Story Time: U.S. State Financial Capitalism, Presidential Politics, and the Management and Manipulation of Expectations

First published on ZNet on July 19, 2012.  

“You Can’t Be Neglecting of Marketing and P.R.” 

It doesn’t get much more emblematic of the plutocratic nothingness of what passes for a democratic political culture in the U.S. than a recent televised conversation between United States President Barack Obama and “CBS This Morning” anchor Charlie Rose. Reflecting on “what we’ve done well and what we haven’t done well,” Obama told Rose that “the mistake of my first term – couple of years – was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right.”   

While good policy is important, Obama elaborated, “the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.” The problem with his first term, he said was (in essence) an excess of substance relative to style. 

Obama claimed to find this failure ironic. “It’s funny,” the president told Rose, “….when I ran, everybody said, ‘well he can give a good speech but can he actually manage the job?’ And in my first two years, I think the notion was, ‘Well, he’s been juggling and managing a lot of stuff, but where’s the story that tells us where he’s going?’ And I think that was a legitimate criticism.” 

How will he address this problem? By “getting out of this town, spending more time with the American people, listening to them, and also, then, being in a conversation with them about where do we go together as a country, I need to do a better job of that in my second term,” the president told Rose. He wants not merely to “explain” but also to “inspire.”  

“Because hope is still there,” First Lady Michelle Obama added.[1] 

It’s not the first time Obama has told the media that his problem is a matter of privileging policy over rhetoric and being in touch with “the people.” After his poll numbers fell in 2010, Obama told New York Times reporter Peter Baker that he had come up short in communicating with the American citizens. “Given how much stuff was coming at us,” Obama said, “we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right [emphasis added] than trying to get the politics right. There is probably a perverse pride in my administration — and I take responsibility for this; this was blowing from the top — that we were going to do the right thing [emphasis added], even if short-term it was unpopular. And I think anybody who’s occupied this office has to remember that success is determined by an intersection in policy and politics and that you can’t be neglecting of marketing and P.R. and public opinion.”[2] 

Does Presidential Persuasion Matter?

Forget for a moment whatever discomfort you might have about the paternalistic notion that presidential statesmanship involves spinning tales and weaving narratives for the childlike citizenry. Yes, story time is for parents or grandchildren or baby-sitters and small children, not “we the people” and our purported elected representatives.

Forget also a curious finding of political scientists who seriously investigate presidential rhetoric: it has little if any impact on political and policy outcomes. Presidential speeches, it appears, don’t make any difference in winning political and policy gains. When you are contending for the presidency, great speech-making helps the candidate achieve his or her key goal: getting elected. Under the American political system, however, giving a good speech can actually help prevent a sitting president from achieving his post-election goals. The key problem is that under that system, as Ezra Klein recently explained in The New Yorker,  a “democratically elected president can come from one party and a democratically elected legislature from another. Both sides end up having control over some levers of power, a claim to be carrying out the will of the public, and incentives that point in opposite directions.” A good oratorical moment for a president only steels the determination of his partisan opponents in the legislative branch to deny him the ability to translate the “bully pulpit” into success. As Klein notes, “Presidential persuasion might actually have an anti-persuasive effect on the opposing party in Congress…because our system of government usually requires at least some members of the opposition to work with the President if anything is to get done, that suggests that the President’s attempts at persuasion might have the perverse effect of making it harder for him to govern.”[3] 

Speeches make much less difference than partisan alignment between the executive and legislative branches and the state of the economy when it comes to determining the policy and political achievements of a president. Speaking of the economy, the leading Democratic political operative and former Clinton presidency communications expert Paul Begala put things very well to Klein: “The Titanic had an iceberg problem. It did not have a communications problem. Right now, the President has a jobs problem. If Obama had four-percent [un]employment, he would be on Mt. Rushmore already and people would look at Nancy Pelosi like Lady Gaga.”  

Even Obama’s top media maven David Axelrod gets it that better communication strategies won’t change things. “Some folks in politics,” Axlerod told Klein last spring, “believe this is all just a rhetorical game, but when you’re governing it’s not. People are viewing their lives through the lens of their own experience, not waiting for you to describe to them what they’re seeing or feeling.”[4] Imagine. 

It makes sense that Obama seems particularly attached to the power of communication. His rise to notoriety and to the presidency was particularly connected to speechmaking and most particularly to his widely lauded Keynote Address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. 

“Getting the Policy Right”?  

But put these problems aside for a moment and think about “the policy” that Obama says his administration “got right.” Amidst the rising misery of the Great Recession’s fully flowering in 2008 and 2009, Washington rushed to bail out the corporate and financial institutions that had crashed the economy while claiming to have empty pockets when it came to helping ordinary working people. The epic transfer of trillions of taxpayer dollars to Wall Street started under George W. Bush and proceeded to record-setting levels under Barack Obama. It was not accompanied by any comparable aid for the millions of Americans who were running out of ammunition in the war on destitution. It was not matched by any remotely adequate government investment in urgently needed public works and jobs programs, housing assistance, or cash assistance for families. 

The liberal commentator William Greider put it well in March 2009, when the Treasury Department announced that the Wall Street mega-firm AIG would be receiving an additional $30 billion in federal assistance on top of the $60 billion it had already gotten, and after news emerged that AIG had paid out $165 million in bonuses to its top managers. “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t,” Greider wrote in The Washington Post: “They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.”[5] 

Indeed, the Obama administration has provided a tutorial on who really rules America. The “change” and “hope” presidency brilliantly demonstrated the reach of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money,” which vetoes any official who might seek “to change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime.”[6] Along with continuing the monumental bailout of the ultra-rich financial overlords, the Obama administration refused to nationalize and or even significantly regulate the parasitic financial institutions that had paralyzed the economy. It passed a health-insurance bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love. It passed a stimulus measure that fell very short of the requirements for restoring durable recovery. It cut a bailout deal with the automobile industry that rewarded capital flight and raided union pension funds. It undermined desperately needed global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, at conferences in Copenhagen in 2009 and Durban in 2011. It refused to develop serious public-works programs (green or otherwise). It green-lighted offshore drilling and other environmentally disastrous practices. It extended Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. It froze federal wages and salaries. It made a debt-ceiling deal in 2011 that would slash social programs instead of raising taxes on the rich. It disregarded its promises to labor and repeatedly betrayed the constituencies in its progressive base. It blathered on in Republican-like terms about the supposed grave danger of deficits, indifferent to majority public opinion that joblessness was the nation’s greatest problem and to standard textbook economics showing that a recession was no time to be holding back on government spending.[7] 

All in all, it kept promises it had quietly made to its Wall Street and corporate sponsors, who had set new campaign finance records in backing Obama in 2008. As a result, the technical economic “recovery” remains remarkably tepid, plagued by doggedly persistent high joblessness and weak wages and salaries reflecting a lingering “human recession” that keeps half the population officially “low income”[8] more than a third of the population either in poverty or “near poor” at or below  150% of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.[9] 

What’s so great about this conservative, business-friendly policy record? It’s hardly the stuff of “hope” and “optimism” for any but the wealthy Few. And just what sort of pacifying story should Obama have constructed, exactly, to make this record seem inspirational to a populace that has long believed that large corporations and financial interests exercise excessive and undue influence over American “democracy?” 

“Expectation Calibration is Essential” 

In reality, of course, he has never completely dropped his and the Democratic Party’s deceptive, populism-manipulating claim to represent the working class majority of Americans in their timeworn struggle with the rich and powerful and the business-captive Republican Party. Insofar as it is true that the Obama phenomenon moved from stirring narrative to nitty-gritty policy detail when candidate-selling gave way to actual governance, moreover, this was hardly just due to public relations negligence. Story time was reduced because the Obama campaign’s fairy tales of “Hope,” “Change,” and (vaguely defined) democratic transformation were little more than branding games meant to bring about a narrow partisan personnel shift in the management of neoliberal state-capitalism. The candidate’s democratic- and progressive-sounding promises and imagery did not fit the cold plutocratic realities of governance imposed by the aforementioned unelected dictatorship. They raised popular hopes that now required careful management and – to use the terminology of early Obama advisor (and leading champion of “humanitarian” imperialism) Samantha Power – “expectation calibration.” 

Which brings us back to Charlie Rose, the unparalleled, ubiquitous and obsequious interviewer of elites. An early indication of popular Obamanistic betrayals to come emerged in late February of 2008, when the Harvard professor Power[10] appeared on the syndicated “Charlie Rose Show” (the one with the jazzy, Seinfeld-like theme song that you get on PBS). Noting that George W. Bush had recently been swamped by cries of “O-ba-ma” during a recent state visit to Africa, Rose asked Power if she was concerned about the “sky-high expectations” much of the world seemed to have for an Obama presidency. There is “a danger” in this, Rose worried. Yes, Power said, noting that Obama was concerned about unrealistic hopes and adding that “that’s why expectation calibration and expectation management is essential at home and internationally.” [11] 

Behind this disturbing application of elitist and technocratic language to the supervision of domestic and global opinion and hopes lay an obvious if unstated admission: Obama was going to disappoint expectant masses in U.S. and across the world  The peoples’ faith in change needed to be carefully, downwardly coordinated 

“To Manage Expectations and Gently Tamp Them Down”

Truth be told, Obama indicated from the beginning of his presidency that he intended to serve his corporate and Wall Street masters by toning down popular expectations. Listen to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind’s account of Obama’s Election Night speech in his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President:

‘He had thought about this victory a thousand times before – what it would look like, what it would mean but before he even stepped on the stage, into that very moment for which he had been waiting his whole life, he grabbed [his top media consultant David] Axelrod and told him to cancel the fireworks. Too celebratory. The country was in crisis, after all, and it was the wrong tone.’

‘In this moment has brought to ignition, his response was to manage expectations and gently tamp them down [emphasis added]… Obama turned to deliver a speech that, from the start, struck a subdued tone. It was as much his manner as his words, which began memorably: ‘ 

‘“If there is anyone out there who doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”’ 

‘And what did the answer consist in?’ 

‘“It’s the answer that led those, who have been told for so long, to be cynical and fearful and doubtful of what we can achieve, to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”’

‘In speeches over the years, Obama had often referenced his favorite line of King’s: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice….but in Obama’s rendering tonight, King’s arc now bent “toward the hope of a better day,” skewing in this bright direction for the simple fact of his election.’ 

‘What change had really come, beyond the extraordinary fact of his election, was not clear – nor clarified in his speech. Instead, the president retreated from his opening salvo, dialing back expectations:’ 

‘”This victory alone is not the changer we seek,” he explained. “It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.”’ 

‘None of this kept anyone from weeping and cheering, not his avowals that the “road ahead will be long” or that our “climb will be steep.” They were dancing in Kenya, and all across Africa. From South Side Chicago out across at least country and continent, in cities and suburbs, gated communities and slums alike. It was a difficult world everyone lived in, each day, but tonight was the long-awaited counterpoint to all that, to the wars, the collapsing economy, and that growing sense, in the long Bush twilight, of being leaderless….But you can miss the moment, even the one you’ve been waiting for your whole life.’ [12] 

Obama’s Inaugural Address (which included the curious assertion that the financial collapse reflected “our collective failure to make hard choices”) exemplified the same subdued and conservative tone, absurdly blaming the entire nation for the financial collapse that Wall Street had produced.[13] The speech’s attendees “had come to be inspired, and [Obama]…denied them.” [14] 

It was all very consistent with the calculations of the big money election investors who first identified Obama as a good candidate put a fake-progressive face on the continuation of regressive, elite-serving polices beyond the arch-plutocratic George W. Bush reign. As Ken Silverstein noted in a 2006 Harper’s article that told the story of Obama’s initial vetting by the money and politics class, early in his national political career Obama was found to be a safe political contestant by smart sections of concentrated wealth. “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?’”[15]

 “To Quell the Mob” 

What is the story line that Obama is rolling out for the current quadrennial electoral extravaganza? With a little help from the 2011 Occupy Moment (a moment his administration helped bring to coordinated violent end[16]) and the graphic Wall Street connections and related Super PAC contributions of the classically “out of touch” Mr..001 Percent Mitt Romney, it is the Democrats’ customary claim – regularly amplified at election time – to be the party of the working class majority in its eternal struggle with the rich and powerful and their Republican allies. An opulently well-heeled[17] former “equity capital”[18][ist] with a history of eliminating working class jobs and stashing his spectacular profits in foreign tax-free bank accounts, Romney is a perfect high-financialist foil for this standard populist-sounding Democratic Party campaign narrative.

The narrative is a fairy tale. As left political commentator Lance Selfa reminds us in the latest Socialist Worker, “The Democratic Party may have a voting base of working people, unionists, racial minorities and women, but it depends on raising money from segments of the capitalist class and wealthy individuals….The Democratic Party can’t reflect genuine working-class anger and solidarity, because it’s a pro-business political institution.”[19] And Obama is a militantly pro-business politician, as I have shown in exhaustive empirical in two books to date.[20]  

That harsh reality has produced some interesting historical episodes that have to be deleted from the story that Obama and the Democrats want to tell the people this election season. Three months into Obama’s supposedly “transformative” presidency, for example, popular rage at Wall Street was intense and the leading financial institutions were weak and on the defensive. Obama called a meeting of the nation’s top thirteen financial executives at the White House. The banking titans came in dread only to leave pleased to learn that the new president was on their side. For instead of standing up for those who had been harmed most by the crisis – workers, minorities, and the poor – Obama sided unequivocally with those who had precipitated the meltdown. 

“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” the president told the Robber Barons of high finance. 

For the banking and investment elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’”

As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.” When the frightened bankers had arrived in the State Dining Room, Obama had them at his command, with the winds of the citizenry’s rage at his back. “An hour later,” Suskind notes, “they were upbeat, ready to fly home and commence business as usual.” Here’s how one of the thankful and reassured bankers recalled the episode: “Lots of drama, but at day’s end, nothing much changed.”[21] 

Hypocritical Lectures on Firing People 

Curiously enough, Suskind ads, Obama had just “fired a man who had effectively managed four hundred thousand workers in the making of seven million cars a year – without even bothering to meet him. At the same time, he agreed to try to bail out Chrysler, and eventually GM, by adopting the practices and principle of private equity in the use of government funds.”[22]  That is Suskind’s way of saying that Obama made nice with parasitic financial and so-called equity capitalists who dismantled millions of livable wage jobs while coldly sacrificing an industrial capitalist who had kept hundreds of thousands employed – General Motors (GM) CEO Rick Wagoner. The administration then went into the automobile industry to shred jobs and raid pensions more aggressively than did the industry’s own corporate management[23]  – all very much in accord with the vicious calculations of the equity capital industry.[24] 

“This,” as Gary Younge writes in The Guardian, “is what makes Democratic attacks on the business record of Republican presumptive nominee Mitt Romney so hard to swallow. While their substance is sound and their target deserving, the source makes them hypocritical and opportunistic. The poor do not have ‘a man in Washington.’ Romney deserves to be taken to task. However, it’s not a task the Democrats can credibly undertake since they have been complicit in the very practices for which they criticize him.” Younge’s report bears an apt tile: “The Democrats Can’t Lecture Romney About Firing People.”[25]

Along with remarkable elite fundraising by Romney and the persistently sluggish state of the under-stimulated U.S. economy,[26] the resulting disillusionment and demobilization of the Democrats’ traditional voting base (a critical factor in the historic Republican Congressional and state-level sweep in the mid-term elections of November 2010)[27] does not bode well for Obama’s chances to keep the storyteller-in-chief job beyond January 20, 2013. Even with the epic campaign blundering and aristocratic weirdness of Romney[28], the election seems certain to be very close in accord with the pattern of 2000 and 2004. How much difference the outcome will really make for ordinary Americans is questionable, but the campaign can be expected to suck up the lion’s share of political news and commentary – not to mention many hundreds of millions of dollars that would be better spend on feeding and clothing poor children at home and abroad – for months to come. 

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). Street can be reached at 

Selected Notes

[1] See full Charlie Rose/CBS Interview of Barack and Michelle Obama from the White House at 

[2] Peter Baker, “Education of a President,” New York Times, October 12, 2010, read online at 

[3] Ezra Klein, “The Unpersuaded: Who Listens to a President?” The New Yorker, March 19, 2012, 37-38. 

[4] Begala and Axelrod are quoted in Klein, “The Unpersuaded,” 38. 

[5] William Greider, “Obama Asked Us to Speak But is He Listening?” Washington Post,, March 22, 2009, read online at 

[6] Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009, read at; Paul Street. “America’s Unelected Dictatorship of Money: Dark Reflections on the Need for Real Change at Home, Not Just in the Middle East,” ZNet (April 14, 2011) at

[7] For my own attempts to document this terrible record, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); Paul Street, “Two Bubbles That Went Pop,” Counterpunch, February 24-26, 2012, at; Paul Street, “Whose Black President?” Black Agenda Report (August 3, 2011) at 

[8] CBS News, “Census Data: Half of U.S. Poor or Low Income,” December 15, 2011 6:25 AM at 

[9] Jason DeParle et al., “Older, Suburban, and Struggling, ‘Near Poor’ Startle the Census,” New York Times, November 18, 2011. 

[10] On Power’s close relationship with Obama (for whom she served as a foreign policy fellow during his U.S. Senate career), see Ryan Lizza, “The Consequentialist,” The New Yorker, May 2, 2011, 44. 

[11] The Charlie Rose Show, PBS, February 21, 2008. See a more detailed discussion of Power’s comments, see Paul Street, “‘ Calibrating’ HOPE in the Effort to ‘Patrol the Commons’: Samantha Power and the Hidden Imperial Reality of Barack Obama,” ZNet (February 25, 2008) at 

[12] Ron Suskind, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (New York: Harper Collins, 2011); 130-131.

[13] For a left critique of Obama’s Inaugural Address, see Street, The Empire’s New Clothes, 192-199. 

[14] Suskind, Confidence Men, 157. 

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

[16] David Lindorff, “Police State Tactics Point to a Coordinated National Program to Try and Unoccupy Wall Street and Other Cities,” This Can’t Be Happening (November 15, 2011) at; Andy Kroll, “Mayors and Cops Traded Strategies for Dealing with Occupy Protestors,” Mother Jones (November 16, 2011), read at;  Nigel Duara, “Mayors, Police Chiefs Talk Strategy on Protests,” Associated Press (November 15, 2011), read at  

[17] “Five years ago, according to disclosure statements, [Romney] was already worth between $190 and $250 million, not counting another $70-100 million in trusts for his children and grandchildren, and not counting real estate worth tens of millions more. It’s not clear how he turned a maximum contribution of $450,000 over 15 years at Bain into an IRA worth between $21 and $102 million (where it grows tax free)…”Jacob Weisberg, “The Pain in Bain: Why Romney’s So Afraid of Talking About What he did at Bain,” Slate (July 17, 2012) at

[18] “Essentially, equity capital is money that is invested into a company in exchange for an ownership interest in that company. Traditionally, equity capital unlike debt is not intended to be repaid according to a specific schedule and is not secured (or guaranteed) by the company’s assets. Instead, an equity investor (i.e., the individual or entity that supplies the company with the money) expects that, within a certain time frame, the ownership percentage she holds will be worth more than the original amount she invested.” See Springboard Enterprises’ Learning Center:  In contrast to debt capital, equity capital is not repaid to investors in the normal course of business. On Romney’s role at the head of the private equity firm Bain Capital and the arguably disastrous and parasitic role that such firms play in the U.S. economy, see Weisberg, “The Pain in Bain.” 

[19] Lance Selfa, “From Labor Uprising to Election Disaster,” Socialist Worker (July 2012), 14. For deep historical elaboration and analysis, see Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008). 

[20] Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), “Chapter 1: Obama’s ‘Dollar Value,” 1-58; Street, Empire’s New Clothes, “Chapter 1: Business Rule as Usual,” 9-45. 

[21] Suskind, The Confidence Men, 233-242. 

[22] Suskind, Confidence Men, 241. 

[23] See Street, Empire’s New Clothes, 17-20.

[24] Jacob Weisberg paints a reasonably accurate picture of the equity capital’s “model of financial capitalism as it has been practiced over the past 30 years. Leveraged buyouts, which are what private equity firms do, load companies with debt, extract value for middlemen, and displace workers. Heads-I-win, tails-you-lose practices in the financial sector, regulatory loopholes, and tax advantages produce runaway winners like Romney while middle-class workers lose ground. As the gap between economic victims and executioners grows, the resulting society becomes more unequal and unfair.” Weisberg, “The Pain in Bain.”

[25] Gary Younge, “The Democrats Can’t Lecture Romney About Firing People,” The Guardian, July 15, 2012. Younge does not mention the automobile story, which fits his critique and title very well. 

[26] A well-crafted liberal analysis (still useful if already dated) is Josh Bivens, Failure By Design: The Story Behind America’s Broken Economy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011). 

[27] See Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2011), 145-65. The corporatist conservatism of Obama and the Democrats thus played a critical in creating the right wing House of Representatives that helps make Obama’s “bully pulpit” irrelevant under the American governmental system. 

[28] See Maureen Dowd, “Whose on America’s Side,” New York Times (July 17, 2012), read online at  Obama’s run of luck running against flawed Republican candidates is quite remarkable.  See Paul Street, “The Luck of O’bama: Will it Continue?” ZNet (March 8, 2012) at

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By | 2012-07-24T15:26:33+00:00 July 24th, 2012|Articles|