Barack Obama, a constitutional law professor and state senator from the south side of Chicago, is a leading candidate for the US Senate in the March 2004 Illinois Democratic primary. It's an open seat with no incumbent. In a crowded field that includes three well-known and better-funded opponents, Obama is definitely a contender. But who is Barack Obama?

A former community organizer not long out of Harvard Law School, Obama was tapped in 1992 to head up Project VOTE Illinois, where he was responsible for registering 120,000 new Democratic voters, mostly minorities, and chasing the greater part of them out to the polls that November. Barack and his team made a significant contribution toward Bill Clinton carrying Illinois that year and enabled Carol Moseley Braun to squeak by a Republican opponent to become the first and only black woman ever to sit in the US Senate. In 1996 Obama was elected to the Illinois state senate. At the midpoint of a four-year term in 2000, Obama challenged incumbent congressman Bobby Rush and was trounced in the Democratic primary by almost 2 to 1. He is the sponsor of a bill in the Illinois legislature requiring local police departments in Illinois to record the race of anyone stopped for questioning so that the data can be used to track the occurrence of racial profiling.

Energizing the base

To win the Democratic primary election in Illinois, where African Americans cast at least a quarter of the ballots, Obama needs to capture the great majority of a large black turnout, and pick up a significant slice of white votes as well. To secure a general election victory in a presidential election year Obama will have to fire up an expanded Democratic base and turn the election into a crusade against the incumbent president and his party. Can he do it?

At an antiwar meeting last October Obama was certainly pitching to that Democratic base in the progressive and African American community:

"I don't oppose all wars ... 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 arm-chair, 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.

"What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Roves to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income ... to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone thru the worst month since the Great Depression.

"That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics .... "

Somebody else's brand of politics appears to have intruded on Obama's campaign. For a while the whole speech could be found on Obama's campaign web site, a key statement of principle for a serious US Senate candidate in an election season when the President's party threatens the world with permanent war and pre-emptive invasion, and cows US citizens with fear mongering, color coded alerts, secret detentions and the abrogation of constitutional liberties. Although Obama may have appeared at meetings of other citizens opposed to the war or let them use his name, no further public statements from the candidate on these important issues have appeared.

Then, a few weeks ago, Barack Obama's heartfelt statement of principled opposition to lawless militarism and the rule of fear was stricken without explanation from his campaign web site, and replaced with mild expressions of "anxiety":

But I think [people are] all astonished, I think, in many quarters, about, for example, the recent Bush budget and the prospect that, for example, veterans benefits might be cut. And so there's discussion about that, I think, among both supporters and those who are opposed to the war. What kind of world are we building?

And I think that's - the anxiety is about the international prospects and how we potentially reconstruct Iraq. And the costs there, then, tie in very directly with concerns about how we're handling our problems at home.

His passion evaporated, a leading black candidate for the US Senate mouths bland generalities on war, peace and the US role in the world. Barack Obama, professor of constitutional law, is mum on the Patriot Act, silent about increased surveillance of US citizens, secret searches, and detentions without trial. His campaign literature and speeches ignore Patriot Act 2, which would detain US citizens without trial, strip them of their nationality and deport them to - wherever, citizens of no nation.

For a black candidate who is utterly reliant upon a fired up base among African American and progressive voters, who must distinguish himself from a crowded Democratic field, this is strange behavior, indeed. Polls show Blacks have consistently opposed administration war policies by at least two to one, as does the white progressive "base" of the party. Yet Obama appears determined to contain, rather than amplify, these voices.

No win without a fight

Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Chicago), perhaps Obama's most prominent supporter among local elected officials, knows well the power of passion in the political process. Jackson has taken pains to state and restate his opposition to the Bush party's doctrine of "preventive war," both on constitutional and moral grounds, and wastes no opportunity to denounce it as utterly unjustified. Rep. Jackson also has some salient thoughts on the flavor that African American progressive candidates representing the views of their base bring to general elections nationally, or in big states like Illinois.

On p. 460 of his recent book "A More Perfect Union," Rep. Jackson spells out the possible benefits to the Democratic Party of nominating a black candidate for vice-president. The presence of a progressive black candidate, said Jackson, automatically turns the conversation to the left, and gets the base's juices flowing.

"An African American on the ticket enhances the chances of winning for a good candidate .... It also converts a conventional campaign into an enthusiastic crusade."

But you don't spark a crusade by running away from your base. So how should we understand Obama's sudden reticence to express and represent the views of his base in the black and progressive communities of Illinois?

It is the mission of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) to make it financially attractive to Democratic candidates and office holders to take stands diametrically opposed to the interests of their constituents, to sound and vote more like corporate friendly Republicans. In an excellent American Prospect article two years ago, Robert Dreyfuss detailed how the DLC/New Democrats flipped black Rep. Greg Meeks, from Queens, New York, on a key trade vote.

Dooley (a DLC operative) hooked Meeks up with a stream of corporate officials from Silicon Valley and the New York financial district. "My boss made sure there'd be support for Meeks from the business community," says a Dooley aide. "He spread the word, through groups like the Business Roundtable, that here was a guy who deserved their support."

Congressman Dooley helped bring in businesses who otherwise Congressman Meeks would not have known, and didn't have a relationship with, to knock on his door. As a result, scores of meetings were held with the congressman, says an aide to Meeks, citing sit-downs with the CEOs of American Airlines and New York Life Insurance Company. High-tech executives helped ensure that Meeks would be one of two undecided members to accompany President Clinton on his high-profile trip to China before the vote, the aide said; and Meeks also won significant backing from industry political action committees, which ended up nearly matching labor's donations to Meeks's campaign treasury. Included were $5,000 PAC contributions from American Airlines and New York Life. And in the end, Meeks voted business's way.

"We're trying to raise money to help them lessen their reliance on traditional interest groups in the Democratic Party," offers a DLC field director. "In that way," he adds, "they are ideologically freed .... "

Barack Obama is listed in the DLC/New Democrats directory of local elected officials, and was featured in its 100 Democratic Leaders to Watch in 2003. It would be a shame if he is in the process of becoming "ideologically freed" from the opinions of the African American and other Democrats whose votes he needs to win.

The DLC/New Democrat position is identical to that of the White House, "free" and scornful of all opposition voices. Here we have it the words of DLC founder Al From.

" ... Democrats must overcome both their own and the opposition's partisan instincts, and act in the national interest. The president's decision to prosecute this war without explicit authorization from the United Nations was a close call, but it was the right call.

" ... Iraq is clearly involved in both the quest for weapons of mass destruction and in fomenting anti-Western terrorism, whether or not there are direct links between Baghdad and Al Qaeda. The risks of war are eclipsed by the risk of tolerating a conjunction between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, in a country ruled by a bitter enemy of America, and in the most volatile region of the world."

There are definitely multiple voices in Obama's ear right now. On the one hand, there are the DLC/New Democrats, the right wing corporate funded arm of the Democratic Party. Their consistent advice is to shut up and support the president's war at home and abroad, to get away from the concerns of "special interests" like minorities, working Americans, environmentalists and the uninsured, and peel off some not-too-conservative Republican swing votes. Their champion is Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, the most rightwing of the Democratic candidates for President.

On the other hand, there is Barack Obama's Democratic base - African Americans, who don't support the war, and other Democratic voters who don't support President Bush. In fact, according to the Gallup and Zogby polls the most strongly held common issue among those opposed to the president is opposition to the war. Should Obama fail to vigorously attack the party of war and corporate plunder he will lose the opportunity to energize and expand his base. The crusade will be smothered in its crib - the DLC's proven formula for failure.

Who is wooing whom?

Obama's web site features a praiseful article from the March 6 - 12 issue of N'Digo Magazine - a piece that could have been written by Obama's own hand, last October: "Shunning the allure of huge corporate dollars and the recognition that would accompany them, Obama's philosophy is grounded in altruism," said the magazine. How, then, does one explain his association with the DLC, the corporate money apparatus of the Democratic Party?

This is not the Barack Obama that Illinois progressives would like to support. It is not the Barack Obama who can win a primary or general election in a season where the President kicks off his campaign from the deck of an aircraft carrier impersonating Top Gun. It's not the Barack Obama who can win in the year that Republicans will wind up their convention at Ground Zero NYC, the second week of September 2004, screaming "Terror!" at the top of their lungs. Unless Barack Obama recovers his lost voice, he will have no answer.

Instead, Obama seems to be listening to the voice of DLC founder and CEO Al From, who in February declared to so-called New Democrats, "Your most formidable opponent isn't Bush or your fellow contestants for the nomination. Your real enemy is the ghost of Democrats past." Those "ghosts" are the "activists" and "special interests" of the Democratic Party - the very same code words that Republicans use for Blacks, unions and advocates of Obama's own, cherished "altruism."

Will Barack Obama renew the challenge he made in his now vanished speech last October?

I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.

So for those of us who seek a more just and secure world for our children, let us send a clear message to the president today.

You want a fight, President Bush? Let's finish the fight with Bin Laden and Al Qaida, thru effective, coordinated intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and a homeland security program that involves more than color-coded warnings.

You want a fight, President Bush? Let's fight to make sure that the UN inspectors can do their work, and that we vigorously enforce a non-proliferation treaty, and that former enemies and current allies like Russia safeguard and ultimately eliminate their stores of nuclear material, and that nations like Pakistan and India never use the terrible weapons in already in their possession, and that the arms merchants in our own country stop feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe.

You want a fight, President Bush? Let's fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.

You want a fight, President Bush? Let's fight to wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn't simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil.

Those are the battles that we need to fight. Those are the battles that we willingly join. The battles against ignorance and intolerance. Corruption and greed. Poverty and despair.

The consequences of war are dire, the sacrifices immeasurable. We may have occasion in our lifetime to once again rise up in defense of our freedom, and pay the wages of war. But we ought not - we will not - travel down that hellish path blindly. Nor should we allow those who would march off and pay the ultimate sacrifice, who would prove the full measure of devotion with their blood, to make such an awful sacrifice in vain."

Barack Obama's web site proudly features this quote from the candidate: "Anybody who knows the U.S Senate, knows (that) to be the only African American in that body is a tremendous responsibility."

Obama's campaign to date leaves a question hanging, heavily. Responsible to whom?

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Issue Number 45
June 5, 2003

Other commentaries in this issue:

Cover Story
Bringing Chaos to the Boardroom - Attack on Stock Value Is Key to Union Victory

Union Victory

Far-right freaks out on BC cartoons... Black Harvard and the power matrix... Jayson Blair lingers, story not yet dead... Radio One’s role in killing local Black news

"Who Killed Black Radio News?" A letter to BC from Todd Burroughs, Ph.D.

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Commentaries in Issue 44 May 29, 2003:

Cover Story
Who Killed Black Radio News?

Blacks poorest of all, says Census... African famine prompts Bush sales pitch... SEIU declares health key presidential issue

Like Father ... Like Son

The last word on Jayson Blair... Victory declared for Danny Glover... Harvard not full of house Negroes

Dad's Diploma: Overcoming Injustice by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-SC), Guest Commentator

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.