Power is self-sufficient, a replete possession, and must be maintained by whatever agency is required.
—Wole Soyinka, Climate of Fear 
Wars, especially undeclared ones, invariably boost the powers and status of the president as commander-in-chief. … A president, however feckless or imposing, is transformed, rendered larger than life. He becomes the supreme commander, the unchallengeable leader and the nation incarnate.
—Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated
[Author’s note: This essay is an excerpt from The Substance of Truth (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2011). It is offered for reflection on the day the president would, should all go right, accept his party’s nomination for re-election. The begging question, then, is four more years of what? Neoliberalism and imperialism unhinged?]
On January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama received the mantle worn for eight years by George W. Bush, and thereupon swore a new course in domestic andforeign policies, calling in the Middle East for “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” and assuring an economic model on the domesticfront that “helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, [and] a retirement that is dignified.”
It’s been more than two years now, and the tight rope upon which many balanced their hopes—for a truly different and transformative model of governance—has lost a good deal of fidelity, as the Obama Administration proves day after day a determined unwillingness to stray far from many of the policies that earned the ire of millions, the world over, while his predecessor held the fort. From the Justice Department, to the Money Department, to the War Department, promises delivered on the campaign trail that elevated the spirits of citizens, Left and Right, and inspired a political uprising—following eight harrowing years of hubristic, neoliberal rituals—haven’t met the early manifestation many expected with a new face and new mind manning the White House. So, now, one question widely abounds: Who is the real Obama? But to ask “is to drift towards the illusion of thinking there is one—as opposed to an infinitely mutable organism, endlessly adapting to political circumstance, with an eye eternally cocked to the main chance.”
Asked often why he, then a one-term U.S. Senator, chose to run for a post many believed he lacked qualifications for, Obama invoked Reverend Martin Luther KingJr.’s exhortation, “the fierce urgency of now,” which King applied in a bold April 4, 1967, speech against the Vietnam War efforts of the LBJ Administration, refusingto surrender to “the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world.” Nothing short of “a radical revolution of values,” Kingordered, to force a rapid “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” Societies on the brink of defeat against spiritual death need no pointing out,he said. They celebrate “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights” as “more important [than] people.” They make like ants and cower before thetrampling wrath of “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”
Not one jot or tittle of King’s words needs revision 40 years after, even with a Black president warming the highest seat of the land. And if Barack Obama would be remembered years later as a president with rare rigor to “go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism,” hewould have to substitute strikingly different agendas for those currently underway in the first two years of his Administration. So far, the triple giants haven’t faced much opposition.
On the travails of communities of color, Barack Obama hasn’t put forth much. The Black community especially has been blessed with very little from the man 96% ofits voting bloc threw weight behind—and shoveled through snowy, ice-cold weather to see sworn in on Inauguration Day. Of the disparate conditions afflicting Blackand Brown people, the Obama Administration has found very little desire to address.
On the campaign trail, and even before his February 2007 announcement bid for the presidency, Obama’s message to Black America differed little from conservative calls for Personal Responsibility, even with glaring institutional and structural barriers obstructing millions of Blacks and Browns from upward mobility. Obama chided poor Black women for feeding their kids leftover Popeyes chicken meals; in sweeping generalization, he scolded Black men for watching SportsCenter excessively (even though later admitting, on several accounts, SportsCenter was his favorite program); he bashed Black boys who fostered dreams of one day playing basketball professionally or making money as rappers.
On economic inequity, nothing better to be said. His analyses find deeper solidarity in neoconservative circles than liberal enclaves. Speaking March 2007 at thehistorical Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Alabama, Obama offered a narrative no White politician could let slip off without facing indignation more fiery than hell harbors. He proclaimed the Civil Rights Movement had brought Black people “90% of the way” to equality, but “[w]e still got that 10% in order to cross over to the other side.” That Black net worth only equals 10 cents for every dollar of White net worth failed to factor into this strange interpretation of history and reality. That Blacks barely earn 62 cents for every dollar of White income found no vindication in his sermon; neither did Blacks, despite only 14% of the U.S. population, facing incarceration rates seven times higher than Whites.
A month later, Obama lectured a group of Black South Carolina state legislators on how a “good economic development plan for our community would be if wemake sure folks weren’t throwing their garbage out of their cars.” Not racist loan practices, not back-bending poverty, not unanswerable greed in government halls, but littering—pushes Black communities farther from self-sufficiency.
Two years earlier, right after Hurricane Katrina had made landfall, Obama stood up to those—in one poll, 84% of the Black community—who held without a shadow of doubt, based on overwhelming evidence, that Race and Class rendered the victims less concerning to their government. “There’s been much attention in the press about the fact that those who were left behind in New Orleans were disproportionately poor and African American,” Obama observed in a statement. “I’ve said publicly that I do not subscribe to the notion that the painfully slow response of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security was racially-based. The ineptitude was colorblind.”
To great delight of many White centrists and conservatives, Obama repeatedly told the Black poor their conditions could be rectified if only they decided at once toput away childish things and pull themselves out of social and financial misery with the bootstraps of Personal Responsibility. Prominent White conservatives likeGeorge F. Will, Charles Krauthammer, and William Bennett respectively commended Obama early on for refusing to “subscribe to a racial narrative of strife and oppression,” for choosing not to “run as a candidate of minority grievance,” for never bringing “race into it.” But White liberal elites also took great pride in the Black-bashing campaign Obama’s team tried to woo skeptical middle-class Whites with. Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter doled out a disturbing contribution in March 2008, suggesting Obama’s “most exciting potential for moral leadership could be in the African-American community.” After all, he had achieved the impossible—telling them, above all else, “they need to stop being homophobic and anti-Semitic.”
In governance, many of Obama’s racial philosophies have produced pernicious policies. Asked April 29, 2009, his 100th day in office, “what specific policies can you point to that will target … communities [of color] and what’s the timetable for us to see tangible results”? Obama clung to the farcical fantasy that a rising tide lifts all boats—”my general approach is that if the economy is strong, that will lift all boats as long as it is also supported by, for example, strategies around college affordability and job training, tax cuts for working families (as opposed to the wealthiest) that level the playing field and ensure bottom-up economic growth.”
Not long after inauguration, Obama unveiled an education budget which cut $85 million for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)—of particular pain at a time when HBCUs, responsible for nearly 20% of undergraduate degrees for Black students, face steeper hurdles from the economic tumbledown. American Indian Tribal Colleges as well fell victim to the budget scalpel.
Under Obama’s watch, Black men still swell up the prison-industrial complex at rates disproportionate to Whites, and often for crimes nonviolent. Very little address from the President and his Justice Department has attended this ever-expanding tumor. And while appointees like Timothy Geithner and Thomas Daschle faced nolegal scrutiny for their tax troubles, Black men—as the tragic case of Detroit activist Reverend Edward Pinkney reminds—forever face the wrath of the court system for infractions like invoking biblical scripture to slam a judge.
When his attorney general, Eric Holder, condemned the cowardly conscience of many who won’t acknowledge racial disparities, Obama admonished him coldly: “We’ve made enormous progress and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.”
In defense, Obama has enjoyed the acquiescence of a Black leadership in crisis (and denial), which for several reasons remains reluctant to challenge the presidentpublicly on any matters. On the one hand, they should hate to grant the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs of the Lunatic Right any additional ammo in blasting away at the president for just about anything; and on the other, they’ve convinced themselves any popular backlash from the Black community against the First Black President could seal the fate of all Black aspirants for at least another century—that White voters would be let off the hook and feel no more guilt-produced pressure to push another Black person in there, to make up for the past. The Black leadership elite and Black mainstream press don’t intend to hold the First Black President’s feet to the fire, even if his policies only further subjugate communities they claim to serve and represent.
Ralph Ellison saw this storm blowing five decades ago. “I would like to see a qualified Negro President of the United States,” he confessed. “But I suspect that even if this were today possible, the necessities of the office would shape his actions far more than his racial identity.” These necessities, unfortunately, have stamped on them the trumpeting of neoliberal economic initiatives at the expense of communities of color.
Wall Street executives initially doubted Obama’s commitment to their financial health, but even before stepping into office, Obama assured, with the bank bailout, business-as-usual would mark tall order. And with neoliberal icons, Lawrence Summers and Tim Geithner, firm on board, Wall Street was well-assured the incoming president wielded no big sticks. In September 2008, he cheerled the bailout that salvaged “too-big-to-fail” banks, executed as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). And while investment bankers, whose greed rattled the world economy, reveled in the satisfaction of having a friendly face attending their every need, millions toed the unemployment lines, middle-class communities saw more foreclosure signs hanging from neighbors’ lawns, and communities of color drowned further, further into the deep seas of depression.
Of course the current economic conditions have more to do with his predecessors’ policies than any plans he proposed on the campaign trail, but no less devastatingan impact has the Obama Administration’s response delivered to families struggling to survive in a world where uncertainty looms large. The taxpayer-funded TARPcan only boast of stocking up the pockets of wealthy Wall Street tycoons, rather than rescuing families from financial freefall. Early 2010, 11 million homeowners still remained trapped underwater; and, in one year, only 10% of the homeowner pool had seen significant reduction or restructuring of their mortgages—as the Obama Administration tried to calm fears it cared more for Wall Street CEOs than the millions of citizens losing faith daily.
For communities of color, the recession had long been a depression. While government officials and establishment pundits were celebrating dull drops in the nationalemployment rate, the Latino and African-American communities were experiencing constant rises. The nearly 3,000,000 unemployed Latinos (13%) in January 2010 constituted 31% of the national unemployment index. For young Latinos, 16- to 19-year-olds, a whopping 37% were without jobs. For Black folks, the official unemployment rate tallied at 17%; and for young Black males between the ages of 16 and 24, 35% juggled joblessness, while unemployed young Black females of thesame age group turned up 27%—maintaining a third of young Black people without stable income.
A rising tide lifts all boats!
This unwillingness “to focus on the most blighted segment of America,” explained journalist Joel Dreyfuss, “is directly proportional to how much Americans really believe that black Americans are somehow to blame for their own high unemployment.” And the Obama Administration sponsors this senseless narrative even while the future looks ever dim for Black and Brown communities. “After all, in the new ‘post-racial’ era nary a word is heard about affirmative action or reparations. We’re back to an ahistorical narrative of America; everyone has bootstraps; it’s up to you to pull yourself up. Government plays no role, or at best a minimal one.”
Corporate Power has dominated the first two years of Obama’s presidency, and most explicit a validation was the healthcare debacle that tortured the White Housefor months, leaving lasting scars. From start, the long-promised public option flew out the window to temper the concerns of pharmaceutical giants. There would be no competition for their avarice, Obama’s team promised. Soon after announcing plans for “reform,” leaks of an $80 billion deal sealed between the White House and health insurance firms spread. A released memo detailed commitment from the White House to oppose the lowering of drug prices and the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada, and to oppose a repeal of the non-interference provision in the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act (2003) granting insurance companies legal right to inflate prices at whim. In exchange, the companies participating would support the White House plan, and even run favoring ads.
Locked out of this contract were millions without coverage—and millions more underserved by draconian insurance plans. Unaccounted for were kids like Alex Lange, a 17-pound, four-month-old toddler, denied coverage because an insurance firm, Rocky Mountain Health Plans, placed him at high risk for obesity in October 2009. “Your baby is too fat,” Lange’s parents heard from the healthcare humanitarians. Disturbingly, this sort of bottom-line, cut-and-dry, no-risk calculation marks motif for an industry the Obama Administration was forging alliance with.
The employed can’t invest much faith in the Obama Administration, either. Those lucky to have jobs still wallow by the wayside, waiting for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), a bill to guarantee unionizing if workers so choose. “If the majority of workers want a union they should get a union,” Obamathundered to cheering Pennsylvania union members in April 2008. “It is that simple. Let’s stand up to the business lobby and pass the Employee Free Choice Act. …That’s why I’m fighting for it in the Senate, and that’s why I would sign that bill when I become president of the United States of America.” Two years later, workers still report intimidation if trying to unionize for fairer business environments and dignified wages; workers still face the brutal lash of bellicose chains like Wal-Mart, whose propaganda campaigns against EFCA met no resistance from the labor-lauding president in the White House.
On an issue as bipartisan as lavish rewards issued to Wall Street CEOs whose firms taxpayers salvaged from fatal collapse, president Obama in February 2010 reversed his many calls for caps on bonuses. A month earlier, indignant citizens could sleep tight—their president was at ringside: “[I]f these folks want a fight, it’s a fight I’m ready to have.” These “fat cats” had chugged down one-too-many meals on taxpayer dime. “And my resolve is only strengthened when I see a return to old practices at some of the very firms fighting reform; and when I see soaring profits and obscene bonuses at some of the very firms claiming that they can’t lend more to small business, they can’t keep credit card rates low, they can’t pay a fee to refund taxpayers for the bailout.” Fast forward three weeks, and in response toJPMorgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon’s $17 million and Goldman Sachs frontman Lloyd Blankfein’s $9 million, Obama showered compliments: “I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen.” The choice was theirs to make: total immunity to do whatever pleased the soul with the toil and sweat of starving citizens because “I, like most of the American people, don’t begrudge people success or wealth. That is part of the free-market system.”
While calling for “spending freezes” and “fiscal responsibility” and extirpation of “entitlements,” the war budget surged. Obama’s first two years in office recorded no definite ideological shift from the war mentality George W. Bush gained the scorn of the world for—a “cowboy diplomacy” that privileged military intervention over all else.
Inhumane programs like rendition—the kidnapping and exporting of accused terrorists to foreign countries for torture—still operate with efficiency under Obama. The Cuba-based gulag, Guantánamo Bay, scheduled to shut down within a year of his Administration, still welcomes newcomers—so does the lesser-known BagramTheater Internment Facility in Afghanistan. Private contractors have lost no sleep over the ever-expanding War(s) on Terror—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya—for which their services, and the consequential exorbitant price tags, never run out. Waterboarding may have ceased as official policy, but equally tormentful torture techniques as sleep-deprivation remain parcels of interrogation procedure, while Obama’s Justice Department, like Bush’s, clamors about “State Secrets” to keep the public unaware of practices commissioned in its name. And with Clinton and Bush alumni like Susan Rice, Richard Holbrooke, John Brennan, and Robert Gates gatekeeping, Obama’s wink to the Pentagon was warmly received.
On October 2, 2002, then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama denounced the Iraq Invasion prospects as a “dumb war” of no moral or political merit. “I stand beforeyou as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances,” Obama guaranteed the anti-war crowd, quick to defend the ontological function of wars wagedtoward humane ends, yet defiantly resistant to one-sided imperial ambitions. Soaring in cadence, he sang:
I don’t oppose all wars. … What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.
What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income — to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.
That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.
Seven years after, Obama announced a build-up of troop level in Afghanistan—to the tune of 30,000: altogether now 100,000 troops stomping in the belly of the Muslim World. Obama sold the war ($4 billion monthly; $1 million annually per U.S. soldier) as imperative in addressing an “international security challenge of the highest order.” He also warned Pakistan to get in line or fall prey to more drone attacks by the hour. Over 1,000 troops dead, not to count thousands more civiliansclaimed, and the anti-dumb wars president still saw surge the only option to salvage a country ravaged by wars past and present.
Liberals called for Dick Cheney’s head in March 2008 when the former Vice-President muttered “So?” to the two-thirds firmly opposed to the five-year long Iraq Invasion, but very little indignation was aroused as Obama pledged to accelerate the other onslaught, even while 63%, polled by Pew Research in November 2009, doubted victory of any sort could turn up in Afghanistan.
The Obama Administration hasn’t relented in pursuing drone attacks to threaten terrorists suspected of hinging on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Predator and Reaperdrones have killed over 1,800 people since 2004, according to a study by the New America Foundation released October 2010. His Administration had alreadyauthorized over 125 strikes—twice Bush managed. Yet, in July 2009, a Gallup poll could account for only 9% of the Pakistani population favoring drones,which they are told help keep terrorists at bay, but which they frequently see hit the wrong targets, with a civilian fatality rate of 32%.
Under Obama, military generals deploy up to 12,000 autonomous killer robots, executing 33,000 missions annually. Soldiers can now seat serenely in air-conditioned rooms—thousands of miles removed from the battlegrounds upon which their machines roam locked and loaded for ample destruction—and push buttons that extinguish villages and shatter homes. The age of clean war is said to be only a couple of decades away—when troop casualty would be of no concern, when to enlist for battle would mean to earn warm seats at war factories and press “play” or “stop,” depending on how much damage iron-tough generals instruct. And the public, not having to fear for a son or a daughter or husband or wife or brother or sister’s life, could carry on tradition and lead lives unburdened by the savage brutality of imperialism.
Worst of all, it seems, is the crushing inability of most to recognize the Obama presidency as but an extension of a set program—mere standby to a system running on autopilot. But more than any other president in modern history, Obama boasts the richness of experience to turn around this vehicle, and head toward safer and saintlier destinations.
As a child, Obama endured the toxic wrath of White Supremacy. Called “Negro” at school, he was “teased more than any other kid in the neighborhood—primarilybecause he was so different in appearance.” A neighborhood friend recalled in 2007 how, as a young man, he was “built like a bull. So we’d get three kids together to fight him.” And while once tagging along a gang of young rascals, he was dumped into a swamp. “Luckily he could swim,” reminisced another childhood colleague. “They only did it to Barry.”
Rather than channel these painful memories to address the ratcheting of xenophobia in recent years, he reaffirms Bush-era immigration policies and ideologies.Rather than remind society of potential psychological burdens barring many young Black children from embracing and loving and trusting each other, Obama instructsthem to put aside video games and read. “No excuses!” he struck down July 2009:
Yes, if you’re African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that someone in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. That’s not a reason to get bad grades, that’s not a reason to cut class, that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school.
Obama grew up in the home of a welfare-receiving mother. On the campaign trail, he told the story several times of his 53-year-old, cancer-stricken mother on death’sbed battling bureaucratic buffoons from the health insurance industry who remained convinced her sickness was a pre-existing condition for which they could not beheld financially liable. But when time came for strident healthcare reform to deliver from the claws of evil poor single mothers and middle-class families, the parsimonious insurance lobby walked off beaming—unscathed.
Like no other presidential aspirant of recent, Barack Obama earned the admiration of millions who found great inspiration in the words of a man who emerged fromcircumstances just as crippling, if not worse, than anything they’d experienced. A rainbow coalition invested incalculable hope into this young Black man who promised Change hovering over the horizon. But now the euphoria has worn off, and many have just begun coming to harsh terms with the limits of politics—even when embodied in the personage of a charismatic and inspiring leader. “The thesis is after all not so mysterious,” Norman Mailer assures; “it would merely nudge the notion that a hero embodies his time and is not so very much better than his time, but he is larger than life and so is capable of giving direction to the time, able to encourage a nation to discover the deepest colors of its character.”
It is now clear that the “dark times” Hannah Arendt wrote of have begun settling upon us, against little notable resistance. These are times when “the public realm has been obscured and the world become so dubious that people have ceased to ask any more of politics than that it show due consideration for their vital interests and personal liberty.”
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