The Obama Paradox

I first wrote this in February in the wake of the Haitian disaster. It reads, sadly, as prescient today in the wake of our environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf.

Obama vexedThere is an intriguing paradox at work inside the Obama Presidency. Initially, it looks hard to explain.

On the one hand, many critics and opponents of Obama claim that he represents some kind of radical ideology influenced by the authoritarian milieu that emerged in the late 1960s around figures like Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, and Mike Klonsky in the Students for a Democratic Society and its violent offshoot, the Weather Underground.

Some on the left of the Obama campaign confirmed this, including Manning Marable of Columbia who noted, approvingly, that “a lot of the people working with [Obama] are, indeed, socialists with backgrounds in the Communist Party or as independent Marxists. There are a lot of people like that in Chicago who have worked with him for years.”  Marable is a long time presence in this same milieu and is certainly in a position to know what he is talking about.

Of course, readers of King Harvest and its predecessor Global Labor are well aware of the intimate ties between Obama and Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn going back more than two decades, including the alliance formed between Ayers and Obama at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge in midst of the Chicago School Wars of the 1990s.

So assuming that the critics, opponents, and left wing friends of Obama, not to mention me, are all correct about the significance of this melange of authoritarian “leftists” in Obama’s political development and success, how is it that his Administration appears, to say the least, disappointing to these same figures? On health care, the closing of Guantanamo, job creation, you name it, this Administration, far from appearing left wing, appears almost feckless and weak, unwilling to flex the power of the Presidency on any issue of importance to the left.

Some of Obama’s closest allies are now expressing consternation. Berkeley Law Dean Chris Edley, an aggressive promoter of racialist politics, was brought into the Obama campaign to whip white staffers into line at the home of Valerie Jarrett, the black confidante of the President. Now Edley has himself apparently turned on the Administration calling it “complacent.” (Edley reserves most of his bile for Obama’s white chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, while never even mentioning Jarrett.) Even Bill Ayers has publicly criticized the Administration, although not Obama personally, on the escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

Of even greater potential to damage the humanitarian credentials and long term legacy of Obama is his stubborn unwillingness to take any serious leadership role in confronting the Haitian disaster. As noted on King Harvest recently, the Haitians themselves want a much bigger role for the US military. Ironically, Obama took on board as a personal foreign policy advisor early in his Senate career the most stanch advocate of humanitarian intervention by the US military, Harvard’s Samantha Power. Now Power is a National Security Council staffer, yet the US delayed deployment of US troops to Haiti, did not even show up for a key UN vote on the crisis and seems content to let the country descend into a Katrina-like crisis in the unfolding recovery period.

So there we have it, Obama the radical has turned into Obama the feckless. That’s the paradox that requires explanation. Of course, one could dismiss as irrelevant, as some do, Obama’s lifelong radical affiliations and influences from his mother’s third worldism, to his mentorship by the noted stalinist poet and journalist Frank Marshall Davis, to his affinity for the black nationalist politics of Jeremiah Wright, to the identity politics now rampant in many quarters of the progressive movement and the Democratic party. But the evidence of his tendencies is pretty overwhelming, even if he carefully tailored certain comments in order to maintain his electability.

So what can explain the actual impact of the Administration? I would suggest two possibilities.

First, as I suggested during the campaign itself, the problem with the kind of mentorship that Obama got while on the way up, from figures like Ayers and Wright, has left him woefully unprepared for the job he actually was elected to carry out.

When I listen to the comments of people like Bill Ayers or Carl Davidson of Progressives for Obama (oops, now Progressive America Rising – such fair weather friends!) it seems to me they really think that their organizing activities within the Obama campaign were the equivalent to being an anti-war Bolshevik in 1917 Russia as millions of workers, peasants and soldiers abandoned the front and stormed the barricades. That’s a bit of hyperbole but the tendency is certainly felt in their comments and I would submit Obama himself may have thought he could, indeed, “fundamentally transform” this country, as Obama said just a few days before his Inauguration.

Of course, Obama was, in fact, mounting a campaign to become President of the United States, still, by far, the dominant military and capitalist power on the planet (and beyond).  There is a good reason for the normal range of ideologies among credible candidates for President to be relatively narrow – the requirements for the job are set in stone by the structure of power that the Presidency represents.  A true left wing movement would not delude itself as these people do into thinking that something like the Obama Hope campaign had any hope whatsoever of altering that power structure.

Nonetheless, here we are, with a small group of self described radicals in part responsible for placing in the Presidency our first “radical” President. Of course I use that term advisedly to mark the peculiar stalinoid and authoritarian nature of the politics that marked Obama’s rise to power. But those politics offer Obama no serious guidelines for the actual exercise of the immense power that he now, potentially, wields.

In fact, it gets worse. The problem facing Obama goes deeper. Not only does he not really know what to do with this power, to the extent that he would like to do more that is consistent with his “radical” values he finds himself trapped. To begin to carry out such policies in any serious way would open him up to attack from the right, even from the center. In fact, it is very likely that even rational measures that would not be off limits to a typically liberal Democratic President, such as more aggressive use of the United Nations, are off limits to Obama because they are viewed by his closest advisors as hot button items likely to raise, once again, the charge by the right of the specter of radicalism.

This dynamic may go a long way to explaining the confused and frightening incompetence surrounding events like Haiti or the Christmas underwear bomber interrogation as well as the continuing confusion about how to deal with the Wall Street financial crisis.

Thus it is that the enthusiasm and optimism that marked Obama’s ascension to the Presidency has within a year descended dangerously close to what can only be called a failed Presidency.

3 thoughts on “The Obama Paradox

  1. Stephen Diamond Post author

    One hardly knows where to begin, Carl.

    First, if you have been paying careful, or even not so careful, attention to my blog posts on Obama running back to the spring of 2008 it should be clear that I have never taken the position that Obama is or ever was a leftist.

    I differ with you and others in and around the Committees of Correspondence/ex-CP/ex-SDS milieu that the politics of the figures – Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, Frank Davis – who mentored Obama are anything other than authoritarian and bureaucratic; anti-capitalist, perhaps, but not leftist. Of course that is also the politics of COC, so it is not a surprise that it would be hard for you to recognize this.

    One of the best examples and one important to Obama’s political and professional development, of course, was the 1988 Chicago school reform where Obama backed, together with Bill Ayers, the anti-union, racially divisive and undemocratic “local control” effort that was intellectually authored by CP’er Earl Durham. That the big business elements in Chicago joined in this effort – and that it caught the warm attention of the Heritage Foundation – should have been a clue to any serious leftist the real intent of this reform. Obama’s late 80s involvement in that reform would serve him well when Ayers appointed Obama to chair the Chicago Annenberg Challenge in 1995. Propping up the withering local school councils set up in 1988 was a central goal of the Challenge.

    When word of Ayers’ ties to Obama through the Challenge surfaced in the Obama campaign, David Axelrod worked with Ayers to block, unsuccessfully, access to the Challenge’s documents housed at the University of Illinois.

    So you don’t impress me by suggesting that Obama is some kind of neo-Keynesian. Obama has been a comfortable member of the Chicago south side stalinoid milieu for many years. That is why Alice Palmer was willing to hand her state senate seat over to him. And why she expected he would hand it back to her when she got clobbered by Bobby Rush. She just underestimated his ambition.

    Perhaps you did, too.

    In any case, did you share your intimate knowledge of Obama’s true politics with the rest of the Progressives for Obama crowd? I only ask because it seems clear to me that most of them would have no idea what you are talking about.

    They assumed he would deliver on his promised inside/outside strategy. He told this milieu that he would push for “progressive” policies but would need outside pressure to give him the political cover he needed. He hoped to get health care through first and then use the political capital of that victory to turn to changes in foreign policy.

    He decided to use his ability to appoint “special advisors” as a means around Congressional oversight to create an internal White House cadre answerable to him and the Chicago campaign era cabal of Jarrett, Axelrod, Emanuel and Gibbs.

    A perfect example was the clearance by Jarrett of Van Jones as special advisor on “green jobs.” Van – whom I knew vaguely at law school – is a stalinist blowhard from his earliest days and thus perfect hench man for the new team to use to “mau mau” the flak catchers when the stimulus cash got handed out.

    Jarrett’s naivete in welcoming “truther” Jones to the White House is stunning but it exposes clearly the hope to generate an inside/outside strategy.

    Now that it has failed you and your COC milieu are trying to distance yourself from the man, but you voted for him and now you are stuck with him. Good luck.

  2. Carl Davidson

    Obama was never a radical or a man of the left, Steve, nor even a consistent progressive.

    In our original call for ‘Progressives for Obama’, we pegged him as a ‘liberal speaking mainly to the center.’ He’s always been a neo-Keynesian who understood the internet, salted with a little of Alinksky’s militant redistributionist liberalism.

    We never had much influence on him, if any at all. He opposed the war in Iraq, and was prepared to end it. That was enough at the time to distinguish him. Now his team has some ‘reform’ neoliberals from Wall St setting the direction to his downfall, unless something drastic happens. We’ll see, but I’m not betting on a second term unless there’s a major change in course.

    I’d still tell people to vote for him over McCain-Palin. But our task in the campaign was to build our own independent forces around our own platform. And we did fairly well, and are still growing.

    You and your co-thinkers have never really understood this, making up all sorts of ‘just so’ stories that wildly exaggerated or simply falsified Obama’s ‘leftism’, along with the extent of our strength and influence. Now you face all sorts of ‘paradoxes’ of your own invention.

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