Centrist corporate politics has demonstrated a strange ability to outlast multiple crises and now the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders. The key to their power is the Obama mythos, which will have to be taken on if they are ever to fall.
Despite being marred by discrepancies and questions about how COVID-19 affected the results, the Democratic primaries in multiple states (Illinois, Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin) moved Joe Biden to securing the party’s nomination for president. This has happened at the same time as recent rape allegations against Biden have surfaced and during which he disappeared from public life for a period of a week while the nation was bracing itself for the spread of COVID-19. The dreams and aspirations of Bernie Sanders to carry his campaign into the fall and face off against Trump thus ended with his announcement Wednesday that he was discontinuing his presidential campaign.
Unquestionably there were a number of challenges that contributed to the fall of the campaign and there is no one thing that, had it been done differently, would have changed the outcome. With that said, after Super Tuesday, one element of the Sanders campaign has stood out as a factor that should be included in the analysis of his difficulty in taking on Biden. This element provides a valuable lesson about the kind of political sharpness that left insurgent campaigns will have to wage. It also reflects the kind of pulls and pressure that running a campaign for political office exerts to avoid certain important political fights. It is a cautionary tale. That lesson is: we gotta talk about Obama.
The Obama legacy is twofold. He is both the architect of today’s wretched neoliberal status quo and also the soft, feel-good friendly face to the callous, ineffectual reality of corporate centrist Democrats. When we ask what people still see in the Democrats during an age of crisis and polarization, Obama is what they see. Until the myth of his progressivism is punctured, centrists have gas in their tank.
Sanders largely eschewed going after Obama’s legacy. There is a logic to this. Obama was a generally beloved president whose approval numbers were consistently positive during his two terms. His initial election in 2008 garnered record turnout numbers and did so among voters under thirty-five, crossing the 60 percent threshold of the youth vote that Kerry and Clinton could not. And even more importantly a wave of the Black electorate helped flip a number of southern states like North Carolina and Virginia that have recently been dominated by Republicans in national elections. His eight years lacked the kind of personal scandals that seem to be actually part of the qualifications to be president in this country. The narrative of finally having a Black president occupy a White House originally built by slaves had a poignant relevance for Black America.
Four years of Trump’s all-night Twitter tirades, openly belligerent, racist, and sexist behavior, reams of controversy and intrigue, history of sexual assault, scorched earth policies, and flirtation with the far right have only made Obama’s stock go up. The eight years before, through the skewed looking glass of the Trump years, appears as a time when things were normal and, though an illusion, it has some basis in reality for those facing the ferocity of Trump’s policies. This mythology permeates the centrist status quo and reinforces it at every turn.
Taking this on would be messy and having an old white guy criticize Obama is not a good look. But not doing so has left another old white guy who is demonstrably worse to bask in the glow of the mirage of the good old days of Obama.
There is a political cost of avoiding the issue, and Sanders ceded tremendous ground to Biden. In the last debate between the two, Sanders mentioned Obama once, and that was to point out—slightly incorrectly—that Obama had voted with him against a 2007 immigration bill. He even invoked Obama in a recent campaign ad that heavily featured images and a voice over from the ex-president praising Sanders. In the Senate, Sanders has been critical of Obama, but while running for president against someone who has donned the mantle of Obama’s golden legacy, Sanders has not only avoided criticism but has aimed to associate himself with the forty-fourth president.
For Biden, being the vice president to Barack Obama is quite possibly the only reason why he has done as well as he has. And he will not let you forget it. At every debate he name-drops Obama countless times, especially when criticized, and passionately when his past support for racist segregation is pointed out. How can I be bad on race, he implies, when my buddy Barack picked me? Obama is a lionized icon in the party having transitioned from being first Black president to cool tastemaker. According to YouGov, Obama is the most popular and famous Democrat (Sanders is the third most popular Democrat). Biden pointedly revels in that association even though Obama has not endorsed his bid. The particularity of American elections is such that, to quote a recent article by Shuja Haider, ”Any person permitted to attain political power must already appear as such a figure, in a tautology that enables the ongoing reproduction of ideological orthodoxy.” For Biden, his association with Obama fulfils this requirement.
This will-’o’wisp of electability is all the more enticing in a climate of hardship and fear where the people who face the brunt of Trump’s policies may need reassurance that Sanders’s attractive policies are actually attainable. In the absence of class forces and mass social movements, the horizon of what seems possible can appear more distant.
This is why Biden’s support in certain established sections of the Black electorate has been strong. Electability also provided the cover for Representative James Clyburn, who receives 72 percent of his total funding from corporate PACs and big pharma, to give the endorsement that was essential in delivering South Carolina. The win in that state began his upward trajectory, helping convince the Democratic Party’s capital backers that Biden’s was the horse to bet on. This is the background for many anecdotes comrades have shared about canvassing for Sanders: after a long conversation with someone who mostly agreed with Sanders on the need to take on the billionaires and corporations, that Medicare for All is a great idea, the conversation would close with, “But I am voting for Biden because he was with Obama.” These campaign trail stories are borne out by the polls, which show massive support for policies like Medicare for All, even among Biden supporters.
This connection with the supposedly halcyon days of Obama is the one leg that the zombified Biden campaign has to stand on. Sanders, while eloquently describing the general misery of working class life, dances around the central pillar of the Obama myth that holds up Biden and the centrist dream. Party minders will deploy this essential tool until it is dismantled. Notably, those party minders include Obama himself and one can only speculate about the topic of multiple conversations he reportedly had with Sanders in the week leading up to Sanders’s pulling the plug.
Sanders’s popular case against inequality is blunted by this embargo on mentioning key aspects of Obama’s record and challenging the mythology upon which the Biden campaign rides.
The Obama-Biden administration carried out the multi-trillion-dollar bailout of the banks, funneling tax dollars into corporate profits and ushering in years of austerity while refusing to go after any of the banker criminals who helped trigger the 2008 economic crisis. Corporate profits had successive record years while wages remained stagnant and living standards decreased. Under the Obama presidency two thirds of all income growth was captured by the 1%.
Obama continued, further legalized, and accelerated the Bush-initiated War on Terror that expanded US wars abroad. As commander-in-chief, he carried out ten times more drone strikes than Bush and murdered around eight hundred civilians, according to conservative estimates. “Turns out,” the Nobel Peace prize–winner would remark, “I am really good at killing people.” His program even set legal precedent beyond Bush by carrying out extrajudicial assasinations around the world including American citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki and his sixteen-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. He kept the torture chambers of Guantánamo Bay open and waged war on journalists and whistleblowers including Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. The National Security Agency’s extensive domestic spying under Obama’s watch trampled civil liberties.
During his two terms Obama deported 2.5 million people. He funded and built up the machine of camps, Border Gestapo, and ICE raids. Trump’s current attacks would have been impossible to carry out at the same scale if not for Obama’s eight years of hard work terrorizing immigrants. While Sanders made Biden account for this publicly to some degree, on this point Sanders should have shown him no quarter.
Despite the current unpopularity of fracking among many Democrats its increase was a direct product of Obama’s plan to deal with the 2008 economic crisis by making the United States an energy exporter. Under Obama oil production in the US increased 80 percent and 80 percent of that number was due to expansion of fracking. This drove the US to become a world leader in energy production and the pipelines cutting through indignous lands is his legacy.
And most importantly there is the question of Obama and Black America. During his years in office Black America lost half its total wealth. Of the Obama presidency, scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes: “Far from ‘benefiting’ African American communities, Obama’s policies—shaped largely by neoliberalism and the idea that privatization of public services is preferable to an expansion of the state, even in times of dire economic crisis—have been particularly harmful to Black communities.” Obama’s “Chicago boy” Arne Duncan carried out sweeping corporate school deform, especially impacting Black communities. And Obama presided over the largest wave of protest about racism and police violence with the Black Lives Matter movement, sometimes offering sympathetic platitudes and sometimes calling Black protesters “criminals and thugs.”
This short survey barely scratches the real legacy of the Obama and Biden administration that Sanders has left relatively untouched. This should be a lesson not just for Sanders but any left-wing electoral venture. Ideological intransigence was Bernie’s strength and his insistence on struggle and fighting the 1% was the reason for his surge. His reluctance to pull back the curtain on the Obama glory days blunted his own chief source of strength and allowed the Democratic Party leaders to hide and justify the centrist status quo. If you are going to take on the billionaires and corporations, you should be prepared to take on the entirety of their machine. The Obama presidency continues to cast a long shadow. It’s time we shine a light to clear a way past it.
brian bean is a member of the Rampant editorial collective and an editor and contributer to the book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction forthcoming from Haymarket Books.