Nostalgia rises quickly and easily. We need it – we want it. The Orangutan is entering the White House; he will be there for at least four years. Nothing ever will be the same again. Americans are trained to look forward. Many now are looking backwards for comfort and consolation – if not reassurance. Rose colored glasses are in great demand. The tall, elegant figure; the manifest intelligence; the calm voice. The sanity. A rosy tint seems right and appropriate.
Why, then, has the Obama reign left such an emptiness? Why does it feel so ephemeral with the big O riding high in the saddle? We may not want to consider these questions. They should be posed, however, and we have an obligation to try to answer them.
Wasn’t it just yesterday that Barack Obama surfed an historic wave of acclaim into the White House? So much was expected; so little materialized. It seems that he never really unpacked his bags, set himself a direction, and went after concrete goals with conviction and political acumen. Did he act as president of the United States ― or, was he content simply with presiding as president – being president? Most campaign pledges were quickly abandoned or, in some critical areas, reversed. Remember “transparency,” restoring our privacy rights from government surveillance, curbing the “war on terror,’ nuclear disarmament, closing Guantanamo, talk with the Iranians, cracking down on the special interests and ending the revolving door from Washington to the private corridors of power, strengthening trade unions, protecting Social Security and Medicare in their present form?
What actually happened makes dispiriting reading. From foreign affairs to domestic matters and economic management to civil liberties, the record is bleak.
In the light of this sorry record, it is astounding to observe the orchestrated campaign to foster a mythic narrative that emphases the remarkable accomplishments of Barack Obama. Paul Krugman pronounces him “one of the most consequential – and successful – Presidents in American history.” The New York Times pronounces that “his achievements have been remarkable.” A flurry of books are appearing that exalt his far-sighted statesmanship, skillful diplomacy, and tempered idealism in conducting the nation’s foreign relations. They are praised to the sky by luminaries in academia, the media and among public “intellectuals.” The confected image combines the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, the talents of Talleyrand, the integrity of George Marshall, and the mastery of Bismarck. This hagiographical narrative is directly and abundantly contradicted by all unbiased accounts of decision-making within the White House by Gates, by Woodward, by Susskind, and by Obama’s own revealing interviews with journalists. By any reasonable standard, Obama’s foreign policy has been disjointed in process, incoherent in conception, and maladroit in execution. The collapse of American position across the region from Syria to Turkey to Palestine is making that transparent.
Obama’s fecklessness in foreign affairs was highlighted by John Kerry’s forthright condemnation of Israeli attitude toward Palestine and its arrogance toward Washington last week. The speech stated the obvious. To have any effect, it should have been given eight years ago. Certainly, after Netanyahu’s public humiliation of Obama before Congress. The only purpose it serves now is to balance his verbal record.
What is this? Hallucination? Coveted access to the Inner Sanctum of power - now, of course, foreclosed? Democratic Party loyalty? Reverse racism? Or, something more subtle. Those most active in the campaign of secular beatification of Barack Obama are self-declared members of the nation’s enlightened community of liberal thinkers. They have identified with one of their own, a true-blue Ivy Leaguer. They seem to have an abiding faith in American virtue and the country’s capacity to demonstrate it which they attach to Obama’s persona. Is that the belief in being part of a unique, historic project for humankind that sustains their own self-identity and self-esteem? In this sense, they occupy fantasy worlds different in vision but similar in psychology to those other inhabitants of fictional worlds of American exceptionalism: the neo-cons, the uber-patriots, and believers in a Providential mission for America.
Or it may simply reflect the truth that in today’s America nearly everyone has a need for heroes. Yet, plausible candidates are scarce to non-existent. So we manufacture them out of whatever flawed material is available.*
At times like this, reality is too complicated for enlightened opinion to bear.
Perhaps the most stunning evidence of the liberals’ unsettled state of mind is provided by Matt Taibbi. He is the most hard-headed, perceptive and instinctively skeptical commentator on madcap America out there. Yet, he too is finding near heroic qualities of virtue and statesmanship in Obama. Taibbi writes:
Donald Trump may have won the White House, but he will never be a man like his predecessor, whose personal example will now only shine more brightly with the passage of time. At a time when a lot of Americans feel like they have little to be proud of, we should think about our outgoing president, whose humanity and greatness are probably only just now coming into true focus.
Humanity? Ask the maimed and destitute of Yemen about that – those surviving the U.S. manufactured cluster bombs rained on them by Saudi planes that depend on American Intelligence and air refueling, to strike their human targets. Ask the Gazans. Ask the Afghan villagers. Ask those who live – and die – in Sirte, Misrata, Tripoli and Benghazi. Ask the victims of al-Qaeda in Syria whom he has tacitly armed.
Closer to home: ask the women and children herded into immigrant deportation centers where they are abused by their for-profit overseers. Ask those who suffered – even died – because Obama’s administration did nothing to stop the price-gouging on prescription drugs. Ask the hundreds of thousands imprisoned, their lives ruined, by stop-and-frisk policies that Obama never denounced. 4 million “stops+” in NYC alone. (About which Taibbi himself wrote graphically in DIVIDE: AMERICAN INJUSTICE). Ask the millions of foreclosed and dispossessed ignored by his administration. Ask the 8- and 9-year-old children of immigrant farm workers who do stoop labor in the fields and orchards due to a loophole in federal law that Obama made no effort to close. Ask Chelsea Manning who was imprisoned at Quantico in conditions that were “cruel, inhuman and degrading,” (Juan E. Mendez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture). Ask the dedicated school teachers vilified by Obama and his henchman Arne Duncan in the cause of privatization of public education. Ask the struggling students strangled by debt and ripped off by for-profit colleges whom Obama and Duncan refused to unburden while cutting deals with the crooks who bilked them and were permitted to put millions in public money into their pockets.
Ask them all whether well-cut $1,000 suits and a gracious manner provide adequate compensation for the pain inflicted. Ask whether the fact that he is emotionally more stable than the Orangutan alleviates that pain.
Obama’s words are noble and inspiring. His deeds tell quite a different tale.
A President is not a shiny new appliance that spruces up your kitchen in way that makes you feel good even if it keeps breaking down. Greatness is not in appearance. That surface appearance is what we grasp onto in a desperate craving for something positive is the ultimate commentary on how far we have sunk as a polity, as a democracy, as a country.
Barack Obama, indeed, is an historic figure. His tenure in the White House marks the American republic’s transmutation from the civil society evolved over the 20th century ― reifying many of its founding ideals, into its caricature. A capitalist system with a social conscience infused with an egalitarian ethos has degenerated into a plutocracy. That has skewed and compromised our democracy in ways that institutionalize the new order. Internationally, the mindless Global War On Terror has sullied the United States’ unique image, diminished our ability to act as a positive force in the world, and redounded domestically to encroach seriously on our civil liberties.
All of these trends were well established when Obama took office. His conduct has confirmed them, strengthened them and ensured the permanency of the transformation. The crucial moment was his Inauguration. By happenstance, the two great thrusts that were remaking the country had been exposed for the menace that they were. The financial collapse vividly demonstrated the pernicious consequences of predatory capitalism grounded on the fatally flawed doctrines of market fundamentalism. Its supposedly granitic intellectual foundations were in truth a conglomerate of dogmas. Its logically compelling policy prescriptions a method for enriching the few and ensconcing the authority of their propagators. Barack Obama, the intellectual, never questioned these falsities. Barack Obama, the President, perpetuated them. He spoke – once – of those who “gamed the system.” He could not see that the game was the system – and it still is.
Early on, he told a group of financial moguls that “I am the only thing that stands between you and the pitchforks.” They need not have worried. He saw his primary duty as protecting them and disarming the “mob.” In strictly political terms, that proved disastrous. The Democrats suffered their worst Congressional defeat in history and were nearly wiped out in the state houses in 2010. And let us remember that it was Obama personally who slung around the party’s neck the three albatrosses of Rahm Emanuel, Bill Daley and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Abandoned and dispirited, the country’s simmering discontented found a home in the Tea Party and then in Donald Trump’s psycho-drama.
Nor did Obama ever address frontally how “vulture Capitalism” has drastically redistributed national wealth – until it became a coda to an administration that had failed to pay it heed. The transfer upwards in the income pyramid of $1 – 2 trillion within little more than a generation via rigged markets, lax enforcement by the federal government and illicit conduct makes the wealth extraction by the five Mafia families look like petty pickpocketing. It, too, continues unabated. Indeed, it has accelerated since 2008.
The Iraq fiasco similarly had demonstrated the dire effects of a global strategy aimed at consolidating an American pseudo-imperium by coercion. Advocates and promoters of these movements had the intellectual ground cut out from under them. Their incompetence, too, was glaringly exposed. They had lost the mandate of the country.
Obama, thereby, was presented with an epochal opportunity to set the nation back on a course of collective social decency at home and prudent idealism abroad. He never recognized it. Instead, the net effect of his combined sins of commission and omission has been to reinvigorate and to render impervious to reform the very forces that had brought us low. It is said that Franklin Roosevelt saved American capitalism. Barack Obama has been the savior of vulture capitalism. In the country’s external relations, he has reaffirmed and reinforced all of the core precepts that underlay the Bush push for permanent global supremacy. Finally, he has provided legal foundation for the National Security state whose egregious violations of venerable principles of our civil liberties have ushered in the post-Constitutional America.
One may judge all or any of these actions as laudable. One may rationalize them in terms of implacable opposition. That is an inherent right. It is unacceptable, though, to distort or to amend the record in order to perpetuate the new-found myth of Obama as the godfather to a progressive era.
Barack Obama’s trademark was his above-the-fray, we’re all in this together attitude. He eschewed partisanship – not as a practical strategy but as a principle. Obama never understood that an effective president must also act as leader of his party in order to accomplish anything – since opposition from the other side is integral to democratic politics. This was imperative in an era when the Republicans had dedicated themselves as a bloc to reject all of his proposals and initiatives in an effort to undermine his legitimacy as president. Yet, it was an approach that was wholly alien to him as a politician and as a person.
The net result was that by the summer of 2016, Obama had become an irrelevancy insofar as the election was concerned. A brief flurry of campaigning in the last days of Clinton’s doomed bid for the White House confirmed that sad truth. He could not even get out the black vote for her. His ineffectualness was understandable. The argument that she would carry on his legacy meant little when that legacy was undefinable – other than being the first person of color to hold the presidency.
Within a few days of the Orangutan’s victory, Obama was slipping back into his preferred role of national hand-holder. He bent over backwards to offer a benediction for the man whose views and manners were an affront to the most elementary standards of decency. Here are his words of reassurance:
He has won. He’s going to be the next president and regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office, this office has a way of waking you up….And some of his gifts that obviously allowed him to execute one of the biggest political upsets in history, those are ones that hopefully he will put to good use on behalf of all the American people.
He later conjured the vision of an America “whose best days are still ahead of us.”
There is no reason to believe that any of this is true. Moreover, to the extent that the Orangutan’s outrages can be restrained, it will require the implacable opposition of the Democrats. Yet, Obama has not the slightest intention of acting as the titular leader of the Democratic Party – a role incumbent on a former president whose party has lost the White House. The very idea is foreign to him.
It is all about Barack Obama – that is how it’s been since Day One.
On November 8, American democracy and the country at large suffered a grievous blow from which it may never recover. The paramount cause was Hillary Clinton; the main proximate cause was James Comey. The critical facilitating element was Obama’s tenure in office. However one might weigh the balances of pluses and minuses on other counts, this eclipses all else by a wide margin – it is Obama’s legacy.