hillary Clinton for that matter.

As for Tariq Ali, he was on record as supporting John Kerry in 2004, defending his stance on Doug Henwood's radio show thusly:

As I said, pressure should be put on Kerry from Day One. If he carries on with the war, attack him. But the position would be clear: we removed Bush because he went to war, and if you carry on with the war, then you could be removed as well. You won't serve a second term either. I honestly can't see any argument against this. People who say, "Are you advocating a vote for Kerry, you sellout," my response is, are you seriously advocating that Bush should stay in power? Because that's the alternative. There's no third party. There's no Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party winning a million votes and being locked up for ten years as a result. He's not around. Nader, quite honestly, he's a joke figure at the present time.

When first considering electoral questions sparked by my feelings of being betrayed by "peace candidate" LBJ in 1964, I came to the conclusion that a vote for a Democrat is a wasted vote whether or not he or she lives up to their rhetoric. I would be adamantly opposed to a President Kucinich (to indulge in a bit of science fiction/fantasy) even if he pushed through single-payer, withdrew from Afghanistan, and had George W. Bush arrested for war crimes.

The underlying problem is one of class. The capitalist system might be spruced up a bit and we could even see America transformed into mid-1960s Sweden, but what good would that do for people living in countries that could not compete with the industrialized West? Tariq Ali makes a point about Venezuela needing someone less bellicose in the White House. But what about a country like Malawi that has never been invaded by the American military or subverted by the CIA? It is a victim of the cold logic of the "free market" and that logic has to be abolished. Its citizens lead a life of total desperation with no relief on the horizon, not even when Madonna parachutes in to rescue one of its orphans.

We have an obligation in the United States to mount an assault on the capitalist system no matter who is in power, whether it is an obvious reactionary like George W. Bush or a decent liberal from the Democratic Party (of course, this will never happen so it is a moot point.) Drawing clear class distinctions between our own class and that of the ruling class is difficult in a country like the United States where some form of the two-party system has reigned for centuries. Taking a stand against capitalist parties does seem like a quixotic venture. But in an epoch of never-ending war and economic collapse, it would be a good time for a fresh start.


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Published March 14, 2011