February 21, 2008
The problem with Obama
Given my concerns about Hillary Clinton, one might think that I would be an enthusiastic Barack Obama supporter, but at this point I must say that I am somewhat underwhelmed by him. I have not been bowled over by his alleged charisma, perhaps because I almost never watch TV, preferring to read about events instead, and charisma is hard to convey with the printed word. I definitely prefer him to Clinton, but on many issues, it is hard to tell them apart. But the key difference with Clinton is that I think that Obama (unlike Clinton or McCain) is not (yet) completely in the maw of pro-war/pro-business party that rules the country, although the process by which those interests swallow up political leaders and turn them into zombie-like creatures that do their bidding seems dangerously far advanced in his case.
The first time I saw Obama was when I casually tuned in to watch a bit of the 2004 Democratic convention and happened to chance on him making his keynote speech. It was impressive. He seemed fresh and idealistic and was speaking about the things I cared about. Hence I had high hopes for him when he was elected to be a US Senator a few months later, in the fall of 2004.
Obama's record as an Illinois state senator had been quite progressive. As Ken Silverstein wrote in his article Barack Obama Inc.: The birth of a Washington machine in the November 2006 issue of Harper's Magazine:
During his first year in the state senate—1997—he helped lead a laudable if quixotic crusade that would have amended the state constitution to define health care as a basic right and would have required the Illinois General Assembly to ensure that all the state's citizens could get health insurance within five years. He led initiatives to aid the poor, including campaigns that resulted in an earned-income tax credit and the expansion of early-childhood-education programs. In 2001, reacting to a surge in home foreclosures in Chicago, he helped push for a measure that cracked down on predatory lenders that peddled high-interest, high-fee mortgages to lower-end homebuyers. Obama was also the driving force behind legislation, passed in 2003, that made Illinois the first state to require law-enforcement agencies to tape interrogations and confessions of murder suspects. Throughout his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Obama called for social justice, promised to "stand up to the powerful drug and insurance lobbies" that block health-care reform, and denounced the war in Iraq and the Bush White House.
But his record since becoming US senator has been less than stellar. He seemed to actively seek to ingratiate himself with the Washington powerbrokers, even going so far as to choose the execrable Joe Lieberman as one of his mentors. (If there is one thing that Al Gore did that I will never forgive, it was raising Lieberman's national profile by choosing him to be his running mate in 2000. Thanks to that, Lieberman has become, like McCain, a media favorite and we are subjected endlessly to their self-serving, self-righteous, and self-aggrandizing pontifications. In Lieberman's case it is also delivered in a whining, unctuous voice that reeks of smugness.)
Silverstein documents the decline of Obama after he was elected US senator.
Yet it is also startling to see how quickly Obama's senatorship has been woven into the web of institutionalized influence-trading that afflicts official Washington. He quickly established a political machine funded and run by a standard Beltway group of lobbyists, P.R. consultants, and hangers-on. For the staff post of policy director he hired Karen Kornbluh, a senior aide to Robert Rubin when the latter, as head of the Treasury Department under Bill Clinton, was a chief advocate for NAFTA and other free-trade policies that decimated the nation's manufacturing sector (and the organized labor wing of the Democratic Party). Obama's top contributors are corporate law and lobbying firms (Kirkland & Ellis and Skadden, Arps, where four attorneys are fund-raisers for Obama as well as donors), Wall Street financial houses (Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase), and big Chicago interests (Henry Crown and Company, an investment firm that has stakes in industries ranging from telecommunications to defense). Obama immediately established a "leadership PAC," a vehicle through which a member of Congress can contribute to other politicians' campaigns—and one that political reform groups generally view as a slush fund through which congressional leaders can evade campaign-finance rules while raising their own political profiles.
Former Wall Street analyst Pam Martens, writing in the February 1-16, 2008 issue of the newsletter CounterPunch, points to the courtship and embrace by Obama of major Wall Street financial interests.
Seven of the Obama campaign's top 14 donors consist of officers and employees of the same Wall Street firms charged time and again with looting the public and newly implicated in originating and/or bundling fraudulently made mortgages. . . These seven Wall Street firms are (in order of money given): Goldman Sachs, UBS AG, Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse. There is also a large hedge fund, Citadel Investment Group, which is a major source of fee income to Wall Street. There are five large corporate law firms that are also registered lobbyists; and one is a corporate law firm that is no longer a registered lobbyist but does legal work for Wall Street. The cumulative total of these 14 contributors through February 1, 2008, was $2,872,128, and we're still in the primary season.
Martens points out that Obama has not been shy about serving Wall Street interests when called upon to do so. He joined with Republicans in 2005 to pass the "Class Action Fairness Act" which was highly desired by the financial sector because it eliminated the option for people to file class action law suits in state courts, often the only remedy for individuals fighting giant corporations. As Martens says, the legislation was the result of "five years of pressure from 100 corporations, 475 lobbyists, tens of millions of corporate dollars buying influence in our government, and the active participation of the Wall Street firms now funding the Obama campaign." (We should always be wary of legislation that uses loaded words like 'fairness' in the title. It is almost invariably propaganda rhetoric designed to disguise its true intent, which is that the legislation serves the opposite ends that the word implies.)
The Act was opposed by fourteen state attorneys general who wrote: "State attorneys general frequently investigate and bring actions against defendants who have caused harm to our citizens. . .In some instances, such actions have been brought with the attorney general acting as the class representative for the consumers of the state. We are concerned that certain provisions of S.5 might be misinterpreted to impede the ability of the attorneys general to bring such actions." The legislation was also opposed by the NAACP, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Human Rights Campaign, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Justice and Democracy, Legal Momentum (formerly NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund), and Alliance for Justice.
But Obama happily sided with Wall Street, even making a floor speech supporting the legislation.
Next: Is there any hope for Obama?
In a surprising show of independence, the House of Representatives let lapse last Saturday the law that gave the government broad unsupervised spying powers on people. The US Senate led by Harry Reid had, as usual, rolled over for the White House and passed the bill.
The House ignored the standard dire "the sky is falling" warnings by Bush and his authoritarian allies that not agreeing to do whatever he wanted was helping the terrorists. Bush even threatened to call off his Africa jaunt and stay and push for passage if the bill was not passed but when his bluff was called he quietly backed off and went to Africa with his tail between his legs.
It was suspected that what the government really wanted was a provision in the bill that gave retroactive immunity from prosecution to phone companies that had illegally tapped the phones of US citizens. Those companies are currently facing multi-billion lawsuits.
Mark Fiore has a nice animation on the issue.