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Breaking the Spell

The Lessons of Obamamania

by ANDREW LEVINE

Ten years ago in America, War Party fervor was on the rise, the media was in tow, and many a liberal was on board.  Thus began the Bush-Cheney era, one of the darkest moments in American history.  Those years seem like only yesterday, probably because on matters of substance – keeping the perpetual war machine going, undermining personal freedoms and the rule of law, encouraging environmental indifference while courting ecological disaster, and making the world safe for the corporate “persons” who own our duopoly party system — the Obama administration has been more or less continuous with George W. Bush’s.

What seems unreal was that brief interlude, begun just four winters ago as the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries loomed, and lasting into the summer of 2009, when liberal hearts and minds succumbed to the belief that Barack Obama would put an end to decades of Reaganite (neolibleral) depredations, and that we could then take up where the New Deal and Great Society left off.  That Obamamaniacal moment now seems a lifetime away.

Obamamania was always an illusion in Freud’s sense, an expression of an unconscious wish.  Freud also spoke of delusions, illusions held in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Before Election Day 2008, Obamamania was only an ordinary illusion to which liberals, trade unionists and, of course, persons of color were especially susceptible.   By Inauguration Day, as the President-elect’s choices for top positions became known, Obamamania took on a more delusional aspect.

It was in this spirit that the liberal commentariat invoked pop historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s account of Lincoln’s war cabinet, a “team of rivals.”  The idea was that the administration over which Obama would preside was not what it plainly was turning out to be; that Obama’s plan was to take advantage of the expertise of the Clintonites he picked to run foreign and domestic policy, while he, the wise and competent leader, would ride herd, assuring progressive outcomes.  It soon became apparent that this argument was of mainly clinical interest; that the pundits promoting it were just making Obama appear Lincolnesque by artlessly interpreting reams of evidence to the contrary.  No wonder, that we heard little more about Obama’s team of rivals once his presidency got underway.

Too bad for those pundits that reality has a way of intruding upon illusory (and delusory) thinking, and that it soon became undeniable, even to those who had been willfully blind, that Obama was not an agent of “change” at all.   For a while, within liberal circles, Republican obstructionism and its bastard offspring, the Tea Party, took the blame.  But by the time the 2010 electoral season got underway, the last remnants of Obamamania had faded away.  The “enthusiasm gap” was born.

Everyone knows what happened next: the Democrats got “shellacked” and, predictably, drew all the wrong lessons.  Team Obama decided that their legislative initiatives had been too bold, that they had not been obsequious enough to their corporate paymasters, and that they needed to pander even more abjectly to apolitical “independent” voters.  Perhaps somewhere in Obama’s psyche there is an explanation for all this; after all, there is something borderline delusional in the idea that the Democrats’ 2010 shellacking showed that Obama had not been “bipartisan” enough.   But there is no need for depth psychology to figure out what happened.  What explains the trajectory of the Obama presidency is evident on the surface: he and his advisors are disposed to serve economic elites as much as their “base” will allow, and their understanding of what their base wants is incredibly out of touch. This is not unusual; it is how Democrats are.

Nevertheless, the facts on the ground do pose a challenge for Obama apologists as they gear up for the 2012 election; they have so little to kvel about.   As everybody now understands, Obama’s allegedly “monumental” legislative victory on health care reform – actually, health insurance reform — was corporate friendly and utterly Romneyesque.  It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will find aspects of it unconstitutional before Election Day.   But, even if they don’t, the requirement that everyone purchase insurance from private providers, without even the possibility of a “public” alternative, truly is objectionable.  And, as the coming election nears, it is all but certain that the rebranding of the occupation of Iraq – ostensibly the signal achievement of this Nobel laureate, as he otherwise plunges the country into endless military ventures — is likely to become undone.

Of course, Republican obstructionism is still a good excuse for defending the Obama presidency, and every time a leading Republican speaks there is fresh material upon which to base fear of an evil even greater than the one we know.  Count on Democratic cheerleaders to remind everyone of that.  However this line of argument rings hollow, the plainer it becomes that Obama didn’t just fail to solve the problems Obamamaniacs thought he would, but that his administration is an integral part of those problems.

Obama will probably win again nevertheless, because the only candidates the Republicans can field who are even remotely acceptable both to the elites for whom the party exists and for those vaunted independent voters are the flim flam artist Mitt Romney, perhaps the most smarmy national politician since Richard Nixon, and Newt Gingrich, a repellent numbskull who comes encumbered with as much political baggage as anyone in Washington.

And so we can look forward to an election with yawning enthusiasm gaps on both sides.  In the circumstances, the smart money has to go with the incumbent, the devil the elites know, especially inasmuch as he has proven himself a capable (or at least willing) steward of their imperial projects and because he is nothing if not eager to keep on doing yeoman’s work in their behalf.

* * *

There are many lessons to be learned from the long delusional episode when Obamamania flourished.  Chief among them is the folly of expecting much from electoral strategies for “change.”

This is hardly news.  But it took Obama himself to drive the point home to those who were among the most susceptible to Obamamania’s appeal.  For a long time, it looked like he was on track to turning the vast majority of those citizens apathetic, to the great relief of the money interests he has always aimed to serve.  But there is only so much people can take, and as Obama capitulated one time too many, and the austerity politics he champions made things too intolerable for too many for too long, the tipping-point was reached.

Obama’s capitulations are galling, and so is his milquetoast leadership style.  But the real kicker is and always has been his austerity politics.  In fairness, though, on that score, he is no worse than anyone else presently occupying the commanding heights, and probably better than many.  The entire political class of Europe and North America is of a similar mind, and it would take a genius of Freud’s stature or greater to figure out why an intellectually bankrupt nineteenth century economic philosophy would have them all in its thrall.  Obama deserves plenty of blame on this account, but so would anyone else likely to be in his position.

In any case, the Occupy movements broke the spell — for the more than 99% who are the victims of the system in place.  If only for this, they deserve the unflinching gratitude of every  (small-d) democrat.  For too long, the 1% or less that owns our political parties has had the whole show run for their benefit alone.  It took seemingly forever for the vast majority to take consciousness of how intolerable that situation had become.  The Occupy movements made that happen.

As this awareness deepens and expands, new forms of struggle are bound to emerge, and they are unlikely to have much to do with ordinary electoral politics.  For now and for the foreseeable future, the most elections can do is ratify changes that take place outside the electoral arena.  Victorious candidates will not, and probably cannot, initiate changes except at the margins.  Electoral outcomes can still be consequential; they do matter.  But elections are not where the action now is.  This is the lesson of the Occupy movements.

By now, everyone understands that Obamamania was an illusion.  But the deeper point made in Zuccotti Park and countless other venues is that any revival of the kind of thinking that made it possible is a temptation to be fought against; that electoral politics is not where the struggle of the 99% plus must be waged.   By bringing so many Obamamaniacs to the point of disillusion so quickly, Obama proved that beyond a reasonable doubt, and he did such a good job of it that it is unlikely that the same people will let themselves be fooled again. This is the main, perhaps the only, positive accomplishment of his presidency.

The Occupy movements are not particularly hostile towards Obama and the Democrats; not yet.  But they are acutely aware of how irrelevant to their concerns he and they are.   That they are right about this is a conclusion that is hard for anyone who reflects on the Obamamaniacal moment to deny.  How ironic that the lesson of Obamamania is the lesson Occupy Wall Street has driven home!

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.