Barack Obama swept into office on a tide of giddy enthusiasm. His “Hope and Change” was a pledge to reverse Bush era policies, including socialism for the rich, adventurism in the Middle East, and attacks on civil liberties. He announced his intention to serve as a transformational leader, invoking Abraham Lincoln, FDR and Ronald Reagan as role models. Despite the frigid temperatures, people poured into Washington, DC to hear his inauguration speech, wanting to be part of a remarkable passage.
It wasn’t simply that Obama was the first black president, but also that the economic devastation of the financial crisis opened up a historic opportunity to remake the social contract, to punish the reckless and greedy, no matter how lofty, and to build new foundations and safeguards for ordinary citizens. Obama, with his youthful vigor, his technocratic command of policy details, his “no drama” steadiness, his mastery of oratory, seemed uniquely suited to this time of need. His personal history of repeatedly breaking new ground fed optimism that he could do so for the nation as a whole.
Those times of heady promise are now a cruel memory. Again and again, Obama has shown his true colors. It isn’t simply that Obama lied. Politicians lie. But there are norms for political lying. The depth and dependability of Obama’s misrepresentations constitute a difference in kind.
See 6:40 to 12:40 for a reminder.
His pattern of grand promises producing at-best-in-name only and at worst outright bait and switch was well established by his 2008 campaign. Some close observers pointed out his past legerdemain, for instance, his misleading account of his years in New York, his record of fronting for finance and real estate interests in Chicago, his promise to bring a state-wide health care program to Illinois, which in the end was walked back to a mere study. And there were more decisive tells in 2008: the high level of Wall Street funding for his campaign, the inclusion of neoliberal “Chicago boys” in his economics team, his reversal on FISA after promising to filibuster it, which gave retroactive immunity to telecoms for aiding and abetting illegal wiretapping, and his whipping for TARP.
Obama didn’t make compromises necessary to lead effectively. He entered office with majorities in both houses and a country eager for a new direction. He has repudiated or retraded every pledge he made. He promised transformational leadership, and instead emulated Wall Street, devising complex programs that to sell average Americans short and reap his funders handsome rewards in the process. Rather than elevate his fellow citizens, Obama’s transactional focus and neoliberal philosophy have kicked the struggling middle class down the road greased by the right.
The ugly facts about how Obama has governed are beyond dispute. Numerous writers have set forth well documented bills of particulars against him, including “‘Lucy’ Obama and His ‘Charlie Brown’ Progressives” to “21 reasons why I will not vote for Obama in 2012” or “Obama’s Scandal List” (304 items long in 2009). And that’s before you get to the even longer list of despairing or outraged assessments on specific policy beats, such as this blog’s criticism of his coddling of the financial services industry, his failure to address festering problems in the housing market, his long-standing commitment to cutting Social Security and Medicare, and his refusal to address widening income inequality.
But even when you put aside the relentless propagandizing of the Democratic hackocracy and they way Obama has systematically neutered critics on the left, a mystery remains: why has his image remained largely immune to his performance? An insightful article in Australia’s The Age in January 2008 anticipated that Obama could not live up to his transformational promises even if he had made an earnest effort. It compared him to a high flying tech stock that would be hit by a sharp correction, and warned that the self-referential, messianic campaign would have to deal the disappointment that would come with trying to implementing the vision.
Yet puzzlingly, Obama retains a peculiar ability to elicit Pavlovian responses from many of his followers. Recall the press frenzy over the assassination of Osama bin Laden, who for years had been irrelevant to the operations of Al Qaeda. Contrast this reaction with the lack of widespread outrage over the fact that the Administration has bestowed on it the right to hit any American “suspect” the same way. Similarly, the beatification of Obama for his support of gay marriage gives him more credit than he deserves for a cold, political calculation. Obama can see that his opposition is virtually unchanged by this endorsement and he’ll win some serious funding. As Lambert points out:
The whole thing is also distressing because of the authoritarian followership involved. The one time anybody not in Obama’s charmed circle “made him do it” none of the doers claims credit for an amazing, generation-long triumph of courage and organizing skill (and, I might add, in the main, non-violent); the whole story is about Obama’s “evolution” instead of the house-by-house and family-by-family success of “coming out.” Gag me with a spoon.
Similarly, many of Obama’s betrayals go underreported. Obama promised to back labor and reneged. He vowed to support a card check bill that would facilitate the formation of unions at specific workplaces. After failing to act on it before the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof Senate majority, Obama simply declared it too difficult to pass, meaning not worthy of his time or political capital. He also pledged to the give 40,000 TSA employees the same bargaining rights as other Federal workers. Instead, after considerable delay, they were granted improved rights, but still less than those of other government employees.
Comparing the content of Obama’s actions with how they are presented to the public is key to understanding his distinctive skills as President. Obama, who sees the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, as his most important role model, is the Great Deceiver.
In many ways, Obama has simply taken the Reagan playbook to the next level. Reagan first and foremost was an actor, and succeeded in projecting sincerity, firmness of purpose, and idealism about America….in selling a story line developed and honed over the preceding decade by well-funded right wing think tanks and Madison Avenue marketers. But Republicans have been straightforward about their love of policies that favor the wealthy, their hatred of labor, their belief in American military dominance. Reagan was effective in promoting the idea that freedom was tantamount to economic choice. But democracy and the unrestricted operation of markets are in fact at odds, as we now know all too well. Many areas of commerce have advantages to scale, so successful operators will come to wield financial power, which they can turn into political clout.
It would be easier to come to grips with Obama if he could be more easily compared to past executives, whether actual or fictional. Obama’s intelligence and willingness to delve into details of policy issues resonate with the modern idealization of expertise, even when technocratically oriented Administrations have not fared well, at least for ordinary Americans. Famously, the “best and the brightest” of the Kennedy-Johnson era and Rubinite/Hamilton Project wonkery each paved the road to bad outcomes (the escalation of the Vietnam war, and the finance-friendly policies that produced the crisis, respectively).
At the same time, Obama is a stellar student of the best of Madison Avenue phrasemaking (don’t “signature strikes” sound innocuous?) and impressively polished even when off Teleprompter. Consider how Tom Engelhardt struggles to reconcile Obama’s veneer with his actions:
He has few constraints (except those he’s internalized). No one can stop him or countermand his orders. He has a bevy of lawyers at his beck and call to explain the “legality” of his actions. And if he cares to, he can send a robot assassin to kill you, whoever you are, no matter where you may be on planet Earth.
He sounds like a typical villain from a James Bond novel. You know, the kind who captures Bond, tells him his fiendish plan for dominating the planet, ties him up for some no less fiendish torture, and then leaves him behind to gum up the works.
As it happens, though, he’s the president of the United State, a nice guy with a charismatic wife and two lovely kids.
How could this be?
Engelhardt depicts a malevolent leader without using that word. It is hard to see a policy of drone strikes that have and will continue to kill innocents, a continuation of extraordinary renditions, and assassinations of American citizens merely suspected of terrorism, in any other light.
But his actions are detrimental not only for their overweening, super-hero-like force, but more often, for serving vested interests by being deliberately weak, badly watered down versions of real reforms (and correspondingly, notice how often Obama maintains he was boxed in by intransigent Republicans, when in fact they serve as convenient scapegoats for what he wanted to do anyhow?)
And by taking as much debate and energy as the genuine remedies, they prevent the topic from being revisited for years, if not decades. The frequently criticized Dodd Frank is one example, but the poster child is Obamacare. The program manages the difficult feat of worsening the fundamental problem of our health care system, which is bad incentives and resulting out-of-control costs. It enriched Big Pharma and the insurers rather than bringing them to heel. The result will be overpriced insurance that covers little. We’re seeing that start now as the FDA is looking into make a number of widely used drugs, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol medications, over the counter, which would mean they would not be covered by health care policies.
Readers of this blog are likely to argue that they have a jaded view of Obama, but still regard him as preferable to Romney. But they seem to fail to appreciate another layer of Obama’s deception, that his charm and unflappable demeanor mask his ruthlessness. It’s no accident that he chose Rahm Emanuel as his initial chief of staff, an enforcer and by all accounts one of the members of what was an unusually tight inner team. The Democrats are now indistinguishable from the Republicans in their mastery of Rovian playing on identity politics. Obama has also proven adept at neutralizing well positioned actual or potential threats, such as David Petraeus, Elizabeth Warren, and Eric Schneiderman.
Glen Ford, in “Why Barack Obama is the More Effective Evil” stresses that Obama gets what he wants and that makes him dangerous. Key extracts:
Let me say from the very beginning that we at Black Agenda Report do not think that Barack Obama is the Lesser Evil. He is the more Effective Evil….
They [Wall Street] invested in Obama to protect them from harm, as a hedge against the risk of systemic disaster caused by their own predations..They had vetted Obama, thoroughly, before he even set foot in the U.S. Senate in 2004.
He protected their interests, there, helping shield corporations from class action suits, and voting against caps on credit card Interest. He was their guy back then – and some of us were saying so, back then…
I have no doubt that New Gingrich and Republicans in general have worse intentions for the future of my people – of Black people – than Michelle Obama’s husband does. But, that doesn’t matter. Black people are not going to roll over for whatever nightmarish Apocalypse the sick mind of Newt Gingrich would like to bring about. But, they have already rolled over for Obama’s economic Apocalypse in Black America. There was been very little resistance. Which is just another way of saying that Obama has successfully blunted any retribution by organized African America against the corporate powers that have devastated and destabilized Black America in ways that have little precedence in modern times…
The real Obama was the initiator of this Austerity nightmare – a nightmare scripted on Wall Street, which provided the core of Obama’s policy team from the very beginning…
The real Obama retained Bush’s Secretary of War, because he was determined to re-package the imperial enterprise and expand the scope and theaters of war…
He would make merciless and totally unprovoked war against Libya – and then tell Congress there had been no war at all, and it was none of their business, anyway. And he got away with it.
Now, that is the Most Effective Evil war mongering imaginable. Don’t you dare call him a Lesser Evil. Obama is Awesomely Evil.
And remember, Obama has embraced deficit hawkery and has made “reforming” Social Security and Medicare a top priority for his next term.
Ford is right. Defending Obama as “the lesser of two evils” isn’t merely letting him off the hook for his betrayals. Those who take that position are actively enabling his conduct. They are part of the problem.
The success of gay rights activists shows how you effect change, and it isn’t primarily through the ballot box. Just like the successful program of the radical right launched in the the 1970s, these battles are fought on a much broader front, with national political change a lagging indicator of shifts in social tectonic plates. This a not a battle but a crusade, and takes more guts and tenacity than showing up and voting, or giving money to preferred candidates.
If you want this country to be different, you can’t just wish for it or expect voting to effect change. You need to be part of making it happen. And that was perhaps the greatest of Obama’s deceptions, that by listening to his seductive rhetoric, your passivity made you part of something greater and was tantamount to supporting change. That’s true only in the spiritual realm, not in the imperfect arena of here and now. Glenn Greenwald warned (emphasis his):
Obama is still a highly effective politician capable of this level of exploitation: exploiting people’s hopes and desires. When you combine that with the desire to believe — to feel once again that he will uplift people’s lives and that the hope one placed in him was justified and not misguided: nobody wants to feel like they were successfully defrauded — it’s an easy trick to repeat…that it’s a grand Manichean battle between Our Great Leader and Their Evil Villain — and there will be plenty of endorphins pumping through people’s brains. There will be enough to drown a large country.
Groups that have has a lasting impact on the social order – the Populists, the original Progressives, suffragettes, labor, blacks – organized outside the party system; indeed, when they were brought in the tent, they became less effective. The public has been told, again and again, the only choice is to hold your nose and select one of the two parties. It’s time we recognize that that myth no longer serves us.
Those of us who care about decency, the rule of law, constraints on corporate power, civil rights, and economic protections for the downtrodden have become complacent, and we are now reaping the bitter harvest of our neglect. Many of these protections seemed so fundamental that there has been a tremendous amount of denial over the speed at which they are being stripped from us. But these gains were not granted freely or easily by those in authority. They came about as a result of long, persistent, difficult campaigns. If we want to preserve the rights previous generations fought hard to win, we have to make this battle our own.