Obama’s First Hundred Days: A Critical Assessment From the Left

by , posted on Friday, May 8th, 2009 at 11:18 pm

Cross-posted from ZNet, where it was published on May 1, 2009.

A shortened version of this speech was given at a public forum sponsored by AWARE, the local Anti War Anti Racism Effort in Urbana, Illinois on the evening of April 30, 2009 at the Urbana City Council Chambers.

Thank you for inviting me to speak on the new administration’s first hundred days of centrist rule. Along with a number of other left writers and speakers over the last two years including Glen Ford, Bruce Dixon, Margaret Kimberly, Pam Martens, Michael Hudson, John Pilger, Chris Hedges,

John R. MacArthur, Ken Silverstein, Juan Santos, Matt Gonzales, Alexander Cockburn, Ralph Nader, Anthony Arnove, Lance Selfa, Joshua Frank, and Noam Chomsky, I have been living proof that the FOX News crowd is wrong when it says that all of “the left” is deeply and hopelessly in love with His Holiness the Dali Obama. It is true, I think, that much of what passes for a left in the U.S. has been unduly captive to the Obama phenomenon but many of us on the actual, so-called “hard left” have never fallen for the myth of Obama as some sort of progressive Mr. Smith-Goes-to-Washington character who is willing and ready to take on the corporate and military power elite. We’ve tended to see him rather as what MacArthur, the president of Harper’s Magazine, calls “a moderate with far too much respect for the global financial class.”

Before I get into specifics I want to make six quick caveats or qualifications that might provide some useful context for my remarks. The first caveat as is that for all my harsh judgments, I have never doubted that what Barack Obama has been doing is highly intelligent from the perspective of seeking glory and advancement within the narrow institutional and ideological framework of the dominant U.S. political system and culture. Obama and his team are masterful political actors and most of what I disapprove of in their behavior is heavily incentivized by that system and culture.

Second, my critique of the Obama administration is informed by a deeper and broader critique of the Democratic Party and its longstanding role of defining and policing the constricted leftmost parameters of acceptable political debate in the U.S. For the last century it has been the Democratic Party’s distinctive assignment to play what the Marxist author Lance Selfa calls “the role of shock absorber, trying to head off and co-opt restive [and potentially radical] segments of the electorate” by posing as “the party of the people.” If you buy my book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, you’ll see that I find Obama’s political career richly consistent with Selfa’s analysis and with the presidencies of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton.

Third, there are certainly some things Obama has done that I appreciate, like easing the ban on stem cell research, declaring the end of torture practices and the closing of secret prisons, ending White House denial on global climate change, scrapping the global gag rule on abortion counseling, expanding health insurance for children, declaring a wish to reduce nuclear arsenals, setting aside some wilderness land for federal protection and making it easier for women to sue for job discrimination. I hope he will someday soon be in a position to honor his pledge to sign the Employee Free Choice Act. And I do think it’s historic that a black family now resides in the White House.

Fourth, you’re not going to hear a lot from me tonight on alternative policies and solutions for the simple reason that I’ve got my hands full with understanding Obama’s first 100 days. If you read my book you’ll see that the last 37 pages are focused on solutions and alternatives. They include proposals for a more democratic political system and culture beyond our current reigning corporate-managed pseudo-democracy. The last chapter is dedicated to the question of what a left progressive presidency might look like.

Fifth, I am fully aware that 100 days is a short period of time and nowhere near the full measure of a presidency. I do think that changing circumstances including a resurgent popular protest movement on the left could conceivably push Obama in more progressive directions on the model of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the middle 1930s.

Sixth, my main problem with a lot of liberals and progressives isn’t that they’ve been insufficiently critical of Obama. Its that so many of them have tended to buy into our nation’s dominant narrow definition of politics as being about little more than these big quadrennial corporate-crafted, mass-marketed, and candidate-centered electoral extravaganzas. My issue is less about their candidate turned President per se than it is about candidate-centered politics more broadly. I am wearing a political button tonight. It doesn’t say “I Don’t Like Obama” or “Hillary is an Imperialist” or “I Still Hate Dick Cheney.” It says “Single Payer Health Insurance: Improved Medicare for All.” I wish I had a button saying “Employee Free Choice – For a More Democratic Workplace,” or “U.S. Out of South Asia,” or “Peace Dividend Now.” I would also wear a button saying “Where’s My Bailout Lawrence Summers?”


Two and a half weeks after Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election, David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, commented on the President-elect’s transition team and early cabinet appointments with a musical analogy. Obama, Rothkopf told the New York Times, was following “the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.” In other words, Obama campaigned and gained office with populace-pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric but was going to govern in standard service to existing dominant corporate and military institutions.

The new administration’s record so far is richly consistent with the Rothkopf’s violin parallel. Truth be fully told, it’s “the violin model” with a vengeance.

I’ll start with Obama and the Empire. Then I’ll move to Obama and domestic inequality and finally to the question of how progressive forces have been responding to it all


The Occupation Lives On

Obama won his epic primary battle with Hillary Clinton largely because he was able to convince much of the Democratic Party’s liberal base to believe in the fairy tale that he was a strong and consistent opponent of George W. Bush and Hillary’s arch-criminal invasion of Iraq. The fantasy lives on. Reading the fine print on Obama’s Iraq plan, however, it is evident that he intends to sustain the occupation of that country into the indefinite future. He will keep at least 50,000 troops in Iraq well after the August 2010 combat troop withdrawal date he campaigned on. Many of the troops who stay will be in combat units re-designated as “Advisory” brigades, a new classification that George Orwell would appreciate. Obama’s “withdrawal” plan “says nothing about the private contractors and mercenaries that are an essential part of the occupation and whose numbers may even be increased to cover functions previously provided by active-duty troops… It will leave in place the world’s largest foreign embassy, as well as the world’s largest CIA foreign station, in Baghdad” (Anthony Arnove). The U.S will maintain critical control over Iraqi skies and a significant naval and air presence “over the horizon.” So much for a rapid end to the occupation, long supported by the great majority of Iraqis, not to mention most Americans.

The Doctrine of Good Intentions

Recently, Obama added occupation insult to injury during his visit to so-called “Camp Victory” in Iraq. Consistent with his longstanding support for the Doctrine of America’s Good and Democratic Intentions on the global stage, Obama said that its time for the Iraqis to step up to the plate and “take responsibility” for the “democracy” and “sovereignty” the noble United States has so benevolently granted them. This was a nauseating thing to say more than six years into a brazenly imperial and petro-colonial invasion that Obama is finding ways to continue against the expressed will of the Iraqi people. Beyond the fact that Iraqis have been standing up against the foreign invaders in the name of national sovereignty since the beginning of the U.S. invasion, Obama’s claim of benevolent U.S intent is Orwellian in light of the unimaginable havoc we have wreaked in Mesopotamia, including more than ome million killed, a vast out-exodus of the professional class and the near-collapse of Iraqi infrastructure, all following in the wake of an earlier devastating U.S. military attack and more than a decade of mass-murderous U.S.-led “economic sanctions. As the respected veteran Middle East journalist Nir Rosen said on Democracy Now two weeks ago, we’ve created a Hell in Iraq, not a free democracy.

Kooky Conspiracy Talk on “Af-Pak”

Meanwhile, Obama is increasing the level of imperial violence in Afghanistan and in nuclear Pakistan. He coldly brushed off Afghanistan President Karzai’s early plea for the U.S. to stop killing Afghans and for the U.S. to propose some sort of timeline for ending our illegal occupation of that country. Karzai’s minimal assertions of national independence have irked Obama, who is increasing the U.S. force presence in Afghanistan, a legendary graveyard of empires. Noam Chomsky reasonably expects Karzai to be placed under the supervision of a U.S. imperial surrogate who will essentially run the country from Washington.

It would be nice to report that the real source of Obama’s irritation with Karzai was that the Afghan president recently signed a law that worsens the terrible oppression of women in Afghanistan. But when asked about that law, Obama made it clear that women’s rights have little to do with his “new strategy” for Afghanistan, which is all about “defeat[ing] al Qaeda.”

At the same time, Obama is expanding the United States’ not-so-covert war in Pakistan, As the Middle East expert and University of Michigan historian Juan Cole has been saying of late, Obama has bought into a recycled version of the crackpot Cold War conspiracy and “domino theory.” In Obama’s “updated, al Qaida version” of the domino thesis, Cole notes, “the Taliban might take Kuna Province, and then all of Afghanistan, and might again host al-Qaida, and might then threaten the shores of the United States.”

Pakistan is added on to Afghanistan by Obama like Cambodia was added on to it’s neighbor Vietnam by President Nixon. This time however, the dangerous territorial expansion is openly acknowledged with Obama merging the two nations “into one theater of war, called Af-Pak” (Glen Ford).

As Cole observes, Obama’s call to arms is no more credible than Dick Cheney and John McCain’s raving about the danger of an “al-Qaida victory in Iraq.” The Taliban and al Qaeda are nowhere close to being able to take over Afghanistan and Pakistan. If anything, Cole notes, the greatest thing working on the weak Pakistani Taliban’s behalf is the occurrence of U.S. Predator drone strikes on Pakistani territory, which help the extremists seem like sympathetic victims to parts of the Pakistani public.

Standard Double Standards on the Middle East, Race, and Cuba

Obama is continuing core Bush policies on Israel and Iran. He refuses to pay honest attention to the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people, about whose fate he stayed sickeningly mute during the savage U.S.-Israel assault on Gaza last December and January — an attack that conveniently ended on the day of his inauguration.

Obama lectures Arabs on their duty to “unclench [their] fist[s]” but says nothing about Israel’s murderously employed fists and refuses to acknowledge the well-known fact that Israel is a heavily nuclearized state in the Middle East. He continues the Bush administration practice of ignoring the Palestinian’s elected government and refuses to acknowledge that continuing illegal Israeli incursions into the West Bank make the official U.S. goal of a two-state Israel-Palestine solution impossible.

Obama is continuing the basic Bush policy of encouraging an anti-Iran alliance between the Israeli occupation state and so-called “moderate” Arab states. These “moderate” states include Egypt’s atrocious dictatorship and Saudi Arabia, the most reactionary government on Earth. All of these states continue to be lavishly funded by the U.S.

Obama has followed in George W. Bush’s footsteps by boycotting the second international United Nations conference on racism, the so-called “Durban II” gathering in Switzerland this month and for the same two basic reasons as Bush. First, the conference dares to raise the issue of slavery reparations. Second, the conference dares to discuss the racism experienced by Arab Palestinians under the apartheid-like system in the occupied territories. And so the new White House, with its first black president, its first black Attorney General, and its first black Ambassador to the UN decided not to be present at the world’s leading forum to address international race relations.

Meanwhile, Obama resorts to off-the-books, so-called “supplemental funding” of the colonial Iraq and Afghanistan Wars — a deceptive war-financing method that Bush pioneered and which Obama said he would abandon. As far as I can determine, he intends to maintain the incredibly provocative missile shields Bush set up in Czechoslovakia and Poland, consistent with his recent embrace and advance of that great Russia-threatening institution called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

He sustains the crushing 47-year trade embargo and the American travel ban on Cuba, rejecting broad Latin American sentiment and even the opinion of some Republicans. He insists on trying to punish and undermine Cuban socialism, which can never be forgiven for daring to modernize and develop outside and against the supervision of Uncle Sam.

A Tortuous Record on Habeas Corpus and Torture

Then there’s Obama’s interesting record on human rights and torture. Last February the Obama administration filed a federal brief that embraced the Bush administration’s position against habeas corpus as long as the “enemy combatants” we seize abroad are flown to the Bagram Air Force prison in Afghanistan instead of to Guantanamo.

Two Thursday ago, the Obama Justice Department expressed its determination to protect CIA torturers from prosecution after it released memorandums on the Bush administration’s extreme torture practices. Those memorandums only saw the light of day because of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. By announcing in advance that it will not go after the direct torturers, the Obama administration has destroyed it’s ability to use the threat of prosecution as a way of getting CIA personnel to testify against the top officials who formulated the Bush torture policy. His policy disturbingly echoes the Nazi’s defense of human right perpetrators on the grounds that the criminals were just following orders.

As the Justice Department released the memos spelling out brutal CIA interrogation methods a couple weeks ago, Obama said that “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past” (New York Times, April 17, 2009). This from a former and supposedly liberal law professor, someone who should be expected to understand that one investigates and punishes past human rights crimes precisely in order to discourage and prevent their occurrence in the present and future. It’s true that Obama subsequently seemed to relent a bit in the face of a wave of civil libertarian disgust and said that his Attorney General Eric Holder might want to investigate the Bush lawyers who approved torture. But don’t look for much from Holder. As one of my regular ZNet readers recently noted, “Holder was a key figure in the early days of Bush’s ‘dark side’ policies, breaking ranks (if one can call the weak Democratic Party opposition ‘ranks’) to support Bush’s denial of Geneva protections to detainees.”

As the New York Times reported nine days ago, citing top White House aides, moreover, Obama “opted to disclose the memos [only] because his lawyers worried that they had a weak case for withholding them and [because] much of the information had already been published in the New York Review of Books, in a memoir by George Tenet, the former CIA Director, and even in a 2006 speech by President George W. Bush.” (New York Times, April 21, 2009, A1).

Now we have Obama and the Democratic leadership in the Senate signaling that they will block efforts to set up an independent commission to investigate the Bush torture policy. Obama spokesperson Robert Gibbs justifies this sickening position by saying that “this is not a time for retribution” and that “we’re all best suited looking forward.”

“My Most Agonizing Decision”

Revealingly enough, when Obama went to Langley last week to reassure CIA staffers of his safety to their interests, Obama said that his decision to release the torture memos was the “most agonizing” call of his presidency so far. I heard that line on the evening news and turned off my television. “Wow,” I said. “That was his ‘most agonizing’ decision so far — reluctantly agreeing under legal compulsion to release documents showing a previous administration’s egregious human right crimes?” Not his decision to launch missiles and expand illegal wars certain to kill children and other civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Not his decision to hand out yet more hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to Wall Street parasites while poverty rises across the nation and the world? Not his decision to increase the war and military budget while destitution expands at home and abroad?


“Keeping the Perpetrators Afloat”

Turning to the home front, Obama refuses to advance the obvious cost-cutting and social democratic health care solution — single-payer national health insurance (improved Medicare for all). Consistent with his recent description of himself as a “New [that is corporate] Democrat,” Obama will spend untold trillions of dollars on further taxpayer handouts to the giant Wall Street firms who spent millions on his campaign and who drove the economy over the cliff. He is too attached to those firms and to their so-called “free market” ideology to undertake the elementary bank nationalizations and public financial restructuring that are obviously required to put the nation’s credit system on a sound and socially responsible basis. Obama’s plan to guarantee the financial, insurance, and real estate industries’ toxic, hyper-inflated assets while keeping existing Wall Street management in place amounts to a giant effort (according to liberal economist James K. Galbraith) “keeping the perpetrators afloat” at a cost of at least one trillion taxpayer dollars. The program amounts to what leading liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls a coin flip in which investors win if its heads and taxpayers lose if its tails. The government (identical to the people in a functioning democracy) takes more than 90 percent of the risk but private investors reap at least half the reward.

“No Peace Dividend”

Obama pounds his chest about executive bonuses and makes carefully orchestrated visits expressing concern about poverty and job-loss to places like Pomona, California and Elkhart, Indiana. But it’s all a public relations game crafted to provide fake-progressive cover for his corporate, Wall Street agenda and for his related commitment to the unmentionable $1 trillion-a-year Pentagon budget, which pays for more than 760 bases across more than 130 nations and accounts for nearly half the military spending on earth — all in the name of “defense.” The leading Wall Street investment firm and bailout recipient Morgan Stanley reported one day after Obama’s election victory that Obama [quote] “has been advised and agrees that there is no peace dividend.”

“Change Means More of the Same”

Early last April the New York Times published an article with an ironic title: “In Cuba, Change Means More of the Same.” This “news” item reports that “rather than dismantling Cuba’s socialist framework,” Cuba’s President Raul Castro “seems to be trying to make it work more efficiently.” Castro, the Times reports, seeks to keep power concentrated “at the top.” But what is U.S. President Barack Obama — Mr. “Change” himself — trying to accomplish other than to make the American corporate profits system “work more efficiently” without “dismantling the [capitalist] framework” and with power (and wealth) still concentrated “at the top?”

As the Times acknowledged last March in an article titled “English-Speaking Capitalism on Trial,” Obama and his neoliberal partner Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, have “focused on ways of revitalizing the [existing] system… Even as both men have embarked on enormous increases in public-sector spending,” Times correspondents John Burns and Landon Thomas noted, “they have maintained that the solutions to the crisis lie in reawakening the markets and recapitalizing the banks rather than tearing at the system’s foundations. And both, when they respond to public anger at the private sector, have seemed more geared to managing anger than stoking it.”

As the prolific Marxist geographer David Harvey recently observed on Democracy Now, “what [the Obama team is] trying to do is to reinvent the same system” — to “reconstitute the same sort of capitalism we have had over and over again over the last thirty years in a slightly more regulated, benevolent form” that doesn’t “challenge the fundamentals.”

“Conservative Solutions to Radical Problems”

Meanwhile, Obama’s tepid and undersized stimulus plan is dysfunctionally over-loaded with business-friendly tax cuts and too short on labor-intensive projects to put people to work right away. He says nothing or close to it about the overdue labor law reform he campaigned on, the Employee Free Choice Act, which ought, as Noam Chomsky recently argued, to be at the heart and center of any reasonably progressive economic recovery program. Worse, Obama speaks in support of the anti-union, teacher-bashing, and test-based corporate education agenda, advocating teacher “merit pay” and charter schools. He makes a public visit (in support of his stimulus bill) to the headquarters of Caterpillar, a provider of bulldozers for illegal Israeli settlements. Caterpillar was also the first large U.S. manufacturer in decades to break a major strike with scabs.

Praised by political and media elites for the skill with which he and his handlers are “managing [betrayed popular] expectations,” Obama fails to advance elementary and urgently needed progressive measures like a moratorium on foreclosures, a capping of credit card interest rates and finance charges, and the rollback of capital income tax rates to 1981 (not just 1993) levels. He won’t let the government enter into the business of making direct mortgage loans. Even before the inauguration, Obama committed himself to so-called “entitlement reform,” code language for claiming to cut the federal deficit by chipping away at Medicare and Social Security — by taking a pound of flesh from the incomes and health of senior citizens.

The liberal-progressive economist Robert Kuttner, who hoped passionately for a “progressive” Obama presidency, is sorely disappointed, noting that the new chief executive is advancing conservative solutions to radical problems. Kuttner’s thwarted dreams for Obama are summarized in a rapidly written book published before the election under the revealing title Obama’s Challenge.

Socialism for the Rich and Capitalism for the Rest

Meanwhile, a rising number of citizens in “the world’s richest nation” face new challenges in the struggle simply to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. Badly damaged by a vicious 1990s welfare “reform” (elimination) that Obama has repeatedly praised as a great policy success, the nation’s public family cash assistance system is too weak to match the expansion of destitution across America even as the new president advances a new level of Wall Street welfare. Tent cities, modern-day Hoovervilles for the evicted and foreclosed, have sprung up in more than a dozen U.S. cities. Foreclosures dipped briefly while the mortgage companies waited for the details on Obama’s tepid housing plan. But foreclosures are surging again and unemployment continues to rise as Obama speaks of “glimmers of [economic] hope” and while Fed Chief Bernake claims to discern “green shoots” of recovery.

And yet last Sunday’s New York Times reports on page one that pay at the nation’s leading investment banks, after falling off last year, is, yes, bouncing back to stratospheric heights. Wall Street paychecks and bonuses are soaring back to 2007 levels, thanks in no small measure to the fact that the bankers can borrow cheaply, with all those federal guarantees Bush, Paulsen, Obama and Geithner have given them. It’s party time again on the street, thanks to the $600 billion committed under the TARP, the vast credit lines proffered by the Fed, expanded F.D.I.C. guarantees, the government bailout of AIG, and the like — thanks to Temporary Assistance for not so Needy Banks (TANNB).

A recent glowing Los Angeles Times assessment of Obama’s first hundred days reproduces an interesting statement from Obama to the leaders of the banking industry last March. As the financial chieftains began to complain to him about the public’s failure to understand their industry’s need for high levels of compensation, Obama cut them off. “Be careful how you make those statements, gentlemen,” Obama said. “The public isn’t buying that. My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

As a student who told me about this Los Angeles Times story writes, “The question for me (and I assume for many leftists) is why is Obama using his administration to protect the bankers from the angry rabble (us)? Why doesn’t his administration simply address the people’s needs and leave the bankers to their fate? These are, of course, rhetorical questions. We know that he is serving to protect and legitimate the highly undemocratic and destructive class system of state capitalism through another crisis.”

“What’s the Dollar Value of a Starry-Eyed Idealist?”

It’s not for nothing that Obama received a record-setting $38 million from the financial, real estate, and insurance industries in the last election cycle, including close to $1 million from Goldman Sachs alone. Government Sachs and Morgan Stanley and AIG are not in the business of handing over the White House to left-wing enemies of Empire and Inequality, Incorporated.

“It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” Ken Silverstein noted in the fall of 2006 in Harpers Magazine, “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 reported, “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?'”

The Invisible Color of the Crisis

Two and a half years later, the crisis of black and Latino communities deepens with special pain and invisibility. Following the usual racial pattern in the long history of American business cycles, the Great Recession is hitting people of color harder than it is hitting whites. The rising official black poverty and unemployment rates continue (as usual) to hover around double that of whites.

This “little” problem is rarely discussed in the “mainstream” political and media culture. It doesn’t help, of course, that the new administration stays militantly silent on the nation’s savage racial inequalities and the institutional racism that continues to feed those disparities in the age of Obama, consistent with the extreme race-neutralism of the Obama campaign (see Paul Street, “Race Cowardice from the Top Down,” Black Agenda Report. April 22, 2009) — this even after Obama’s technically black Attorney General made a speech (last February) arguing that the U.S. in a “nation of cowards” on race.

Domestic Private Assault Weapons Live On

With rising economic insecurity, the population becomes more and more dangerously unraveled. Domestic gun violence is on the rise. Yet even as we endure a record epidemic of mass shootings, Obama has recently suggested that he will abandon yet another campaign promise by failing to fight in Congress to renew the ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004.


“We Were Warned”

Progressive activists and intellectuals are right to be angered about the new president’s record of centrist top-down imperial and state-capitalist governance. But as Naomi Klein noted some weeks ago, they have no right to be disappointed or surprised. Obama’s post-election trajectory is thoroughly predictable given well-known limits and incentives in the dominant, corporate-crafted U.S. political culture and party system and in light of numerous warnings about the Obama phenomenon that various Left activists and intellectuals have given over recent years.

As Scott Horton noted last March on Antiwar.com, “those who bought into the slogans ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’ last fall should have read the fine print. We were warned.” Indeed, candidate Obama’s speeches to Establishment bodies like the Council on Foreign Relations and his presentations to institutions like NASDAQ and to wealthy fundraisers and newspaper editorial boards sent strong signals of his basic underlying safety to — and belief in — dominant domestic and global hierarchies and doctrines.

From the start of his campaign and through his cabinet selections and appointments, moreover, Obama has consistently surrounded himself with elite agents of corporate and imperial power, people like James Jones, Rahm Emanuel, Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner. Obama’s claim that he will provide the “vision” to move such corporate and imperial operatives in a “progressive” direction is like a baseball manager claiming that he’s going to build a team based on speed and defense with a roster full of clumsy, slow-footed 280-pound power hitters.

It has irked labor progressives recently to learn that Obama will not in fact be honoring his campaign commitment to opening up the North American Free Trade Agreement for renegotiation to insert stronger labor and environmental protections. But labor activists would have no business being surprised if they could recall the incident last February when Obama’s then economic advisor, the University of Chicago economist Austan Goolsbee, was caught telling the conservative government of Canada not to worry about Obama’s populist-sounding attacks on the currently existing NAFTA in speeches to blue-collar workers in Ohio. As Goolsbee explained to the Canadians, all that “NAFTA-bashing” was just meaningless “campaign rhetoric” devised to win the votes of angry proletarians in the Midwest — nothing to be seriously concerned about.

“Incapable of Action or In Obama’s Pocket”

At the same time, progressives need to take a certain degree of responsibility for Obama’s behavior. The absence of spine and intelligence on the part of what passes for a Left in the U.S. is quite remarkable. By demanding nothing of Obama and the Democrats except that they not technically be Republicans, our so-called “progressive” organizations effectively grant advance approval to whatever corporate and imperial policies the new president and the Democrats execute.

Contrary to Bob Kuttner’s book title, real progressive change is our challenge, not Obama’s. But many of us on the left don’t seem terribly interested in meeting the test. As John Judis has argued in The New Republic, a major reason that Obama has been able to go forward with a conservative and inadequate economic plan “is that there is no popular left movement agitating for him to go” further . “Sure,” Judis writes, “there are leftwing intellectuals … beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I,” Judis argued, “am … referring to movements that stir up trouble and get people angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama’s pocket.” By Judis’ analysis, the U.S. labor movement and groups like Moveon.org are repeating the same “mistake that political groups often make” — the mistake of “subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the Democratic Party and its leading politician.”

Or listen to John R. MacArthur. He recently noted that what passes for a Left in the U.S. “fantasize[s]” that “the president is a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington character prepared to ‘take on the power that be.'” This, MacArthur notes, “is an absurd reading of Obama,” who MacArthur correctly describes as “a moderate with far too much respect for the global financial class.”

Consistent with Judis’ critique, Moveon.org’s new Executive Director Justin Ruben responded last February to Obama’s highly qualified and deceptive Iraq “withdrawal” plans by telling the New York Times that “activists are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt.” Sounding like a docile house pet instead of a serious progressive activist, Ruben said that “people have confidence that the president is committed to ending the war” because “this is what he promised” (New York Times, February 26, 2009). Known for organizing online opposition to the Bush administration’s war policies, MoveOn.org recently sent its members an e-mail falsely proclaiming the U.S. invasion of Iraq to be effectively over and congratulating members for having helped achieved that wonderful result. A few weeks ago, Ruben told Nation correspondent Ari Melber that MoveOn has no intention of opposing Obama’s plans to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.

Congressional Quarterly claims that the anti-war movement is paying the price of “its own success.” But that’s baloney, according to Black Agenda Report‘s Glen Ford, who writes that “The anti-war movement has hit rock-bottom because of its failure to challenge this particular president, an imperialist with charm, a warmonger with a winning smile. Obama has whipped them, but good.”

I don’t know if that’s an accurate judgment or not regarding ANSWER and UFPJ but it certainly applies to MoveOn. And it is certainly true with the regard to what’s left of an antiwar movement in Iowa City, where one activist tells me that the illusion of Obama as an antiwar president has practically finished off the campus-based peace group there.

For what it’s worth, this is exactly what John Pilger and others on the “hard left” predicted would result from an Obama presidency last year — the abject surrender and pacification of the antiwar movement based on the fairy tale notion of Obama as an antiwar president.

Meanwhile, the dominant U.S. labor federations are on board with Obama’s inadequate corporate health care and economic stimulus plans. They remain remarkably respectful and relatively mute in their public commentary on Obama’s apparent reluctance to push the EFCA. Grotesquely enough, SEIU president Andy Stern is an open and vicious opponent of single-payer national health insurance.

The left Democratic journal The Nation has absurdly called Obama’s tepid budget proposal “an audacious plan to transform America” in progressive ways. Progressive filmmaker Michael Moore proclaimed absurdly that Obama’s auto restructuring plan sends the message that “the government of, by, and for the people is in charge here, not big business.”

“Progressives Can Only Hope…”

Leading left-liberal Democratic economists/public intellectuals Robert Kuttner and Paul Krugman hope for “a new New Deal” under Obama. They fail, however, to mention the significant extent to which the most progressive aspects of the New Deal owed their existence to working class protest and to related left-wing activism during the 1930s. In a New York Times column titled “Franklin Delano Obama?” six days after the election, Krugman wrote that “Mr. Obama’s chances of leading a new New Deal depend largely on whether his short-term economic plans are sufficiently bold. Progressives,” Krugman counseled, “can only hope that he has the necessary audacity.”

Just three days ago, Krugman said the following at the end of a column that criticized Wall Street bankers for believing that they will soon be able to return to making outrageous profits off other people’s money: “We can only hope that our leaders prove them wrong, and carry through with real reform.”

In Obama’s Challenge, Kuttner hoped that the onset of “the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression,” will lead Obama to show his colors as “that rare transformational leader” who “educates” the “people on behalf of expansive uses of progressive government” through the “force of [his] own character,”

Progressives can only hope that the great, wise, and wonderful wizard of Ozbama and our other corporate-sponsored “leaders” can have the audacity to save the day? Hello?

“Only When It Has Encountered Rebellion From Below”

Krugman and Kuttner might want to take a look at Howard Zinn’s bestselling volume A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present or at Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s classic study Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail to review some elementary lessons on how big progressive change occurs. These studies demonstrate in rich historical detail how direct action, social disruption, and the threat of radical change from the bottom up forced social and political reforms that benefited working- and lower-class and black people during the 1930s and the 1960s. They show the critical role played by grassroots social movements and popular resistance in educating presidents and the broader power elite on the need for change. As Zinn noted two springs ago, “The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties.”

As Obama himself (along with John Edwards) repeatedly noted during the campaign, in a comment that has not fallen from Obama’s lips since he reached the White House, “change doesn’t happen from the top down. Change happens from the bottom up.” And here we might add that change from the bottom up happens through the painstaking creation and expansion of grassroots social forces and organizations beneath and beyond the great quadrennial corporate-crafted mass marketed narrow-spectrum and candidate-centered electoral and media extravaganzas that pass for the only politics that matter in the United States.

“The Real Issue to Be Faced” and the Urgent Task Beneath and Beyond “These Personalized Quadrennial Extravaganzas”

Before we go to panelists I want to read two quotations — one from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other from Dr. Noam Chomsky. The first quote comes from an essay that King wrote not long before his death in 1968. The essay was titled “A Testament of Hope.” I used this quote in my Obama book.

“Millions of Americans,” Dr. King wrote, “are coming to see that we are fighting an immoral war that costs nearly thirty billion dollars a year, that we are perpetuating racism, that we are tolerating almost forty million poor during an overflowing material abundance… In these trying circumstances,” King added, “the black revolution is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws — racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”

The second quote comes from an essay Chomsky did on the eve of the previous presidential election, in October of 2004:

The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses.

Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena… A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, “That’s politics.” But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics.

The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction — often in close conformity to majority opinion — is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, everyday, not just once every four years…

So in the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.

It’s good that we exercised some common sense in defeating Bush, McCain, and Sarah Palin last fall. The world’s a safer place without those dangerous dolts in Superpower’s executive branch. Now let’s get real about popular governance and get to work fighting bipartisan corporate and imperial rule from the bottom up. Nobody from the political class is going to fix the current messes of Empire and Inequality, Inc. for us from on high. We’re going to have to do it ourselves. We can do that — and we must. Thank you very much.


Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is a political commentator and author in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008).


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One Response to “Obama’s First Hundred Days: A Critical Assessment From the Left”

  1. n0madic says:

    Naomi Klein and William Greider appeared on the Charlie Rose Show last evening and the conversation there nicely complements Paul Street’s analysis here.

    The Nation has the video up at: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090525/kleingreider_video

    Klein and Greider are both as sharp as they come. Don’t miss it.

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