Obama’s Early History: It Would Have Been Useful If It Had Been Covered During the 2008 Campaign

As the presidential silly season kicks into high gear, it’s worth remembering that the political press corps, in all likelihood, will fail to shed light on how the candidates will govern. There will be lots of fixation on the wrong anecdotes. Obama’s relationship with Rev. Wright was troubling but, as shown below, not because of Wright’s supposed radicalism. Romney’s ‘Seamus incident’ doesn’t tell you much, but his willingness to eliminate funding for a teen suicide hotline focused on gay children (along with a whole set of reprehensible program cuts, all so he could claim he cut taxes and burnish his conservative bona fides).

Which brings us to a speech by the late Robert Fitch from 2008 (pdf here), shortly after Obama was elected. There aren’t any shocking revelations–no corruption scandals or truly outrageous statements. But it provides a prescient description of the pitfalls of Obama’s ‘Third Way’ policies, and makes it clear that he was never going to be ‘transformative.’ Yes, he and those who are no some of his closest advisors were involved in wiping out some of South Side Chicago’s worst slums. That is a good thing. But all that did is displace poor people, some of whom moved to the suburbs. While I’ve bemoaned the suburban zoning laws that turn our cities into warehouses of the poor–the suburbs need to carry the burden–moving poor people around doesn’t alleviate poverty. But doing that would anger wealthy donors.

On the other hand, the renewal policies Obama et alia promoted do make some wealthy people (i.e., real estate developers) even richer–there’s a lot of money to be made in real estate, and they can reward their friends very well. So what if one of your new-found ‘friends’ is a slum lord, and screws over the constituents you’re supposed to protect? Deals must be made, and we must all work together, never mind that some people’s interests oppose each other, and there isn’t a way to split the baby. It might not be damning or scandalous, but this kind of analysis would have been useful during the campaign, instead of ersatz scandals and controversies.

Anyway, below the fold, I’ve excerpted some of the speech (boldface mine; there are citations in the original pdf):

Obama resists being identified with either the Right or the Left. Even when he talks about his mom’s liberalism, it’s with a certain irony. “A lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for the New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism.” Obama is a partisan of the Third Way. In Europe, the Third Way means you’re neither socialist nor capitalist. In the U.S. it means you’re neither for liberalism nor conservatism. The Third Way is expressed very well in Obama’s 2004 convention speech.

Are traditional political vocations now obsolete? The Left stands for the interests of those who have to work for a living; for the tenants and the poor. For the victims of discrimination. The Right in America stands for the interests of the employers and the investing class. For those who own the land, the houses, the banks and the hedge funds. For Joe the plumber who was really Joe the plumbing contractor. And for those who see themselves as the victims of affirmative action.

In a way, though, the Left and the Right have more in common with each other than they do with the advocates of the Third Way. The Left and the Right argue that different interests matter. The Third Way says they don’t. According to them, the oppressed and the oppressors, the lions and the lambs should set down together and celebrate their unity in one great post-partisan, multi-cultural 4th of July picnic. One of Obama’s most repeated mantras resonates here: “a common good and a higher interest,” he says. “That’s the change I’m looking for.”

…What is the common good that tenants and landlords share? Not a lot I can think of. Maybe that the building doesn’t burn down? But some of you remember the ’70s when landlords burned down their buildings in poor neighborhoods to cash in on the insurance.

The haves and the have-nots have different and opposing interests—landlords want to get rid of rent stabilization; tenants have an interest in keeping it. Workers want to save their jobs; bosses want to save their capital, which means cutting workers. In pursuing their opposing interests, the have-nots are forced take up the weapons of the weak— demonstrations, direct action; filling the jails with conscientious objectors; taking personal risks. Who benefits when one side gives up without a struggle? The Haves or the Have nots? Frederick Douglass reminds us: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did. It never will.”

When the Third Way advocates insist that we share a common good; when they refuse to recognize that the interests of the oppressed and the interests of the oppressors don’t exist on the same moral plane; when they counsel us to stop being partisans of those interests—they’re not being non or post partisan; they’re siding with the powers that be.

…Communitarianism flows from belief that we all share a common good. What’s needed to achieve the common good, communitarians insist, is sacrifice. But some parts of the community have to show the way in giving up their selfish, anti-communitarian habits. For communitarians, the first responders must be the poor. For black communitarians like Bill Cosby and Barack Obama it’s chiefly the black poor.

Obama insists that the key to change is not resistance to oppression; not a battle against the exploitation of workers; or against institutional racism, or the domination of unaccountable financial elites; or the interests promoting gentrification….

…for most of the last two decades in Chicago there’s been in place a very specific economic development plan. The plan was to make the South Side like the North Side. Which is the same kind of project as making the land north of Central Park like the land south of Central Park. The North Side is the area north of the Loop—Chicago’s midtown central business district—where rich white people live; they root for the Cubs. Their neighborhood is called the Gold Coast.

…And by 2000 he’d [Chicago Mayor Daley] put in place something called The Plan for Transformation. It targeted tens of thousands of remaining units. With this proviso: That African Americans had to get 50% of the action—white developers had to have black partners; there had to be black contractors. And Daley chose African Americans—as his top administrators and planners for the clearances, demolition and re-settlement. African Americans were prominent in developing and rehabbing the new housing for the refugees from the demolished projects—who were re-settled in communities to the south like Englewood, Roseland and Harvey. Altogether the Plan for Transformation involved the largest demolition of public housing in American history, affecting about 45,000 people— in neighborhoods where eight of the 20 poorest census tracts in the U.S. were located.

But what does this all have to do with Obama? Just this: the area demolished included the communities that Obama represented as a state senator; and the top black administrators, developers and planners were people like Valerie Jarrett—who served as a member of the Chicago Planning Commission. And Martin Nesbitt who became head of the CHA. Nesbitt serves as Obama campaign finance treasurer; Jarrett as co-chair of the Transition Team. The other co-chair is William Daley, the Mayor’s brother and the Midwest chair of JP Morgan Chase—an institution deeply involved in the transformation of inner-city neighborhoods thorough its support for—what financial institutions call “neighborhood revitalization” and neighborhood activists call gentrification.

If we examine more carefully the interests that Obama represents; if we look at his core financial supporters; as well as his inmost circle of advisors, we’ll see that they represent the primary activists in the demolition movement and the primary real estate beneficiaries of this transformation of public housing projects into condos and townhouses: the profitable creep of the Central Business District and elite residential neighborhoods southward; and the shifting of the pile of human misery about three miles further into the South Side and the south suburbs.

Obama’s political base comes primarily from Chicago FIRE—the finance, insurance and real estate industry. And the wealthiest families—the Pritzkers, the Crowns and the Levins. But it’s more than just Chicago FIRE. Also within Obama’s inner core of support are allies from the non-profit sector: the liberal foundations, the elite universities, the nonprofit community developers and the real estate reverends who produce market rate housing with tax breaks from the city and who have been known to shout from the pulpit “give us this day our Daley, Richard Daley bread.”

…I have to stop now and put Karnak’s envelope to my forehead. What we see is that the Chicago core of the Obama coalition is made up of blacks who’ve moved up by moving poor blacks out of the community. And very wealthy whites who’ve advanced their community development agenda by hiring blacks. Will this be the pattern for the future in an Obama administration? I can’t read the envelope. But I do believe that if we want to disrupt the pattern of the past we have to make some distinctions: between the change they believe in and the change we believe in; between our interests and theirs; between a notion of community that scapegoats the poor and one that respects their human rights—one of which is not to be the object of ethnic cleaning. Between Hope VI and genuine human hope.

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4 Responses to Obama’s Early History: It Would Have Been Useful If It Had Been Covered During the 2008 Campaign

  1. Constance Reader says:

    “When the Third Way advocates insist that we share a common good; when they refuse to recognize that the interests of the oppressed and the interests of the oppressors don’t exist on the same moral plane; when they counsel us to stop being partisans of those interests—they’re not being non or post partisan; they’re siding with the powers that be.”

    This truth must be repeated over and over and over. And it is the reason why I did not support Obama in 2008: because any person who had been paying attention to politics since 1990 sound hopelessly naive when they speak of bipartisanship, but coming from a sitting U.S. Senator in 2008, it was plain delusional.

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