A year ago Barack Hussein Obama was sworn into the office of President of the United States of America. In a vast exhalation of euphoria much of the country bid farewell to George Bush and anticipated the fulfilling of the Obama campaign mantra, Change You Can Believe In. The air was palpably filled with hope, despite the serious circumstance he was inheriting: 2 wars, an economy in a death swoon. For a brief while the illusion held as a few Executive Orders were made, and Obama, though severely buffeted by Bush’s catastrophic economic leavings, ordered the closing of Guantanamo, the end of torture as US policy, and so on. But quickly the bloom was off, as Obama – seemingly to show needed “toughness” to ward off Republican charges of weakness – ordered another 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. And then surrounded himself with the same suits who had led the country into its fiscal collapse: Geithner, Summers, Bernanke, and then, with just a little less haste than Bush, tossed still more trillions at the bankers. Foreclosures and unemployment rose, Detroit tottered toward oblivion. Obama, as he’d said he would, “reached out” to Republicans who were having none of it. Obama put forward his health reform proposals and now a year later a bloated compromise document of 2000 unreadable pages, offering a bit or a lot to nearly everyone, angers as many as it pleases. Back room deals, real-politick as played by Rahm, and the whole foul smell of a corrupted culture wafts across the land, heightened by a shrill right-wing media gunning for Obama’s hide, no matter what he does – all this a mere 12 months later. Obama’s enemies smell blood in the by-election in Massachusetts, and his allies and supporters of a year ago are abandoning him in droves, thoroughly disillusioned with his policies and his failure to lead. Bitterly, it appears all too likely that the Republicans, having produced the disaster at hand, are likely to benefit from Obama’s incapacity to meaningfully address it. He appears captive to the financial forces which run Wall Street, and to the military-industrial complex which now looms far larger than Eisenhower cautioned half a century ago.
It’s a year later now and some Change You Can Believe In did indeed come, just not the kind most of those caught up in the euphoria of a year ago anticipated. Some millions are out of their once-homes. More millions are out of their job and there don’t appear to be any jobs out there to replace them. More millions are about to run out their unemployment benefits, and like 1/4 of the populace, begin living on food-stamps. And while the media do their best to keep it under wraps there’s probably worse to come. And politics in America has taken a body blow from which it is unlikely to recover any time soon. A generation of young people, drawn to the Obama candidacy, are surely disillusioned and will be more so as life looks likely not to be offering a job while they default on their student loans the bank is shafting them on, and a mess of other assumptions of not long ago have disappeared. Another generation of older voters is likely to feel utterly betrayed by a system they had gone along with, even after the Supreme Court theft of the 2000 election and the possible electronic theft of the 2004 one. This time they thought they’d won, even by a good margin, and it turns out their guy was a put-up or a patsy. We can almost be assured that those stepping into the vacuum thus provided will be the same old well-organized gang that marched in lock-step with GW Bush. Given the Supreme Court ruling of last week, this is now virtually fore-ordained. As ever in America:
So what do we make of Mr Obama’s less than thrilling first year in office? That he was the beneficiary of a vast repulsion to Bush and all things akin, like Mr McCain? That he was in truth little experienced in the hard-ball world of big league politics and on gaining office he was told in no uncertain terms what was expected of him, by whom and for what – or otherwise he’d be dancing to a magic bullet of some kind? That in his passage through Columbia, Harvard, certain law offices, and other rites of the game, he’d been set up as the perfect Manchurian Candidate, loved by the liberal left, reviled by the racist right, a shoe-in for a deep Machiavellian bait ‘n switch, and a perfect set-up to assure future Republican victories? Or simply that he was the sap left to hold Mr Bush’s toxic bag of debt, war, social disarray and the last legs of a staggering empire, a guaranteed losing position, no matter who took it?
Any of these seems a plausible explanation, if all equally tainted with the sour taste of something bitter.
On one hand I see Obama as lacking the taste for real politics, and while his calm and considered manner is suitable for some circumstances – far better than the shoot-from-the-hip cowboyism of his predecessor – it still lacks an essential component of the political arena. Politics, for better and worse, is not really about what people need and should have; it is about what they want. In his story of himself he tells of being careful not to come across as an angry black man, of learning how to put white’s at ease so he could move among them. One wonders if along the way he did not psychologically emasculate himself so much that he know longer knows how and when and where it might be appropriate to be angered? Or if along the way his desire to put others at ease, step by step in his transit through Columbia, Harvard, the University of Chicago, comfortable law offices, did not mean that he acquired the values and tastes of his fellow academics, lest he disturb them, and that, as a friend of mine who has known him some years in Chicago says, he is really a middle-class centrist from whom anything radical – never mind the stint in community organizing – is not to be expected, whatever our hysterics on the right imagine. And so, thrust quickly into circumstances which cry out for radical steps to be taken, Obama is simply unmanned and unable to do what the situation calls for. Elected on a mandate of Change You Can Believe In, he promptly left it in the dust and adopted the least offensive position he could for those around him: Gates, Summers, Bernanke, Geithner, all of whom are drawn from the same elite realms he knew in Harvard. That the reality he was confronting was far more disastrous than these parties could imagine – after all it was their doing that had a large hand in making it – and required far more radical surgery than their self-interested minds could imagine, Barack went along to get along. Again. A self-protective habit. And in the process he lost the best political chip he had, the wave of communal enthusiasm which he had ridden into office. And like clockwork he steadily chipped away at it with one misguided decision after another, doubtless wrapped up in a cocoon of others who in their bubble of institutional limitations could themselves not imagine what really needed to be done or simply did not want what really needs to be done. And as he did this, the wave of support lapped away into the choppy froth of a windblown lake, no longer a source of energy and direction but instead a seething cauldron of misdirected angers. To raise hopes, and Obama surely raised and intended to raise hopes, and then to let them down is to court the worst of emotions. Jilted lovers are not often friends after the fact.
Tomorrow Obama will give his first State of the Union address. The nation is a worse mess now than a year ago, in part owing to the playing out of events beyond Obama’s control. But it is in part worse because the great energy in the nation which he unlocked as a candidate he has frittered away and trashed as a President. His urge to go along to get along, learned in the hard psychological times of his youth, have served him poorly now, guiding him to a moderation that the urgencies of the time find thoroughly improper. Mr Obama is missing an essential component of a true politician, and that is the capacity to seize the moment and drive it home. Instead, in his instinct to please all, to “reach across the aisle” and live out the Rodney King mantra of “why can’t we all just get along” he’s relegated himself to the back of the bus. And his large army of supporters is very unhappy.
In the three years prior to this year, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Sachs Goldman made $410,000,000 for his services.