217 Obama Appraised

Whereas journalists generally write books based upon interviews and other journalists’ accounts,   Stanley Kurtz (a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center as well as a contributing editor of National Review Online) has diligently plowed through archival materials as well as available resources on the internet and in print to compose Radical-in-Chief:  Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism (New York:  Threshold Editions, c. 2010).  In sum:  “From his teenage years under the mentorship of Frank Marshall Davis, to his socialist days at Occidental College, to his life-transforming encounters at New York’s Socialist Scholars Conferences, to his immersion in the stealthily socialist community-organizer networks of Chicago, Barack Obama has lived in a thoroughly socialist world” (p. 387).  When Kurtz began reporting on Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, he steadfastly refused to apply the “socialist” tag to the candidate, but subsequent research, and the radical slant of the president’s policies, have driven him to insist that the word is, rightly defined— in accord with European “democratic socialist” precepts—accurate.  Importantly:  it’s neither slanderous to say that Labor Party Prime Minister Tony Blair pursued socialistic goals nor pejorative to assert, with Kurtz:  “Evidence clearly indicates that the president of the United States is a socialist” (p. 15).  

By the time he arrived at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Barack Obama was, according to an acquaintance, John C. Drew (himself a “revolutionary Marxist” in those days) a socialist with a “‘hard Marxist-Leninist point of view’” (p. 88).  Moving to New York to attend Columbia University, Obama  experienced what Kurtz believes is a “transformational moment” while attending the Cooper Union Socialist Scholars Conference in 1983—one of the two or three such conferences he attended during his brief residence in New York.  Major socialist spokesmen such as Michael Harrington (who wrote The Other America, the treatise that had inspired the Democrats’ “War on Poverty” in the 1960s) presided over such events, and many of them urged their followers to advance the cause through “community organizing.”  

The celebrated success of Mayor Harold Washington in Chicago (a major influence on young Obama) had recently illustrated how black and Hispanic voters, activated by a voter-registration campaign and aligned with affluent progressive whites, could orchestrate social change.  “The buzz in the socialist world in April of 1983 was that blacks would be the leaders of a new socialist-friendly American political movement—a reincarnation of the sixties civil rights struggle, uniting all the races, but this time pushing beyond traditional civil rights toward egalitarian ‘economic rights’” (p. 43).  Importantly, at these conferences Obama encountered theoreticians such as Peter Dreier, who espoused the position of Andre Gorz (a French Marxist) calling for “transitional reforms” to slowly move capitalism in socialist directions.  Dreier called for “a ‘revolution of rising entitlements’ that cannot be abandoned without undermining the legitimacy of the capitalist class’” (p. 47).  A steady expansion of government spending will, in time he said, drive the country to the edge of “fiscal collapse.  At that point, a public accustomed to its entitlements will presumably turn on its capitalist masters when they propose cutbacks to restore fiscal balance” (p. 47).  Significantly:  “twenty-five years later, Peter Dreier would serve as an advisor to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign” (p. 49).  

Inspired to become a community organizer, Obama briefly worked for a Ralph Nader group in New York before moving to Chicago to implement the strategies of Saul Alinsky in South Chicago.  Here he was weekly mentored by one of the founders of an organization that sought to radicalize the city’s Mexicans and work effectively “with local Catholic churches.  This was a continuation and development of Alinsky’s own church-based organizing techniques” (p. 101).  Obama tried to duplicate such strategies in the city’s black congregations, which led to his alliance with Jeremiah Wright.  He further met and was trained by Dr. John L. McKnight, a professor at Northwestern University who later recommended him for admission to Harvard Law School.  “McKnight is an expert in both health policy and community organizing” (p. 124) who helped make the Community Reinvestment Act a tool with which to pressure banks to “make high-risk ‘subprime’ loans to low-credit customers” (p. 125).  An open admirer of Sweden’s democratic socialism, McKnight “helped turn Obama into a prominent advocate of single-payer health care” (p. 126), a cause he espoused while in the Illinois State Senate.  

Obama’s Chicago success was significantly boosted by the Midwest Academy, an Alinskyite training institute founded by ‘60s radicals to train community organizers that quickly garnered clout in the Democrat Party.  Voluminous archival materials in the Chicago Historical Society reveal the Midwest Academy as “a window onto the inner workings of a modern-day socialist front group.  With the assistance of the archives, it is possible to identify numerous links between the Midwest Academy and both Barack and Michelle Obama” (p. 146).  Here the Obamas encountered Rahm Emanuel, Lane Evans, Jan Schakowsky, the brothers John and Bill Ayers, and other influential Chicago notables.  Here too they imbibed the ideas of Harry Boyte, “a longtime community organizer” who helped shape “the Academy’s concept of a stealthy brand of incremental socialism rooted in community organizing” (p. 153) by urging his acolytes to disguise their real agenda with words such as populist, progressive, or communitarian.  “In 2008, Harry Boyte was an advisor to the Obama presidential campaign” (p. 171).  He and another scholar wrote an Obama-approved policy paper that proposed linking his campaign with “grassroots movement building—very much a continuation of the Midwest Academy’s political strategy” (p. 171).  

President Obama’s Chicago connections with ACORN (The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) further illustrate his radicalism.  Kurtz devotes 70 pages to detailing Obama’s “broad, deep, longstanding, and intimate” (p. 192) ties to ACORN, which until its recent restructuring “was the largest and most influential community organization in the United States” (p. 191).  ACORN especially sought to use the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977 to force banks to grant loans to lower lending standards for the poor and minority applicants.  By persuading powerful politicians—e.g. Henry Gonzales, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Maxine Waters, and Bill Clinton—to pass laws mandating such policies, especially in regards Fannie Mae and Freddy Mack, ACORN clearly helped precipitate the financial crash of 2008.  Though the president has tried to deny his close links with ACORN, documents in the Wisconsin Historical Society prove the contrary.  Indeed, “it seems fair to say that Barack Obama knowingly lied about his ties to ACORN during the 2008 campaign” (p. 258), illustrating “a systematic and deep-lying pattern of deception about his radical political past” (p. 259). 

Obama’s ties to ACORN were strengthened by his positions in several foundations that provided both money and connections basic to his political career.  Here he worked closely with Bill Ayers, the notorious ‘60s terrorist.  For nearly a decade Obama and Ayers “were longstanding political partners” working together at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and the Woods Fund, “two leftist Chicago foundations” (p. 261).  Obama publicly praised Ayers’s writings and funneled major financial support to the projects of him and his radical allies.  Obama also established lasting ties with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the Afro-centric pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, which he attended (he claimed in 2004) “on a virtually weekly basis” (p. 323).  President Obama, of course, has disavowed close connections with both Ayers and Wright, but the documentary record, closely examined, reveals their role in his Chicago years.  

Now that he’s president, Obama seems committed, Kurtz argues, to moving America leftward.  Still following Saul Alinsky’s agenda, he conceals his real beliefs and objectives, posing as a pragmatist interested only in solving pressing problems.  But his administrative appointments, his support for the stimulus bill, his taking control of General Motors and Chrysler, his nationalizing the student loan program, and his commitment to health care reform reveal his real agenda.  He is enacting the “stealth socialism” that he “studied and absorbed as a community organizer in Chicago.”  It is “a new socialism, a stealth socialism that masquerades as a traditional American sense of fair play, a soft but pernicious socialism similar to that currently strangling the economies of Europe” (p. viii).  

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When he decided to write a book on President Obama, Dinesh D’Souza rejected socialism as the key to understanding him.  Rather, in The Roots of Obama’s Rage (Washington:  Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 2010), he takes seriously Obama’s autobiography—significantly titled Dreams from My Father—seeking to understand him as both a man and a president in accord with it.  Though politically conservative D’Souza (born and reared in India) early rejoiced to see an African American elected president and never joined “the conservative chorus bashing” him (p. 4).  In time, however, he grew alarmed at the policies Obama both espoused and implemented, fearing that:  “If Obama serves two terms, he will likely leave America a very different country than it is now.  This is certainly his objective; he has set himself the task, as he put it in his inauguration address, of ‘remaking America’” (p. 18).  Amazingly, D’Souza concludes:  “We are today living out the script for America and the world that was dreamt up not by Obama but by Obama’s father.  How do I know this?  Because Obama says so himself.  Reflect for a moment on the title of his book:  it’s not Dreams of My Father but rather Dreams from My Father.  In other words, Obama is not writing a book about his father’s dreams; he is writing a book about the dreams that he got from his father” (p. 198). 

Obama’s dreams clearly come neither from America’s founders nor from Civil Rights leaders but from his Kenyan father, Barack Hussein Obama, Sr.  The younger Obama himself is intriguingly enigmatic— certainly the most obscure man to vault into the White House—and the “political mystery of his agenda is compounded by the psychological mystery of the man” (p. 2).  In an effort to understand and explain him, D’Souza found that he, as a non-white native of India with similarly elite educational experiences in America, enjoys a unique perspective.  He also recognizes the “rich melange” of anti-colonial “political and intellectual figures” who shape Obama’s (and his father’s) world (p. 13).  “Fortunately for me, this is intellectual terrain that I know well.  Steeped as I am in the politics and history of the Third World, these are figures whom I have studied” (p. 14). 

In his effort to “distil the essence of the man,” D’Souza insists that Obama “is his father’s son, and his dreams are derived from his father’s aspirations and failures.  Everyone who knows Obama well says this about him.  . . . .  The son is realizing everything the father wanted.  The dreams of the father are still alive in the son’” (p. 26).  This Obama’s autobiography makes clear, for “his whole book is an elaboration of how he internalized his father’s dreams and goals.  Obama calls his memoir ‘the record of a personal, interior journey—a boy’s search for his father and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American.’  And again, ‘It was into my father’s image, the black man, son of Africa, that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself’” (p. 26).  This explains Obama’s decision, following his father’s death, to begin calling himself “Barack” instead of “Barry.” (His father, Barack Sr., beginning his studies in Hawaii, had adopted the American name “Barry” and his son had been called the same).  

This name change, D’Souza says, “was a very big deal.  He didn’t just take his father’s identity; he self-consciously rejected his father’s American name in favour of the senior Obama’s African identity.  He obviously “identified with his father more than anyone else, and undertook an intense psychological and ultimately actual journey to Africa in order to discover his dad and in the process to find himself.  Unable to actually find his deceased father, he did the next best thing:  he embraced his father’s ideals and decided to live out the script of his father’s unfulfilled life” (p. 27).  Though forced to acknowledge his father’s many flaws and failures, he could still maintain that his dad “had great vision, great ideals, a great plan of reform” and he could live out his “heroic mission.  In changing the world into the image of his father, he would complete the task that his father couldn’t, and thus he would become worthy of his father, a real African and a real man” (p. 27). 

Yet his father, from most every standpoint, seems unworthy of emulation!  All told, “Barack Sr. managed a grand total of three wives, one wife-to-be, and eight children.  He was a terrible husband and a worse father” (pp. 64-65).  He was, by all accounts, quite intelligent and charming; he easily impressed people and had striking rhetorical gifts; but he drank heavily and died when he crashed his car driving drunk.  Very little for his son to admire!  “What gave dignity and depth, however, to Barack Obama Sr. was that he was part of a much larger movement—the movement to build a free and independent Africa in the aftermath of colonial rule.  We know that this history made an impact on young Obama because he tells us so” (p. 66).  This became clear in a pivotal moment when Obama visited his father’s grave in rural Kenya.  While sitting there watching some hyenas devouring a wildebeest in the distance, awash with emotion, he fell to the ground and wept.  Finally, “‘I saw that my life in America—the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin.  The pain that I felt was my father’s pain’” (p. 125).   To D’Souza this event signifies Obama’s “own death and rebirth” (p. 122).  Still more:  though he’d earlier “resolved to imbibe his father’s personality, his magnetic charm, his persuasiveness” it was here that “Obama receives something more fundamental.  In Obama’s own words, ‘I sat at my father’s grave and spoke to him through Africa’s red soil.’  . . . .  It is here that Obama takes on his father’s struggle, not by recovering his father’s body but by embracing his father’s cause.”  He will pick up the family torch.  “As Obama himself puts it, the dreams of the father forge the dreams of the son, and through a kind of sacramental experience at the family grave, the father’s struggle becomes the son’s birthright” (p. 126). 

Accordingly, D’Souza sets forth a theory—an hypothesis—rooted in Obama’s own words, to help explain him.  “My argument in this book is that it is the anti-colonial ideology of his African father that Barack Obama took to heart” (p. 34).  Obama’s dreams are the anti-colonial dreams of his father, and his “anti-colonialism is deeply felt, and it suffuses his writings and speeches” (p. 35).  Anti-colonialism explains the president’s continual criticism of and apology for America’s past behavior.  It explains why a president would offend the British by rudely returning a bust of Winston Churchill that had graced the Oval Office for years.  Such behavior appears inexplicable.  “But with his anti-colonial background, Obama probably remembers Churchill as an imperialist who soldiered for empire in India and Africa” (p. 42). Anti-colonialism can certainly explain Obama’s continual commitment to “spreading the wealth,” redistributing income from the haves to the have-nots, for he considers the United States a “neocolonial giant eating up more than its share of the world’s resources” (p. 48).  

As an anti-colonist (following the positions his father set forth in a pivotal 1965 essay wherein even a 100% tax rate was justified) Obama “believes that the rich have become rich at the expense of the poor; the wealth of the rich have become rich at the expense of the poor; the wealth of the rich doesn’t really belong to them; therefore whatever can be extracted from them is automatically just” (p. 167).   This explains why he sponsored, as U.S. senator, “the Global Poverty Act that would have committed the United States to spending over $800 billion over a decade or so to eradicate poverty in the Third World and also to enable Third World countries to follow Western environmental standards” (p. 156).  He also supports controversial legislative initiatives such as “cap and trade” less because of any environmental concern but because it affords an opportunity to equalize the world’s wealth.  “Obama’s basic assumption is that America and the West are using up too much of the planet’s resources.  This is a huge theme with Obama; he never stops talking about it” (p. 157). 

Anti-colonialism underlay Barack Obama’s decision to strongly identify with his African father rather than his American mother.  In part this was a political decision, for he “seems to have recognized that race was now a source of power in American society” (p. 97).  Obama attended Honolulu’s elite high school, Punahau, but he says little about his classes.  On his own, however, he read (rather voraciously) writers such as W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, Malcolm X and Franz Fanon, whose radicalism shaped his budding race-consciousness.  Though he seems to have encountered little actual race discrimination, his reading fueled a “black rage” that seemed to become part of his self-identification as an oppressed African-American (though his Kenyan father was neither American nor in the remotest sense affected by this nation’s history of slavery).  He was also quite taken by an elderly friend (and drinking buddy) of his grandfather’s, a black poet identified only as Frank (Frank Marshall Davis, who was well-know for his advocacy of radical, often overtly Communist causes). 

Obama’s academic studies appear to have buttressed his father’s anti-colonial understanding of the world.  At Columbia University he studied under Edward Said, the author of Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism and a vigorous champion of the Palestinian cause.   “He seems to have had a lasting influence on Obama:  some of Obama’s writings are highly resonant with Said’s themes and arguments” (p. 94).  At Harvard Law School “his real mentor was Roberto Mangabeira Ungar,” reknowned as “perhaps the leading anti-colonial scholar in the field of legal studies” (p. 97).  Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s controversial pastor of Trinity Church in Chicago further contributed to Obama’s anti-colonial convictions.  “The Audacity of Hope,” the first sermon Obama heard Wright preach (providing the title for the second of Obama’s books), was filled with angry references to suffering peoples around the world—all victims of the white man’s ways.  Moved to tears by the message, Obama decided to join the church, wherein he would be married and have his children baptized.  “The anti-colonial themes,” in Wright’s sermons, D’Souza notes, “are obvious here:  North versus South; rich, white Europeans versus the poor, dark-skinned people of Africa and the Caribbean.  These were the themes of Obama’s life, and he was drawn in from the start” (p. 197). 

This is a thought-provoking treatise.  D’Souza has carefully read President Obama’s published works and provides an interpretative hypothesis that does in fact help explain the man and his policies.  His footnotes are accurate, and he persuasively demonstrates his conclusions.  While anti-colonialism cannot explain everything about the man, if one takes seriously his autobiography many of D’Souza’s insights ring true.  And inasmuch as anticolonialism often incorporates a socialistic perspective, it may well be part of the president’s socialistic stance explored by Stanley Kurz in Radical in Chief.  

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