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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #117, March 2008. Copyright 2008, Left Business Observer.

By the way, we just love the work that Bruce Dixon and Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report have done on Obama; please check it out if you haven't already.

Would you like change with that?

Super Tuesday II, as Fox dubbed it, took some steam out of the Obama bandwagon, but he’s still the likely Democratic nominee, and therefore the likely president-to-be. Which is remarkable, really—a nonparticipant can only stand slackjawed in awe of Obamamania. Previously rational people whom LBO admires, like Barbara Ehrenreich and Christopher Hayes, have fallen in love with the Senator’s brand of change we can believe in, a slogan that has to be one of the emptiest since Sandburg’s “The people, yes!,” that the New Party used in New York in the early 1990s. Obama has become the Tokio Hotel of politics.

On what is this mania based? Obama is inspiring the young, lifting the alienated off their couches, and catalyzing a new movement for…change, presumably one we can believe in. The content of this change is hard to specify. Some serious leftists we know and love point to Obama’s roots as a community organizer in Chicago, though many people in a position to know say he didn’t rock many boats in those days. He was embraced by foundation liberals, however, who greased his way into the Harvard Law School via a lakefront condo.

All of which doesn’t make Obama uniquely bad: he’s just another mainstream Democrat with a sleazy real estate guy in his past. Though he’s being touted as an early opponent of the Iraq war, he told the Chicago Tribune in 2004: “There’s not that much difference between my position and George Bush’s position….” He voted to renew the PATRIOT Act, campaigned for happy warrior Joe Lieberman against Ned Lamont in 2006, and wants to increase the size of the U.S. military. He supports Israel’s continuing torture of the Palestinians penned into the Gaza Strip. A Congressional Quarterly study found his Senate voting record was virtually indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton’s; the only major difference in their votes is a surprising one: a move to limit class actions suits against corporations, which Clinton voted against, and Obama for. Obama’s vote was against the preferences of a Dem financial base, trial lawyers, but pleasing to the Fortune 500 and Wall Street.

In this binary world, when you criticize Obama, people immediately include you’re a Hillary Clinton fan. Uh, no. Her politics are bellicose and neoliberal. Her “experience” consists largely of having watched her husband be president for eight years, though it’s likely they were sleeping in separate bedrooms for much of the time. A plague on all their houses.


Some more thoughtful victims of Obama Disease point to detailed position papers on the candidate’s website. These must always be taken with a grain of salt, especially during primary season. Candidate Bill Clinton promised to “invest in people” and ended up being the president of “a bunch of fucking bond traders,” as Hillary’s husband memorably put it. LBJ campaigned as the peace candidate in 1964, and ended up killing a million Indochinese.

Obamians also point to his rejection of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC); they put him on their list of rising stars, and he asked to be removed. Encouraging—except for the fact that his chief economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, the fellow who told the Canadians not to take the anti-NAFTA rhetoric seriously, is the DLC’s chief economist. Goolsbee has written gushingly about Milton Friedman and denounced the idea of a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures. That hire is more significant than asking to be struck from a list.

Big capital would have no problem with an Obama presidency. Top hedge fund honcho Paul Tudor Jones threw a fundraiser for him at his Greenwich house last spring, “The whole of Greenwich is backing Obama,” one source said of the posh headquarters of the hedge fund industry. They like him because they’re socially liberal, up to a point, and probably eager for a little less war, and think he’s the man to do their work. They’re also confident he wouldn’t undertake any renovations to the distribution of wealth. You could say the same about Clinton—but you know those hedge fund guys. They like a contrary bet. A share of Obama stock on the Iowa Electronic Market was 30 on May 19, 2007, the day of Jones’s Obama bash; it peaked at 86 on March 1, a gain of 187% (in a year where triple digits are rare). It’s since settled back into the low 70s, which is still quite a gain.

The phantasmic

LBO would be the last to argue that politics is all about rationality. Fantasy matters. But fantasy can have some relationship to policy. Take the example of Ronald Reagan, a man for whom Obama professed some admiration for having rolled back the “excesses of the 1960s and 1970s” and bringing back “a sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.” Reagan promised to make America “stand tall again” and “to get government off the backs of the people.” Certainly these phrases didn’t appeal to the rational faculties of the electorate, but they did correspond with a military buildup, a greater willingness to go to war, and an economic agenda of deregulation and reverence for private wealth. And Reagan had real political forces behind him—first, his cabal of right-wing Southern California businessmen, later supplemented by the corporate and financial establishment, and operating with a playbook written by movement conservatives and the Heritage Foundation.

What does Obama have? A lot of slogans that connect with nothing in the real world; in fact, their very emptiness may be the source of their appeal, because it allows people to project whatever they want to onto him, without getting bogged down in specifics, as Reagan liked to say. (Under attack from Clinton and McCain, he did get specific in his long Wisconsin victory speech. This brought attacks from Karl Rove and others, placing him on the “far left”; it’s not likely we’ll see much more of this irresponsible stuff from Obama as November approaches.) And despite the grand claims of enthusiasts, he doesn’t really have a movement behind him—he’s got a fan club. How does a fan club hold a candidate accountable? It’s not like he’ll take the phone calls of all those 27-year-olds who gave him $100 on the web as quickly as he’d answer a summons from Paul Tudor Jones.

Obama’s appeal is a strange thing. Though he’s added to it as his political momentum builds, his original base consisted of blacks and upper-status whites. The black support is out of racial pride, but the initial white support was driven by his post-partisan, post-racial appeal. Well-off whites love to hear a black man say that racism has largely receded as a toxic force, though it’s really hard to figure out what the hell he’s talking about in a world where black households earn about 60% as much as whites, and where black men are incarcerated at more than six times the rate of white men. And what of this post-partisan business? Politics is about conflicts over resources and priorities, and over the state’s power to coerce; how ever could comity prevail in a world where interests and preferences diverge so widely?

As Adolph Reed told LBO, an Obama presidency

could give us the worst of all possible of worlds: one in which race is completely repackaged as a discourse of celebration and, to the extent that that had already become the only metaphor through which American politics could accommodate critical discussion of inequality, the language of ‘disparity,’ it will no longer be possible for critiques of inequality to be heard as an appropriate topic for political discussion. Obama already when he talks “black” (e.g., with his “Cousin Pookie” riffs, which are the exact equivalent of Shelby Steele’s rantings about underclass, shiftless “Sam”) opts for the Bookerite/Cosbyite metaphor of victim-blaming in the phony first-person plural, and he has always played the Immigrant Success Story Up From Slavery Ain’t America Great and Don’t I Show It angle. And, moreover, what many of his white supporters like about him is that he doesn’t have the ‘chip on the shoulder’ that so many indigenous blacks do. Add all this to his commitment to appealing to the right and to the investor class, and the upshot is that inequality could lose whatever vestigial connotations it has as a species of injustice and be fully consolidated as the marker, on the bottom end that is, of those losers who failed to do what the market requires of them or a sign of their essential inferiority.

Turn to cheer

Enough critique; the dialectic demands something constructive to induce some forward motion. There’s no doubt that Obamalust does embody some phantasmic longing for a better world—more peaceful, egalitarian, and humane. He’ll deliver little of that—but there’s evidence of some admirable popular desires behind the crush. And they will inevitably be disappointed.

As this newsletter has argued for years, there’s great political potential in popular disillusionment with Democrats. The phenomenon was first diagnosed by Garry Wills in Nixon Agonistes. As Wills explained it, throughout the 1950s, left-liberals intellectuals thought that the national malaise was the fault of Eisenhower, and a Democrat would cure it. Well, they got JFK and everything still pretty much sucked, which is what gave rise to the rebellions of the 1960s (and all that excess that Obama wants to junk any remnant of). You could argue that the movements of the 1990s that culminated in Seattle were a minor rerun of this. The sense of malaise and alienation is probably stronger now than it was 50 years ago, and includes a lot more of the working class, whom Stanley Greenberg’s focus groups find to be really pissed off about the cost of living and the way the rich are lording it over the rest of us.

Never did the possibility of disappointment offer so much hope. That’s not what the candidate means by that word, but history can be a great ironist.

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