The only difference, the only real change, that Barack Obama brings to the White House is the color of his skin. As I've said before, this racial factor does have symbolic significance (see below); but in substance, there is no real difference between Obama and any of the other run-of-the-mill greasy pole-climbers seeking temporary management of the imperial machinery, with all of the fleeting power -- and lifelong perks -- that comes with it. As Carl Ginsburg aptly notes in Counterpunch:
There is absolutely no doubt that soon after the conclusion of his presidency, Mr. Obama, like Bill Clinton, will have a hundred million bucks in the bank as a result of books, lectures and related appearances on the subject of responsibility. That’s what’s called the spoils of “today’s winner-take-all economy,” a quote from Audacity of Hope, here taken way out of context, I suppose. “Fill up the old coffers,” is the way George Bush put it, in his twisted but somehow unambiguous way.
Like the rest of the pole-climbers, Obama has come in to reward his cronies and backers, and protect the interests of a small, rapacious elite. And like his predecessors, he seems far more concerned with preserving and expanding the encroachments of executive power than with husbanding the liberties of the common people. Of course, anyone who looked beyond his skin color to the actual policies he was proposing during the campaign -- and especially at who his advisers, aides, and chief backers were -- will have seen all this long ago, and will not be surprised or "betrayed" by his conduct in office.
Still, in an age where the media whirlwind tears away at the facts and makes them harder and harder to retain, it is always salutary to be reminded of the grubby reality of our gilded Potomac geese. Scott Horton at Harper's shows yet another small but telling example of Obama's wretched "continuity" with his illustrious Oval Office forbears: his selling of ambassadorships. Indeed, as Horton notes, Obama is already outstripping the Texas Twerp in this regard:
As the Los Angeles Times noted in a recent editorial, the United States is the only major country that regularly hands out choice ambassadorships as a favor for campaign funding bundlers. The process cheapens our diplomatic relations and sends a bad message to the states to which these ambassadors are sent. And it’s getting cruder and greedier. A cynic studying the latest batch of nominees might conclude that the price of an ambassadorship has soared from roughly $200,000 under the Rovian regime to $500,000 under Rahm Emanuel.
Under Barack Obama, the process of political payoff through ambassadorial appointments has matched and appears poised to exceed the already extremely abusive system that Karl Rove put in place under the Bush Administration. In his first six months, Obama has forwarded 58 ambassadorial nominees to the Senate for confirmation. Retired career diplomat Dennis Jett reports in the Daily Beast that 32 of these nominees—55% of the total—are political appointees.
Political appointees are not per se objectionable. In fact, some of the most distinguished ambassadorial appointees in recent decades have been political appointees—not career diplomats... But the Obama political appointees are of a different caliber. What distinguishes them is not a career in public service or finance, much less foreign relations or foreign area expertise, but rather something far grubbier: raising substantial sums of money for the Obama campaign.
A prominent example is Louis Susman, named as Obama’s ambassador to the Court of St. James. Susman was John Kerry’s campaign fundraising chair in 2004, heading an effort that yielded $247 million for Democratic coffers; he was among the earliest fundraisers for Obama, and his zeal continued after the election, when he pulled together $300,000 for the inaugural festivities. (Susman thus dwarfs the fundraising power of Bush’s ambassador in London, California auto dealer Robert Tuttle, who raised a measly $100,000 for the 2004 campaign and $100,000 for the inauguration.) When queried on Susman’s qualifications for the post, a White House spokesman quipped that “he speaks the local language.”
Ha, ha, isn't that funny? But it is inadvertantly revealing. For Susman most definitely "speaks the local language" -- the language of the imperial Potomac court, that is: money. That's the only speech that matters in those exalted precincts, the only language that will get you a seat at the table and a piece of the action.
But Obama's pick for Germany was even more insulting. (See if you can guess which sliver of the rapacious elite this appointee comes from.):
Another is Phil Murphy, a Goldman Sachs executive who served as the Democratic Party’s national finance chairman, tapped to represent the United States in Berlin. The Murphy appointment so troubled German leaders that they held up agrément–the diplomatic process under which the receiving nation agrees to accept the ambassadorial designee–so that Chancellor Angela Merkel could press the case for a career diplomat or serious political figure. Merkel made her appeal at the G-8 meeting at L’Aquila, but Obama was unswayed. The Germans finally relented and grudgingly accepted the appointment.
For more on the constructive role that Goldman Sachs has played in American affairs, see the now-famous article by my old Moscow Times colleague, Matt Taibbi: "Inside the Great American Bubble Machine."
Again, none of this base venality is really news -- except, of course, to those millions who depend on "The News" (i.e., the corporate media) to tell them what's going on.
Regarding the abovementioned symbolic significance of Obama's election, here are some excerpts from a post I wrote after the 2008 vote, which itself excerpts a post I wrote following Obama's nomination:
As I write this at nearly 3 a.m. in England, it seems very likely that Barack Obama will be the next U.S. president. I have no great words of considered wisdom to offer on this development at the moment. However, having looked briefly at the right-wing reaction to the vote, I will venture one quick observation:
The outpouring of open, virulent racism that many feared would arise during the campaign -- and in the secrecy of the voting booth -- never really manifested itself. But I think that it will emerge much more strongly now, in the aftermath, as part of a carefully cultivated dolchstosslegende even now being perpetrated by the rightwing media machine. Fox News and Karl Rove are already pushing stories about "Black Panthers" intimidating voters and widespread vote fraud among the worthless darkies whose votes have propelled Obama to victory. (These would be the same worthless darkies whom the rightwingers also blame for the global economic catastrophe.) There will be much, much more of this in the days and weeks to come.
It will not hurt Obama, of course; he will have the power he has sought, and the upsurge of ugly, unrepentant racism on the Right will only make his "progressive" allies far less willing to criticize his actions -- especially those mysterious "highly unpopular policies" that Joe Biden has promised Obama will adopt in the face of a guaranteed foreign policy crisis sometime next year. (Not to mention the promised escalation of the quagmire in Afghanistan.] But ordinary African-Americans will bear the painful brunt of this pouring of old hatreds into new wineskins. As always, black people will be blamed for all the nation's ills by the overclass that actually controls the machinery of power, and has been grinding its bootheel on the neck of black Americans for centuries.
[From the nomation piece:] The symbolic significance of Obama Barack's nomination victory is not insubstantial. In a land where, not so long ago, having the slightest drop of "Negro blood" in your genetic inheritance was enough to bar you -- legally and formally -- from many jobs, educational opportunities, places of residence, medical care, full participation in society, etc. (and where these obstacles still persist, in practice if not in law, for many people), it is striking to see a man whose father was not only black but also a "full-blooded African" (cue the psychosexual "Mandingo" anxieties of generations of trembly white folk) on the doorstep of the White House. At the very least -- until the novelty wears off (and novelty wears off very, very quickly in America)-- if Obama wins the presidency, there will be some aesthetic relief in seeing a different kind of face on the tee-vee mouthing various pieties, refusing to take any options off the table, etc., in place of the long procession of pasty white males of Northern European descent.
As for the substantial significance of Obama's nomination win, there is none. The only thing that really matters is what the human being named Barack Obama will do with power (if he gets it), and not his skin color. Or to put it another way: What difference did Colin Powell's status as a non-white person in the highest cabinet office make when the question of aggressive war was on the line? None. He was later replaced not only by another non-white person, but by a non-white female, Condi Rice. What difference did Rice's ethnicity and gender make to her collusion with the Bush faction's brutal policies of aggressive war, torture, rendition, state terror, etc.? None.
....Will Obama -- in the White House or on the campaign trail -- denounce the "War on Terror" for what it really is: a war of state terror, waged almost entirely against civilian populations? He has not done so; indeed, on his website he calls for fighting the War on Terror in a "smarter way". (There will be no inefficient, cluttery state terrorism when Obama is on the job!) He wants an even bigger, more powerful, more "stealthy" military...
So here is the significance of Obama's nomination: More Terror War. More murder -- directly, by proxy, by remote control. More manufactured enemies. A continued military presence in Iraq (all "combat troops" withdrawn, eventually, maybe, but other troops left there to "target al Qaeda in Iraq"). No reparations. A bigger, faster, more far-reaching military wrapping the globe. No options taken off the table -- ever.
Hey, you know what? The novelty is wearing off already.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on July 30, 2009.