a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Outgrowing Booker T. Obama

Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 23rd, 2012

In my previous post, I took up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay “Fear of a Black President,” writing that “Obama has at best settled for accommodation — for telling us what too many of us want to hear, and for not telling us what we don’t want to hear,” and concluding “As Coates suggests elsewhere in his essay, there are interesting parallels with Obama in America’s past.”  To wit:

“[Obama’s] approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity.”  

That sounds about right to me — extremely sad, at best, but about right: someone who (despite slogans of “Hope” and “Change”) routinely settled for a situation instead of setting out to fundamentally change it.

Sad at best, because Obama has considerably less justification for cautious, tactical, “temperamental” conservatism than Booker T. Washington had.  And unlike Booker T. Washington’s constituency, 21st century Democrats have considerably less justification for settling for it either.  Washington was an unofficial leader of a besieged, impoverished people facing not only the daily indignities of prejudice and racism, but brutal ethnic cleansings, unspeakable lynchings, widespread debt peonage and a vicious convict labor prison gulag.   It wasn’t that unreasonable to prefer cautiously building strength to the shorter, more dangerous choice of confrontation.*

Obama, by contrast, is the President of the United States of America; he took office after an electoral landslide that solidified his party’s control of both houses of Congress; he was inaugurated before an adoring, mobilized throng of millions.  The ongoing ‘racialization’ political handicap that Coates discusses is no figment of the imagination —  but it also can not have suddenly become a decisive handicap to President Obama’s political ambitions once he had reached the Oval Office.

Mr. Obama Goes to Washington
Instead, it’s fair to reflect (yet again) on what, precisely, those ambitions are or ever were — not for high office, but for what Obama would do and how he would do it when he got there.  David Sirota’s 2006 piece “Mr. Obama Goes To Washington” remains one of the most useful analyses of that question.  In Sirota’s judgment,

…[Obama] appears to be interested in fighting only for those changes that fit within the existing boundaries of what’s considered mainstream in Washington, instead of using his platform to redefine those boundaries. This posture comes even as polls consistently show that Washington’s definition of mainstream is divorced from the rest of the country’s (for example, politicians’ refusal to debate the war even as polls show that Americans want the troops home).

This being a time when he was still courting progressive voters, Obama valiantly… tried to have it both ways.  Sirota reports:

““You should always assume that when I cast a vote or make a statement it is because it is what I believe in,” he said. “The thing that bothers me is the assumption that if I make a judgment that’s different from yours, then it must mean I am less progressive or my goals are different, meaning I must be not really committed to helping people but rather I am trying to triangulate or drift toward the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council].”

My takeaway from Obama’s statement (and the ensuing 6 years) is therefore that when Obama adopts some neoliberal Beltway conventional wisdom, then that’s what he believes in — and meanwhile he’d like us to believe his goals are ours.

The trouble for Obama is that now that he’s president, the “shared goals” part is easier to disprove, starting with the extrajudicial drone assassinations and terror strikes Coates put front and center in his own essay.  The Obama administration has also given up on any prosecution of torturers; it’s allowing detainees to rot and die in indefinite detention –uncharged, unprosecuted, even approved for release.  It has engaged in unprecedented, punitive investigations, harrassment,  and prosecutions of national security journalists and whistleblowers.  It has pushed for renewals of the egregious PATRIOT and FISA Amendment Acts.   And Obama notoriously co-designed and then signed the NDAA and its indefinite detention provisions — with the signing conveniently timed for the evening of  New Year’s Eve, 2011.

And even if you’re bored with mere human rights, civil liberties,  or rule of law issues, there are plenty of bread and butter reasons to be skeptical of Obama’s leadership and policies, or even outraged by them: income inequality growth that was worse under Obama than Bush; a pitiful mortgage relief program intended to “foam the runway” for banks instead providing real relief to struggling homeowners — and intentionally leaving $300 million in potential mortgage relief unspent; a White House triumphantly touting a debt ceiling agreement that “Reduces Domestic Discretionary Spending to the Lowest Level Since Eisenhower” — at just the time when Keynesian domestic spending was urgently needed to revive a strangled economy; taking Bush era tax cuts off the table prior to the 2010 election; repeatedly putting Social Security and Medicare benefits ‘on the table.’

Indeed, where at least “economic progress in exchange for political impotence was the touchstone of Washington’s creed,” as W.E.B. Du Bois biographer David Lewis has put it*, Obama’s bargain may be the preservation, even exacerbation of a failing economic and political status quo in return for his own political stature — but ongoing progressive/liberal impotence.

I think the common denominators are more important, though: elite support for the political aspirations of a conveniently conservative, charismatic black leader.  In both cases, the rise to fame and power began with a nationally celebrated speech, one that served constituents less than the speaker’s own relentless climb up the ladder.

In Washington’s case, it was his 1895 Atlanta Cotton Exposition speech — an eloquent call for racial peace, an argument to focus on economic growth …but arguably also a surrender speech to white supremacy. Not surprisingly, Washington was suddenly white America’s — and (thanks in part to the “without strikes and labor wars” line) especially white business America’s — favorite black spokesman.  Washington was able to set up an increasingly powerful nationwide black political machine from his desk at Tuskegee Institute, fueled by the dollars of magnates like Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, John Wanamaker, and George Eastman, to name a few.  Benefactors and recipient shared a common outlook on what to do with those dollars: hire or support those who didn’t rock the racial boat, deny those, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who would not accept long term second class citizenship, social inequality, and racial terror.

Similarly, Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address launched Obama onto the national stage.  And in retrospect,  like Washington’s Atlanta speech, it succeeded less by telling hard truths than by flattering its listeners that the country was basically fine, they were basically what was right with it,  Obama was basically the proof, and all that was required was pretending we all agreed with each other.    The upshot was to “affirm the greatness of our Nation” in light of Obama’s own “unlikely” and “improbable” presence on the podium, and (just as Washington established in his 1901 autobiography ‘Up From Slavery’) in light of his compelling biography.

There’s another parallel between Booker T. and Barack H. that’s closely connected to the elite support they received: their frequent validations of outsider critiques of and attacks on their constituencies.  Even Jesus just said “turn the other cheek” —  he didn’t say “agree with the one who slaps you.”

In Washington’s case, this could manifest in painfully frequent insistence that black Americans of the 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s were “making progress,” “bettering themselves morally” or even  — and even that that “the black man got nearly as much out of slavery as the white man did,” or that black Americans’ focus on political representation during the Reconstruction era had been a mistake made in haste to repent at leisure.   In current terms, Washington was accepting the “framing” — and indeed, the validity — of the so-called “race question” posed by posed by sneering white supremacists of the times: were black Americans fit co-citizens of the United States?  Of course they were.  But inadvertently or not, Booker T. Washington validated the question by raising and answering it so frequently, by toting up donations to Tuskegee Institute or students graduated from it as if those statistics were answers– and increasingly, by insisting that his was the only path to laying the question to rest.

Obama’s concessions to his constituents’ enemies are perhaps less egregious, but more unnecessary.  In The Audacity of Hope alone, he delivers slap after slap to the left and obeisance after obeisance to the rightwing or elite conventional wisdom: “Reagan’s central insight — that the liberal welfare state had grown complacent and overly bureaucratic … contained a good deal of truth.”  “It was hard to deny Rubin’s basic insight: We can try to slow globalization, but we can’t stop it.” Liberals believe “more spending alone will improve educational outcomes.”**

Even in his 2012 nomination acceptance speech, Obama couldn’t help but set Democrats straight: “by the way, those of us who carry on [FDR’s] party’s legacy should remember that not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.”  A nadir was reached in the false equivalency of Obama’s 2009 national security speech — using the Constitution as a backdrop — in which he claimed the debate over torture, Guantanamo, transparency, and accountability had  “been obscured by two opposite and absolutist ends,” characterizing human rights and civil liberties critics insisting that U.S. and international law be obeyed as “those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency.”  

The result– and again, arguably similar to Booker T. Washington and his supporters — is sometimes less collusion or conspiracy with elites (particularly financial and national security elites) than simply a constant, nearly instinctive deference to them by Obama —  and a “he’s our best shot” deference to Obama by supporters cowed by the fearsome Tea Party/Koch Brothers hordes.  And the result of that is an essentially collaborationist left: all but completely silenced on ‘secondary’ issues like human rights and civil liberties, and very badly confused on bread and butter issues — like crowing about a revived stock market while 8% unemployment continues.

One may argue that Obama has been exceptionally poorly served by a Larry Summers — who made, of all things,first do no harm” the watchword for dealing with an already nuked economy — or a Timothy Geithner, who was consistently more concerned with maintaining credibility with Wall Street than with easing any burdens on Main Street.  But the buck stops with Obama.  In “Escape Artists,” Noam Scheiber reports that when Geithner — already controversial for his role in the TARP bankster bailout –was offered the job of Treasury Secretary, he warned Obama, “You will be tying yourself to a strategy I was intimately involved in.  I will not walk away from it. You need to understand the cost you take in doing that.”  Scheiber writes: “Obama told Geithner he understood.”

Obama’s ties to financial elites can be directly measured in millions of dollars of contributions — he outraised McCain by $16 million to $9 million on Wall Street in 2008, and famously told financial leaders in 2009 that “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks” — a statement that rings a little differently today than it did at the time. His deference and that of his hand-picked team can be seen in the tick-tock stories of the stimulus and debt ceiling told by Noam Scheiber (The Escape Artists) or Ron Suskind (Confidence Men), or simply in Obama’s “I know both these guys… They’re savvy businessmen” dismissal of outrage about huge bonuses collected by JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein in the wake of the 2008 bailouts.

Indeed, it’s hard not to wonder whether Obama serves, consciously or not, as a convenient front man for those supporters.  Already a ‘third way’ neoliberal by temperament, Obama’s aforementioned “racialization” handicap serves as political bubblewrap protecting him from supporters unable or unwilling to see him clearly.  The result can be that shortcomings and half measures entirely of his own making wind up being attributed to racialized politics, the “party of No,” or both.  This is not to say American politics isn’t racialized, or that there is no “party of “No”; it’s to say those are not always necessary or sufficient explanations for timid, disappointing, and/or frankly conservative Obama administration policies.

No politician can afford to come up entirely empty, and I imagine few see themselves as craven. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute really did educate thousands; Washington himself was sometimes able to lobby effectively behind the scenes to blunt Jim Crow legislation, and supported successful court cases against Southern debt peonage.*** Likewise, the Affordable Care Act really does end pre-existing conditions to deny health care coverage, and extends coverage to millions who did not have it before; the so-called “New New Deal” of the stimulus, while too small, did prevent a crisis from getting worse.

The question is what price was paid for those gains, whether more was in reach, and what goals fell by the wayside if they were ever held at all — in sum, whether historic challenges were met or ducked.

In 2008, an unprecedented financial crisis plunged millions into unemployment, hardship, and poverty, and exposed a threadbare, corrupt economy hijacked by financial charlatans.  The prior decade had seen America plunged into needless or needlessly endless, costly wars, watch a city drown before its eyes, and all but burn civil liberties, human rights, and honor itself at the stake of its own fears.

Since then, one war has been exited — though more at Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s behest than by Obama’s design.  One war remains a quagmire, needlessly escalated and prolonged by Obama.  While waterboarding appears to no longer be an instrument of U.S. policy, without prosecutions of those who ordered and approved torture, it will be back — and Obama’s civil liberties record otherwise rivals or even sinks beneath that of his predecessor.  None of the heads of financial institutions responsible for the immiseration of millions have been convicted of wrongdoing — none have even been charged.  At no time has Obama called into question the systems George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, Ben Bernanke, Jamie Dimon, Robert Rubin, or Lloyd Blankfein bequeathed him — much less reformed them, or prosecuted those who so easily and shamelessly abused them.

Outgrowing Obama
In 1911, fed up with American racism that had gotten worse, not better, since Washington’s 1895 Atlanta speech,  W.E.B. Du Bois passed judgment on America’s pre-eminent black politician in an editorial to the journal Crisis“Awful as race prejudice, lawlessness and ignorance are,” Du Bois began,

…we can fight them if we frankly face them and dare name them and  tell the truth; but if we continually dodge and cloud the issue, and say the half truth because the whole stings and shames; if we do this, we invite catastrophe.  Let us then in all charity but unflinching firmness set our faces against all statesmanship that looks in such directions.****

The same, surely, holds for facing class warfare , war-mongering, civil liberties denials, human rights scofflaws, and – yes, also – racism in today’s political arena. These are clear cut quarrels with powerful interests who are hostile to those of most of us; we mustn’t just “look forward, not backward,” ceaselessly venerate “bipartisanship” for its own sake, or concede ground or validity to the Reagans or Rubins or Cheneys of this world.  In these things, Obama’s instincts are, as Ta-Nehisi Coates observed,  closer to a Booker T. Washington than to a W.E.B. Du Bois — and, to repeat, with much less to recommend them. Caution in the face of Jim Crow terror is one thing; fear of a Mitch McConnell or a Rush Limbaugh is quite another.

This was and is a country on the economic rocks and on the moral rocks — not a country that needs or deserves paeans to its exceptionalism, feel-good speeches about being the greatest country on earth, refusals to address the crimes of the past, or half-measures when so much more is needed.  We needed and need to face what was wrong, and set things right.  We needed a Frederick Douglass or a W.E.B. DuBois;  we needed an FDR.

Instead, we got Booker T. Obama –and on the left, far too many seem to believe that was enough.  Whether that’s what we deserved, whether that’s all Obama could deliver, whether or not that’s all he ever had in mind — we really needed more.  We need more.

It’s time to regain control of the American political left from those who don’t believe in it themselves.  Whether or not you vote for him in November, it’s long since time to think beyond Obama.  As the saying used to go: yes we can.


NOTE: this post and the prior one are based on a comment on Facebook and one made to the “Making Light” discussion of the Ta-Nehisi Coates essay.
* As Langston Hughes wrote in “I, Too, Sing America”:  “They send me to eat eat in the kitchen When company comes, But I  laugh, And eat well, And grow strong. Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table When company comes.
** These examples were compiled by Roger Hodge in his 2010 book, “The Mendacity of Hope.”
*** Booker T. Washington: Black Leadership in the Age of Jim Crow. 2009. Raymond W. Smock.
**** W.E.B. Du Bois, David Levering Lewis, p.286.
UPDATE, 9/30: First, welcome Sideshow readers! Remember to re-set your Sideshow bookmark to Avedon’s Sideshow! Also, I was just reminded of Corey Robin’s fantastic Facebook discussion, Obama: WTF? A Facebook Roundtable of the Left — right after the 2011 debt ceiling debacle. (The discussion was prompted by Glenn Greenwald’s “The myth of Obama’s “blunders” and “weakness”.”) I particularly like Doug Henwood’s and Adolph Reed’s contributions, but all are worth reading.
EDITS, 10/1: links added for “repeatedly” and “on the table.”

3 Responses to “Outgrowing Booker T. Obama”

  1. » Blog Archive » Drones, civil liberties, and other stuff only a white person would write about Says:

    […] « « prior: Outgrowing Booker T. Obama […]

  2. kcbill13 Says:

    I am with you on this,

    but all of my Democrat friends are accusing me of being a terrible person for not wanting to vote for Obama, that a vote for anyone else is a vote against him, too scared of Romney, etc…

    But I kind of like a few of the third party candidates.

    I feel I cannot condone the continued killing of innocent people to keep the war machine turning!


  3. » Blog Archive » Change we can accomplish Says:

    […] his part, Obama reminds me of Booker T. Washington — a tactical, temperamental conservative who “routinely settled for a situation instead […]

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