The Obama Mirage

By Saliem Fakir · 4 Jul 2008

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Picture: jmtimages
Picture: jmtimages

In the glare of the international audience, we are being treated with Obama-mania. It is a wonderful and exciting media spectacle.

Barack Obama is undoubtedly a new breed of leader – everybody has been watching. He has already made history and may well make further history if he is elected the President of the United States.

It is easy to be captivated by Obama. He has traversed where no black person in the US has been able to go before. Obama is the story of the American dream coming true.

The deep festering wound of America’s race and class divisions creates the yearning for a new era and a redemptive figure where all others have failed time and again – Obama has been shrewd enough to play to this and fill that symbolic gap, if you may.

As much as Obama symbolises change and a possible bridge across America’s racial and ethnic divide, he brings a new hope and a new face to America in the eyes of the rest of the world too.

There is also an expectation that a new dawn for America and its relations with the rest of the world is in the offering – many wait with baited breath.

Obama’s campaign will be studied for a long time. His conception of the historical juncture, which America is in, has led to a brilliant choice of slogans (calling his a ‘movement for change’), his management of the divisive American politics and his grassroots mobilisation of American youth and fund-raising are impressive and inventive.

His campaigns are infused with the feel-good factor. His website boasts encyclopaedic answers to every policy nook and cranny you can imagine. Obama is what the American youth always like to say: ‘His cool!’

Perhaps wading your way through the swamp of answers can also serve as a distraction – not being able to see those things that are core to the American political and economic ideology and power. Those things that matter to the ruling elite and which Obama is unlikely to change.

Even our own conservative political commentator, Patrick Laurence (The Star June 10, 2008) couldn’t resist being mesmerized by Obama, to the extent that he titled his column: How long till we get an Obama.

Having been sufficiently inspired by Obama magic, Laurence makes the next imaginative leap: he wonders loudly when an Anglo-African Obama (a white South African) will break the racial divide and create a true non-racial society in South Africa.

Why Laurence thinks it should only be Anglo-African is an enigma. Be that as it may,  Laurence conveniently avoids debates about ideology, class issues and economic interests that matter as much to Obama’s campaign as his magic. Laurence is interested in magic not real politics.

Laurence makes exactly the mistake we all may be making – judging the candidate on his race and on the historical significance of the moment not the threat of American hubris and its policies aimed at keeping its hegemony and dictating to the rest of us as to how we should behave.

Such star-gazing disturbs the critical scrutiny between rhetoric and the reality of power. Obama is as much a creation of his own inventiveness as he is the product and measure of other interests that back him. We must not mistake symbolism with reality.

On this score, Obama has distinguished his campaign from that of Hillary Clinton by claiming he has not taken any money from special interest groups. He does not want big corporations and special interest groups to influence his policies. This is noble, but not the whole truth.

Obama’s grassroots campaign fund-raising is admirable. His campaign is backed by 258 000 individual sponsors. Nevertheless, not a long while ago, when he campaigned to be elected as Senator, it did not stop him from accepting money from special interest groups.

During his eight–year term as Senator in Illlinois, the Illinois Board of Election Records note that from 1996 to 2004, two-thirds of the money he raised for his campaigns -- $296,000 of $461,000 -- came from special interest groups.

Contributions came from a variety of sources: financial services firms, real estate developers, healthcare providers, oil companies, and many other corporate interests, the records show.

For his current campaign, the top-four out of the top-five contributors happen to be employees from America’s top investment houses – they are: Goldman Sachs, UBS AG, JP Morgan Chase & Co, and Citigroup Inc. The fact that they are from individuals and not corporate may well just be a smoke-screen. They are the engines of America’s big capital.

The problem is that America is run by special interests. Politics in America is far more intensely driven and invested by the moneyed class and the power of special interest groups that any candidate who imagines they can escape special interest groups is either naive or masquerading.

The division of power between the Congress, legislature and executive does not make Obama immune from the influence of special interest. He may avoid them now, but closer to the election and when he does get into power, Congress will be filled with representatives lobbying on behalf of special interest groups.

These are the people Obama has to smoke the peace pipe with in order to get policies approved and legislated.  The Senate and the House of Representatives is filled with special interest intrigue.

Obama will bring about a re-writing of history, but what counts as historical revolution may not in the end deliver a revolution in political thinking and fundamental change in America’s rootedness in corporate led capitalism and its need to maintain global hegemony.

We are talking subtleties not fundamental differences.

In the end, Obama’s magic, not like Laurence wants us to believe, will not be measured by how he succeeds in building bridges between the divided American races and ethnic groups, but his record on the economy and foreign policy.

The race debate is exactly the decoy that softens the voters just as it has our own Laurence. Obama will do little for racial politics, as Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell have done.

How much he gives in to the corporations, how he deals with the needs of the have-nots, whether he will cut military spending (which already consumes six out of ten dollars), his dealing with the Palestinian crisis, the manner of his support to Africa, whether he saves world trade negotiations on behalf of development, and his dealings with China, all matter more than just the race issue.

Social and economic reform will have to compete with the military budget. Robert Scheer has noted that both Obama and McCain have avoided talking about cuts in the military budget (The Nation, June 12, 2008).

He says all the right things – but this is an election campaign not a man in office, as Scheer writes: ‘..all the campaign promises about funding programs, from education to healthcare, are an obvious fraud’.

What those of us who have to live on the margins are pretty sure about – which is where we differ with our local commentator Laurence - is that Obama may bring a new kind of leadership to America, but will not fundamentally change America’s interest and imperial oversight over the rest of the world.

Obama shares the general American belief in their own exceptionalism. Obama, in a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reminded his esteemed audience of this when he said: ‘I still believe that America is the last, best hope of Earth. We must show the world why this is so.’

We may breathe slightly better, but whether we will be better off is still to be seen.

The signs are already there: he is getting soft on the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as he parodied the view of conservatives in a recent Fortune Magazine interview (June18, 2008); has taken a biased position in favour of Israel having been lobbied heavily by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and it looks like he is two-minded about whether or not to leave American soldiers in Iraq - having once promised that he will get them out as soon as he becomes President.

The populist rhetoric is slowly drifting towards the center-right. Special interests are already defining his politics without them even paying. His foreign policy is no different from that of Bush nor McCain. Obama will not escape pushing America’s interests.

Let’s face it: all that is happening with the Obama effect is like replacing GE’s Jack Welsh with Jeff Immelt without a fundamental restructuring of how GE makes its profits.

We will witness the transition from Bush to Obama in all magnificence, but the same old America will continue with the add-on of Obama magic. We should be wary of confusing feel-good symbolism with real politics.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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Rory Short
4 Jul

Politics and the USA

For quite sometime now it has seemed that American politics has two faces. The internal face which tries to adhere to democratic principles and the external face which whilst claiming to aspire to democracy is in a reality directed by the robber barons of corporate America which is not at all linterested in any democratic principles

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