Ce n’est bon pour personne d’être élu uniquement pour obtenir des statistiques raciales équilibrées. D’apres Lord Carlile
Tout ça parce que par peur du politiquement correct, on veut pas faire du PROFILAGE! Margaret (passagère en colère)
Dans certains dossiers, les personnes contrôlées présentent des profils tellement éloignés des profils traditionnels des terroristes qu’il n’y a pas la moindre possibilité qu’il ou elle soit un terroriste. Ce n’est bon pour personne d’être arrêté uniquement pour obtenir des statistiques raciales équilibrées. Lord Carlile
Deux femmes voilées (…) n’ont pas pu prendre le vol qui devait les conduire du Royaume-Uni au Pakistan après avoir refusé de se soumettre à un scanner corporel, arguant de motifs religieux et médicaux. (…) Le Daily Mail rapporte que le service de sécurité les aurait choisi au hasard pour passer le scanner. La première a refusé, pour des raisons religieuses, la seconde pour des raisons médicales (une «infection», selon le Times). «En application des directives du gouvernement en matière de scanners, elles n’ont pas été autorisées à embarquer», a indiqué le porte-parole de l’aéroport de Manchester. Les deux femmes ont donc perdu le prix de leurs billets, d’un montant de 400 £ chacun. (…) L’aéroport de Manchester et celui d’Heathrow (Londres) sont les deux seuls du Royaume-Uni à être équipés de ces scanners d’un genre nouveau. Ce dernier n’a pour l’heure répertorié aucun refus de s’y soumettre. (…) Environ 5% des passagers au départ de Manchester sont passés au travers des scanners, soit environ 15.000 personnes depuis le 1er février, date de la mise en service de ces scanners. Il existe quatre motifs pour être scanné : une sélection au hasard par le service de sécurité, une demande venant du passager lui-même, un test positif à un explosif ou si une fouille tactile ne permet pas d’identifier ce qui déclenche le détecteur de métaux. Le Figaro (04/03/2010)
Security guru Bruce Schneier, a plaintiff in the scanner suit, calls this « magical thinking . . . Descend on what the terrorists happened to do last time, and we’ll all be safe. As if they won’t think of something else. » Which, of course, they invariably do. Attackers are already starting to smuggle weapons in body cavities, going where even the most adroit body scanners do not tread. No wonder that the Israelis, known for the world’s most stringent airport security, have so far passed on the scanners. Noah Shachtman
Le marché est doté d’un énorme potentiel … alors que le USA comptent à eux seuls 450 aéroports et environ 2.000 points de contrôle. Rappelons que le marché mondial des scanners corporels se partage entre quatre fabricants principaux : les américains L-3 Communications, ASEI (American Science and engineering), Rapiscan (filiale d’OSI Systems) et le britannique Smiths Detection. En janvier 2010, alors que nombre de gouvernements avaient annoncé leur décision de recourir à un tel type de matériel en vue de lutter contre le terrorisme, l’action de L-3 Communications avait pris 3% en une seule journée, atteignant même un sommet depuis 14 mois durant la semaine. Le titre d’AESI avait progressé quant à lui de 10,5% en deux séances tandis que celui d’OSI Systems progressait de 26%. (…) Petite précision et non des moindres permet d’appréhender le caractère « juteux » du marché : d’après Joe Reiss, porte-parole d’ASEI, un scanner corporel coûte environ 100.000 dollars, soit dix fois plus qu’un portique de détection de métaux classique … (…) Si l’administration américaine chargée de la sécurité des transports, la TSA (Transportation security Administration) a débuté l’utilisation des ces scanners en 2007, leur utilisation s’est généralisée en 2010 … après l’achat de 450 nouveaux scanners … grâce à des fonds du plan de relance américain ! Il serait intéressant de mettre en regard les noms des personnes figurant aux postes de direction des sociétés concernées et les proches collaborateurs d’Obama, il pourrait y avoir des « surprises » … Le blog finance
Alors que le scandale de ce qu’on appelle désormais le foreclosuregate enfle aux Etats-Unis, la Maison Blanche a affirmé mardi être opposée à un moratoire général sur les saisies immobilières. Motifs avancés : une telle mesure pourrait affecter le marché immobilier et freiner une bien timide reprise. A moins que Barack Obama ne souhaite « protéger » à sa façon les banques américaines, certains rappelant que Goldman Sachs – enfin, ses salariés, histoire de contourner la loi – a financé sa campagne présidentielle. (…) Rappelons en effet que si une loi sur le financement des campagnes interdit qu’une entreprise contribue directement aux campagnes électorales, les salariés de Goldman Sachs – et non directement la société – ont fourni, lors de la campagne présidentielle de 2008, près d’un million de dollars au candidat Obama. Les salariés de Goldman se placent ainsi en deuxième position parmi les donateurs. Après ceux de Goldman viennent notamment deux autres institutions bancaires : Citigroup et J.P. Morgan … Le lobby bancaire plus fort que le lobby pétrolier ? Le blog finance
Combien de Français donneraient leur vote à un homme affirmant sa foi en Dieu, favorable à la peine de mort et à la vente libre d’armes, qui a promis de bâtir une nouvelle armée du XXIème siècle forte de 100.000 hommes supplémentaires, sans s’interdire d’envisager une intervention militaire au Pakistan ? Marianne (nov. 2008)
Si l’Amérique le nomme en effet candidat, vote en sa faveur et finit par l’élire, ce sera un signe que nous sommes un pays de gens bien qui avons guéri nos blessures raciales. Roger Simon (NBC, 11.2.07).
De nombreuses personnes se sentiront poussées, selon moi, à voter pour lui, toutes choses étant égales par ailleurs, en partie parce qu’il est noir. Brit Hume (Fox News, 21.1.07)
Il a donné aux blancs la satisfaction de pouvoir se dire que la race ne compte plus en Amérique et que tous les péchés du passé peuvent être expiés à travers l’amour que l’on porte à cet homme. Glen Ford (Black Agenda Report, Counterspin, 17.11.06)
Obama (…) transcende la fracture raciale si facilement qu’il paraît en mesure de rassembler au-delà des autres divisions – et de répondre aux questions les plus délicates – qui minent la vie des Américains. Joe Klein (Time, 23.10.06)
Ce Clinton noir aux gestes de voyou magnifique mâtiné de King of America et dont le nom en swahili veut dire, paraît-il, “béni”, il se trouve que je le connais un peu. Bernard Henri Lévy (Le Point, 16.11.06).
« Washington machine », façonnée sur mesure par les lobbys et les réseaux de communicants, conseils en relations publiques, sondeurs et autres stratèges politiques, liens avec des bailleurs de fonds liés eux-mêmes à de grandes entreprises, opposition à un calendrier impératif de retrait d’Irak, soutien en 2006 du sénateur démocrate pro-guerre Joseph Lieberman contre le candidat investi par les militants du parti, évitement des prises de position tranchées sur les sujets politiques sensibles, fonctionnement en test des taches d’encre de Rorschach, éléments de son passé politique qui contredisent son étiquette d’homme du centre, volonté presque obsessionnelle de trouver un terrain d’accord avec la droite, campagne financée à 75% par des gros donateurs privés, choisi par des lobbies financiers: la moitié du financement d’Obama vient des grands groupes, de dollars venus de Goldman Sachs…, premier candidat de l’histoire des élections américaines qui refuse la subvention électorale de l’Etat fédéral (84,1 millions de dollars) et finance entièrement sa campagne grâce aux donateurs privés, coup fatal porté au mode de financement public des élections, nouveau problème à régler pour le financement des futures campagnes politiques (…) pour un candidat censé incarner la gauche de l’échiquier politique, beaucoup communiqué sur ses méthodes de financement consistant à s’appuyer sur les petits donateurs privés, récolté 600 millions de dollars au cours de cette campagne, le double des sommes levées par son opposant, les trois quarts de cette somme ne proviennent pas des militants de base mais de grands donateurs, VIP, grandes fortunes, lobbies, entreprises…
Alors que renait la polémique sur des scanners corporels censés, au-dela des mesures réellement efficaces (renforcement des portes de cockpit et vigilance des passagers), surtout rassurer les gens …
Et qu’avec la perspective de nouveaux scandales (saisies immobilières, Emmanuel Rahm-Freddie Mac) et surtout les premiers gros revers electoraux, certains mauvais esprits en profitent déja pour lancer les insinuations les plus désobligeantes sur l’actuel president americain et (ex ?) chouchou des médias…
A savoir celui qui a permis l’arrivée, a la tete de la premiere puissance mondiale et avec les résultats que l’on sait, d’une ‘Washington machine’, façonnée sur mesure par les lobbys et les réseaux de communicants, conseils en relations publiques, sondeurs et autres stratèges politiques » …
4 Novembre 2008
Même si les médias du monde entier ne jurent que par Obama, quelques voix s’élèvent outre-atlantique pour critiquer son opportunisme et le choix du mode de financement entièrement privé de sa campagne qui risque de faire de lui l’otage des lobbies de Washington.
La France vote Obama ! Sans blague. Selon un sondage publié en France le 17 octobre, 69% des personnes interrogées accordaient leurs suffrages au candidat démocrate, seulement 5% à John McCain. Un score soviétique relevant surtout du sondage de notoriété dépourvu de toute signification politique.
Simple détail, les Français ne sont pas appelés à se prononcer. Alors certes, un seul Obama vaudra mieux que tous les McCain du monde puisque tout le monde le dit.
Posons la question autrement sans tomber dans l’idéalisation de l’homme providentiel. Combien de Français donneraient leur vote à un homme affirmant sa foi en Dieu, favorable à la peine de mort et à la vente libre d’armes, qui a promis de bâtir une nouvelle armée du XXIème siècle forte de 100.000 hommes supplémentaires, sans s’interdire d’envisager une intervention militaire au Pakistan. Certes, le portrait est aussi minimaliste que caricatural, à la mesure des louanges qu’on lui tresse à l’habitude mais il dit aussi à quel point la transposition du duel américain en France est ridicule.
Obama, la créature de Washington
Heureusement, certains journaux américains n’ont pas attendu pour relativiser le cas Obama. Dans un portrait critique, publié dans Harper’s Magazine en novembre 2006, Ken Silverstein croquait Obama en créature, qualifiée de « Washington machine », façonnée sur mesure par les lobbys et les réseaux de communicants, conseils en relations publiques, sondeurs et autres stratèges politiques.
Repris en partie par la revue Le plan B, le portrait « souligne ses liens avec des bailleurs de fonds liés eux-mêmes à de grandes entreprises, ainsi que son opposition à un calendrier impératif de retrait d’Irak. Il rappelle aussi qu’en 2006 Obama a soutenu le sénateur démocrate pro-guerre Joseph Lieberman contre le candidat investi par les militants du parti, Ned Lamont. Mais même les commentateurs de gauche les plus sévères envers Obama omettent souvent les éléments de son passé politique qui contredisent son étiquette d’homme du centre. De son côté, Joe Klein, éditorialiste « ultracentriste » du i[Time, célèbre le sénateur de l’Illinois pour la raison suivante : « Il semble faire preuve d’une volonté presque obsessionnelle de trouver un terrain d’accord avec la droite »
Une campagne financée à 75% par des gros donateurs privés
Interrogé par le Journal du Dimanche, Dominique de Villepin appelle, lui aussi, à une certaine prudence: « Obama est séduisant, mais n’allons pas réinventer l’atlantisme s’il était élu! L’Amérique n’est plus le centre de l’Occident qui n’est plus le centre du monde. Obama, comme McCain, défendra les intérêts de son pays, qui ne seront pas exactement les nôtres. Il développe des thèmes sociaux qui renvoient à Roosevelt. Mais il est aussi choisi par des lobbies financiers: la moitié du financement d’Obama vient des grands groupes, de dollars venus de Goldman Sachs… ».
En effet, Obama est le premier candidat de l’histoire des élections américaines qui refuse la subvention électorale de l’Etat fédéral (84,1 millions de dollars) et finance entièrement sa campagne grâce aux donateurs privés. Un coup fatal porté au mode de financement public des élections. Du jamais vu et sans doute un nouveau problème à régler pour le financement des futures campagnes politiques. Pas mal pour un candidat censé incarner la gauche de l’échiquier politique. Barack Obama a beaucoup communiqué sur ses méthodes de financement consistant à s’appuyer sur les petits donateurs privés. Certes, il a récolté 600 millions de dollars au cours de cette campagne, le double des sommes levées par son opposant, selon une enquête du Washington Post.
Simple détail, souvent oublié, les trois quarts de cette somme ne proviennent pas des militants de base mais de grands donateurs, VIP, grandes fortunes, lobbies, entreprises… Les élites du pays qui ne manqueront sans doute pas de se rappeler à son bon souvenir en temps utile.
4 novembre 2008
Moins d’un an avant l’élection présidentielle américaine de novembre 2008, deux candidats principaux briguent l’investiture démocrate  : Hillary Clinton, femme blanche soutenue par les milieux d’affaires, et Barack Obama, homme noir soutenu par… Bernard-Henri Lévy. Sénateur de l’Illinois, Obama a conquis un statut de sensation médiatique.
Au lendemain de l’annonce officielle de sa candidature à l’élection présidentielle de 2008, le sénateur Barack Obama s’en est pris directement aux médias. Accusé par la presse d’éviter les prises de position tranchées sur les sujets politiques sensibles, Obama, qui a voté contre la guerre en Irak dès le premier jour, a répliqué : « Le problème, c’est que ce n’est pas à ça que vous vous êtes intéressés jusqu’à maintenant. Vous avez beaucoup plus parlé de mon physique en maillot de bain » (Washington Post, 12.2.07). La situation n’est pas courante : d’ordinaire, les responsables politiques d’origine afroaméricaine bénéficient rarement d’un traitement médiatique favorable, surtout quand ils sont réputés de gauche. Mais Barack Obama fonctionne un peu comme le test des taches d’encre de Rorschach : les journalistes politiques voient en lui ce qu’ils ont envie de voir.
Le positionnement politique général d’Obama pourrait se résumer ainsi : « de gauche, mais surtout pas trop ». Selon un classement des sénateurs américains réalisé par VoteView.com sur la base de leurs votes, il se situe au milieu de la mêlée des sénateurs démocrates. Toutefois, quand les commentateurs décrivent ses atouts, ils ne mettent en avant que ses prises de position les plus centristes.
Éditorialiste au New York Times – et inventeur du terme « bobo » –, David Brooks explique qu’Obama « est, du point de vue conceptuel, en faveur du libre-échange. Il estime que les États-Unis n’ont d’autre choix que d’improviser un moyen de tenir, coûte que coûte, en Irak » (19.10.06). Décrivant le sénateur comme « tout le contraire d’un orthodoxe de gauche », Brooks lui reconnaît un « esprit formé à travers la mondialisation, et non pas par le SDS  ». En outre, poursuit Brooks, il « en appelle non pas à un État fort, mais à un État ramassé et volontaire qui favorise la mobilité sociale. Le gourou contemporain qu’il cite le plus volontiers, c’est Warren Buffett [l’industriel milliardaire qui vient d’offrir la majeure partie de sa fortune à la fondation Bill Gates] ».
Dans l’un des rares portraits critiques d’Obama, publié dans Harper’s Magazine (novembre 2006), Ken Silverstein souligne ses liens avec des bailleurs de fonds liés eux-mêmes à de grandes entreprises, ainsi que son opposition à un calendrier impératif de retrait d’Irak. Il rappelle aussi qu’en 2006 Obama a soutenu le sénateur démocrate pro-guerre Joseph Lieberman contre le candidat investi par les militants du parti, Ned Lamont. Mais même les commentateurs de gauche les plus sévères envers Obama omettent souvent les éléments de son passé politique qui contredisent son étiquette d’homme du centre. De son côté, Joe Klein, éditorialiste « ultracentriste » de Time, célèbre le sénateur de l’Illinois pour la raison suivante : « Il semble faire preuve d’une volonté presque obsessionnelle de trouver un terrain d’accord avec la droite » (26.12.06). L’éditorialiste républicain Michael Barone imagine même qu’Obama, « en mettant l’accent sur ce que les Américains ont en commun au-delà de leurs divergences, nous propulse dans une ère moins amèrement partisane » (U.S. News & World Report, 25.12.06).
« Un pays de gens bien »
Bien sûr, de tels espoirs engendrent des déceptions. Lorsque Barack Obama et le sénateur républicain John McCain ont appuyé des propositions de loi relatives aux règles d’éthique qui devraient s’imposer aux élus et au financement de leurs campagnes électorales, le collègue de Barone à U.S. News, Mort Zuckerman, a déploré qu’une polémique oppose deux sénateurs qui « représentent le meilleur espoir pour un retour du centrisme, ce consensus rationnel et non partisan qui exprime la volonté de la nation avec force et éloquence, et qui a si bien servi l’Amérique à travers les pires crises » (20.2.06). Selon VoteView, ses votes au Sénat placent le « centriste » McCain au deuxième rang des parlementaires les plus conservateurs, juste après son collègue de l’Arizona Jon Kyl…
Aux yeux des grands médias, l’ascension d’Obama donnerait une image positive des États-Unis. « Si l’Amérique le nomme en effet candidat, vote en sa faveur et finit par l’élire, ce sera un signe que nous sommes un pays de gens bien qui avons guéri nos blessures raciales », ronronne le journaliste Roger Simon au cours du talk-show « Meet the Press » de NBC (11.2.07). Armé de ce genre d’explications psychologiques, l’ultraconservateur Brit Hume, de Fox News Channel, estime que sa couleur de peau constitue un « atout » pour Obama : « De nombreuses personnes se sentiront poussées, selon moi, à voter pour lui, toutes choses étant égales par ailleurs, en partie parce qu’il est noir » (21.1.07). Quand on se souvient qu’Obama siège au sein d’un Sénat à 94 % blanc et à 1 % afro-américain, l’idée qu’être noir lui procure un avantage politique peut sembler saugrenue. Glen Ford, de Black Agenda Report, propose une analyse plus réaliste de la séduction qu’exerce Obama sur les experts : « Il a donné aux blancs la satisfaction de pouvoir se dire que la race ne compte plus en Amérique et que tous les péchés du passé peuvent être expiés à travers l’amour que l’on porte à cet homme » (Counterspin, 17.11.06). Mais le consensus médiatique en faveur d’Obama repose aussi sur l’espoir qu’il saura réconcilier riches et pauvres autour d’un projet qui profitera plus aux premiers qu’aux seconds. Joe Klein, de Time, ne dit pas autre chose quand il encense ce sénateur qui « transcende la fracture raciale si facilement qu’il paraît en mesure de rassembler au-delà des autres divisions – et de répondre aux questions les plus délicates – qui minent la vie des Américains » (23.10.06).
Et puis, dans la course à la présidentielle américaine, Barack Obama dispose d’un atout maître : Bernard Henri Lévy.  Entre deux siestes digestives dans son palace de Marrakech, le « philosophe » a confié : « Ce Clinton noir aux gestes de voyou magnifique mâtiné de King of America et dont le nom en swahili veut dire, paraît-il, “béni”, il se trouve que je le connais un peu » (Le Point, 16.11.06). Bonne chance, Barack ! Avant toi, BHL a successivement soutenu Édouard Balladur, Lionel Jospin, le Oui au référendum, Ségolène Royal, Jean-Marie Colombani et Alain Carignon…
 Cet article est une traduction abrégée du texte de Peter Hart « L’Obamamania ou l’art de dire du bien d’Obama pour dire du bien des médias » publié par Extra !, mars-avril 2007, http://www.fair.org.
 [Note de la traduction sardone, NTS] Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organisation étudiante radicale qui anima le soulèvement des campus et l’opposition à la guerre du Vietnam dans les années 1960.
 Ce dernier paragraphe est du Plan B.
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, 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. 11. 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. Obama had essentially marshaled his twenty minutes of undeniably moving oratory to plump for the classic pork-barrel cause of every Midwestern politician.
In an election season, when Americans of all political persuasions can allow themselves to imagine—even if for just a few unguarded moments—how matters in this country might improve if its leaders did, it is worthwhile to consider the path so far of Senator Barack Obama. A man more suited to the tastes of reform-minded Americans could hardly be imagined: he is passionate, charming, and well-intentioned, and his desire to change the culture of Washington seems deeply held and real. He managed to win a tremendous majority in his home state of Illinois despite rhetoric, and a legislative record, that marked him as a true progressive. During his first year in the state senate—1997—he helped lead a laudable if quixotic crusade that would have amended the state constitution to define health care as a basic right and would have required the Illinois General Assembly to ensure that all the state’s citizens could get health insurance within five years. He led initiatives to aid the poor, including campaigns that resulted in an earned-income tax credit and the expansion of early-childhood-education programs. In 2001, reacting to a surge in home foreclosures in Chicago, he helped push for a measure that cracked down on predatory lenders that peddled high-interest, high-fee mortgages to lower-end homebuyers. Obama was also the driving force behind legislation, passed in 2003, that made Illinois the first state to require law-enforcement agencies to tape interrogations and confessions of murder suspects. Throughout his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Obama called for social justice, promised to “stand up to the powerful drug and insurance lobbies” that block health-care reform, and denounced the war in Iraq and the Bush White House.
Since coming to Washington, Obama has advocated for the poor, most notably in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and has emerged as a champion of clean government. He has fought for restrictions on lobbying, even as most of his fellow Democrats postured on the issue while quietly seeking to gut real reform initiatives. In mid-September, Congress approved a bill he co-authored with Oklahoma’s arch-conservative senator, Tom Coburn, requiring all federal contracts and earmarks to be published in an Internet database, a step that will better allow citizens to track the way the government spends their money.
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.
Already considered a potential vice-presidential nominee in 2008, Obama clearly has abundant political ambitions. Hence he is playing not only to voters in Illinois—a reliably Democratic and generally liberal state—but to the broader national audience, as well as to the Democratic Party establishment, the Washington media, and large political donors. Perhaps for this reason, Obama has taken an approach to his policymaking that is notably cautious and nonconfrontational. “Since the founding, the American political tradition has been reformist, not revolutionary,” he told me during an interview at his office on Capitol Hill this summer. “What that means is that for a political leader to get things done, he or she ideally should be ahead of the curve, but not too far ahead. I want to push the envelope but make sure I have enough folks with me that I’m not rendered politically impotent.”
The question, though, is just how effective—let alone reformist—Obama’s approach can be in a Washington grown hostile to reform and those who advocate it. After a quarter century when the Democratic Party to which he belongs has moved steadily to the right, and the political system in general has become thoroughly dominated by the corporate perspective, the first requirement of electoral success is now the ability to raise staggering sums of money. For Barack Obama, this means that mounting a successful career, especially one that may include a run for the presidency, cannot even be attempted without the kind of compromising and horse trading that may, in fact, render him impotent.
The walls of Obama’s office on the seventh floor of the Hart Senate Office Building are decorated with images from the canon of liberal icons. There are photos of Martin Luther King addressing a civil rights rally, Gandhi sitting cross-legged, and Obama with Nelson Mandela; a painting of Thurgood Marshall, and, above a framed pair of red boxing gloves signed by Muhammad Ali, the famous photo of a scowling Ali standing over Sonny Liston after knocking him out during their second fight, in Lewiston, Maine.
When I interviewed him this summer, I had my eleven-year-old daughter in tow, because her outing with a friend had fallen through just as I was leaving home. Obama, who is married and has two young daughters of his own, asked her a few questions; when she told him she was starting seventh grade in the fall, he told her that at her age, “I was such a terror that my teachers didn’t know what to do with me.” He draped his gray jacket over his leather desk chair and urged her to have a seat. For the next hour, she contentedly twirled on the chair while we spoke across the room, Obama on a tan sofa and me on a chair to his right.
I asked Obama how he was adjusting to Washington and the city’s peculiar political culture. “I have not had to partake of the culture much,” he replied. “My family lives in Chicago, and I’m usually here Tuesday through Thursday. I rarely meet lobbyists; it’s one of the benefits of having a good staff.” Nor has he had to devote much time to fund-raising. “The first $250,000 that I raised was like pulling teeth,” he recalled. “No major Democratic donors knew me, I had a funny name, they wouldn’t take my phone calls. Then at a certain point we sort of clicked into the public consciousness and the buzz, and I benefited from a lot of small individual contributions that helped me get over the hump. . . . And then after winning, the notoriety that I received made raising money relatively simple, and so I don’t have the same challenges that most candidates do now, and that’s pure luck. It’s one of the benefits of celebrity.”
Obama sat with his arms and legs crossed, one foot tapping the air. Progressive candidates generally have a harder time raising money, he said, and at times some of them will “trim their sails” on behalf of the people who are financing them. “When I say that,” he was hasty to add, “I want to make sure I’m not saying all the time. I’m just saying there are going to be points where donors have more access and are taken more into account than ordinary voters.” The solution he supports is some form of public financing for campaigns, combined—since big donors “are always going to find a way to get money” to candidates—with some reduction in the cost of running for office; for example, by providing candidates with free political advertising.
Personally, though, Obama felt that he had not trimmed his own political sails to make himself palatable to the political center. His primary obstacle, he said, is simply that the G.O.P. controls the White House and Congress. “My experience in the state legislature is instructive. The first seven years I was there I was in the minority, and I think that I passed maybe ten bills; maybe five of them were substantive. Most of the bills that I did pass were in partnership with Republicans, because that was the only way I could get them passed. The first year we were in the majority party I passed twenty-six bills in one year.” While Washington “moves more slowly than the state legislature,” Obama said he had no doubt that if the Democrats controlled Congress, it would be possible to move forward on important progressive legislation.
The alternative, until then, is to be opportunistic and look for areas where he can get enough Republican support to actually get a bill passed. That, he said, “means that most of the legislation I’ve proposed will be more modest in its goals than it would be if I were in the majority party.” Obama gave an example: although he is a strong supporter of raising fuel-economy standards, proposals to do so have gone nowhere for years. In 2005, Congress overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to the energy bill that would have required cars, minivans, and SUVs to get 40 miles per gallon on average by 2016. This year, Obama and Indiana Republican Richard Lugar introduced a bill that would require fuel-economy targets to rise 4 percent annually unless federal regulators specifically blocked that step. Obama recruited as co-sponsors four senators who had voted against the 2005 amendment—Democrat Joe Biden of Delaware and Republicans Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Gordon Smith of Oregon, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania—and although this bill might not pass either, it has a better chance than past efforts.
I asked Obama a question about pork-barrel spending. Did he feel pressure to deliver federal money for home-state interests? “Pork is in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “The recipients don’t tend to think it’s pork, especially if it’s a great public-works project.” He said he felt “pretty good” about projects he had sought in last year’s transportation bill and “unashamed” about getting them in. House Speaker Dennis Hastert had praised Obama for his efforts in helping win Illinois its $6.2 billion in the massive, earmarklarded 2005 transportation bill. (Illinois’s most extravagant project funded by the bill was the Prairie Parkway, a controversial regional highway that would run through Hastert’s district and, in fact, has significantly increased the value of real estate he owns along the proposed route.)
An aide came in and told Obama that Congressman David Dreier was on the phone to discuss legislation to aid the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that Obama was planning to visit as part of a trip to Africa. After taking the call at his desk, Obama returned to the couch and took up the pork-barrel question again. He gave as an example President Bush’s Clear Skies Initiative, which he described as a difficult decision. After examining the legislation, he determined that it would significantly weaken the Clean Air Act, yet the administration claimed it would help the coal industry, a major economic force in southern Illinois. In the end, he opposed it because he decided it would have been more beneficial to western coal producers, not those in Illinois. “That kind of vote is a tough vote, not so much on the merits as it is on the politics,” he said. “I then have to spend a lot of time working that through with my constituents in southern Illinois, explaining to them why I did not think it was actually good for them.” Even so, he took heat at home, with one southern Illinois newspaper editorial saying that he was less interested in looking out for the interests of the state’s coal industry than he was in voting with the interests of Barbara Boxer and Hillary Clinton.
And what if he had determined that the Clear Skies Initiative would have aided Illinois coal? I asked. In that case, Obama said, “It would have been more difficult for me. . . . If I thought that it would have significantly helped Illinois coal but would have been a net minus for the environment, then you’ve got your classic legislative dilemma.”
Obama said that the “blogger community,” which by now is shorthand for liberal Democrats, gets frustrated with him because they think he’s too willing to compromise with Republicans. “My argument,” he says, “is that a polarized electorate plays to the advantage of those who want to dismantle government. Karl Rove can afford to win with 51 percent of the vote. They’re not trying to reform health care. They are content with an electorate that is cynical about government. Progressives have a harder job. They need a big enough majority to initiate bold proposals.”
Before he addressed the 2004 convention, Obama was virtually unknown nationally, and even in Illinois his was far from a household name. Just four years earlier, he had been defeated by a significant margin when he tried to unseat Chicago-area Congressman Bobby Rush in the Democratic primary. But following the speech, which was universally hailed—even the National Review called it “simple and powerful,” conceding that it had deserved its “rapturous critical reception”—Obama became a national celebrity. Less than two months later, he won election to the Senate with 70 percent of the vote.
If the speech was his debut to the wider American public, he had already undergone an equally successful but much quieter audition with Democratic Party leaders and fund-raisers, without whose support he would surely never have been chosen for such a prominent role at the convention. The early, if not overwhelming, favorite to be the Senate nominee from Illinois had been Dan Hynes, the state comptroller, who had twice won statewide office and had the support of the state’s Democratic machine and labor unions. But by September 2003, six months before the primary, Obama was winning support from not only African Americans but also Chicago’s “Lakefront Liberals” and other progressives. He was still largely unknown in Washington circles, but that changed the following month when Vernon Jordan, the well-known power broker and corporate boardmember who chaired Bill Clinton’s presidential transition team after the 1992 election, placed calls to roughly twenty of his friends and invited them to a fund-raiser at his home.
That event marked his entry into a well-established Washington ritual—the gauntlet of fund-raising parties and meet-and-greets through which potential stars are vetted by fixers, donors, and lobbyists. Gregory Craig, an attorney with Williams & Connolly and a longtime Democratic figure who, as special counsel in the White House, had coordinated Bill Clinton’s impeachment defense, met Obama that night. “I liked his sense of humor and the confidence he had discussing national issues, especially as a state senator,” Craig recalled of the event. “You felt excited to be in his presence.” Another thing that Craig liked about Obama was that he’s not seen as a “polarizer,” like such traditional African-American leaders as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. “He gets respect from his adversaries because of the way he treats them,” Craig said. “He doesn’t try to be all things to all people, but he has a way of taking positions you don’t like without making you angry.”
Word about Obama spread through Washington’s blue-chip law firms, lobby shops, and political offices, and this accelerated after his win in the March primary. Mike Williams, vice president for legislative affairs at The Bond Market Association and a member of an African-American lobbying association, had been following the race in Illinois and was introduced to Obama through acquaintances in Washington who had known him at Harvard Law School. “We represent Wall Street firms,” Williams said in recounting his first conversation with Obama. “A big issue for us since 2000 is predatory lending. He worked on that issue in Illinois; he was the lead sponsor of a bill there. I talked to him about that. He had a different position from ours. There’s a perception out there that the Democrats are anti-business, and I talked to him about that directly. I said, There’s a perception that you’re coming at this from the angle of consumers. He was forthright, which I appreciated. He said, I tried to broker the best deal I could.” Williams still had his differences with Obama, but the conversation convinced him that the two could work together. “He’s not a political novice and he’s smart enough not to say things cast in stone, but you can have a conversation with him,” Williams said. “He’s a straight shooter. As a lobbyist, that’s something you value. You don’t need a yes every time, but you want to be able to count the votes. That’s what we do.”
Williams subsequently set up a conference call between Obama and a group of financial-industry lobbyists. That, too, went well, and in June of 2004, Williams helped organize “a little fund-raiser” for Obama at The Bond Market Association. “It wasn’t just the financial community. There was a broad cross-section,” he said of the 200 or so people who turned out. “There was overwhelming support, not just people from associations giving $2,000 but from individuals who just wanted to meet him, giving smaller contributions.”
Tom Quinn, a senior partner at Venable and widely considered one of the top lobbyists in town, got a call from Williams and attended the fund-raiser. “I’m on the list. Pretty much everyone in political fund-raising circles knows me,” said Quinn, who works closely with the Democratic National Committee and has been a party power broker since the late 1960s, when he worked on the presidential campaign of Hubert Humphrey. “Every day I get ten or fifteen solicitations. I contribute if I like the candidate and think they have a chance to win.” He was impressed when he heard that Obama had been president of the Harvard Law Review—“That jumped out at me. It showed he had absolute intelligence”—and even more impressed after meeting him. “He’s got a nice personal touch and the ability to kid around a little bit too,” he said. “He’s got star quality.” Quinn contributed $500 to Obama at The Bond Market Association event, and later made calls to people he knew and asked them to donate money as well.
Robert Harmala, also a big player in Democratic circles and a colleague of Quinn’s at Venable, attended the association’s event as well. He had been invited by Larry Duncan—an African-American lobbyist for Lockheed Martin, a Venable client—who helped Williams organize the affair. Harmala liked what he saw and continued to be impressed by Obama. “There’s a reasonableness about him,” he said. “I don’t see him as being on the liberal fringe. He’s not going to be a parrot for the party line.” Like Quinn, Harmala donated $500 to Obama and made calls to a number of political donors (“Some usual suspects in California whom I’ve worked with before”) and urged them to support Obama’s campaign. Other fund-raisers were soon organized—one at the Four Seasons Hotel, another at a Dupont Circle restaurant, yet another at the Clintons’ home off Embassy Row. “He was hitting his stride. There were people clamoring to help,” said Williams. “It wasn’t just one person who put the events together and it wasn’t all about raising money—people wanted to meet him and talk to him.”
It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want, but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform. And although Obama is by no means a mouthpiece for his funders, it appears that he’s not entirely indifferent to their desires either.
Consider the case of Illinois-based Exelon Corporation, the nation’s leading nuclear-power-plant operator. The firm is Obama’s fourth largest patron, having donated a total of $74,350 to his campaigns. During debate on the 2005 energy bill, Obama helped to vote down an amendment that would have killed vast loan guarantees for power-plant operators to develop new energy projects. The loan guarantees were called “one of the worst provisions in this massive piece of legislation” by Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste; the public will not only pay millions of dollars in loan costs but will risk losing billions of dollars if the companies default.
In one of his earliest votes, Obama joined a bloc of mostly conservative and moderate Senate Democrats who helped pass a G.O.P.-driven class-action “reform” bill. The bill had been long sought by a coalition of business groups and was lobbied for aggressively by financial firms, which constitute Obama’s second biggest single bloc of donors.
Although The Bond Market Association didn’t lobby directly on the legislation, Williams took note of Obama’s vote. “He’s a Democrat, and some people thought he’d do whatever the trial lawyers wanted, but he didn’t do that,” he said. “That’s a testament to his character.” Obama has voted on one bill that was of keen interest to Williams’s members: last year’s hotly contested bankruptcy bill, which made filing for bankruptcy more difficult and gives creditors more recourse to recover debts. Obama voted against the bill, but Williams was pleased that he did side with The Bond Market Association position on a number of provisions. Most were minor technical matters, but he also opposed an important amendment, which was defeated, that would have capped credit-card interest rates at 30 percent. “He studied the issue,” Williams said. “Some assumed he would just go along with consumer advocates, but he voted with us on several points. He understood the issue. He wasn’t closed-minded. A lot of people found that very refreshing.”
As of this summer, Obama had raised nearly $16 million for his original Senate run and for his 2010 reelection war chest. He has taken in an additional $3.8 million for the Hopefund, his leadership PAC. Such PACs are subject to fewer restrictions on raising and spending money than general campaign funds. Over a six-year term, a senator can raise a maximum of $4,200 per individual donor; the same donor can give as much as $30,000 to the senator’s leadership PAC during that same period. Traditionally, leadership PACs were established by veteran members of Congress, but now they are set up by anyone who hopes to work his or her way up through party ranks. Last year, the Hopefund took in more than any other leadership PAC except for those of Bill Frist, John McCain, and John Kerry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In several primaries, Obama’s PAC has given to candidates that have been carefully culled and selected by the Democratic establishment on the basis of their marketability as palatable “moderates”—even when they are facing more progressive and equally viable challengers. Most conspicuously, Obama backed Joe Lieberman over Ned Lamont, his Democratic primary opponent in Connecticut, endorsing him publicly in March and contributing $4,200 to his campaign. The Hopefund also gave $10,000 to Tammy Duckworth, a helicopter pilot in the National Guard who lost both legs in Iraq and who is running for the seat of retiring G.O.P. Congressman Henry Hyde in Chicago’s western suburbs. Despite her support from the party establishment, an enormous fund-raising advantage, and sympathy she had due to her war record, Duckworth won the primary by just 1,100 votes over a vocal war opponent named Christine Cegelis. (When asked about her stand on the Iraq war by a reporter, Duckworth had replied, “There is good and bad in everything.”)
The calibration of Obama’s own political rhetoric has been particularly evident in regard to the war in Iraq. At an antiwar rally in Chicago in October 2002, when Obama was still a state senator, he savaged the Bush Administration for its by then obvious plans to invade. “I don’t oppose all wars,” he said that day. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.”
Since taking office, Obama has become far more measured in his position. After Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha called for withdrawal from Iraq last fall, Obama rejected such a move in a speech before the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, saying the United States needed “to manage our exit in a responsible way—with the hope of leaving a stable foundation for the future.” His stance won him praise from Washington Post columnist David Broder, the veritable weather vane of political conventional wisdom. Murtha’s was “not a carefully reasoned analysis of the strategic consequences of leaving Iraq,” Broder wrote, whereas Obama was helping his party define “a sensible common ground” and had “pointed the administration and the country toward a realistic and modestly hopeful course on Iraq.” Obama continues to reject any specific timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, even as public opposition to the war grows and as the military rationale for staying becomes less and less apparent.
For the past several decades, the two senators from Illinois have held a weekly meeting on Thursday mornings called the Constituent Coffee, where visitors from the Prairie State can meet and ask questions of their elected officials. Traditionally, the coffees have been low-key affairs, but since Obama took office they have been moved to a larger room—often on the top floor of the Hart Building, which looks out on the Capitol dome—that can accommodate the crowds they now invariably attract.
Obama and Richard Durbin, Illinois’s senior senator and the Democrats’ Senate minority whip, are a winning team. At one coffee I attended this summer, Obama noted in introducing Durbin that his colleague had recently been selected by Time magazine as one of the ten best members of the Senate. “Only ninety senators disagree,” said Durbin in rejoinder, adding, “I haven’t done the cover of Newsweek or won a Grammy. There’s a pretty important junior senator from Illinois too.” (Obama won a Best Spoken Word Grammy this year, for his reading of his autobiography.) At another coffee, Durbin mentioned to the crowd that Obama had thrown out the first pitch at a Chicago White Sox game last year; this, he noted, had sparked a long winning streak, at the end of which the team won its first World Series in eighty-eight years. Later, a student at the University of Illinois asked Obama if he might also throw out the first pitch for the perennial sad-sack Cubs, in order to impart similarly good luck. “My arm,” Obama deadpanned, “is only so good.”
By 8:30 a.m. on July 13, when that week’s coffee was scheduled to begin, about 150 people had filled the seats and several dozen more were standing at the back. The top-floor space at Hart was not available that day, so the coffee had been moved to a large hearing room in the basement of the neighboring Dirksen Building. A few stragglers huddled around a table near the entrance, picking from a platter of doughnuts and filling cups of coffee from a shiny metal urn. “The doughnuts are the main reason people come,” Obama joked, opening the affair from a podium at the head of the room. In fact, it was clear that many in attendance—especially among the sizable contingent who weren’t actually from Illinois, including many congressional interns and pages—had turned up just to see Obama.
Although Obama and Durbin did field some questions on foreign policy, especially on Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah, the audience seemed more interested in domestic issues—health and education and basic pocketbook worries. What, one middle-aged woman asked pointedly, was Congress planning to do about the soaring price of gasoline?
Like the natural politician he is, Obama packaged his reply to appeal to the broadest spectrum of opinion. Energy, he said, was not just an economic issue but a national-security issue (“We now are dependent on the most volatile regions of the world for running our economy”) and an environmental issue as well (“There are a lot of farmers in the room whose croplands could be impacted by global warming”). President Bush, said Obama, had finally acknowledged the need to break America’s addiction to foreign oil, “but with the twelve-step program there are eleven other steps after you acknowledge your addiction.” One step, he said, in bringing the issue home to Illinois interests, was to support biofuels such as ethanol, which are “a terrific way for us to start cutting down our use of imported oil.”
Obama’s support among traditional Democratic constituencies was apparent in the audience members, a number of whom worked for low-income housing, civil rights, and pro-choice groups. Grateful representatives of big-money interests were on hand as well, in the form of officials from the Illinois Soybean Association and the Illinois Corn Growers Association. “We appreciate the relationship and the help,” said the latter, who was in town as part of a lobbying blitz called the Corn Congress.
And indeed Obama has delivered for his constituents—for social activists, but also for business groups whose demands are invariably more costly. Although this is not the place to review the full history of ethanol, it’s beyond dispute that it survives only because members of Congress from farm states, whether liberal or conservative, have for decades managed to win billions of dollars in federal subsidies to underwrite its production. It is not, of course, family farmers who primarily benefit from the program but rather the agribusiness giants such as Illinois-based Aventine Renewable Energy and Archer Daniels Midland (for which ethanol accounts for just 5 percent of its sales but an estimated 23 percent of its profits). Ethanol production, as Tad Patzek of UC Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering wrote in a report this year, is based on “the massive transfer of money from the collective pocket of the U.S. taxpayers to the transnational agricultural cartel.”
Since arriving on Capitol Hill, Obama has been as assiduous as any member of Congress in promoting ethanol. 22. ADM has apparently not contributed money to Obama, but during his first year in office he traveled on the company’s private jets at least twice. All told, Obama took twenty-three flights on corporate planes; after some atypically bad press for accepting the flights, Obama imposed a ban at his office on privately subsidized travel. He has introduced a number of measures that benefit the industry—such as the “Obama Amendment” that offered oil companies a 50 percent tax credit for building stations that offer E85 fuel—and voted for the corporate-welfare-laden 2005 energy bill, which offered billions in subsidies to ethanol producers as well as lavish incentives for developing cars that run on alternative fuels.
Meanwhile, Obama, Durbin, and three other farm-state senators opposed a proposal this year by the Bush Administration to lower stiff tariffs on cheaper sugarcane-based ethanol from Brazil and other countries. To lower such tariffs, the senators suggested, would leave the nation dangerously dependent on foreign ethanol. “Our focus must be on building energy security through domestically produced renewable fuels,” wrote the senators in a letter to Bush. That Obama would lend his name to such an argument—with its dubious implication that Brazilian ethanol is a national-security liability comparable to Saudi crude—indicates that he is at least as interested in protecting domestic producers of ethanol as he is in weaning America from imported petroleum.
I recall a remark made by Studs Terkel in 1980, about the liberal Republican John Anderson, who was running as an independent against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter: “People are so tired of dealing with two-foot midgets, you give them someone two foot four and they start proclaiming him a giant.” In the unstinting and unanimous adulation of Barack Obama today, one wonders if a similar dynamic might be at work. If so, his is less a midgetry of character than one dictated by changing context. Gone are the days when, as in the 1970s, the U.S. Senate could comfortably house such men as Fred Harris (from Oklahoma, of all places), who called for the breakup of the oil, steel, and auto industries; as Wisconsin’s William Proxmire, who replaced Joe McCarthy in 1957 and survived into the 1980s, a crusader against big banks who neither spent nor raised campaign money; as South Dakota’s George McGovern, who favored huge cuts in defense spending and a guaranteed income for all Americans; as Frank Church of Idaho, who led important investigations into CIA and FBI abuses.
Today, money has all but wrung such dissent from the Senate. Campaigns have grown increasingly costly; in 2004 it took an average of more than $7 million to run for a Senate seat. As Carl Wagner, a Democratic political strategist who first came to Washington in 1970, remarked to me, the Senate today is a fundamentally different institution than it was then. “Senators were creatures of their states and reflected the cultures of their states,” he said. “Today they are creatures of the people who pay for their multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns. Representative democracy has largely been taken off the table. It’s reminiscent of the 1880s and 1890s, when senators were chosen by state legislatures who were owned by the railroads and the banks.” Accordingly, as corporate money has grown increasingly important to candidates, we have seen the rise of the smothering K Street culture and the revolving door that feeds it—not just lobbyists themselves but an entire interconnected world of campaign consultants, public-relations agencies, pollsters, and media strategists.
All of this has forged a political culture that is intrinsically hostile to reform. On condition of anonymity, one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a “player.” The lobbyist added: “What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?
Voir de plus:
How loving Barack Obama helps pundits love themselves
The day after he formally announced he was a candidate for the 2008 presidential race, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) took a shot at the media. Alluding to the perception that he avoids taking strong positions on important political issues, Obama told reporters (Washington Post, 2/12/07): “The problem is that that’s not what you guys have been reporting on. You’ve been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit.”
It’s not often that politicians complain that they get coverage they deem too “soft,” but Obama could make the charge with a straight face. In a sense, Obama’s complaint and the press corps’ assessment of him are both true: The press corps has—at least as of February of this year—cast Obama’s White House aspirations in mostly warm and upbeat tones; at the same time, Obama has mostly avoided staking out political positions that might be deemed “divisive” or too left-wing to the national press.
The situation is curious: an African-American politician with a fairly liberal reputation and voting record is not normally the sort of political figure one would expect to enjoy positive media coverage. What makes Barack Obama such a political phenomenon is that he functions as a Rorschach test for political reporters, who tend to see what they want to see in him and his presidential aspirations.
One of the most prevalent media messages about Obama is that he “transcends race,” or something to that effect. Newsweek (12/25/06) said he is “sometimes described as ‘post-racial,’” Time’s Joe Klein (10/23/06) wrote that he “transcends racial stereotypes,” while U.S. News & World Report (2/19/07) pointed to his “nonconfrontational, ‘post-racial’ approach.”
Whatever that is supposed to mean is not entirely clear, but it would seem to begin with the fact that Obama’s mother is white and his father was black. Writing in the Nation (3/5/07), Patricia Williams wondered:
“Transcendence” implies rising above something, cutting through, being liberated from. What would it reveal about the hidden valuations of race if one were to invert the equation by positing that Barack Obama “transcended” whiteness because his father was black?
Media discussions of Obama and race were rarely that deep, and the fact that Obama was considered a “transcendent” figure seemed to cause reporters to write even more awkwardly than usual about the subject of race. The Washington Post noted (2/18/07) that since Obama’s father “was not descended from African slaves, Obama is unlike Southern black candidates, steeped in the slavery and civil rights struggles that tore at the region for more than a century. Neither is he like the white politicians, whose skin color automatically disqualifies them from the black experience.” Helpful insight there—whites are not, it turns out, black.
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams announced (2/9/07) that while Obama “has never positioned himself as the black candidate,” his race “will continue to be much discussed and debated.” It’s unlikely that anyone running for president would ever declare themselves “the black candidate,” but Williams seemed to be alluding to the fact that despite his blackness, Obama talks about race in a way that does not make the media establishment nervous.
As Time’s Klein put it (10/23/06), “Obama road-tested black rage, but it was never a very good fit. There was none of the crippling psychological legacy of slavery in his family’s past.” NBC host Chris Matthews (1/21/07) declared more broadly: “I don’t think you can find a better opening gate, starting gate personality than Obama as a black candidate. . . . I can’t think of a better one. No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery. All the bad stuff in our history ain’t there with this guy.”
Not Al Sharpton
It was hard to miss the contrast the pundits were trying to draw with earlier black presidential candidates like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton (Extra!, 11–12/04). As Peter Beinart put it in the New Republic (2/5/07): “Today, it probably helps Obama that Al Sharpton, with his 2004 presidential run, became the ‘president of black America.’ For many white Americans, it’s a twofer. Elect Obama, and you not only dethrone George W. Bush, you dethrone Sharpton, too.”
As veteran political reporter Roger Simon put it on NBC’s Meet the Press (2/11/07), Jackson had a similar “subtext, but Barack Obama is a much different politician than Jesse Jackson—much less threatening, much more appealing, and he actually has the ability to carry this off.” Time magazine saw much the same (2/20/06):
Unlike Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, Obama is part of a new generation of black leaders who insist on being seen as more than representatives of their race. That’s in part because, as the biracial son of a white mother and an immigrant father from Kenya, he belongs to more than one.
(Of course, neither Jackson nor Sharpton—both of whom have European ancestry—presented themselves as mere spokespeople for black America; Jackson memorably described his movement as the Rainbow Coalition.)
When Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) caused a minor uproar by referring to Obama as “clean” and “articulate,” some pundits tried mightily to clean up the mess. On NBC’s Today show (2/1/07), Chris Matthews tried to smooth things over:
The other fellows, like Jackson, they came up through the civil rights struggle, Sharpton came up through protests, a lot of scar tissue, polarization along the way. When you’re a militant and you’re on the outside, you make some enemies on the inside. Well, here’s Obama coming up on the inside as a thoroughly accepted major politician from the get-go. It’s a wonderful new thing in American politics, and I wish Biden had said it better.
During a similar discussion the night before on Matthew’s Hardball program, Time reporter Jay Carney chimed in to explain that what Biden meant wasn’t intended to be offensive, only to say that Obama is different because he is an African-American candidate who is “mainstream . . . who didn’t come from the civil rights movement.” In other words, anyone involved in breaking down the door can’t come in.
He’s a centrist!
Obama’s general political outlook might be described as moderately liberal; according to the VoteView.com political ordering of senators based on their votes, he was roughly in the middle of the 2005–06 Senate Democrats, with 19 to his left and 25 to his right. But when pundits try to explain why they like him, it’s not his more progressive views that they talk about, but rather those instances where he tacks to the media-preferred middle.
New York Times columnist David Brooks noted (10/19/06) that Obama “conceptually welcomes free trade and thinks the U.S. may have no choice but to improvise and slog it out in Iraq.” Describing the senator as “not an orthodox liberal,” Brooks credited him with “a mentality formed by globalization, not the SDS,” and declared that “he harks back to a Hamiltonian tradition that calls not for big government, but for limited yet energetic government to enhance social mobility. The contemporary guru he cites most is Warren Buffett.”
Obama has offered soaring rhetoric on healthcare, but does not endorse the single-payer solution embraced by progressives (and the majority of the public—ABC/Washington Post poll, 10/19/03). A rare critical profile of Obama by Harper’s Magazine’s Ken Silverstein (11/06) noted his ties to various corporate-affiliated fundraisers, his opposition to calls for a withdrawal timetable from Iraq and his support for Joe Lieberman over Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont.
Such assessments of Obama’s record are rare, with even left-leaning commentators seemingly willing to dismiss any aspects of Obama’s record that conflict with his progressive reputation. Liberal writer Michael Tomasky (New York Review of Books, 11/30/06), for example, dismissed the role of corporate lobbyists in winning Obama’s support for a corporate-friendly class-action “reform” bill. Tomasky’s alternative explanation:
He wanted, even if only to prove to himself that he could do it, to show at least one Democratic interest group that he could say no, and he chose the trial lawyers. They are less threatening than the advocates of organized labor and abortion rights. I feel certain that he just wanted to see how it felt.
Time columnist and ultra-centrist Joe Klein (12/26/05) hailed Obama for criticizing “Democratic advocacy groups that opposed the nomination of John Roberts to the Supreme Court in their usual vituperative fashion—even though Obama himself opposed the nomination.” Months later (10/23/06), Klein praised Obama as “a liberal, but not a screechy partisan. Indeed, he seems obsessively eager to find common ground with conservatives.”
Conservative pundit Michael Barone (U.S. News, 12/25/06) imagined that Obama, “by emphasizing what Americans of differing views have in common, invites us to an era of less bitter partisanship. His own background—mother from Kansas, father from Kenya, childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, education at Columbia and Harvard Law—seems to span the breadth of American experience.”
Setting such lofty expectations will cause the occasional letdown. When Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain backed different ethics reform bills, Barone’s U.S. News colleague Mort Zuckerman lamented (2/20/06) the falling out between senators who “represent the best hope for a real revival of centrism, the rational bipartisan consensus that expresses the nation’s will with force and eloquence and that has served America so well in its worst crises.” (According to VoteView, McCain’s voting record made him the second-most conservative senator in the 109th Congress, after fellow Arizona Republican Jon Kyl.)
How he makes us feel about us
Given that big-time punditry often requires a sizeable dose of narcissism, it’s not surprising that some pundits praising Obama saw his candidacy as having deep personal meaning. “Like many Americans, I long to see an African-American ascend to the presidency,” wrote conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer (10/27/06). “It would be an event of profound significance, a great milestone in the unfolding story of African-Americans achieving their rightful, long-delayed place in American life.”
Even when not explicitly treating Obama as a source of personal satisfaction, many in the media treated his rise as a reason for America as a whole to feel good about itself. Reporter Roger Simon put it bluntly on NBC’s Meet the Press (2/11/07), “If America actually nominates him and then votes for him for president and elects him, this will be a sign that we are a good and decent country that has healed its racial wounds.”
The Washington Post took a similar approach in a January 18, 2007 editorial, making it explicit that, reality be damned, this is about a dream:
The excitement about Mr. Obama speaks in part to Americans’ desire to believe, whether true or not, that this country has come to a point when it can rise above its ugly history of racism; and in part to the desire to believe that, if it could just overcome the divisions that foul modern politics, the nation could get unstuck on many fronts.
For Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter (12/25/06), Obama shared feel-good potential with Hillary Clinton: “A black president in a country that fought a civil war over race might even prove cathartic. And a woman president would show the rest of the world that the United States is not a sexist nation. Whatever happens, the process feels uplifting.”
For these psychological reasons, Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume (1/21/07) counted Obama’s race as “an asset,” saying:
I think most Americans—the overwhelming majority of Americans—deeply want to see African-Americans get ahead in this country and they are proud of those that do. And for Barack Obama, a lot of people would be impelled, I think, to vote for him for president, all other things being equal, in part because he’s black.
Considering that Obama serves in a Senate that is 94 percent white and 1 percent African-American, the idea that his race gives him a political advantage is rather far-fetched. Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford had a more realistic appraisal of Obama’s pundit appeal (CounterSpin, 11/17/06): “He has given white people a kind of satisfaction—that race no longer matters in America, and all the sins of the past can be washed away through the act of loving this man.”
Some habits die hard
This is not to say, of course, that all coverage of Obama has been cheery. Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press (1/22/06), host Tim Russert thought it worthwhile to quiz Obama about statements made by singer Harry Belafonte. Russert dressed up the inquiries as merely “about the language people are using in the politics now of 2006,” but it was hard not to think that Obama was being asked such questions because both he and Belafonte are black.
The New Republic’s Peter Beinart (2/5/07) was apparently trying to give Obama some support when he wrote that thanks to “welfare reform, the percentage of whites saying ‘poor people have become too dependent on government assistance’ has dropped markedly,” which is “good news for all Democrats, but especially for Obama, who would be particularly vulnerable to suspicions that he was trying to redistribute money from whites to blacks.” Similar “suspicions” might resurface later in the campaign; ABC News reporter Jake Tapper alleged (2/11/07), for example, that Obama’s Chicago church “expresses a message of black power” that might be “too militant for mainstream America to accept.”
NPR reporter Juan Williams, meanwhile, predicted (Fox News Sunday, 1/21/07) that Obama could have other image problems: “Don’t forget the idea that, you know, he comes from a father who was a Muslim and all that. I mean, I think that given we’re at war with Muslim extremists, that presents a problem.”
Nonetheless, the media consensus on Obama remains positive, for a variety of reasons. He makes pundits feel good about America—particularly their own overwhelmingly white slice of elite America—and his politics are moderate enough to avoid the type of crude caricature that other candidates might receive. Time’s Klein sized up Obama’s candidacy by noting (10/23/06) that “the expectations are ridiculous. He transcends the racial divide so effortlessly that it seems reasonable to expect that he can bridge all the other divisions—and answer all the impossible questions—plaguing American public life.” Or as the New York Times’ Brooks argued (10/19/06), “It may not be personally convenient for him, but the times will never again so completely require the gifts that he possesses.”
Washington Post columnist George Will (12/14/06) described Obama’s White House run with a metaphor that sounded like it had been swiped from an Andy Hardy movie:
If you get the girl up on her tiptoes, you should kiss her. The electorate is on its tiptoes because Obama has collaborated with the creation of a tsunami of excitement about him. He is nearing the point when a decision against running would brand him as a tease who ungallantly toyed with the electorate’s affections.
Obama, of course, did decide to run. How long the press corps will continue to express its affection for him—or for its version of him—remains to be seen.
Matthew Mosk and Sarah Cohen
October 22, 2008
The record-shattering $150 million in donations that Sen. Barack Obama raised in September represents only part of the financial advantage the Democratic nominee has amassed entering the final weeks of the presidential contest, newly released campaign finance records show.
Obama and the Democratic Party committees supporting his campaign had $164 million remaining in their collective accounts entering the campaign’s final full month, compared with $132 million available for Sen. John McCain and the Republican Party.
The advantage is compounded by Obama’s ability to continue to raise money through the election because he decided not to participate in the federal financing program. McCain opted in, meaning he received $84.1 million in federal funds to spend between the Republican National Convention and Nov. 4, and he must rely solely on the Republican National Committee for additional financial support.
Behind Obama’s staggering fundraising numbers, compiled on more than 80,000 pages filed with the Federal Election Commission late Monday, are signs that it was far more than just a surge of Internet donors that fueled a coordinated Democratic effort to try to swamp McCain.
Interest among major party donors grew so fevered that the Democratic Party created a separate committee to capture millions of additional dollars from individuals who had already given Obama the most the law allows and who had also anted up $28,500 to the Democratic National Committee.
The Committee for Change, created in mid-July, has become a vehicle for ultra-rich Democratic donors to distinguish themselves from the 3.1 million others who have put $600 million behind Obama’s presidential candidacy.
« We kept running into donors who had maxed out to Obama Victory who wanted to do additional money and had the capacity to do it and were eager to do it, » said Alan Kessler, a Philadelphia lawyer who recently held a fundraiser for the committee. « They asked if there were vehicles and other ways to do it, and we said yes. »
The committee, which has been routing millions of dollars directly to state party accounts and will help fuel Obama’s field operations, represents the flip side of the grass-roots fundraising effort that helped turn Obama into the most successful money-raiser in presidential campaign history.
Similar joint committees are active on both sides of the political aisle. Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, announced this year that McCain would attempt to keep pace with Obama by creating a Victory Fund that would collect as much as $70,000 apiece from wealthy donors. The fund disburses money to the Republican National Committee, state party committees, and a separate fund to pay McCain’s legal and accounting bills.
Lost in the attention given to Obama’s Internet surge is that only a quarter of the $600 million he has raised has come from donors who made contributions of $200 or less, according to a review of his FEC reports. That is actually slightly less, as a percentage, than President Bush raised in small donations during his 2004 race, although Obama has pulled from a far larger number of donors. In 2004, the Bush campaign claimed more than 2 million donors, while the Obama campaign claims to have collected its total from more than 3.1 million individuals.
« It’s just unbelievable, » said Thomas A. Daschle, the former Senate leader who is a top Obama adviser. « I don’t know that anybody could have anticipated that the numbers would be this good. »
Even some Republicans have come away impressed.
« The truth is, he is attracting more money at all levels, ranging from $1 to $2,300, » said Jan Baran, a Republican fundraising expert. « We’re talking about someone who raised money from 3.1 million people. I think he can validly claim a widespread base of support. »
From the start, Obama’s campaign has designed a fundraising effort that tries to maximize contributions from both small and large donors. That effort expanded in late summer, when Obama prepared to accept his party’s nomination and the DNC set up separate committees that would enable top donors to give as much as $65,500 to support his bid.
The best-known of those committees, the Obama Victory Fund, has catered to party regulars who attended one of dozens of gala events around the country, including VIP gatherings for those able to donate $28,500. The Committee for Change has quietly accepted millions more, in checks ranging from $5,000 to $66,900, from celebrities, corporate titans, Native American tribes and several of Obama’s most ardent bundlers.
They include entertainment mogul David Geffen, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, actress Annette Bening, the California-based Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and members of Chicago’s Crown family.
DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney said the committee will support ground operations in 18 states, including all the key battlegrounds. « It’s a way for donors to give directly to the state parties’ ground operation, working in the field in support of Democrats up and down the ballot, » she said.
The closest equivalent to the soft-money donors of the Clinton era, or to Bush’s « Pioneers » and « Rangers, » are those who have contributed to each facet of the Obama fundraising machine.
Among those who have both raised top dollar and donated it are St. Louis developer Bob Clark, Florida lawyer Mark Gilbert, and Hollywood moguls Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose children each gave $37,000 to the Committee for Change.
The Crowns, longtime Obama patrons, are among a handful who have given across the board: They raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s campaign, they collectively gave $18,500 directly to the campaign, they donated $57,000 to the Victory Fund, and they sent $74,000 to the Committee for Change.
« By both raising the most money and donating to every committee, they become double big players, » said Fred Wertheimer, a campaign finance advocate who helped lead the effort to rid politics of soft-money donors, who were allowed to give unlimited amounts. « This has become the newest form of problem money. »