Friday, June 27, 2008

Will the Real Obama Stand Up -- For Us?

June 27, 2008, 7:40 a.m.

Obama, We Hardly Knew Ye

Given Iowa's essentially year-long primary this time, I've been blogging about this presidential race for a good many months.

And so it with some considerable embarrassment that I confess it has only been this week that I've begun to look very thoroughly beyond Senator Barack Obama's own writings in taking a much closer look at his near-three-year path to the presidency, his voting record, his major financial contributors, and his shifting positions on the issues.

Nicholas Johnson, "Change We Can No Longer Believe In," June 22, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Holding Obama's Feet to the Fireside Chat,"
June 24, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "The Bundling Business," June 26, 2008.
The blogosphere generally has been doing the same.

As of this morning NPR's "Morning Edition" picks up the story. Renee Montagne and Mara Liasson, "Obama Edging Toward Center," June 27, 2008. Charles Krauthammer may not be the most unbiased source of commentary about Democrats in general and Obama in particular. But that's all the more reason not to be giving him the ammunition to shoot with. See, Charles Krauthammer, "The Ever-Malleable Mr. Obama," Washington Post, June 27, 2008, p. A17. CBS' Jeff Greenfield has noted Senator Obama's "relentless march to the center." Kyle Drennen, "CBS’s Greenfield: Obama’s ‘Relentless March to The Center,’" News Busters, June 26, 2008.

And see, Michael Powell, "For Obama, a Pragmatist’s Shift Toward the Center," New York Times, June 27, 2008:

Barack Obama has taken a stroll this week away from traditional liberal political positions, his path toward the political center marked by artful leaps and turns. . . .

“A presidential candidate . . . [hopes] their maneuvering and shifting will be seen in pursuit of some higher purpose,” said Robert Dallek, the presidential historian. . . .

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for generations a liberal Democratic lode star, was no easier to define. He slipped and slid his way through the 1932 election. “Herbert Hoover called him a ‘chameleon on plaid,’ ” Mr. Dallek said.

Mr. Obama has executed several policy pirouettes in recent weeks, each time landing more toward the center of the political ring. . . . Mr. Obama describes his new turns as consistent with long-held beliefs. . . This most observant of politicians has throughout his career shown an appreciation for the virtues of political ambiguity.
The NPR list of issues on which Obama has "edged" is a long one (as are the lists of others) -- starting with the flip-flop on public funding (which started my, and others', second looks earlier this week) through this former constitutional law professor's convenient conversion yesterday to the NRA (and now Supreme Court's) interpretation of the Second Amendment, while supporting the conservative wing of the Court's enthusiasm for the death penalty the day before.

(Just for the record, and to keep this in balance, (a) I can't imagine my voting for Senator John McCain in November, and (b) when it comes to flip-flopping for political convenience Obama can't hold a candle to McCain.)

Let's parse a bit this business of candidates' positions on "the issues."

The Candidates' Conundrum. Anyone who follows politics is aware that our political system creates a bit of an embarrassing inconvenience for any Democrat or Republican wanting to run for office. The membership of both parties, as parties, tends to over-represent their extremes. Candidates have to run in, and win, party primaries before they can even run, let alone win, general elections. So Republicans run to the right in primaries and return to the center for the general. Democrats do the reverse: run to the left in primaries and return to the center for the general election.

This need not require them to lie. With a sufficiently mixed record of voting on genuinely held beliefs one can merely select carefully which are presented to which audiences at which times; a Republican might, for example, campaign on "tax cuts" during the primary and "environmental protection" during the general.

Of course, it's also possible to obfuscate, deny and lie; to miss votes; to develop a voting record on amendments and bills that permits one to say that one voted both for and against a given piece of legislation; to acknowledge that one has changed positions.

The Voters' Contribution. "Single-issue voters" don't make it any easier for candidates. A candidate who honestly acknowledges that with $40 trillion in unfunded obligations, as a responsible office holder he or she is going to have to raise taxes, is going to lose a good many potential supporters' votes. Ditto for issues like abortion, "God, guns and gays" -- regardless of the position taken.

Positions vs. Character. However, most voters are sophisticated enough to know that our political system is never going to produce what they might consider the "perfect" candidate or elected official -- nor enable them to accomplish much in the center of our corrupt system even if it did. Those voters are willing to support a candidate with whom they disagree on an issue or two.

But character issues are, for many, another matter -- even though they may arise from a candidate's changes in positions: President Clinton's lies about his extra-marital sexual behavior, or President Bush's lies about going to war. A candidate who represents himself or herself to be one thing, to embody a cluster of character qualities, or positions on public policy issues, and then turns out to be something else can also be perceived by voters as having a character flaw -- regardless of the issues in question.

And Senator Obama is dangerously close to creating that problem for himself. He has promised "change we can believe in." He has said he wants to "turn the page," to abandon the "old politics," to rid the system of the influence of PACs, special interests and lobbyists. He has, admittedly, been relatively careful not to promise anything more specific than "change," but he has clearly left some impressions as to how our government, and our lives, will be different with him as president.

If it turns out that we cannot "believe in" either the specifics or the impressions he's left us with, that in Washington's shell-and-pea game of corporate money and influence he has only put the pea under a different shell while we weren't watching, that (as, in fairness, Senator Hillary Clinton pointed out) the only reason he is not taking money from lobbyists is because he is getting it directly from those who pay those lobbyists, then -- precisely because he has presented himself as a new kind of politics -- he is in more trouble than if he had not built his campaign on the inspirational moral high ground he chose.

Government of, by and for the Corporations. As the embedded George Carlin routine that I put in yesterday's blog entry explains (Nicholas Johnson, "The Bundling Business," June 26, 2008), those with the power and influence in this country still believe, as Noam Chomsky quotes John Jay as saying, that "The people who own the country ought to govern it."

To me this is the single most important issue in any election.

Are the candidate's primary loyalties with you and me? Do they walk the walk when it comes to standing up to the powerful special interests -- or is it all just talk, if even that? Do they believe, as Senator Joe Biden said in Iowa on more than one occasion, that "there are some things worth losing elections for"? Or do they agree with Vince Lombardi that "winning is the only thing" -- that their re-election for life is more important than what they do once in office?

Is their willingness to "reach across the aisle" just another name for a willingness to capitulate to whatever the largest campaign contributors want? Are their attempts to appeal to the masses -- whether the evangelical religious right or the 1.6 million "small donors" of Obama's -- a genuine reflection of their desire to serve those people, or merely an effort to amass the votes necessary to win an election under our system, in order that they may then continue to serve those who own them?

I don't really care when people of good will get together to address the problems of the poor if they decide that food stamps are better than distributing cash -- so long as their analysis and ultimate decision is driven by data, research, and reason, and a desire to truly help "the least of these" in America, rather than polls and the preferences of corporate lobbyists. In short, it's not where they stand on the issue, it's how they got there, and why, and who urged them along the way, and with what.

Tammany Hall's Boss Tweed used to say, "I don't care who does the electing, just so long as I do the nominating." Today it is not a political boss, it is the corporate-financial-wealthy complex that does the nominating -- for both parties.

And when we who do the electing neither notice nor care we deserve the prices Congress authorizes the pharmaceutical and oil industries to charge us, and the other ways in which our elected officials "further comfort the comfortable and further afflict the afflicted" -- to turn on its head the "Mr. Dooley" line written for him by Finley Peter Dunne (and subsequently used by many).

All of which brings me to Paul Street.

For there is an enormous difference between being (a) slightly disappointed that a candidate whose positions and values one knows well and agrees with needs to bend and misrepresent those positions slightly in order to win a general election -- knowing with great confidence that they will return to who they really are once elected, and (b) being very, very disappointed to discover that the positions one's candidate is taking to win a general election are, in fact, "who they really are."

Which is now the case with Barack Obama? Are these new-found positions he's taking something we can excuse and overlook, knowing that he'll return to who he "really is" after the election? Or do they represent who he really is, and has been all along, and will continue to be once we put him in the White House?

Paul Street is no McCain supporter:

John McCain is a chronic liar and Olympic-level flip-flopper . . . -- on tax cuts, offshore drilling, lobbyists, immigration reform, and more. He also happens to represent an extremist and dangerous right-wing agenda . . .. There's more than "a dime's worth of difference" between the two candidates . . . because the Republican standard-bearer and party is so dangerously far right. Once, again,as in 2004, this isn't "Coke" (the Democrats) v. "Pepsi" (the Republicans): it's corporate-neoliberal Coke versus arch-authoritarian and messianic-militaristic Crack.
Paul Street, "Obama Lies," ZNet, June 22, 2008.

But neither is he drinking the Obama Kool-Aid. I won't string this out with lengthy quotes, but here's an illustrative sample:

During the pivotal Iowa campaign, Obama sought to burnish his populist "tinge" by telling a misleading story about his response to an Exelon nuclear accident that outraged Illinois residents in late 2005 and early 2006. . . . [R]adioactive tritium was discovered in a home drinking well near the plant and Exelon revealed that this substance came from millions of gallons of water that had leaked from the plant over many years. Exelon had not been required to report the leaks since the radioactive discharges had not reached the level of what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission called "an emergency."

Last November, Obama told a campaign crowd in Iowa that . . . [the bill] was "the only nuclear legislation that I've passed. I just did that last year," Obama claimed, eliciting "murmurs of approval."

But, as the New York Times reported in a front-page story two days before Super Tuesday, the truth of what happened after the Braidwood leak was very different . . .. Times reporter Mike McIntire noted, "Mr. Obama eventually rewrote it to reflect changes sought by Senate Republicans, Exelon, and nuclear regulators. . . . But contrary to Mr. Obama's comments in Iowa, it ultimately died . . . despite the removal of language mandating prompt reporting. Instead, the bill simply offered guidance to regulators . . .."

* Obama had received at least $227,000 in campaign cash from Exelon since 2003.

* "Exelon's support for Mr. Obama far exceeds its support for any other presidential candidate."

* Exelon executives met repeatedly with Obama's staff to discuss Obama's ultimately diluted and aborted bill.

* Obama's chief political strategist David Axlerod had worked as a consultant to Exelon since 2002.
Paul Street offers many more such examples, but this provides a sense of Street's take on Obama's record and positions.

Street has written a book about Senator Obama, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, which should be available before the election, and published an earlier article in Z Magazine that is actually much tougher than the "Obama Lies" piece: Paul Street, "The Obama Illusion," Z Magazine, February 1, 2007.

Even assuming that 50% of it is not true, even assuming that 90% of it is not true -- and I have no less basis for believing that it is not all true than I have for believing that any of it is not true -- it makes a shocking read for any liberal or progressive who is supporting Obama because he is perceived as "one of us."

Here are some excerpts from the piece:

If the Democrats' candidate in 2008 is Obama, we can be sure that the right-wing Republican noise machine will denounce the nation's potential first non-white male president as a dangerous "leftist." The charge will be absurd, something that will hardly stop numerous people on the portside of the narrow U.S. political spectrum from claiming Obama as a fellow "progressive." Certain to be encouraged by Obama and his handlers, this confusion will reflect the desperation and myopia that shaky thinking and the limited choices of the U.S. electoral system regularly instill in liberals and some squishy near leftists.

So what sorts of policies and values could one expect from an imagined Obama presidency? There is quite a bit already in Obama's short national career that has to be placed in the "never mind" category . . ..

Never Mind

Never mind, for example, that Obama was recently hailed as a "Hamiltonian" believer in "limited government" and "free trade" . . ..

Never mind that Obama . . . has lent his support to the aptly named Hamilton Project, formed by corporate-neoliberal Citigroup chair Robert Rubin and "other Wall Street Democrats" to counter populist rebellion against corporatist tendencies within the Democratic Party . . .. Or that he lent his politically influential and financially rewarding assistance to neoconservative pro-war Senator Joe Lieberman's ("D"-CT) struggle against the Democratic antiwar insurgent Ned Lamont. Or that Obama has supported other "mainstream Democrats" fighting antiwar progressives in primary races . . .. Or that he criticized efforts to enact filibuster proceedings against reactionary Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

Never mind that Obama "dismissively" referred -- in a "tone laced with contempt" -- to the late progressive and populist U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone as "something of a gadfly." . . . Or that "he posted a long article on the liberal blog Daily Kos criticizing attacks against lawmakers who voted for right-wing Supreme Court nominee John Roberts." Or that he opposed an amendment to the Bankruptcy Act that would have capped credit card interest rates at 30 percent. Or that he told Time magazine's Joe Klein last year that he'd never given any thought to Al Gore's widely discussed proposal to link a "carbon tax" on fossil fuels to targeted tax relief for the nation's millions of working poor . . ..

Never mind that Obama voted for a business-friendly "tort reform" bill that rolls back working peoples' ability to obtain reasonable redress and compensation from misbehaving corporations . . ..

In an interview with Klein, Obama expressed reservations about a universal health insurance plan recently enacted in Massachusetts, stating his preference for "voluntary" solutions over "government mandates." The former, he said, is "more consonant with" what he called "the American character" -- a position contradicted by regular polling data showing that most Americans support Canadian-style single-payer health insurance.

Never mind that Obama voted to re-authorize the repressive Patriot Act. Or that he voted for the appointment of . . . Condaleeza Rice to (of all things) Secretary of State. Or that he opposed Senator Russ Feingold's (D-WI) move to censure the Bush administration after the president was found to have illegally wiretapped U.S. citizens. Or that he shamefully distanced himself from fellow Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin's forthright criticism of U.S. torture practices at Guantanamo. Or that he refuses to foreswear the use of first-strike nuclear weapons against Iran. . . .

Embracing Imperial Criminality

. . . Consistent with his denial and embrace of Washington's imperial ambitions, Obama has refused to join genuinely antiwar forces in calling for a rapid and thorough withdrawal of troops and an end to the occupation of Iraq. In a critical November 2005 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Obama rejected Rep. John Murtha's (D-PA) call for a rapid redeployment and any notion of a timetable for withdrawal. Obama's call for "a pragmatic solution to the real war we're facing in Iraq" included repeated references to the need to "defeat" the "insurgency"—a goal that means continuation of the war. As commentators Ford and Gamble noted in a critical analysis of Obama's CFR address: "In essence all Obama wants from the Bush regime is that it fess up to having launched the war based on false information and to henceforth come clean with the Senate on how it plans to proceed in the future. Those Democrats who want to dwell on the past -- the actual genesis and rationale for the war and the real reasons for its continuation -- should be quiet. Obama and many of his colleagues are more interested in consulting the Bush men on the best way to ‘win' the war than in effecting an American withdrawal at any foreseeable time."

Obama's November speech to the CCGA advocates a vaguely timed Iraq "scenario" in which "U.S. forces" might remain in the occupied state for an "extended period of time." Obama advances a "reduced but active [U.S. military] presence" that "protect[s] logistical supply points" and "American enclaves like the Green Zone" (site of one of the largest and most heavily militarized imperial "embassies" in history) while "send[ing] a clear message to hostile countries like Iran and Syria that we intend to remain a key player in the region." U.S. troops "remaining in Iraq" will "act as rapid reaction forces to respond to emergencies and go after terrorists." This is part of what Obama meant when he told a fawning David Brooks that (in Brooks's approving language) "the U.S. may have no choice but to slog it out in Iraq" . . .. Never mind that the recent mid-term elections and a mountain of polling data show that the majority of Americans support rapid U.S. withdrawal, as do the vast majority of the Iraqi people -- the purported beneficiaries of Cheney's "dreams of democracy."

The only polling data that Obama referenced in his CCGA speech and in the foreign policy chapter of his recent book is meant to illustrate what he considers to be the real danger in the wake of the OIL fiasco: that Americans are leaning dangerously towards "isolationism" and thus turning their backs on the noble superpower's global "responsibilities." . . .

"He's a Player"

Liberal bloggers and writers at places like Daily Kos and the leftmost sections of the corporate-neoliberal punditocracy (e.g., Frank Rich at the New York Times) can speak and write all they wish about the "progressive" potential of a Barockstar presidency. As David Sirota rightly observed last summer, Obama is "interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what's considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. This posture," Sirota notes, "comes even as polls consistently show that Washington's definition of mainstream is divorced from the rest of the country's (for example, politicians' refusal to debate the war even as polls show that Americans want the troops home)." It is because of Obama's "rare ability to mix charisma and deference to the establishment," Sirota finds (in an overly respectful assessment), that "Beltway publications and think tanks have heaped praise on Obama and want him to run for President."

But then, Obama would never have risen so quickly and remarkably to his current position of dominant media favor and national prominence if he was anything like the egalitarian and democratic "progressive" that some liberals and leftists imagine. In the corporate-crafted and money-dominated swamp that passes for "representative democracy" in the U.S., concentrated economic and imperial power open and close doors in ways that preemptively suffocate populist potential. Big money is not in the business of promoting genuine social justice or democracy activists (so-called "gadflies" like Wellstone, to use Obama's description). Viewing public policy as a mechanism for the upward distribution of wealth, it promotes empire and inequality by underwriting what Ken Silverstein calls "the smothering K Street culture and the revolving door that feeds it . . .."

Obama (a former editor of the Harvard Law Review) knows this very well. He's been "trimming his sails," as he likes to say when he's telling more genuinely progressive interviewers . . . why he had to support one corporate or militarism-friendly policy or position after another. He's been expressing his deep deference for the national and global politico-economic establishment in accord with harsh plutocratic realities. He has had to make his "charismatic" way through Mammon's polyarchic vetting rounds, impressing the critical gate-keeping powers-that-be with his "reasonable" commitment to working within the existing dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies. . . . As a Washington lobbyist recently told Silverstein, "Big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn't see him as a ‘player.'" . . .

Consistent with his secret identity as a corporate "player," Silverstein notes, Obama assiduously supported the ethanol-promoting objectives of the Illinois-based firm Archer-Daniels Midland, which has provided him with private jets on at least two occasions. He has also defended the interests of Illinois' gigantic electrical firm Exelon, America's leading nuclear plant operator . . .."
Does any of this mean that you shouldn't vote for and otherwise support Senator Barack Obama for president? Not at all.

Some are comfortable with keeping the governing in the hands of "those who own the country," "the business of America is business," and all that. You may be one of them.

Even if not, you may agree that there is, indeed, "a dime's worth of difference between the Republicans and the Democrats," and that it is that difference that makes you a Democrat -- notwithstanding the fact that, when it comes to corporate welfare (and the campaign contributions it produces) there often isn't a dime's worth of difference between the parties.

Regardless of your thoughts on the matter, your party affiliation (or lack thereof), there is a value to knowing what you're likely to be getting -- if for no other reason than to avoid a very severe case of buyer's remorse come 2009.

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