Barack Obama and the Dispiriting of America

May 3, 2010 at 7:52 pm (Politics, Subarno Chattarji) (, , , )

 More than a year into his presidency it takes an effort to remember the hope and hype that Barack Obama generated during his historic campaign and victory. His candidacy and Presidency were seen as a renewal of America’s compact with its better self as well as a coming to terms with its less savoury aspects, including the ‘original sin’ of slavery and segregation. The media hoopla added to the aura of a ‘post-racial’ America that would now bring bipartisan governance to a United States racked by the divisive years of the Bush presidency as well as peace on earth. That these expectations were delusional at best was perhaps evident from the outset, that they would be diminished so quickly could not have been foreseen. While the conservative media was and continues to be implacably hostile to Obama, the so-called liberal media has joined an increasingly loud chorus of dismay and outright criticism. The reflection of oppositional stances that are played out within the political sphere in the media serves not only to highlight seeming ideological divisions but also the failures of the Obama Presidency thus far. Those failures, however, seem not merely those of policy but more fundamental ones.

As November 4, 2009, approached there were a series of positive commentaries on what President Obama had achieved. Eugene Robinson’s ‘A World of Change in 287 days’ [Washington Post, November 3, 2009] was fairly typical in its upbeat and optimistic listing. ‘It’s been a year since a healthy majority of American voters elected Barack Obama to change the world. Which is precisely what he’s doing.’ Robinson did concede that Obama is ‘a president, not a Hollywood action hero’ but then went onto see most of his policies in contexts of instantaneous change and hope. He ended with a prediction, which while proving substantively true, highlights in retrospect the pitfalls of journalistic and political crystal ball gazing: ‘We still have some fighting to do over two words – “public” and “option” – but it looks like the principle that everyone is entitled to health insurance, a Democratic Party goal for at least six decades, is about to become law.’ The aftermath of Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts not only changed the dynamics of the health care debate (apart from the arithmetic of the Democratic Senate majority) but it also effectively buried the public option. The Democratic funk and then final vote on the health care reform bill on strictly partisan lines emphasized precisely the ways in which politics has not changed one whit in the age of Obama.

Simon Tisdall in an end-of-year assessment of the state of the world in The Guardian, ‘2009: the year of living dangerously’, asserted that ‘Barack Obama’s inauguration provided hope in a period marked by war, terror, nuclear fears and climate change anticlimax.’ [31 December, 2009] Tisdall was aware of the extraordinary burden of global expectation: ‘To paraphrase Churchill, never in the field of human conflict was so much expected by so many from one man.’ That sums up not just the absurdity of a single transformative leader creating the pathway for worldwide transformation but also the apolitical, decontextualized desire for redemption that will miraculously transcend the complexities of American and international politics. Within such a redemptive, quasi-religious framework it is not surprising that there is a sense of betrayal, of diminution, and hopelessness and Obama was aware of it. In a speech in New Orleans he mimicked his critics: ‘“Well, why haven’t you solved world hunger yet?” […] I never said it was going to be easy. What did I say during the campaign? I said change is hard. And big change is harder.’ [John F. Harris, ‘Change has come’ … or has it?’ Politico, November 4, 2009] Obama highlighted the difficulties of governance, the necessity of incremental change, and the pitfalls of an easy radicalism that ignores these realities to fulfil its agendas while ‘their man’ is in power.

Harris went on to analyze the kind of president Obama is focusing on contraries in his political persona and desire. At one end is the inspirational figure: ‘He wants to be a transformational president – unconfined by the limitations of conventional politics and determined to put a lasting mark on his era.’ ‘But,’ as Harris continues, ‘Obama also has the soul of an operative. He and his West Wing team – dominated at the top by people whose expertise is in the world of campaigns and Washington maneuvers – have proved to be far more familiar political types that they admit to themselves or than was forecast by his insurgent campaign and the expansive, at times almost messianic, rhetoric that powered it.’ That this is a fairly accurate summation is evident in the ways in which health care reform – a transformational issue related to ideas of equity, fairness, and the type of nation America wishes to be – was ultimately passed after a series of backroom deals and obfuscation about how it will be paid for. The positive political futures enacted in the bill sit uneasily with the shenanigans that preceded its passing. Arguably the wheeling and dealing is an essential part of the democratic process and the ends justify the means. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society vision and legislative achievements such as the laws related to Civil Rights were achieved at the cost of increasing polarization (and opposition to the Vietnam War from within the Democratic Party didn’t help). In a different era and under very different circumstances Obama’s policies too have sharply divided the country.

There can be no doubt that the symbolic politics of Obama’s election as the first African-American President of the US is of enormous import and Obama will be remembered for his signal achievement in a country still coming to terms with the legacy of slavery and race hatred. Obama was also the non- or anti-Bush and that explains part of the global and national adulation. As Robinson writes: ‘On national security, Obama moved at once to categorically renounce torture – a big step toward removing the ugly stain that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left on our national honor.’ Yet, more than a year later Guantanamo Bay is open and there is a greater continuity in foreign policy initiatives – the New START with Russia notwithstanding – than the Obama administration may wish to acknowledge. These continuities are even more apparent in modes of political operations within the US. To cite Harris once more: ‘As it happens, the Obama team is never happier – as in its frequent public disputes with Fox News, Rush Limbaugh or the insurance industry – than when it can adopt campaign-style tactics to frame an adversary for public advantage. The logic of this approach is clear but also plainly at odds with Obama’s stated desire to unify Americans and drain politics of its anger and addiction to unproductive conflict.’ To blame Obama and his policies for this anger, division, and hate is simplistic just as it seems disingenuous to attribute the vitriol solely to the wing-nutters on the extreme Right. That Obama’s election was not the promised future, that it was a deeply disturbing event for many Americans was evident in the immediate aftermath of November 4, 2008. [For media examples of post-election despair and hate see my article in this blog – ‘The Promise of America’, November 18, 2008] The combination of the biggest recession since the 1930s, high unemployment, massive government spending to bail out ‘too big to fail’ banks, a record budget deficit, two wars, the health care bill, the perception of a more interventionist government, a general sense of American ‘declinism’ (and the corresponding unease over the ‘rise’ of China) along with paranoia, hate on the net and over the radio and TV, Republican intransigence, and race have roiled the American landscape in a manner not perceptible since the Vietnam era.

Quite clearly there are significant sections of the populace who dislike if not hate the figure of the President and his policies for reasons which have little to do with policy. The Southern Poverty Law Center in its report ‘Rage on the Right’ pointed to some of the reasons for increase in militia and hate groups in the US: ‘Patriot groups have been fuelled by anger over the changing demographics of the country, the soaring public debt, the troubled economy and an array of initiatives by President Obama that have been branded “socialist” or even “fascist” by his political opponents.’ The arrest of nine members of the Hutaree militia whose Web site bears the slogan ‘preparing for the end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive’ is just one example of a rising tide of armed hate groups intent on fulfilling their version of a perfect union. Along with mainstream Republican politicians, Birthers (who believe Obama is not born in the US and therefore an illegitimate President), Tea Party activists, and the likes of Glenn Beck who provide media space for all sorts of conspiracy theories there is a constant churning of anger and a furthering of the ‘addiction to unproductive conflict’.

A large part of the blame for the toxic and dangerous divisions in the US today may be assigned to the Republicans, Birthers, and Tea Party activists. They are more visibly angry and given some of their absurd assertions easily lampooned in the liberal media. However, there has been a failure of leadership. Obama and his supporters have justly condemned the extremists but the alternatives he has provided have not always been clearly articulated or fully implemented. Obama’s failure has stemmed, paradoxically, from one of his greatest campaign strengths: the ability to be all things to all people. As Larry Sabato observes: ‘Obama’s great strength on the campaign trail was that he was a “tabula rasa”. People wrote what they wanted to write. That was true for moderates and independents and even some Republicans, and was certainly true for the Left. He was going to be everything.’ [Cited in Chris McGreal, ‘Obama battered by criticism as anniversary approaches,’ The Guardian, 18 January, 2010] What worked on the campaign trail is not necessarily good for governance. Obama has been criticized on the Left for being too timid and on the Right for being a socialist (among other things). This critique seems to overlook a larger failure of imagination, of political courage, of the inability to perceive alternative and viable ideas of being American. Commenting on the significance of Scott Brown’s election in Massachusetts Harold Evans wrote: ‘Of more significance, in my view, is the mood of the country, and it is becoming as sour as it was in the worst Bush years. With Obama, this disenchantment is not so much because of what might be. It’s because of what is. And what is lies at the core of national despair.’ [‘Lessons of a Mass revolt,’ The Guardian, 20 January, 2010] Part of the disenchantment is surely attributable to the gap between the promise and the reality, the ‘arrogance’ that ‘has seeped in’ to the administration, and the ways in which Obama and his coterie seem so comfortable in the ways of Washington.

Eli Saslow captures this sense of disillusionment in an article on three Americans who were invited by Obama for his first speech to Congress on 24 February 2009. They were a bank president who split his $60 million bonus among 471 employees, the mayor of Greensburg, Kan., rebuilding the city into a clean energy hub, and an eighth grader who wrote to Congress about the decay of her 112-year old school in South Carolina. Saslow cites the banker in conclusion: ‘“The risk here is that people are going to lose hope. I worry about what it does to our society, having people out of work for so long and struggling so hard to find work and getting into despair and things like that. People want to work and need to work. It goes beyond making a living. A lot of people are very scared, and they’re starting to lose their spirit.”’ [‘Some Obama goals for administration have still not been met,’ Washington Post, January 26, 2010] Saslow delineates the lives of Americans who are not extremists, who are supportive of Obama and yet deeply worried by the present, their futures and that of the nation, and their despair is a far more trenchant criticism of Obama’s governance than any of the rabid rhetoric resonating in Congress, the blogosphere, or the media. In some crucial ways Obama has failed to reach out to American citizens such as the ones characterized in Saslow’s article and therein lies the disconnect between promise and reality.

There is another aspect of the impact of Obama’s presidency and this relates to the notion of democracy. Michael Gerson, former speech writer to President George W. Bush, writes of the visceral hatred and contempt with which his boss was greeted and treated. He draws parallels between that expression of hatred and the current scenario and sees it as a sign of democratic decline. ‘While no democratic judgment is final – and citizens should continue to work to advance their ideals – respecting the temporary outcome of a democratic process is the definition of political maturity. The opposite – questioning the legitimacy of a democratic outcome; abusing, demeaning and attempting to silence one’s opponents – is a sign of democratic decline.’ [‘Tone down the hatefulness in politics,’ Washington Post, April 9, 2010] Conceivably there is a difference between the disputed election of 2000 (decided ultimately by the US Supreme Court) and the huge Electoral College victory of President Obama, but Gerson’s point about the need for respecting differences is worth considering. One consequence of the absolute lack of dialogue between political and ideological opponents is the diminishing of democracy and spaces for disagreement and debate. The process did not, of course, begin with Obama’s presidency but it is ironic that an articulate, intelligent, and acute President presides over public spheres vitiated by vitriol and worse. Politics now is largely a matter of ‘messaging’ and ‘massaging the message’, of advertising and hype bereft of substantive matters, a permanent state of campaigning.

Perhaps it is too early to judge and the febrile media commentary merely reflects the echo chamber of talking heads who lambaste Obama for dithering over health care and hail him when it is passed, who detest him as a socialist, fascist, and Muslim or revere him. Perhaps he will be a truly transformative President who, putting aside easy radicalism, genuinely sets America on a revolutionary trajectory. At this point in his Presidency, however, it seems that the promise of America represented in his being and administration is precariously poised. The dispirited nation needs more than rhetoric to regain its sense of hope and direction, to restore democratic spheres of debate and disputation.

– Subarno Chattarji


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