A young, fresh-faced candidate, with a feisty, savvy wife, takes the political world by storm. He is highly intelligent, remarkably articulate, in sharp and ready command of the issues, with a winning charm and the common touch -- in stark contrast to the aging, bumbling, cantankerous dullard he faces in the election. He offers hope and change, a whole new paradigm, a reinvention of politics as usual. He will take on the vested interests, the lobbyists, the tired ideas and rampant corruption of the Establishment. He will build a new international consensus, restoring America's tarnished reputation and its moral leadership after years of covert ops, secret wars, military adventurism, collusion with tryants, deceit and scandal.
Yet he is no knee-jerk liberal, no throwback to the divisive policies of the past. He transcends the rigid categories of left and right. He embraces the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan, the populism of Franklin Roosevelt, the internationalist principles of Woodrow Wilson, the visionary ideals of Abraham Lincoln.
His candidacy becomes a media sensation. His whiz-bang campaign staff employs new techniques and technologies never seen in presidential campaigns before. He draws huge crowds; big Hollywood names flock to his side, and he himself is frequently compared to a rock star. His election -- a narrow but solid win -- is greeted by his supporters as a new era, a new dawning for America.
The year, of course, is 1992.
Perhaps many of Barack Obama's supporters are too young to remember, but the heady atmosphere of his transformative, transcendent campaign is, in almost every particular, a replay of what we saw in Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. Clinton's supporters were just as enthused about the world-altering, Republic-renewing potential that they believed his candidacy represented. They too turned a blind eye to the many aspects of the Clinton campaign that didn't comport with their hopes -- or else justified those aspects as things that Clinton had to do or say in order to get elected and then do great liberal things.
Such as executing a mentally retarded man to prove that he was no ordinary "soft-on-crime" liberal, for example. Many considered this a hard choice that Clinton had to make in order to get back enough "Reagan Democrats" to win. Once he was in office, of course, Clinton did the great liberal thing of expanding the federal death penalty to an extraordinary degree. And eliminating welfare. And deregulating the energy market on behalf of Enron. And privatizing military servicing on behalf of Halliburton. And deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure in an undeclared war that precipitated the ethnic cleansing it was ostensibly designed to prevent, after sabotaging a peace plan that would have prevented that ethnic cleansing without war. Things like that.
This is why many of us oldsters are somewhat immune to the enthusiasm generated by the Obama campaign -- because we have been here before, and seen how the story ends. [Of course, some people support Obama for the same reason they supported Clinton in 1992: because he was bound to be at least marginally better than the horrendous goon running against him. But these grim realists -- who are usually less numerous and certainly more muted than the true believers -- are not our subject here.] Now, it's true that Obama is not Bill Clinton. And it may well be, as many of his supporters openly hope, that Obama is a liar, artfully throwing up smoke screens to bamboozle the electorate and the press in order to gain the power to do great liberal things. I myself think he is a bit more honest than that, and that we should take seriously what he actually says and does, and whom he selects as his top advisors and policy-shapers.
The latter is particularly important in the case of those who, like Obama, young Clinton, and George W. Bush, come to office with little or no experience in national government. On whom will they rely as they learn the ropes? The company they keep reflects the genuine values and intentions of the candidate. For example, one glance at the cast of silk-suited thugs and bug-eyed cranks around candidate Bush in 1999-2000 was enough to tell anyone who wanted to know that this new-style "compassionate conservative" was going to be an old-line, hard-right servant of the war profiteeriat and the robber baronage.
Likewise, a look at Obama's brain trust gives us a glimpse of how he will govern, and the values he will actually put into practice. In a new article, Naomi Klein takes a gander at Obama's economic team -- and finds a gaggle of geese from the Chicago "Shock Doctrine" School:
Barack Obama waited just three days after Hillary Clinton pulled out of the race to declare, on CNBC: "Look. I am a pro-growth, free-market guy. I love the market." Demonstrating that this is no mere spring fling, he has appointed the 37-year-old Jason Furman, one of Wal-Mart's most prominent defenders, to head his economic team. On the campaign trail, Obama blasted Clinton for sitting on the Wal-Mart board and pledged: "I won't shop there." For Furman, however, Wal-Mart's critics are the real threat: the "efforts to get Wal-Mart to raise its wages and benefits" are creating "collateral damage" that is "way too enormous and damaging to working people and the economy ... for me to sit by idly and sing Kum Ba Ya in the interests of progressive harmony".
One might be tempted to say that this appointment and Obama's position on Wal-Mart could possibily represent a bit of hypocrisy on the part of the candidate -- if, of course, so transcendant a candidate were capable of such a thing. Also his pledge to "never shop" at Wal-Mart seems politically dicey, placing him at odds with millions of Americans whose small-town, home-owned business districts have been wiped out by the arrival the giant discount centers, leaving locals with nowhere else to shop. In addition, the economic distress felt by millions of Americans means that many people simply cannot afford to shop elsewhere, even if there is a choice. But restoring the economic diversity and viability of small-town America is not very high on the Chicago School agenda. Now back to Klein:
Obama's love of markets and his desire for "change" are not inherently incompatible. "The market has gotten out of balance," he says, and it most certainly has. Many trace this profound imbalance to the ideas of Milton Friedman, who launched a counter-revolution against the New Deal from his perch at the University of Chicago. And here there are more problems, because Obama - who taught law at Chicago for a decade - is embedded in the mindset known as the Chicago School.
Obama chose as his chief economic adviser Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist on the left side of a spectrum that stops at the centre-right. Goolsbee, unlike his Friedmanite colleagues, sees inequality as a problem. His primary solution, however, is more education - a line you can also get from Alan Greenspan. Goolsbee has been eager to link Obama to the Chicago School. "The guy's got a healthy respect for markets," he told Chicago magazine. "It's in the ethos of the [University of Chicago], which is something different from saying he is laissez faire."
Another of Obama's Chicago fans is the 39-year-old billionaire Kenneth Griffin, the CEO of the hedge fund Citadel. Griffin, who gave the maximum allowable donation to Obama, is a poster boy for an unbalanced economy. He got married at Versailles, and is one of the staunchest opponents of closing the hedge-fund tax loophole. While Obama talks about toughening trade rules with China, Griffin has been bending the few barriers that do exist. Despite sanctions prohibiting the sale of police equipment, Citadel has been pouring money into controversial China-based security companies that are putting the local population under unprecedented levels of surveillance.
Klein then makes a telling connection to 1992 Clinton campaign:
Now is the time to worry about Obama's Chicago Boys and their commitment to fending off regulation. It was in the two-and-a-half months between winning the 1992 election and being sworn into office in 1993 that Bill Clinton did a U-turn on the economy. He had promised to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, adding labour and environmental provisions - but two weeks before his inauguration, the then Goldman Sachs chief, Robert Rubin, convinced him of the urgency of embracing liberalisation.
Furman, a Rubin disciple, was chosen to head the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project, the thinktank Rubin helped found to argue for the free trade agenda. Add to that Goolsbee's February meeting with Canadian officials, who got the impression that they should not take Obama's anti-Nafta campaigning seriously, and there is every reason for concern about a replay of 1993.
Indeed there is. And also a concern about a reply of 1977, when yet another young, fresh-faced president who had reinvented politics and transcended the divisions of the past to wipe away corruption, repression and corrosive militarism, etc. took office: Jimmy Carter. As with Clinton, it didn't take long for the bloom to come off the reformist rose. As his own whiz-kid campaign manager put it during the transistion : ''If, after the inauguration, you find Cy Vance as secretary of state and Zbigniew Brzezinski as head of national security, then I would say we failed.'' Needless to say, those two eminences of the old political elite were duly installed. And Carter's term ended with massive increases in military spending, a racheting up of Cold War tensions, and the deliberate escalation of a murderous war in Afghanistan and the American-aided foundation of a worldwide army of violent religious extremists.
John Pilger takes a similar dim view of the Obama bubble. He focuses on two major foreign policy statements in the last few weeks One -- his bellicose declarations at the AIPAC conference -- have been extensively covered. Another, a Miami speech on Latin America policy, has attracted little attention. In both cases, as Pilger notes, Obama actually surpasses Bush in his intransigent declarations:
[At AIPAC], Obama promised to support an "undivided Jerusalem" as Israel's capital. Not a single government on earth supports the Israeli annexation of all of Jerusalem, including the Bush regime, which recognises the UN resolution designating Jerusalem an international city.
His second statement, largely ignored, was made in Miami on 23 May. Speaking to the expatriate Cuban community – which over the years has faithfully produced terrorists, assassins and drug runners for US administrations – Obama promised to continue a 47-year crippling embargo on Cuba that has been declared illegal by the UN year after year.
Again, Obama went further than Bush. He said the United States had "lost Latin America". He described the democratically elected governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua as a "vacuum" to be filled. He raised the nonsense of Iranian influence in Latin America, and he endorsed Colombia's "right to strike terrorists who seek safe-havens across its borders". Translated, this means the "right" of a regime, whose president and leading politicians are linked to death squads, to invade its neighbours on behalf of Washington. He also endorsed the so-called Merida Initiative, which Amnesty International and others have condemned as the US bringing the "Colombian solution" to Mexico. He did not stop there. "We must press further south as well," he said. Not even Bush has said that.
Pilger also notes the still-resonant quote of editor Edward Dowling from 1941:
"The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it." What has changed? The terror of the rich is greater than ever, and the poor have passed on their delusion to those who believe that when George W. Bush finally steps down next January, his numerous threats to the rest of humanity will diminish.
These are hard, heartbreaking times. A deepening and entirely justified despair has spread across the country, and the world, like a toxic cloud year after year after year. Who would not look for hope wherever they could find it, who would not respond to even the slightest possibility for positive change in such a situation? I'm not here to gleefully and cynically pour cold water on anyone who sees a glimmer of hope in the candidacy of Barack Obama. I am in no way a purist, or an idealist, or an ideologue. I don't pronounce anathema on "lesser evilism": people must act and vote according to their own conscience. I'm only saying this: know exactly what you are supporting, and what you will really get for that support. And for God's sake, hold every politician -- every politician -- to the most rigorous standards of skepticism, the most rigorous analysis, the most rigorous examination of what they say and do -- and the genuine implications of their words and actions.
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This story was published on June 16, 2008.