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Few creatures in American political discourse today are as simpleton and grotesque as the Obama liberal when trying to distinguish his candidate from the rest of the prostitutes seeking office. Behold, for example, the fellow author on the raft next to me, somewhere recently in the canyons of the Colorado River: He is street-smart, educated, eloquent, witty, tasteful, author of many books pleasing to the intellect and questioning of the received pieties. He knows how to kayak big water. One of his books was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize.
Bring up the politics of meaningful difference between the candidates, however, and the man diminishes. He doesn’t want to hear it. He becomes angry. Mr. Pulitzer assures me, in increasingly disgusted tones, that to declare Romney-Obama a two-headed monster amounts to sophistry, intellectual dishonesty, a vicious trick that will lead voters into the abyss. Obama is better than Romney for the usual dismal reason that we have to pull the lever for the lesser of two evils.
So goes the argument, such as it is. We toss this waste of words back and forth for several hours, trapped in the canyon and on the boats, floating the listless river, and finally descend into name-calling, insults, outright dismissal, and only the onset of big rapids brings peace.
Mr. Pulitzer admits, of course, that Obama might have accomplished more in the course of his administration if he’d not been handed an economic disaster by his Republican predecessor – a disaster, I need not remind him, whose groundwork was laid in no small part by the last great Democratic savior. For it was under Bill Clinton, as we know, that Glass-Steagall was eviscerated; under Bill Clinton that the Commodity Futures Modernization Act was passed to open the door for the frauds of the derivatives markets; under Bill Clinton that more deregulation of the corporatocracy, more mergers and acquisitions, more centralization of power in fewer corporate hands, was achieved than under any previous modern president. And with that centralization of power, the corporatocracy during the 1990s secured its death-grip on the Democratic Party, with Clinton presiding over the corpse with his saxophone and smile. And no party was then left to oppose big money.
A few years ago, I reviewed for these pages a book, The Mendacity of Hope, by former Harper’s editor-in-chief Roger Hodge, that placed Obama in the proper historic perspective. I wrote at the time: “If Obama’s presidency to date represents a betrayal of liberal expectations – or, more precisely, a measure of how much they had deluded themselves about his prospects, having not read his record – then Roger Hodge’s new book, The Mendacity of Hope, is also a betrayal of liberal expectation, in that thinking men on the political left are not to criticize the Dear Leader while the barbarian horde on the right clamor at the gates and howl for blood. Hodge makes the admirable leap to the place where thinking men should of course end up. ‘Right’ and ‘left’ in the US today, Hodge will tell you, are useless terms to describe our political economy, and in fact serve effectively as disinformation. What’s clear is that the two parties, guised in the pretense of polar opposition, are effectively a single party operated as machines of corporate power, their players distinct from each other only in the degrees of hypocrisy when they pretend to represent anything other than the rarified institutions of wealth that invest to get them elected.”
Following the sell-out that comprised Clinton’s Third Way, as Hodge writes, “both parties generally agreed on the necessity of dismantling or at least starving the welfare state, despite its overwhelming popularity with the general public, and appeasing predatory and financially irresponsible corporations as they neglected, exported, and otherwise dismembered the greatest industrial infrastructure in world history.” Both parties would celebrate “the creative destruction of laissez-faire capitalism, with its tearing asunder of all tradition, its reduction of all relationships to the cash transaction.” Both parties would be “marked by an almost unshakeable consensus on national security,” which amounted to unceasing expansion of the warfare state – a consensus remarkably exampled in the debates between Obama and Romney to date, between whom there is zero tension over the matter of empire, war, military spending.
No matter. The canyon echoes with Mr. Pulitzer’s mind-lulling mantra: Democrats good, Republicans bad. Repeat, hold breath, stick head in sand. It’s a sad thing to watch, because I happen to like the guy.
To readers of these pages, the truth about Romobama (or Obomney, take your pick) is not revelation. See, for example, the compelling indictment in CounterPunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair’s compendium, Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, whose dozens of contributors come to the same conclusion as Hodge. We might do well to review the facts in Hopeless – not least for the benefit of my rafting buddy – that taken together convict beloved Obama as the swindling bastard that he is. Then again, why bother? The information is out there at the stroke of a Google search, as clear as a boot in the face. The Obama liberal need only open his eyes.
We could note, for example, that as candidate in 2008 Obama intoned that “When I am president we won’t work in secret to avoid honoring our laws and Constitution”; that he has of course done the opposite; that sovereign immunity for the office of the president continues; that indefinite detention and torture continues in violation of all conventions, and so does the outsourcing of torture to regimes more lawless than ours (a policy better known under the deceitful nomenclature of “extraordinary rendition”). We might recall that Guantanamo remains open, its 160 prisoners held extralegally without trial or hope of trial. We could tally Obama’s assassinations by drone in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, death raining down on children, families, villages as the accepted collateral damage; more summary executions from the sky were ordered in 2009, under Obama, than during the entirety of the Bush administration. We might recall the warning to the Obama administration from the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions “that its assassination program was probably illegal under international law” and that Obama’s “refusal to justify the program was untenable.”
Hopeless is replete with these reminders – today obvious, de rigueur – of how nothing has changed under Obama. Blackwater author Jeremy Scahill observes that Obama’s team for the handling of foreign policy and the management of the empire – Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Robert Gates et al – had “a proven track record of support for the Iraq war, militaristic intervention…and a worldview consistent with the foreign policy arch that stretches from George H. W. Bush’s time in office to the present.” Scahill notes that 130
Democratic members of the House and 23 in the Senate voted against the Iraq war, yet Obama chose to hire only those in the party who had followed George W. Bush into the mire.
The litany becomes tedious. Obama’s economic team is a revolving door of Wall Streeters, with Goldman Sachs his go-to corporation for recruitment, crafting policies that always, every time, legitimize the depredations of the financier and investor classes at the expense of the American people, with the result that the economic disaster Obama was handed will be sure to recur. His teams at the USDA and FDA are heavy with former Monsanto executives. His operatives at the Department of Interior, breaking not at all with Bush policy, have laid open public lands for the continued private gain of mining, timber, oil and gas, off-road vehicle, and big ranching interests (“This is the worst Democratic administration for wilderness and public lands I’ve ever seen,” a lawyer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance tells me).
Ah, but Mr. Pulitzer pulls from his hat, as a last resort, Obama’s wonderful health care legislation, perhaps the administration’s only seeming progressive achievement of note. “You’re gonna get health care!” he tells me on the river. “Doesn’t that amount to something?” Indeed it does. As we know, Obama’s health care “reform,” so-called, was passed with the imprimatur of the drug and insurance industries, the hospital associations, the American Medical Association, the medical equipment manufacturers – basically every institution that had a stake in for-profit health care. What it amounts to, in Roger Hodge’s assessment, is “a bailout of the health care industry that seeks to guarantee some 30 million additional customers for insurance companies” by coercing Americans to purchase a product “from a predatory for-profit business that adds no value to the economic transaction accompanying the activities of doctors and nurses.”
As economist Ismael Hossein-Zadeh writes in Hopeless, Obama “faithfully, and indeed vigorously, carries out both the neoliberal and militaristic policies he inherited. The difference is that, while Reagan and Bush were, more or less, truthful to their constituents, President Obama is not: while catering to the powerful…he pretends to be an agent of ‘change’ and a source of ‘hope’ for the masses.” No wonder that Romney – nihilist, neoliberal, militarist, predator for big business – now leads in the polls. Perhaps Americans currently undecided see little difference between the two moneyed whores for empire at the podium, and would rather opt for the one who offers himself as honestly purchased.
Christopher Ketcham writes for Harper’s, the American Prospect, Orion, and many other magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org