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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Fighting with Pinpricks: Saint Obama

Published: February 29, 2008
Section: Opinions

02290804.jpgOdds in the once even money race for the Democratic presidential nomination have started to favor of Barack Obama. With an impressive 11 primary and caucus wins since Super Tuesday, the junior senator from Illinois is well placed to secure the nomination. A comeback by Hilary Clinton is certainly not out of the question; however, in recent weeks the Clinton campaign has been plagued by low morale and a declining level of commitment. In fact, according to the New York Times, some Clinton staffers “have taken to going home early . . . turning off their BlackBerrys, and polishing off bottles of wine.”

Few of these staffers could have imagined three months ago that their once unstoppable candidate could be brought low by a relative newcomer and his platitudinous message of “hope” and “change.” Given all this, now might be an interesting time to crack open Obama’s hope machine, examine the gears, and better understand his ability to rack up such impressive victories against the standard bearer of one of recent American history’s most successful political families.

The hope machine, like everything else in American politics, is fueled by money. Obama raised a lot of it, easily over $100 million dollars. Despite Obama’s rhetoric of change and his symbolic importance as the most successful black presidential candidate ever, the list of his top donors is an honor role of the white and moneyed Wall Street elite. Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse all make the top twenty.

These firms and others in the financial services sector have given millions to Obama campaign. A troubling sign since the next president will need to deal with the fallout from the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and any serious reform of the lending practices which lead to our current economic torpor will require independence from the big financial firms and hedge funds which are in large part responsible for the problem.

To his credit, Obama has not been oblivious to the power that money has in shaping public policy. On the contrary, he has fashion himself as a sort of secular saint preaching against influence peddlers. On numerous occasions he’s stated that “Washington lobbyists haven’t funded my campaign, [and] they won’t run my White House.” This would be comforting, if it were true. Unfortunately, when Saint Obama says “lobbyists” he means people who work for Washington lobbying firms. Lost in Obama’s definition are the legions of in-house lobbyists employed directly by powerful corporations and the armada of corporate law firms who engage in substantial lobbying efforts. Indeed, five such lobbyists are among Obama’s top twenty contributors. Moreover, Mike Williams, an Obama supporter and in-house lobbyist for Credit Suisse, has acted as Obama’s ambassador to K-street encouraging lobbyists’ spouses to donate to the campaign in lieu direct contributions.

It would, however, be reductive to say that the hope machine runs on money alone. Obama’s inspiring life story, as relayed by his memoir, is also an important part of the apparatus. In his youth Obama abused drugs, but he later eschewed psychoactive substances and got an Ivy League education. From there he was briefly seduced by the materialism of the corporate world only to leave it behind and become a community activist. Unfortunately, two New York Times investigations discovered that nothing in those last two sentences is true. The drug use was exaggerated for dramatic effect; Obama’s friends and schoolmates remember him being only a little bolder than Bill Clinton in his experimentation with marijuana and never touching cocaine. His career path was decidedly more serpentine than he lets on, with Obama oscillating between the political commitment of community organizing and the comforts of corporate America several times.

This doesn’t mean that Obama is any worse than his political rivals Hilary Clinton and John McCain; it simply means that Saint Obama’s campaign, like most others in this country, is based on questionably money and convenient lies. It also suggests that his well meaning supporters who earnestly “hope” for “change” during an Obama administration will almost certainly be disappointed.