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Obamaphelia, “the Obama disease:” a delusional belief that Barack Obama is a progressive, peace- and justice-oriented, liberal and even left politician and policymaker. The belief is maintained despite abundant evidence to the contrary dating to and preceding the national unveiling of the “the Obama phenomenon” in the summer of 2004.
The disorder’s prevalence peaked in the presidential and primary and election years of 2007 and 2008. It remained at high levels during Obama’s first two years in the White House and continues to plague millions of Americans – some quite highly educated (in a formal sense) – to this day.
The disorder has “left” and right varieties. In its “progressive,” liberal, and “left” version, Obamapheliacs insist that their hero is committed in his heart to peace and social justice but experiences frustration in his desire to advance those goals by the Republicans and their big business backers. The president needs and even wants activists and movements to push him left, providing the grassroots muscle to “make” him do progressive things, “left” Obamapheliacs feel. For neo-McCarthyite, right-wing Teapublican Obamapheliacs channeling the “paranoid style” of “conservative” politics first diagnosed by the renowned liberal historian Richard Hofstader, Obama is a “big government” socialist who wants to overthrow “free market” capitalism, redistribute wealth downward, elevate blacks and other minorities over whites, and dismantle U.S. global military power.
A Shared Victimization
While the two variants view each other as mortal enemies, they share the same basic delusion about the United States’ 44th president, ignoring mountains of proof showing beyond any serious doubt that he is a conservative friend and agent of America’s highly unequal capitalist system, imperialism, and (curiously enough) white supremacism.
This shared hallucination started early on. As Obama’s first budget was rolled out in the early spring of 2009, John MacArthur, then president of Harper’s Magazine, observed that both right and left had collaborated in the creation of a “fantasy” – in “an absurd reading of Obama” as “commit[ted] to left-wing ‘change.” This was the “wishful thinking” shared by “pundits across the political spectrum” – quite preposterous since the new chief executive was “a moderate with far too much respect for the global financial class” and as "surely the unleft, unradical, president.”
To a significant extent, Obamapheliacs are victims of marketing and public relations. The image of the center-right Obama as a left progressive – even as a “Marxist” in some Teapublican rhetoric – was cultivated for electoral and partisan purposes by leading political strategists in the nation’s two dominant business-backed political organizations. Consistent with the formerly left Christopher Hitchens’ apt description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism,” Democratic image-makers found it useful and indeed necessary for the winning of ordinary Americans’ votes to cloak Obama’s allegiance to big business and the military state in the false rebels’ clothing of heartfelt concern for working people, the environment, and peace. They would have done the same if Hillary Clinton or John Edwards had won the Democratic nomination in 2008.
Seeking to rally their older, whiter, more rural and more southern base against the other business party’s leading politician, Republican/FOX News spin-doctors found it useful to advance the image of Obama as a dangerous totalitarian socialist. They would have done the same to any Democratic presidential nominee and president, consistent with “the paranoid style” (which fueled similar charges against previous Democratic presidencies from Franklin Roosevelt through Bill Clinton), though Obama’s race, ethno-cultural nomenclature and celebrity combined with the anxiety generated by economic crisis to stoke the fires of the political psychosis they fed to new levels.
As the Obama phenomenon and disease first emerged at the tail end of the first George W. Bush administration and then became endemic in 2007 and 2008, a cadre of writers and activists from the actual Left made repeated warnings about Obama’s center-right and imperialist essence. The present left-socialist writer published a deeply researched 272-page book dedicated to raising the alarm. Written mainly in 2007 and published in the spring of 2008, this volume received enthusiastic endorsements from leading, seriously left intellectuals and essentially predicted the right-leaning course of the Obama presidency. It was one of many left warnings and reflections regarding the Obama phenomenon/disease/disorder.
Corrections to the “left Obama” fantasy did not come only from the “radical left,” routinely ignored by “serious” intellectuals. In an April 2007 Washington Post column titled “Obama the Interventionist,” the right wing foreign policy advisor Robert Kagan praised Obama for embracing Cold War language describing the U.S. as the “leader of the free world” and for advancing an aggressively “interventionist” foreign policy requiring a significant increase in “defense” spending. “He talks about how we need to ‘seize’ the ‘American moment,’” Kagan gushed, adding “This is left-liberal foreign policy? Ask Noam Chomsky next time you see him.”
One month later, the centrist New Yorker (no radical platform) published an in-depth portrait of Barack Obama in which journalist Larissa MacFarquhar reasonably depicted Obama as “deeply conservative”:
“In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean. He distrusts abstractions, generalizations, extrapolations, projections. It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good. Take health care, for example. “If you’re starting from scratch,” he says, “then a single-payer system”—a government-managed system like Canada’s, which disconnects health insurance from employment—“would probably make sense. But we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside”…Asked whether he has changed his mind about anything in the past twenty years, he says, “I’m probably more humble now about the speed with which government programs can solve every problem. For example, I think the impact of parents and communities is at least as significant as the amount of money that’s put into education.”
MacFarquhar’s portrait was consistent with what Cass Sunstein, Obama’s colleague at the University of Chicago Law School, identified as Obama’s “minimalist” approach to law and politics” – a preference for “modest adjustments in institutions in search of his ‘visionary’ goals.”
Classic Obamapheliac Texts:
“Historians for Obama” (November 2007)
None of this stopped more than 250 mostly liberal and left U.S. historians (including more than a few who would certainly identify as democratic socialists) from signing an embarrassing late November 2007 endorsement of Obama that praised him as a “world citizen” and former “community organizer” with “an acute awareness of the inequalities of race and class” – and as “that rare politician who can stretch the meaning of democracy, who can help revive what William James called ‘the civic genius of the people.’" Obama, the historians gushed, exhibited “qualities of mind and temperament that really separate [him] from the rest…He is a gifted writer and orator who speaks forcefully but without animus. Not since John F. Kennedy has a Democrat candidate for president showed the same combination of charisma and thoughtfulness.”
With a discernible professorial whiff about him (honed at Columbia, Harvard, and years as an adjunct law professor at the arch-neoliberal University of Chicago), Obama, like JFK, made a play for the academicians (at least 85 percent of whom are registered Democrats in the humanities and social sciences).Some, like the “Historians for Obama,” ran like poodles to their master.
Clearly, Obama’s “acute awareness of the inequalities of the race and class” has not prevented him from lining up with those atop both disparity structures and from ignoring. That awareness and his “qualities of mind and temperament” have hardly stopped him from ignoring, disdaining, and repressing progressive and Left activists and movements – including Occupy (crushed by a coordinated federal crackdown) – seriously committed to opposing inequality, militarism, and eco-cide. The liberal-left historians’ line about how Obama can “stretch the meaning of democracy” seems more than a little haunting in light of his strong embrace and expansion of the Bush-Cheney national security and surveillance state and his extreme repression of whistleblowers and dissenters at home.
The American historians were warned by one of their past, justly honored guildsmen. In 1948, Hofstader, in his widely read volume The American Political Tradition, looked at leading American political figures from the Founding Fathers through Franklin Roosevelt. He examined Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives alike. Hofstader determined that “the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise…they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man….That culture has been intensely nationalistic.” As I predicted (easily and with no particular claim to originality) in Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2008), Obama has been no more of an exception to Hofstader’s rule than any president to occupy the White House since Hofstader wrote those lines. He gave no serious observer of current events or his career any reason to think he would be.
Obama’s Challenge (2008)
Perhaps the raging arch-Obamapheliac and liberal economist Robert Kuttner should have reviewed the Hofstader volume before he published his own book on Obama in 2008. In Kuttner’s embarrassing volumeObama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency he wrote about “how great Presidents overcome great crises” and “what President Obama must do to redeem his own promise and the promise of America.” In Kuttner’s view, Obama “unmistakably possesses[d] unusual gifts of character and leadership.” Obama, Kuttner hallucinated, could “be that rare transformational leader” because “his personal odyssey, writings, and speeches suggest a capacity to truly move people and shift perceptions as well as bridge differences…they suggest more a principled idealist than a cynic.” Reflecting his embrace of the juvenile “great man” theory of history (Obama’s Challenge was dedicated to “presidential historian” Doris Kearns Goodwin), Kuttner’s book contained a chapter devoted to the proposition that supposedly “great presidents” (he mentioned the corporatist imperialist JFK) “animate” and “educate” the “people on behalf of expansive uses of progressive government.” By using “the moral power of the presidency” to “lead by teaching,” along with “the force of [their] own character,” Kuttner argued, these Heaven-sent heads-of-state show the way toward progressive change from on high. Kuttner fantasized that the recession Obama inherited from Bush would spark him to apply his “truly transformative” self in progressive and even “radical” ways.
Early in Obama’s presidency, Kuttner was sorely “disappointed.” He told a television interviewer that the new chief executive was advancing "conservative solutions to a radical crisis”– as if that was somehow surprising. Soon thereafter, the liberal-left journalist William Greider wrote the following in a Washington Postcolumn titled “Obama Asked Us to Speak, But is He Listening?”:
“People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sides nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people [have] watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”
There is no record of Kuttner or any among the “Historians for Obama” apologizing for the terrible judgment they showed in trumpeting the supposed progressive virtues of a center-right politician who had already and repeatedly been exposed as a tool of Wall Street, corporate America, and the Pentagon.
Obamaphelia can take an especially deep hold on its victims in intellectual and academic circles, where status and self-worth depend heavily on a carefully cultivated image of unimpeachable intellectual authority. Professors and other officially designated intellectuals can afford to look foolish and deluded far less than can those whose wealth and position rests more clearly on property and money and who can hire intellectuals to correct the record and mistakes.
The furthest most liberal-progressive academic Obamapheliacs seem willing to go towards acknowledging the corporatist, imperialist, militaristic, white-supremacist, patriarchal, Orwellian, and eco-cidal essence of the Obama presidency is to make ritual statements about their (indefensible) “disappointment,” qualified by standard references to the role the terrible Republicans have played in blocking Obama’s supposed true progressive agenda and to Obama’s supposed desire (completely mythical) to be pushed in a more progressive direction (“make me do it”) by popular forces making history from the bottom up.
The “disappointment” of Obamapheliacs has been as foolish as their original hopes. As Noam Chomsky told a German television interviewer who asked him in early 2010 why Obama falling short of progressive hopes, “The expectations were based on nothing….I wrote about his record and prospects before the campaign, just looking at his website. And it was pretty clear that he [was] going to be a normal centrist Democrat roughly Clinton-style… People were desperate for some hope so they grabbed onto it. But there was no basis for any expectations.”
Obamaphelia has much in common with earlier variants of delusional belief about the supposedly progressive nature of previous corporate-captive and imperial presidents and presidential candidates thrown up by the Democratic Party: the Kennedy Syndrome (encompassing Bobby and Jack), the Carter Complex, Clintonitis (currently being mixed and spun for an updated epidemic/release in 2015-16), and the Gore Illusion. Obamaphelia is somewhat distinctive amongst these strains of Democratic Party Presidential Delusion in at least four ways, however: the extent of media fascination and “rock star” celebrity associated with Obama early on (approximated only by that linked to JFK); the dire economic straits Obama inherited (second only to the Great Depression passed on to FDR); the degree of right-wing animosity and psychosis expressed by the Republican Party (consistent with the sharp overall drift of the U.S. party system well to the right of the populace) in the period when Obama arose (something that intensifies liberals and many progressives’ standard “lesser-evilist” attachment to Democratic standard-bearers); Obama’s technically black (half-white) racial identity, something that has encouraged many liberals, progressives, and even leftists to think that they have been doing something inherently progressive by backing and defending the nation’s “first black president” - a president who has ironically “talked about race less than any Democratic president since 1961” and who has been openly hostile to the notion that government should address the specific needs of black Americans.
“Waste[s] of Carbon” and the “Burning They Will Richly Deserve”
Obama’s color has at times given his liberal, often Obamapheliac supporters an opportunity to identify any criticism of their hero as racist. It has helped silence the racial justice sentiments of the black elite, who tended to see “the decline…of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality” as “the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House” (black Columbia University political scientist Fredrick Harris). It has also helped make some progressives reluctant to make open criticisms of Obama, fearing that doing so will open themselves up to the charge of racism from strident liberals. I myself was strangely criticized by the professional liberal white anti-racist Tim Wise, a charter member of the oxymoronically named group “Progressives for Obama” (which had to change its name to “Progressive America Rising” in 2009) who not-so subtly hinted at anti-black racial bias in my failure to express enthusiasm for Obama’s initial presidential candidacy and victory – this despite my long history of anti-racist speaking and writing. The day after the 2008 election, Wise voiced the opinion of more than a few Obamapheliacs when he launched the following violent, color-coded attack on “barbiturate leftists” who lacked proper enthusiasm for Obama’s victory in his eyes:
“.. let me say this, to some of those on the left–some of my friends and longtime compatriots in the struggle for social justice–who yet insist that there is no difference between Obama and McCain, between Democrats and Republicans, between Biden and Palin: Screw you.If you are incapable of mustering pride in this moment, and if you cannot appreciate how meaningful this day is for millions of black folks who stood in lines for up to seven hours to vote, then your cynicism has become such an encumbrance as to render you all but useless to the liberation movement. Indeed, those who cannot appreciate what has just transpired are so eaten up with nihilistic rage and hopelessness that I cannot but think that they are a waste of carbon, and actively thieving oxygen that could be put to better use by others…. It’s like this y’all: Jesse Jackson was weeping openly on national television. This is a man who was with Dr. King when he was murdered and he was bawling like a baby. So don’t tell me this doesn’t matter... Those who say this election means nothing, who insist that Obama, because he cozied up to Wall Street, or big business, is just another kind of evil no different than any other, are in serious risk of political self-immolation, and it is a burning they will richly deserve.”
Token Proposals for Opportunity, Not Equality (2014)
The prevalence of the “left” version of Obamaphelia has waned somewhat in recent years, thanks to Obama’s consistent and dedicated service to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of wealth, empire, white supremacy, patriarchy, and ecocide. Still, Obama and his handlers continue to play the Hitchensian (populism-manipulating) card, with some success. He rolls out fake-populist rhetoric again and again. He claims to believe that economic inequality is the “defining issue of our time,” insists he will dedicate the remainder of his presidency to shrinking that disparity, and positions himself as the champion of those left behind in the current New Gilded Age. Like his 2012 presidential campaign (for which Mitt “Mr. 1%” Romney was perfect, central-casting foil), Obama’s latest State of the Union Address (last Tuesday night) was geared largely around the problem of inequality, which the president and other top Democrats refuse to seriously confront with policies that might actually generate greater equality. As the incisive left economist and economics commentator Jack Rasmus accurately noted and predicted:
“Now that it has become an ‘acceptable’ discussion theme, Obama and Democrat party politicians (and a few clever Republicans) have also discovered income inequality. Together they plan to raise the rhetoric on the topic in upcoming midterm and 2016 national elections. Therefore, in Obama’s SOTU speech today we’ll hear some basic facts about the problem, some vague proposals that are never intended get to the earliest legislative stages, and a lot of general talk about how improving ‘opportunity’ is the only answer to reducing inequality—all of which means let’s not do anything significant… Real solutions to income inequality would have to include proposals not only to enable the recovery of incomes of the middle working class, and the working and non-working poor, but would have to include proposals to reign in the runaway income accumulation of the very rich, the mega-rich and their friends. But you won’t hear the latter even suggested in Obama’s SOTU speech. What you’ll hear are token long run proposals to slow the decline in income growth for the working poor perhaps, and a lot of vague suggestions about the middle class.”
All the standard liberal posturing about equality/inequality of opportunity is beside the point – a diversion from the well-documented fact that inequality in fact/condition/outcome is inequality of opportunity. At the same time, economic inequality would be no less toxic and authoritarian if it emerged from an actually equal competitive race. There is no level playing field in the U.S., of course, as Obama knows, but the creation of such an equal beginning would not make it any less toxic and authoritarian for the top tenth of the U.S. population to own more than three fourth’s of the if the nation’s wealth, along with a probably higher percentage of America’s politicians and policymakers.
Krugman’s Inoculation Times Out
Some liberal intellectuals who should know better can’t seem to resist the pull of the president’s deceptive rhetoric. One such liberal is New York Times columnist and leading liberal economist Paul Krugman, living proof that inoculation against Obamaphelia is in some cases time-limited. In 2007 and much of 2008, Krugman regularly and cleverly mocked Obama’s declared faith (evident to those who looked beyond populist-sounding campaign rhetoric lifted from John Edwards and the venerable Hitchensian playbook) in advancing “liberal” goals through collaboration business elites and Republicans. Krugman ripped Obama’s ‘big table fantasy” that “the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation” with the rich. His withering shots at Obama’s reluctance to confront the wealthy few were hot clipboard material for progressive labor-Democratic John Edwards canvassers in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Nowadays, however, Krugman is oddly Obamapheliac. He is carried away by how Obama “now seems to accept progressive arguments that…America’s growing class inequality largely reflects political choices, like the failure to raise the minimum wage along with inflation and productivity” and says that the “deficit of opportunity” is a bigger problem than the nation’s fiscal deficit. He applauds the president for having “done more [to fight inequality] than many progressives give him credit for” curious praise as the nation sinks ever further into the grip of an abject plutocracy that is entirely predictable when a nation’s richest 400 individuals have as much net worth between as the bottom half of the population.
Getting that basic wisdom right is the best known opening antidote for “left” versions of Democratic Party Presidential Delusion Psychosis, including Obamaphelia. The right-wing version of the Obama disease should linger on for three more years, morphing into a renewed variant of paranoid-style Clintonitis as “socialist” Hillary’s unstoppable march (certain to include no small degree of elite populism-manipulation) towards the first female presidency picks up. Along the way, the best thing that could happen to this country is the emergence of a mass popular movement that shows Americans what actually left and socialist upheavals, activists, and politicians look like – very different from the corporate imperialism of Democrats and Republicans alike.
1. At the Democratic Party’s National Convention in Boston in late July of 2004, when this writer began dissecting the Obama phenomenon and examining Obamaphelia. See Paul Street, “Keynote Reflections,” originally published on ZNet, July 29, 2014, http://www.paulstreet.org/?p=1102
2. Richard Hofstader, “the Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine (November 1964), http://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/
10. Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made it (New York: Vintage, 1989 ), xxxiii-xl.
11. For reality-based portraits of the arch-militarist and corporatist presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, see Bruce Mirroff,Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy (New York: Longman, 1976); John Pilger, Hidden Agendas(New York: New Press, 1998); Howard Zinn, Postwar America: 1945-1971 (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973); and Noam Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture (Boston, MA: South End, 1993).
12. Robert Kuttner, Obama’s Challenge; America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, October 2008).
17. Street, Empire’s New Clothes, 133-134; Paul Street, “Barack ‘‘Under the Bus’ Obama,” presentation to Black Agenda Report panel at Left Forum, June 9, 2013, minutes 57 to 63, ttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOzWcpl_b0w
20. Including, most notably, The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs, and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation(Chicago: Chicago Urban League, October 2002), http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/theviciouscircle.pdf (an inspiration for black law professor Michelle Alexander’s justly heralded book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010); Paul Street, Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (New York: Routledge, 2005); Paul Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History(New York: Rowman&Littlefield, 2007), along with dozens of publications (2002-2013) at black-run anti-racist periodicals including Black Commentator and especially Black Agenda Report. The last publication is put out by black leftists who combine consistent radical anti-racism with consistent left radical criticism of the Obama phenomenon and presidency.
21. Wise, “Good and Now Back to Work.” (I, for one, never claimed and never claim that there is “no difference” between the Republicans and the Democrats. even if I have long agreed with Upton Sinclair’s onetime description of the two dominant business parties as “two wings of the same bird of prey”). Wise was not, diagnostically speaking, a full Obamapheliac because he had the sense to describe Obama as a “moderate” and to argue that “he (as with any president) will only move left if forced to do so” (Wise, “Are Words?”) Still, Wise underestimated how militantly corporatist and imperial (and objectively white-supremacist) candidate Obama really was beneath potent fake-progressive branding. Wise’s judgments that “therelatively moderate John F. Kennedy…was, on balance, far less progressive than Obama in many ways” and that Obama was “surely more progressive” than Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry (see Tim Wise, “Your Whiteness is Showing,” Counterpunch, June 7-9, 2008, http://www.counterpunch.org/2008/06/07/your-whiteness-is-showing/) have not held up very well in light of Obama’s predicted “deeply conservative” presidency. That presidency has been particularly terrible – as predicted in some parts of “the barbiturate left” – on race, Wise’s bread and butter.
23. Joseph E. Stiglitz, Price of Inequality, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), 17-20.
24. See Paul Krugman, “Big Table Fantasies,” New York Times, 17 December, 2007; Paul Krugman, “Played for a Sucker,”New York Times, 16 November, 2007; Paul Krugman, “Mandates and Mudslinging,” New York Times, 30 November 2007;Paul Krugman, “Responding to Recession,” New York Times, 14 January, 2008; Paul Krugman, “Loans and Leadership,” New York Times, 28 March, 2008, p. A23.
25. Paul Krugman, “Obama Gets Real,” New York Times, December 6, 2013.
26. Paul Krugman, “The Paranoia of the Plutocrats,” New York Times, January 26, 2014.