Part One of this essay listed four perspectives from which we grade the president, beginning with the most idealistic (that is, our most idealistic – and innocent – projections) and moving toward what some might call more cynical, or realistic. Here is number five:
5 – No intentions whatsoever, except to survive. In this scenario, Obama is simply another in a very long line of narcissists of overweening ambition who long ago sold their souls to serve as spokespersons and salesmen for major power interests.
To disagree with this perspective is to disagree with this one: In our broken democracy, no one is considered for serious, well-funded candidacy, least of all a Black person, without being exhaustively vetted by the power brokers. The few who slip past the gatekeepers are easily marginalized (Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich) or abandoned (George McGovern, Bernie Sanders).
Like every president since Franklin Roosevelt except for Jimmie Carter (and only then as an ex-president), Obama is a master of political symbolism and rhetoric who temporarily satisfies his base supporters as a stiff drink briefly cures an alcoholic’s fever. In an age of really crazy talk, his image emanates calmness, rationality, eloquence and intellectual curiosity tempered by sincerity, compassion and the willingness to weep in public.
His image: He and his family have held the King projections of liberals better than any president since John Kennedy. This is no small thing. And, like JFK, this King who began as a community organizer could be one of us jes’ folks: shooting jump shots, sipping beer and singing Sweet Home Chicago. He’s one of us, after all! He has both charm and genuine charisma, especially in comparison to the grey-suit country clubbers, religious hucksters and shameless bigots of the Clown Car.
He’s a con-man. As Glen Ford writes, he has consistently been not the lesser but merely the “smarter” of two evils.
Mythology teaches us to look at the images as much or more than the words. In American popular culture the image is the brand, and brand Obama is very appealing. This doesn’t mean that he pretends to be who he is; what you see is what you get. He is so convincing (and hence so abhorrent to the Clown Car) because, like Trump, he is his brand. But it is still a brand that was created, developed and vetted to appeal to you.
Chris Hedges reminds us about branding in America:
Politicians are little more than brands. They sell skillfully manufactured personalities. These artificial personalities are used to humanize corporate oppression. They cannot—and do not intend to—end the futile and ceaseless wars, dismantle the security and surveillance state, halt the fossil fuel industry’s ecocide, curb the predatory class of bankers and international financiers, lift Americans out of poverty or restore democracy.
I have thought quite a bit on this subject, beginning with my book. It was clear that to write anything about Obama as my 2009 publication date approached was premature. Yet to not do so would have been to evade a necessary aspect of my theme. So I contributed this:
After one year in office, Obama had expanded the Afghanistan war into Pakistan…increased the defense budget, pushed to renew the Patriot Act, doubled arms sales abroad and subtly condoned both the Israeli invasion of Gaza and the military coup in Honduras. He was continuing Bush’s secrecy policies, the outsourcing of torture, “signing statements,” the embargo of Cuba and the demonization of Iran and North Korea. He would not re-institute the Fairness Doctrine or endorse the ban on land mines. He refused to prosecute either torturers or Wall Street financial swindlers. He reconfirmed “No Child Left Behind” and backtracked on countless civil-liberties issues. His climate bill offered record subsidies to Big Coal, while his health bill promised vast profits to Big Insurance. His response to the economic crisis socialized the risk, privatized the gains and rewarded the same bankers who had caused it. Hurricane Katrina relief? Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional District was dead last in the nation in stimulus funds.
He is, argues Chris Hedges, merely a new “brand,” designed to pacify the public with convincing fantasies while business continues as usual. “Brand Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state any more than did Brand George W. Bush.” In the eternal gentleman’s dispute within the ruling class, Wall Street’s man defeated John McCain, the candidate of Big Oil. Obama is merely the newest, more palatable face of empire, with the clear assignment to re-invigorate the myth of innocence.
His role, writes Greg Palast, is to “…soothe America’s conscience with the happy fairy tale that his election marked the end of racism in the USA.” If the more blatant forms of traditional bigotry have receded somewhat, a newer, more insidious version may have appeared. Tim Wise writes that “Racism 2.0” allows whites to celebrate the achievements of certain acceptable, non-threatening individuals such as Obama who have “transcended their blackness,” while continuing to fear and discriminate against the great majority of blacks, reds and browns…
In his defense, we must note that seven former godfathers of a fifty billion dollar crime syndicate known for assassinating public figures – the CIA – very publicly warned him not to probe too deeply into allegations of prisoner abuse by that same gang. It was, perhaps, a declaration of just who is really in charge to a man who receives over thirty death threats per day.
But I was willing to entertain other possibilities:
Ultimately, however, the symbolism of a black man in the slave-built White House may be far more significant in terms of the long-term effort to welcome the Other into the polis, which the politics of the last thirty years have reversed…
Perhaps his election does represent a change in consciousness… “It’s not that Obama is the change;” writes Michael Ventura, “it’s that his election is an expression of decades of painful, difficult, incremental changes…A paradox consists of at least two aspects that are opposite yet equally true…It is equally true that Obama inspired his way into the Oval Office and that he bought it. Obama won by the power of a paradox, and his administration, for good and for ill, will be a paradox of power…Perhaps only the language of paradox will work to facilitate the breakdown of a crust so hardened as American myth.”
In the short run, that myth has actually been strengthened by the philosophy of “Yes we can.” Only in America (we are told) could such a mixed-race person rise so high from such humble beginnings. The story is so familiar: an exceptionally extraordinary man – the Hero – comes out of nowhere and takes power in a dangerous time.
And I concluded with what turned out to be an accurate prediction of the next few years:
…hope taken to the extreme can make people inappropriately dependent on specific individuals, rather than on their own capabilities. The risk of pursuing a philosophy of inclusion in a madhouse is that it may easily evoke its shadow of disillusionment, deflation and further disengagement when things go wrong…
Part Three will continue this line of thinking and lead toward another way to grade Barack Obama.