One of the most memorable images of the presidential election return night which saw Barack Obama victorious showed Jesse Jackson in tears in Chicago’s Grant Park. The grizzled veteran of the civil rights campaign and veteran presidential candidate in his own right wept with joy over the victory of a black American to our top political post. Jackson’s joy was shared by millions of Americans many of whom felt they would never live to see such a day.

But thirteen months have passed since that magical evening and aside from the symbolic victory of a black American attaining the highest office in America, the importance of which cannot be minimized, has Obama’s election victory changed the lives of average black Americans?

The profound economic downturn that has been minimized with the term "recession" has hit minorities, including black America, worse than others. Indeed, the official unemployment rate for African Americans (15.6% in November) is more than half again the overall rate of unemployment (10.%). The unemployment rate for African Americans increased 4.3% in just one year from 11.3% in November of 2008, to 15.6% in November, 2009. Another way to look at is that the unemployment rate for African Americans AT THE BEGINNING of the downturn (11.3%) was higher than the highest rates yet reached for the overall population (10.2%). Latinos have also suffered more than the white population, with unemployment among Latinos rising from 8.6% in November, 2008 to 12.7% in 2009. The L.A. Times has an excellent graphic and story showing these rates.

Here is a table, with information from the above article, showing the unemployment rates among racial groups for the past year:

Overall………………..6.8% (November 2008) 10.0% (Nov. 2009)

Whites…………………6.2% ………… 9.3%

Blacks………………..11.3% ………… 15.6%

Latinos………………. 8.6% ………….12.7%

"Impatience is mounting among black leaders," warned the same L.A. Times article after President Obama began "selling his new job programs" last Tuesday:

Hours after Obama laid out his new jobs plan Tuesday, black lawmakers noted that the first African American president was silent on ways to help minorities hit hardest by the downturn.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, released a statement quoting Obama’s campaign promise not to ignore race. She pointed to the high rate of unemployment and foreclosure in black and Latino areas. More than a quarter of black households reported being "food insecure" last year, she noted.

Lee said the caucus would offer its own proposals, including targeted job training and more direct federal hiring in black communities.

"We believe that tackling systemic inequality requires specific, concrete and targeted action," she said. "We want to make sure unemployment comes down in every part of the country and to do that we have to make sure the communities of color have specific resources."

The White House indicated it would not make special accommodations for blacks.

White House press secretary Gibbs explained that:

"I don’t think the president believes that we should address only one part of the unemployment rate," Gibbs told reporters. "The president believes that the plans that he outlined have the ability to address both the national as well as the black and the Hispanic community."

Civil rights activists said they weren’t surprised.

"I don’t think this administration ran on a promise to deal with specific race issues, and no one should be expecting them to do that now," said the Rev. Al Sharpton. "He’s not a member of the Congressional Black Caucus anymore."

Although Sharpton is correct in that analysis, one must wonder if the overall neglect of the Obama administration towards job creation with its unwillingness to use the federal government to create mass public works projects will not only bring the Democratic Party to its knees come next November but undercut its support among a key group backing Obama: African Americans. Indeed, Obama’s chief economic advisor, the hopelessly inept Larry Summers, dismissed for incompetence as head of Harvard University, today is trumpeting that the economic crisis appears to be over even as the country struggles with double digit unemployment numbers. Sounding much like John McCain in September, 2008, Summers:

Lawrence H. Summers, President Obama’s top economic advisor, told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos today that "Everyone agrees that the recession is over" and predicted good news for jobs based partially on November’s surprisingly low unemployment numbers, saying “Most professional forecasters are looking for a return to job growth by the spring."

Sounding much like John McCain before he lost the presidential election, Summers gleefully told an ABC audience to "look at unemployment statistics they will show job growth." Obviously, neither Summers or Obama have talked to “everyone” and Summers needs to be shown the door. Both seem to miss the obvious point: a rising tide will lift all boats, including those of African Americans and Latinos. Summers and Obama seem to focus only on the yachts of Goldman Sachs, Citibank, and Wall St. and not on the crafts of average Americans and even the more battered ones of its minorities.

Syndicated African American columnist Roland Martin underscored this point last week in an excellent article, "The era of ‘blame Bush’ is over for Obama." Martin notes that Obama was swept in on a tide of "blame Bush" on the war in Iraq and on the economy but that with his escalation in Afghanistan and his stimulus plan, Obama must now "accept full responsibility for the condition of the country." Martin also writes about 10 members of the Congressional Black Caucus withholding their support for an overhaul of the financial services industry (since passed):

"because they feel the administration isn’t being specific in addressing the effect of the economy on African-Americans. …according to Black Caucus members, their constituents have been left out in the cold. They are threatening to join up with Republicans to defeat some of the President’s measures unless they get more."

But such criticism is mild compared to that of people like John Pilger, Adolph Reed, and Paul Street. Pilger, the award-winning documentary maker and journalist, essentially believes that Obama was selected as a tool by the ruling elite of America for the very reason that he is black and seems to transcend race. Writes Pilger:

But it is equally true that the American elite has grown adept at using the black middle and management class. The courageous Martin Luther King recognised this when he linked the human rights of black Americans with the human rights of the Vietnamese, then being slaughtered by a "liberal" Democratic administration. And he was shot. In striking contrast, a young black major serving in Vietnam, Colin Powell, was used to "investigate" and whitewash the infamous My Lai massacre. As Bush’s secretary of state, Powell was often described as a "liberal" and was considered ideal to lie to the United Nations about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Condaleezza Rice, lauded as a successful black woman, has worked assiduously to deny the Palestinians justice.

Pilger believes that America has shifted toward a "corporate dictatorship, managed by people regardless of ethnicity, with the media as its cliched facade." While this analysis would doubtless shock the majority of Americans, it explains (unlike other theories) Obama’s lack of action towards helping America’s minorities and his eagerness to help Wall St. and big banks.

Meanwhile, African American political scientist Adolph Reed, from the University of Pennsylvania, sees Obama largely as a "vacuous opportunist." Reed has written in The Progressive:

I’ve known him since the very beginning of his political career, which was his campaign for the seat in my state senate district in Chicago. He struck me then as a vacuous opportunist, a good performer with an ear for how to make white liberals like him. I argued at the time that his fundamental political center of gravity, beneath an empty rhetoric of hope and change and new directions, is neoliberal.

Reed even notes that the Obama campaign misled people about Michelle when they portrayed her as victim of poverty on Chicago’s South side. In reality, says Reed, both of Michelle’s parents worked in City of Chicago jobs and her dad was a precinct captain for the Daley machine. Reed even lays waste to the often taughted Obama-as-community-organizer theme noting that Barack Obama served only briefly in this role and what he really did was become involved in a less than inspirational and pretty much conventional youth-oriented voter registration drive. To Reid, the Obama campaign skillfully distorted the backgrounds of the Obamas and played on racial themes with the campaign offering "the chance to become sort of black in that ultra-safe and familiar theme park way." If one accepts Reed’s Obama as opportunist analysis, this too would explain the lack of initiative and fight his administration has shown toward helping both minorities and average middle American whites.

This analysis of Obama as an opportunist is borne out by Ken Silverstein in an article from 2006 called "Barack Obama Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine" over at Harpers. Silverstein looks at Obama at a later date (as a U.S. Senator from Illinois) than Reed and concludes:

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.

But the most comprehensive analysis of Obama building upon the work of Reed and Silverstein comes from Paul Street in a brilliant article that also addresses Obama and the question of raceover at ZNet:

I was not alone in seeing Obama as enjoying more than an outside chance at the White House in the near future. Other Left observers knew about Obama’s longstanding outsized ambition and his related "deeply conservative" [4] ideological orientation and power-accommodating nature.[5] We were aware of his early (late 2003-2004) and close vetting by the national political and financial class[6] and of who really selects viable presidential candidates and winners – the corporate and imperial establishment.[7] And we knew also that, as the brilliant left commentator and author-filmmaker John Pilger noted last June, Obama’s racial identity could be a "very seductive tool of propaganda" working on behalf of the ruling class. "What is so often overlooked and what matters above all," Pilger ads, "is the class one serves. George W. Bush’s inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was perhaps the most multiracial in presidential history. It was PC par excellence. Think Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell. It was also the most reactionary."[8] As left black poet and political essayist Michael Hureaux observed in the comments section of Dissident Voice in February of 2008

…Obama was understood early on to be a distinctly possible if not probable next president – despite or even because of his race. We felt that he offered the U.S. power elite and its authoritarian business and military order and global empire a much needed re-packaging – a symbolic overhaul and "re-branding" – that none of the other serious presidential contenders in the mix could safely provide to the same degree required in the wake of the Cheney-Bush nightmare. For me and a few other lefties I knew/know, there was little all that unlikely or surprising or remarkable about Obama’s rapid climb to the top of the American Empire. It all made perfect sense. The same goes for Obama’s performance as U.S. president so far.

…Obama’s power-elite backing would only increase, I felt, as it became ever more clear to political insiders and investors that Obama possessed five great and interrelated advantages over Hillary Clinton. First, he was a significantly more charismatic public personality than her. The uninspiring Senator Clinton was no match for the dashing young Keynote hero with the "odd name" when it came to wowing a television or convention-hall audience.

Second, the United States’ incredibly powerful corporate media seemed uncommonly spellbound by Obama. The junior senator from Illinois had been riding a remarkable wave of media love since his deeply conservative [14] Keynote Address. I expected that love to deepen and expand in the presidential campaign – an invaluable advantage whose importance could not easily be overstated.

Third, and intimately related to that media approval, Obama was widely and falsely perceived as a strong and dedicated opponent of Bush’s unpopular Iraq War. This was a critical plus in the primaries, where the Democratic Party’s liberal and progressive base held significant sway. It let the in-fact imperial and militarist Obama appropriate "peacenik" consciousness that would have more appropriately worked to the advantage of more genuinely antiwar candidates like Dennis Kucinich, Cynthia McKinney, Ralph Nader, and (curiously enough) Ron Paul. With its strong attachment to Obama and its powerful tendency (shared with the broader U.S. political culture it both shapes and reflects) to privilege superficial matters of candidate character and "qualities" over substantive policy issues, dominant U.S. media seemed unlikely to disabuse progressive voters of the "fairy tale" (as Bill Clinton would rightly put it before the New Hampshire primary in mid-January of 2008) that Obama was a "peace candidate."

Fourth, Obama was widely seen as a left-leaning social-justice progressive. This false image was encouraged by his racial identity, his occasionally populist- and progressive-sounding rhetoric, and his short stint (after graduating from Columbia University and before attending Harvard Law during the 1980s) – heavily advertised in his campaign imagery – as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. This would also give him a significant edge among primary voters, who had been pushed to the left by the harshly plutocratic and messianic-militarist Bush administration. It let the in-fact corporate-centrist Obama benefit from social-democratic voter sentiments that would have more appropriately aided Edwards and (more genuinely left) Kucinich. Again, the media could be counted on not to expose the liberal and progressive fantasy.

Street expands on what he calls the "novelty dividend" of Obama which is connected with race:

Fifth, it struck me that Obama was going to garner a big advantage simply from the fact that he was new to the national political scene. An "overnight sensation" who entered the national stage just two and half years ago, he was supremely fortunate not to have been in the U.S. Senate when that body voted to authorize Bush to use military force against Iraq (a vote that Obama candidly admitted he might have supported in the summer of 2004). This "novelty dividend," immeasurably enhanced by his race and by his "exotic" (technically Muslim) nomenclature, would be a great plus in a period when the existing political order fails in spectacular ways. Like toothpaste and automobile brands, U.S. politicians generally benefit from being perceived as "new and improved." But the benefit of seeming "fresh" and new-fangled takes on special importance in times of political and policy breakdown. A political system that had gone sour would prove to be a special plus for the candidate who could most credibly claim to not have been part of it. (Ironically enough, Obama was deeply attached to the American corporate and imperial status quo, something that struck me as clearly indicated by his past record and which has certainly been born out by his subsequent record as president.)

The value of this "freshness" windfall, I sensed, was well understood at the elite level, in ways that mattered. In the wake of the Bush-Cheney disaster, the American corporate-capitalist system and its intimately related global Empire required a public relations makeover – a "re-branding," in advertising parlance – that Obama was uniquely qualified to provide among the existing field of Democratic candidates. … Obama offered the U.S. ruling class and American System an irresistible advertising and imagery overhaul no other candidate could begin to match.

Obama, it seemed to me, was poised to profit from a killer combination in U.S. politics. He joined widespread popularity and a related illusory progressive identification among the citizenry to strong approval from elite financial, corporate, and military elites who determined his basic safety to existing dominant domestic and global hierarchies and doctrines. Sophisticated corporate and military power brokers, I was sure, calculated that his deceptive (as they knew, after vetting him) progressive imagery and related newness would be useful when it came to "managing [popular] expectations" that were certain to be heightened by the passing of the Cheney-Bush regime and era. "Who better," I thought I could hear members of the political and investor classes saying…. "who better than Obama – with his outwardly progressive credentials, his ‘community organizing’ past, and his non-traditional racial identity – to be the public face for the long-predicted massive taxpayer bailout of high finance? Who better than Obama (with his supposed ‘antiwar’ record and his Islamic-sounding name) to provide cover for the reconfiguration of U.S. military control of strategically hyper-significant Middle Eastern oil resources in the wake of Bush’s Iraq fiasco? Who better to safely channel popular angers and to attach alienated segments of the citizenry to the corporate and imperial state and to refashion America’s image around the world?"

Street also notes that many people thought Obama could not attain the presidency because of his race, but that in fact Obama’s multiracial background helped him:

the nation’s white majority was unwilling to meaningfully confront racial inequality and the institutional racism and living historical white privilege that sustained persistent steep black-white disparity in the U.S. "Post-Civil Rights" "white America" was all-too fiercely attached to the false notion that racism no longer posed significant barriers to black advancement and racial equality in the U.S. It was, however, ready to vote in large numbers for a certain kind of black presidential candidate – one with special qualities who made a point of distancing himself from traditional black concerns, style, and rhetoric and indeed from the issue of race and the problem of racism. It was prepared to significantly back a smart, unthreatening, expertly crafted "black but not like Jesse [Jackson]" and "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" candidate like Barack Obama. This was particularly the case among the younger sections of the white electorate. At the same time, I knew, the ever rising non-white (primarily black, Latina/o, and Asian-American) percentage of the U.S. voting population (whites’ share of the active U.S. electorate fell from 90 to 74 percent between 1976 and 2008 [16]) meant that Obama would not necessarily require a majority of the white vote to win the presidency.

Just as importantly given my understanding that top U.S. politicians are fundamentally [s]elected by the investor class [17], I also felt that Obama’s color and name enhanced the U.S. power elite’s sense of his suitability for the project of post-Bush II American re-branding. The "first black president" story line would be an irresistible narrative for image-makers eager to restore the nation’s sense and representation of itself as a model democracy where "all things are possible" and no deep or insuperable barriers to equality can be found. Along with Obama’s purported antiwar history, his Muslim name and his brief childhood stay in Indonesia held great value in terms of tamping down "anti-American" (anti-U.S. Empire) feelings in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Islamic world more broadly – sentiments that had further fanned by Washington’s deeply criminal and more than incidentally bipartisan invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

With his distinctive promise to de-fang popular resistance to American Empire and Inequality at home and abroad, a properly elite-vetted Obama struck me as something of a ruling class dream come true in the post-Bush environment. He would make a marvelous vehicle for wrapping core conservative, system-maintaining policy continuities in the deceptive flag of progressive "change."

If one can get over the self-congratulatory nature of Street’s writings which is not mean feat, he does bring together an analysis of Obama that explains both his rapid ascent, his victories against Hillary and McCain, and the way he has governed since the election. Here is Street on Obama after his election victory:

Since the inauguration, Obama as president has governed as predicted – well to the corporate, imperial, and racially neutral center-right. Heralded by Advertising Age for giving "tainted brand America" an "instant overhaul" (as open, progressive, egalitarian, and democratic) Obama has if anything out-done my "cynical" expectations (dating to the origins of the largely media-created "Obama phenomenon"[30]) on the extent to which he would betray his many progressive supporters (some deluded and some not) and his more progressive-sounding campaign promises. Washington under Democratic rule and the Obama administration (since January 20, 2009) provides potent evidence for left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s take last year ( before the election) on the chances for progressive change under the United States "corporate-managed democracy" and "one-and-a-half party system." As Wolin predicted with haunting prescience in his chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), "Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors [will] make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society." In the United States’ election-focused political culture, Wolin elaborated:

"the parties set out to mobilize the citizen-as-voter, to define political obligation as fulfilled by the casting of a vote. Afterwards, post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests – the real players – takes over The effect is to demobilize the citizenry, to teach them not to be involved or to ponder matters that are either settled or beyond their efficacy….The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anticorporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf."

Obama’s predictable (and predicted) betrayals of his more leftish campaign rhetoric and imagery have met only minimal and half-hearted opposition from what’s left of a U.S. left. Unjust wars and occupations, mega-bankers’ bailouts and other regressive policies that were seen as intolerable under the nominal rule of a boorish moron from Texas (George W. Bush) have become acceptable for many "progressives" when carried out by an eloquent and urbane black Democrat from Chicago (Barack Obama). A recent pathetic example – one of many – comes from the so-called liberal-left journal The Nation, whose bourgeois editor Katrina Vanden Huevel proclaims the following in an editorial titled "Obama, One Year On:" "Whatever one thinks of Obama’s policy on any specific issue, he is clearly a reform president committed to improvement of peoples’ lives and the renewal and reconstruction of America… Progressives should focus less on the limits of the Obama agenda and more on the possibilities that his presidency opens up" [34].

Ms. Vanden Heuvel announces here that she has fallen prey to what Chris Hedges, author of the recent book Empire of Illusion, calls "Brand Obama." As Hedges wrote last May:

"Barack Obama is a brand. And the Obama brand is designed to make us feel good about our government while corporate overlords loot the Treasury, our elected officials continue to have their palms greased by armies of corporate lobbyists, our corporate media diverts us with gossip and trivia and our imperial wars expand in the Middle East. Brand Obama is about being happy consumers. We are entertained. We feel hopeful. We like our president. We believe he is like us. But like all branded products spun out from the manipulative world of corporate advertising, we are being duped into doing and supporting a lot of things that are not in our interest."

"… The Obama campaign was named Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008 and edged out runners-up Apple and Take it from the professionals. Brand Obama is a marketer’s dream. President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what the advertiser wants because of how they can make you feel [or because of crass and calculating motivations related to funding and perceived access to power at the upper ranks of the liberal Establishment – P.S.]." [35]

In the absence of meaningful anger and protest on the left, the dodgy Republican right wing and its still-potent "noise machine" is absurdly left to soak up and express much of the legitimate "populist rage" that ordinary Americans quite naturally feel over Washington’s continuing captivity to concentrated wealth, corporate-direction, and the military-industrial complex in the Age of Obama.

Resentment abhors a vacuum. [36]

This great left failure is, in part, a great, "expectation-managing" accomplishment of the fake-progressive Obama phenomenon and presidency. Obama was seen as a desirable candidate by the establishment partly because of his promise to encourage that failure.

This left malfunction was foreseen. After noting that Obama was "backed by the biggest Wall Street firms," the prolific left commentator and author-filmmaker John Pilger wrote the following at the end of May 2008:

"What is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s [in 1968]. By offering a ‘new,’ young and apparently progressive face of Democratic Party – with the bonus of being a member of the black elite – he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent." [37]


Street’s analysis, which builds on Pilger, Silverstein and Reed, is a pessimistic one. However, it does explain how a young, inexperienced and unknown Senator could just 4 years after being elected to the Senate attain the highest office in our land. Race and the manipulation of race plays a large role in that event. Street’s analysis also provides a near exact explanation for Obama’s handing out rewards to big banks and Wall St. and his lack of fight and help for average Americans of all races. The coming months and Obama’s actions (NOT his words) will prove whether Pilger-Silverstein-Reed-Street were correct or whether Obama is truly a transcendent figure.