In recent days Phil Weiss, who loves Obama, and Michael Smith, who doesn’t, have exchanged emails on the question. We feel that this argument is happening across the lib-left spectrum. So, we wanted to share it.
The other day you cautioned me against swooning for Obama. You said that he let out only 46 prisoners when he should have let out thousands, and that both parties are wings of the same bird, capitalism.
I can’t quarrel with either of your points, but I love him right now. Our disagreement reminds me of a conversation I had in 2009 in Cairo with Bill Ayers. I said Obama is a man of the left and he said, horse manure he’s an ambitious pol. He’s not a man of the left. Well I think he is, and let me tell you why.
Of course it depends how you define left, but on several issues I care deeply about, from opening Cuba to healthcare to racial justice to, most important, the Iran deal, Obama is pushing the country left, trying to solidify gains that will make his presidency historic. Palestine was also clearly on that list, given his description of the humiliations of the occupation in Cairo in ’09, but he was stopped cold by the Israel lobby and did not have the political smarts to know how to take it on, or the political base to be able to maneuver.
Now he seems much freer. His speech to the White House Correspondents dinner where he had an “anger translator” who expressed racial resentment, his “bucket” (Fuck it) list where he said he didn’t give a shit about any political consideration, his inspiring performance in Charleston, his mastery at the press conference two weeks ago in answering criticisms of his Iran deal and the signs that he is solidifying support in the Congress, and his visit to the El Reno prison at which he stated There but for the grace of God go I and many of you too, motioning at the reporters—these are great political moments for me, they show someone who wants to use what power he has to do good in what time he has left. The era of passivity and fecklessness is coming to an end.
46 prisoners, not thousands. Of course. There would be a political rebellion if he freed more. No president had ever visited a prison. He supports capitalism. Of course. The country is capitalist, and it’s not in the power of a president to change that. I share your economic values. I’ve tried to live my life that way. (And let me brag that my wife hits a higher mark than Obama because she visits a NY prison every week.) But the great majority of Americans don’t agree with us, and not all their attitudes are the product of corporate brainwashing; the country is a democracy with vast sections of conservative opinion and human piggishness; and he is a political animal who must make his way in that world of polling and elections and material benchmarks of progress– and try and force the country left in his way.
My greatest objection to him on a continuing basis is the extrajudicial killings, Guantanamo, and the use of violence across the Middle East. Yes, I hold him responsible (and I’m to blame too for supporting the Libya intervention). At the same time I accept Tolstoy’s formulation, that these guys have remarkably little power, that the convergence of forces on someone at the top are tremendous, like nothing we face in our little lives. They have to cut deals all the time. Freeing thousands of prisoners would mean he loses the Iran Deal, on which he has staked all his personal and political capital. He probably gave up the West Bank to keep Israel from attacking Iran…. Of course that’s ugly, and I criticized the absence of any real response to ongoing settlements; but it’s not as if he didn’t want to do the right thing. And now he has more of a chance. Wherever there is power, the agents of influence descend. Just look at our dear friends at the Nation Magazine. It is clearly on the left and also disappoints us editorially in several ways, notably Palestine. But must we not acknowledge the Nation has a wide audience, and many forces contend on the Nation’s leadership, limiting its autonomy? The forces operating on Obama are a thousand times that. Still he’s going out with a bang.
I feel that the radical left must express special reservations about Obama now because they feel the left slipping on this question. They hear the folks like me celebrating Obama, they don’t want to lose the lib-left to an accommodation of the political status quo. They want to hold out for fundamental change in the system, and want the Nation crowd and independent lefties like myself in the campaign. And god knows you have a far longer history of political activism than I do.
But much as I seek a far-reaching transformation of the system and our foreign policy, I am cheering Obama on. So I love him: I feel that in the real world of power politics he is doing his utmost to leave a mark.
And by the way I think his post presidency is going to be even better: he indicated as much in Africa, he will follow the Carter model, and use his power freed of partisan constraints to model a better world, and stake his reputation on racial and economic justice, global warming, and someday, Palestine.
I would be disappointed in my dear friend Phil Weiss if in dietary advice to his readership he told them he had just polished off a McDonald’s double cheeseburger with bacon and fries and a Coke and, in accordance with McDonald’s advertising slogan, he was “lovin’ it”. So I was truly disappointed to learn from Phil that he was “lovin’ Obama” a past master at branding – after all, his 2008 campaign won an award from the advertising industry.
After the President recently visited a prison, commuted the sentences of 46 people, and signed a deal with Iran, all of which caused you to write that you were “lovin'” the man. Obama has been president for 6-1/2 years. Phil you should know better.
You call him a “man of the left “. He appointed John Brennan, the CIA torturor, to head the agency. Every Tuesday he meets with him in the White House to decide who to murder extrajudicially by drones. Victims have included American citizens. He has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all the presidents before him combined. He supports a secret practice that records every keystroke we make on our computers and calls we make on our phones. He sabotaged the carbon emissions caps at the Copenhagen Conference and has given the OK for drilling in pristine Arctic waters even as it has just been predicted that sea levels will rise 10 feet in the next 50 years. He refused to prosecute the torturers in the Bush administration that engineered the illegal war against Iraq, the supreme crime because aggressive war incorporates within it all other crimes. His health care “reform” is something only the insurance companies and big pharma could love inasmuch as it was a product of the right wing Heritage Foundation and first initiated in Massachusetts by Mitt Romney. His opening to Cuba was made out of necessity because after 54 years of trying to isolate Cuba and destroy the anti-capitalist revolution, it was United States that was isolated from the rest of the world, not Cuba.
Calling Obama a “man of the left ” as you do Phil, renders the word “left” meaningless.
For political people, like those who read Mondoweiss, there are three useful precepts to keep in mind. One: follow the money. Two: political parties represent classes. Three: social change comes from below. Proof of this are the victories of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the movement against the war in Vietnam. They all came from the self -organized activity of masses of people. Look at what BDS and Black Lives Matter have accomplished. By contrast, the Democratic Party historically has been the graveyard of social movements. I learned this lesson the hard way in l964 when I voted for Lyndon Johnson, who promised to end the war in Vietnam. Instead he escalated it. That was the first and last time I supported a Democrat. The massive anti-war marches in New York City and Washington, D.C. and in many cities across the country, the tens of thousands of student activists on campuses, the student strike, and most of all the reluctance of American GIs to fight was what ended it: Not the Democratic Party or its people in Congress.
Precepts one and two are illustrated by the following story as told by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Ron Suskind. Three months after he was elected, the faux liberal President called a meeting of the nation’s top 13 financial executives in the spring of 2009. These were the people whose policies had caused the economy to collapse. Obama had a majority of Democrats in both the Senate and the House. They were plenty scared when they arrived in the state dining room. Obama could’ve reined in the banks with new laws so it would not happen again, prosecuted the banksters, created a jobs program for the millions who were unemployed, and bailed out the millions who had lost their homes.
But instead of supporting those who were most harmed by the titans of finance he totally supported them. “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I am going to shield you from congressional and public anger”. Phil, you are on the wrong side. You should be with the pitchforks.
That social change comes from below is clear from the effects that the Black Lives Matter movement has already had. For one thing, it put Obama into a federal prison, if only for a day on a visit. Ditto for the BDS movement in exposing and delegitimizing Israel, something that neither Obama nor the Democrats have dared to do because of who makes large donations to the Democratic Party. As we learned from the Occupy Wall Street movement – which was decimated by a coordinated Federal campaign of surveillance, infiltration, and violent assault with the lion’s share of the repression carried out by Democratic-run city governments across the country – the Democratic Party is one wing of the 1%. (See Paul Street’s excellent article called “The Liberal Apologies for Obamas Ugly Reign” in Counterpunch.)
Phil, I disagree with you when you write that this country “is a democracy”. American elections pitting Tweedledee against Tweedledum (dumber) are a managed affair at best. They are staged every four years as “yet another method for marginalizing the population .” (Noam Chomsky, October 27, 2004).
You know of course about the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that corporations are persons with First Amendment rights and therefore can give all they want to an election campaign. Without a sense of irony, the court ruled that corporations have a free speech right. “Money doesn’t talk, it screams” sang Bob Dylan. I’ll believe a corporation is a person the day one gets a colonoscopy.
I also disagree with your characterization of most Americans as “conservatives”. This is factually untrue. Three years ago when I co-edited the book “Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA,” the Pew organization took a poll which revealed that 49% of young people under the age of 30 had a favorable reaction to socialism. The latest poll revealed that 49% of ALL people had a favorable reaction. The population is well ahead of the politicians. In fact half the country is so fed up with them they don’t bother to vote. Why encourage them?
Great then. What we all need is our own party. We remember what Gene Debs said: “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it then vote for something I don’t want and get it.”
The role liberals play is that they deflect and divert people and at best prevent them from achieving this. Even worse, as Thomas Frank has written, (he) “initially supported Obama, (and) came to the conclusion that the Tea Party takeover of Congress in 2010 would not have happened if Obama had actually governed in accord with the progressive and popular sentiment of the citizens who voted for him instead of the dictates of the nation’s corporate and financial masters (who green lighted his candidacy after screening him and bankrolled his campaign.” (See Street article, ibid)
Phil, your infatuation with and hopes for Obama are misplaced and your apologies for his actions disappointing. What must your readers who are in solidarity with the Palestinians in opposition to the Zionist colonial settler state think when you excuse Obama for not supporting the Palestinians in the West Bank? You could lead in explaining why we need our own political organization that would be for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, the lifting of the seize of Gaza, and the right of return for the Palestinians. Instead, you mislead people in suddenly bestowing sincerity and virtue on a man who has so ably governed for the one per cent. They got their money’s worth when they selected and bankrolled him. You even threw yourself into the bargain.
Michael Steven Smith is a longtime supporter of Mondoweiss. He is a New York City attorney and author and the co-host with Michael Ratner and Heidi Boghosian of the radio show Law and Disorder (lawanddisorder.org on the net).