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Liberals pin their hopes on a "good Democrat"
Is Obama different?

February 2, 2007 | Page 5

ADAM TURL tells about the Barack Obama he's seen in action for years in Chicago--and reveals the reality behind "Obamamania."

A YEAR before the first contests of the primaries, the 2008 presidential campaign is already underway, with the major candidates of both parties plunging into the race.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, the pre-ordained frontrunner of the Democratic Party machine, was hogging the media spotlight at the end of January. But Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, trying to turn months of media hype into a full-fledged campaign, is generating hope among many liberals and progressives.

Obama's political history is rare in Washington, D.C. these days--and not just because he is only the fifth Black Senator in U.S. history. He is the only serious contender among the 2008 hopefuls with something of a background in progressive politics.

Obama's "progressive roots" are usually exaggerated, but he was one of few local politicians to cut his teeth outside of the machine of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley--occasionally surrounding himself with civil rights attorneys, unionists and community activists.

What else to read

Investigative journalist Ken Silverstein's article "Barack Obama Inc.," published in Harper's, has all the details on Obama's rise into the Democratic Party leadership. Lee Sustar reviewed Obama's biography for Socialist Worker in an article called "The Obama Myth."

Ali Abunimah's comments on Obama appeared in a blog on the New York Observer Web site. For another left-wing take on Obama, see Joshua Frank's "Obama and the Middle East."

To find out what socialists say about the Democratic Party more generally, you can download an ISO Web book by Lance Selfa, The Democratic Party and the Politics of Lesser Evilism.


Before running for office, Obama directed a non-profit that organized job-training programs in poor neighborhoods, and he later practiced civil rights law and organized voter registration drives. In 1996, he was elected to the Illinois State Senate, representing the 13th District on Chicago's South Side. In the legislature, he sponsored modest reforms that lowered taxes for poor families and increased AIDS funding.

In his campaigns for state senate and his failed bid against U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, Obama hit picket lines and pressed the flesh. When he announced a presidential exploratory committee last month, the television news programs repeatedly showed him at a 2002 antiwar rally in Chicago--with commentators declaring that his opposition to the invasion inoculated him from the political bacillus of the Iraq catastrophe.

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AT FIRST glance, Obama may seem to be one of the so-called "good Democrats." But Obama is more Bill Clinton than Cynthia McKinney--an operator with his sights set on the "real politick" of the Democratic Party establishment, who has increasingly jettisoned whatever progressive ideas he may have once held.

As Chicago-based Palestinian rights activist Ali Abunimah recently recalled of Obama, "he was often very progressive about Israel-Palestine" as a state senator, even attending fundraisers in the Palestinian community. But as Abunimah concluded, "it all went out the window when he started his climb up the greasy pole."

That "greasy pole" is the only way to the top of the Democratic Party--and what's true about Obama on Palestine is true about Obama on Iraq and on immigrant and workers' rights.

Carl Davidson, a former Vietnam War protest leader who helped organize the 2002 rally Obama so famously spoke at, says that after the protest and the 2003 invasion, Obama's position on the war began to morph.

"After he visited Iraq when the war was on, he turned," Davidson wrote recently. "Now we had to set aside whether it was right or wrong to invade, now we had to find the 'smart' path to victory, not Bush's 'dumb' path...[I]n dealing with Iran, we had to leave on the table bombing their nuclear sites. For this, a lot of the local antiwar activists started calling him 'Barack O'bomb 'em.'

"He wasn't listening much to us anymore, but to folks much higher up in the [Democratic Leadership Council] orbit. He had bigger plans."

In 2004, those "bigger plans" became a reality for Obama when the Republican opposition in his campaign for the U.S. Senate imploded in a series of scandals.

With his charm and broad "appeal"--traditionally conservative white Illinois voters supported him in large numbers, along with urban voters in the city--candidate Obama was selected to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC). But Obama's convention speech--with lots of neat sound bites, but little content or concrete proposals--should have been a warning to progressives and the liberal "base."

The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)--which was formed in the mid-1980s by socially conservative and economically neoliberal Democrats to "reclaim" the party from "special interests" (unions, oppressed minorities, immigrants, women and so on)--had already put Obama on their list of the top 100 Democratic Party leaders to watch.

As senator, he quickly signaled his pro-business stance by voting for "tort reform"--legislation limiting the liability of corporations in class-action lawsuits.

Obama also formed one of the largest and most powerful political action committees in the Senate, raking in $3.8 million by the summer of 2006 and dolling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to Democratic candidates.

"It is also startling to see how quickly Obama's senatorship has been woven into the web of institutionalized influence-trading that afflicts official Washington," journalist Ken Silverstein wrote in Harper's magazine last fall in an article entitled, "Barack Obama Inc." "He quickly established a political machine funded and run by a standard Beltway group of lobbyists, P.R. consultants, and hangers-on."

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OBAMA HAS become a "master triangulator," in Abunimah's words, figuring out how to reflect the aspirations of an economically wounded and war-weary electorate, while at the same time staying within the bounds of "acceptable" Washington politics. Nowhere has this been clearer than on the question of the Iraq war and U.S. imperialism in the Middle East.

Days before his 2004 DNC speech, Obama remarked to the press that there was, in fact, little difference between his position on the war and George W. Bush's--except how best to "execute" the policy.

Obama occasionally said things that seemed to give voice to a more radical position on the war--arguing, for example, that it was "time to give Iraqis their country back." But evidently, the time to give Iraqis their country back has come and gone.

Obama echoes the prevailing sentiment among mainstream Democrats that we need to bring the troops home--but on ever more vague timetables and constraining "conditions."

So Obama calls for a "phased redeployment" on a "timetable that would begin in four to six months." But even at the end point of this "redeployment," the war would not end, because U.S. troops would continue to occupy "American enclaves like the Green Zone," and perhaps some troops would be sent "over the horizon" to the Kurdish territories in northern Iraq.

While the U.S. has, in Obama's view, made mistakes in Iraq, the fault lies not with Bush or U.S. imperialism, but Iraqis themselves. "The days of asking, urging and waiting for [Iraqis] to take control of their own country are coming to an end," Obama said after Bush's January speech announcing his surge plan. "No more coddling, no more equivocation."

This is nothing less than the logic of colonial racism: Iraqis are themselves to blame for the horrors caused by the occupation.

Beyond Iraq, Obama has made his fidelity to U.S. empire very clear. He has repeatedly called for sufficient military strength to deal with "rogue nations like North Korea and Iran" or the "challenges presented by potential rivals like China."

He may position himself two steps to the left of his main opposition in the Democratic Party--or, in general elections, his Republican rivals--but never beyond the corporate-dictated confines of official politics.

Like Bill Clinton, Obama is a smooth politician. When the Black Commentator Web magazine editors asked Obama about being on the DLC's top 100 list, he asked the DLC to remove his name. When he was asked if he would sponsor legislation to repeal NAFTA, he promptly said yes--although he has yet to deliver.

He promised to oppose building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico unless it was accompanied by a "path to legalization" and "a guest-worker program"--but then he voted for a border wall anyway shortly before last year's congressional election.

In late January, Obama announced his proposal to have all Americans covered by health insurance within six years--that is, the end of what he hopes will be his first presidential term. But this is the vote-getting promise made by candidate Bill Clinton in 1992--on which Clinton and a then-Democratic Congress failed to deliver.

Obama presents himself more or less as a liberal--but in terms of what is acceptable in today's "war on terror" and neoliberal "Washington consensus."

If Obama today is a cipher of doublespeak and triangulation, we can be sure that a President Obama would be a safe bet for the ruling elite and U.S. empire. And a losing bet for the rest of us.

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