It was a fairy-tale premise: Once upon a time, a charismatic prince appeared magically and gave an inspiring, instantly famous speech. Four years later, he was leading the most powerful kingdom in the world from the brink of disaster.
Believable, isn’t it? But as Ken Silverstein revealed in Harpers, long before the 2008 presidential election, by the time Barack Obama gave his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention he “had already undergone an equally successful but much quieter audition with Democratic Party leaders and fund-raisers, without whose support he would surely never have been chosen for such a prominent role at the convention.”
More than a year after becoming president, Obama has done much to justify that early establishment enthusiasm. Health “reform” has passed, but without single payer, a public option or a fundamental challenge to insurance company control of the system. Iraq is no longer front-page news, but the fighting continues; at least 50,000 troops will be stationed there indefinitely, Guantanamo remains open, and US entanglement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is deeper than ever. An economic meltdown has been averted and the president talks tough about Wall Street abuses, but top financial executive still rake in huge bonuses and have easy access to political players.
The nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the US Supreme Court is emblematic of Obama’s approach. Rather than putting forward a principled progressive to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, he chose a Democratic insider with an ambiguous judicial philosophy. Described as a persuasive negotiator and “coalition builder,” she is associated with the Clinton administration, Lawrence Summers, Harvard and Chicago politics. Although she criticized the Bush administration’s position on torture, she is an advocate of executive discretion who thinks the president can hold terror suspects indefinitely and, in her current role, has used state secrets as an argument to suppress lawsuits.
To be fair, the administration has made some constructive moves and a number of promises have been kept. Obama has taken steps to insure more children, reversed the Bush policy on stem cell research, pushed legislation to somewhat limit greenhouse emissions, increased Pell Grants, cracked down on credit card companies and some bank practices and helped pass necessary economic stimulus legislation. He has extended a hand to the Muslim world, signed a new pact reducing the number of long-range nuclear missiles and condemned the US Supreme Court’s disastrous decision to give corporations the right to spend as much as they want on commercials supporting or targeting specific political candidates.
It’s also understandable that a president sometimes must change a position due to unpleasant realities. But some of Obama’s decisions are hard to rationalize, particularly his endorsement of offshore drilling – after criticizing the policy during his campaign and despite the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The reason is supposedly to use drilling as a bargaining chip to win support for climate change legislation. But he also changed his view on individual mandates under health care reform, selected Social Security and Medicare critic Alan Simpson to co-chair a deficit-reduction commission and has embraced more of the Bush logic on national security and secrecy than many supporters would like.
As it is working out, the end of that catchy campaign slogan, “Yes, we can,” may be something like “… make some small changes without rocking the boat.”
All this becomes easier to understand when you look at where Obama’s meteoric rise actually began. The first favorable elite assessment reportedly came in October 2003, almost a year before his famous convention speech. Vernon Jordan, the well-known power broker who chaired Bill Clinton’s presidential transition team in 1992, placed calls to roughly 20 of his friends and invited them to a fundraiser at his home. That event – not a cell group meeting in Bill Ayers’ kitchen – was his initiation into an old Washington ritual. According to Silverstein, the essence is “fund-raising parties and meet-and-greets where potential stars are vetted by fixers, donors and lobbyists.”
Obama passed with honors. At meetings with players from the financial, legal and lobbyist sectors, he impressed people like Gregory Craig – a well-connected attorney, former special counsel to the White House and eventually Obama’s first pick to do it again; Mike Williams, legislative director of the Bond Market Association; Tom Quinn, partner at a top corporate law firm, Venable, and a leading Democratic power broker; and Robert Harmala, another Venable partner and fixer in Democratic circles.
Word spread through Washington’s top law firms, lobby shops and political offices, going massive after his win in the March 2004 Democratic Senate primary. Contributions from attorneys, lobbyists and Wall Street honchos streamed in at a rapid and accelerating pace.
The “good news” for insiders? Obama’s “star quality” wouldn’t be directed against the business class. He was, as Silverstein noted, “someone the rich and powerful could work with.” According to Obama biographer and Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, in 2003 and early 2004, Obama cultivated support by advocating fiscal restraint, calling for pay-as-you-go government and singing the praises of free trade and charter schools. He “moved beyond being an obscure good-government reformer to being a candidate more than palatable to the moneyed and political establishment.”
“On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “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?'”
The election of the first black president certainly promised to be a time of change. The question was: what kind? On that, the signs were always ambiguous. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Obama explicitly referred to the Clinton presidency as a model for his own. And he had already surrounded himself with members of the political establishment.
Hope or Hoax?
Even before Obama was elected, some people, notably most Republican politicians and their anti-federal government fellow travelers, imagined a socialist future, as if Vermont’s Bernie Sanders would become secretary of the Treasury. More likely, it would be some Clinton retread. Massive redistribution of wealth? As if.
After the election, a struggle continued within the Democratic Party between progressives who wanted big changes, “Blue Dogs” who wanted deficit reduction and those who hadn’t taken a side or wanted Obama to split the difference and move slowly. The latter group was led by Rahm Emanuel – Rahmbo to his friends – the Illinois Democrat and former Clinton aide whom Obama tapped to be his chief of staff.
Could progressives affect the country’s direction under such circumstances? Some predicted that the left wouldn’t be able to criticize the government as much, since there was a tendency to view the moment in epochal terms, as if past issues, including race, were no longer relevant. Obviously, that assessment was off the mark.
Was the country “tired” of ideology, as the media establishment suggested or just a specific, bankrupt ideology – corporate fundamentalism? Red-baiting hadn’t worked during the presidential campaign – a major development in itself. But why? Was it because socialism sounded like an archaic label? Or, as some suggested ironically, had the Republicans inadvertently turned the election into a referendum on socialism – and did socialism win? Given the persistence of the tactic and post-election explosion of “Obama is a Muslim-Socialist” sentiment, that remains to be seen.
In any case, you could already feel the air leaking out of the change bubble by the end of 2008. As Obama began to reveal his White House team, it became harder to continue believing the pre-election hype. Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Gregory Craig, Eric Holder – the announcements suggested that the country was heading forward into the past. But it was still a bit soon to know for certain whether expectations were just a bit high or the promise of real change would turn out to be a hoax.
Some hoaxes are designed for personal advancement – Clifford Irving’s fake biography of Howard Hughes, for example. or Rosie Ruiz’s first place finish in the 1980 Boston Marathon. But sometimes a hoax influences public opinion enough to change the direction of a country. A case in point: The so-called Zinoviev letter, created by British intelligence that claimed a Soviet revolution was about to take place in England. The scare was effective enough to get Brits to elect a conservative government. The rationale for the war in Iraq falls into the same category.
So, it was natural to be suspicious about promises of change. In a media-manipulated world, it’s harder each day to tell reality from fakery and misinformation. Although the rise of Obama didn’t yet qualify as a hoax – or just a bait-and-switch operation – there was a quite a bit of hype, mixed with enough reality, to keep hope alive.
Throughout the election, for example, the prevailing line was that Obama received about half of his contributions in amounts of $200 or less. The implication was that, for once, regular people were making a difference. After a more thorough analysis by the Federal Election Commission, however, it looked like repeaters and large donors were more important for Obama than analysts had appreciated.
“The myth is that money from small donors dominated Barack Obama’s finances,” noted Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute. “Obama’s fundraising was impressive, but the reality does not match the myth.” Only 24 percent of his funds came from donors whose total contribution was $200 or less. This is similar to the 25 percent for George W. Bush in 2004, 20 percent for John Kerry in 2004, 21 percent for John McCain in 2008, 13 percent for Hillary Clinton and 38 percent for Howard Deal in 2004.
Obama’s cabinet was another early sign that the change would be less dramatic than expected. The national security team included Bush-appointed Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who was asked to stay on for at least another year; Hillary Clinton as secretary of state; Susan Rice as ambassador to the UN; and retired Marine Gen. James Jones, former NATO chief in Europe, as national security adviser.
On the domestic side there was Eric Holder, another former Clinton official, as attorney general. Heading the economic team as secretary of the Treasury would be Timothy Geithner, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, while Lawrence Summers, former secretary of the Treasury under Clinton, was picked to serve as director of the National Economic Council. Geithner and Summers were touted as crisis managers. But they didn’t do so well in East Asia, helping to bring on a regional crisis in 1997 by pressuring governments to deregulate international financial flows. At the time, they insisted that bailout money go through the IMF, and delayed aid until most of the damage was done.
What else did they have in common? Ivy League backgrounds, stints at institutions like the IMF and the World Bank and work in or very near private sector banking. They were friends, had worked together before and, for better and worse, were actively involved in shaping the global financial architecture we have today.
The mainstream media said that Obama’s cabinet was mainly nonideological. Yet, many members had a record of support for corporate-friendly trade pacts, cutting public assistance programs as a strategy of “reform” and deregulatory policies in the financial sector. Overall, it was more like a team of insiders than a team of rivals.
Words vs. Deeds
On January 20, 2009, millions of people jammed into Washington, DC, to see history being made, celebrating the start of what they hoped would be new era. But a conflict between the hope Barack Obama inspired and the reality of his vision even ran through the inaugural address.
In describing the economic crisis, he said, “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” However, the people suffering the most didn’t “fail” to make “hard choices” about the greed and speculation on Wall Street. They didn’t get to choose. And they didn’t share in the gains that preceded the crash. Yet, they were being asked to take responsibility and make sacrifices.
Millions of people probably would make some sacrifices – if the goals were things like universal health care. But Obama was basically asking them to be patient. Meanwhile, the second half of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout was expected to save some banks, while doing nothing for those in danger of losing their homes.
What about his foreign policy goals? Obama did strike a different tone than Bush, offering the Muslim world “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Yet, he had remained silent during an Israeli assault on Gaza – carried out, by the way, with US-built F-16 jets and Apache helicopters after a blockade that cut off food and medicine.
Obama said he would “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals” – a pointed criticism of the shredding of civil liberties under Bush. But he also claimed, “our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” This and other lines could have come from Bush’s speechwriters.
The red flags also included a call for more US troops in Afghanistan without a clear explanation of what they would do there, giving a misleading impression about how soon and how many soldiers would be removed from Iraq by using the term “combat troops” (100,000 mercenaries and up to 50,000 US troops might remain); approving unspecified bailout amounts for unspecified purposes with unspecified oversight; picking a budget director who favored cutting Social Security for those under 60; and picking an attorney general who supported continued immunity for illegal wiretapping and secret searches of library and bookstore data files; plus, support for the war on drugs, the Patriot Act and the death penalty.
Obama did issue a call to unite and work together to overcome adversity – to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.” This was a time-honored call by American political leaders, but at least it was about actually doing something.
And what happened after that? Obama’s CIA Chief Leon Panetta made it clear that extraordinary rendition wouldn’t end, his attorney general used “state secrets” as the rationale to block a trial and Obama personally refused to release photos of enhanced interrogation. He also said that past official crimes would not be prosecuted. It was audacious all right, but not an auspicious beginning.
The Bush regime had armed Obama with extended power to take executive action, both domestically and in countries with which the US had major disagreements. Using that power, Obama’s overseas’ strategy began to look a lot like rollback; that is, reversing gains made by “troublesome” governments and movements during the Bush years. Rollback involves a combination of open military intervention, slippery diplomatic rhetoric and deniable covert operations. The most transparent early manifestation was the buildup of military forces in Afghanistan, defined by Obama as a “necessary” war. The most covert may have been the ouster of Honduran President Zelaya.
There has been no admission of US involvement in Zelaya’s removal. But US policy clearly shifted after he decided to improve relations with Venezuela in hopes of securing petro-subsidies and aid. Even after the UN General Assembly demanded his reinstatement, Obama declined to call it a coup.
The ousted, democratically elected president ended up agreeing to exile in the Dominican Republic. The next president, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, was a conservative landowner with a business degree from the University of Miami who pledged to be tough on crime and push for reintroduction of the death penalty. Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina called his election illegitimate. Secretary of State Clinton backed the nation’s new leader.
Whatever the real story, the coup sent a not-so-subtle message to any country that found Venezuelan-led economic programs attractive.
Domestically, the administration opted to prosecute rather than reward whistleblowers. In 2006, NSA official Thomas Drake provided information for an article published in the Baltimore Sun. The article detailed NSA mismanagement and use of technology that failed to protect the privacy of citizens. The new administration decided to indict him. Meanwhile, New York Times reporter James Risen faced a grand jury about confidential sources he used in a book that exposes the CIA’s mistakes in infiltrating Iran’s nuclear program. There was apparently more concern about plugging leaks (and restricting the “right to know”) than prosecuting those who illegally spied or tortured prisoners.
Two of the more shocking developments have been Obama’s announcement that he reserves the right to have the CIA assassinate US citizens who are engaged in alleged terrorist activity and Attorney General Holder’s argument that Miranda rights may to be altered when it comes to such suspects – assuming they survive long enough. But even such moves shouldn’t come as a surprise. As John Podesta, Obama’s transition chief, explained shortly after the 2008 election, “There’s a lot that the president can do using his executive authority without waiting for congressional action and I think we’ll see the president do that.”
The truth is that he has largely done what he promised. It’s just that many people misunderstood (or chose to overlook) what he had in mind. The disconnect is particularly significant on foreign policy. While Obama pledged to end the war in Iraq, he also promised to leave behind a large “residual” force. As a candidate, he said his administration would emphasize diplomacy, yet he described Iran as a terrorist state and pledged to use “all elements of American power” to deal with it. “If we must use military force,” Obama told the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) during the campaign, “we are more likely to succeed and will have far greater support at home and abroad, if we have exhausted our diplomatic efforts.”
As far as Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned, he made it plain that he wanted to send more troops and was ready to take unilateral military action inside Pakistan if necessary. “This is a war that we have to win,” he said.
Obama’s opponents nevertheless insist that he is a radical tyrant intent on imposing socialism and undermining the nation’s security, while his supporters cling to the idea that he is being prevented from implementing a progressive agenda by obstructionist Republicans and their Tea Party foot soldiers. Both groups appear to be suffering from cognitive dissonance – the need to deal with the frustration caused by contradictory information by rationalizing it. After all, it’s easier, not to mention politically convenient, to embrace a comforting myth and deny or ignore disquieting evidence.
Beyond all the hyperbole, the man in the White House is neither prince nor usurper, neither messiah nor anti-Christ. He’s just an ambitious politician whose words cloak a different reality. But for those who still prefer a fairy-tale explanation, the story unfolding may turn out to be the latest version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”