Building Hope in the Time of Obama

The mayor of my town just north of New York City lives one street away. He was – until last month – a visibly proud supporter of Barack Obama: more than a year after the presidential election, his front porch displayed a couple of Obama campaign posters with words like “hope” and “change” on them, along with an American flag with a peace sign in place of the fifty stars. For unknown reasons, the posters and the flag are no longer there.

Regardless of the mayor’s intentions, this absence is a manifestation of one of Barack Obama’s most notable accomplishments during his first year in office: the dashing of the hopes of the many who supported his election. From the ratcheting up of the war in Afghanistan to the watered-down, insurance-industry-friendly health care bill, to his woefully insufficient gestures related to climate change, Obama’s administration thus far has been characterized far more by its status-quoism than by bold, progressive initiatives. Throughout this first year, advocates of far-reaching change have learned to expect little from the White House.

In many ways, such an outcome is hardly surprising. While the attractiveness of a candidate with a community organizer’s background and one who importantly symbolizes the weakening of the country’s ugly racial barriers is undeniable, he was and remains a deeply mainstream political figure. As various analysts have pointed out, his talk of hope and change throughout the campaign was largely rhetorical and void of serious substance. That so many of us failed to see this speaks to the depths to which politics descended during the G.W. Bush years and the resulting desire and willingness to see a wealth of light where there was little; the weakness of progressive social movements and our collective political myopia, and the genius of the marketing scheme that surrounds brand Obama.

These factors – and his ability to out-Clinton Bill Clinton in giving the illusion of saying something empathetic, meaningful and different when, in reality, he has said little of significance – have carried him far, helping to enshrine him in a pantheon of would-be progressive political leaders. Indeed, they helped to win him a Nobel Peace Prize.

On the face of it, awarding a peace prize to someone who commands the largest military in world history – one whose budget roughly equals those of all the rest of the world’s militaries combined, and whose spending he has increased – and whose military had already bombed four different countries in his barely nine-month-old presidency, seems ludicrous. But unlike, say, G.W. Bush, Obama is to be judged by his words and potential, not his deeds.

As the Norwegian Nobel Committee explained in announcing the award in October, Obama’s “vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations.” And thanks to his initiative, “Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.” He has, the committee asserted, “captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.” In other words, apart from the highly exaggerated claim of his having “powerfully stimulated” arms-reduction and control efforts, it is the promise of Obama that is supposedly so noteworthy.

While many wondered how the Nobel Committee could make such statements in light of how little Obama had accomplished by that time – and given how much he had done (antithetical to the cause of peace) – others saw in the award proof of Obama’s progressive genius. According to New York Times columnist BONO, for example, Obama offers a bold vision, one that has rebranded the United States. Combined with what the rock star characterized as his efforts to combat climate change and improve relations with the Middle East, these reasons – among others – make Obama deserving of the honor.

Such sentiment was not limited to the politically vacuous. Even some heavyweight analysts associated with progressive politics celebrated the decision to honor Obama. Columbia University professor and frequent critic of US foreign policy Hamid Dabashi, for instance, highlighted on Obama’s “idea” to rid the planet of nuclear weapons, along with what must be invisible to those on the receiving end of US power and that of its allies: “the president’s commitment to diplomacy over warfare.” Meanwhile, columnist Patricia Williams of The Nation attempted to counter critics of Obama’s selection by pointing out that “90 percent of Britons, French and Germans believe that Obama has affirmatively changed the course of diplomacy and that the United States is now a superpower that listens.” (One wonders what polls in occupied Palestine or Pakistan would show.)

Whatever the reasons for such sentiment in the face of so little, it points to, or at least reinforces, a pitifully low set of expectations. Where are demands such as an end to the US war in Afghanistan, dramatic reductions in the bloated US military budget, and a US foreign policy toward Israel-Palestine based first and foremost on international law and human rights?

To realize such goals, we have to avoid falling into despair, a sentiment which, as writer Rebecca Solnit points out, allows us to live comfortably and cynically and “makes no demand upon us.” Instead, we truly do need hope, but not of the merely rhetorical kind, nor one that is invested in charismatic individuals. It must be a hope which challenges the injustices that underlie who we are and how we live, and, in Solnit’s terms, “demands everything.” It needs to be a hope informed by sober analysis of the limits of Obamaism while strategically cognizant of the openings it provides, a hope which helps us to “win something that matters, if not everything all the time.” It must be a hope born of radical vision and struggle.

In a December 24 report on on the stifling effects of the Israeli occupation on the West Bank’s tourist economy, journalist Nour Odeh recounted the words of Jerusalem’s Catholic patriarch during his Christmas message: “The painful reality contradicts our dreams,” he said. “Despite all that our hope remains alive,” he added, “because hope doesn’t mean surrendering to evil. It means resisting it.”

Only that type of hope can lead to far-reaching change, a change we cannot only believe in, but organize and mobilize around to make it real.