Review of `Renegade: The Making of Barack Obama'

Renegade: The Making of Barack Obama
By Richard Wolfe, Virgin Books, London 2009

Review by Jeff Richards

October 14, 2009 – Whatever your views are about Barack Obama, there is no doubt that his campaign for the US presidency was a major milestone in the history of electoral politics in the United States. How did a senatorial rookie who was black, with an alien name and a background in community organising get to the centre of the system of power? It was both a matter of circumstance (the crises and failure of neoconservative project) and the remarkable political skills of Obama and the campaign team led by David Axelrod.

The story of Obama's rise to power and the organisation of the campaign is one that should be studied by those of us on the radical left. It can inform us about the new ways that power is organised in 21st century societies. Many of the radical left’s accounts of power in society are being superseded by the significant changes that are occurring within capitalism. Models of organising a political challenge against these radically evolving systems of power are going to have to adapt to these changes if we want to become key players in the struggle for social change. We should not let archaic prejudices get in the way of a clear-headed appreciation of the ways of the new world.

Obama and Axelrod ran a campaign that represents a historic break from the usual ways of gaining power in modern capitalist democracies. For example, the internet and SMS messaging were used to tap into millions of small donations from individuals and small groups. It was also used as an organising tool, often calling on thousands of supporters on short notice. The very fact that campaigns are increasingly reliant on these large accumulations of small donations could potentially lead candidates and their policies to be more responsive to larger sections of the electorate.

A similar example to help explain what I mean can be found in the huge stake that workers' savings have in investments via superannuation funds. These funds represent a potential pool of influence on investment decisions in capitalist societies (it ought to be said, it is currently ``unrealised'' or ``potential'' power).

On the other side of the Obama campaign there was high level networking led by the billionaire Penny Pritzker of the Hyatt Group (who was later caught up in various financial scandals that blocked her rise to administrative power in the US government). She brought together massive amounts of money from the financial elite and ultra high-wealth individuals (from television/Hollywood/music/sports etc.). One could argue that these two huge streams of campaign money represented two sets of potential influence on the policy settings Obama would adopt when he became president.

The Making of Barack Obama describes the campaign strategies that were used in the very drawn-out contest between Obama and Hilary Clinton. The political significance of this prolonged struggle between the two Democrats still needs to be researched, but I suggest that it fundamentally shaped Obama’s post-election presidential strategy (by welding him more closely to US power elites).

One of the great dilemmas of any candidate in a country the size of the United States is the need to hone in the right sets of messages to convince voters to listen, and the to actually go out on voting day to the polling booths (unlike in Australia where voting is compulsory). No party – right or left – can effectively campaign in the United States with a single message for all voters. The pitch has to be differentiated. In some cases during the primaries, some states were simply left out of the equation by the Obama campaign in order to concentrate on those which might given a better hearing and/or deliver more votes.

Obama’s humble origins and his ``crossover'' multiracial background gave him an advantage and a feeling for the moods and opinions of deeply divided working-class constituencies across the nation. Obama appealed to young Americans and he used the skills he learned as a community organiser in Illinois to mobilise young people to participate in ``coalface'' activities, from staffing phones to voter registration drives. He also had a good appreciation of modern communication systems – principally the internet and SMS – that he used get in ``personal'' contact with individual voters and campaign activists.

One of the important differences between Australian and US politics is the manner in which candidates have to mobilise a constituency in order to get elected. In the primaries and the presidential election, the candidate has to spend much more time appealing to and actively mobilising their constituencies. In Australia, the candidate's job is largely done by state coercion (i.e. we are forced to vote or we face a penalty).

Renegade: The Making of Barack Obama is one of the first accounts of the Obama campaign. It is a well written but conventional journalistic account of what occurred. As with many such works, it skims over the surface of events. It fails to explore the wider context of Obama’s rise to power: the demographic transformation of the US electorate; the relationships and deals that were brokered with regional power figures and financiers; the deep crises of neoconservative policy.

If you want to research what occurred more thoroughly, then you need to start with Mike Davis’s essay in New Left Review (no. 56, March-April 2009), ``Obama at Manassas'', which examines the transformation of the US polity in the late Bush era. At some point in the future, when people are more inclined to talk, there needs to be a history written about the deals/arrangements made with regional power brokers (governors; mayors; congressional representatives) and the financial brokers who backed his presidential campaign. Radical left analysis should always make sure it spends some time following the money trail.

[Jeff Richards is a member the Socialist Alliance and works as a clinical nurse in Mental Health Services, South Australia.]