Barack Obama in the Real World of Power

by Tom Barrett


The title you read at the top of this post is actually the subtitle of a new book that I’m reading called The Empire’s New Clothes, written by a historian named Paul Street. I met him and heard him speak last Friday evening at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Springfield, NJ. I think his basic point is right: the current president is not fundamentally different from his predecessors, including the rather ludicrous George W. Bush. Mr. Street commented that essentially what President Obama has done has been to “rebrand” George W. Bush’s policies, as an advertising agency might do to sell a product. Indeed, the parallels between the political campaign committees of 2010 and the advertising agencies of Madison Avenue, New York, are myriad. I just noticed today that even though “combat operations in Iraq have ended,” an American GI was killed yesterday in Iraq. I got the information in an e-mail from my friend Cindy Sheehan, who sarcastically put in her subject line, “This can’t be happening! The war is over!” Cindy, you will recall, is the woman who attempted to confront President Bush in Crawford, TX, after her son Casey’s death in Iraq. She has been working tirelessly for peace and justice ever since, and if it were up to me, she would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr. Street went down the list of the Obama administration’s “accomplishments,” which all include big benefits to big business, most especially the health care “reform.” I don’t know about you, but this “reform” may very well bankrupt me. I have health insurance through my job, but it’s woefully inadequate, and because of “Obamacare” there’s no way that will change any time soon. He said, “if you like your health insurance the good news is that you don’t have to make a change.” That was a half truth. The truth is, if your boss likes your health insurance the bad news is that you don’t get to make a change.

And then there were the “bailouts,” which began during the last days of the Bush administration and continued during the first days of the Obama administration. The corporations have done very well. The unemployment rate has not noticeably dropped; it may even have gone up. A lot of people, myself included, in order to cover our expenses, have cashed in a lot of our retirement accounts. Over $33 billion has been taken out of stock market mutual funds during the last quarter.

Am I disappointed with President Obama’s performance in office? Frankly, no, because it’s no worse than I expected. I didn’t vote for him, and I won’t vote for him in 2012. But a lot of the people who did are feeling really let down, and even a lot of the people who didn’t are angry. Cindy Sheehan, whom I mentioned at the beginning, has called him a “war criminal” and a “fascist.” She also thinks we should agitate for his impeachment. I understand how she feels. Last November I went to a small demonstration in Washington organized by a predominantly African American antiwar coalition called Black is Back. The feeling of anger at being let down was impossible to ignore. One of the speakers was a journalist named Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report. He’s got a good analysis of what Obama’s administration has meant to the Black community and people who want this country to be at peace. Click here see a video.

If you want to read more about why a lot of us are feeling that Mr. Obama has let us down, click here for some excerpts from his new book. Better yet, get the book and read it. But I’ve got a different point to make. I’m really less interested in what’s wrong with Barack Obama—I knew that a long time ago—than I am in what to do about it.

What to do about it depends almost entirely on the answer to two related questions: is Obama the real problem, and would replacing him in the office of President make things better? According to Paul Street—and Glen Ford—the answer to both questions is “no,” and I agree.

If you were to shut off your TV, radio, and internet, stop subscribing to newspapers and magazines—or, if you didn’t want to be so drastic, just stop paying attention to the news, which is what it seems that a lot of people do, it’s very likely you wouldn’t be able to tell when a new President had acceded to office. Things do not change very much for us in our everyday lives because a different individual holds the highest political office in the country. Furthermore, the authors of the Constitution intended it just that way. They were very much concerned about wild swings of public policy and were even more concerned that massive participation in political activity by people other than the wealthy and well-educated would lead to “mob rule.” In 1787 one might argue that they had a point, for the French Revolution which broke out two years later certainly confirmed their worst fears about “democracy.”

But that was then, and this is now. We have no more property qualifications for voting; every citizen above the age of eighteen has a right to vote, regardless of race or gender. Still, a large minority in Presidential elections—and a majority in non-Presidential elections—don’t bother to go to the polling place and vote. And why should they? What does it change? Does anyone in government determine the price of a gallon of gasoline? Does government determine whether you can qualify for a home mortgage—and what the interest rate will be? Does government give you a job? Well, the answer to the last question for too many of our young people who can’t get a job from a private company is “yes,” but it involves a uniform and a weapon and the possibility of losing one’s life in a faraway country.

The point I’m making is that most decisions that affect your life and my life are made by private corporations. Nobody voted for them; they have to obey laws, or at least not get caught breaking them, but other than that, there is no governmental control. And those decisions that affect you and me that are made by government are by and large made by civil servants who are also not elected. What am I saying here? Just this: whether or not Barack Obama is re-elected in 2012, you and I won’t notice a big difference in our daily lives. It’s just not going to make a whole lot of difference, and that’s why so many of us can’t be bothered going down to the polling place on Election Day.

Mr. Street, speaking to his audience at the Springfield, NJ, Barnes & Noble bookstore last Friday, explained the behind-the-scenes vetting that the big campaign donors carry out long before candidacies are announced and how there is no chance that anyone who is not committed to working for the best interests of the corporate elite can be elected to high political office, including and especially the Presidency. This is something I have known for literally decades, but it bears repeating: the electoral system in the United States is designed to prevent change and to make sure that there is no threat whatsoever to the economic elite in whose interest the government exists.

So what should we do? What should we not do? Mr. Street suggests that we “open new and exciting possibilities for a kind of progressive politics that can bring about real, grassroots ‘change from the bottom up’—something very different from the corporate-crafted, candidate-centered, narrow-spectrum, and ‘two-party’ ‘quadrennial electoral extravaganzas’ that have for too long passed as the only politics that really matter in the United States.” I like it. Now what does it mean?

It means nothing unless those of us who are at the grassroots and at the “bottom,” from where the “up” is going to come, are organized. That means talking together, meeting together, taking action together.

There are two ways we can organize, and both of them are valid: one is by constituency, that is, getting together based on who we are. Trade unions are a good example of this kind of organization: we get together because we work at a particular trade, and we’re trying to win better wages and working conditions through collective bargaining with the employers. Another good example would be civil rights organizations in the Communities of Color. The oldest one still in business is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and it does a lot of good work still. The National Organization for Women is another constituency organization, which is very important. I could go on, but you all get the idea.

Another way to organize is by cause, that is, we get together based on what we think about a particular problem or issue. That might be the desire to end the Afghanistan war or to dismantle the arsenal of nuclear weapons. It might be to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels in order to reduce the production of greenhouse gases which threaten catastrophic climate change. Peace groups such as the National Assembly to End the Wars and Occupations, Peace Action, and International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) are three examples of groups organized around the cause of ending war or a particular war. There are in some cases groups that combine constituency and cause, such as Veterans for Peace or United States Labor Against War. As far as I’m concerned, all God’s critters got a place in the choir. What we need to do is (1) work together, and (2) get more people involved.

The first thing that we need in order to work together is a job to do. The Service Employees International Union and the NAACP have proposed a job to do, and the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), to which most trade unions belong, agrees with it. They’re proposing that we participate in a march and rally on Washington, DC, on October 2 of this year. They have set up a coalition of groups called “One Nation Working Together.” They say: “We believe everyone deserves the opportunity to achieve the American Dream — a secure job, a safe home, and a quality education. ONE NATION seeks to transcend our superficial differences and bring us together in a common quest for equal opportunity and justice for all.…March with us in Washington, DC, on 10-2-10 to create millions of good jobs, repair our immigration system, and reform Wall Street! Your voice is essential to demanding the change we voted for.” Good! This is a start. I’m going to go. So should you.

The National Assembly to End the Wars and Occupations got several groups together to organize a United National Antiwar Conference in July of 2010 in Albany, New York. I was there. It agreed to organize marches and rallies in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, on April 9, 2011.  They say:

Our love of humanity, opposition to expanding wars and occupations unleashed by the Pentagon, and respect for the right of self-determination for all peoples require that we demand of the U.S. government:

   The allocation of the trillions spent on wars and corporate bailouts to massive programs for jobs, education, health care, housing and the environment. Compensation to be paid to the peoples whose countries the U.S. attacked and occupied for the loss of lives and massive destruction they suffered.

   The immediate, total and unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. troops, mercenaries and contractors from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, and the immediate closing of all U.S. bases in those countries. Bring all the Troops and War Dollars Home Now!

   Reverse and end all foreclosures. Stop the government attacks on trade unions, civil and democratic rights, and immigrant communities.

This makes perfect sense to me. I plan to go to New York City on that date. You should plan to go there or to Los Angeles or San Francisco, whichever works for you.

Neither the October 2 nor April 9 demonstrations are going to end these wars or create the thousands of jobs that working people so desperately need. They might not even convince the people in power to do it. What these demonstrations will do is to help us get organized and get us working together. When we have the strength to take action that might have a more direct effect, we will know it.

For right now, there’s a couple of things we should not do, I think. You’ll notice that the AFL-CIO and NAACP are taking action, and these organizations represent quite literally millions of people. They’re taking action to fight for better living standards and simple fairness for working people, for African Americans, for immigrant workers, for women and children. I think that’s a worthwhile thing to do. What they are not ready to do is to go into opposition to Barack Obama. I think what the people organizing the October 2 march are for is more important than the President that they are not against.

What that means is that we should not, for example, demand that Congress impeach Obama. It will get in the way of working with the labor movement and the African American community, and impeaching Obama and replacing him with Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi will hardly represent a great advance for us. I understand that a good case can be made that Obama is guilty of war crimes and of lying to the people about the purported withdrawal from Iraq or about his motivations for escalating the Afghanistan war. I know for certain that, in the eyes of the members of Congress, these kinds of crimes do not rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that warrant impeachment. That would require some kind of sexual encounter, and in any case, the last thing I want to talk about is the standard of ethical behavior set by the members of the Senate and House of Representatives.

No, for us the issue has to be, what helps us organize at the grassroots level, from the bottom up? It’s true that there’s no substitute for one-on-one interaction, but it doesn’t hurt when you can connect with organizations that represent millions. If the price for that is not talking about impeaching Obama—which wouldn’t accomplish much anyway—well, then, that’s a price I am willing to pay, and it’s relatively inexpensive at that.

The question for me is not, for or against Barack Obama? Rather, it is what’s the best way to defeat his agenda? And sometimes less is more: right now less strident denunciation of Obama will enable more unity in action against Barack Obama’s Big Business agenda. That’s what we need. Unity in action.