Peeling away the “Obama phenomenon”: An interview with Paul Street

Crossposted at Huffington Post.


How progressive is Barack Obama?  It’s a question pundits, bloggers, and journalists have trouble grappling with.  But one individual goes beyond the Obama phenomenon and investigates who Obama is and what he’s all about.  In Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics,  author Paul Street cuts to the chase and takes a closer look at the man who became the 44th president of the United States. What Street uncovers is a man crafted by campaign consultants with political beliefs consistent with elite party interests.  

Street is an independent journalist, policy adviser, and historian.  He is a former vice-president for research and planning at the Chicago Urban League, and author of Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: a Living Black Chicago History and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era.

I caught up with Street to discuss his new book by Paradigm Publishers.  

You paint a portrait of Obama that shows he’s a centrist and not inclined to support progressive causes and ideas.  What has shaped Obama’s views on politics and how has he been shaped to representing elite interests?

Street: Trying to figure out who Obama is, is like trying to nail down a blob of mercury.  It’s very difficult.  Is he progressive or not may in a certain sense be somewhat besides the point.  It’s one thing to be a progressive as the head of a Urban League affiliate or a union Local or something, but Obama is in the top executive position, the apex of an empire as far as I’m concerned.  That’s the world you enter once you decide it’s really about getting into the political system and rising to the top.  

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was asked to run for president in 1967 and of course it would’ve been just a protest candidacy.  Dr. King turned it down.  He said something like ‘it’s not my role as a organizer or a social justice activist.’  So whatever Obama’s values may truly be, once you enter into that ‘I’m going to the prince or king and I’m going to rise to the top’ it really may not matter all that much.  Then you’re in a whole other ball game where you’re talking about money, concentrated wealth, and a disproportionate influence that is exercised in this dollar democracy we have.  I think Obama’s calculus was that he wanted to win.  

He was a progressive community organizer for years.  But what nobody seems to know was that Obama hated it.  Ryan Lizza wrote about it The New Yorker.  Obama told his mentor in community organizing that “there’s nothing for me to continue on this path.”  So he went into politics.  When that takes over and you’re working for David Axelrod and Richard Daley, etc., a lot of those principles that you may or may not have are going to go by the wayside.  

Supporters of Obama claim he’s a president who believes in the idea of pragmatism and consensus building.  Is it consensus building or conciliation?

I remember John Edwards saying in Iowa that you don’t cut deals with big business. I remember Edwards called out Hillary Clinton and Obama on the “complete fantasy” that meaningful progressive from could be attained by “sitting down at a negotiating table” with the big insurance and oil and drug companies. Whatever his motives, Edwards accurately said that “only an epic fight” with concentrated economic and political power could achieve big progressive change.  In Iowa, Edwards would quote FDR on how the “economic royalists hate me” and “I welcome their hatred.” Obama’s response to Edwards’ “big table fantasy” line at one of the Iowa debates was what the prolific left author Mike Davis calls “typical eloquent evasion”; “we don’t need more heat, we need more light.”  Well, shoot, crazy John Edwards was right!  We need more heat from the bottom up and on the left-progressive side.

I’ve often heard the argument that a majority of Americans don’t buy into party purity ideals of the likes of Dennis Kucinich, John Edwards, or Mike Gravel. Some Democrats believe if we elect leaders like that, we’ll only lost more elections.  Is that true?

They can’t get elected because they can’t be taken serious by the media. I saw Edwards destroy the opposition at a campaigner. Then I went to see Clinton and she was incredibly boring.  After that, it was really transparent that Edwards wasn’t being taken seriously.  Kucinich was also treated as a gadfly.  It just doesn’t make any sense for NBC, owned by General Electric, ABC, which is Disney, or Fox, which is Rupert Murdoch, to really give a lot of favorable coverage to someone they can’t trust to handle their corporate interests.  If that log jam could be broken, the two things I would emphasize that need to be changed are the money primaries, the need for money or access to people who have it, and the media filters.  If you can get past those, you’ll see there’s a lot of good progressive opinion data on issues.  If you can get the focus away from the marketing of politics (i.e. personalities, what they look like, what they’re name sounds like, whether we want to have a beer with them, etc.), then that could help the likes of Kucinich, Edwards, etc.  

You write a chapter called “How Black is Obama?”  What does he represent as an African-American leader and what does he represent in terms of change related to racism?

I remember Obama as a state Senator and I worked in black communities in the Urban League.  You’d be amazed how unpopular Obama was initially.  You didn’t hear people say Obama was “too white.”  Instead, he’s “too bourgeois.”  I heard that a lot. He got killed by Bobby Rush in a U.S. congressional primary in 2000.  Rush said again and again, Obama went to Harvard, he lived over in Hyde Park, etc.  As Obama’s star was rising, you heard a lot of “he didn’t really come from the community,” or “he didn’t rise from the community.”  Obama was handed to black America rather more than he arose from black America.  Obama was more African plus American than he was African-American.

If you track Obama’s positions on race, you can find a lot of traditional black-bourgeoisie, personal responsibility lectures to blacks, like his recent NAACP address.  He’s similar to Henry Louis Gates who has centrist-culturalist explanations of why black people are disproportionately poor.  Obama also said some things about history, that I find very odd.  He once talked about how the GI Bill was this great victory for ordinary working class Americans.  But the GI Bill was deeply discriminatory on race terms.  His Philadelphia speech was eloquent and effective, but if you dig down, there’s a narrative in there that a lot of racial justice advocates are not pleased with.  That narrative is ‘we can understand why Reverend Jeremiah Wright may be angry because of his age, where he comes from, and how he was a product of the Jim Crow era, but there’s a pronounced suggestion that that kind of anger is not appropriate.’  Many people in the general black community take exception to that, especially when 2.3 million people are behind bars and half of them are African-American.  

You also ask “How Anti-war is Obama?” Is he an imperialist just like George W. Bush or a more of a benevolent dictator with the same polices?

Obama has never denounced the war in Iraq as immoral.  Obama’s has been very careful to oppose something that’s not working.  He’s always been very careful to suggest that it is a reflection of benevolent intentions.  Even to the point of campaigning in Wisconsin by telling autoworkers, we’re spending enough money to help the Iraqis, now we need to spend it to help out America.  We’re not helping them and we ought to be.  We owe them big time.

In his career, Obama was much less anti-war in his image.  He did speak out against the Iraqi invasion in Daley Square in October 2002.  But on the day before Obama’s famous keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he told The New York Times, he might have voted for the war had he been in the U.S. Senate at the time and had access to the same information as other senators.  During the convention. Obama also told The Chicago Tribune reporters Jeff Zeleny and David Mendell “that there’s not that much difference between my position [on Iraq] and George Bush’s position at this stage.”  He told the journalists “the difference, in my mind, is who’s in a position to execute.”  That’s a remarkable statement to make. Yes, he did speak against the war.  However, he never said it would be immoral, he never said it would’ve been criminal, and he never said anything about Iraqi casualties.  


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    • Edger on September 15, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    Do me a favor a post this on Antemedius too, would you?

    Street makes a lot of sense:

    The Dawning Age of Obama as a Potentially Teach-able Moment for The Left,

    by Paul Street, June 2, 2009  

  1. in progressive Chicago politics during Obama’s initial rise, the common joke about this ‘community organizer’ was that if he hadn’t wanted to run for office, he’d be working at Sidley and Austin (a big Chi-town corporate law firm).

    In 1994, just as Obama was getting ready to announce a run for state senate, I actually moderated a panel on which he was one of the speakers.  I asked the panel a lot of fairly tough questions about health care, the deficit, Social Security, etc.

    Even back then, ‘eloquent evasion’ summed up Obama’s performance quite nicely.

  2. is exactly right. The party loyalty thing plus our obsession with the cult of personality makes even so called progressives defend policies and agendas that are both immoral and not in their interests and amazingly similar to what they spent years decrying. The phenomenon for me is that the Democratic base, the  grassroot movement that drew his coalition to work for change when faced with the reality of what is happening, would rather support the fiction that this is change then work to achieve their goals. The left ends up defending and supporting what we fought so hard against. Any pol who dares to contradict the political fictions concocted for our consumption is branded a spoiler. Activists who try to actually push change are saboteurs and enemy’s of the good. They believe that this is how it is, this is political reality, nothing can change because we don’t have enough votes or were a right leaning country or we must compromise, a far cry from Yes We Can, or Bottom Up.  

    • Inky99 on September 15, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    I remember loving Paul Street for something he wrote a while back and wish I could remember what it was!   He’s one of the few great REAL journalists out there nowadays, along with Jeremy Scahill.

    What gets me is that I saw right through Obama, I mean, it’s not like he was trying to cover this stuff up.  He was marketed, heavily and super-professionally, as one thing, but when you listened to the guy talk, what he would say and more importantly wouldn’t say was pretty eye-opening.  

    People wanted so desperately to have a leader they could like, and “hope” was the emotional button that was so blatantly pushed.

    People then project what they want upon the man, like they do with actors, and there ya have it.

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