I’ll never forget the night of January 3, 2008. It was the evening of the Iowa Democratic Party Presidential Caucus. Iowa City High School’s cafeteria was packed. Old-timers couldn’t remember a bigger Caucus crowd.
The Democratic voters (well, caucusers) had come to put the deeply conservative Barack Obama over the top in the name of liberal and progressive values of equality, democracy, sustainability, social justice, and peace – meanings they were encouraged by Brand Obama’s slick and deceptive marketers to project on to blank branding sheets of “Hope” and “Change.” And all I could think was “liberal fools. You have no idea what this thoroughly neoliberal and imperial politician is about!”
Obama rose to power in Washington with remarkable, record-setting financial backing from Wall Street and K Street election investors who were not in the business of promoting politicians who seek to challenge the nation’s dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies. “On condition of anonymity,” journalist Ken Silverstein noted in the fall of 2006, a Washington lobbyist he interviewed “point(ed) 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?”
As far as I could make out from years of following the GOP-friendly Obama in Chicago and Illinois (where I worked in social policy and civil rights positions during the late 1990s and early 21st century), Obama’s real ideological orientation was to the right of Richard Nixon. He was an Eisenhower Republican at leftmost.
When the Caucus process was over, a young lady who had caucused for John Edwards said to me, “but he [Obama] can’t win in the [November 2008 presidential] election.” I told her, “Oh Obama can win the presidency, alright. You just watch. But when he does, you may find yourself wondering what the point was. The rich will continue to rule and the first Black president is often going to seem like a Republican.”
Flash forward seven years and five plus months, to late June of 2015. Obama has just had a very good week. On June 25, 2015, the Supreme Court upheld for a second time a critical provision of what Obama and others tout as the shining and signature policy accomplishment of his first administration: the so-called Affordable Care Act. The day before that, Obama succeeded in getting Congress to sign off on a critical legislative ingredient – “fast track” trade authority – in his long campaign to push through what he and others tout as the hoped-for signal and shining policy accomplishment of his second administration: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement.
It is instructive to ponder the essence of these two grand Obamanian policies. The first, known as “Obamacare,” is based on a plan first designed by the Republican Heritage Foundation in the 1990s. It is a richly neoliberal measure. It sets up a complex, “market-based” program that leaves the corporate insurance and drug syndicates’ cost-driving profit-taking fully in place, with disastrous consequences for the quality and affordability of U.S. medical care. Obama rushed to pass this brazenly corporatist measure after kicking the popular choice (single payer “Medicare for All,” supported by most U.S. citizens for many years) to the curb.
The second, the TPP, is a sweeping authoritarian and corporatist measure that would cover 40 percent of the world’s economy. Lawyers and lobbyists for giant multinational corporations have been working it up and promoting it for nearly a decade. Beneath standard propagandistic boilerplate about trade and jobs, the real thrust and significance of the TPP is about strengthening corporations’ ability to protect and extend their intellectual property rights (drug patents, movie rights, and the like) and to guarantee that they will be compensated by governments for any profits they might lose from having to meet decent public labor and environmental (and other) standards, something certain to discourage the enactment and enforce of such standards. It’s all about what the New York Times calls “investor protection.”
No wonder Obama has done everything he can to keep the TPP’s details under wraps. (The secrecy has been remarkable: U.S. Congresspersons and some of their staff can see the TPP’s text only if they agree not to take notes or discuss the details in public.) And no wonder that Obama wanted Congress to give him “fast-track” authority to force a yay or nay Congressional vote on the TPP, with no time for careful consideration and no chance for revisions. Under fast-track rules, there’s no chance for delays or alterations. The pact must be voted up or down in a very short time-frame.
And who did Obama and his Big Business sponsors rely on to pass “fast track” through Congress? His good “free trade” (investor rights) friends in the Republican Party. The bill passed over and against the opposition of most of his party’s delegation in both the House and the Senate, with Obama directing no small nastiness at his supposed fellow “progressive Democrats” in Washington.
It’s all very consistent with the judgement of the lobbyist Silverstein interviewed in 2006: “what’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?” So, of course, is much else in Obama’s Wall Street-friendly record. Examples include his escalation of the giant taxpayer bailouts of the big financial institutions that wrecked the economy, his shielding of those firms from calls for nationalization and break-up, his refusal to act on his campaign promise to fight for legislation to re-legalize union organizing in the U.S., his failure to back the 2011 public worker rebellion in Wisconsin, his repression of the Occupy Movement in late 2011, his torpedoing of desperate efforts to reduce global climate emissions, his embrace of hydraulic fracturing, and his repeated opening of formerly protected waters to offshore drilling. For big capital, the answer to lobbyist’s question has been (to quote the old MasterCard commercial) “priceless.”
Beneath progressive pretentions, Barack Obama the national political phenomenon has never been anything other than a tool of the United States’ corporate and financial ruling class. This is something that I (and a sturdy cadre of other researchers and commentators) have argued and documented at painstaking length from the beginning. But surely the TPP takes the cake when it comes to solidifying his legacy once and for all as a died-in-the-wool global corporatist. How any serious liberal or progressive could still cling to the notion of a “progressive” President Obama after his work with big capital, the Republicans, and fellow corporate Democrats to pass the arch-authoritarian, super-corporatist, anti-labor, and eco-cidal Fast Track bill over and against technically irrelevant public opinion and the opposition even of most of his party’s Congresspersons is a chilling kind of mystery.
By Paul Street/TeleSUR