Monday, July 21, 2008

Barack Obama: The Man and The Myth

I have written previously on this blog about Barack Obama's complete reversal in position on the FISA legislation that was signed into law in the last few weeks, but what really needs to happen is a very open conversation about why Obama has seemed to shift positions on several key issues that surround the current campaign for the Presidency.

There are many Obama supporters that have lined up behind the Senator because of the belief that he is a "true progressive" and that his election in November will allow for progressive values to take hold of this country and that he will implement the change that so many wish to see. Throughout the primary season, Obama positioned himself as the "anti-establishment" candidate to further emphasize that he would be a different kind of President and many of his supporters believe that Obama's candidacy operates outside of the traditional Washington model. However in a recent piece by Paul Street, it is argued that Obama is far from the progressive that both the left and the right make him out to be.

Street argues in his extensive piece, that Obama's recent "shift to the right" was actually a shift back to the politician that Obama has become since his early days in the Illinois State Senate. This counters the very notion that Obama is putting on a mask to appeal to more conservative voters and once elected, will implement policies that are truly progressive. This belief, that of Obama as a sleeper candidate, is largely unfounded yet is a viewpoint held by both the left and the right. As Street points out, the left refer to him as a closet "true progressive" while the right refer to him as "a dangerous leftist" or even a "socialist". Street sites three reasons why there is serious doubt that Obama is indeed this closeted individual who will enact leftist policies once in office:

First, very few if any people in key positions in the "radically centrist" [7] Obama campaign seem remotely predisposed to following such a path.

Second, it must have take practically super-human "eyes on the White House prize" restraint for a "truly progressive" U.S. Senator Obama not to have used his already considerable power and notoriety (after 2004) to become a leader (in the Paul Wellstone mode) of left-liberal opposition to the Bush agenda at home and abroad. Instead he did things like:

* vote with Republicans to cap consumer legal damages ("tort reform").

* confirm the war criminal Condoleezaa Rice as (of all things) Secretary of State.

* lecture "bloggers" (Obama's new code name for the growing number of activists and voters who dare to openly disagree with Him from the left) on their need to show proper respect for U.S. Senators who approved the appointment of arch-reactionary opponents of womens' and civil rights to the rule-for-life Supreme Court.

* distance himself from Rep. John Murtha's (D-PA)call for early withdrawal from Iraq and from his fellow Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin's courageous criticism of American Gestapo-like practices in Guantanamo.

* lend his campaign support to pro-war against antiwar candidates in the Democratic congressional primaries of 2006 and otherwise distance himself from the movement against the Iraq War.

* advance the energy agenda of the nuclear and ethanol industries.

Third, Obama's career prior to his emergence as a national celebrity and politician does not jibe particularly well with the "stealth progressive" hypothesis. During his seven years in the Illinois Senate between 1997 and 2004, Obama developed strong and interrelated reputations for limitless personal aspiration, for working closely with Republicans, for "pragmatic" compromise, and for staying close to the great hidden secret to success under the rules of American "market democracy" - corporate money [8]. As Ryan Lizza notes in an important recent New Yorker sketch of Obama's early political career, "Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them" [9].

This "eagerness to accommodate" can be seen simply by looking back at Obama's record within the Illinois Senate versus the positions he has taken since he declared that he would run for President in 2007. Obama's biographer David Mendell weighs in:

"For them, it didn't seem to matter that since the aggressively liberal state lawmaker had gone to Washington he had taken a dramatic turn toward calculation and caution, or that he had yet to propose anything philosophically new, or that Obama was, in his own words, "a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views," or that the higher he soared, the more this politician spoke in well-worn platitudes and the more he offered warm, feel-good sentiments lacking a precise framework. It also didn't seem to matter that in his first two years....he avoided conflict at all costs, spending none of his heavily amassed political capital on even a single controversial issue he believed in"

Prior to Obama's election into the US Senate, he was booked to give a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. This appearance at the convention and subsequent speech has been marked by many as the official start of "Obama-mania". During this address, Obama did not take the opportunity to denounce the Iraq War on the grounds of its illegal nature, but rather criticized the Bush Administration for not sending in enough troops to effectively do the job. Obama also did not call for a withdrawl of troops or an end to the unjust occupation, but used the opportunity to endorse John Kerry whose candidacy was built on the position that he would more effectively manage the war. This position was also a shift for Obama which underscores the very point that he has an "eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them." Obama was largely outspoken against the war during his October 2002 speech in Chicago. Paul Street states:

Obama opposed what he called "the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne." He denounced "the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression" [26].

This use of strong wording against the Administration was rightly placed, but a far cry from his position in 2004:

But Obama's most telling Iraq war comments during the 2004 convention did not occur during his famous keynote address. One day before he gave his historic speech, Obama told the New York Times that he did not know how he would have voted on the 2002 Iraq war resolution had he been serving in the United States Senate at the time of the vote. Here is the relevant Times passage: "In a recent interview, [Obama] declined to criticize Senators Kerry and Edwards for voting to authorize the war, although he said he would not have done the same based on the information he had at the time.' But, I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports,' Mr. Obama said. 'What would I have done? I don't know.' What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made'" [33].

It is argued that based upon these shifts on foreign and domestic policy as well as the rise in corporate money largely being thrown at Obama, that Obama is not a progressive posing as a "centrist", but in fact he has been a "centrist" posing as a progressive. It is argued that the kind of shift that we have seen from Obama in the most recent weeks, is Obama's same old song and dance of accommodating himself to the very system that his supporters expect him to change. Obama is not a radical progressive that exists outside of the traditional Washington model, to the contrary Obama is a typical politician who has shown his willingness to shift positions on issues in order to enhance his electability. There is simply little reason to believe that Obama will radically change this country if he is elected President and to view him as a candidate who "needs to lean to the right in order to win so he can implement his real agenda" is a misguided viewpoint that is inconsistent with his political career.

Yes, the candidacy of Barack Obama has invigorated the population's interest in electoral politics, but we need to be careful. We (as a country) need to be careful that we are not so eager for change that we get caught up in the slogans and fail to look at the policies. This country has slid so far to the right in the past eight years that it is easy to fall behind someone who so eloquently promises that he will bring this country out of the deep hole that we have fallen into. Citizens need to closely examine if support for this candidate will really get them the change that they desire. Citizens need to look at this candidates past, his policy shifts, and his corporate backing and ask themselves if this is the mark of a revolutionary or of a typical politician.

I, for one, cannot vote for someone who has "an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them." We (as a society) have played this tired game for too long, putting all of our hopes and efforts into the idea fundamental change while still voting for and supporting the status quo. This is why I am supporting Cynthia McKinney's candidacy for President in 2008 on the Green Party ticket. I will not vote for Barack Obama because he is simply "better than John McCain" rather I will vote for Cynthia McKinney because she is the best overall choice for true progressive change in the 2008 election. We need leaders who live up to the standards of the people in this country, not leaders who give up their principles for status quo. As we continue forward in this election year, let's continue to critically examine all of those running for public office and hold all of them accountable to the public interest.

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