Here’s that Ken Silverstein piece from Harper’s in 2006 I keep referring to. I’m quoting (with permission) the introduction in full, since that story tells the tale. Note two things:
- ■ Obama uses a green event to paint himself freely with liberal cred (look familiar?)
■ The only call to action from Obama is to support his BigAg corn state ethanol agenda. The only one.
For Silverstein, Obama is a known made man at that point, and Silverstein wrote this in 2006, way before Obama announced for president. A great story and a great read (my emphasis):
Barack Obama Inc.:
The birth of a Washington machine
In July, on a typically oppressive summer day in Washington, D.C., roughly a thousand college students from across the country gathered at a Marriott hotel with plans to change the world. Despite being sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a moderate think tank founded by one of Bill Clinton’s former chiefs of staff, John Podesta, the student group—called Campus Progress—leans decidedly farther to the left. At booths outside the main auditorium, young activists handed out pamphlets opposing nuclear power, high pay for CEOs, excessive profits for oil companies, harsh prison sentences for drug users, and Israeli militarism in Gaza and the West Bank. At one session, Adrienne Maree Brown of The Ruckus Society—a protest group whose capacious mission is to promote “the voices and visions of youth, women, people of color, indigenous people and immigrants, poor and working class people, lesbian, gay, bisexual, gender queer, and transgendered people”—urged students to “break the fucking rules.” Even the consummate insider Podesta told attendees, with unintended ambiguity, “We need more of you hanging from trees.”
Around noon, conference participants began filing into the auditorium; activists staffing the literature booths abandoned their posts to take seats inside as well. The crowd, and the excitement, building in the hall was due entirely to the imminent arrival of the keynote speaker: Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Having ascended to political fame through a stirring and widely lauded speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama, the U.S. Senate’s only African-American member, is now considered to be the party’s most promising young leader—especially among those who, like the student organizers present, are seeking to reinvigorate its progressive wing. In terms of sheer charisma, Obama is certainly the party’s most magnetic leader since Bill Clinton, and perhaps since Robert F. Kennedy.
The senator was running a bit late; but when he finally glided into the auditorium, escorted by an assortment of aides, he was greeted by a tremendous swell of applause as he took to the stage. Dressed in a brown jacket and red tie, Obama approached the podium, flanked by two giant screens enlarging his image, and began a softly spoken but compelling speech that recalled his own days, after his graduation in 1983 from Columbia University, as a community organizer in poor neighborhoods of Chicago. “You’ll have boundless opportunities when you graduate,” he told the students, “and it’s very easy to just take that diploma, forget about all this progressive-politics stuff [his phrase], and go chasing after the big house and the large salary and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy. But I hope you don’t get off that easy. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition.”
Obama complained of an American culture that “discourages empathy,” in which those in power blame poverty on people who are “lazy or weak of spirit” and believe that “innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes halfway around the world are somebody else’s problem.” He urged the assembled activists to ignore those voices, “not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate than you, although I think you do have that obligation . . . but primarily because you have that obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. It’s only when you hitch yourself up to something bigger than yourself that you realize your true potential.”
It was a rousing speech, and Obama is probably the only member of Congress who could have delivered it with any conviction or credibility. When he left the stage and headed toward the hotel exit, he was trailed by a pack of autograph seekers, picture takers, and glad-handers.
Despite its audience and ostensible subject matter, however, Obama’s speech had contained just a single call for political action. This was when he had introduced Mark Pike, a law student who then came bounding across the stage in a green one-piece mechanic’s outfit. As part of a campaign called “Kick the Oil Habit,” Pike was to depart directly from the conference and drive from Washington to Los Angeles in a “flex-fuel” vehicle. “Give it up for Mark!” Obama had urged the crowd, noting that Pike would be refueling only at gas stations that offer E85—which Obama touts as “a clean, renewable, and domestically produced alternative fuel.”
Although the senator did not elaborate, E85 is so called because it is 85 percent ethanol, a product whose profits accrue to a small group of corporate corn growers led by Illinois-headquartered Archer Daniels Midland. Not surprisingly, agribusiness is a primary advocate of E85, as are such automobile manufacturers as Ford, which donated Pike’s car. The automakers love E85 because it allows them to look environmentally correct (“Live Green, Go Yellow,” goes GM’s advertising pitch for the fuel) while producing vehicles, mostly highly profitable and fuel-guzzling SUV and pickup models, that can run on regular gasoline as well as on E85.
Obama had essentially marshaled his twenty minutes of undeniably moving oratory to plump for the classic pork-barrel cause of every Midwestern politician.
Ken adds in a footnote:
 Since producing most domestic ethanol requires large amounts of fossil fuel, and regular gasoline provides about 30 percent more mileage per gallon than E85, it’s arguably preferable from a conservation standpoint to drive a standard gasoline car rather than a flex-fuel vehicle.
Then, after lauding Obama’s early Senate advocacy of leftish causes, Silverstein notes this stunning list of Beltway integration moves:
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.
In other words, Obama built a Washington machine, just like the one he built to defeat Bobby Rush in Illinois, once he realized he needed one. The whole piece makes a fine read; it’s a remarkable bit of original reporting.
Is it possible that Obama’s just a machine politician in the generic sense, but a machine he’s at the top of, not in the middle of? (Remember how he shut down outside funding groups like MoveOn in the 2008 election? It’s not your machine if you’re not in charge.)
If so, Obama’s loyalties are, to all appearances, to his machine and his own career. Something to think about when you think about Obama and his motives.
You can always do what many do and excuse him for weakness (this comfortingly assumes he’s on your side, but not good at it). Or you can go with Drew Westen’s kind assessment, that perhaps Obama “does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election.” Or Westen’s slightly less kind assessment that “he has already been consciously or unconsciously corrupted”.
But for me, that 2006 story tells the whole tale. How hard is it to believe that the politician Barack Obama is, and always was … a politician?
He paints himself green when he can because that’s his “brand” — for as long as he can get away with it anyway — and shills for corporate and special-interest donors, just like Mitch McConnell or Kent Conrad do.
The only difference is in the branding, the same as with most mass market, nationally advertised products. Dish soap is dish soap. Some is “enhanced with space-age enzymes” and some is “made from herbs and tea.” Some is “attractively priced” and some “smells like a garden in your kitchen.”
But it’s just product differentiation. McConnell has his brand, Conrad his, and Obama has his — each tailored to a different target market. You and me, we’re part of Obama’s target market; we’re the left-liberals hungry for hope. (“Hope? Can we build a theme around that?” “Sure boss; I’ll get back to you.”)
How hard is that to believe? For me, not hard at all. I’m an Occam’s Switchblade guy—he does what he wants to; it’s that simple. I’m glad to let others do the Voyage Round My Father thing. It’s just possible those are comfortable — and reality-avoiding — delusions.
That said, it’s your call of course, what to think and do. (And I think it’s safe to say I’m now off the White House Christmas list; I’m expecting nothing but Grinch-gifts this year.)