190 Examining Obama

It’s always wise, when hearing politicians speak, to disregard their promises and heed their past performances, to ignore rhetorical flourishes while examining historical actions, to dismiss their theatrics while looking for evidence regarding their character and integrity, to look for a record of leadership, decisiveness, and action.  Thus I’ve found three books about Barack Obama that help put his political career in context.  All three are, in various ways, critical of him, so they must also be read critically.  

Shelby Steele’s A Bound Man:  Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win (New York:  Free Press, c. 2008) provides a probing analysis of the man.  (He may prove a poor prophet, however, in declaring Obama “can’t win”!).  Steele has longed pondered questions of race in America and written some fine books, including The Content of Our Character and White Guilt:  How Blacks & Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.  He sympathetically identifies with Obama inasmuch as he too has a black father and white mother (though his parents preserved an intact family in Chicago).  Like Obama, he went through an intense struggle as a young man, aching to racially define himself.  He too espoused radical views in his college years and invested several years thereafter to “community organizing.”  So he’s deeply sympathetic with Obama and openly admires the candidate’s “remarkable political talent” as well as the fact he is “elegant as well as eloquent” (p. 12).  But Steele finally finds Obama a deeply flawed man who ought not be trusted with this nation’s leadership.

Barack Obama “embodies a great and noble human aspiration:  to smother racial power in a democracy of individuals” (p. 8).  He exemplifies the best hopes of the Civil Rights movement launched by Martin Luther King, Jr.  This explains the excitement that has accompanied his rapid rise to prominence.  “It doesn’t matter that he sometimes goes along with race-based policies, or that he made his own Faustian bargain with affirmative action” (p. 8).  What matters—especially to multitudes of Americans encumbered with “white guilt”—is the fact that at last there has appeared a person who will signal the end of the long saga of injustice derived from slavery.  There has been, since the ‘60s, “a moral evolution away from racism so transformative that” millions of us desire “to see a truly qualified black person in the White House” (p. 11).  

To evaluate this particular black person, however, we must take seriously Obama’s personal quest for his father, an obsession that permeates his autobiographical Dreams from My Father.  This has been, Steele notes, the “lifelong preoccupation for Obama” (p. 17) that explains his “determination to be black, as if blackness were more an achievement than a birthright” (p. 18).  Hungry for a heroic sire, his youthful fantasies began to crumble in his 20s when he met his half-sister, the daughter of his father’s first wife, who shattered his dreams.  He was forced to admit that “the man Barack had always pictured as a formidable patriarch” was in fact “a figure of pathos, a man of some talent beset by petty weaknesses and the sort of arrogance that covers an inner faithlessness” (p. 22).  

Yet he would not detach himself from his father’s blackness—he wanted to don his racial identity, and that meant embracing his Kenyan ancestry.  But it also meant, strangely enough, mingling an African  identity with one crafted by African American writers such as Malcolm X and W.E.B. DuBois.  Steele understands Obama’s hunger.  “For racially mixed blacks, the search for ‘authentic’ blackness is also a search for personal credibility and legitimacy” (p. 28).  Still more:  it’s a hunger to belong to a people, a  community, that grants worth and purpose to one’s existence.  “The ache at the center of Dreams from My Father is this seemingly permanent ache of not belonging” (p. 34).  Thus some men (such as Louis Farrakhan and Jeremiah Wright) embrace varieties of “black nationalism.”  Steele himself felt its lure, but in time he saw that “kitschy images of ‘blackness’” would never help him “build a successful life in the modern world” (p. 37).  He understood, while working in the community in East St. Louis, IL, what Obama failed to learn later in Chicago, that he was indulging in a “gesture of identification—the act of going along with something that we may not entirely believe in to show our identification with our group and our militant disregard for mainstream society.  It is a way of belonging” (p. 37).  

This belonging “demands a solidarity (transparency) very similar to what totalitarian societies demand.  It expects many gestures of identification—a liberal politics and a Democratic Party affiliation among them” (p. 38).  Finding his identity in his blackness, rather than relying on his own abilities, Barack Obama fell into trap, a double bind that makes him a “bound man” (p. 38).  He could (like Tiger Woods) have developed his skills and entered the mainstream of American society.  He had that option.  But “Obama’s racial quest springs from a personal angst, not from an oppression in society” (p. 44).  This was markedly evident when he attended Occidental College, where he carefully chose to associate with black activists, “’Marxist professors and structural feminists’” (p. 45).  He particularly dissociated from “blacks like himself—blacks from integrated backgrounds and good preparatory schools who are at ease in the American mainstream” (p. 47).  Indeed, he spoke harshly of a fellow student who chose assimilation rather than segregation.  Obama “needs to ‘be black.’  And this hunger—no matter how understandable it may be—means that he is not in a position to reject the political liberalism inherent in his racial identity.  For Obama, liberalism is blackness” (p. 52).    Thus in Chicago he joined “a South Side black church with a ‘Black Value System,’ focused on ‘Black freedom,’ the ‘black community,’ and the ‘black family.’  In this church, the adjective ‘black’ is a more consistent theme than any of the nouns it modifies.  It is invoked as an atavism, a God-given specialness that is thought meaningful in itself” (p. 53).  

Having examined Obama the man, Steele then considers the society within which he functions.  Throughout American history, blacks have mastered the art of “masking.”  In earlier times it took the form of a smiling, compliant, entertaining Louis Armstrong.  “Today, racial victimization is the face we blacks want broader America to see because it entitles blacks and obligates whites” (p. 68).  This is the mask the two Obamas effectively wear.  As victims, blacks have found both “bargaining and challenging” useful strategies, emboldened by “a largesse of moral authority that whites simply can never have” (p. 74).  Bill Cosby effectively negotiated “the classic bargainer’s deal” with The Cosby Show.  Challengers, like Al Sharpton and petulant rap singers, militantly assert that “whites are incorrigibly racist until they do something to prove otherwise” (p. 77); they make militant demands and exact payments.  

Then there are, Steele explains, “iconic Negroes” like Oprah Winfrey, bargainers who embody “the highest and best longings of both races” (p. 86).  “Iconic Negroes are absolution for whites and redemption for blacks” (p. 87).  “Barack Obama,” Steele insists, “is nothing if not an iconic Negro” (p. 98).  His amazing rise to prominence is largely attributable to this fact.  “What white Americans deeply long for is a bargaining relationship with black America” (p. 104).  They dislike being called racists and want to be granted moral legitimacy as tolerant people.  “It is Barack’s Obama’s extraordinary good luck that the arc of his life and political career has intersected with this great hunger” (pp. 104-105).  But the source of his success also renders him a “bound man.”  He’s in a bind because he’s succeeding while betraying the very people he claims to represent.  It’s difficult to follow the “one sacrosanct admonition:  whether bargaining or challenging, you must never ever concede that only black responsibility can truly lift blacks into parity with whites” (p. 110).  Neither blacks nor whites want to mention it, but “black responsibility is the greatest—if not the only transformative power available to blacks” (p. 111).  When Bill Cosby recently asserted this truth, liberal wrath rained down on from all sides.  Unwilling to join Cosby in telling the truth, Barack Obama is a “bound man.  He cannot be himself without hurting himself politically” (p. 118).  Though both blacks and whites find him an attractive solution to this nation’s racial injustices, he “cannot serve the aspirations of one race without betraying those of the other” (p. 126).  

Thus, Steele thinks, “it was masking, not convictions, that brought Barack Obama forward in American life.  He is decidedly not a conviction politician.  His supporters do not look to him to do something; they look to him primarily to be something, to represent something.  He is a bound man because he cannot be two opposing worldviews at the same time—he cannot grant whites their racial innocence and simultaneously withhold it from them” (p. 133).  In the final analysis, he lacks substance; he lacks a fixed compass; he lacks presidential character.  

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In The Case Against Barack Obama:  The Unlikely Rise and Unexamined Agenda of the Media’s Favorite Candidate (Washington:  Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 2008), investigative reporter David Fredosso tries, like a prosecutor, to set forth evidence that will convince a jury (the American electorate) that Obama ought not be elected President.  Ample notes (largely drawn from Chicago newspapers and national periodicals) carefully document his presentation.  He urges us to calmly compare Obama’s rhetorical claims with his deeds.  What the record shows, he argues, is that Obama has done little more than speak and write and display an attractive persona that lacks much substance. 

  Fredosso first considers Obama’s claim to be a “new” kind of politician, a reformer intent on constructive change.  His speeches certainly move the multitudes, but his activities in Chicago prove the contrary.  He has never supported reform nor wrought change.  He has always worked, hand-in-glove, with the entrenched political machine, ever endorsing Mayor Richard M. Daley and supporting (even as a United States Senator) the notoriously corrupt Strogers (father and son) who helped run the political machine in Cook County.  The inner circle of Obama’s campaign staff are veteran Chicago operatives (including a handful of enormously wealthy women).   His campaign finance manager, Penny Pritzker, is a billionaire who inherited, among other things, her family’s Hyatt hotel chain.  (In her role as a banker, incidentally, she advocated the sub-prime lending strategy that bankrupted the Superior Bank, a strategy that now stands revealed as a prime reason for our nation’s financial troubles).  And Mayor Daley’s hand deftly moves the Obama campaign via his veteran publicist, David Axelrod.   

Much the same must be said of Obama’s years in Springfield as a state senator.  There he linked up with Emil Jones, the senate president, who quickly envisioned for Obama a route to the U.S. Senate.  Jones incarnates “the patronage system” (p. 28) that distinguishes Chicago politics—using tax money to distribute grants and subsidize all sorts of programs (and relatives) that perpetuate one’s career.  To boost  Obama, Jones took important legislative bills drafted by other senators (especially when they funded  powerful unions, such as the Service Employees International) and gave them to Obama.  This was called “bill-jacking” by disgruntled legislators, but it enabled Obama to claim responsibility for a litany of bills in the senate.  In fact he simply benefited from Emil Jones’ largesse and ambitions.  And once he entered the U.S. Senate Obama repaid his benefactor by earmarking millions of dollars for some of Jones’ pet projects.  In 2007, Obama also “earmarked $1 million for the University of Chicago Medical Center.  The vice president of this center is his wife, Michelle Obama, who received a pay raise of nearly $200,000 at just the time when Obama became a senator” (p. 96).  

In Washington, D.C., Fredosso shows, Obama has followed the Illinois pattern.  He is “still not a reformer.”  For example, he talks much about education.  He declares, in grandiloquent terms, his resolve to make things better for kids.  In The Audacity of Hope, he lamented that students in a Chicago high school were denied opportunities to take science and language classes because there wasn’t enough money.  But the school’s teachers averaged $83,000 a year!  Chicago’s public schools spend over $10,000 a year on every student!  Money is not the problem!  Yet Obama blatantly refuses to identify and work to reform the real problem:  ineffective teachers and administrators and negligent parents.  And that’s because he has ever cultivated a close alliance with the Chicago Teachers Union and enjoyed its lush and fervent support.  

Since I consider abortion this nation’s gravest sin, I was most interested in Fredosso’s documentation of Obama’s record as a resolute abortion rights’ advocate.  Running for President, he has made every effort to obfuscate the issue, but facts are stubborn things and he is clearly the most pro-abortion candidate ever to run for President.  He supports partial birth abortion.  He has promised (when speaking to Planned Parenthood’s Action Fund in 2007):  “’The first thing I’d do as President is sign the Freedom of Choice Act’” (p. 203).  Thus his very first act—the thing he apparently thinks most important for him to do as President—will be to “effectively cancel every state, federal, and local regulation of abortion, no matter how modest or reasonable” (p. 204).  He wants tax monies to subsidize abortions—thus increasing the millions of dollars Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers rake in from public coffers and then in return lavishly support politicians such as himself.  

Obama is also one of the few Democrats (in the party devoutly committed to abortion on demand) to oppose saving the lives of babies who survive abortions.  When an effort was made to enact legislation, identical to the federal “Born Alive Infants Protection Act,” in the Illinois state senate, only Obama spoke against it.  When the same bill was subsequently introduced, he both spoke and voted against it.  Though all abortions end a human being’s life (and are thus forms of infanticide), allowing living babies to die most graphically illustrates this reality.  In his recent book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama danced around the issue and hoped to convince readers otherwise, but (as Fredosso’s many pages of documentation Fredosso prove), Obama cannot escape the fact that he endorses all forms of abortion.  

Fredosso examines Obama’s radical associates in Chicago, his financial ties with Tony Rezko, his religious affiliation with Jeremiah Wright, and various other activities—aspects of his career that I’ll not address but certainly of concern to anyone trying to see how exactly the man has acted during his brief political career.  

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Jerome R. Corsi’s The Obama Nation:  Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality (New York:  Threshold Editions, c. 2008) is even more harshly critical of the man.  Obama supporters have savagely attacked Corsi, mainly engaging in ad hominum attacks.  As an active member of the Constitution Party he certainly represents a political fringe, and he has in the past defended dubious positions.  In this book he looks for and mainly presents only the negative items he thinks disqualify Obama for the presidency, so one must carefully check his assertions.  Yet he earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, rigorously researches the documents, and has published a great deal on various subjects.  His text is studded with footnotes citing a wide variety of sources (including accurate citations of Obama’s own books) and I did not find Corsi significantly differing, in factual matters, from the other sources.   What stands out is Corsi’s animosity.  As he puts it, he fears Obama’s election would establish an “Obama Nation” wherein “leftist politics, driven by the cult of personality” would result in an “abomination” (p. x) for this country.  

Corsi is especially helpful in sorting out Obama’s biography—filling in the gaps, identifying the persons, exposing the errors, documenting the fabrications, explaining the issues so often blurred in Dreams from My Father.  He delves into the senator’s father’s life, interviewing his relatives in Africa and finding articles in Kenyan and British sources that present him in a much less favorable light than does his son, who fails to mention, for example “how many wives his father had, or how many half-brothers and sisters he has from different mothers, whether the women were married to his father or not” (p. 21).  Corsi further examines Obama’s continued involvement in Kenyan politics, actively supporting one of the presidential candidates (a radical socialist and fellow Luo tribesman) in the 2006 election.

He digs into Obama’s Indonesian years, interviewing people who knew him, locating TV documentaries and newspaper sources found only in Jakarta.  Since both his father and his stepfather were  Muslims, and since young Barack attended a Muslim school for two years as well as a Catholic school for another two, Corsi notes those influences.  But he concludes that young Obama seemed almost oblivious to religion of any sort, no doubt following his mother’s example.  He refuses to question Obama’s claim to be a Christian.  He locates some of Obama’s Honolulu high school associates, explaining that the man he calls “Ray” in his autobiography is actually Keith Kakugawa—a  half African-American, half Japanese man who identifies himself as “mixed race,” and claims to have never been the “prototypical black guy” who prominently appears in Dreams from My Father

Corsi also helps us understand what Obama’s career as a “community organizer” in Chicago involved, providing a perspective rather different from Obama’s own account.  He was hired by Jerry Kellman, who ran a Saul Alinsky-inspired organization in Chicago that wanted to “’convert the black churches of Chicago’s South Side into agents of social change’” (p. 129).  This ultimately led Obama to contact Jeremiah Wright and join his congregation.  Obama’s many connections with Tony Rezko are clear, if not well publicized by the major media.  Rezko, one of Obama’s first clients when he began his career as a Chicago lawyer (the man Hillary Clinton accurately called a slumlord) “helped bankroll Obama in five election runs” (p. 153).  A FBI informant “often saw Obama coming and going at Rezko’s offices” and the two apparently talked frequently on the phone.  One Chicago journalist called him Obama’s “’political Godfather’” (p. 154). 

In return for supporting various Democrats in Chicago, Rezko received, within a decade, “more than $100 million” from state and local governments to “rehabilitate thirty buildings in Chicago” (p. 160), supposedly to provide housing for the poor.  The work he did, however, was so shoddy that most of the buildings soon proved uninhabitable.  Eleven of these buildings were in Obama’s district, but “there is no record that Illinois state senator Obama ever so much as placed a speech in the record objecting to the public-housing practices perpetrated in his district by Tony Rezko, let alone calling for investigation of Rezko and his business practices” (p. 164).  Indeed, the friendship flourished, and the Rezkos recently helped the Obamas purchase their current home in an up-scale section of Chicago.  Now the taxpayers’ money is gone and the decaying buildings are empty and Rezko has been sentenced to prison.   Though Obama claims to have had only passing connections with the convicted felon, the proven connections between the men should give voters pause.  

Corsi also devotes many pages to William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, who were close to Obama in the past two decades.  In his opinion, all these associations (and particularly their cumulative weight) raise too many red flags for voters wanting a good President.  This is particularly true because he thinks in this case “the candidate is the message.”  Obama has done very little, though he certainly makes alluring promises.  The facts, Corsi insists, render Obama’s rhetoric (however impressive) self-promoting and vacuous.    

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