Will we ever get an official accounting of the crimes (war crimes, crimes against the peace, crimes against humanity) committed by, among others, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush? Will they be brought to justice? It is becoming increasingly difficult, even for the willfully blind, not to realize -- not if Barack Obama can help it.
Will our immoral and strategically disastrous wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars lost long ago that now serve mainly to keep the imperialist project free of the taint of abject defeat, even at the cost of producing new generations of terrorists, be brought to an end? Many of the folks who voted for him thought Obama good for that. But by now, who can deny that while he may deescalate one of them without quite ending the murder and mayhem, he’s hell bent on escalating the other.
No sane person last November thought that American capitalism was about to be replaced by anything better; but, in the face of a crisis approaching Depression level proportions, there were many who thought Obama would at least force a more human face on the capitalist system; that he’d force capitalists to “serve the people” better. That’s what happened in the Roosevelt era. But who now thinks that Obama – or, rather, the old Wall Street hands he selected to deal with the situation – have it in them to do anything of the kind?
Will the ecological catastrophe towards which the world is heading be diverted? The expectations of Obama voters notwithstanding, hardly anyone still expects more than token gestures from the Obama administration.
Will Obama help us get the healthcare system we need? No way. Single-payer is “off the table.”
Will Obama address the issue of nuclear proliferation satisfactorily? Will he force Israeli leaders to accept a two state solution in Israel/Palestine? Will he end the blockade of Cuba? Will we get genuine transparency in government under Obama? Will CIA and special forces “dark ops” be quashed? Will he even close Gitmo, without resurrecting it somewhere else, probably somewhere extra-territorial? It’s now clear that Obama won’t even lift a finger to help the citizens ofWashington D.C. gain representation along with taxation? The list goes on. George Bush’s successor is officially on the right side, more or less, on many issues. Nevertheless, these questions answer themselves.
Blame Congress with its bought and paid for imbeciles on one side and its bought and paid for cowards on the other. [There are also, of course, a handful of powerless exceptions, holding forth meekly for doing the right thing.] Blame the corporations. Their oceans of money, stuffed into the pockets of a servile political class, constrain what political scientists would call “the opportunity set” Congress and the White House confront. Blame the schools, blame the media – both do a good job of dumbing down political discourse and keeping citizens ignorant and acquiescent.
But, conceding all that, it is becoming increasingly plain that in this (potential) watershed period Obama is culpable too. I never expected much from him. [I am proud to say that I didn’t even vote for him! As I habitually do, I voted for Ralph Nader in protest.] But, even before taking office, as he reassembled the Clintonite minions – indeed, even before he became the official Democratic nominee, when he selected Joe Biden to be his Vice President – Obama has been a manifest disappointment to progressive Obamaniacs and to Obama-skeptics alike. In office now for several months, it just keeps getting worse. Soon, reality will have intruded enough so that the honeymoon between our rulers’ CEO and what passes for a Left in this country will be over; one can see it happening already in the so-called progressive media. Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters and fans are beginning to jump ship.
As happens when illusions pass, everybody pretty much complains about the same things, pretty much in tandem. But, occasionally, there are fresh insights. Harper’s magazine is often a good place to look for them. The current issue (July, 2009; unfortunately not available on line except to subscribers) does not disappoint.
In an article entitled “Barack Hoover Obama: the best and the brightest blow it again,” Kevin Baker draws parallels between Obama’s governing style and the style of our last genuinely intelligent, knowledgeable and worldly President, Herbert Hoover. Baker’s contention, in short, is that both Presidents know (or knew) better than their actions suggest, and that they are both self-made prisoners of the ambient political culture. If Baker is right, Obama, like Hoover, is a tragic character – obliged by necessity (or rather by his understanding of what necessity requires) to cede power to advisors in the thrall of a conventional wisdom that is manifestly inadequate for the tasks at hand, even as he envisions better, more radical, alternatives. As everyone knows, Hoover’s unwillingness to take bold measures made the Great Depression disastrously worse, setting his party back for generations. Baker warns that it is looking increasingly like this will be Obama’s fate as well.
Obama’s style and wit suggest JFK, but what he promises, in fact, is less Camelot than Vietnam (in the form of an endless quagmire in Afghanistan). Obama’s political acuity and guile recalls FDR’s. But Obama has boxed himself in too much to experiment with anything like a New Deal. That’s why we are not living through the Second Coming of Camelot or the Roosevelt years. Quite the contrary. Obama is, or is likely to become, the Herbert Hoover of our time.
According to the dominant historical narrative, Hoover was a non-entity with implacable conservative instincts, in way over his head. He might have been able to muddle along well enough in better times. But thanks to the stock market crash of 1929 and the bank failures that followed, he had mediocrity or worse thrust upon him. Baker’s article corrects that misapprehension. On his account, Herbert Hoover was capable of greatness – he had both the intellect and the opportunity – but he made himself a slave of the norms of the political culture of his time. That, Baker claims, is what brought his administration down in failure. Now history is repeating itself; Obama is making similar mistakes. Baker’s article is an eye-opener. Would that Obama would read it and that it would open his eyes too while there is still time to change course. There isn’t much time left. As in the Dylan song, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”
The same edition of Harper’s also contains a fine piece by Ken Silverstein on the massive effort to quash the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) waged by the leaders of what the media euphemistically call “the business community.” Nothing could more effectively improve public life in this country – and raise the level of public discourse – than a reempowered labor movement. Obama knows this. Seeking labor votes, he endorsed EFCA during his run for office, and he continues to voice support. But will he spend his still considerable political capital to make EFCA happen? It doesn’t seem likely, not with so much else on his plate. While saving health care for the health care profiteers, keeping the Bush (now Obama) wars going, retaining the power and riches of Wall Street predators, and letting the environment go to hell, where will he find the time?