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The Smugness of the Obama Sellouts

The ‘hope and change’ president’s trusted allies went on to join the bad guys. What does it mean for Obama’s legacy?

In the opening days and months of Trump’s presidency, there was no mistaking his goal: to erase or unravel whatever Obama accomplished in the years before. He blew up the Iran deal and the Paris agreement. He wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and after those efforts failed in Congress, he tried to gut it anyway. He deregulated the corrupt financial industry and approved the Keystone XL pipeline Obama had rejected. Even amid the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has rolled back vehicle emission standards, a decision that earned him a “rare rebuke” from his predecessor. No future historian will be able to ignore this singular grudge.

But the urge to view Obama’s legacy as a good and decent one torn to shreds by the vindictive race-baiter who replaced him has come under expanding scrutiny. If his victories couldn’t withstand a new administration of petty resentments, then how durable were they? There’s reason to think that Democrats, by not going far enough when they had majorities in both houses of Congress — misfiring on the economic stimulus of 2009, refusing to prosecute Bush-era torturers and other war criminals, etc. — allowed the conditions of rotten empire to persist. 

Trump’s inhumane policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border caused liberal outrage at “kids in cages,” though in 2015, the ACLU filed a lawsuit due to the “appalling conditions” of CBP detention centers under Obama, describing them as dirty, cold, overcrowded and lacking in the most basic necessities. Since Trump’s election, Democrats have also woken up to how the GOP conquered state and local politics as the center-left luxuriated in the complacency of electing the first black president. When 2020 contenders began to announce campaigns, a few were calculating how to distance themselves from his moderation.  

As the left’s view of Obama’s tenure continues to sour — they went from citing his penchant for drone strikes to labeling him a complete neoliberal shill — they likewise find themselves at odds with his former advisers and cabinet members. Many from this inner circle have gone on to private sector jobs within parasitic companies, becoming mouthpieces for disaster capitalism in the process. This week, former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who is now a senior vice president at Amazon (but whose Twitter profile shows him working on Air Force One and rubbing shoulders with Obama), weighed in on the retail giant’s firing of a fulfillment center manager who had led a walkout over unsafe working conditions during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Carney claimed the organizer, Christian Smalls, had purposefully violated social-distancing rules — then, facing a severe Ratio for this executive boilerplate, moaned about “ad hominem vitriol.” Fitting, as the very next day, VICE revealed an Amazon memo on the plot to smear Smalls, a black man, as “not smart or articulate,” in hopes of derailing any unionization movement. (For damage control by way of positive headlines, CEO Jeff Bezos immediately pledged $100 million to food banks.) 

It sure feels as if some folks who half-assed the progressive agenda while in power are now profiting from systems they declined to overhaul (as well as penning band-of-brothers-style memoirs of how they naively sought “compromise” with obstructionist Republicans). Isi Kirshner-Breen, formerly press secretary for Rep. Keith Ellison, has a sobering Twitter thread on where the key players ended up after exiting D.C., and it’s a veritable who’s who of unethical, exploitative businesses.

We have everyone from McDonald’s (employees striking over lack of paid leave and workplace safety measures), to Lockheed Martin (billions in revenue from wars), to Uber and Lyft (attempting to block unemployment pay for drivers), to Airbnb (a gentrifier that encourages people to hoard housing, which drives rents higher), to a number of soulless banks and predatory financial firms, and even the U.K.’s Conservative Party — they hired Jim Messina, Obama’s onetime Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, as a chief political strategist for a snap election, and he led them to a truly historic loss.

Is it possible that these phonies and sellouts were also co-architects of today’s dysfunctional America? I’m sure you already know.  

We ought to expect a president’s team to migrate toward corporate boards and C-suite gigs — to cash out as soon as they can. When a Trump flunky departs his orbit, they tend to land a cushy role within an evil industry before the week is out. Yet such behavior is additionally infuriating from those who rode the audacity of hope and “yes we can” to their ultimate payday. Trump’s people (and MAGA disciples) don’t pretend to care for anyone but themselves; their greed is not a betrayal of stated values. Obama’s allies have cast their lot with the richest cretins on the planet, defending open plunder, and still they condescend to the rest of us as insufficiently grateful for some glorious change we never actually saw.

They must believe that things got better simply because they were in charge, and so, their duty done, they are justified in turning their focus to personal wealth. Now, please, line up to have your neck stepped on.