The counterfeit president


The academic Cornel West was one of the first prominent African-American supporters of Barack Obama’s candidacy for president to denounce him for serving as a neoliberal opportunist once he got into office after his election in 2008, and going back on so many of his campaign pledges. In a recent interview with Thomas Frank, he says that Obama posed as a kind of Lincoln but what we got was a “brown-faced Clinton”.

No, the thing is he posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair.

West was vilified by Obama cult members for publicly criticizing their dear leader but he is unrepentant and says that many others have come around to thinking like he does and have told him so privately, even though many are still reluctant to go public, though that is changing.

Part of this, as you can imagine, is that early on there was a strong private-public distinction. People would come to me and say privately, “We see what you’re saying. We think you’re too harsh in how you say it but we agree very much with what you’re saying in private.” In public, no comment. Now, more and more of it spills over in public.

He says that Obama’s entire life history should have prepared us for what he was really like (I wrote about some of the warning signs back in 2008 and again in early 2009) but only a few people wanted to see the reality.

I think Obama, his modus operandi going all the way back to when he was head of the [Harvard] Law Review, first editor of the Law Review and didn’t have a piece in the Law Review. He was chosen because he always occupied the middle ground. He doesn’t realize that a great leader, a statesperson, doesn’t just occupy middle ground. They occupy higher ground or the moral ground or even sometimes the holy ground. But the middle ground is not the place to go if you’re going to show courage and vision. And I think that’s his modus operandi. He always moves to the middle ground. It turned out that historically, this was not a moment for a middle-ground politician. We needed a high-ground statesperson and it’s clear now he’s not the one.

And so what did he do? Every time you’re headed toward middle ground what do you do? You go straight to the establishment and reassure them that you’re not too radical, and try to convince them that you are very much one of them so you end up with a John Brennan, architect of torture [as CIA Director]. Torturers go free but they’re real patriots so we can let them go free. The rule of law doesn’t mean anything.

Even with [Attorney General] Eric Holder. Eric Holder won’t touch the Wall Street executives; they’re his friends. He might charge them some money. They want to celebrate. This money is just a tax write-off for these people. There’s no accountability. No answerability. No responsibility that these people have to take at all. The same is true with the Robert Rubin crowd. Obama comes in, he’s got all this populist rhetoric which is wonderful, progressive populist rhetoric which we needed badly. What does he do, goes straight to the Robert Rubin crowd and here comes Larry Summers, here comes Tim Geithner, we can go on and on and on, and he allows them to run things. You see it in the Suskind book, The Confidence Men. These guys are running things, and these are neoliberal, deregulating free marketeers—and poverty is not even an afterthought for them.

West zeroes in on what in his personal makeup makes Obama such a disappointing figure for those who expected so much from him.

I think part of it is just temperament. That his success has been predicated on finding that middle ground. “We’re not black. We’re not white. We’re not rich. We’re not poor. There’s no classes in America. We are all Americans. We’re the American family.” He invoked the American family last week. It’s a lie, brother. You’ve got to be able to tell the truth to the American people. We’re not a family. We’re a people. We’re a nation. And a nation always has divisions. You have to be able to speak to those divisions in such a way that, like FDR, like Lincoln, you’re able to somehow pull out the best of who we are, given the divisions. You don’t try to act as if we have no divisions and we’re just an American family, with the poor getting treated in disgraceful ways and the rich walking off sipping tea, with no accountability at all, and your foreign policy is running amok with Israelis committing war crimes against precious Palestinians and you won’t say a mumbling word about the Palestinian children. What is history going to say about you? Counterfeit! That’s what they’ll say, counterfeit. Not the real thing.

Harsh words from West and he is undoubtedly going to get a backlash. But it needs to be said.

Comments

  1. moarscienceplz says

    He says that Obama’s entire life history should have prepared us for what he was really like (I wrote about some of the warning signs back in 2008 and again in early 2009) but only a few people wanted to see the reality.

    See the reality, and do what? Vote for Hillary? Vote for McCain? I don’t much like Hillary, but if she wins the candidacy, I will do all I can to get her elected because bad as she is, ANY Republican is ten times worse.

  2. Matt G says

    A Democrat, who is really a Republican, and who is called a socialist by the other Republicans. Dogs and cats, living together….

  3. Brian K Miller says

    And this is how the Overton window gets slid over to the right and things get worse. Note that I myself have no answers at all, but I’m not sure voting in the current system, at least at the national level, is even moral

  4. dukeofomnium says

    The really annoying part is that Obama keeps trying to build a consensus with the GOP, even though the GOP has shown unequivocally that they want no part of a consensus. That’s been clear at least since 2010, and probably since his first inauguration.

    Given that the GOP is obviously determined to be an very antagonistic opposition, why has he kept trying to conciliate them?

  5. says

    I’m not sure voting in the current system, at least at the national level, is even moral

    I’d argue sincerely that it is not. Accepting that you are forced to choose between the “lesser of two evils” still means you are putting your imprimatur on evil.

  6. says

    why has he kept trying to conciliate them?

    Exactly. At this point in his presidency, he owes nothing to anything except his legacy. He could light it on fire by going head-on against the republicans and their horrible scorched-earth politics. We might respect him, then. Though, I will refrain from giving the man a shred of my respect until he closes gitmo and begins prosecuting the torturers. Though, at this point, having sheltered them so thoroughly, I’d want to see him turn himself in to the ICC.

  7. Holms says

    While I’m not an American, I’m pretty sure I would have voted for him twice, only to regret it as well. It is sad that after all the early enthusiasm, the best I can say about him these days is ‘a Republican would be even worse’.

  8. kenn says

    Well, you know, you had a choice in 2012. You could have voted for G.I. Luvmoney and the Zombie Eyed Granny Starver instead. They weren’t counterfeit, were they? They were sincere in their desire to strip poor people of the only decent health care program enacted in this country since 1965. And before someone says he should have fought for single payer, THERE WEREN’T ENOUGH VOTES TO PASS IT, and you know it.

  9. lpetrich says

    A big part of the problem is Duverger’s law: Duverger: The Electoral System French sociologist Maurice Duverger showed that there was a correlation between the electoral system and the party composition:

    To these socio-economic and historical factors a technical factor must be added: the electoral system. I expressed its effects in 1946 in the formulation of three sociological laws: (1) a majority vote on one ballot is conducive to a two-party system; (2) proportional representation is conducive to a multiparty system; (3) a majority vote on two ballots is conducive to a multiparty system, inclined toward forming coalitions.

    A two-ballot system is a top-two delayed runoff.

    He noted

    The brutal finality of a majority vote on a single ballot forces parties with similar tendencies to regroup their forces at the risk of being overwhelmingly defeated …

    In a system of proportional representation, the situation is quite different. The very principle of proportional representation explains the multiplicity of parties it produces. Since every minority, no matter how weak it may be, is assured of representation in the legislature, nothing prevents the formation of splinter parties, often separated only by mere shades of opinion. …

    In a system in which elections arc decided by a majority vote on the second of two ballots, political parties are numerous because the existence of a second ballot permits each party to test its chances on the first one without risking irrevocable defeat through the splintering of parties holding similar views; the regrouping occurs on the second ballot through the game of “withdrawals.” …

    So why continue to act as if proportional representation is unthinkable?

  10. md says

    The Palestinian/Israeli comments seem a bit odd and out of context in that rant. Why fixate on that problem in a rant about domestic economic issues?

  11. funknjunk says

    Voted for Jill Stein in 2012. I will not play along any more. If Bernie Sanders runs, I MAY vote for him, but for Hilary? Nope. Won’t do it. I’m sorry to all those who make the lesser of two evils argument. I’m sorry to those who have children (I do not … yet) and seem to be holding on by their fingernails to a life that “could be worse” … I won’t do it any longer. The elites are now succeeding in turning this country into a fascistic inverted totalitarian cesspool. I won’t comply …

  12. doublereed says

    Why regret it? Romney was even crazier than Bush. What, you gonna vote for Sarah Palin?

    You say voting for the lesser of two evils is immoral? That’s just impractical at the highest degree. May I remind people here that Supreme Court Nominations are of great importance at the current time. If you live in a swing state, voting third party is a bad decision.

    This specific problem cannot be solved by voting because of the corruption of politics at all branches of the federal level. That’s why you should support Wolf-PAC and make some calls!

  13. nichrome says

    Why regret it?

    Why regret it, you ask? Maybe because “lesser evil” Obama has claimed the right to extrajudicially order the killing of anyone, anywhere – including American citizens – and has done so. This is rock-bottom. This is tyranny.

    And I’ll make the claim that Romney would have been better simply because “progressives” would have been willing to vociferously oppose his administration’s policies rather than becoming milquetoast apologists the way they have for Obama.

  14. DsylexicHippo says

    Not voting for the lesser of the two evils and opting for a third alternative – ever thought that you just might end up benefiting the greater of the two evils that way?

  15. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Voting third party is a waste IMHO. Instead, we need to grass roots organize to pass a constitutional amendment to reform the election law, as mentioned in post 10.

  16. Matt G says

    Some of us are old enough to remember how John Anderson helped Reagan get into office. Anyone remember when Reagan and Bush, Sr. debated and Bush referred to Reagan’s supply side ecomonics as “voodoo economics”?

  17. Enkidum says

    To all those who refuse to vote for the lesser of two evils, consider this.

    If Gore had won (or at least if his winning had been recognized) in 2000, what would have happened after 9/11?

    Very likely an invasion of Afghanistan, supported (as it was at the time) by the broad majority of the world’s governments. Iraq would probably not have been on the table. So… you’re looking at possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths that would have been averted, a massive region-wide destabilization that would have been averted, America actually retaining some of its moral influence (or at least for a little longer), and possibly the attention and resources devoted to the Afghanistan mission that could have avoided it becoming the total clusterfuck it became (although there are good reasons to think it might have become one anyways).

    It’s really hard to imagine how things might have worked out, but really, think about a world without the American occupation of Iraq. It’s hard to see how it wouldn’t be a drastically better and safer place.

    This is really the bottom line for me. Democratic presidents are, universally, kind of shitty. But they are so much less shitty than the alternative that it is simply immoral not to vote for them, at least in a swing state.

  18. cosmicrays says

    There is some rule of the modern new liberal that works like this: When I accuse President Obama of being a bad President he is a bad President. When you accuse President Obama of being a bad President, we get it, he’s black.

    cf: Black Republicans, Black libertarians, tea bag party, independents and many non freethoughtblogs type democrats.

  19. doublereed says

    @14 nichrome

    Why regret it, you ask? Maybe because “lesser evil” Obama has claimed the right to extrajudicially order the killing of anyone, anywhere – including American citizens – and has done so. This is rock-bottom. This is tyranny.

    Except it’s not rock bottom. Oh sure. It’s terrible. Tyrannical. Evil. But it could be blatantly be worse. Romney was further to the right than even George W Bush. And I advise you to actually think about @18. This kind of equivalency and apathy toward to the two parties is exactly what got Bush elected instead of Gore. People voting for Nader, because Gore wasn’t good enough. Does anybody really think Gore would have gone into Iraq?

    Yes, it could be worse. Much worse. Romney probably would have gotten us involved in Syria. We might be back in Iraq already.

    And I’ll make the claim that Romney would have been better simply because “progressives” would have been willing to vociferously oppose his administration’s policies rather than becoming milquetoast apologists the way they have for Obama.

    So what? Who cares? What good does that do? Actually electing right-wing people does not shift the overton window to the left. That’s not the way that works.

  20. Matt G says

    cosmicrays @19- See if you can spot the many flaws in your reasoning. If you are unable to do so, the modern new liberal readers of this blog would be happy to help you.

  21. Chiroptera says

    cosmicrays, #19: When you [conservatives] accuse President Obama of being a bad President, we get it, he’s black.

    Well, isn’t that correct? If not, maybe if conservatives would get their basic facts correct, think rationally, and write a grammatically correct, coherent paragraph, it would be easier for us liberals to figure out what they’re thinking.

  22. Brony says

    I guess I’ll be the asshole here and admit that refusing to vote for a lesser of two evils is a naked attempt at putting pressure on people in those parties. I have a litmus test. If you want my vote you will meet it. If you see two people you don’t like getting into a fight and they would be a threat to you outside of that situation external pressure can be warranted.

    Your candidate* will start investigations into torture regardless of how high things go. Your candidate will aggressively support eliminating the social class division in the justice system starting with wall street. Your candidate will make reforming the criminal justice system a priority ensuring that abusive authoritarian cops are held criminally accountable. Your candidate will aggressively pursue legal immunity for whistle-blowers regardless of position or occupation. Your candidate will aggressively reign in the NSA.
    Not verbal election promises, solid assurances with groundwork laid during the election.

    If your candidate is not willing to do this, tough luck. I am not your tool.

    *Almost certainly guaranteed not to be Republican.

  23. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    “The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free.” – Cornel West, academic.

    Well, yes, but it is very hard to bring Hamas leaders and militants to justice and Israel (though’ not the US) did manage to take a few of the Hamas war criminals out.

    Wait, what’s that, you don’t mean Hamas war criminals? You want the Jihadist terrorist leaders who have caused and continued this war to goon and murdered so many innocent people on both sides to go free? Its only when Israel stuffs up up in defending itself from Hamas and other Terrorism that you demand vengence most unfair?

    (Obama -ed) … always moves to the middle ground. It turned out that historically, this was not a moment for a middle-ground politician. We needed a high-ground statesperson and it’s clear now he’s not the one.

    Because being electable means appealing to the middle ground – not the extremes. You can get nominated by whipping up the extremist base of each side but not elected that way because you’ll be too divisive a candidate. The system is set up to reward the candidate who best captures the middle ground. (After getting the support of the left / right base by standing up for those values ,an inherent contradiction & issue.)

    “I think part of it is just temperament. That his (Obama’s) success has been predicated on finding that middle ground. “

    Do you want someone whose temperament is more volatile, less even and more divisive? Really? Is that better?

    ““We’re not black. We’re not white. We’re not rich. We’re not poor. There’s no classes in America. We are all Americans. We’re the American family.” He (Obama) invoked the American family last week. It’s a lie, brother. You’ve got to be able to tell the truth to the American people. We’re not a family. We’re a people. We’re a nation. And a nation always has divisions. “

    Well, yes and no. Every good nation has divisions but it also surpasses those divisions. Its not a lie so much as a way of thinking that emphasises uniting not dividing factors. It might’ve been better for Obama to say :

    ““We’re not just black. We’re not just white. We’re not just rich. We’re not just poor. We are black and white, rich and poor, whatever our class we are all Americans. We’re the American family. We’re a people. We’re a nation. And a nation that is united by more than its divided. We came from many backgrounds, we have many different levels of incomes and personal histories and cultures but together in this great melting pot we are all Americans living by overarching American values and following the one overriding American culture.”

    That or something like it would’ve been true and better I reckon.

    “… your foreign policy is running amok with Israelis committing war crimes against precious Palestinians and you won’t say a mumbling word about the Palestinian children. ” – Cornel West, academic.

    Wrong in so many ways. First the US president should not be attacking aloyal US allyfor defending itself against Islamist terrorists. Secondly “precious palestinians” suffering “war crimes” – how about precious Israelis whoare victismof tehHamas war crimes? What a remarkable exposure of the bias Cornel West has there! Ignore Hamas, condemn israel, take only one -side of a very long story and bash the Jewish state for defending itself. Sadly that does seem typical of leftist academics much to their discredit. Finally, palestinian children? No, just the Gazan ones. Those in Judea and Samaria aka (Jordan’s former) West Bank are doing fine or at least not at war. There’s a reason for that – one word – Hamas.

  24. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @14. nichrome :

    Why regret it, you ask? Maybe because “lesser evil” Obama has claimed the right to extrajudicially order the killing of anyone, anywhere – including American citizens – and has done so. This is rock-bottom. This is tyranny.

    No it isn’t. Tyranny is a form of government where a tyrant rules without any democratic elections. Obama was voted into power in two free & fair elections. This means he is a democratically elected president not a tyrant.

    The fact that you dislike and disapprove of UAV strikes that, who knows, could perhaps have saved your life and the lives of those you care about is irrelevant to the question of whether Obama or the US is a tyrant or tyranny.

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