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Why Obama’s Big Cash-In Matters

Barack Obama at the University of Chicago during an April 24 conversation on civic engagement and community organizing, his first major public appearance since leaving the White House. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)
Paul Street
Contributor
Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books,…
Paul Street

Barack Obama at the University of Chicago during an April 24 conversation on civic engagement and community organizing, his first major public appearance since leaving the White House. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP)

One of my little online entertainments this year has been to ask my social media network a question: “So, what’s Obama up to lately?”

I want to know, but I haven’t had the stomach to follow the man once he left the White House.

Truth be told, I burned out on Obama years ago.

I called him out as a corporate, neoliberal imperialist and a de facto white supremacist (as ironic as that might sound given his technical blackness) from the beginning of the nationwide “Obamas” phenomenon in the summer of 2004.

Empire’s New Clothes

From 2006 through 2011, I dedicated inordinate research and writing to the “BaRockstar.” Prior to his 2009 inauguration (an event I found likely once George W. Bush defeated John F. Kerry in 2004), I tried to warn progressives (and anyone else who would listen) about Obama’s coming presidential service to the rich and powerful, their global empire and the white majority’s desire to deny the continuing power of anti-black racism in the United States. I collected my warnings in a 2008 book that bore the deceptively neutral title “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.”

I continued to follow Obama closely. In 2010, my next book, “The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power,” detailed his dutiful fealty to the nation’s “deep state” masters of capital and empire (and to white majority opinion on race) during his first year in the White House. This volume exhaustively refuted partisan Democrats who insisted that Obama really wanted to do progressive things but was prevented from that by a Republican Congress. It was a nonsensical claim. Year One Obama had just won the presidency with a great voter mandate for progressive change and had a Democratic Congress. He could have steered well to the wide left of his corporate-center-right trajectory if he’d wanted. But he didn’t want to, consistent with Adolph Reed Jr.’s dead-on description of Obama after the future president first won elected office in Illinois:

In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.

By acting in accord with Reed’s retrospectively haunting early description, the “deeply conservative” President Obama ironically helped create the very Republican “Tea Party” Congress his loyal liberal defenders were then able to cite as the excuse for his right-wing policymaking. Governing progressively in 2009 and 2010 would have been good politics for the Democrats. It might well have pre-empted the “Teapublican” victories of 2010.

You’ve Got to Meet Real Socialists

But that’s not what “Wall Street Barry” was about. He was a Hamilton Project, Robert Rubin-sponsored actor who never would have gotten the elite backing he needed to prevail had he been the peoples’ champion so many voters dreamed him to be.

Obama set new Wall Street election fundraising records for a reason in 2008. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” Ken Silverstein noted in a fall 2006 Harper’s Magazine report titled “Obama, Inc.,” “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform. … On condition of anonymity, one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point 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?’ ”

After his 2012 re-election, Obama spoke at The Wall Street Journal CEO Council. “When you go to other countries,” Obama told the corporate chieftains, “the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans—we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines. … People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. [Laughter.] I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace.”

It was what the socialist writer and activist Danny Katch called “a touching ruling class moment.”

The warm feelings made good capitalist sense. Fully 95 percent of the nation’s new income went to the top 1 percent during Obama’s first term. Obama won his second term partly by appropriating populist rhetoric from an Occupy Wall Street movement he’d helped dismantle with infiltration and force in the fall and winter of 2011. He did this after keeping Wall Street so comfortably bailed out and restored that plutocracy could reach the point where the top U.S. thousandth owned more wealth than the bottom U.S. 90 percent.Obama Burnout

Documenting Obama’s predictable and predicted (by me and others on the officially marginalized left) betrayal of his “progressive base” was unpleasant and tiring work. The 44th president was an Energizer Bunny when it came to advancing the wolfish agenda of the rich, white and imperial in fake progressive sheep’s clothing.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner was way into wielding the American empire’s maiming and killing machine in Africa and the Middle East. His not-so-precisely targeted assassination drone program became what Noam Chomsky would aptly describe as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times.”

“Turns out I’m pretty good at killing people,” Obama once joked to his White House staff.

Funny guy.

It became nauseating history to closely track. I started to feel like the Martin Sheen character (Capt. Willard) after too much exposure to the sociopath Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in the movie “Apocalypse Now.” I had to step back.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

So it is with a certain unmistakable tone of bemused cynicism that I ask my online correspondents: “What’s Obama up to now?”

The answers have been darkly amusing.

Post-presidential “O” has been spotted kiteboarding in the Caribbean with Richard Branson, the British billionaire airline mogul, who is leading the charge for the privatization of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service.

Ex-prez “O” has been seen boating in the Pacific with Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen on a $300 million luxury yacht owned by recording mogul billionaire David Geffen.

Before that we learned that the Obamas reached an eight-figure publishing deal ($65 million) for his-and-her memoirs on their years in the White House.

And then we learned that Obama will speak for $400,000 at a Wall Street health care conference in September, hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald, L.P.

Nothing says “show me the money” like POTUS on your resume. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose bust sat behind Obama in the Oval Office, would not be pleased. The great civil rights leader and democratic socialist sternly refused to cash in on his fame.

The Times Disheartened, Bernie Disappointed

The New York Times editorial board felt compelled to criticize the coming Wall Street speech. On Monday, the Times’ editors opined:

It is disheartening that a man whose historic candidacy was premised on a moral examination of politics now joins almost every modern president in cashing in. And it shows surprising tone deafness, more likely to be expected from the billionaires the Obamas have vacationed with these past months than from a president keenly attuned to the worries and resentments of the 99 percent. … It’s the example he set that makes it jarring to see him conform to a lamentable post-presidential model created fairly recently, in historical terms.

The editors offer a limited and naïve critique. They are happy with the Obamas’ book deal, which dwarfs the speaking fee. They overlook the fact that Obama’s candidacy was premised on a quiet, behind-the-scenes promise to serve wealthy benefactors.

Obama was/is “keenly attuned to the worries and resentments of the 99 percent.” Really? He was so attuned that he:

● Bailed out the 1 percent with no questions asked, with no financial transactions tax advanced, after they crashed the national and global economy with their reckless selfishness.

● Made zero efforts to re-legalize union organizing (his campaign promise to push the Employee Free Choice Act was kicked to the curb from Day One).

● Passed a Republican health insurance reform (minus even a limited public option) that only the big insurance companies could love.

● Advanced a Grand Bargain that went beyond what the Republicans asked for when it came to assaulting Social Security and Medicare during the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis.

● Failed to prevent his Department of Homeland Security from joining with Democratic-run cities across the U.S. to in crushing the Occupy Movement (which coined the slogan “We are the 99 percent”) through brute force.

● Spent much of his second term trumpeting the darkly authoritarian and secretive, arch-global corporatist Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Do the Times’ editors recall presidential candidate Obama’s April 2008 description of Midwestern rural and working-class people as folks who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”?

Bernie Sanders felt also compelled to speak out against Obama’s coming high-priced speaking date. He probably didn’t have much choice given that he built much of his primary campaign around criticism of Hillary Clinton’s big-money Wall Street speeches. “I think at a time when people are so frustrated with the power of Wall Street and the big-money interests,” Sanders told “CBS This Morning” on Friday, “it is unfortunate that President Obama is doing this. Wall Street has incredible power, and I would have hoped that the president would not have given a speech like this.”

That was a silly thing for which to hope, given Obama’s track record. Obama’s big cash-in is more evidence that he is precisely who some of us on the left said he was from the beginning.The Ultimate Owner of the Deep State

None of Obama’s post-White House indulgence in the means and culture of hyper-affluence is surprising or shocking to anyone who has followed his history and career—or, more importantly, to anyone who has paid attention to the many methods by which the moneyed elite controls U.S. politics and policy. Offering politicos big paydays after they’ve spent years working at moderate taxpayer-ceilinged salaries in not-so “public service” is a significant way in which the finance-led corporate sector get what it wants from government.

As Mike Lofgren noted in his widely read book “The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government”: “Wall Street may be the ultimate owner of the Deep State and its strategies, if for no other reason than it has the money to reward government operatives with a second career beyond what is lucrative beyond the dreams of avarice—certainly beyond the dreams of a government salaryman” [emphasis added].

Smart “public” officials who want to live super-comfortably after stints on the government side of the great state-capitalist revolving door know better than to antagonize the ruling class that lives behind the marionette theater of electoral and parliamentary politics in the “visible state.”

Make That Money, Obama

What is just as troubling, if not more disturbing, is the readiness of many “liberal” Democrats to defend Obama’s right to cash in on his eight years serving the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire. “Who cares if Obama gets really rich now?” the line goes. “He worked his butt off. They all do it. Why shouldn’t he? Why should a black former president not cash in? White ones all do. You’re just jealous, and maybe a little racist, too. There’s lots of rich people, including lots of rich former elected officials. If Bill Clinton and Republican pigs like Newt Gingrich can do it, then why shouldn’t Barack Obama?”

The New York Times’ editors are right, of course, to note that “since Gerald Ford enriched himself with speaking fees and board memberships after leaving office, every former president but Jimmy Carter has supped often at the corporate table.”

These sorts of rationales for the Great Obama Cash-In are ubiquitous on “social media” and the comments sections attached to news reports on Obama’s forthcoming speaking fee. You can find them in the published and broadcast commentaries of established media pundits and talking heads. Check out this rant by Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show,” in which Noah elicits liberal laughter with these snarky and venal reflections:

“I agree the system must change, but it doesn’t change with Obama, all right? People are, like, why doesn’t he not accept the money? No, f–k that! No. No. [Cheers.] I’m sorry. The first black president must be the first one to not take money off us? No, no, no, my friend. He can’t be the first of everything. F–k [bleep] that and f–k [bleep] you. Yeah, I said it.” [Cheers and applause.]

“No! Make that money, Obama. Make that money. ‘But Obama should know better!’ What about the Clintons? ‘Yeah, well, the Clintons, it’s already done.’ Well, let him already ‘done it’ as well and you guys can start [bleep] the first white president to not take the money. [Bleep] you. Obama, make that money. Make that money.” [Applause.]

No Racial Double Standard

Where to begin in responding to such excuse-making? It is futile, I suppose, to deny that one wants to live a life of fabulous wealth. If you are a lefty, you probably don’t aspire to opulence, but good luck trying to tell many Americans otherwise. They’ve been indoctrinated to believe that the pursuit of riches is “human nature” (something that raises the question of what species we should assign to such historical persons as Gandhi, King and Marx).

The racism charge falsely assumes that one only opposes cashing in when it comes to a black politician. Any decent progressive is concerned about corporate and financial corruption as a problem in and of itself. The relevant color here is green, green as in money. I don’t care what color a “democratically elected” president is. I want him “working his butt off” for we the people, not the already super-rich and powerful.

I do not support the killing of unarmed inner-city youth by white police officers if I oppose the killing of unarmed inner-city youth by black police officers. I do not support a white congressman’s call for confrontation with Russia if I oppose a black congresswoman’s concurrence with that call. I do not support the paying of outrageous speaking fees by financial institutions to the technically white Bill and/or Hillary Clinton if I happen to oppose the paying of outrageous speaking fees to the technically black Barack Obama by the same institutions.

I oppose police killings of unarmed youth, OK? I oppose the corruption of politics and policy by the promise of obscene payouts to politicians and policymakers after they leave the public sector, all right? I oppose imperialism, get it?

Big money subversion of what’s left of American democracy is why it should matter to any decent liberal or progressive that a former president of any color is cashing in.Bad Politics

It should matter on practical as well as moral grounds. Like the Clintons’ sellout, the Obamas’ big cash-in adventure is ammunition for the right-wing monsters in and atop the Republican Party these days. It adds dark empirical substance to the all-too-accurate charge that they, too, are an elitist, corporate-captive party. The story of Obama cashing in and playing around with the rich and famous is the perfect clickbait for right-wing, white nationalists at Breitbart News. It’s the perfect story for Fox News and right-wing talk radio in their efforts to keep the white working class on board with the arch-plutocratic GOP. This is what concerns the New York Times’ honchos the most. As the paper’s editors put it:

As the presidential election clarified so painfully, the traditional party of working people has lost touch with them. In a poll released last week, more than two-thirds of voters, including nearly half of Democrats themselves, said the Democratic Party is out of touch with the concerns of the American people. For the first time in memory, Democrats are seen as more out of touch with ordinary Americans than the party’s political opponents. There’s little doubt that Democratic leaders’ unseemly attachment to the party’s wealthiest donors contributed to that indictment.

Not that I’m in the business of advising the dismal Democrats, but getting behind Obama’s post-presidential book bonanza and Wall Street speaking windfalls is just dumb in partisan and electoral terms. That kind of selfish indulgence is no small part of why the radically regressive Republicans control all three branches of the federal government and most of the state governments in a nation that understandably hates the Republican Party.

Liberals are free to retort that Trump’s regressive tax plan is yet more proof that he is not the pro-working-class populist he claimed to be on the campaign trail but is instead the arch-plutocrat we on the left said he was.

Nobody with a clue on the left side of the spectrum thought that Trump’s populism wasn’t hypocritical. The problem is that so many liberals and progressives who should know better can’t see through the game as well when charismatic and silver-tongued Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama play it.

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