Obama arrived in the White House promising a new era of democracy and positive change for the common man. In 2008, the Republicans were deeply unpopular, and Sarah Freaking Palin could have been a heartbeat away from the Presidency (that doesn’t seem so bizarre anymore).
In 2012, all the GOP could muster was the grinning idiot Romney. Still, Obama won with a smaller margin than four years before. From a 2016 perspective, it was Black Tweedledee vs White bread Tweedledumb. He left Washington that year with the Democratic Party on the verge of irrelevancy and the common man supporting a fascist.
Certainly, the Republican-caused log jamb of the federal government led many to blame both parties and lose interest in politics, and (well-financed) others to organize on the right. But the major factors were the Democrats’ own failure of imagination, their indebtedness to their corporate sponsors and their blatant ignoring of both a failed economy and widespread discontent. Micah Sifry writes:
As we now know, that grand vision for a post-campaign movement never came to fruition. Instead of mobilizing his unprecedented grassroots machine to pressure obstructionist lawmakers, support state and local candidates who shared his vision, and counter the Tea Party, Obama mothballed his campaign operation, bottling it up inside the Democratic National Committee. It was the seminal mistake of his presidency—one that set the tone for the next eight years of dashed hopes, and helped pave the way for Donald Trump to harness the pent-up demand for change Obama had unleashed…“We lost this election eight years ago,” concludes Michael Slaby, the campaign’s chief technology officer. “Our party became a national movement focused on general elections, and we lost touch with nonurban, noncoastal communities. There is a straight line between our failure to address the culture and systemic failures of Washington and this election result.”…a sin of imagination, one that helped decimate the Democratic Party at the state and local level and turn over every branch of the federal government to the far right.
These political decisions – along with, of course, Obama’s actual policies – had much to do with the massive disillusionment that set in among young idealists, few of whom transferred their Bernie Sanders loyalties to Hillary Clinton, supporting her only because they feared Trump. But the damage, as Sifry says, happened much earlier. By 2016 the Democrats had lost over a thousand spots in state legislatures, governor’s mansions and Congress.
“What’s happened on the ground is that voters have been punishing Democrats for eight solid years — it’s been exhausting,” said South Carolina State Senator Vincent Sheheen, who lost two gubernatorial campaigns…“If I was talking about a local or state issue, voters would always lapse back into a national topic: Barack Obama.” After this year’s elections, Democrats hold the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in just five coastal states: Oregon, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware. Republicans have the trifecta in 25, giving them control of a broad swath of the middle of the country.
I have argued that despite all this incompetence, it still took massive voter suppression and outright computer fraud to win the 2016 election.
But consider if Clinton had actually won: another 4-8 years of obstruction on domestic policies and empirical wars abroad, balanced at best by a moderate on the Supreme Court, and another generation of disillusioned young people. And amid the faux-feminist self-congratulation among liberals, no need for hagiography about Obama. At worst, if Clinton actually fulfilled her campaign rhetoric and established a no-fly zone over Syria and ordered “military responses” to the alleged Russian cyber attacks, we’d be at war with Russia.
In December the White House worked to recruit the centrist Tom Perez to run against and ultimately defeat the more liberal Keith Ellison as DNC chairman. Had they learned nothing from Clinton’s defeat? Or, as Greenwald writes,
…it seems Democratic leaders prioritize ensuring that the left has no influence in their party over strengthening itself to beat the Trump-led Republicans…
We can only understand this mess by reverting to our mythological view: Obama played the inspirational role of the King in order to get elected. But it was only a role; and it was played by a trickster. The King imagines for us all; the Trickster (a poor version of the Trickster – the Con Man) is out for himself.
As Gary Younge writes, this latest transition is not simply a matter of sequence – one bad president following a good one – but consequence: one horrendous agenda made possible by the failure of its predecessor.
I’m sure you could offer all kinds of counter-arguments to what I’ve been saying from your own grading perspective. And you should; we all need to step back occasionally and consider what motivates our strong opinions. And I’m suggesting that our position within the myth of American innocence is a strong motivator. From outside the myth, others see us more objectively.
Perhaps Obama really has tried but been unable to reform a dreadfully wasteful and brutal militarism that has remained remarkably consistent, regardless of who has occupied the White House, for seventy years. We’d still like to believe that notion, because to think otherwise would be to call into question our most fundamental assumptions about who we are as Americans. To ask about our own collusion in perpetuating the story of American goodness and exceptionalism – despite all the evidence – would be to ask how we cannot see that the President has perfected the art of appearing to embody the Archetypal King – while actually enacting its, and our, shadow.
I certainly can entertain this possibility: perhaps Obama’s con-act was not a conscious process. His tears for American victims of gun violence were real – and so were his war crimes.
In this sense, from the empire’s grading point of view, he was a complete success. To bring this discussion back to mythological thinking, we remember that we all inhabit a story. In this story Obama was a hired gun, brought in to shore up the cracks in the myth of innocence that had appeared during the Bush years, and he succeeded for a while. In this grading perspective, even the Republicans (speaking honestly for once, off the record) would give him a straight-A.
Once again we need to address the fundamental question that progressives constantly dance around without really examining: good-intentioned mistakes rising from incompetence vs. deliberate, cynical policy. How many times have you heard this assessment (shared by almost all politicians, pundits and historians) that the Viet Nam war (please feel free to substitute Iraq, Afghanistan, etc) was a “mistake”? High school students all across the country learn the story, how our leaders had the best of intentions – defending freedom and stopping the spread of communism (feel free to substitute “Islamic terrorism”) – and it was only their own incompetence and changes in American popular opinion that defeated them.
Noam Chomsky, however, reminds us that America invaded Viet Nam, to prevent it “…from becoming a successful model of economic and social development…” It was the Vietnamese people who won the war, not the Americans who lost it. This is one reason why Chomsky’s name almost never appears in the New York Times. And the only level on which this and all the other horrors I’ve been detailing were mistakes was the moral level.
They were crimes. They were intended as crimes, planned, prosecuted and perpetuated by Harvard-educated criminals. These were and are the crimes of imperialism, not innocent blunders, and Obama is as complicit as any of his predecessors.
What if we were to drop our assumptions of American innocence and ask our grading questions but from a different perspective, that of the Deep State and the actual managers of policy and public opinion? Questions such as:
1 – How can we direct public opinion and policy so that the military – and its ever-increasing budget – remains permanently in a certain part of the world?
2 – How can we direct increasingly greater shares of the nation’s resources towards the military-industrial complex, the education-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, Big Pharma and the financial and insurance industries?
3 – How can we best manipulate the levels of irrational fear and anxiety so as to distract common people from such policies – and eventually choose a more blatant demagogue?
4 – How can we vet prospective political candidates and journalists to make sure that none of them ever question these policies?
5 – How can we serve up pliant legislators for lobbyists to shape?
6 – How can we make most Americans so utterly insecure about jobs, housing, education, health and the future in general that they will acquiesce to any of our demands?
7 – How can we make the rest of the population so tired, depressed and disillusioned that they simply stop bothering to vote?
Now from that point of view, let’s ask another basic question. After eight years, have the one percent come to accumulate as much wealth as the bottom fifty percent despite Obama’s policies or because of them? In mythology, we recall, motivation doesn’t matter, only actions. Mythology looks at what happened and asks what needed to occur in order for the story to move on.
Our one consolation is that if we pay attention, it also asks how we might reframe the story.
Once again, what about those signs of mild, incremental progress? Consider that for those who actually control the American Empire, policy decisions have only two potential consequences. The first as always – Cui bono? – is financial: who pays and who profits? The second is political: how much political capital is gained or lost?
Saving the auto industry? Why not ask: what is the price of keeping these inefficient and failing corporations alive even though they’ve outsourced most of their jobs to the Third World, when the obviously better solution is to buy them out at bottom-dollar prices and create worker-owned collectives? Answer: keep a few of those jobs in this country.
Health care? Why not ask: What is the price of delivering vastly more wealth and influence to the insurance industry? Answer: mandate expensive health coverage for some of the people.
Cuba? Iran? Why not ask: What is the price of opening up new consumer markets totaling nearly 90 million people in countries that were never any threat to our safety? Answer: Take actions that conservatives would never (claim to) support anyway. Nothing risked, nothing lost.
Supporting gay rights? Why not ask: What is the price of securing some nine million potential voters for the Democratic Party, especially when we’ve done nothing to repair the fact that several million African-Americans remain disenfranchised? Answer: Nothing at all. Again, nothing risked.
I take no pride in this. It isn’t about venting my frustration or expressing gratuitous cynicism. It is about waking up from the dream of innocence, exceptionalism and good intentions. Before we can begin to reframe our stories, we have to realize that we have inhabited a very toxic one for our entire existence as a nation, and it still holds us by the short hairs.
Ultimately I don’t care if you come to agree with my assessment of Obama. I do hope that you come to realize how much of your thoughts are determined by the mythology of innocence that we all subscribe to, how much your longing for the return of the King in your own heart determines the idealizations that you project onto politicians and entertainers.
Is there any difference any more between them? Trump knows the answer. And here’s something that everyone in Washington (including its 50,000 lobbyists) knows about con-men: while you fretted as his right hand (Trump) promised to move the cups on the table, his left hand (Obama/Clinton) had already been in your pocket. Perhaps you deplore my hyperbole. Yes, I’m a curmudgeon, and yes, as George Carlin said about the American Dream: “You have to be asleep to believe it.” My next post will conclude this essay.