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'You Can't Be President': Race, Class, and Memories of Obama

Publication Date: 2009-12-18

from Z Net, Dec. 18, 2009.

Note Street's cogent analysis of Pres. Obama's enthusiastic participation in the Olympic bid, which, if successful, would have displaced inner-city black residents: "The city's plans particularly targeted inner-city black residents on Chicago's South Side for clearance and removal, escalating on ongoing urban gentrification project that was pushing hundreds of thousands of impoverished African Americans out of black neighborhoods and to the margins of the metropolis and its glittering, ever-expanding corporate downtown. . . ."

And note how Street ties this to the segregation and the poverty of Chicago schools. Much of this provocative piece is anchored to the reality of segregated inner-city schools.

My one quarrel with this piece: Why does Street call Ruben Navarrette a liberal?


As we hurtle towards the first anniversary of the new corporate war president Barack Obama's inauguration, journalists and commentators will advance recollections of - and retrospective reflections on - the ascendancy and early days of the United States' first black president. One of my earlier memories of the Obama administration was provided by Eric Patton, who worked as substitute teacher in a segregated public school in Cincinnati last February. "Today," Patton wrote me, "I asked a class for which I was subbing (high-school English students, about a dozen, all-black) what they thought of Obama. Their initial reaction was one of, for lack of a better way to say it, pride and joy. But upon closer inspection, this turned out to be a rather shallow sentiment. For when I asked them if they expected any real changes under Obama, they all said no. So while they are (currently) happy he is in the White House, they know full well that he will be no different from any other president -- and it's not something they only know 'deep down.' They know it pretty close to the surface."


"President Says He Shouldn't Put Focus on Blacks' Troubles"

I was reminded of Eric Patton's observation in early December of 2009, when the nation's first black president received some interesting criticism from the Congressional Black Caucus. Accusing the White House of ignoring the economic plight of nonwhites, ten members of the caucus boycotted a key House committee vote on financial regulations. The group expressed frustration at the White House and Congress' failure to tackle minority-specific economic problems, including a black unemployment rate of 16 percent, higher than the (understated official) national rate of 10 percent. "We can no longer afford for our public policy to be defined by the world view of Wall Street," the black caucus announced, adding that "policy for the least of these must be integrated into everything we do."

Reflecting the dominant "post-racial" sentiments he rode into office, Obama flatly rejected the criticism in a special interview with USA TODAY and the Detroit Free Press prior to a White House "jobs summit" in early December. "It's a mistake," Obama told the newspapers, "to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together." Just because he happened to be black, Obama was announcing, black Americans should have no reason to think that he would any more willing than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton to acknowledge and act upon the distinctive oppression and inequality still experienced by many in the nation's still highly segregated and relatively impoverished population. The title of the USA TODAY article reporting Obama's response to the Congressional Black Caucus' criticism was on point: "President Says He Shouldn't Put Focus on Blacks' Troubles."[1]

"Precisely the Programs That Are Missing"

Last February, in a speech to his new employees at the Justice Department, the United States' first black Attorney General Eric Holder caused a momentary media stir by saying that the U.S. "is a nation of cowards on race." Most Americans, Holder argued, avoid honest and serious discussion of the nation's continuing racial problems.

The administration in which Holder has served has done little indeed to move itself or the nation past racial cowardice beyond the simple fact of being headed by an African American. There is no "betrayal" on this score, however. Obama's political team has always taken an official position of cowardice on race. With rare, unavoidable, and highly qualified exceptions (Obama's conservative speech on race and Reverend Wright in Philadelphia in March of 2009), it has refused to honestly engage the question of racism beyond the symbolically powerful advance of a black ("but not like Jesse") candidate for the presidency. And, as the left-liberal Canadian commentator and author Naomi Klein noted in a September 2009 interview with Amy Goodman on "Democracy Now," the actual behavior of the Obama White House has had nothing to do with the preposterous charge of right wing talk radio hosts and other Republican commentators and activists that Obama is a reparations activist fanatically preoccupied with making white people pay for past and current institutional racism. The truth is quite the opposite

"[The right accuses] Obama of being obsessed with race and [claims] that he has this covert agenda of taking white wealth and giving it to black people. And what's so ironic about this, actually, is that, in fact, Obama has completely turned his back on the entire reparations discussion, which is what was happening in 2001."

"John Conyers, as we know, has tried to get HR 40, the resolution that would open up a discussion on what kind of reparations are due to African Americans. You know, often people think that people are talking about a check in the mail. And, in fact, what most reparations activists are talking about, overwhelmingly, are group solutions, investments in communities, in education, in healthcare, precisely the programs that are missing from the Obama administration in its response to the current economic crisis, which, let's remember, began because of the enormous wealth gap, the net worth gap, between minority communities and the dominant sectors of society, because people did not have access to traditional credit." [1A]


"As We Celebrate What We Have in Common"

I was also reminded of Eric Patton's February reflections at the end of last September. That's when Michelle Obama and then the president himself flew to Copenhagen to join Oprah Winfrey in high-profile lobbying of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in support of Chicago's corporate-Democratic Mayor Richard M. Daley's failed bid to make Chicago home for the 2016 Olympics. As progressive social justice and civil rights activists and community organizers across the city had been pointing out for years, a Chicago Olympics would have primarily benefited the city's downtown business elite at the expense of taxpayers. The city's plans particularly targeted inner-city black residents on Chicago's South Side for clearance and removal, escalating on ongoing urban gentrification project that was pushing hundreds of thousands of impoverished African Americans out of black neighborhoods and to the margins of the metropolis and its glittering, ever-expanding corporate downtown [1B].

As Chicago's black bourgeois superstars the Obamas and Winfrey joined the white mayor-for-life in pitching the Midwestern metropolis as a glorious global city, hundreds of black Chicagoans planned to attend the funeral of a young black teenager, Derrion Albert, an honor student and innocent bystander who had recently been clubbed to death in a videotaped gang melee outside his South Side school. Chicago public schools staffers noted that bloody battles were common in and around schools set in black Chicago's deeply impoverished ghetto areas, including communities where real unemployment had certainly climbed to 40 percent and higher. Albert had attended one of those ill-fated educational institutions: Fenger High School.[2]

"Chicago," the president told the IOC, "is that most American of American cities, but one where citizens from more than 130 nations inhabit a rich tapestry of distinctive neighborhoods." Further:

"Each on those neighborhoods...has its own unique character, its own unique history, its songs, its language. But each is also part of our city - one city - a city where I finally found a home.."

"Chicago is a place where we strive to celebrate what makes us different just as we celebrate what we have in common.."

"Chicago is a city where the practical and the inspirational exist in harmony...It's a bustling metropolis with the warmth of a small town; where the world already comes together every day to live and work and reach for a dream -- a dream that no matter who we are, where we come from; no matter what we look like or what hand life has dealt us; with hard work, and discipline, and dedication, we can make it if we try."

"That's not just the American Dream. That is the Olympic spirit." [3]

"We Can Make it If We Try" in Riverdale

Never mind that Chicago remains home to a sky-high segregation index of 82.3, distributing opportunity and wealth with savage inequality across sharply demarcated barriers of class, race, and place. While the nation's first black president trumpeted his "home town" (he's really from Honolulu) as a fit and warm setting for the summer games, the cold October reality of black living conditions in that city's de facto apartheid communities spoke to the persistence and deepening of the concentrated urban misery Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. tried without success to overcome in black Chicago in the mid 1960s. [4]

Fenger High takes many of its students from a neighborhood called Riverdale. One of the twenty-two 90 percent plus black neighborhoods that house three-fourths of Chicago's black population (this in a city with seventy-seven officially designated community areas), Riverdale is quite a monument to the president's notion of Chicago as a wholesome collection of united villages in which obedient citizens know that "we can make it if we try." It's a real touching symbol of Obama's "American Dream." In the 2000 Census, 97 percent black Riverdale was the most desperately impoverished neighborhood in Obama's "one city," where "we celebrate what we have in common." Its official unemployment rate was 34 percent. Its poverty rate was 56 percent. Its child poverty rate was 71 percent. More than half of its children lived in what poverty researchers call "deep poverty" - at less than half of the federal government's notoriously inadequate poverty measure. Riverdale was one of eight Chicago neighborhoods, all disproportionately black, where a third or more of the children endured "deep poverty."

These communities have little in common with Chicago neighborhoods like the Near North Side (69 percent white with a median home value of $626,000) and Lincoln Park (85 percent white with a median home value of $518,063). [5]

Things have certainly gotten worse in Riverdale since the 2000 Census, taken at the peak of the long "Clinton boom."

An Arne Duncan "Turnaround School"

Interestingly enough, Derrion Albert's murder took place outside one of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS)' "turnaround schools" on the far South Side. As part of the aggressive schools privatization ("reform") agenda pursued by former CPS CEO and current Obama Education Secretary (and presidential basketball buddy) Arne Duncan, Fenger High School (the scene of Albert's brutal murder) was "subjected," in the words of Chicago Teachers Union activist Deborah Lynch, "to the CPS' latest attack on struggling schools by dumping all the staff, even the engineers, and keeping the same students. The Ă¢€˜reform' was after probation, restructuring, reconstitution, and a host of other unsuccessful Daley-team draconian, top-down efforts" - efforts that stripped Fenger's highly troubled and poor, black student population of connection to teacher and other staff who had known them for years. "No one at Fenger this year has known their kids for more than three weeks," Lynch noted, adding that "this is a tragedy for all the students, not to mention the effects of the staff elimination on the staff." [6]

"U all Think Derrion Albert's Mother will be Invited to the White House for Beer?"

The best that the Olympics-focused White House could muster in response to news of Albert's murder was a weak comment from White House Press Secretary Gibbs. President Obama found the video of Albert's beating "chilling," Gibbs assured the nation. This comment came only in response to a reporter's question and not as part of any formal statement.

The first black president's chilling silence on the widely watched fatal beating as he sold his ghetto-ridden "home" metropolis' "small town" warmth to the IOC was not lost on some black Chicagoans. As the liberal columnist Ruben Navarette, Jr. reported on the same day that the Obamas tried to wow the IOC in Copenhagen:

"Back in Obama's adopted hometown of Chicago, Illinois, some members of the black community are incensed at the president for not personally speaking out about the murder of Derrion Albert.."

"What really set them off was that Obama, in an awkward case of bad timing, instead flew to Copenhagen to pitch Chicago to the International Olympics Committee as the ideal city to host the games in 2016..."

"There is plenty for Obama to say about this tragedy in the Windy City. And the longer the president waits before he starts talking, the more damage he does to his reputation, even among some of his most ardent supporters."

"Judging from what's being said on talk radio, Web sites and blogs frequented by residents of Chicago, the fact that Obama put the Olympics ahead of responding to the breakdown of the social order in Chi-Town is a slap in the face."

"Just yesterday, a self-identified African-American called into Ă¢€˜The Rush Limbaugh Show' and complained about how Obama flew off to 'a foreign country' while black kids in Chicago are being consumed by violence. The caller wondered when other African-Americans were going to realize that Obama wasn't like them, because he's an elitist living an extraordinary life and breathing rarified air."

"That sentiment was all over black-oriented blogs. One blogger wrote: 'More children died violent deaths in Chicago this year than in any other city in America. But all Obama cares about is bringing the Olympics to a city where basic services like water, sanitation and power often don't work. ... If Chicago does win the bid there will be plenty of police and National Guard on hand to protect the international visitors. That's more than they are willing to do for their own residents.'"

...someone compared Obama's reaction to this societal problem to how he reacted to another one a while back, racial profiling. The person wrote: 'u all think that Derrion Albert's mother will be invited to the White House for beer?'" [6A]

Beer, that is, like the one Obama served to the black academic racism-down-player Henry Louis Gates and a white Cambridge, Massachusetts police officer who arrested an enraged Gates in his own home last summer.


"I Expected as Much from the Bush Administration"

I was reminded of Eric Patton's observation from Cincinnati all over again two weeks after the Obamas' IOC shenanigans and the Derrion Albert tragedy. That's when Obama made his first presidential visit to New Orleans, site of tropical storm and societal disaster Katrina - the disastrous August 2005 hurricane and federal fiasco that left tens of thousands of disproportionately black and poor inner-city residents trapped in deadly floodwaters and penned up at the Superdome. Seeking to deflect criticism claiming that he had not paid sufficient attention to the city and the broader Mississippi Delta region, Obama enjoyed overwhelming initial applause at a town-hall But the event's happy feeling was interrupted when a local black resident asked a reasonable question: "Why is it four years after Katrina, we're still fighting for money to repair our devastated city? I expected as much from the Bush administration," the questioner added: "But why are we still being nickeled and dimed?"

"Not Going to Be Fixed Tomorrow"

Obama's response was less than impressive. It waxed dry, wonkish and technocratic as he referred to "complications between the state, the city, and the feds in making assessments of the damages."[7] According to The New York Times:

"The president, in a rare moment on the defensive in a format that is usually friendly to him, said many people in New Orleans were 'understandably impatient'

and said he had inherited a backlog of problems."

" 'These things were not going to be fixed tomorrow,' Mr. Obama said. 'So we are working as hard as we can, as quickly as we can.' He added, 'I wish I could just write a check.'"

"When some shouted 'Why not?'" Mr. Obama replied, 'There's this whole thing about the Constitution.'"

"He added that 'We've got to go through procedures.'" [8]

Surely many in the town hall were well aware that the new president, the Democratic-majority Congress, and their constitutionally-encoded "procedures" had managed to quickly grant trillions of taxpayer dollars to the nation's predominantly white financial barons and to the Pentagon and thus to the nation's powerful "defense" contractors. Some most certainly reflected on the fact that Obama, the U.S. House, and the U.S. Senate were spending vast federal resources on overseas wars of occupation while black ghettos, Latino barriers and working class communities of all races and ethnicities deteriorated across the imperial "homeland."

The imperial and state-capitalist federal procedures have been working overtime under Obama. The anti-poverty and social justice procedures are all messed up, however. Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, and XE Services (formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide) and the other high-tech "defense" (empire) corporations are certainly getting their checks written for them by the new war president. The Lower Ninth Ward and Riverdale will have to wait a little longer...well, forever.

Anti-racist procedures? To activate those would be to show that one is "thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together." It would be to forget that great American cities like Chicago are really just big happy small towns where everybody shares and gets along.

"Broken Promises"

Tellingly enough, Obama the U.S. Senator and presidential candidate made five visits to New Orleans after Katrina - a great symbol of Republican and Bush administration incompetence and callousness towards the poor. After waiting nine months to visit the devastated majority-black he'd found so politically useful to speak from during his campaign, President Obama now stayed for only a few hours before jetting off to a posh ruling-class fundraiser ($30, 400 per couple) in San Francisco. During his short stop in New Orleans, Obama did manage to promote his and Arne Duncan's corporate-crafted schools privatization agenda by visiting the oxymoronically named "Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School" in the city's predominantly black, flood-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward. "The school," Times reporters Peter Baker and Campbell Robertson noted, was "surrounded by boarded-up houses, empty lots with overgrown grass and dilapidated storefronts with for-rent signs." [9] Baker and Cambell might have noted that corporate education forces had seized on Katrina as a great opportunity, using the crisis to advance their privatization model on the reconstitution of New Orleans' school system.[10]

Activists from a group of non-profit organizations seeking relief on the Mississippi coast held up signs outside Obama's "town hall" in New Orleans. The signs read "The Recovery is Not Over" and "Mississippi Will Not Be Forgotten." Their holders' had been unable to secure tickets to the president's public relations event. [11] As Maureen Dowd noted three days after Obama's brief stopover, the White House Web site that went up during Obama's first week in office boasted of four trips to New Orleans as U.S. Senator. It pledged to "keep the broken promises made by President Bush to re-build New Orleans." [12]


In one key sense at least, it seems possible that Obama's ascendancy has brought not simply "no change" for poor blacks but, counter-intuitively enough, change for the worse. The election of a technically black president reinforces the longstanding conventional white illusion that racism has disappeared and that the only obstacles left to African-American success and equality are internal to individual blacks and their community - the idea that, in Derrick Bell's phrase, "the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races." [13] "It's hard," Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown noted in 2000, "to blame people" for believing (falsely in Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown's view) that racism is dead in America "when our public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration ideal and our ostensible progress towards achieving it." In a similar vein, the black scholar Sheryl Cashin observed six years ago that "there are [now] enough examples of successful middle-class African-Americans to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity with them. The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; the issue now is individual effort." [14]

And what could trump the attainment of the U.S. presidency - the most powerful office on Earth - in feeding and locking in that belief? The black Urban Studies professor Marc Lamont Hill said it well on CounterPunch in early February of 2008:

"After Obama's recent success with white voters, particularly his win in Iowa, many have announced America's transition into a post-racial moment. Even Obama himself has claimed that race will no longer prevent the fair-minded citizenry from supporting his bid. In reality, however, an Obama presidency is already being treated as a racial talisman that would instantly heal the scars of a nation wounded by racism."

"For whites, an Obama victory would serve as the final piece of evidence that America has reached full racial equality. Such a belief allows them to sidestep mounds of evidence that shows that, despite Obama's claims that 'we are 90 percent of the way to equality,' black people remain consistently assaulted by the forces by white supremacy. For many black people, Obama's success would provide symbolic value by showing that the black man (not woman!) can make it to the top. Although black faces in high places may provide psychological comfort, they are often incorporated into a Cosbyesque gospel of personal responsibility ('Obama did it, so can you!') that allows dangerous public policies to go unchallenged." [15]

The white-run political culture's regular rituals of self-congratulation over the defeat of overt, level-one racism - the Martin Luther King national holiday, the playing of King's "I Have a Dream" speech over school sound systems and on television, the routine reference to integrationist ideals in political speeches, and the presidential viability and the victory of Obama, for example - have long reinforced the dominant post-Civil Rights white sentiment that the United States no longer has much of anything to answer for in regard to its treatment of black America and the ubiquitous white American notion that racism is something only from the now relatively irrelevant and distant "past." "Now we can finally forget about race" is the basic widespread white wish that sought fulfillment in the election of someone like Obama. As one white Obama supporter told The Washington Post at a campaign event, he hoped that an Obama presidency would help America "erase all this nonsense about race." [16] How nice to imagine that racial oppression is something so nonsensical and superficial that it could be expunged by the mere act of putting into the White House a technically black politician who has gone out of his way not to threaten white sensibilities.


I recently (and belatedly) started reading John R. MacArthur's book You Can't Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2008). Written in an engaging, personal style, MacArthur's volume takes you on a tour of numerous and interrelated obstacles to popular self-rule in the United States. MacArthur examines massive campaign finance barriers that make it impossible to make serious bids for national and often enough local office without the sponsorship of the very rich; concentrated corporate control and ownership of the "mainstream" media; "winner take all" election rules that prohibit viable third and fourth parties from coming into existence; educational hyper-disparity; and the paralyzing depredations of a mass consumer culture that infantilizes and privatizes the populace while reducing politics to a childish game of mass marketed candidate-branding.

While MacArthur has penned a many-sided critique of American pseudo-democracy, his book takes (as its title suggests) particular aim at the still prevalent notion that "anyone" can make a viable run for elective office in the U.S. That standard civic-text idea - given a nice boost by the 2007-08 presidential candidacies of Hillary Clinton (a potential first female president) and Obama (to become the first black president) - is, MacArthur shows, completely false. There are no viable runs for the U.S. without elite financial backing, something Obama himself knew very well as he defeated the Clintons and John McCain in the race for "organized financial support in the upper reaches of American society" and "tap[ped] deeply into Hillary Clinton's base of banks, corporations, and Washington lobbying firms" (MacArthur 2008, 216-217). Obama set new corporate and Wall Street and fundraising records and we all know - or we all should know - happened since, as the Bush-Paulsen bailouts of the big banks went through an escalation as big than Obama's "Af-Pak" surge(s).

"Anyone Out There Who Still Questions the Power of Our Democracy"

Reading MacArthur's book, I was reminded of the day when Obama was confronted by a group of working and lower-class black Americans organized in a group called "Blacks Against Obama" during a 2008 campaign rally in Florida. Among other things, the future president - a graduate of Harvard Law who had been hobnobbing with (and raising big dollars from) the upper bourgeoisie for many years - told his distinctly non-affluent black critics that they could do like him and run for elective office, even the presidency. "You can be president, like me," he was saying - a total fairy tale.

I was reminded also of Obama's election-night speech. [17] The first public words out of president-elect Obama's mouth on the evening of his election were revealing. "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible.....who still questions the power of our democracy," Obama intoned, "tonight is your answer." The supposed "left" President-Elect's first statement was NOT a call for peace, justice, and equality. It was a declaration bolstering the American plutocracy's ridiculous claim that the U.S. - the industrialized world's most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society by far - is home to limitless opportunity for who buckle down and accept that they can "make it" if they just "try."

The use (twice) of the word "still" in Obama's assertion was interesting, yes? It wasn't exactly like the case for the U.S. being a great popular democracy had been made with special, self-evident strength in recent times. The last three and a half decades prior to Obama's election had brought the deepening top-down infliction of a sharply of regressive corporate-neoliberal policies that are widely (but irrelevantly) repudiated by the majority of U.S. citizens. The current century had witnessed the execution of a monumentally criminal petro-imperialist Iraq Invasion sold to the U.S. populace by a spectacular state-media propaganda campaign (including preposterous claims of democratic intent Obama has embraced) that mocked and subverted the nation's democratic ideals. Dominant U.S. media's role in the invasion of Iraq marks perhaps the all-time low point of the "free press" in the U.S. [18]

The "democracy disconnect" - the gap (chasm really) between majority public opinion (which supports things like national universal health care, significant reductions in military expenditure and imperial commitment, massive public works, reduced corporate power, etc.) and "public" policy (which brazenly defies the majority in service to the rich and powerful Few) - is a core problem in American political life [19]. The "specter" of homeland totalitarianism, detailed in Sheldon Wolin's book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ, 2008), has never loomed larger than in the opening decade of the 21st century.

"In all of the post-election noise," a student wrote me after the election, "I think one thing Obama said in his acceptance speech was completely right on: the election itself is not the 'change' but simply the chance to make the changes we have to make. I know, I know, Obama was the ruling class candidate, but you have to admit that this represents at least symbolically a very good (first) step."

In the fifth paragraph of his acceptance oration, however, the President-Elect said that "because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America." That line made the election itself change.

Later in the speech Obama said that his election "proved that...a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth." That was very premature. Whether or not that judgment proves accurate remains to be seen and the answer is up to citizens, not politicians.

"I'll Be In Touch Soon On What Comes Next"

The real, less than radical-egalitarian nature of the next president's take on his "progressive base " was suggested in the following comment contained in a mass e-mail he sent to out to his supporters before speaking to the jubilant masses in Chicago's downtown Grant Park on November 4, the evening of his election:

"I'm about to head to Grant Park to talk to everyone gathered there, but I wanted to write to you first."

"We just made history."

"And I don't want you to forget how we did it."

"You made history every single day during this campaign -- every day you knocked on doors, made a donation, or talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about why you believe it's time for change."

"I want to thank all of you who gave your time, talent, and passion to this campaign."

"We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I'll be in touch soon about what comes next." [20]

"I'll be in touch soon about what comes next" - a revealingly top-down sentiment for someone who won the election on the basis of his call for "change from the bottom up." Of course, during the presidential campaign, commonly described in dominant media as a great popular upsurge, Obama's "grassroots army of millions" (The Boston Globe) "took instructions, but contributed essentially nothing," Noam Chomsky noted last February, "to formulating his program."[21]


MacArthur's book reminds me of something else Obama said on the evening of his election. "Our campaign," Obama announced in Grant Park, "was not hatched in the halls of Washington."

That statement was flatly false. "One evening in February 2005, in a four-hour meeting stoked by pepperoni pizza and great ambition," the Chicago Tribune reported in the spring of 2007, "Senator Barack Obama and his senior advisors crafted a strategy to fit the Obama 'brand.'" The meeting took place just weeks after Obama had been sworn into the upper representative chamber of the United States government. According to Tribune Washington Bureau reporters Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons, in an article titled "Carefully Crafting the Obama Brand:"

"The charismatic celebrity-politician had rocketed from the Illinois state legislature to the U.S. Senate, stirring national interest. The challenge was to maintain altitude despite the limited tools available to a freshman senator whose party was in a minority."

"Yet even in those early days, Obama and his advisors were thinking ahead. Some called it the '2010-2012-2016' plan: a potential bid for governor or re-election to the Senate in 2010, followed by a bid for the White House as soon as 2012, not 2016. The way to get there, they decided, was by carefully building a record that matched the brand identity: Obama as a unifier and consensus builder, and almost postpolitical leader."

"The staffers in that after-hours session, convened by Obama's Senate staff and including Chicago political advisor David Axlerod, planned a low-profile strategy that would emphasize workhorse results over headlines. Obama would invest in the long-term profile by not seeming too eager for the bright lights." [22]

This Tribune story was disturbing on numerous levels. It suggests a degree of cynicism, manipulation, and ambition that does not fit very well with the progressive and hopeful likeness that the Obama campaign has projected. It calls to mind a tension between virtuous public claims and selfish goals behind the scenes. The politician being sold would make sure to seem non-ambitious - "not seeming too eager for the bright lights" and privileging hard work over "headlines" - and respectful toward fellow members of the political class ("establishing good relationships with my colleagues." But, by Dorning and Parsons' account, Obama and his team were actually and quite eagerly all about "the bright lights" and "the headlines" in a "long-term" sense. They were already scheming for the presidency less than a month into his Senate seat. The image of Obama as a humble and hardworking rookie who got along with his colleagues across partisan lines part of their marketing strategy on the path to higher - the highest - office. The great "reformer" Obama may have just become only third black to sit in the august U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, but for Obama and his team the Senate was largely a marketing platform for the Next Big Thing - a place to build his image as a "unifier" and "consensus builder." They seemed unconcerned about the authoritarian implications of the concept of a "postpolitical leader," a commercialized trademark who would rise above democratic and ideological contestation on the path to power atop "the most powerful nation in history."

At the same, the term "Obama brand" suggested the commodified nature of a political culture that tends to reduce elections to corporate-"crafted" marketing contests revolving around candidate images packaged and sold by advertising and public relations experts. It implied an office-holder politician for sale and more immersed in he world of money than commerce and capitalism than public service.

The United States and its first black president have no business lecturing anyone on "democracy" (or racial progress or peace) in the wake of Obama's election and first year in office.

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is a political commentator and author in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefied, 2007), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008). His next book is titled The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010). Street (and others) will speak against the Obama administration's war policies at 1st Avenue 1st Street SE in Cedar Rapids, IA, on Friday December 18 at 4 pm.

1. USA TODAY, December 4, 2009, 4A

1A. "Naomi Klein on Minority Death Match: Jews, Blacks, and the Ă¢€˜Post-Racial Presidency," Democracy Now (September 14, 2009), read at http://www.democracynow.org/2009/9/14/naomi_klein_on_minority_death_match

1B. David Zirin, "Olympics in Chicago: 'Obama's Folly?" The Nation (September 22, 2009); No Games Chicago, Press Release. April 2, 2009, read at http://nogames.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/rally_press_release.pdf; ABC 7 News, "Michelle, Oprah Arrive in Copenhagen" (September 30, 2009), http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/local&id=7040148; Paul Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), pp. 51, 107. 164, 172, 260, 293, 296

2. CNN, "Police Seek 3 More in Teen's Death," (September 29, 2009), read at http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/09/29/chicago.teen.beating/index.html#cnnSTCText; J. Coyden Palmer, "Are Chicago Public School Policies to Blame for Melee That Killed Derrior Albert?" Chicago Crusader Newspaper, October 5, 2009, reproduced at http://www.theskanner.com/article/view/id/10458.

3. "Remarks by the President and First Lady to the International Olympic Committee" (Copenhagen, Denmark, October 2, 2009), read at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-the-President-And-the-First-Lady-to-the-International-Olympic-Committee

4. Street, Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis. The 82.3 segregation index means that 82 of every 100 Chicago blacks would have to move to a different census tract in order to live in a tract whose racial composition matched that of the city as a whole.

5. See Paul Street, Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL: Chicago Urban League, Department of Research and Planning [now defunct], April 2005), pp.9, 13, 39, 52-54, 59. The median home value in Riverdale is $54, 601. Street, Still Separate, Unequal, p. 61.

6. Deborah L:ynch, " Ă¢€˜ Turnaround' - the Deadliest Reform of All," Substance: The Newspaper of Public Education in Chicago (October 2009), pp. 1, 13.

6A. Rubin Navarette, Jr., "Obama's Silence on Chicago Crime," October 2, 2009 http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/10/02/navarrette.chicago.obama.olympics/index.html#cnnSTCText

7. Quoted in Maureen Dowd, "Fie, Fatal Flaw!" New York Times, October 18, 2009.

8. Peter Baker and Campbell Robertson, "Obama Tells New Orleans Progress is Being Made," New York Times, October 16, 2009, A16.

9. Baker and Robertson, "Obama Tells New Orleans."

10. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan, 2007), p. 5.

11. Baker and Robertson, "Obama Tells New Orleans."

12. Dowd, "Fie, Fatal Flaw!"

13. Derrick Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown V. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 77-78.

14. Sheryl Cashin, The Failures of Integration (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), pp. xi-xii. See also Leonard Steinhorn and Carbara Diggs-Brown, By the Color of Our Skin (New York: Penguin, 2000), p. 7; Stanley Aronowitz, "Race: the Continental Divide," The Nation (March 12, 2001); Paul Street, "A Whole Lott Missing: Rituals of Purification and Raciem-Denial," Race and History (January 2, 2003), read at http://www.raceandhistory.com/selfnews/viewnews.cgi?newsid1041528833,27894,.shtml.

15. Marc Lamont Hill, "Obama's Politics of Cunnung, Compromise, and Concession Not My Brand of Hope," CounterPunch (February 11, 2008), read at http://www.counterpunch.org/hill02112008.html.

16. John B. Judis, "American Adam: Obama and the Cult of the New," The New Republic (March 12, 2008), p. 24

17. "Obama Victory Speech - Video, Text," Huffington Post (November 4, 2008), read at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/11/04/obama-victory-speech_n_141194.html

18. For a comprehensive account, see Anthony Dimaggio's forthcoming book When Media Goes to War: Hegemonic Discourse, Public Opinion, and the Limits of Dissent (New York: Monthly Review, 2010).

19. See Noam Chomsky, "Chapter 5: Democracy Promotion at Home," pp. 205-250 in Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006). See also Paul Street, "Life is Simple in a Fake Democracy," ZNet (December 1, 2009), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/23246; Paul Street, "Americans' Progressive Opinion vs. Ă¢€˜The Shadow Cast on Society by Business," ZNet Commentary (May 15, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/3491.

20. Barack Obama, "Email Message to His Supporters This Evening" (November 4, 2008), read at http://isaac.blogs.com/isaac_laquedem/2008/11/barack-obamas-e-mail-message-to-his-supporters-this-evening.html

21. Noam Chomsky, "Elections 2008 and Ă¢€˜Obama's Vision,'" Z Magazine (February 2009), read at http://www.zmag.org/zmag/viewArticle/20424.

22. Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons, "Carefully Crafting the Obama Brand." Chicago Tribune, 12 June, 2007, sec.1. p.1.

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