Blood Brothers? Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama
by Ian Sinclair
13-14 November 2021
Having released a joint podcast earlier this year, US music superstar Bruce Springsteen and former President Barack Obama have just published those conversations as a book – Renegades: Born In The USA.
The podcast was hugely popular, and no doubt the book will be a bestseller this Christmas and beyond.
As a Springsteen fan, I’m very uneasy about this partnership.
First, I was surprised Springsteen decided to do it. Since President Ronald Reagan’s attempt to appropriate his epic Born In The USA song in 1984, The Boss has been wary of intervening in party politics. As he explained in 2012, “I don’t write for one side of the street … normally I would prefer to stay on the sidelines.” This general stance shifted in 2004, when he campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, and then Obama in 2008. However, it’s worth noting he told Channel 4 News he didn’t “have any plans” to campaign for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election, just three weeks before he did exactly that. Beyond these endorsements, there is a sense Springsteen thinks very carefully before acting in the political arena, aware the more he campaigns the less power each intervention has.
Second, though both men are Democrats, arguably Springsteen is further to the left than Obama, and certainly the 2008-2016 Obama Administration.
Springsteen’s concern about the lives of Americans stretches back decades. In October 2016 he told Channel 4 News “The past 40 years, as the deindustrialisation and globalization has affected a lot of work lives, the issues that matter to a lot of hardworking folks haven’t been addressed… neither party has really addressed their concerns.” Note the timing of his criticism of all US political leaders – the tailend of Obama’s supposedly paradigm-shifting presidency.
Speaking about his 2012 album Wrecking Ball, his angry response to the financial crisis and its effects on Mainstreet USA, Springsteen told the Guardian “What was done to our country was wrong and unpatriotic and un-American and nobody has been held to account.” Of course that’s because Obama didn’t take any significant action to punish or reign in Wall Street. Meeting the US’s top thirteen financial executives in March 2009, according to Politico Obama told them “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” He continued: “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help… I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you… I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”
During a 2012 press conference in Paris Springsteen praised Obama for keeping General Motors alive and killing Osama Bin Laden. However, though he noted Obama “got through healthcare” he said it was “not the public system I would have wanted… big business still has too much say in government and there has not been as many middle- or working-class voices in the administration as I expected.”
This is an accurate analysis. Obama stuffed his administration with Wall Street insiders. Larry Summers, who as Deputy Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton played a key role in the deregulation of the finance sector that led to the 2008 financial crisis, was appointed Chief Economic Advisor, Timothy Geithner, a protégé Summers, was made Treasury Secretary, and Mark Patterson, a former lobbyist for Goldman Sachs investment bank, Geithner’s Chief of Staff.
On healthcare, Springsteen is in agreement with Obama circa 2003, when as a state senator he supported “single payer” (universal public healthcare), though explained its introduction would require Democrats to take back the White House and Congress. By 2009 Obama was in the White House and the Democrats controlled Congress. However, the Obama Administration “worked to deliberately marginalize the idea” of single payer, according to Tim Higginbotham, writing for Jacobin in 2018. For example the White House held a summit on healthcare reform in March 2009 where “every voice has to be heard” and “every idea must be considered”, according to the president. But as always with Obama, it is best to attend to his deeds, not words. The idea of creating a single-payer programme had already been rejected, it seems. Asked at the start of the summit why Obama was against single payer, the White House press secretary Robert Gibbs answered “The President doesn’t believe that’s the best way to achieve the goal of cutting costs and increasing access.”
The Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) was eventually passed in 2010, expanding health insurance coverage to around 20 million people but it wasn’t the public option Springsteen favours. As Matt Taibbi explained in Rolling Stone in 2009: “Even though [Obama] and the Democrats enjoy a political monopoly and could have started from a very strong bargaining position, they chose instead to concede at least half the battle before it even began.”
While it is important not to exaggerate the differences but Springsteen and Obama, the former is probably best described as a New Deal Democrat, giving a voice to politically and economically dispossessed Americans on albums like The Ghost of Tom Joad and Nebraska. In contrast, in 2008 US writer Paul Street described the first African American president as a “relatively conservative, capitalism-/corporate-friendly, racially conciliatory and Empire-friendly centrist”. As US journalist John R. MacArthur said in 2013: “He never stops serving the ruling class.”
Listening to the eight-episode podcast series the lack of time given to hard politics is noticeable, with no serious discussion about Obama’s actual record in office.
Turning to US foreign policy, a survey of Springsteen’s albums suggests it’s a secondary concern for the New Jersey native. And largely only of interest when it negatively impacts Americans. His epic Born In The USA song, for example, refers to “Viet Cong” and the “yellow man” but is far more interested in the dark days facing the returning Vietnam veteran. During his recent Broadway show, he introduced the song as a “G.I. blues.” Ditto Youngstown from 1995, which mentions wars in Korea and Vietnam, and alludes to the forces of globalisation (“now sir you tell me the world’s changed”) but is primarily concerned with how industrial decline impacted the American worker. And I think his 2002 album The Rising – made in the wake of 9/11 – is a great record, but its lack of interest in what the US had been doing around the world – when the national political debate cried out for exactly that – was telling.
This disinterest (or should I say ignorance?) likely suits their friendship: Obama’s murderous foreign policy record wouldn’t be the best fit with the relaxed atmosphere of the podcast.
As Peter Bergen, then CNN’s national security analyst, wrote in 2014: Obama is “one of the most militarily aggressive American presidents in decades”, bombing seven Muslim countries – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Obama embraced drone warfare, conducting ten times more air strikes in the so-called war on terror than President Bush, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In a Council on Foreign Relations blog, Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson note the Obama Administration dropped 26,172 bombs in 2016 – an average of 72 bombs a day.
Infamously, “Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” for air strikes, the New York Times explained in 2012. Citing several Obama Administration officials, the report noted this approach “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants… unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
Tellingly, Springsteen recently told US talk show host Stephen Colbert that it was Obama who approached him about doing a podcast. It seems Obama, a master of dazzling, criticism-muzzling presentation and PR, still has an expert eye for engagements that will burnish and improve his image.
But what does Springsteen get out of it? Over his more than 50-year music career he has built up a perhaps unprecedented level of respect and trust with his audience. Why risk endangering this?
Personally, I’m all for more political interventions from artists – just not a close collaboration with a former Imperial Administrator who is up to his neck in the blood of thousands of men, women, children and babies from the Global South.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.