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Et Tu, Barack?
Less than a year into the Administration that was to save us from the perfidy of the past, it’s clear that business-as-usual still holds sway. Trillions for war, nothing for the poor. Trillions for banks, but the people — no thanks. Trillions more in debt, and we ain’t seen the end yet. Trillions for corporate cronies, but who will show us the monies? (Sorry!)
I suppose at this point we may well have to give up on the notion that there will ever again be anyone in American political life worthy of holding out hope for. The character qualities and integrity of a bygone day — whether real or imagined — are implausible and impracticable in the hypermodern age. We see too much of our public figures, and yet too little at the same time. Image is everything, and the slogan has become the product.
Jaded as we are, some still expected more (or at least different) from our young President. Perhaps it was a form of self-delusion born of longing for someone, anyone, to make sense in these times. We are, after all, a messianic people at the end of the day. We have lost our way, so we seek “the one” descending from on high with stone tablets and a plan.
This has nothing to do with partisan politics or the relative merits of individual candidates and officeholders. It is a cultural phenomenon, this longing for someone on whom to pin our hopes. It is likewise systemic in nature that any such potential person will be coopted, coerced, corrupted, or crucified — in that order of pressure and outcome, most likely.
So why are we surprised to find ourselves at this juncture again? Is it because we arrived there so soon with this new icon? Many people seemed to think it would somehow be different this time, that history was yielding and a new day was dawning. Even the electorally-indifferent couldn’t help being taken in by the soaring oratory and stark contrasts embodied in the man who would be president. But reality has quickly set in.
Obama is a brand, and — even with the shine coming off a bit — is still a strong one. “Barack Obama is three things you want in a brand,” said Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide, back in March 2008. “New, different, and attractive. That’s as good as it gets.” Indeed, Ad Age and the Association of National Advertisers selected Barack Obama as “Marketer of the Year” for 2008, even before he was elected President. In the end, which victory really matters more? Is there in fact a difference?
An incisive summation of the brand’s genesis from Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi appeared way back in February 2007, and still speaks very much to the tenor of these times:
“The Illinois Senator is the ultimate modern media creature [and] his entire political persona is an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind. You can’t run against him on the issues because you can’t even find him on the ideological spectrum. Obama’s ‘Man for all seasons’ act is so perfect in its particulars that just about anyone can find a bit of himself somewhere in the candidate’s background, whether in his genes or his upbringing…. [H]is strategy seems to be to appear as a sort of ideological Universalist, one who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view, and conversely emphasizes that when he does take hard positions on issues, he often does so reluctantly…”
In another feat of foreshadowing, Paul Street penned these prescient words in November 2008, on the heels of Brand Obama’s ascent to the highest office in the land:
“The Obama-based ‘rebranding of America’ in the wake of the long proto-fascistic, arch-plutocratic, and messianic-militarist Cheney-Bush nightmare comes with heightened popular product expectations at home and abroad. The risks and likelihood of disappointment and betrayal are high. Many American and other world citizens can be counted on to take ‘Brand Obama’ and the refurbished ‘Brand USA’ and give them meanings that do not accord very well with the U.S. power elite’s agenda. Rising and betrayed expectations are the stuff of actual social revolutions (something rather different than marketing revolutions), as the left historian Barrington Moore once argued. For these and other reasons, Obama will be relying heavily on his marketing and public relations experts to keep the bewildered citizenry’s hopes and dreams properly constrained and downsized. Popular thought coordination through mass marketing will be important to the governance period as well as the election phase of the Obama ascendancy. As Obama’s early and excessively candid foreign policy advisor and Harvard ally Samantha Power told the power-worshipping public affairs talk-show host Charlie Rose last February, ‘Expectation calibration and expectation management is essential at home and internationally.’”
Can we thus claim not to have known? All the hand-wringing over Afghanistan, Wall Street, Health Care, the Peace Prize, Climate Change — was there some reason aside from misplaced romanticism to believe that it was going to be different in a post-Bush world? Obama played the role pitch perfectly by letting others embrace a partisan-tinged foolish consistency on the issues, and instead subtly ingratiated himself to us as someone who cared about things, a decent guy, solid — in short, he began to seem almost like a friend.
To update the seminal phrase from history: Et tu, Barack? “Perhaps the most famous three words uttered in literature … this expression has come down in history to mean the ultimate betrayal by one’s closest friend.” Strong words, yes — but as Ralph Nader recently opined on CounterPunch, the same sleight-of-hand manner and faint-of-heart rhetoric continues to this day:
“His is a concessionary demeanor, an aversion to conflict and to taking on entrenched power, a devotee of harmony ideology not because he doesn’t believe in necessary re-directions, but because he does not project the strength of his beliefs and willingness to draw the line…. The President cannot be a transforming leader if he turns his back on the liberal and progressive constituency that elected him because he thinks they have nowhere to go.”
Progressives need to show that there is somewhere else to go, first by realizing that there are no saviors — just real people working together. In this cult of personality masking as politics, we must acknowledge that the fault lies not in our superstars, but in ourselves.
RANDALL AMSTER, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College and serves as the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).