Neoliberalism in blackface: Barack Obama and deracialization, 2007-2012.

Author:George, Hermon


... when you look at how we should approach Social Security, I believe ... that cutting ... benefits is not the right answer.

Candidate Obama, 2007

We offered an additional $650 billion in cuts to entitlement programs--Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security.

President Obama, 2011 (1)

As the quotes above reveal, Barack Obama as president has demonstrated a disconcerting willingness to subscribe to the anti-democratic and austerity-driven tenets of the new post-Fordist regime of capital accumulation. Known variously as "the Washington Consensus", "That cherism", "Reaganomics", "globalization", or "TINA-ism", it may also be referred to as neoliberalism. (2)

Writing in 2005, before the Great Recession, David Harvey offered the following definition of neoliberalism,

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence [sic], police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights, and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit. (3) The candidacy, campaign, and first term presidency of Barack Obama have been shaped by neoliberalism, the latest regime of capitalist accumulation. (4) Major policies of neoliberalism include privatization, deregulation, laissez faire capitalism, cutting social welfare spending, and colorblind racism. Accompanying this regime has been a politics of austerity, the effects of which have been most visible, among other places, in parts of Black America. This essay will examine the rise and installation of "the Obama phenomenon", its betrayal of Black America especially as it relates to four (4) crises exacerbated by neoliberalism, present a critical review of differing judgments of Obama, and close with an argument on the need for a Black radical democratic agenda as a necessary response to Obama-ism.

With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the politics of deracialization achieved its most stunning success. But, the first term (c2008-2012) of the first African-American elected President of the United States occurred amid a backdrop of economic collapse. (5) Let us now rehearse the events which led to Mr. Obama's election.

The Election of Barack Hussein Obama

On February 10, 2007, in Springfield, Illinois, the 45 year-old junior U.S. Democratic Senator from Illinois declared his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. (6) Barack Hussein Obama had served in the Illinois State Legislature as a State Senator from 1996 to 2004, losing his first bid for national office, 61% to 30%, in a contest for U.S. Representative (1st District) in 2000 to the incumbent, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill), a former member of the Black Panther Party. Later, he would run for the U.S. Senate in 2004, defeating black Republican carpetbagger Alan Keyes, 70% to 27%, the largest margin of victory in state history. (7)

Choosing the symbolism of the Historic Old State Capitol building where, in 1858, U.S. Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln declared his opposition to slavery and his desire for a united country, Obama hoped to invoke a potent icon of change for a nation facing turbulent times. Obama's path through the primary and caucus season, replete with successful strategies and shortcomings, would lead to victory in November, 2008. That victory, on November 4, 2008, had been secured by the youth (18-30) vote, and voters of color, since white voters went for John McCain, 55% to 43%. (8)

The Campaign's Overall Strategy

According to a campaign insider, the Obama campaign decided early on to pursue a front loaded strategy in which early primary contests would be critically important. (9) From January 3 to 26, 2008, the campaign pulled off an unexpected upset in Iowa (January 3), and split the first four contests of the campaign with rival Hillary Clinton during this period. Obama won South Carolina on January 26.

Campaign manager David Plouffe makes clear that winning in Iowa or New Hampshire was crucial to recruiting African-American voters, who in the early going had favored Mrs. Clinton. In addition, in order to defeat Clinton, a largely new section of voters would have to approached, energized, enlisted, and convinced to vote for Obama (Plouffe called this "expanding the brand"). These Obama voters would be volunteers from cities and communities across the nation, tasked with three crucial duties: helping to fund the campaign; organizing their local communities in get-out-the-vote efforts for the campaign; and, delivering the Obama campaign's message person-to-person as reliance on "traditional media sources" continued to decline. (10)

As described by Plouffe, the Obama campaign's message had four core elements: "change versus a broken status quo"; "people versus the special interests"; "a politics that would lift people and the country up"; and "a president who would not forget the middle class". (11) The Obama campaign would be about "Hope and Change."

But, inevitably, in a country with a florid and still powerful system of racial hierarchy and white supremacy, the Obama campaign would also be about race. In this regard, Obama's "[race-neutral] tactical playbook" and two important speeches would determine the manner in which the candidate and the campaign would approach this explosive issue. (12)

The Campaign's Racial Strategy

In the immediate prior election cycle, in 2006, before Obama's first campaign for the nation's highest office, Black candidates for statewide and national office had not fared well. Of the five Black men who ran for either Governor or the U.S. Senate (Lynn Swann, Republican/Governor/PA; Michael Steele, Republican/U.S. Senate/MD; Kenneth Blackwell, Republican/Governor/OH; Harold Ford, Democrat/U.S. Senate/TN), only one (Deval Patrick, Democrat/Governor/MA) had been successful. (13) This did not bode well.

Confronted with this circumstance, Harris has argued that Obama and his team adopted a "[race-neutral] tactical playbook" during the campaign as a way of defusing and re-directing a potentially lethal threat to a Black candidate for elective office in a racially divided, predominantly white nation. (14) Harris reports that the rules contained in this playbook include the following: never directly attack a white political opponent (so as to avoid the appearance of being "an angry black man"); emphasize the candidate's rags-to-riches biography and not his policy positions; exhibit a calm demeanor as a general rule of personal conduct; point to the candidate's individual character and accomplishments avoiding any prolonged association with a mass Black identity; subtly position the candidate as a being light-skinned person; reinterpret Black issues as universal issues and, seek out third party authentication whereby members of the white elite vouch for, and endorse, the candidate. (15)

In addition, Obama deployed other themes and tactics in handling this issue, especially in two decisive speeches. The first speech, delivered at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, July 27, 2004, mentioned his immigrant father (as a bow to America's supposedly inspiring history of immigration), invoked the lesson of hard work (as leading to just rewards: "Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place ... America"), appealed to American exceptionalism ("the American Dream": "My parents shared ... an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation."), rejected the view that government entitlements are a panacea for America's social ills ("The people I meet in small towns and big cities, they [sic] don't expect government to solve all their problems."), offered a moral sermon to the Black poor (on their need to be better citizens and better parents: "Go into any inner city neighborhood ... They know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets...."), advocated an enlightened imperialism (America has "a solemn never ever go to war without enough troops to win ..."), and the most quoted line from the speech, professed to see only "the United States of America," not a "red America, a blue America", or a liberal or conservative America, Black or white America, or a Latino or Asian America. (16) Despite its obvious lack of substance and troubled ethics, the speech was overwhelmingly positively received, catapulting Obama to national prominence. (17)

Four years later, addressing the most serious threat to his then-ascendant campaign, Obama delivered a speech entitled "A More Perfect Union", on March 18, 2008 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (18) Seeking to quell the media storm of criticism that had erupted over FOX News' and others' sensationalized account of his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Wright's recent presumed anti-American and anti-white comments, Obama began his speech by proclaiming the American constitution...

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