www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to home page

ISR Issue 61, September–October 2008

Politics of change or politics as usual?


AFTER OBSERVING the hundreds of thousands who turned out in Berlin to hear Senator Barack Obama’s July 23 speech or reading the dozens of adulatory articles about his summer trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Europe, it was easy to forget that Obama had not yet been elected president of the United States. Against Obama’s stage-crafted speech in Berlin, Republican candidate John McCain’s campaign stunt of chomping on Wiener schnitzel in a German restaurant in Berlin, Pennsylvania, just looked pathetic. These juxtaposed images seemed to sum up the developing conventional wisdom among the political and media elite, as it looks to the two corporate parties’ nominating conventions: Obama is the president-in-waiting, while McCain is the crotchety has-been.

Constanze Stelzenmüller, writing in The (London) Observer, spoke for a large segment of European opinion when she openly proclaimed: “President Obama is finally coming to Europe! All right, the Americans haven’t elected him… yet. But that’s a mere technicality as far as we’re concerned. We made up our minds long ago: our President is Barack Obama.”1

As ISR went to press in August, 2008, most indications pointed to an Obama win and substantial Democratic gains in the Congress and state legislatures come November. This expectation of a Democratic sweep hasn’t really changed since January 2007 when the earliest-ever presidential primary season got rolling—two years before the inauguration of the next president. Since then many indicators, from huge corporate donations to huge voter turnouts, have reinforced the notion of a substantial Democratic victory in November.

To be sure, the X factor of Obama’s race—and the GOP’s efforts to appeal to prejudice by making Obama seem too out-of-the-mainstream—gives McCain a chance. But one has only to consider the landscape that will confront the electorate in November: an opponent running as heir to the most unpopular president in polling history— four out of five Americans telling pollsters that the country is “on the wrong track”—an economy in a deep recession and a war in Iraq—championed by McCain—that two-thirds of Americans oppose. Only the most incompetent or resource-deprived candidate could lose in that environment. And all indications to this point suggest that Obama and his team are neither incompetent nor resource-deprived.

At bottom, Obama has the same forces working in his favor that Ronald Reagan had in 1980 and that Bill Clinton had in 1992. In those years, recessions and/or unpopular overseas entanglements associated with the White House incumbents made Reagan’s and Clinton’s messages of “change” resonate in an electorate ready to “throw the bums out” of the White House. While McCain isn’t officially the incumbent in 2008, he has spent his entire candidacy trying to prove that he will be a loyal custodian of George W. Bush’s most disastrous policies. So the time was right in 2008 for a candidate championing “change” to fill the American political vacuum. In defeating Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Obama proved that he grasped this far more than Clinton, who initially positioned herself as the “inevitable” Democratic nominee. Obama and his campaign team grasped that, after eight years of Bush, the majority of Democratic voters wanted something more than a Clinton restoration. Obama’s and Clinton’s positions on most issues hardly differed. So with little of substance separating them, Obama won on other, gauzier, themes: youth, “change,” standing for political principle, and some vague notion that he can bring people together across the political spectrum. This formula worked well to secure the Democratic nomination.

None of this is to deny what is historic about Obama’s candidacy. As the first African American with a good chance at winning a majority of voters in a country founded on slavery and whose constitution initially counted Blacks as three-fifths of a person, he has lifted the hopes of millions of people. An Obama win would be another piece of evidence supporting the proposition that the United States is a more racially tolerant and multicultural society than it has ever been. Yet his primary campaign, which subtly played on its historic character, was much more a triumph of style over substance. His rhetoric in the Democratic primaries—crafted with the more liberal Democratic primary voter in mind—evoked images of mass movements for social change throughout U.S. history. He sought, very skillfully and consciously, to cloak himself in the legitimacy of struggles for the right to vote, the eight-hour day, and civil rights for the oppressed. But when one looked beyond his inspirational rhetoric, it was often hard to pin down exactly where he stood on crucial questions. In many ways, Obama today remains as Ezra Klein, writing in the American Prospect in late 2006, described him: “… a cipher, an easy repository for the hopes and dreams of liberals everywhere.”2

In fact, since Obama began to assume the position as “president-in-waiting,” he has made much clearer where he stands on a number of important issues. And in doing so, he is showing that while marketing himself as a candidate of change, he is assuring the movers and shakers of American politics that he is committed to a status quo hardly different from what we have known at least since the end of the Cold War. In the primaries against Clinton, Obama pledged to filibuster the Bush administration’s plans to prevent lawsuits against telecommunications companies collaborating with the National Security Agency’s wiretapping without court approval. In July, presumptive nominee Obama voted for the reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that included the provision pardoning the telecoms for violations of the law committed on the Bush administration’s behalf. The death penalty for child rapists? Even Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy couldn’t stomach that when the Supreme Court in June tossed out a Louisiana law enabling the punishment. But Obama, in a statement criticizing the Court’s decision, lined up with the Neanderthals Scalia, Alito, Roberts, and Thomas. Other nods to the right came in quick succession: outlining a plan for government aid to “faith-based” organizations that sounded little different from the Bush administration’s current program, further hedging on his pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq, an interview with an evangelical publication in which he proposed limiting even further the right of women to obtain late-term abortions.

What gave? No doubt, some of this was the standard “move to the center” for the general election. No doubt, were Clinton the nominee instead of Obama, she would have pursued the same trimming of positions staked out in the primary season. Yet the usual reasons given for this—the need to address the whole country rather than Democratic partisans, the need to win independent and “swing” voters, etc.— don’t seem to hold in 2008. Poll after poll shows that independent voters are aligned with Democrats on most issues. And the electorate as a whole is poised to toss the GOP out of office. So the usual excuses for Obama’s shift don’t carry as much weight this year (if they ever did).3

The usual excuses also assume that the audience for these moves is the electorate. In fact, the real audience is the political, media, and business establishment. Obama isn’t making these gestures because he’s worried about adding a few thousand conservative voters in a swing state to his column. Instead, he’s confident he’s going to win in November and is touching up his resume for the ruling class. Obama’s embrace of the FISA bill wasn’t primarily a means to insulate himself from GOP attacks that he is “soft on terrorism”—which will come his way no matter how he voted on the FISA bill. It was his signal to the political elite that they can disregard all of his “outsider” and “change” rhetoric because he intends to be a loyal servant of their interests. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald grasped the importance of the telecom immunity bill to the elite club Obama was joining:

What all of this is really about—the reason why political elites… are so eager to defend it—is because they really do believe that lawbreaking isn’t wrong, that it doesn’t deserve punishment, when engaged in by them rather than by commoners.… Just like the pardon of Nixon, the protection of Iran-contra criminals, and the commutation of Lewis Libby’s sentence, this bill is yet another step in cementing a two-tiered system of justice in America where our highest political officials and connected elite can break our laws with impunity.4
With the exception of his open somersault on the telecom immunity bill, Obama’s other “moves to the center” aren’t really that far from the already very cautious and “bipartisan” positions that have been central to his campaign’s message. By way of defending Obama from Republican charges of “flip-flopping” on his pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq, Countdown with Keith Olbermann guest host Rachel Maddow on July 7 showed multiple video clips of Obama making the same hedges about assessing the “situation on the ground” during the primary campaign. Although Maddow was trying to show Obama in a positive light—that Obama’s recent statements on Iraq were just a restatement of his longstanding position—anyone paying attention could have concluded that Obama’s “antiwar” position isn’t so antiwar at all. But it is the “responsible” position that most of the Washington elite, apart from the discredited Bush/neocon cabal, endorses and is counting on Obama to implement.

Many Obama supporters today are realizing what dawned on liberal activist David Sirota in early 2005. After reviewing Obama’s early Senate votes to confirm both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national intelligence czar John Negroponte as well as to deny ordinary people legal redress against corporations, Sirota confessed his disappointment:

Obama is a very smart guy—so let me say that I’m not sure higher office is the motivation for his votes. But if it’s not, what is? Is it just that he’s far more conservative than he let on? In many ways, that would be worse. I don’t know which to hope is true. All I know is that his short time in office is a cause for great concern—or at least reason to limit my previously boundless optimism about a person who should be one of our next great leaders.

As Clintonian triangulation heartbreakingly taught us so well in the 1990s, sometimes politicians with the most talent to do the most good get so caught up in the failed Beltway strategy of so-called “moderation” that they end up never reaching their full potential to become historic agents of change. Here’s one (albeit frustrated) Obama fan hoping that doesn’t happen to the junior Senator from Illinois.5

Capitalist politics at a crossroads

As the United States approaches the November 2008 election, it is clear to more and more members of the political, military, corporate, and media establishments—who form what Marxists call, collectively, the ruling class—that mainstream politics is reaching an inflexion point. The incoming administration will confront a mound of crises that are the legacy of a generation of neoliberal economic policies and the United States’ position as the world’s only superpower following the end of the Cold War.

A banking and financial crisis accompanying the collapse of a bubble in real estate that decades of financial deregulation abetted poses the greatest threat to the U.S. economy since the Great Depression, according to many financial analysts. Financial guru Bill Gross, head of the PIMCO bond fund, has estimated that the crisis could cost as much as $1 trillion to the U.S. economy.6 While the price of oil has fallen after hitting its peak in July 2008, energy costs are still high by historic standards—and show no likelihood of returning to the cheap energy levels the United States has known for a century. Health care costs in the private insurance-driven U.S. system are hitting unsustainable levels and threaten to overwhelm the federal budget within a generation. The United States faces two “hot” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are draining the U.S. treasury and weakening the military’s ability to police the country’s far-flung empire. The declining dollar and the increased economic weight of China, India, and Russia have even raised concerns that the United States’ “unipolar moment” was just that—a brief moment of U.S. dominance that is giving way to a more multipolar distribution of power in world politics. As if to underscore the United States’ loss of position, China and India, leading a coalition of developing countries, forced the collapse in July of talks under that symbol of 1990s U.S. dominance, the World Trade Organization.7

Given these crises, the sense has grown even among business circles and their political representatives in Washington that laissez-faire politics are in need of an overhaul. “There’s a backlash against the laissez-faire, ‘isn’t-it-wonderful-how-creative-markets-are’ viewpoint,” former Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Alan Blinder, a Democrat, told the Wall Street Journal. “Markets are creative, but sometimes the creativity leads to strange and dangerous directions.” Even the Journal, normally the voice of hard-edged free-market ideology, recently called for an “honest socialism” in endorsing a federal takeover of the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac.8 On the foreign policy front, mainstream experts are backing away from the neoconservative fantasies of Bush’s first term to create a ruling-class consensus on behalf of a shift of military resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, a policy of “engagement” with Iran, an increase in the size of the U.S. military, and a refurbishing of U.S. “soft power.”9

The challenge for the elites that have benefited so much from the neoliberal era is to support a change in U.S. politics that will address the parts of these crises that impinge on their ability to reap profit and power, while containing popular demands for reforms to health care, workplace rights, or military spending that would challenge them. That is where the Democratic Party proves its usefulness to the people who run U.S. society. All things being equal, big business prefers Republicans, whose generally open pro-business stances aren’t usually balanced against appeals to labor or the poor. But the current Republican Party—saddled with responsibility for unpopular policies, mired in corruption, and having demonstrated its incompetence in managing the affairs of state—has run its course as a vehicle for carrying out, and winning support for, big business’s agenda. In the language of Madison Avenue that every pundit seems to have adopted these days, the Republican “brand” is damaged. And business knows when it’s time to pull a bad brand from the shelf.10

Writing in 1990, during the last cycle when the U.S. electorate was getting ready to toss a Republican administration in favor of a Democratic one, Kevin Phillips, a former Republican operative who turned against the dominant conservatism of the Reagan era, noted:

Much of the new emphasis in the 1980s on tax reduction and the aggressive accumulation of wealth reflected the Republican Party’s long record of support for unabashed capitalism. It was no fluke that three important Republican supremacies coincided with and helped generate the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties and the Reagan-Bush years.

Part of the reason survival-of-the-fittest periods are so relentless, however, rests on the performance of the Democrats as history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party. They do not interfere with capitalist momentum, but wait for excesses and the inevitable popular reaction.
In the United States, elections arguably play a more important cultural and economic role than in other lands. Because we lack a hereditary aristocracy or Establishment, our leadership elites and the alignment of wealth are more the product of political cycles than they are elsewhere. Capitalism is maneuvered more easily in the United States, pushed in new regional and sectoral directions. As a result, the genius of American politics—failing only in the Civil War—has been to manage through ballot boxes the problems that less fluid societies resolve with barricades and with party structures geared to class warfare.

The Democrats are a capitalist party concerned with sharing the responsibility of ruling the U.S. with the GOP. The differences that separate the Democrats and Republicans are minor in comparison to the fundamental commitments that unite them. To be sure, if there weren’t differences between the two parties, there would be no justification for a two-party system. But for Corporate America, the two-party system plays an essential role. If one party falls out of favor with the voters, there’s always the other one—with predictable policies—waiting in the wings.
This is the background to the huge shift in corporate money into the campaigns of Obama and of Democratic campaign committees for Congress. Throughout the primary season, Obama and Clinton each regularly raised more money than any single Republican candidate. As of June 30, Obama had raised a total of $339 million in the 2008 election cycle, compared to McCain’s $145 million. And Obama held a 2-to-1 advantage over McCain in “cash on hand.” Of the thirteen leading industrial sectors whose political contributions the Center for Responsive Politics tracks, the Republicans led the Democrats in only three (agribusiness, energy, and construction).
12 Even the corporate doyen of neoliberal economics, Wal-Mart, has shifted its contributions from almost 95 percent for Republicans to a near fifty-fifty split between the parties.13 Although Obama and the media have made much of his development of a grassroots network of small contributors, the big money that is really funding Obama’s campaign comes from corporate “bundlers” who round up $2,300-maximum contributions from as many of their management colleagues as possible. Under pressure from the New York Times, Obama disclosed in July that he has more than 500 individuals committed to raising at least $50,000 for him, with 178 of them committed to raising at least $200,000 each.14 This flood of corporate money assures that Obama’s agenda won’t stray too far from economic orthodoxy. The former radical journalist (and now Democratic convention delegate from California for Obama) Norman Solomon once wrote about “centrist” Bill Clinton’s rise to national prominence in the early 1990s: “If Bill Clinton did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent someone like him.”15 One could say the same about Obama today.

Change vs. more of the same

Given the crises facing the country, the widespread discredit the Bush administration has brought on the Republicans, and the poll-affirmed desire of the electorate for a clean break with policies of the past generation, an incoming Obama administration could be planning huge changes to the political economy of the United States akin to those of the 1930s New Deal. Indeed, many liberal and left commentators have urged precisely this, with some calling for a “new New Deal” and others advocating taking advantage of a “social democratic moment.”

Yet despite Obama’s soaring rhetoric, he has actually advocated few policies that break with any of the accepted orthodoxy in Washington today. During the primary campaign against Clinton and Senator John Edwards, Obama often took stands on economic issues that placed him to the right of Clinton’s fake populism. When Clinton flogged John McCain’s proposal for a temporary cut in the excise tax on gasoline, Obama brushed it aside as a gimmick. For refusing to back the gas tax holiday, Obama won the seal of approval from one of the deans of neoliberal punditry, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman: “Good for Barack Obama for resisting this shameful pandering.”17 As the scale of the housing crisis began to force its way into the primary campaign, Obama held back from support for a moratorium on foreclosures and for government aid to strapped homeowners, when Edwards and Clinton advocated both. Instead, Obama called for making mortgage fraud a federal crime and for a small federal tax credit. His first comments on the crisis reflected the influence of his neoliberal advisers, one of whom told the Nation’s Max Fraser, “One advantage to the tax credit is that there’s no moral hazard involved. There’s no sense in which you’re rewarding someone for taking too big a risk. If you lied about your income in order to get a bigger mortgage, then you’re not qualified. Do you really want to give a subsidy to the guy who wasn’t prudent?”18 By summer, after clinching the nomination, Obama recognized the untenability of maintaining this “above the fray” attitude to the housing crisis; he (and free-market McCain, for that matter) voted for the multi-billion dollar housing bill that passed the Senate. But it was telling that his first inclination on addressing the housing crisis was to take the position least offensive to financial interests and to neoliberal dogma.

However the political season influences the spin Obama puts on different economic issues, we should not forget that he is the one who hired “centrist,” pro-free market economists like University of Chicago’s Austan Goolsbee and Wal-Mart defender Jason Furman as his top economic advisers. While serving as Obama’s chief economic adviser, Goolsbee was (and still is) the senior economist of the right-wing, pro-corporate Democratic Leadership Council. Other informal Obama advisers include such mainstream figures as billionaire investor Warren Buffett, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, and former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill. At a July economic summit involving those figures and other corporate and Republican leaders, Obama highlighted a “bipartisan” approach to the economy that, although deliberately vague, seems to countenance limited government intervention while emphasizing a reduction of the federal deficit and aid to the private sector—in essence, a rehash of 1990s Clintonomics. “If you can attract senior Republican figures to an economic summit in the July before an election, then you are sending a strong message of bipartisan credibility. It is really doubtful Senator McCain could emulate this,” Obama adviser and former Clinton economic official Gene Sperling told the Financial Times.19

The issue of health care provides the best example of a policy that appears to break with the current dysfunctional system, only to give new life to the corporate medical/insurance complex that is driving the current system over a cliff. In fact, Obama’s plan20 was the least ambitious of the leading Democratic candidates’ proposals, all of which were characterized by one leading health reform advocate as “remarkably timid.”21 Obama’s plan, like his Democratic colleagues’ plans, is a version of ideas first advanced by Republican President Richard Nixon in his effort to preempt serious discussion of a government-funded “single-payer” national health care plan. Plans similar to Obama’s have been tried and have failed in at least five states—collapsing under the weight of rising costs owing to their preservation of a central role for private insurance companies.22 That a necessary health care reform could be turned into yet another opportunity for corporate welfare is a perfect example of how Corporate America is betting that if Obama feels pressure to offer up health care reform, the reform he proposes won’t adversely affect it—and may even benefit it. As of June 30, 2008, the Democrats had raked in $16.1 million in contributions from the health care industry—compared to just under $10 million contributed to the Republicans—assuring that health care reform remains “timid.”

Meanwhile, Health Care for America Now (HCAN), a broad coalition of unions plus liberal lobbies like Planned Parenthood of America and, announced a $40 million effort, closely coordinated with Obama’s team, to campaign for Obama’s health care reform once he assumes office. While HCAN insists it is building consensus for a health care reform that can pass the Congress, Rose Ann De Moro argues that

the advocates of this approach have surrendered in advance on the only overhaul that will actually cure the disease, a single-payer, expanded and improved Medicare for all reform.

Their good intentions will leave the same failed system in place, and will not even blunt the political opposition from those on the right and corporate interests who will continue to challenge anything that looks like even modest reform.23

This is an object lesson in how the Democratic Party interacts with its “base” among advocates for working people. The forces behind HCAN are convinced that they are being political savvy and realistic, and the Obama campaign is willing to indulge them. For most of the rank-and-file members of HCAN’s constituent groups, the Obama plan will be a great improvement over the current disastrous non-system. But HCAN’s alliance with the Obama campaign will blunt the possibility for the far-reaching reform the system needs. As a result, the health care industry’s interests are preserved even if HCAN manages to win approval for Obama’s plan. But as the Bush administration is likely to bequeath a federal budget deficit approaching half a trillion dollars, the Obama camp is already dialing back expectations for delivering more than the basics on health care reform in his first term—if that.

A new foreign policy?

Aside from his skill as a politician and the fact that he had the backing of leading Democratic politicians and fundraisers to finance his bid, Obama probably owes his victory over Hillary Clinton to his opposition to the Iraq War. Clinton’s refusal to concede that she was mistaken to vote to authorize the war played to Obama’s self-narrative as someone who would not sacrifice judgment or principle for political expediency. In fact, his opposition to the war was far more conditional than he later claimed, and his votes on war related matters were virtually identical to those of the hawkish Clinton.
24 But Obama managed to tap the mood of Democratic voters fed up with the war and politicians who supported it. One of his campaign’s greatest applause lines was this: “I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place. That’s the kind of leadership that I think we need from the next president of the United States. That’s what I intend to provide.”

But how different is Obama’s foreign policy from that of other conventional politicians in both parties? Let’s stipulate a couple of points at the top. First, Obama is running to be the commander of the world’s biggest imperial power. He will fill that role—and not that of anti-warrior in the White House. Second, aside from his well-publicized opposition to “the wrong war at the wrong time” in Iraq, there is nothing in his record to suggest that he plans any radical departures from the mainstream of the American foreign policy establishment. Obama underscored this when he told the New York Times’ David Brooks: “I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush. I don’t have a lot of complaints about their handling of Desert Storm [i.e. the 1991 war against Iraq].”25

To get a handle on Obama’s thinking, it’s well worth reviewing his 2007 Foreign Affairs article, “Renewing American Leadership.”26 The main aim of Obama’s presidency, it seems from this article, will be to regain the leadership of the world that George Bush’s reckless and dumb foreign policy has squandered. “In the wake of Iraq and Abu Ghraib, the world has lost trust in our purposes and our principles,” Obama wrote. “We must lead the world, by deed and by example.” There’s no disputing that the United States is more widely hated today than before Bush took office, and Obama’s message recognizes that. And it’s not surprising that Obama would urge “renewing American leadership,” because “leading the world” has been the overriding U.S. foreign policy aim since at least the end of the Second World War. This was a constant theme in Obama’s summer tour through U.S. war zones and European capitals. His pitch for reinvigorating alliances with European powers and to engage countries such as Iran was sure to draw support from the European establishment after years of Bush administration disdain towards multilateral action and insults hurled at “old Europe.” And the U.S. political and foreign policy establishment would much prefer their president to draw crowds of thousands waving American flags than to draw demonstrations of millions who view the president as a pariah.

But along with this change of tone is a message that has been remarkably consistent throughout his primary and general election campaign. Obama has held to a pledge to pull “combat” troops from Iraq within sixteen months of his inauguration and to refocus the fight against “terrorism” in Afghanistan. He has pledged to deploy at least 10,000 troops to Afghanistan. As he said in a major foreign policy address on July 15: The greatest threat to… security lies in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where terrorists train and insurgents strike into Afghanistan.…
We cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary, and as president, I won’t. We need a stronger and sustained partnership between Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO to secure the border, to take out terrorist camps and to crack down on cross-border insurgents. We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights.
27 As even the current defense secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman have acknowledged, the U.S. effort in Iraq is increasingly unsustainable. Troop levels will be drawn down. The “mission” would transition to one of maintaining Iraq as a forward U.S. base for U.S. power projection in the region. Anthony Arnove, author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, points out:

People who believe Barack Obama will end the occupation of Iraq are likely in for a rude awakening. Despite talking about withdrawal from Iraq, his plan would keep troops in the country for years to come, likely well beyond his potential first term.

Obama has also left open the possibility that if he reduces the overall troop levels in Iraq—something that from a military standpoint is very likely, given how overstretched the United States is now—he would increase the number of mercenaries in Iraq.28

Obama has also left open the prospect of reevaluating his withdrawal plans if “conditions on the ground” change.

Obama has also consistently endorsed the enlargement of the armed forces by more than 80,000 active duty personnel. As he put it in Foreign Affairs, “We must become better prepared to put boots on the ground in order to take on foes that fight asymmetrical and highly adaptive campaigns on a global scale. I will not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests whenever we are attacked or imminently threatened.”29

In other words, it seems that the Bush Doctrine of endless war and unilateral intervention will not disappear under an Obama administration. It will simply be “repurposed” and given more lofty sounding justifications. Lest anyone think that this kind of interventionism is just campaign rhetoric, one should consider who Obama’s chief foreign policy advisers (and likely authors of the Foreign Affairs article) are. They include Anthony Lake, a one-time protégé of Henry Kissinger. As Bill Clinton’s national security adviser, Lake devised the main strategy for U.S. intervention in the Balkans, including NATO bombings of Serbia and aiding Croatia’s ethnic cleansing of Serbs, which ultimately led to the 1999 NATO war. Lake and another ex-Clintonite, Susan Rice, co-authored a Washington Post op-ed in which they argued for unilateral U.S. intervention in the Darfur region of Sudan: “The United States acted without U.N. blessing in 1999 in Kosovo to confront a lesser humanitarian crisis (perhaps 10,000 killed) and a more formidable adversary.”30

Then there is Samantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard history professor and a leading advocate of “humanitarian intervention,” who, as senior adviser to the candidate until last March, was what liberal blogger Joshua Micah Marshall called Obama’s “Condi Rice”—in other words, she played the same role in schooling Obama on foreign policy that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice played in training candidate George W. Bush in 1999 and 2000. Although she was forced to resign from the campaign for calling Senator Hillary Clinton a “monster” in print, her influence is still heavy.

A second Harvard academic in the Obama brain trust is Sarah Sewell, who collaborated with General David Petreaus in updating the army’s counterinsurgency manual. Sewell advised Petreaus on human rights in counterinsurgency. As counterinsurgency expert Lt. Col. John Nagl told American Prospect, “Her impact on the thinking about the war and the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been significant and not without cost. She has shown, in my eyes, great moral courage. I think Senator Obama is listening to someone who has thought long and hard about the use of force and who understands the kinds of wars we’re fighting today.”31

Besides these bureaucrats and intellectuals a coterie of generals and other ex-military types have lent their names to the Obama campaign. One of them is Jonathan Scott Gration, a two-star air force general who commanded a task force in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Beyond them are a number of ex-Clinton advisers, including Gregory Craig, who oversaw State Department policy planning around the expansion of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the decision by the Clinton administration to endorse “regime change” in Iraq. After Hillary Clinton folded her tent, a number of her chief foreign policy advisers, including former secretaries of state Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright and former defense secretary William Perry, joined Obama’s national security team.

Finally, if Obama’s Middle East policy remains fairly conventional, that might be because one of the most conventional Middle East foreign policy hands in the U.S. establishment is advising him. Dennis Ross, special Middle East adviser to both presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is encouraging Obama to pursue diplomatic interactions with Iran and Syria. And just in case anyone worried that Obama would depart from the central commitment to Israel as the chief U.S. ally in the region, Obama made clear his support for Israel with a craven speech before the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) and statements of support at high- profile events when he visited Israel.

In the Middle East, as in the rest of the world, Obama’s foreign policy might mark a change from the disastrous and incompetent policies that the Bush administration has pursued. But the change will be one of style and form, not one of substance and content. Israeli analyst Uri Avneri, commenting on Obama’s “fawning” speech before AIPAC, expressed his bitterness, writing that Obama’s “dizzying success in the primaries was entirely due to his promise to bring about a change, to put an end to the rotten practices of Washington and to replace the old cynics with a young, brave person who does not compromise his principles. And lo and behold, the very first thing he does after securing the nomination of his party is to compromise his principles.”32 Avneri is only partly right. In fact, Obama isn’t betraying his principles. Those are his principles.

Obama’s “friends on the left”

Obama’s midsummer moves to the right occasioned protests from liberals who supported him through the primaries. Thousands of Obama supporters filled his campaign’s interactive Web site with protests of his sellout on the FISA bill, and other prominent supporters expressed unease in editorials in various liberal publications. One group of prominent Obama supporters issued “An Open Letter to Barack Obama” in the pages of the liberal Nation. After congratulating Obama for his campaign’s “tremendous achievements” that have “inspired a wave of political enthusiasm like nothing seen in this country for decades,” the “Letter” goes on to raise concern: “… there have been troubling signs that you are moving away from the core commitments shared by many who have supported your campaign, toward a more cautious and centrist stance.” It outlines a list of policies—including withdrawal from Iraq on a fixed timetable and universal health care—that the signatories consider a minimum program for Obama to pursue. It concludes, in part: “If you win in November, we will work to support your stands when we agree with you and to challenge them when we don’t. We look forward to an ongoing and constructive dialogue with you when you are elected President.”

In the light of these indications of unease among his liberal supporters, Obama felt compelled to note the displeasure among “my friends on the left” only to slap them down again: “Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center,” Obama told a crowd in Powder Springs, Georgia, on July 9.

The people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me. I believe in a whole lot of things that make me progressive and put me squarely in the Democratic camp.… I believe in personal responsibility; I also believe in faith.… That’s not something new; I’ve been talking about that for years. So the notion that this is me trying to look centrist is not true.”34
While most people might look at Obama’s statements as a back-of-the-hand swat to his liberal critics, prominent liberal blogger Chris Bowers of Open Left read into them just the opposite: “… the speech is actually directed at what Obama calls ‘my friends on the left.’ I can’t remember a Presidential nominee specifically courting left wing voters and activists before. Honestly, I really can’t. This is a sign of increased respect and being taken more seriously.”35 Despite signs of discomfort with Obama in the liberal camp, Bowers’ response is actually much more indicative of the lengths to which many leading progressives are willing to go to consider Obama—already a member of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs with campaign coffers stuffed with millions in corporate cash—as one of them.

Typical of this willful suspension of disbelief was the founding statement of “Progressives for Obama,” issued in March under the signatures of prominent progressives Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Jr., Danny Glover, and Barbara Ehrenreich. Conceived as an intervention on Obama’s behalf in the wake of his March 2008 speech on race, it opens by proclaiming, “All American progressives should unite for Barack Obama.” The statement’s key idea is that the support for Obama generated in the Democratic primaries—heavy voter turnouts and decisive support from African Americans and young people—constitutes a social movement that stands in the traditions of the great American social movements of the past, like the labor movement of the 1930s or the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s. “We intend to join and engage with our brothers and sisters in the vast rainbow of social movements to come together in support of Obama’s unprecedented campaign and candidacy. Even though it is candidate-centered, there is no doubt that the campaign is a social movement, one greater than the candidate himself ever imagined.” Although the statement concedes that Obama “openly defines himself as a centrist,” its writers regard this as reason for the “formation of a progressive force within his coalition”:

Anything less could allow his eventual drift towards the right as the general election approaches. It was the industrial strikes and radical organizers in the 1930s who pushed Roosevelt to support the New Deal.… And it will be the Obama movement that makes it necessary and possible to end the war in Iraq, renew our economy with a populist emphasis and confront the challenge of global warming.
And so on in this vein.

There’s no doubt that Obama’s campaign—or at least its incarnation during the Democratic primaries—has mobilized first-time voters and raised hopes for “change” among millions. But declaring Obama’s campaign a social movement is an exercise in sophistry, at best, and self-delusion, at worst. While a discussion of social movements is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that the mobilization of millions in militant struggle in the union movement of the 1930s or in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s—against the forces of the state and employers—is a different phenomenon than voting in a bourgeois political primary.37 To confuse the two is to lose any realistic way to assess what is actually needed to win the type of social change the Progressives for Obama seek. As the earlier example of Health Care for American Now illustrated, any effort to tailor demands for progressive reforms to what is acceptable to the Obama administration’s assessment of the politics of “the possible” risks settling for a lot less than could be won with an independent mobilization that forces all Washington politicians to address the movement’s agenda. That is the real lesson of the 1930s and 1960s: what will determine the direction of social and political change in the United States will be grassroots movement on the ground, not tallies at the ballot box. Progressives for Obama would most likely agree with that point, but in their actions so far, they have, as Glenn Ford of Black Agenda Report put it, lent their names and reputations to an effort “to allow Obama to ‘pass’ for what he is not: a progressive.”38

It also heads off possibilities that those genuinely interested in voting for an end to the war in Iraq, for a single-payer health care plan, or for an end to government violations of civil liberties will find prominent advocates for their point of view. The under-funded independent candidacies of Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney and independent candidate Ralph Nader are raising those demands. But with the likes of Progressives for Obama pledging to “seek Green support against the claim of some that there are no real differences between Obama and McCain” or with the Black nationalist-turned-Stalinist Amiri Baraka comparing those who would vote for McKinney or Nader to the German left whose disunity, he claims, allowed Hitler to triumph(!),39 it’s clear that genuine left voices will be muffled in 2008. And with so many millions wanting to see the end of Republican rule, Obama, rather than McKinney or Nader, will capture the vast majority of voters seeking progressive change. If past experience is a guide, third-party candidacies from the left can gain many more adherents from those disillusioned with the actions of an Obama administration.

Obama is a skilled politician who has perfected the art of addressing multiple and disparate audiences and giving each the notion that he supports their point of view. So in the same weeks in which he was meeting with industry titans and endorsing “faith-based initiatives” so beloved by the Christian Right, he authored a Democratic National Committee appeal to build a mass, grassroots “Campaign for Change:” “. . . [I]f we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this campaign was the moment when we came together to forge a better future for our great nation.”40 That sort of rhetoric has attracted the support of prominent members of the left, even while Obama simultaneously tries to distance himself from them.
All of this may leave Obama’s progressive supporters in the lurch. But for most of them, it doesn’t leave them in a quandary. There is no doubt that they will continue to support Obama, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Linda Feldmann explained:

The liberal blogosphere has lit up with outrage, bemoaning how the man who promised to move beyond politics as usual is, well, engaging in politics as usual. Some have vowed to refocus their energy and donations toward progressive candidates further down the ballot. But they will still vote for Obama, not Ralph Nader, the onetime darling of the left, and certainly not Senator McCain. Not voting is also off the table, given the stakes. And so, progressive activists say, Obama is likely to get away with his rightward shift.41
In the run-up to the general election, Obama may even make feints toward the “left.” In late July, seeking to blunt the appeal of McCain’s gas-tax holiday proposal, he called for a $1,000 per individual energy credit financed by a windfall profits tax on oil companies. And no doubt his planned nomination acceptance speech, scheduled to be delivered in the Denver Broncos’ stadium on the forty-fifth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech to the March on Washington, will be milked for every symbolic reference it can.

If Obama succeeds in becoming the first African-American president, that will be a milestone. But the millions who want to effect real social change would do well to heed the lessons of Dr. King’s career. It’s ironic that Obama himself distilled these when, during the January 2008 South Carolina Democratic debate, he responded to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s question if King would endorse any of the candidates:

Well, I don’t think Dr. King would endorse any of us. I think what he would call upon the American people to do is to hold us accountable, and this goes to the core differences, I think, in this campaign.

I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that. It was those women who were willing to walk instead of ride the bus, union workers who are willing to take on violence and intimidation to get the right to organize. It was women who decided, “I’m as smart as my husband. I’d better get the right to vote”…. Arguing, mobilizing, agitating and ultimately forcing elected officials to be accountable—I think that’s the key.42

For candidate Obama, these may have been just good debating points. But for the rest of us, acting on the spirit of these words will be crucial in the next period, no matter how the November election turns out.

Lance Selfa is on the editorial board of the ISR. This article is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Democrats: A Critical History (Haymarket Books).

1 Constanze Stelzenmüller, “We’re quick to damn the US but slow to see our own faults,” The Observer (UK), July 20, 2008.

2 Ezra Klein, “Waiting for Barack,” American Prospect, October 10, 2006.

3 According to a June 2008 Pew Center poll, 52 percent of self-described independents view the Democratic Party favorably, compared to only 38 percent who view the Republican Party favorably. See Pew Center for People and the Press, “Democratic Party’s ?Favorables Rise, Congress Still Unpopular,” June 3, 2008,

4 Glenn Greenwald, “The Political Establishment and Telecom Immunity—Why It Matters,” Salon, July 5, 2008,

5 David Sirota, “What’s Happened to Barack Obama,” May 25, 2005, Sirotablog,

6 John Parry, “PIMCO: $1 Trillion Housing Losses Seen,” Reuters, July 24, 2008,

7 Timothy Wise and Kevin Gallagher, “A Bad Deal All Around,” The Guardian (UK), July 30, 2008.

8 “Fannie Mae Ugly,” Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2008.

9 For a summary of this emerging consensus, Jonathan Freedland, “Bush’s Amazing Achievement,” New York Review of Books, June 14, 2007.

10 Even Republican leaders acknowledge this. Rep. Tom Davis, head of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee before he decided to retire in 2008, wrote in a memo to his colleagues: “… if we were a dog food, they would take us off the shelf.” Quoted in Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, “GOP Torn by Change It Can Believe In,” Los Angeles Times, May 18, 2008, A-1. For a further development of the argument about the crisis in the GOP, see my “Crisis in the GOP,” ISR 48, July-August 2006.

11 Kevin P. Phillips, “A Capital Offense: Reagan’s America” New York Times Magazine, June 17, 1990.

12 Federal Election Commission figures available at Industrial sector data can be found in “Contributions by Sector” at

13 Ann Zimmerman and Kris Maher, “Wal-Mart Warns of Democratic Win,” Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2008, A1.

14 Michael Luo and Christopher Drew, “Obama and McCain Lag in Naming ‘Bundlers’ Who Rake in Campaign Cash,” New York Times, July 11, 2008. According to my calculations, if these 507 bundlers hit their targets, they would be responsible for raising at least $52 million for Obama.

15 Norman Solomon, False Hope (Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 1994), 27.

16 “The Coming Social Democratic Moment” was a main session at the July, 2008, Netroots Nation conference of influential liberal bloggers. See Seth Michaels, “A Social Democratic Moment?”, AFL-CIO Now Blog, July 21, 2008 at

17 Thomas Friedman, “Dumb as We Wanna Be,” New York Times, April 30, 2008.

18 Max Fraser, “Subprime Obama,” The Nation, January 24, 2008.

19 Edward Luce, “Obama Holds Bipartisan Economy Talks,” Financial Times, July 29, 2008.

20 See the Kaiser Family Foundation’s summary at

21 Marcia Angell, “Health Reform You Shouldn’t Believe In,” American Prospect, April 21, 2008, reposted at


22 David Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler, “I Am Not a Health Reform,” New York Times, December 15, 2007, republished at

23 Rose Ann DeMoro, “Why is Health Care for America Giving Up on Real Reform?”,

24 Jonathan Greenberger, “Obama Slams Clinton for Iraq Vote,” May 17, 2007, ABC News Political Radar Blog, Greenberger notes that Obama had earlier told The New Yorker, “it’s not clear to me what differences [Clinton and I have] had since I’ve been in the Senate” and “I think what people might point to is our different assessments of the war in Iraq, although I’m always careful to say that I was not in the Senate, so perhaps the reason I thought it was such a bad idea was that I didn’t have the benefit of U.S. intelligence.” On all Iraq-related votes through 2007, Clinton and Obama took opposite sides only once, when he voted to confirm Gen. George Casey as army chief of staff and she voted against.

25 David Brooks, “Obama Admires Bush,” New York Times, May 16, 2008.

26 Barack Obama, “Renewing American Leadership,” Foreign Affairs July/August 2007,

27 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: A New Strategy for a New World,”


28 Anthony Arnove, “Will Obama Stop the War?” Socialist Worker, June 4, 2008,

29 Obama, “Renewing American Leadership.”

30 Susan E. Rice, Anthony Lake, and Donald M. Payne, “We Saved Europeans. Why Not Africans?” Washington Post, October 2, 2006, A19.

31 Spencer Ackerman, “The Obama Doctrine,” American Prospect, March 24, 2008.

32 Uri Avnery, “Obama, Israel and AIPAC”, Counterpunch, June 9, 2008,

33 See “An Open Letter to Barack Obama,” The Nation, July 30, 2008, at Signatories include most of the regular columnists and contributors to The Nation, Tim Carpenter of Progressive Democrats of America, historian Howard Zinn, sociologist Frances Fox Piven, Bill Fletcher, Jr., editor of Black Commentator, the novelist Walter Mosley, and former Howard Dean 2004 Internet guru Zephyr Teachout.

34 Obama’s comments recorded in Michael Powell, “Obama moves to reassure his ‘friends on the left’,” Intenational Herald Tribune, July 9, 2008.

35 Chris Bowers, “Obama Self-Identitfies as Progressive,” Open Left, July 9, 2008,

36 Read the entire statement at

37 Incidentally, the “movement” candidacy of Obama and the “machine” candidacy of Clinton tallied roughly the same number of popular votes. See


38 Glen Ford, “Progressives for Obama’ Fool Themselves,” Black Agenda Report, July 9, 2008.

39 The ridiculousness of Baraka’s argument has to be read to be believed. See his “Obama & The Tragic Errors of The Weimar Republic,” July 16, 2008, at Baraka even argues that the Left shouldn’t push Obama too hard: “We must also oppose the absolutising of Obama’s progressive stance and, with that, drawing away from him as he gets closer to the general election and tacks toward the middle. This would be the other aspect of the tragic Weimar breakup of the fragile democratic coalition that caused millions to die in fascist purges, concentration camps, or World War II.”

40 Democratic National Committee, “Letter from Barack Obama,” July 2008.

41 Linda Feldman, “Left Lacks Leverage to Stop Obama’s Rightward Tack,” Christian Science Monitor, July 9, 2008.

42 “The Democratic Debate in South Carolina, New York Times, January 21, 2008. Hat tip to Brian Jones for making just this point in “The Image and Reality of Change,” Socialist Worker, May 21, 2008,

Back to top