Bernie Sanders versus Obama & the Clintons: The Big Difference

Today OffGuardian explores what Bernie Sanders represents to different Americans. For some he is a brave defender of forgotten principles, or at least a best alternative. For others he’s a deluded no-hoper or a bland gatekeeper. Elsewhere on OffG Margaret Kimberley says why she views Sanders as a ‘political sheepdog‘. Here, Eric Zuesse explores a positive viewpoint.


I state here why I have come to support Bernie Sanders for President: Whereas Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — the modern Democratic Establishment — have been so conservative they might as well have called themselves “conservative” (and they didn’t say it because they needed to be able to win Democratic Party primaries), Sanders’s record shows that he isn’t like that at all; he’s an authentic democrat, and always has been, even when he didn’t call himself one (but only a “Progressive,” and a “socialist — like in Scandinavia”). I don’t care what a politician calls himself or herself, only what the person actually is, as the person has proven to be by the actual record as a public official.

The entire careers of Bernie Sanders, versus Barack Obama and both Bill and Hillary Clinton, display a stark difference. Whereas Obama and the Clintons were trying to win the votes of Democrats while secretly supporting Republican policies to redistribute even more wealth upward from the public to the aristocracy (and they did so) (and how!), Sanders has consistently been trying — and helping — to do the exact opposite: to redistribute wealth downward, from the aristocracy to the public. Taxes, and all of government policies, are inevitably wealth-distributional (who pays how much, and who gets how much of the benefits; and what benefits pay needs, versus what benefits pay mere wants). Any politician who says that government isn’t largely about the distribution of wealth, knows that what he is saying is false — he or she is lying about government. (Only their suckers can believe it.) The question isn’t whether government should redistribute wealth; it’s how. That’s reality, and every public official knows it.


Lawrence Summers was the leading economist for both of the Clintons, and also for Obama; and one of the reasons they chose him was that he agreed with them that the richer a person is, the better the given person tends to be. Summers shared their money-elitist values. (They secretly despise the poor.)

He was an economist and not a politician, and so he wasn’t as careful as Obama and the Clintons to hide his money-elitist belief from the public. A politician’s chief economist shows where he or she really stands, on this crucial matter — aristocracy versus democracy. This is a matter that’s basic not only to economics, but also to politics.

For example, the leaked “Summers Memo” from 12 December 1991, when Larry Summers was Chief Economist for the World Bank, instructed his staff that,

…a given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a wad of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. … I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City.

When this staff-memo was leaked to environmental organizations, he said that he had only been joking, but this is not the way his staff had interpreted it. Indeed, they had no reason to interpret it in any other way than as constituting guidance from their boss. The view that he expressed in this staff-memo was consistent with other views he’s known to have expressed in the course of his career, right up to the present time. It’s his view. It’s the Clintons’ view. And it’s Obama’s view. And it’s not funny at all — no more than a vicious comment about a deceased person would be that’s made at his funeral. And Summers isn’t so stupid.

On 15 June 2012, Bonnie Kouvassi at Huffington Post, bannered “Larry Summers: We Need To Focus On Inequality of Opportunity,” and she presented video of him teaching at Harvard, saying, “I think we can accept, I think we should accept, inequality of results, recognizing that those who earn more are in a better position to contribute more to support society.” He attacked those (this would include Bernie Sanders) who criticized America’s extreme inequality of wealth, and he praised at length “those who are in a better position to contribute more to support society.” Summers’s aristocrat-enhancing view was that, even in a nation of such extreme wealth-inequality as America, inequality of opportunity can be reduced without also reducing inequality of wealth.

It’s not just false, but absurdly false: In a country with such extreme wealth-inequality (one of the world’s highest), inequality of opportunity is largely the result of inequality of wealth. Addressing the former without also addressing the latter is doomed to fail. As a reader at a blog well-phrased the matter, on 29 September 2013:

The privileges of wealth grow exponentially with each generation in no small part because of the greater educational opportunities the children of the rich have – with less distraction from needing to work their way through school and less debt with which to begin the ‘rat race’.

If anyone should know about that, it’s the former Harvard president Summers.

However, Summers routinely displayed enormous respect for wealthy people, and contempt for the poor. He was quoted in Ron Suskind’s 2011 Confidence Men as saying in 2009 (p. 197):

One of the challenges in our society is that the truth is kind of a disequalizer. … One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way they’re supposed to be treated.

This was the economist preferred above all others by Obama and the Clintons. He hadn’t contributed anything important to economics, but he called himself a ‘Democrat,’ and he pleased America’s aristocracy; so, he got the top ‘Democratic’ appointments, from the top ‘Democrats.’

Obama himself has said essentially the same thing, such as, “while we don’t promise equal outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity.” It’s fake, no matter which liar is using the rationalization for spreading economic inequality.

The report in Politico on 18 March 2014, “The Rich Strike Back,” cited Summers as assuming (as Adam Smith did; e.g., “Wherever there is great property there is great inequality” — something that’s proven false in some of the world’s wealthiest and most-equal countries) a supposed natural tension between wealth and equality. Summers alleged there that progressives’ desire for more economic equality is merely “envy”: he said, “‘Reducing inequality is good, but it’s 50 times better to do it by lifting those up who are low than by tearing those down who are high,’ said Larry Summers. … ‘The politics of envy are the wrong politics in America. The better politics are the politics of inclusion where everyone shares in economic growth.’” He called this aristocratic, anti-democratic, position “the politics of inclusion.” He implied that democracy is the politics of exclusion; aristocracy the politics of inclusion.

Barack Obama endorses that viewpoint (even though Summers’s having stated it in public became an embarrassment to the President and was then quietly punished by him); Obama himself had even endorsed it subtly in an article by David Leonhardt in The New York Times, 24 August 2008, “Obamanomics,” where Obama, late in the U.S. Presidential campaign, had stated his Hayek-Friedman-Posner positions, the (University of) “Chicago School of Economics” views (which his colleagues there said that he accepted), which were called “postpartisan.” Leonhardt wrote:

‘The market is the best mechanism ever invented for efficiently allocating resources to maximize production,’ Obama told me. ‘And I also think that there is a connection between the freedom of the marketplace and freedom more generally.’

Obama simply ignored that in fascism, there is both capitalism and dictatorship. A ‘free market’ does not necessarily mean a free country. Obama only pretends to be ignorant of this fact. And, similarly, socialism does not necessarily mean a lack of democracy: Scandinavian countries are both socialist (as socialist welfare states) and democratic, without there being any contradiction.

In other words: Obama denied the entire question of wealth-redistribution upward or downward; he simply denied the entire issue of economic classes — the public versus the aristocracy. He denied that “freedom more generally” can maximize either for the aristocracy, or else for the public, but not for both simultaneously. (Aristocrats compete among themselves for dominance within the aristocracy, but they all compete collectively against the public, such as to lower their wages for employees, and to reduce safety-regulation of products for consumers; and government is the vehicle that makes such essentially redistributive decisions — on behalf of either the public, the voters; or else the aristocrats, the big political campaign donors.)

He had said this in a country that had actually gone from being one of the most-equalitarian in the world in 1975, to becoming one of the least-equalitarian in the world in 2007. And inequality kept soaring after Obama became President — he placed into practice his actual beliefs (though he never stated these beliefs publicly in any clear manner, because then he would have lost Democratic primaries, never become President).

On 19 September 2011, the anti-Summers former Clinton-Administration economist, Brad DeLong, blogged “Obama Develops His Own View of the Jobless Recovery,” and pasted in some excerpts from the just-published devastating take-down of the Obama Administration, Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men. DeLong being a professional economist, he included the most revealing passage concerning Obama’s view of the nation’s economy as the new President had entered office and during his first years in office, the passage that actually explained Obama’s entire economic policy. This passage (p. 353) referred to the President’s two leading economic advisors, Summers being number one, and Christina Romer being second:

Both … were concerned by something the president had said in a morning briefing: that he thought the high unemployment was due to productivity gains in the economy [i.e, that because of increased worker-productivity, those workers simply were no longer needed]. Summers and Romer were startled.
‘What was driving unemployment was clearly deficient demand,’ Romer said. ‘We wondered where this could have been coming from. We both tried to convince him otherwise. He wouldn’t budge.’
Summers had been focused intently on how to spur demand, and on what might drive a meaningful recovery. Since the summer, in meeting after meeting, he’d ticked off the possible candidates, and then discussed them – ‘it won’t be construction, it won’t be exports, it won’t be the consumer.’ But without a rise in demand, in Summers’s view, nothing else would work. What’s more, in such a sluggish, low-demand environment, Summers felt that banks probably shouldn’t be lending. ‘No one wants banks to offer credit to people who shouldn’t be taking on more credit.’ [In other words: the idea that interest rates were low in order to increase bank-lending was fake, mere PR; interest rates were low in order to increase the spread, the profits, between their low borrowing costs from the Fed, and their much higher interest rates on credit cards and other existing lending. Obama chose Fed chairs who aimed, above all, to keep bank-profits high, by keeping the Fed’s interest rate low.]
But productivity? The implications were significant. If Obama felt that 10 percent unemployment was the product of sound, productivity-driven decisions by American businesses, then short-term government measures to spur hiring were not only futile but unwise.
The two economists strained their shared memory of dozens of meetings: had they said something he’d misconstrued? At one point, Summers had mentioned how Keynes once wrote in a 1938 letter that the labor movement depressed productivity, and maybe Obama saw that the disruptions in the economy from the Great Panic gave employers an opportunity – an excuse, essentially – to harvest latent productivity gains.
After a month, frustration turned to resignation. ‘The president seems to have developed his own view,’ Romer said.

Obama was more conservative even than Summers was.

In other words, as the first of the many reader-responses to this posting said – and DeLong’s blog was regularly read by large numbers of Democratic economists, so these comments were mainly from professional economists who were on the liberal side of that very conservative profession: “Obama is now on record as to the right of Larry Summers on stimulus vs. deficit reduction. At that point, we are beyond ‘Obama as Rubinite’ or ‘Obama as blue dog’ and well into ‘Obama as GOP mole’ territory. This disgraceful shill for global capital has destroyed the Democratic party for a generation.”

Another said: “And I was always joking about Obama as the ‘Manchurian Candidate’ from the U of Chicago [a notoriously right-wing faculty]. Productivity? Really?”

Another said: “Law and economics [the associated far-Right UC viewpoint in political theory] background. Depressing.”

Another said: “I’m totally blown away. … To read that he espouses crank nonsense like this is frightening.”

Another said: “Omigod. Larry Summers looks good [by comparison to the President he advised].”

The only economists who still thought (and publicly expressed) that high unemployment was the result of increased economic productivity, were people like Glenn Hubbard, who had headed George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors. One of Harvard’s prominent champions of aristocracy, Niall Ferguson, also publicly defended this view on 2 November 2011, when Yahoo News headlined an interview with him, “Poor Public School Education Not Wall St. to Blame For American Inequality.” In other words: (democratic) government was to blame; kleptocratic aristocrats who financed political commercials (and financed scholars like Glenn Hubbard’s and Niall Ferguson’s and Lawrence Summers’s careers) were not to blame.

Elsewhere, I had excerpted from Suskind’s book the description Suskind gave (p. 234) of Obama’s private meeting in the White House with Wall Street CEOs, on 27 March 2009, in which Obama told them that, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks. … I’m not out there to go after you. I’m protecting you. … I’m going to shield you.” And he did: zero prosecutions of them, and record-low financial prosecutions.

Hillary and Bill Clinton are also like that. Different people, same views.


Bernie Sanders is not like that. He’s not trying to fool anybody. And that’s why he’s widely loved in Vermont, where, as a Mayor, he had helped to produce perhaps the nation’s most progressive state, even though it used to be the most Republican state (and the only state, other than Maine, never to have voted for FDR).

Vermont newspaper Seven Days has the best reporting about Sanders’s actual record. Reporter Nancy Remsen headlines in a recent issue, “What a 1987 Tax Battle Says About Bernie Sanders,” and she provides typical details about Sanders’s early battles against the aristocracy in Burlington Vermont (which is the state’s largest city, and of which he had become the Mayor in 1981). The city’s ‘non-profit’ hospital (the administrators actually received all of its profits) was transferring its tax-liabilities off onto Burlington’s other residents (and thus driving up their property-taxes), and Bernie Sanders didn’t think that this was fair:

He argued that seeking taxes from the medical center was about fairness for taxpayers. The hospital had a $100 million budget, he said, but paid “nothing in taxes, nothing in lieu of taxes and nothing for the services they receive,” meaning fire, police and other municipal protections.

He threw jabs about the hospital trustees meeting behind closed doors and administrators’ salaries: “There are a heck of a lot of people up there making a heck of a lot of money,” he said pointedly.

The hospital responded:

The effects of stripping the hospital of its tax-exempt status are far-reaching. The first to suffer would be patients. The finance office estimated the cost of the average patient stay would increase by about $300.

The Mayor got turned down repeatedly, but he kept on fighting.

He tried, without success, to force the medical center to match a city grant to support the Visiting Nurse Association. He asked the Vermont attorney general if it was legal for the hospital trustees to meet behind closed doors. He set up another task force — this one to look at health care — and gave them a mission, found in written form among his papers:

“It seems to be that the question that must be debated in our community is a very fundamental one and that is, ‘Should the practice of medicine, and the whole health care system, be run as a corporate business generating huge profits and incomes to higher-ups in that profession, or should health care be a right to which all Americans are entitled at the lowest possible cost?'”

“We took the view they didn’t provide enough charitable care to qualify” for a tax exemption, Joseph McNeil, then city attorney, said in a recent interview. The hospital had provided $1.5 million in free care, but “much of what they were calling charitable care was really uncollectable debt,” McNeil said. Translation: hospital bills that people couldn’t pay.

Superior Court Judge John Meaker issued his decision on September 22 [1987], ruling against the city on all counts.

“For Judge Meaker, essentially, the hospital is charitable because it is a hospital,” Sanders complained in statement he released at the time. … In its appeal of the tax case, the city challenged the judge’s reliance on the hospital’s assertion about its open-door admission policy. The city argued that it could have provided testimony from patients who were denied admission because of their inability to pay. [That testimony was blocked.]

The judges were determined not to tax a ‘non-profit.’ The City lost its appeal. But the fight that Sanders waged as Mayor was continued by him in Congress, and by his friends back in Vermont. He (and they) have made progress for the whole nation:

Today, the medical center provides about $9 million in charitable care, not including uncollectable debt. [That’s a big change] The quarterly board meetings have been open to the public since at least 1995, according to medical center spokesman Mike Noble. [That’s another big change.]

That’s real improvement, not just Obama-type “change.” It wasn’t achieved by compromising with conservatives (as Obama does). It was achieved by constantly battering them, and winning bit-by-bit as time passes, never giving up. That’s the only way progress is ever achieved.

And that’s why the aristocrats are financing Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and the campaigns of Republican candidates — but not Sanders’s.

After all of President Obama’s blather about ‘equality,’ how well have Blacks fared under this black President, Obama’s, Presidency? They’ve fared worse than any other ethnic group. (Black Agenda Report even headlined “The Expansion of Black American Misery under Barack Obama’s Watch.”) Yet Blacks still support him more than any other ethnicity does. That’s really a scandal (about both Obama, and the Blacks who admire him after he has thus screwed Blacks). Sanders isn’t aiming to appeal to some racial or gender group; he’s aiming to appeal to — and to serve — the American public. This isn’t a nationalist campaign. It’s a patriotic campaign, in the country that was founded by a Revolution that was waged against the aristocrats in their own era and place. (The aristocrats then happened to be British.) Instead of the mere spouting by some aristocrats, of noblesse oblige, which gets buildings or hospital-wings named after them, it’s: You need less, now pay more to the public that makes this wealth possible for you.


If Sanders is a modern revolutionary, then politicians such as Obama and the Clintons (and all Republicans) are today’s version of the Redcoats — America’s enemies, the aristocracy that our Founders tried to outlaw but couldn’t. That’s the real difference between Bernie Sanders versus Obama & the Clintons — and all Republicans (since conservatism is the declared, and not only the real, ideology of that Party).

Bernie Sanders is aiming to return the Democratic Party to its FDR roots, which was when the Party had the most reason to be proud of what it stood for. Here is how Franklin Delano Roosevelt put it:

We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

It’s a heritage that Bernie Sanders can proudly, and honestly, claim to be his own. Today’s Democratic Party Establishment, such as Robert Rubin’s Hamilton Project, and Bill Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council or New Democrats, cannot. (In fact, to the exact contrary: both Rubin and Clinton ended FDR’s Glass-Steagall Act, and thus prepared the way for George W. Bush to crash the U.S. economy.)

There’s a problem in this country that goes deeper than ethnic bigotry, and it’s economic bigotry — the belief that a person’s net worth reflects his or her moral worth. When President Obama said to Wall Street’s CEOs, on 27 March 2009, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” he was telling them that the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators were today’s version of the old KKK who had lynched Blacks — and that those CEOs who kept the fortunes they had made from bilking MBS investors were today’s version of the Blacks who had been lynched. FDR wouldn’t agree with any of that. Nor would Bernie Sanders. That’s what we need again, inside the White House.

Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.


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Categories: Essays, latest, United States
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Brad Benson
Brad Benson
Aug 27, 2015 10:17 PM

Well Eric, I’ll be voting for Bernie if the guy gets that far, but it won’t be permitted. He is the only mainstream candidate that I would consider voting for this time around and, if I do, I’ll be holding my nose for the umpteenth time in my life. (I’m 64 and this may be the last time I bother to vote). I agree with you that Larry Summers may be one of the biggest asshats to have ever served in government. I agree that Obama is even more radical than Summers in regard to his economic policies. However, here you make the same mistake that so many other disaffected “liberal Democrats” are making and this makes your argument flawed. Margaret Kimberly, in the other article about Sanders which appears on this page, said it very succinctly, as follows: “There is blatant dishonesty in claiming to want a changed domestic… Read more »

Aug 27, 2015 6:46 PM

My observation is that hatred some poor have toward the rich is the real issue.

Seamus Padraig
Seamus Padraig
Aug 27, 2015 2:47 PM

“The only economists who still thought (and publicly expressed) that high unemployment was the result of increased economic productivity, were people like Glenn Hubbard, who had headed George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors.” Actually, Hubbard here is saying the same thing as Karl Marx once did: automation will ultimately replace human labor. Marx, for his part, hoped to structure society in a way that less demand for labor would result in more leisure time for all, rather than in more un-/underemployment for the many. That’s why he advocated collective ownership of the means of production, so that that the returns from greater productivity would accrue to society as a whole, rather than just to the 1%. “This isn’t a nationalist campaign. It’s a patriotic campaign…” What, down deep, is the difference between ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’? Sounds like a rhetorical sleight-of-hand to me. As far as Bernie is concerned, as… Read more »