Paul Street deserves some kind of prize for being the first on the left to deliver the goods on Obama. While people like Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald deserve credit for exposing Obama as a charlatan not long after he began appointing people like Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers, and Rahm Emmanuel to key posts, Street had Obama’s number long before that.
When the rest of the liberal left was aflutter with Obama’s speech to the 2004 convention, Street saw things differently:
The world view enunciated in Obama’s address comes from a very different, bourgeois-individualist and national-narcissist moral and ideological space. Obama praised America as the ultimate “beacon of freedom and opportunity” for those who exhibit “hard work and perseverance” and laid claim to personally embodying the great American Horatio-Algerian promise. “My story,” one (he says) of rise from humble origins to Harvard Law School and (now) national political prominence, “is part,” Obama claimed “of the larger American story.” “In no other country on Earth,” he said, “is my story even possible.”
Street’s first book on Obama was written in 2008 when he was still a candidate. As a long-time resident of Chicago and a staff member of the Urban League (Street is white), he was in a unique position to penetrate the public relations halo that surrounded Obama. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Street discussed some of the thinking that went into the chapter “How Black is Obama”:
I remember Obama as a state Senator, and I worked in black communities in the Urban League. You’d be amazed how unpopular Obama was initially. You didn’t hear people say Obama was “too white.” Instead, he’s “too bourgeois.” I heard that a lot. He got killed by Bobby Rush in a U.S. congressional primary in 2000. Rush said again and again, Obama went to Harvard, he lived over in Hyde Park, etc. As Obama’s star was rising, you heard a lot of “he didn’t really come from the community,” or “he didn’t rise from the community.” Obama was handed to black America rather more than he arose from black America. Obama was more African plus American than he was African-American.
At 221 pages, The Empire’s New Clothes is a substantive work that belongs in the bookshelf of any activist who must relate effectively to students, workers, or community activists still confined in the veal pen. Despite the right turn taken in the aftermath of the midterm elections, there are still many Obama supporters in the trade unions, on campus, and elsewhere. Back in my wild and woolly Trotskyist youth, we used to distribute “truth kits” about popular Democratic Party liberal candidates such as Eugene McCarthy or Robert F. Kennedy. In some ways, The Empire’s New Clothes can be described as a truth kit on steroids.
Street’s research is especially useful now that Obama has groveled before the Chamber of Commerce. Unlike some who still have illusions that Obama can rise to the occasion and become a second FDR, Street makes the case that there is long-standing evidence that he had more in common with Herbert Hoover or even Calvin Coolidge, citing this passage from the gaseous The Audacity of Hope:
Calvin Coolidge once said that “the chief business of the American people is business,” and indeed, it would be hard to find a country on earth that’s been more consistently hospitable to the logic of the marketplace…
The result of this business culture has been a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history. It takes a trip overseas to fully appreciate just how good Americans have it; even our poor take for granted goods and services — electricity, clean water, indoor plumbing, telephones, televisions, and household appliances — that are still unattainable for most of the world. America may have been blessed with some of the planet’s best real estate, but clearly it’s not just our natural resources that account for our economic success. Our greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources… our free market system.
On almost every page of Paul Street’s thoroughly researched book, there is some eye-opening revelation that surprised even an old Obama-hater like me. Street has the goods on how Obama “triangulated” the ouster of Zelaya in Honduras even as he was posturing as a friend of democracy. In fact the circumlocutions on display recently around the uprising in Egypt came out of the same playbook.
Street is also very strong in documenting Obama’s long-standing tilt toward Arab reaction, a repudiation of the nonsense on display at The Nation Magazine where he is hailed as a midwife to the Egyptian revolution. Street points out that Obama refused to call Mubarak an “authoritarian” when pressed for his take on the dictator, and dubbed Saudi Arabia’s king Abdullah a paragon of “wisdom” and “graciousness.”
The concluding chapter of The Empire’s New Clothes is titled “The Sorry Surrender of the So-Called Radical Left.” (To Street’s everlasting credit, he is not one to mince words.) It excoriates Moveon.org and other such compromised outfits and individuals. The book ends with a warning that a failure to create a genuine opposition to Obama will lead to continued frustration and more gains for the Tea Party. Students of history will, of course, recognize that the fascist movement grew in the 1930s for pretty much the same reason. In the absence of a bold and uncompromising left, the confused worker or shopkeeper will gravitate to right populist demagogy. See full review (including pointed criticism of Street’s alleged collaboration with Democratic Party in 2007) here.