Obama: The man who couldn’t

The Obama Syndrome:

Surrender at Home, War Abroad

A couple of years ago, the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek made a modest proposal to Americans regarding the improvement of their political life: “Let everybody in the world except U.S. citizens be allowed to vote and elect the American government. I think it would have been much better for you, even, because we all outside the United States would project our desires into how you should be.”

By the end of 2008, it seemed that Zizek’s dream was coming true, if not precisely by the means he had suggested. The election of Barack Hussein Obama (a man of mixed-race ancestry, his father a Kenyan and his middle name, for many Americans, the very signifier of Otherness) felt like the triumph of cosmopolitan possibility over rugged provincialism. And there was a spark of intelligence in the new president’s eyes, where his predecessor had never shown more than a glint of dim cunning. World opinion was festive, for a while. The celebration was solemnized when Obama was granted the Nobel Prize for Peace after a few months in office—as though “projection of our desires” with sufficient force were the same thing as their fulfillment.

The very title of Tariq Ali’s new book treats all of this as a kind of mental disorder—a “syndrome” to be treated, if not cured, by a strong reminder of political realities. Obama, he writes, is

an extremely intelligent human being, not a progressive leader by any stretch of the imagination. Wishing that he were is fine but does not bring about the required transformation.… To talk of betrayal is foolish, for nothing has been betrayed but one’s own illusions.”

The color of his skin and the lack of so much as a trace of Anglo-Saxon in his name cannot disguise his basic role “as the messenger-servant of the country’s corporations, defending them against their critics and ensuring that no obstacles are placed in their way.” Hope and change were advertised, but what Obama delivers is fundamental continuity with the policies of previous administrations.

In the first months of Obama’s presidency, this perspective would have been taken, if not as contrarian posturing, then as so much ultraleft invective. Today it earns the chance of a hearing through the preponderance of evidence. There is Obama’s unfulfilled promise to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center; the current “withdrawal” from Iraq (which nonetheless leaves the country occupied by U.S. forces); and, of course, the escalation in Afghanistan, where analogies to quicksand prove irresistible.

For health care reform—its most ambitious domestic policy initiative—the administration proposed legislation drafted by former lobbyists for the insurance industry. (Although Obama once declared himself in favor of single-payer coverage, this option was never put on the table.) Ali quotes an assessment of the U.S. financial infrastructure at the start of the Obama administration: “If you hid the name of the country and just showed them the numbers, there is no doubt what old [International Monetary Fund] hands would say: nationalize troubled banks and break them up as necessary.” There was never any chance such a course would be considered, of course. The handling of the economic crisis was entrusted to people whose policies had created it, including former members of the Bush administration.

Ali’s book (which, given its length and spirit, might be more aptly called a pamphlet) runs through these and other disappointments with gusto—as if to suggest that disappointment is hardly the appropriate feeling, since cool disdain is more invigorating. Much of its energy comes from Ali’s frustration with what he calls “the amnesiac section of the left,” for which Bush and Cheney were the leaders of “an aberrant regime, the product of a virtual coup d’état by a coterie of right-wing fanatics.” This simplistic belief is usually accompanied by the notion that the Democratic Party is akin to the old social-democratic or labor parties of other countries, albeit in some terribly idiosyncratic way.

But the continuities of U.S. foreign policy across the decades are fundamental and do not change with administrations. It is a proverb of American politics that disputes end at the water’s edge. And Obama’s campaign was no less beholden to the American plutocracy than his Republican opponent. (Indeed, he was more successful than McCain at raising funds from big corporations, Wall Street, and powerful law firms.)

One might call these things structural constraints on Obama’s ability to change very much. But for Ali, doing so is another manifestation of the syndrome, since it credits the man with a strenuous if thwarted impulse to reformism—while on Ali’s reading Obama is, like Carter or Clinton, just another managerial liberal: a centrist and a careerist able to manipulate the rhetoric of the civil rights movement, but incapable of ever framing a thought like Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government.” By Ali’s reckoning, the president is simply another Chicago politician: a windbag from the Windy City, now at the helm of the American Empire.

This sounds cynical. But it is not offered in a spirit of resigned passivity. Ali refers to “exceptional conjunctures in the past, where a combination of domestic crisis and radical demands from below push an administration in a reformist direction, but their frequency is limited. The New Deal measures in the 1930s and the Civil Rights Act three decades later were the results of action from below.” Those suffering from the Obama syndrome are content with “the sympathetic gesture, the understanding smile, the pained but friendly expression” of the president—who cannot offer more, and probably wouldn’t if he could, at least by Ali’s lights.

But here, vigilant immunity to Obama’s charisma leads the author astray. Ali refers to the president’s slogan “Yes we can!” as merely “vacuous”—evidently unaware that it was a translation of “Sí, se puede,” a slogan of the United Farm Workers coined by César Chávez in the 1970s and taken up by undocumented immigrants who turned out by the millions to demonstrate on May Day 2006. And in the weeks just after he was elected in 2008, Obama expressed support for workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago who occupied their factory when its owners shut it down without warning. It would be interesting to know how Ali squares this development with his interpretation of Obama, but he never mentions it.

Neither does Ali’s analysis extend to what we might call “the other Obama syndrome”—that is, the president’s effect on the American right wing, which can fairly be called delirious. All the symbolic meanings that might be projected onto him by an Obama enthusiast are here reversed. He becomes a menacing alien and a hard-core socialist. Instead of redeeming the country, he destroys it.

These notions are being circulated, not just by semiliterate loons, but by leading figures in the Republican Party. Demographic projections are that white people will become a minority in the United States within the next three decades. This is well known within right-wing circles, where it is sometimes referred to, by shorthand, as “2040” (the year of the census that will mark this tipping point).

Not all of the beliefs being projected onto Obama are wishful substitutes for real change. Some are fantasies churned up by the most regressive tendencies in American life. That they are being incorporated into the politics of a major party is a reality that Ali needs to address if, as he says he plans, he revises the book in time for the 2012 campaign. After all, this other, more virulent fever shows no sign of breaking by itself.

This review first appeared in The National (UAE).


Issue #76

March 2011

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