Reply to Obama: On Money, Politics, History, and Bullshit

First published on ZNet on June 29, 2012. I never cease to be amazed by the boundless hypocrisy of the U.S. political class and the related amnesia of U.S. political culture. Look, for example, at an e-mail message I just received from Barack Obama. The president is worried that he may be outspent by Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign. He also complains that Romney is relying on wealthy donors to win the money race. Here’s the message 


FROM: Barack Obama

SUBJECT: I will be outspent 

“Dear Paul:” 

“I will be the first president in modern history to be outspent in his re-election campaign, if things continue as they have so far. I’m not just talking about the super PACs and anonymous outside groups — I’m talking about the Romney campaign itself. Those outside groups just add even more to the underlying problem. The Romney campaign raises more than we do, and the math isn’t hard to understand: Through the primaries, we raised almost three-quarters of our money from donors giving less than $1,000, while Mitt Romney’s campaign raised more than three-quarters of its money from individuals giving $1,000 or more.”

“And, again, that’s not including the massive outside spending by super PACs and front groups funneling up to an additional billion dollars into ads trashing me, you, and everything we believe in. We can be outspent and still win — but we can’t be outspent 10 to 1 and still win.”

“More than 2.2 million Americans have already chipped in for us, and I’m so grateful for it. As we face this week’s fundraising deadline, can you make a donation of $3 or more today? “Every donation you make today automatically enters you to join Michelle and me for one of the last grassroots dinners of this campaign — today is your last chance to get your name in.”

“These dinners represent how we do things differently. My opponent spent this past weekend at a secretive retreat for the biggest donors to both his campaign and the super PACs that support him.” 

“I’ve got other responsibilities I’m attending to. Donate today to stand for our kind of politics:” 

“Thank you,” 


 Reflecting that Obama set new corporate and Wall Street campaign fund-raising records in 2008 and then governed in plutocratic disregard for the working class majority whose votes he won with fake-progressive rhetoric and imagery (so well crafted that Advertising Age selected “Brand Obama” as the “Marketer of the Year” on the eve of the election[1]), I decided to write a response. Here it is: 


FROM: Paul Street

SUBJECT: Re, I will be outspent 

Dear Barack: 

Hello, Mr. President. We met back in the fall of 2002, when you gave the keynote address at a big South Side Chicago conference dedicated to the release of a major grant-funded study I wrote on (and against) racist mass incarceration and felony branding in Chicago, Illinois, and the nation. 

The fact that you may be outspent by Mitt Romney this year certainly does not bode well for your chances of having a second term and seeing your face carved on Mount Rushmore someday. Neither do the continuing high rates of poverty, joblessness, and inequality that are imposed by the profits system (what you sometimes call “the free market”), to which you have repeatedly and effusively declared allegiance.[2] 

Like many Americans, I am concerned about the corrosive impact of big money election investors on what passes for “democracy” in the U.S. 

Still, I am very unimpressed by your e-mail for four basic reasons. First, you can’t possibly expect me or others to believe that you are at serious risk of being outspent by 10 to 1. That is completely inconceivable for a sitting president who is still ahead of his opponent in the national polls and who has worked very hard to serve the interests of the moneyed class (see below) that provides the lion’s share of the nation’s political contributions. 

Second, you sound disingenuous when you compare your donor base with Romney’s “through the primaries.” You know very well that you ran uncontested in the primaries and that Romney did not. The big money comes in when the stakes are high – when it matters. And you have been building your big money war chest for 2012 quite well…. 

Third, many of us out here know very well that you have been setting new records for a sitting president in terms of the number of high-priced big money fundraisers you have attended. I’m talking about one even after another where the price per dinner plate often goes well into the tens of thousands of dollars. You averaged one big fundraiser every five days in 2011. [3]  Last March, USA Today found that the president had already attended 191 elite fundraisers – a new first-term presidential record with 10 months still to go. The previous standard of 173 had been set by the notoriously plutocratic George W. Bush.[4] 

Fourth, and most importantly, you seem to think I suffer from political amnesia. I remember very well how you brazenly blew up the presidential election public financing system in 2008. I recall how you boldly betrayed your promise to work within the spending limits imposed by that system if you ran against a Republican opponent who would do the same. Well, you had such an opponent, John McCain, and, as you know, you did not honor your promise for a very simple reason: you were killing McCain in the private fundraising game on the road to wining the presidency with the most corporate and Wall Street cash ever raised by a presidential candidate. (As a top McCain aid noted in February of 2008: “We have a candidate who is quite serious about taking public funds” – and thereby accepting spending limits’ “if Mr. Obama does…..[Obama] gave his word, and he either places value on that or he’s just fooling voters.”)

Then you did something worse than merely going against your word, Barack. Confronted by reporters and reform advocates with the ugly fact of your betrayal, you concocted the ridiculous claim that your unparalleled war chest amounted to “a parallel public financing system” since it was composed mostly of small donations from everyday people – people who would (you claimed at a fundraiser in April of 2008) “have as much access and influence over the course and direction of our campaign as has traditionally been traditionally been reserved for the wealthy and powerful.” That was a bold-faced lie. You didn’t every fund-raising record on the book by having an army of small donors: in truth you raised about the same percentage of funds from such donors as George W. Bush did in 2004.[5].And, as Washington Post reporters Matthew Mosk and Alex MacGillis noted the same week you uttered the words I just quoted, people “with wealth and power” were “play[ing] a critical role in creating Obama’s record-breaking fundraising machine, and their generosity has earned them a prominent place in shaping his campaign.”[6] 

In his 2010 book Fortunes of Change, Demos co-founder David Callahan provides a little historical background that also casts doubt on your pretense of discomfort with wealthy donors’ influence on presidential elections: 

“The defeat of John McCain in November 2008 was…helped along by …a group that Forbes dubbed ‘Obama’s billionaires.’ Among them were some of America’s wealthiest hedge-fund manager, including Thomas Steyer, Kenneth Griffin, Paul Tudor Jones, James Simons, and….George Soros….Several tech titans also threw in their lot with Obama, including the CEO of Silicon Valley’s hottest company – Eric Schmidt of Google – who hit the campaign trail for the candidate. In Hollywood, Obama secured early backing from three of the biggest moguls in town, the Dreamworks trio Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Warren Buffett, the perennial number two on the Forbes 400 list, also came in early…this revered wise man of business emerged as a trusted adviser to the young candidate. Another billionaire – the hotel heiress Penny Pritzker – chaired Obama’s finance committee, an operation that mobilized scores of wealthy bundlers, who in turn raised tens of millions of dollars from some of the nation’s richest people….When it was all over, Obama had raised more money than McCain in eight of the ten wealthiest zip codes in the United States, and had outraised him in any number of industries, including hedge funds, venture capital, private equity, corporate law, investment banking, and high tech. In a first for Democratic presidential candidates, Obama even raised more money than McCain did from commercial bankers.”[7] 

Those same sorts of people have naturally “earned…a prominent place” in how you have governed as well. Staffed with agents and allies of the rich and powerful, your administration has been a dazzling tutorial on who really rules America beneath all the standard and ritual blather about popular governance. With your monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, your refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic financial institutions that had paralyzed the economy, your passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, your cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight and raided union pension funds, your undermining of desperately needed global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen (2009) and Durban (2011), your refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), your green-lighting of offshore and Artic drilling and numerous other environmentally disastrous practices, your roll-over of Bush’s regressive tax cuts for the rich, your freezing of federal wages and salaries, your cutting of a debt ceiling deal (last summer)  that was all about cutting social programs instead of tax increases on the rich, your disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, and other betrayals of your “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to your Wall Street and corporate sponsors, who set new campaign finance records in backing Obama in 2008), your failure to even remotely embrace the public worker rebellion (in either its insurgent or even its major party-electoral phases), and your actions to crush (while trying to co-opt) the Occupy Movement, your “change” and “hope” presidency has brilliantly demonstrated the reach of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money,”[8]    

The beneficiaries have included the related masters of Empire, the top military contractors and the Pentagon, of course. Your “new” White House has escalated Superpower violence in South Asia, passed record-setting “defense” budgets, extended the U.S.- imperial terror war to Libya. Yemen and Somalia, provoked Russia and China, disguised the escalated U.S. occupation of Haiti as humanitarian relief, aided and abetted military coups in Honduras and (just last week) Paraguay, and otherwise expanded the Pentagon’s reach in Latin America – a fascinating record for the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Your militarism has redounded to the benefit of leading investors in high-tech military firms like Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics (a major contributor to your 2008 campaign) and Lockheed Martin. 

You have richly validated radical analysts’ jaded take on the plutocratic and imperial reality behind the heavily personalized, candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas” (Nom Chomsky) that big money and big media stage for the citizenry every four years, telling us that “that’s politics” – the only politics that matters. Your craven service to corporate and financial masters shows yet again that in its presidential as in its other elections, U.S. “democracy” is – in the words of the left historian and Green Party activist Laurence Shoup – “at best a guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation.” Along the way, you have pushed the planet ever closer to environmental catastrophe, helped make the problem of racism more invisible and intractable, and taken the national security and surveillance state to new levels. “It is an illusion,” the left historian Laurence Shoup observed in early 2008 (around the same time you were talking up that “parallel public financing” nonsense), “that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate.”[9]

So, no, Barack, I will not be sending you $3 (you might want to push that request up a little!) and I don’t really want to have dinner with you. I will not even vote for you, in fact. I will again, as usual, “throw my vote away” on a marginal left candidate who has no chance of being taken seriously under the regime you have so lovingly accommodated and which may well be getting ready to sweep you into the background. I say this from a contested state (one where the noxious Mormon plutocrat Romney has a good chance of winning) and as a leftist who has argued more than once that the strategic situation for serious left organizing is ultimately better with Democrats than with Republicans in nominal power.[10]  Your endless Orwellian duplicity and your vicious impact on American and global prospects has been so vile that with you as with your neoliberal role model Bill Clinton (another “first black president” who campaigned on “Hope,” “Change,” and corporatist health care “reform” his first time around), I really don’t see how I’m going to bring myself to act on my own advice. I know that modern American politics is all about money and bullshit but yours is just too thick for me. Please take me off your e-mail list. 

I wish you’d say something decent on the ex-offender, mass incarceration, and felony record issue. George W. Bush had more to say on that than you have so far. 


Paul Street 

Paul Street ( is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011, and the influential and widely read project study The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community in Chicago, Illinois and the Nation (Chicago Urban League, 2002, read online at  Street can be reached at

[1] “Obama Wins Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year,” Advertising Age, October 17, 2008, at; “Barack Obama and the Audacity of Marketing,” Advertising Age, November 10, 2008, at

[2] I remember this passage in particular from your vapid neoliberal campaign book 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. Our Constitution places the ownership of private property at the very heart of our system of liberty. Our religious traditions celebrate the value of hard work and express the conviction that a virtuous life will result in material rewards. Rather than vilify the rich, we hold them up as role models…As Ted Turner famously said, in America money is how we keep score…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.” These were remarkably conservative reflections, Barack. You left it to more radically inclined left progressives – characterized by you and your “pragmatic” cohorts as insufficiently “realistic” and excessively “moral absolutist” carpers, “cranks,” “zealots,” and “gadflies” (your insulting description of the liberal-populist U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone) – to observe some of the undesirable and less-than-“efficient” outcomes of America’s heavily state-protected “free market system” and “business culture.”  Those results include the climate-warming contributions of a nation that constitutes 5 percent of the world’s population but contributes more than a quarter of the planet’s carbon emissions. Other notable effects include the generation of poverty for tens of millions of U.S. children while executives atop “defense” firms like Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Raytheon rake in billions of taxpayer dollars for helping the United States terrorize and occupy the world. You further left to insufficiently “pragmatic” left thinkers and activists to note the American “free market” System’s wasteful and destructive allocation of more than a third of the nation’s wealth to the top 1 percent of the U.S. population and its systematic subordination of the common good to private profit. “Unreasonable” “radicals” were left to observe that business-ruled workplaces and labor markets steal “individual initiative” from millions of American workers subjected to the monotonous repetition of often imbecilic and soul-crushing operations conducted for such increasingly unbearable stretches of time – at stagnating levels of  material reward and security – that working people are increasingly unable to participate meaningfully in the great “democracy” you trumpeted as the Founders’ great legacy. We were left also to “complain” about the fact that U.S. social mobility rates are actually quite low in comparison to other leading industrialized states.


[4] F. Schouten, “Obama Tops Recent Presidents in Fundraising Attendance,” USA Today, March 6, 2012, A1. 

[5] Campaign Finance Institute, “Reality Check: Obama Received the Same Percentage from Small Donors in 2008 as Bush in 2004” (November 24, 2008); Andrew Malcom, “Obama’s Small Donor Myth,” Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2008; Michael Lou, “Study: Many Obama Small Donors Really Weren’t,” New York Times: “The Caucus: The Politics and Government Blog of The Times;” David Callahan, Fortunes of  Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America (New York: John Wiley&Sons, 2010), 3. 

[6] Matthew Mosk and Alex McGillis, “Big Donors Among Obama’s Grass Roots,” Washington Post, 11 April, 2008, A1. 

[7] Callahan, Fortunes of Change, 2-3. 

[8] Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009. 

[9] Laurence H. Shoup, “The Presidential Election 2008,” Z Magazine (February 2008), p. 31. 

[10] See, most recently, Paul Street, “Strategic Reflections on the Quadrennial Extravaganza,” New Politics (web version), May 4, 2012, at

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By | 2012-06-29T15:57:55+00:00 June 29th, 2012|Articles|