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When Barack Obama first appeared on the national scene, he was a Rorschach inkblot upon whom gullible liberals projected their hopes and anxious “conservatives” their fears.
The scare quotes are justified because then, as now, there was not much that is genuinely conservative about those conservatives. They were just the latest in a long line of useful idiots, recruited from the ranks of socially dislocated and immiserated social strata, mobilized against their own material interests.
Some of them were taken in by neoliberal (Reaganite) nostrums. That is hardly surprising given how relentlessly that spurious, “bipartisan” ideology is promoted. Others were moved by feelings of ambivalence towards the “reality based” post-Enlightenment world. Obamaphobia was also tinged by racism. In some circles, it was fueled by it.
Supplied with ample funds, Obamaphobic “conservatives” were not shy about pressing their case. This frightened even non-Obamamaniacal liberals and centrists.
Along with a swelling repugnance towards anything smelling of the Bush-Cheney years, the fear Obamaphobes induced might have been enough in its own right for Obama to win, even without the opportunities his Rorschach candidacy provided for liberals and centrists to delude themselves.
In any event, Obama won big in 2008. Then, as if it had been his plan all along, he set about squandering the political capital he had garnered, and demonstrating just how overrated being “better than Bush” can be.
With the economy on the brink of catastrophe, an opposition party hell-bent on stifling his every move, and a Democratic caucus in Congress full of “blue dogs” only marginally less right-wing than Republicans, it would have been hard for anyone to make a “change” and “hope” agenda work.
For someone as inept at governance as Obama, it would have been especially challenging. But Obama hardly tried; he didn’t even pretended to try. He therefore did far worse than need be.
He did so badly, in fact, that one must wonder whether “change” and “hope” were on his agenda at all; whether, from even before Day One, all his talk wasn’t just a snare and a delusion.
In any event, Obama’s floundering opened a space for reactionary plutocrats to make themselves even richer and more secure. The emergence of the Tea Party after the 2008 election and the “shellacking” Tea Partiers handed out to Democrats in 2010 were the result.
This emboldened Republicans, making them even scarier and more preposterous.
By the time of the Republican primaries in 2012, liberals and centrists were even more aghast than four years before. By election time, the Republican brand was so badly tainted that no one could have etch-a-sketched a way out of the hole Republicans had dug for themselves.
The Romney candidacy was therefore a non-starter. He might have won had he been able to resurrect his governor of Massachusetts persona. But, by the time he became the GOP standard-bearer, he couldn’t have done that even if his base would have allowed it.
Obama therefore won again, and so did many like-minded, pro-corporate Democrats. Obamamania was history, but lesser evilism won the day.
Now we must deal with that lesser evil. It is not a happy situation.
On all fronts, the future looks bleak. Gay marriage is the one likely exception, and that is hardly Obama’s doing. It is worth noting too that this is one advance that genuine conservatives, as opposed to the Tea Party kind, have no reason to oppose.
There is another respect too in which things are better now than they used to be: the inkblot is gone. Over the past four years, a clearer image of our forty-fourth President has emerged.
It turns out that Obama has two personae. Like the individual who was both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the Robert Louis Stevenson story, there is a benevolent Obama and a malevolent one.
There is the parent who tries hard to be understanding and helpful, and who is never intentionally overbearing. Call him Papa Obama. And there is President Drone.
On the face of it, this is not unusual. With so many demands placed upon their time, the public and private lives of American Presidents can never be seamless. Split personalities are therefore inevitable. And Presidents, like everyone else, relate to different people – and peoples – differently. Some are family, and some not.
Nevertheless, Obama’s case far exceeds the norm.
Papa Obama is, in all likelihood, an extension of the private man’s personality. This is why that public persona falls with a familiar range – if not for Presidents, then for fathers.
The malevolent Obama persona has almost nothing to do with personalities in any humanly familiar range. It marks a new departure for American presidents, made possible by advances in the technology of death.
There is a certain irony here. Though weaponized drones are technological marvels, unimaginable just a few years ago, they permit those who wield them to revert back to the ways Americans and Europeans conquered and decimated races and peoples who, in earlier times, lacked access to the most advanced means of destruction.
They permit slaughter, making war seem easy – and irresistibly tempting.
They therefore foster contempt for the lives of others – not people Western elites identify with, but the kinds who used to be slaughtered with Gatling guns or massacred as they tried with bows and arrows to resist settlers armed with rifles and cavalries equipped with the most up-to-date weaponry.
It is even worse now because drones, being controlled from afar – indeed, from halfway around the world — enable imperialism’s minions to kill and maim effortlessly and without palpable guilt.
Drones turn warriors into video gamers just as surely as they invite those who command them to disregard the legal and moral constraints inherent in modern understandings of what “civilization” implies.
* * *
Though nobody outside his inner circle really knows, all indications are that Obama the man has a wholesome, well-integrated personality. The private Obama’s job is to stay out of the spotlight. That is one job Obama has done well.
But, of course, the public Obama must compartmentalize. There is nothing remarkable in that; it goes with the territory. Presidents have to compartmentalize.
JFK was especially good at it; he had to be.
Adeptness at compartmentalizing was indispensable for an inveterate cocksman tasked with steering the empire through the most dangerous days of the Cold War and with keeping state and society together as the upheavals of “the sixties” began to take shape.
To this day, Kennedy is remembered as a personification of vigor, wit and grace. However we now know that he was riddled with painful debilitating illnesses, and stuffed full of the best pain killers Dr. Feelgood could provide. Only a consummate compartmentalizer could pull off a public image like Kennedy’s, while being constantly in public view.
Evidently, the man had a gift for staying focused on the task, or diversion, at hand. Neither pain nor painkillers, nor a penchant for recklessness, could get him off track.
But even as he compartmentalized, Kennedy’s public persona was undivided. His foreign and domestic policies were consistent, and everything he did more or less cohered. He was no Jekyll and Hyde.
Obama could not be more different. He does not compartmentalize beyond necessity, his health is sound, as far as we know, and his private life seems untroubled. He is no Jack Kennedy; he is not even a Bill Clinton.
But, unlike them – indeed, unlike any President in living memory – the public Obama is not one man but two.
A believer might be tempted to conclude, on “inference to the best explanation” grounds, that Obama’s meteoric rise to the pinnacle of political power was so improbable that it could only have resulted from a Faustian bargain — that, like Faust, he sold his soul to the Devil.
Since there is no Devil and since we have no souls to sell, that explanation is a non-starter. But the Faust reference is apt. Goethe had Faust say that two souls cohabit in his breast. Were he of a similarly poetic and introspective bent, Obama could say the same.
The good soul is the one liberals dote on. Unfortunately, its range of application is limited and shrinking.
The Papa Obama style works poorly on kids who need “tough love.” It is only with “good kids” that it works well. Obama thinks he knows the difference. But good and bad are in the mind of the beholder – and the beholder, in this case, seldom strays from the understandings of social and economic elites.
When Obama is good, he is very very good. Did Malia and Sasha really convince their daddy that gay marriage is OK? Pardon my cynicism, but surely polling data and the exigencies of campaigning in post-Citizens United America had something to do with it too. It is fitting, though, that he would give his girls credit. Promoting self-esteem is important.
Papa Obama was on display too when he spoke to Israeli students in Jerusalem on March 21. He offered them the benefit of his views; that’s what good daddies do. And, as one would expect from a responsible parent, what he said was conventionally nice – more like what one hears from “pro-peace, pro-Israel” J-Street than from the geriatric right-wingers who run the more vicious, and powerful, mainstream Israel lobby.
The rhetorical difference is significant; the substantive differences not so much. But it hardly matters; Obama was not there to impose a solution.
What Papa Obama had to say was just that the good people of Israel, the youth especially, should do the right thing; they should make it their business to implement the two state solution whose broad outlines have been clear for at least the past two decades.
There were no carrots offered and no sticks; notwithstanding the fact that the Israeli government is the main obstacle in the way of a Palestinian state. It always has been — as much since it committed itself in words to Palestinian statehood as when Israeli leaders denied the very existence of a Palestinian people.
Obama could force a solution because Israel needs the blank check it gets from the United States. Were he sufficiently determined, no domestic force could stop him – not even the mighty Israel lobby, already more of a paper tiger than the juggernaut of old.
But, as everyone knows, Obama shies away from conflicts that challenge entrenched domestic interests, even when he could win if he tried. More importantly, Papa Obama wants the kids to get it right on their own.
That’s what good fathers do — no bribes or threats, just a little guidance and an occasional “nudge.”
Of course, in the Israeli case, it could all be a subterfuge; like when Binyamin Netanyahu says he is waiting for a partner for peace. Were John Kerry the President or, God forbid, Joe Biden or, worse yet, Hillary Clinton, deceit and dissimulation would be the order of the day.
But Papa Obama seemed to be talking the talk sincerely.
The problem is that that is all that Papa Obama does.
That may work in the residential quarters of the White House and in other happy homes. It may work in expensive private schools too, like the one where the Obamas send their daughters, and in the handful of public schools that our austerity state still funds adequately.
But it is not how effective diplomacy gets done, even with states with which the empire enjoys a “special relationship.” With an ethnocratic settler state accustomed to getting its way with the United States, it is a recipe for getting nothing done at all. Never was tough love more needed.
Nevertheless, Obama seems to think that his words can work wonders. That was what led him to give a splendid Papa Obama speech in Cairo in 2009, at the outset of his first term. When the world didn’t then fall into line, he lost interest or perhaps he just decided that it would be expedient to let matters take their course. In any case, that was all there was to his opening to the Muslim world.
Then when “hope” and “change” really did break out in Egypt and throughout the Middle East in the spring of 2011, Obama made sure that, as always, the U.S. would be on the wrong side.
Ironically, it isn’t just Obama’s liberal apologists who struggle with delusions; evidently, Obama does too. Reality has been intruding on his faith in the efficacy of Papa Obama words almost from Day One.
Put differently, the family circle has been shrinking.
That is not surprising. The difference between good kids and those who lie beyond the reach of non-coercive parenting skills has always been imaginary. In Obama’s case, it is based on his internalization of the values, prejudices and affinities of America’s (and the larger West’s) elites. Reality was bound to intrude.
So, by now, for all but a favored few, the love is gone. What is left is force.
There is nothing new in that. Using or threatening to use force is what states do.
This is axiomatic in modern political philosophy; states coordinate the behaviors of the individuals under their authority through the use or threat of force. Thus the great social theorist Max Weber famously defined the state as the set of institutional arrangements that exercise a monopoly over the (legitimate) means of violence within a given territory or over a given population.
And it is how states have always dealt with other states. War and diplomacy are, and always have been, complementary extensions of one another.
What is new are the means through which force can now be exercised. So far, President Drone has chosen to deploy drone technology only in parts of the world populated by peoples the West despises and about whom it knows little and cares less.
But the possibilities are endless, especially when there is no resistance within the regime itself. Already, Obama has used drones to kill at least two American citizens – without due process, of course, and, in one case, apparently by mistake.
The Bush-Cheney Global War on Terror started out as a contest between the wholesale terror the United States periodically visits upon the empire’s wayward underlings, and the retail terror of a few Islamist fanatics. The retail-wholesale phenomenon has a long history; what Bush and Cheney started after 9/11 was just the latest chapter.
That chapter is not yet finished; even its Iraqi component hasn’t ended yet, though it has entered a new phase. Its Afghan component is now undergoing a similar repackaging. Meanwhile, President Drone continues the Global War he inherited – more or less out of public view.
He has also launched something new. This is his signal contribution to recent American diplomatic and military history and, along with his efforts to consummate “the Reagan Revolution,” the main blemish on his presidency.
Barack Obama is now doing what no one before him has done – he is collapsing the distinction between wholesale and retail terror. By launching an on-going, multi-faceted, never-ending “low intensity” terror project in countless theaters of operation, he has made the purveyor of wholesale terror a retail purveyor as well.
It is not just a matter of clandestine operations conducted more or less without regard to Constitutional restrictions on the executive’s war making powers and to international law.
That kind of lawlessness has long been with us, and President Drone is enamored of it too. He and his cheer leaders even boast about how instead of bringing Osama Bin Ladin to justice, he had Navy Seals, his very own Murder Incorporated, kill him and drop his body into the sea.
But drone killing marks a new departure. It makes for a permanent regime of “shock and awe,” turning a lethal hybrid of retail and wholesale terrorism into a permanent fixture of imperial diplomacy.
A by-product of this new departure is the manufacture of an endless supply of future terrorists. An immediate – intended – result is a reign of terror throughout large swathes of the Muslim world.
And so, just as our Hope and Change President proved long ago that, from a policy perspective, being better than Bush is not all that it is cracked up to be, our Nobel laureate President is making it clear that, from a moral point of view as well, we are not all that much better off than we were.
Indeed, from a more long-range historical perspective, we are not better off at all. Deliberately or not, President Drone is forging a new normal, more perilous than the darkest imaginings of his predecessors.
“Technology made me do it” is no excuse. But the culpability is not his alone, and neither is it limited to his enablers in Congress and the White House’s inner circles, or to the remaining Obama cheerleaders in liberal and centrist ranks. We all bear responsibility for not resisting more.
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. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. 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 (AK Press).