No presidential contender I have seen, with the possible exception of Bill Clinton, has run a better campaign than Barack Obama. If for nothing else, one must hand it to him for the magnificent improbability of the effort – a guy whose last name sounds like ‘Osama’ and whose middle name is the same as Saddam’s – running for president in America, where the average Joe (including the plumber, likely) doesn’t know Madrasi from Madrassa – now poised, by most accounts, on the verge of victory!
Obama has many things to be said in his favor: high intelligence, a rounded education, international exposure, and not least the facet remarked upon endlessly these last few weeks – a steady temperament. On the practical side he has displayed a power of organization that is not to be ignored, one reason to hope the traditional Republican electoral mischief of the last eight years is less likely to succeed (though no less likely to be attempted). After all, no matter what your ideas, winning elections has a practical element to it, and Obama has shown most definitely that, “Yes he can”.
A Race without Race
Now to Obama’s political ideas, and what he offers the country. First we must get past the asinine gushing over how great it would be to have a black president, woman president, etc. As someone pointed out, tongue in cheek, Africa has had black presidents for half a century (Haiti for four times as long), with results generally not much to write home about. And Benazir Bhutto’s coming to power in Pakistan brought about no great improvements in that country, even for its womenfolk. Nothing changes just because of one individual from a certain race or gender coming to power.
Thus we should treat Obama just as another candidate, and ask the real questions: what does he want to do? Has he shown signs that he can?
A Consequential Candidate
During the primary campaign Obama, in a tight race against Hillary Clinton, took a shot at Bill Clinton during an interview with a newspaper’s editorial board. He said something to the effect that Bill Clinton was a less consequential president than Ronald Reagan – for he had not altered the country in the manner Reagan did. This struck me as a good sign of Obama’s understanding – Bill Clinton’s signature achievement (reversing the budget deficit) was set at naught within a year of his leaving office – so much for his building a national consensus. Ronald Reagan’s views still inform (or infest, some might say) the body politic. So, clearly, Obama is setting some standards for his presidency.
The Prince of Peace? Really?
Obama would have been just another presidential wannabe if he had not given that single speech against the Iraq War in 2002. That speech has been milked as a permanent political ATM; it was this address that gave Obama his initial spurt when he launched his campaign, coinciding with a time when there were about a 100 Americans getting killed each month in Iraq. However it would seem that to Obama, this was just a bullet point (no pun intended) on his resume, not a cause. Bill Clinton pointed out an inconvenient fact, namely, that Obama’s record on Iraq once he got to the US Senate was exactly the same as Hillary Clinton’s, whose flawed judgment on Iraq was one of Obama’s main planks. Bill Clinton termed this notion of Obama being a serious opponent of the war in Iraq a ‘fairy tale’ (only to be reviled as a racist – he was not calling the candidacy a fairy tale, only Obama’s ongoing stands on Iraq, but by then he had lost the media which had commenced its ballroom dance with Barack).
It is clear to anyone looking at the record (see for instance Restoration Boulevard) that the war itself, or even the Iraq War he opposed – causes him little ongoing moral anguish. As he himself said at that pivotal 2002 speech, he was not against all wars, only ‘dumb’ ones. Sure enough, he was soon expressing his willingness to consider attacks against Iran, Pakistan, and backing for Israel should she attack her enemies, etc., etc. Notable too was his lack of outrage at Israel’s bludgeoning of Lebanese cities during the summer of 2006. His speech to AIPAC, an Israeli lobby group powerful enough to make American presidential candidates grovel, was certainly not lacking in belligerence. His ongoing theme of sending more troops to Afghanistan indicates that in matters of unilateral foreign military intervention, Obama is entirely at home with George W. Bush, Richard B. Cheney and yes – John Sidney McCain III.
At least going by public pronouncements, therefore, little by way of change is to be expected on this aspect of foreign policy.
The Constitutional Scholar
Obama was editor of the Harvard Law Review, an honor given to few. He was also professor of Constitutional Law in Chicago. Whatever one’s political beliefs, unless one is of the opinion that 9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ have somehow abrogated the Constitution, the Bush administration’s depredations of the nation’s laws should cause every legal scholar to writhe in agony. Law professors like Jonathan Turley have spoken out often about the brazen violations of the law by the administration and expressed consternation at Congress remaining supine in the face of these abuses. Obama however has remained a silent spectator. In fact, he reversed his initial opposition to the FISA bill and ended up voting for it (giving a convoluted explanation for his change of heart). Anyone would have thought a legal scholar at least would stand up for the Constitution. No such luck. In his soaring speeches abuses against the Constitution find little mention.
A Steady Head in a Crisis
When John F. Kennedy was asked about his heroism, he replied, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat. ” Of course everyone knew he was being modest about his role, which included swimming out into the ocean to save a colleague, leading his team to safety and keeping them alive before they were rescued several days later by an Australian captain.
One hopes Obama, when asked by historians, will have modesty enough to reply that his ascension was involuntary – “they sank the financial sector”. Before the cratering of Lehman Brothers and AIG and the ensuing turmoil, Obama and McCain were running neck and neck, with the latter even running ahead in some polls. It was at this juncture that Obama displayed superb instincts, bringing to mind what Secretary of State Dean Rusk once told a junior during a crisis, “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”
Obama’s steadiness of manner was accentuated even more by the twitching figure at the other end of the presidential boxing ring, whose responses are reminiscent of this Wodehouse exchange, roughly quoted: “’Drive like the blazes’, he yelled at the chauffeur. ‘Where to?’ asked the other, not unreasonably”. In the end, Obama and Biden joined John McCain in doing exactly the same thing: voting for a bailout package neither had authored, including an extra 150 billion dollars of grease to get it through the House of Representatives. What was Obama’s contribution? Not clear if there was any. But this much his mother has taught him well: Don’t try to catch a falling knife.
Throw (Grand)momma from the Train
As Duryodhana memorably points out to Vidura in the Mahabharata, virtues in a ruler are not the same as those in an individual. It was presumably of an individual that EM Forster wrote, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” If the opposite is the index of statesmanship, Barack Obama has displayed it in spades – jettisoning friends at the earliest sign of trouble. In his celebrated (though short-lived in its efficacy, for the Rev. Wright was to scale new heights soon thereafter – see Barack Bertie and Jeremiah Jeeves) speech in Philadelphia, Barack Obama not only sought to distance himself from the pastor, but also threw in his own grandmother’s private utterances to her family as a counterbalance to the Rev. Wright’s public fulminations. It struck me as chillingly cynical when I heard it, a man (rightly) unwilling to put his children before the press, but throwing out his grandmother (the same ailing lady he is off to visit in Hawaii this week) without compunction to sustain a political toehold. This was coldblooded and ruthless calculation on full display.
Of all the lame excuses – “I’ve decided to spend more time with my family” (after an affair), “I was quoted out of context”, “I deny that I denied it”, etc., Obama’s take the cake. When asked about Wright’s sermons, Obama, a regular at Wright’s church for 20 years, said this – I was not in church that day. As to William Ayers, “I was 8 when he committed his vile acts”. Obama is too intelligent a man not to know the absurdity of this line of argument. He is banking on a press that too smitten with him to ask, “And were you 8 when you sat down with Ayers?” The straightforward answer would have been to say that he doesn’t have to agree with everything his friends say. A similar weasel reply greeted questions about his being a Muslim: I’ve never been a Muslim, I am a Christian.
Here’s how Ralph Nader replied when he was asked about his religious affiliation at a public meeting recently: “First, none of your business. Second, Church and State. Third, I think there’s too much religion in our public life”. If only Obama had answered this way! But caution is his middle name (oops!).
Obama’s feelings about the Iraq War and his evaluation of the war as the single greatest strategic error ever committed by the United States stand in sharp contrast to his choice of Joseph Biden as his running mate. This worthy windbag not only lobbied and clamored for the Iraq War Resolution, but stood by his vote for years thereafter, even mocking Cindy Sheehan for questioning the War. This is the same former chair of the Judiciary Committee who fawned before Alberto Gonzales – yes that same Alberto Gonzales – saying to him during his confirmation hearings, “I like you. You’re the real deal”. This after Abu Ghraib.(In mitigation, it should be added Biden did not vote for Gonzales’ confirmation).
A Campaign sans Answers – and Questions
That such a campaign appears set to defeat the McCain-Palin ticket so handily is commentary enough on the vacuousness (and viciousness) of the Republican effort, although it is equally a sign that enough people are seeing through the various schemes and scams of disassembling ongoing for the past 28 years.
Overall it is astonishing that a campaign season that has lasted nearly two years has managed to avoid any discussion of basic questions such as “What is the role of the government?”, or “Is terrorism really our #1 priority?” or “How bound should America be to Israel’s foreign policy?” or “What’s wrong with universal health care?” or “Is it OK to attack other countries?” or “Can a government violate the Constitution amidst a war?” or “Should the government spy on its own citizens without a warrant?”, or “What is a just tax policy?”, or "What should be America’s immigration policy?".
It is only accidentally that one such question has been brought up, “Should we spread the wealth around?” I appreciate that Barack Obama brought up this issue, but I wish he would stand up and defend his ‘gaffe’. Here’s my answer to this question (Adrift, Yes. A Draft? Never) some years back.
It was Joe Biden who nailed Rudy Giuliani as a shameless self-promoter whose every sentence was made up of a noun, a verb, and 9-11. By the same token, Obama’s can be said to contain a noun, a verb and either Hope, Change, or First African American (the last more often during the primaries).
We are often told that we have no choice but to vote for Obama because McCain would be a third term of Bush. Let us concede that McCain is demonstrably unfit. But McCain and Obama are not the only two candidates on offer. Ralph Nader is a man who has already done more for average Americans by his activism then either McCain or Obama can hope to achieve. Bob Barr has been consistent in standing up against violations of our rights and liberties.
Besides, before romancing the Democrats, it is wise to remember that it was a Democratic Senate that passed the Iraq War Resoloution; it was a Democratic Congress that passed the FISA bill (with Obama voting for it), and it was the same Democratic Congress which passed the Bailout package (with all its pork). To paraphrase Shakespeare, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our Presidents, But in ourselves…”. So long as we remain consumers, not citizens (see Silence of the Lambs), our politics are sure to play false.
Back before Fo(u)rth
My fundamental problem with Obama is not with his solutions but with his diagnoses. The problem is not partisanship, as he keeps harping. If anything the problem is the lack of partisanship – partisanship with the Common People. Partisanship with the Constitution against the Corporations. Congressional Partisanship against a usurping Executive. Partisanship of the press against those in power. Unlike Obama, I think that before we can go forward, we must first go back.
If Obama is serious about moving the country forward, he must first restore it to where it was before. He might sense this, but does he have the will? Obama has run a sterile campaign touching no political issue of significance; it is not clear whether he thinks of himself as a technocrat, or if he has concluded his first job is to win, not build a movement. Judging from what he has said and done so far, he appears unlikely to rock the boat even to right it.
Dr. Johnson said that a second marriage is a triumph of hope over experience. The post-election scenario is akin to a second wedding, where one has to fall in love with the candidate in his new incarnation as incumbent, all over again. Perhaps even those of us who were unmoved by his charms during the campaign will be surprised by Barack Obama the President. After all, to use his own cliches, one can always Hope that he might Change! Let us hold our breath (or will it be our noses?).
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at email@example.com.