Progressives Reflect on Obama’s First Term in Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion
In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama won a sound victory over Republican contender John McCain, bolstered by a new generation of activists that helped deliver small donations and voters. Obama’s message was simple but effective: hope. Many did hope that Obama would help bring the U.S. out of the endless wars, economic decline, and contempt for democracy increasingly associated with the Bush-Cheney Administration.
By Christine Shearer
What are we to make of Obama’s first term? In Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press, 2012), editors Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank offer their assessment: “The Barack Obama revolution was over before it started, guttered by the politician’s overweening desire to prove himself to the grandees of the establishment. From there on, other promises proved ever easier to break.”
Under this bold thesis, Hopeless brings together different voices from the Left to assess the Obama Administration’s actions on a variety of issues. Writers include journalist Jeremy Scahill on foreign policy, activist Ralph Nader on the nonprofit sector, and economist Michael Hudson on tax cuts and war spending, to name just a few.
Editor and co-writer Joshua Frank talked with Left Eye on Books about the book, Obama’s policies, and why he sees more promise for true hope and change with Occupy Wall Street than Obama or mainstream politics.
Christine Shearer: How did the idea for this book come about?
Joshua Frank: My co-editor Jeffrey St. Clair and myself decided to pursue this book project because we both felt their has been far too little left critique of the Obama years thus far. He was cheered into office by an overwhelming wave of popularity, but it didn’t take him long to leave the rhetoric of “hope” and “change” in the dust of the campaign trail. So we decided to document these failures and betrayals. Hopeless contains a host of voices and is set up in chronological order so that the reader can gaze at Obama’s arch as president. It’s a sobering read to be sure, but hopefully one that gets people thinking outside the voting booth.
CS: I don’t know if the timing of the book’s release – right before the 2012 election – was deliberate, but it’s provocative, because many Democrats and some progressives would say that right now we need to rally behind President Obama to avoid a Mitt Romney presidency. What do you say to that kind of argument?
JF: I would tell these well-meaning progressives that instead of rallying behind a particular presidential candidate, that instead they ought to continue rallying behind the causes they hold dear. Often what happens during an election hoopla is we see movements – say the anti-war movement – put their protest signs in the closet and stick their pro-Democrat sign in the front yard. This is especially dangerous when said Democrat doesn’t support the anti-war positions we support. If we don’t put any demands on these candidates to adopt progressive positions, then there is really no reason for them to ever heed our concerns. Instead, we ought to put a significant amount of pressure on Obama and hold his feet to the fire on the issues that matter the most to us – be it climate change or foreign interventions. That’s what our objective is with this book, to inform and engage. I am hopeful that the evolving Occupy movement will keep on it, mounting pressure on both parties as the election party hits full cylinder. If Occupy decides to end their campaigns to support Obama, that’d be death of one of the important social developments we’ve seen in this country in the last decade.
CS: A lot of Democrat candidates will use populist rhetoric in their campaigns, only to later govern more from the center or even center-right. Do you think there is a degree to which Obama is more guilty of this than say, for example, former President Bill Clinton?
JF: I totally agree that they use particular language in order to sway voters. I think Obama is guilty of this, but I would say he’s not quite as gifted at the art of public relations as Clinton was. He’s just not as smooth or as coy. He also probably doesn’t have as many lies to cover up as Clinton did. No really though, cutting through the jargon is half the battle. I much prefer to look at the actual record and dissect the policy than to analyze a particular speech or interview. Actions speak louder than words as the old cliche goes. And sadly, Obama’s policies, like those of Clinton, just don’t pass the progressive sniff test.
CS: Yes, tell us about some of Obama’s policies and the problems with them discussed in the book.
JF: We cover the whole array of issues, from the environment to the economy to foreign policy. Some of the brightest and most eloquent writers on the left reveal Obama’s ugly warts, such as Tariq Ali, Jeremy Scahill, Kathy Kelly, and Ray McGovern. The host of writers critique Obama’s management of the so-called War on Terror, his energy policy, attack on civil liberties, torture, and his bail out of Wall Street. One of the more interesting essays, in my view, is one by Andrew Levine who argues Obama is actually an economic libertarian. It’s a very damning, if not enlightening, must-read piece.
CS: One of the most interesting things about Obama, to me, is that there are often multiple and conflicting analyses offered for his motivations and actions. For example, in taking on economic liberalists like Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geitner as financial advisers: did he choose them because he admires them, because he thought it was the only way to prevent a depression, to reach out to conservatives and financial institutions, or because he actually agrees with them? In the Introduction you and Jeffrey St. Clair write that at heart Obama is a “calculating pragmatist” that “doesn’t want to be stained with defeat.” Do you think that explains a lot of his actions in the first term?
JF: Absolutely. Obama is really a middle-of-the-road Democrat on most issues. In the end, he actually agrees with the likes of Summers and Geitner. He said as much while campaigning in 2008 and defends his Wall Street bailout to this day. He’s almost too pragmatic at times, which is exactly the opposite of what most progressives had hoped for when they ushered him into office. They thought he’d be bold and unflinching, the antithesis of George W. Bush. But what they got was a guy who is hardly a liberal and actually agreed with Bush on most big issues.
Take the hot news item of today: Obama’s new found support for same-sex marriage. While I certainly applaud him for finally taking a stand, it’s not at all a radical position. He’s made clear that he takes a states rights approach to the issue. Which means, if a state like North Carolina wants to outlaw same-sex marriage, he’ll accept that. Could you imagine if he had the same feeling about, say, segregation? Without the Civil Rights Act we’d still have lawful discrimination in most southern states. It took a federal law to move us forward. Without a similar piece of national legislation regarding same sex marriage, gays in this country will still be discriminated against in most states. Obama’s is not a progressive civil rights position on gay marriage – it’s pragmatic and calculated. Keep in mind, it’s also virtually the exact same position both Dick Cheney and Ron Paul have espoused. What Obama has endorsed is simply marriage equality federalism, to be wonky. He did not, sadly, embrace the notion that marriage for all ought to be a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.
CS: Another area where Obama has had a lot of overlap with former President George W. Bush is national security and foreign policy, including continuing some of the more Constitutionally questionable – some would say illegal – policies of the “War Against Terror,” such as extraordinary rendition, military tribunals, and domestic wiretapping. And he’s even taken it a step further by authorizing drone attacks in a host of countries. Can you tell us a bit about how the book addresses Obama’s national security policy, and do you think the writers were surprised by Obama’s policies in this area?
JF: I do think many of the writers were shocked at how far this administration has gone to extend Bush’s “War on Terror” into Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. The callous nature of drone bombings is perhaps the most frightening aspect of Obama’s evolving wars. Drones are indiscriminate, and many would argue, absolutely illegal under international law. If Bush were carrying out similar attacks, with nearly weekly reports of civilian deaths, the US antiwar movement would be up in arms, out in the streets and camping out in front of the White House. But since it is Obama carrying out these murders, mums the word. Democrats have essentially co-opted the antiwar movement and it’s been very detrimental.
CS: You, Jeffrey St. Clair, and Darwin Bond-Graham also write about Obama’s nuclear power and nuclear weapons policies. Could you tell us a bit about those policies?
JF: Obama’s support for nuclear power is a pretty frightening thing. One reason he’s been so enthralled with nuke power, even after Fukushima, may have something to do with all the money he’s received from the industry over the years. For the first time in three decades Obama guaranteed loans for new nuke plants in the south. It’s a huge step backwards for our energy policy, and Obama has yet to feel the sting from the environmental movement for his nuke embrace. His policy on nuclear weapons is also more of the same, if not even worse. As Bond-Graham writes, Obama’s first term will go down in history as putting forth the single largest spending increases on nuclear weapons ever. So, even while he calls for a reduction in nuclear weapons globally – if not an all out elimination – he’s simultaneously boosting the industry at home.
CS: I think some people may disagree with many of Obama’s policies but still sympathize with him because – while members of the Right certainly attacked Clinton – it has just taken on a new flavor and intensity with Obama: they can’t decide if he’s an Islamic terrorist sympathizer from Kenya or a godless communist socialist, but it all implies that he’s fundamentally unAmerican. And many Republicans say very openly that they refuse to compromise with Obama or the Democratic party. Do you think what Obama has been up against should factor into critiques of his actions in the first term, or do you think that’s a separate issue? In the book you and Clair seem to suggest that, if anything, the attacks should have made Obama less receptive to Conservatives?
JF: Great question. I do think it should factor in, but not for the reason you imply. The Right is going to call Obama a socialist/Islamic fascist, regardless of the types of policies his administration actually carries out. So, in this cynical climate, why not fight back hard? Why not actually push a real progressive agenda? The Right is already blaming Obama for being a commie, so why doesn’t he stand up to their rhetoric? Instead of trying to convince the Tea Party types that he isn’t as bad as they say – that Obamacare isn’t really that radical, for example – why not stand up on principle and defend social and economic justice? He’s pandered and caved to the Right where Clinton employed the “art” of triangulation. We’re all waiting for the “real” Obama to step forward, but I think we are actually seeing the real Obama in action right now, and he’s timid and politically thin skinned.
CS: What do you make of the argument that Obama would be more receptive to progressive activists in his second term since he won’t have to worry about reelection?
JF: I think that’s a nice thought, but one based on perception rather than reality. What I can say is this: without consistent, uncompromising pressure from progressives, Obama will continue to ignore us. If he is victorious next November, I hope we turn up the heat on his administration and hold Obama’s feet to the fire. He may be receptive, but he’ll never hear us if we aren’t yelling.
CS: A recent Truthout article noted that Obama’s 2008 election campaign helped organize and galvanize a savvy group of activists who, after being neglected by the Obama Administration, used their skills to help create the 99% movement, with its emphasis on truly democratic over republic-an values. And a lot of those activists reported being uncertain about whether they would now help Obama turn out voters in swing states. So, in the spirit of your book, what should self-identified progressives do as we head toward the 2012 election?
JF: I think these activists, people committed to their issues, ought to continue working hard to make change. One of my biggest fears is that Obama will co-opt Occupy to the determine of that movement. We’ve seen it happen time and again. Most recently as I mentioned, in 2008, the Obama campaign successfully absorbed the antiwar movement into his campaign and as a result mass protests ceased to exist, despite Obama’s escalation of drone attacks and a massive troop increase in Afghanistan even after they killed Osama. Could you imagine the same thing happening under a McCain presidency? Occupy, I feel, is not going to just go away though. It sprouted during Obama’s first term and in order to stay relevant, will have to keep the passion and vigor alive and growing. Progressives this time around shouldn’t put too much energy into presidential elections. Instead they ought to continue to organize around their causes and build a movement that can be effective over the long haul, no matter which Twiddle Dee or Tweetle Dum ends up taking the electoral prize.
Joshua Frank is an environmental journalist whose investigative reports and columns appear in CounterPunch, Common Dreams, and AlterNet. Along with Hopeless, he is author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, and co-editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland.
Christine Shearer is a postdoctoral scholar in science, technology, and society studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a researcher for CoalSwarm, part of SourceWatch. She is managing editor of Conducive and author of Kivalina: A Climate Change Story (Haymarket Books, 2011).
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