Et Tu, Barack?

by RANDALL AMSTER

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).

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 02, 2015
Paul Street
Strange Words From St. Bernard and the Sandernistas
Jose Martinez
Houston, We Have a Problem: False Equivalences on Police Violence
Henry Giroux
Global Capitalism and the Culture of Mad Violence
Ajamu Baraka
Making Black Lives Matter in Riohacha, Colombia
William Edstrom
Wall Street and the Military are Draining Americans High and Dry
David Altheide
The Media Syndrome Between a Glock and a GoPro
Yves Engler
Canada vs. Africa
Ron Jacobs
The League of Empire
Kim Nicolini
Remembering Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes
Andrew Smolski
Democracy and Privatization in Neoliberal Mexico
Norman Pollack
Obama, Flim-Flam Artist: Alaska Off-Shore Drilling
Lawrence Wittner
Russians and Americans Get Their Kids Ready for War
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?