The Luck of O’Bama: Will it Continue?

12/03/12 0 COMMENTS

ZNet, March 8, 2012. Unlike the current U.S. President, author of two books about himself to date, I’ve never been all that awed by Barack Hussein Obama. My first impressions of the future president (in my role as a race relations and social policy researcher and advocate in and around Chicago from the mid-1990s through 2005) were similar to those of the left political scientist Adolph Reed. Jr., who wrote the following about a recently elected state senator from Illinois in The Village Voice in January of 1996:

“In Chicago…we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices: one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substances. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway.”[1]  

Bourgeois, elitist, fake-progressive, neoliberal and, well, boring – that’s exactly how the freshman legislator Obama seemed to me in the late 1990s. 

A Special Quality Rarely Noted 

According to his longtime close personal friend and advisor Valerie Jarrett, Obama had “always wanted to be president. He didn’t always admit it, but, oh, absolutely. The first time he said it,” Jarrett told New Yorker essayist Larissa MacFarquhar in early 2007, “he said ‘I just think I have some special qualities and wouldn’t it be a shame to waste them…you know, I just think I have something.’”[2] 

That Obama enjoys “qualities” matched with success in America’s candidate-centered “winner-take-all” political system is clear. He is tall, square-jawed, handsome, athletic, supremely self-confident, protean, capable of humor, outwardly eloquent, and ambitious.[3] 

But let’s be clear about a special qualification for the presidency that is rarely mentioned in mainstream discourse: subservience to the economic elite, to those famously anointed as “the 1%” last fall. In the harsh, money-soaked reality of “democracy,” officially “elect-able” candidates for top “representative” offices are vetted in advance by what Laurence Shoup calls “the hidden primary of the ruling class.” By prior Establishment selection, Shoup noted in February of 2008, all of the “viable” presidential contenders are closely tied to corporate and military-imperial power in numerous and interrelated ways. They cannot move forward on the path to a serious shot at the White House unless they convince the gatekeepers that they will 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.[4] 

Obama was deeply inclined to play by those rules as he made the leap from state to federal politics in 2003 and from the U.S. Senate to the presidency. In his tedious, conservative, and autobiographical campaign book The Audacity of Hope (2006),[5] Obama claimed to remember it is as a complete surprise when John Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill called Obama and invited him to deliver the 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address – the speech that really launched his national celebrity and put him on the presidential map. “The process by which I was selected as the keynote speaker remains something of a mystery to me,” Obama wrote. But “this,” Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy noted in 2007, “seems disingenuous,” since the campaign had been told in advance that he was “likely” to get it and because Obama’s manager David Axelrod had been fiercely lobbying for the role.[6] 

A bigger problem with the Obama Keynote narrative was the way it deleted the political- and business-class try-out he received prior to his nationally broadcast introduction to the country and the world. As Ken Silverstein noted in an important Harper’s article in the fall of 2006, “If the speech was his debut to the wider American public, he had already undergone an equally successful but much quieter audition with Democratic Party leaders and fund-raisers, without whose support he would surely never have been chosen for such a prominent role at the convention.” A national corporate, financial, and legal vetting of Obama, with an emphasis on the critical money-politics nexus of Washington DC, began in October of 2003. That’s “when Vernon Jordan, the well-known power broker and corporate board-member who chaired Bill Clinton’s presidential transition team after the 1992 election, called roughly twenty of his friends and invited them to a fund-raiser at his home. That event,” Silverstein noted, “marked his entry into a well-established Washington ritual—the gauntlet of fund-raising parties and meet-and-greets through which potential stars are vetted by fixers, donors, and lobbyists.” 

Drawing on his undoubted charm, wit, intelligence, and his Harvard Law credentials, Obama passed this preliminary trial of wealth and power with flying colors. At a series of meetings with assorted big “players” from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, Obama  impressed key establishment figures like Gregory Craig (a longtime leading attorney and former special counsel to the White House), Mike Williams (the legislative director of the Bond Market Association), Tom Quinn (a partner at the leading corporate law firm Venable who was one of “the leading lobbyists in town” and a leading Democratic Party “power broker”), and Robert Harmala (another Venable partner and “also a big player in Democratic circles”). Craig liked the fact that Obama was not seen as a racial “polarizer” on the model of past black American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Williams was impressed by Obama’s reassurances that he was not “anti-business” and became “convinced…that the two could work together.” “There’s a reasonableness about him,” Harmala told Silverstein. “I don’t see him as being on the liberal fringe.” 

By Silverstein’s account, the “word about Obama spread through Washington’s blue-chip law firms, lobby shops, and political offices, and this accelerated after his win in the March [2004] Democratic primary.”  Elite financial, legal, and lobbyist contributions came into the Obama campaign’s coffers at a rapid and accelerating pace. The “good news” for Washington and Wall Street insiders was that Obama’s “star quality” would not be directed against elite segments of the business class: the intriguing black Senator “from the South Side of Chicago” was himself a player, someone the rich and powerful could work with.[7]  According to Obama’s early biographer and Chicago Tribune reporter, David Mendell: 

“Word of Obama’s rising star was now rising beyond Illinois, especially through influential Washington political circles like blue chip law firms, party insiders, lobbying houses. They were all hearing about this rare, exciting, charismatic, up-and-coming African American who unbelievably could win votes across color lines….. Axelrod, Jim Cauley and Obama’s influential Chicago supporters and fund-raisers all vigorously worked their D.C. contacts to help Obama make the rounds with the Democrats’ set of power brokers. … In setting after setting, Obama’s Harvard Law resume and his reasonable tone impressed the elite crowd.” 

“Reasonable tone” was code language with a useful translation for Obama’s wealthy business backers: friendly to financialized corporate capitalism and its masters. Obama now cultivated the support of the privileged few by advocating “fiscal restraint,” calling for “pay-as-you-go government” and “extol[ing] the merits of free trade and charter schools.” By Mendell’s account, he “moved beyond being an obscure good-government reformer to being a candidate more than palatable to the moneyed and political establishment.”[8] 

It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” Silverstein noted in the fall of 2006, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform” [9] – a reasonable judgment given well-known facts on the purposes behind election finance at the upper levels.[10] 

“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?’”[11] 

It’s not for nothing that Obama set corporate and Wall Street fundraising records in 2007 and 2008. 

Obama’s Dollar Value 

Obama has proved his dollar value to “the 1%” during his seven plus years in federal elected office. He has repeatedly disappointed his “progressive base” and defied majority progressive opinion on numerous key issues in accord with the wishes of Wall Street. As a U.S. Senator, he served the wealthy Few by: voting for a regressive “tort reform” (the so-called Class Action Fairness Act) that made it more difficult for ordinary consumers and working people to effectively sue misbehaving corporations; opposing legislation that would have capped credit card interest rates voting to limit patients’ compensation for medical mistakes; opposing single-payer health insurance reform; and taking up Wall Street talking points on “the Social Security crisis.”

Consistent with that record, Obama’s presidency has been a tutorial on who really rules America. With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to cut down the parasitic financial institutions that paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight and raided union pension funds, its undermining of desperately needed carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen (2009) and Durban (2011), its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its green-lighting of offshore drilling and numerous other environmentally disastrous practices, its roll-over of Bush’s regressive tax cuts for the rich, its freezing of federal wages and salaries, its cutting of a debt ceiling “deal” (in the summer of 2011) that was all about cutting social programs instead of tax increases on the rich,, its refusal to embrace and defend the public worker uprising in Wisconsin, and its help in coordinating the often brutal dismantlement of Occupy Wall Street encampments across the country, it has brilliantly demonstrated the reach of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money.” 

The left Australian and British commentator, author, and filmmaker John Pilger put it well at a socialist conference in San Francisco in July of 2009. “The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist,” Pilger observed, “partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters above all, is the class one serves.”

 Bon Chance 

And then there’s the incredible luck he’s enjoyed. Along the way, Obama’s ability to demonstrate his “special qualities” has hinged on some astonishing good fortune when it has come to election opponents: 

  • the divorce-scandal implosion of his leading early and originally formidable opponent (Brett Hull) in the Democratic U.S. Senate Illinois primary of 2004
  • the sex-scandal implosion of Jack Ryan, his originally formidable Republican opponent for the Senate seat in the 2004 general election.
  • The Republican’s Party’s selection of the comical black neoconservative Alan Keyes to run against Obama in Ryan’s place.
  • the peculiar over-confidence of the 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign and the related failure of that campaign to develop a serious strategy for states that selected their favorite candidate through caucuses rather that primaries.
  • the bumbling senility of the multi-millionaire John McCain, who pronounced the economy sound and who could not remember how many mansions he owned (and who chose a transparent moron to be his running mate) as the financial system collapsed in the late summer and early fall of 2008.  

Other lightning bolts of bon chance have fed Obama’s ascendancy from the start: 

  • a sex-scandal in a South Side Chicago congressional seat (held by Mel Reynolds) that led (thanks to the short-lived congressional aspirations of a progressive state senator named Alice Palmer) to a fortuitous opening in a solidly Democratic Illinois Senate position in 1995.
  • U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald’s (R-IL) odd decision not to pursue a second term in a seat formerly held by the second black U.S. Senator in American history, Carol Moseley Braun.
  • Braun’s decision to run for the presidency, not a return to the Senate, in 2004.
  • the Democratic Party’s determination that Obama was a better choice than rising star Jennifer Granholm (the term-limited governor of Michigan) to be the 2004convention Keynote speaker since Obama was involved in a contested election campaign (the determination was made before Jack Ryan’s meltdown) and Granholm was not.
  • the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the broader financial collapse of September and October 2008, which did particular political damage to the in-power Republicans at the end of the George W. Bush era. 

More Luck From “the Distant Right of American Politics”

Will Obama’s dollar-backed string of bon chance continue into a second term? Obama’s good luck with election opponents appears to be alive and well. The dysfunctional, arch-plutocratic, sexist, racist, and bomb-happy Republicans are grinding towards the ugly, Santorum-infected nomination of Mitt Romney, a gaffe-prone multi-millionaire who made his fortune in “equity capital” (code-term for the neoliberal-financialist dismantlement of U.S. manufacturing and other jobs) and has stashed much of his ransom in tax-free offshore accounts. A member of the .025 percent, Mitt “I’m Not Worried About the Poor” Romney (whose 2-Cadillac-owning spouse recently announced that she doesn’t “consider [her]self wealthy”) is a perfect foil for Obama’s effort to pose as the populist champion of “the 99%” – an effort accompanied by the standard behind-the-scenes assurances to “1%” backers and bankrollers: “don’t worry, we aren’t really populists, this is what we have to say to get re-elected.”   

Romney has been badly bloodied by a “relentlessly nasty, divisive, and vapid” primary campaign that has underscored deep class, religious and ideological divisions within the Republican electorate and reflected the Republican Party’s place on “the distant right of American politics” (the New York Times editorial board yesterday). As the editors of the New York Times noted the day after Romney’s narrow escape from “Super Tuesday”:

“This country has serious economic problems and [other] profound…challenges. But the Republican candidates are so deep in the trenches of cultural and religious warfare that they aren’t offering any solutions.” 

“…Republican voters will have to go on for some time choosing between a candidate, Mitt Romney, who stands for nothing except country-club capitalism, and a candidate, Rick Santorum, so blinkered by his ideology that it’s hard to imagine him considering any alternative ideas or listening to any dissenting voice.” 

“There are differences. Mr. Santorum is usually more extreme in his statements than Mr. Romney, especially in his intolerance of gay and lesbian Americans and his belief that religion — his religion — should define policy and politics. Mr. Santorum’s remark about wanting to vomit when he reread John F. Kennedy’s remarkable speech in 1960 about the separation of church and state is one of the lowest points of modern-day electoral politics.” 

“Mr. Romney has been slightly more temperate. But, in his desperation to prove himself to the ultra-right, he has joined in the attacks on same-sex marriage, abortion and even birth control. He has never called Mr. Santorum on his more bigoted rants. Neither politician is offering hard-hit American workers anything beyond long discredited trickle-down economics, more tax cuts for the rich, a weakening of the social safety net and more of the deregulation that nearly crashed the system in 2008.” (“Super Tuesday,” NYT Editorial, March 7, 2012 at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/07/opinion/super-tuesday.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

The ever-more right-wing, culturally revanchist, and white-nationalist Tea.O.P. is absurdly out of touch with majority needs and opinion, it would seem. 

Is Obama Being Thrown Out the Back of the Limo? 

Perhaps an observant Chicago Democrat or two will want to raise a glass of green-colored beer to praise “the luck of O’bama” on St. Patrick’s Day this month. It’s a fitting toast as long as its makers remember that big money bankrolling is what really makes political luck in Washington as well as in Chicago and that fortune would never have smiled on the “skinny guy with a funny sounding name from the South Side of Chicago” (really from Honolulu and Harvard Law) if he had not been so willing to lend his million dollar smile to the defense of the already rich and powerful.

It is far too early to consider Obama a certain two-termer in light of troubling indications for the White House. The administration’s concerns include the current climb of gas prices to possibly record-setting levels and the continuing fragility and partiality of the (all-too “statistical”) economic “recovery.” CBS News reported last December that “a record number of Americans — nearly 1 in 2 — have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income” Half the population – 150 million – is either officially poor (50 million) or living at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level (100 million).[12] Consistent with these terrible statistics, a preponderant majority of Americans (82 percent) tell Gallup that they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country[13] – an ominous number for any incumbent president on the eve of a second election.

A considerable amount of respected political science research indicates that Obama’s chances for re-election hinge significantly on whether or not real disposable incomes are stable or climb in the two quarters leading into next November’s election.[14]  Nobody can predict with certainty what the employment and income numbers are going to look like from May through November this year.

The Republicans might reside on the “distant right of American politics” but they retain a very real shot at the White House next fall.

To make matters more perilous for Obama, it is not 100 percent clear that “the hidden primary of the ruling class” has got his back this time around. A recent Huffington Post examination of detailed campaign finance data from The Center for Responsive Politics purports to show that the president has “been abandoned by the world of finance.”  In the final quarter of 2011, Huffington Post reporters Sam Stein and Paul Blumenthal found, Obama received just $127,000 from employees at the nation’s 68 most politically active and influential financial firms. Romney received $1.4 million from those employees during the same period. Over the course of entire campaign so far, Obama has been getting $1 dollar in donations from the financial sector for every $5 given to Romney. 

Stein and Blumenthal take this disparity to indicate Wall Street’s audacious ingratitude for a president who has served their interests. The financial dons take exception to even the slightest populist-sounding rhetorical slight and to the mere notion of modestly raising taxes on millionaires. And they have found in Romney an unusually friendly place to run to – a contender who has (as one liberal activist told Stein and Blumenthal) “lived and breathed Wall Street all his life.”[15]

 Are the masters of concentrated financial wealth, having gotten everything they wanted from the first black president, ready to throw Obama out from the back their limousine? (They could have him driven from Goldman Sachs’ headquarters up to Harlem, dumping him at the front door of the office of another corporate-Democratic President who spoke in populist-sounding terms of “hope” and “change” while making policy in accord with the other Golden Rule [“those who have the gold rule”] – Bill Clinton).[16] It is far too soon to say that Obama has been ditched by big finance. Romney has been involved in a contested primary contest, something that has required significant financial backing. Obama has had no primary opposition. At the same time, he has been raising millions from wealthy donors through the Democratic National Committee and stands to garner a vast sum through his super-PACs. 

The real test will come when Romney and Obama face off against each other, assuming that the morbid Santorum virus can be contained. 

Think Like a Plutocrat…. 

If you were a fabulously wealthy, politically active, class-conscious, and influential Wall Street election investor, who do you think would best serve your interests – Romney or Obama? The smart decision might seem to be Obama since he might seem to help you better cloak your rule. He gives you most of what you want while mimicking Teddy Roosevelt and pretending not to. A Romney administration would more transparently reflect the supremacy of the 1%. 

But maybe Romney would still be your better choice. When the G.O.P. holds the White House, you get more than just somewhat lower taxes, weaker regulations, and reduced social spending. You also get the nation’s liberals and progressives sucked into obsessive repetition of the notion that the insane evil Republicans are the main thing wrong with the country. You remain free to pull the Republican brand from the front of the shelf and push a business-friendly Democrat who talks of “hope and change” (a Carter, Clinton, or Obama) out front for a while. When the Democrats hold office and everything still stinks in America, there’s a better chance that the people will blame the profits system, not just the current party in power, and engage in dangerous popular social movements (what Occupy Wall Street was starting and trying to be) that might actually threaten your interests. 

You can always split the difference, of course, giving to both Romney and Obama in accord with the basic purpose behind the nation’s campaign finance “wealth primary:”[17] to turn “American democracy” into a plutocratic charade and keep U.S. politics what the great American philosopher John Dewey once called it: “the shadow cast on society by business.” 

Paul Street’s many books include Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied, 2007), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at paulstreet99@yahoo.com

Selected Endnotes


[1] Adolph Reed, Jr., “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice (January 16, 1996), reproduced in Reed,  Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene  (New York, 2000). 

[2]  Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?, The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).  

[3] During the mid-1990s, Obama participated in a seminar put together by Harvard professor Robert Putnam to gather young, civic-minded intellectuals, activists, and officeholders. By Putnam’s recollection, Obama “talked so openly about his political future that the group began referring to him, teasingly, as ‘Governor’ and “once gathered around him to ask, ‘when are you running for president?’”  

[4] Laurence H. Shoup, “The Presidential Election 2008,” Z Magazine (February 2008).

[5] For a critical review, see Paul Street, “Obama’s Audacious Deference to Power,” ZNet Magazine (January 24, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11936 

[6] Liza Mundy, “A Series of Fortunate Events: Barack Obama Needed More Than Talent and Ambition to Rocket From Obscure State Senator to Presidential Contender in Three Years,” Washington Post Magazine (August 12, 2007). 

[7] Ken Silverstein, “Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine,” Harper’s (November 2006). 

[8] David Mendell, Obama: From Promise to Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), Mendell,  248-249. 

[9]  Silverstein, “Obama Inc.,” p.37. 

[10] Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). 

[11] Silverstein, “Obama, Inc.” 40. 

[12] CBS, “Census data: Half of U.S. poor or low income,” (December 15, 2011) athttp://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57343397/census-data-half-of-u.s-poor-or-low-income/; RT, “Half of America is officially poor” (December 15, 2011) at http://rt.com/usa/news/half-poor-america-poverty-909/

[13] Peter Jones, “U.S. Satisfaction Up Slightly at Start of 2012, to 18 %,” Gallup Politics (January 11, 2012) at www.gallup.com/poll/151979/national-satisfaction-slightly-start-2012.aspx 

[14] For detailed reflections and comments and data from the leading political scientist associated with this prediction (Princeton’s Larry Bartels), see Alexis Simendinger, “Obama’s Chances Could Turn on One Key Indicator,” RealClearPolitics (October 7, 2011) at http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/10/07/obamas_re–lection_chances_could_turn_on_one_key_indicator_111594-full.html 

[15] Sam Stein and Paul Blumenthal, “Obama Wall Street Fundraising Evaporates as Donors Flee to Romney,” Huffington Post (February 2, 2012). 

[16] See Robert Pollin, Contours of Decent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (New York: Verso, 2003), 3-76; Christopher Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family (New York: Verso, 2000). 

[17] For learned reflections on American elections as a plutocratic “wealth primary,” see Jamin Raskin and John Bonifaz, “The Constitutional Imperative and Practical Imperative of Democratically Financed Elections,” Columbia Law Review, 94-4 (1994): 1160-1203.

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