NLP’s Alex Doherty interviews Paul Street about his new book on Barack Obama: ‘The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power’
In part one of an exclusive interview Paul Street considers whether supporters of Barack Obama ought to be disappointed by his performance and he critiques Obama’s signature policy - healthcare reform.
Your new book on Barack Obama is entitled The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power. Can you explain why you chose that title?
It is meant to convey the book’s basic theme, which is the continued rule of the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire beneath the illusory clothing of change. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. “Change” is a common and typically betrayed promise – a nearly universal metaphor – of politicians. I mean the arch-conservative Winston Churchill ran under a banner of “change” when he got re-elected to the Prime Minister’s office in 1951.
“I hear these people saying [Obama is] like George Bush,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said last summer. “Those people,” Gibbs pouted, “ought to be drug tested.” Well, The Empire’s New Clothes details numerous key policy parallels and continuities between George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Indeed, one original title I played around with was “The Re-Branding” and we quite seriously considered a cover photo showing Bush and Obama’s faces eerily merged. So I was waiting for the knock on my door and DEA officials to give me a plastic cup and a two- hour deadline to fill it under the supervision of Robert Gibbs.
At the same time, I proposed a different drug test. Let’s call it the ObamaLaid test. This test would be for all “those people” who oppose criminal wiretappings, immoral and illegal wars, plutocratic bankers’ bailouts and other vile policies when they are implemented in the name of a white Republican moron from West Texas but who become strangely silent and quiescent when those same policies are enacted by people working beneath the picture of an eloquent black Democrat from Chicago.
As Cindy Sheehan noted two Junes ago, thinking of all the liberals she could no longer interest in opposing Washington’s imperial policies, “Wars that were wrong under Bush become acceptable under Obama.” She could of course have made much the same point in relation to numerous Orwellian police state policies that have carried over, from the corrupt bankers’ bailouts that Obama expanded, to the U.S. enablement of criminal right wing coups in Latin America, and to much more, most of which is documented at length in my new book.
A progressive mind is a terrible thing to waste. Just what sort of authoritarian, democracy-disabling dependency is it that makes some Americans capable of hating terrible policies only if they are being carried out by one brand of politician and incapable of doing the same when the same policies – or much the same, slightly modulated – are conducted by a different brand of politician beholden to the same dominant social hierarchies and doctrines as the one you don’t like?
The brand change, intimately related to the historic color change in the White House, is itself part of the narcotic mix. As Chris Hedges noted last year in a telling comment on a political culture that has long been deeply intertwined with the deceptive culture of advertising:
“Barack Obama is a brand. And the Obama brand is designed to make us feel good about our government while corporate overlords loot the Treasury, our elected officials continue to have their palms greased by armies of corporate lobbyists, our corporate media diverts us with gossip and trivia and our imperial wars expand in the Middle East. Brand Obama is about being happy consumers. We are entertained. We feel hopeful. We like our president. We believe he is like us. But like all branded products spun out from the manipulative world of corporate advertising, we are being duped into doing and supporting a lot of things that are not in our interest.”
“…President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising.”
“Like Bush’s America,” the wonderful left writer and filmmaker John Pilger noted last year, “Obama’s America is run by some very dangerous people.”
What is your general view of Obama’s premiership thus far?
Well, it’s everything I predicted in my 2008 book Barack Obama and The Future of American Politics: corporate and imperial to the core – centrist in the American context and right wing by comparative global standards. Last November, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, the editor of the not-so left-liberal American weekly magazine The Nation, actually wrote the following: “Whatever one thinks of Obama’s policy on any specific issue, he is clearly a reform president committed to improvement of peoples’ lives and the renewal and reconstruction of America… Progressives,” Vanden Heuvel announced, “should focus less on the limits of the Obama agenda and more on the possibilities that his presidency opens up.” This was a fascinating comment more than 10 months into an administration that had already set new corporate welfare records, an administration that had approved an auto-restructuring plan that rewarded corporate capital flight, a “new” White House that had already made clear its determination to pass a health reform bill that only insurance and drug companies could love, that had already revealed its determination to undermine serious global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, that had already showed it would not pursue major green jobs public works programs even as unemployment reached new post-WWII record levels, and that it would not pursue the labor law and global trade reforms Obama had eloquently promised to working class audiences in 2007 and 2008. For me and others on the actual historical left, the so-called hard left, it was hard to hear such reflexive liberal defense granted to a masterful politician who has behaved clearly in accord with the remarkable dollar-marked approval that big corporate lobbyists had granted him since he was first carefully vetted on and around K Street and Wall Street in 2002 and 2003. As one “Washington lobbyist” told left journalist Ken Silverstein on condition of anonymity in 2006: “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?” Of course, big capitalists and political investors have reason to be grounded in reality; certain members of the aristocratic American “liberal left” have much less incentive to know and tell the truth and some interest in mystifying political reality.
“By the time this volume hits the bookshelves,” I wrote in June 2008, in Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, “its portrayal of Obama as a relatively conservative, capitalism-/corporate-friendly, racially conciliatory, and Empire-friendly ‘centrist’ will strike some readers as counter-intuitive. The nation’s still-potent right-wing Republican attack machine will already be regularly and unreasonably assailing Obama as a ‘far left’ candidate, a ‘socialist,’ a ‘black nationalist,’ and a dangerous ‘anti-American’ enemy of God, Country, the Family, and Apple Pie. Obama will also be subjected to no small measure of ugly racial bigotry. The racial fears and bias and toxic color prejudice – already evident across the Internet as I draft this preface in early June of 2008 – that his presidential candidacy will arouse will sometimes make it seem like the Obama phenomenon represents a real and substantive challenge to racial hierarchy in the U.S…..These unpleasant facts will make it more difficult than it would be otherwise to understand the Left critique of ‘the Obama phenomenon’ that comes in the chapters that follow.”
Think about that passage more than two years later. The story is told in the chapter titles of this second Obama book I did not expect to write. The Introduction is titled “An Instant Overhaul for Tainted Brand America,” this is an actual quote from Advertising Age, a leading marketing trade journal explaining why it gave the Obama campaign the Advertiser of the Year Award in 2008. Chapter 1, titled “Business Rule as Usual,” dissects Obama’s abject service to the moneyed elite and his betrayal of ordinary working people and the poor, left to ask “Where’s our Bailout?” Chapter 2, titled “Empire’s New Clothes: Words and Deeds in Obama’s Foreign Policy” examines the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s role in actually increasing imperial violence in South Asia, in expanding the imperial terror war to Somalia, Yemen, and Ethiopia, in sustaining the occupation of Iraq, in aiding and abetting Israel’s criminal policies towards the Palestinians, in furthering imperial pressure on Cuba, Iran, Russia, and Latin America, in aiding and abetting a right wing coup in Honduras, disguising escalated occupation as relief in Haiti, in the advance-kill of popular hopes for a peace dividend, in passing a record setting Pentagon budget and in doing much more that would shake Dr. King to his moral core. Chapter 3 is titled “Corporate-Managed Health Reform” (perhaps we’ll discuss that more later) Chapter 4, titled “The Myth of the Post-Racial Presidency and the Politics of Identity,” details Obama’s militant commitment to a nauseating sort of neoliberal post-Civil Rights race neutralism that insidiously deepens institutional white supremacy. This chapter also documents Obama’s continuation of the federal assault on immigrant workers and his very weak positions on gay rights and women’s rights and his curious exploitation of identity politics in the process of making conservative Wall Street friendly appointments to the Supreme Court. Chapter 5, titled “Big Brother Lives,” tells shocking stories on how Obama has essentially sustained the terrorist anti-terrorism and police state polices of Bush beneath deceptive legalistic repackaging.
Now, amidst all of this predictable and in fact predicted corporate-imperial re-branding I detail, we have seen the Republican right, partly repackaged as “the Tea Party,” absurdly, insistently calling Obama a socialist, a black nationalist, a leftist radical and sometimes even a “Marxist” and—- at the Glenn Beckian margins of madness – a “Marxist Lenninist.” This is a common sentiment in the vast right wing communications empire. It is given no small degree of credence in the more centrist “mainstream” (corporate) mass media, which continued – against all evidence – to describe Obama as a “man of the left,” a center-left president. That mass media continued, quite absurdly to lecture him on the need to “steer to the center” and to retain his “pragmatic” distance from “ideology” (meaning left ideology) and to scale back his supposed faith in “big government” and “deficits.” (These are lectures that corporate media reserves for Democratic presidents and never gives to Republican presidents, who grow deficits and big government with their extreme ideological commitment to plutocratic tax cuts and to messianic militarism, corporate welfare and state repression.) Thanks to all this reality-distorting madness more than half the American populace thought Obama was a “socialist” by last spring.
There is a pervasive sense among liberal supporters of Obama that he has been a disappointment as a president - do you think that disappointment is legitimate? Has Obama failed to fulfill his campaign promises?
Well he’s failed to fulfill most of the (carefully hedged and qualified) progressive promises he made to working people, labor, the poor, immigrants, antiwar voters, women, and minorities on Monday and Wednesday morning but he’s kept all the less advertised promises he made to the rich and powerful, the masters of profit and empire on Monday and Wednesday afternoon and evening and all of Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I documented that latter set of promises – the ones made to the power elite – at length in my 2008 and I reprised a bunch of them in the aforementioned sixth chapter (“We Were Warned”) of the new book. I think people who don’t have time and energy to do the due diligence research on candidate Obama have some good excuses for being disappointed in Obama: the Obama branding/marketing machine worked hard and expertly to sell them an image of the in fact corporate, imperial and centrist Obama as some kind of progressive activist fighting for change against the special interests and “from the bottom up.” Privileged middle and upper middle class intellectuals and activists who did have the time and energy to peel behind the candidate mask and the campaign imagery have no excuse at all in my opinion. The deeply conservative reality of Obama’s complete commitment to existing dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines was fully available to those who bothered or dared to look behind the wizard’s curtain.
Obama aside, the basic institutional reality of American politics is pretty clear and leaves little room for legitimate disappointment on the part of intellectually serious liberals and progressives… Every four years, as Laurence Shoup noted two years ago, millions of Americans invest their hopes in an electoral process that does not deserve their trust. These citizens qua voters hope that a savior or at least a more effective manager can be installed in the White House – someone who will raise wages, roll back war and militarism, provide universal and adequate health care, rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, produce high-paying jobs, fix the environmental crisis, reduce inequality, guarantee economic security, and generally make daily life more livable. But the dreams are regularly drowned in the icy waters of historical and political “reality.” In the actuality of American politics and policy, the officially “electable” candidates are vetted in advance by what Shoup calls “the hidden primary of the ruling class.” By prior Establishment selection, all of the “viable” presidential contenders are closely tied to corporate and military-imperial power in numerous and interrelated ways. They run safely within the narrow ideological and policy parameters set by those who rule behind the scenes to make sure that the rich and privileged continue to be the leading beneficiaries of the American system. In its presidential as in its other elections, U.S. “democracy” is “at best” a “guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population projects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process. It is an illusion,” Shoup claims – correctly in my opinion – “that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate.”
This is especially true in the corporate-neoliberal era, perhaps, when the Democratic Party has moved ever farther away from its declared mission of representing workers, the poor, and minorities – the disadvantaged – in their continuing struggles with plutocracy, inequality, empire, racism, and indifference. But the deeper and darker truth is that American democracy has always been significantly constrained and compromised by the privileged and the propertied and power elite. Sixty years ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter, in his widely read book The American Political Tradition, scrutinized the United States’ most significant national leaders, from Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jackson to Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Herbert Hoover and the two Roosevelts – liberals and Democrats as well as conservatives and Republicans. Hofstader found that “the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise…They have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man…That culture has been intensely nationalistic.” Through the century in which Hofstader wrote and into the present one, Howard Zinn has noted, “we have seen exactly the same limited vision Hofstader talked about – a capitalist encouragement of enormous fortunes alongside desperate poverty, a nationalistic acceptance of war and preparation for war. Government power swung from Republicans to Democrats and back again, but neither party showed itself capable of going beyond that vision.”
There’s just not all that much new here.
Now having said that, I suppose there’s plenty of room for liberals to be disappointed by various tactical aspects of how Obama has proceeded: how he has failed to communicate his policy agenda to voters; how he handed off too much of the health care process to Congress; how he should have led with a bigger economic stimulus and come on later with health care, etc…stuff like that. I am not very big on all that stuff, but I suppose there’s a lot that could be said in a tactical and strategic sense on how he has proceeded. That’s all the kind of thing liberal, power-worshipping journalists and authors like John Heileman and Mark Halperin write about and it doesn’t interest me all that much.
Supporters of Obama point to health reform as being a major victory for the administration - what is your view of Obama’s health program?
While the bill had some progressive aspects (banning the denial of coverage on the basis of pre-existing conditions and expanding Medicaid coverage to poor folks) that any decent progressive would want to see, the bill was fundamentally a great give away to the big insurance, drug, and medical corporations and leaves those companies’ cost-driving parasitic profits structure in place. The “reform” leaves most Americans cringingly dependent on the employer class for coverage and does very little to contain out-of-control health care costs. I am convinced that single payer health insurance (“Improved Medicare for All,” with the government as the sole insurance provider for all) was and remains the only way to go. Obama said something to that effect speaking to organized labor as a state senator in 2003 but he completely abandoned that awareness when he became a national-level politician and officeholder. This reflected his sense that you can’t rise to national power in the U.S. if you don’t align yourself with Shoup’s “hidden primary of the ruling class” and the aforementioned dictatorship of money. I should add that the bill Obama and his congressional allies crafted was so complicated and weird – a neoliberal public-private policy wonk’s dream and an ordinary citizen’s nightmare – that many regular folks in the Democratic Party’s “progressive base” could make no sense of it. Which was sort of the point. American “representative democracy” – scarred by too much representation for corporations and merely superficial democracy for ordinary people – is all about marginalizing the populace. It’s about what the Australians propaganda analyst Alex Carey called “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy.”
Obama has significantly expanded US operations in Afghanistan - most conspicuously regarding unmanned drone attacks which have taken a very high toll of civilian casualties. How has Obama fared in this regard as compared with his predecessor?
Oh he launched more drones into “Af-Pak” in the first three months of his administration than George W. Bush did in his whole second term (2005-2009). This resulted in a lot of U.S.-murdered children in places like Bola Boluk. As one angry Afghan man put it on the day Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize (of all things): “Peace prize? He’s a killer.” Alan Nairn: put it well last January: “the U.S. has a machine that spans the globe, that has the capacity to kill, and Obama has kept it set on kill.” Its been very depressing to watch American liberals defend all this murderous behavior after they claimed to vote for him because he was – they thought (quite falsely) – an antiwar candidate.
Read part two here