The King: One of his primary mythic roles is to inspire the inhabitants of the realm to greatness, to inhabit and embody their higher selves. And, after the madness and degradation of the Bush years, that’s exactly how so many imagined Obama in 2008. Many saw his potential to to organize a lasting grassroots movement. The numbers were certainly there, writes Micah Sifry:
His political machine…amassed more than 800,000 registered users on My.BarackObama…(which) gave supporters the ability—unthinkable in a traditional, top-down political campaign—to organize their own local groups, campaign events, and fund-raising efforts. Its potential for large-scale organizing after the election was vast—and completely without precedent in American politics. By Election Day, Obama’s campaign would have 13 million email addresses, three million donors, and two million active members of MyBO, including 70,000 people with their own fund-raising pages.
The King: To become whole, we need to take back our projections and know archetypes as aspects of ourselves. But in our demythologized modern world, we are so wounded, and society has been so dysfunctional for so long, that we very rarely see such men – Gandhi and Martin Luther King come to mind – in the public sphere. And, too often we respond to their presence by re-enacting the passion of the Christ and killing them when we discover that they are human beings, not archetypal images of perfection.
And yet, our opinion of Obama usually assumes a judgment of his motivations as much as of his actions, and they often take a binary “good-bad” range, subject to other factors. I’ve come up with a potential range, from right to left (minus the usual Republican bloviosity), or from innocence to experience, that covers most of the ways we grade Obama. I refer to them as myths not because they are untrue – each of us must do the work of figuring that out – but because they are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Myth # 1 – Idealistic intentions. Obama was a good man who was thwarted at every step by a recalcitrant and racist Congress. He was always trying to compromise, even though the Republicans cared only about emasculating the very concept of government. He was the lesser of two evils. The title is How it could have been. This story, however, is itself compromised by the fact that for the first two years of his administration the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress and still accomplished little.
Myth # 2 – Good intentions. In this version, Obama’s hopes were unrealistic because he was naïve about the deep state and the realities of power. Here we recall George Carlin’s old joke: On day one of the presidency – every presidency – Secret Service agents usher the new guy into the White House movie room, show him the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, slowed down frame by frame, and make it clear in no uncertain terms – as the CIA has publicly instructed Trump – what will happen should he get out of line. The title is Barack, we hardly knew ye. This is the story of the President who accepted the limitations forced upon him by the Deep State and who knowingly performed their bidding 90% of the time in hopes of accomplishing some mild, incremental progress. Economically, this meant adhering to the old and demonstrably false “trickle-down” theories of his Republican mentors: allowing Wall Street to run amok so that the middle class – never mind the poor – might scrape up a few crumbs.
Myth # 3 – Good intentions. In this version, Obama was a true believer in American Exceptionalism, and as such was utterly naïve about his own complicity in American violence. This Obama genuinely wept for the victims of domestic gun violence even as he directed mass violence abroad. I mean literally: He actually said, “I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen with a drone or a shotgun without due process,” the day after his Attorney General admitted that this is precisely what the CIA had done to the American Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The Tears of a Clown.
Myth # 4 – Mild intentions. This is the centrist candidate who was mentored by the Cold War hawks Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger and who took record amounts of donations from Wall Street. In the 1970s he would have been a Republican, and to the right of Richard Nixon, timid in style, happy to serve the power elite. This is the writer who, in The Audacity of Hope, argued that American capitalism, “the logic of the marketplace” and “private property at the very heart of our systems of liberty and social organization”—had brought Americans “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history.” This is the candidate who tossed his pastor Jeremiah Wright under the bus and declared that angry anti-racism was no longer appropriate in “post-racial” America, the candidate who could be elected only because the nation wanted “change” from the overt warmonger George W.Bush. The Organization Man.
If his admirers later came to be disappointed, they had no right to blame him, because he’d been fairly clear about his positions while running for President. These people had been – and many still are, despite all the evidence – telling themselves a story about what they wanted him to be. However, “on condition of anonymity,” wrote Ken Silverstein back in 2006,
…one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’
Next: more myths we tell ourselves…