Already in the press there have been stories of plans to dampen the public’s expectations of Obama. The expectations are undoubtedly beyond being satisfied by any human being.
Obama’s bright face, a keen intelligence at work in every expression, represents the greatest hope for change in America since Franklin Roosevelt. Even Kennedy, with all his gifts, did not come close. After all, Kennedy was a harsh Cold Warrior, a wild risk-taker, and he was connected to some of the most unsavory subcultures in America.
But Obama is the inheritor of one of the bleakest legacies ever in a modern state: the meltdown of Wall Street and its severe international consequences, two costly unresolved wars, war crimes against other countries, and waves of ill-will towards America for its international torture gulag.
All these, plus the problems that have bedevilled the United States for decades, matters like poor health care, the dismal state of public schools, or the immense and pervading corruption of America’s politics, something to which the Bush people made their own contributions, including vote fraud and severe abuse of power, especially by the Vice President.
Bush gave Americans oppressive laws, unprecedented war profiteering, and a tax system now twisted and warped by giveaways to the wealthy. That is not a left-wing view: going back to Jefferson, it was understood that excessive accumulation and inheritance of wealth were dangerous to a republic. The United States has moved towards a society of inherited influence and entitlement, its establishment coming to resemble increasingly the ancien régime of 18th century France.
The Bush excesses largely do not upset the establishment since they were aimed at protecting that very establishment. John McCain, establishment by blood and marriage, dropped his boyish outsider stage act during the campaign, revealing himself unimaginative and unresponsive – indeed a tired, unappetizing serving of Bush leftovers.
And that was deadly to McCain’s hopes. Despite the establishment’s influence, ordinary Americans do once in a while manage to vote against it. Without eight years of Bush incompetence and abuse pushing ordinary Americans to anger and embarrassment, Obama’s victory would not have been possible.
Any effort to correct these problems is against the great weight of America’s establishment, further strengthened by eight years of abusive benefits, always the beneficiaries and keepers of America’s unacknowledged imperialism. Winning a national election is one thing, but turning that victory into a long series of Congressional votes is quite another. All those Congressmen and Senators, in both parties, need constant injections of cash to operate, and they do not get it through the populist mechanisms of Obama’s election campaign. The Congressmen will all face re-election in just two years.
And then there is a political party, Obama’s own, that has almost no genuine purpose left other than opposing Republicans for power, prestige, and patronage. It stands for nothing anymore, and some of its members could easily be interchanged with Republicans. Its voice was not heard against illegal war, against torture, against abuse, or indeed anything important in the last eight years.
Many, perhaps most, modern American presidents achieve little in altering American society, although they may do considerable damage abroad. Bush was an exception in that he did serious damage both at home and abroad, but the circumstances permitting him were unique: blind, insane fear over 9/11. The entire period since that event represents nightmarish over-reaction to a relatively minor threat.
Presidents generally achieve little domestic change because America’s Constitution was deliberately designed to make the office of the president a weak one. An American president with an opposition-filled Congress is a political eunuch, getting neither his appointments nor legislation nor treaties approved. Only in matters concerning disturbances in the empire will he invariably enjoy Congressional support.
Obama’s party will have a majority in the House and the Senate, but he will not have an overwhelming majority. Progress in the Senate can always be stopped by filibuster, and you can only stop filabusters with 60 of the 100 seats, something Obama will not have. Also some of his party’s senators, Lieberman for example, might as well be Republicans, and they will not support a truly progressive agenda.
Modern presidents are able to do damage abroad because the Founding Fathers made the president commander-in-chief of the armed forces. They thought they had effectively divided power and weakened the possibilities for adventures abroad by giving Congress the sole power to declare war, but we’ve seen over the last sixty years America’s wars are no longer declared.
The Founders also never expected the Frankenstein-monster military America maintains today because they did not expect America to become a global imperial power. But most of what the more thoughtful Founders said and wrote has been vitiated by the actual history of the United States, and today we even find a Vice President accepting the view that the President’s powers in such matters are unlimited.
I believe that a man of Obama’s particular intelligence and sensibilities deeply understands the nature of America’s great problems. They are just not subjects you can discuss in an election campaign, especially in the near-imbecile campaigns America seems cursed to fall into, with candidates barking about flag pins or accusations of “buddying up to terrorists” or suitability for military command or, indeed, “the Reds are coming.”
America’s great underlying problem is an overwhelming case of living beyond its means. It reflects the deliberate, corrupting praise of greed (in a grotesque American parody of Adam Smith) coupled with the fantasy that you can have it all and have it now plus the establishment’s arrogance that it is entitled to order the affairs of the planet for its benefit. This is all jumbled together in the advertising slogan, “the American dream.”
The slogan is rooted in America’s unique post-World War II position when no other great industrial power was left standing. America’s comparatively light damage (e.g., suffering roughly ½ of one percent of the world’s deaths and no civilian damage) and its being geared-up for immense arms manufacture allowed it to become the supplier of everything to a war-crippled world, providing economic opportunity to ordinary Americans as no country had done before.
An unskilled American worker could, for a few decades, earn a house, a car, perhaps a boat, and generous vacations. When I worked one summer in the early 1960s as a student in the Chicago steel mills, earning what seemed fabulous amounts, it was because employees with twenty years’ service received thirteen-week vacations. Those days are gone, and things have moved from bad to worse. Real wages have dropped for decades, and competition from abroad defeats industry after industry.
At the same time, American politics avoids the harsh truths of the world’s historic transition towards a place with many competitors, other centers of power, and with reduced opportunity for what Benjamin Franklin called the middling people in America. Talk about re-negotiating NAFTA is as close as we get, but much of that talk is little more than coded language for anti-Mexican racism.
America has been living in recent decades as though its dream slogan were as meaningful as it was in 1955, but much of the prosperity in the last couple of decades was purchased by borrowing to consume beyond the nation’s ability to pay.
Administration after administration has kept the economy “pumped” with borrowing, with easy credit, with unwarranted deregulation, and with doing everything possible to encourage mindless consumption. America’s balance of payments deficit just swells, decade after decade, generating massive total debt that erodes the real economy, a disease generated solely by an insatiable demand for things America cannot afford.
Wars of the kind America has generated for half a century may be seen as just another form of consumption, the most wasteful conceivable, running assembly lines flat out and printing money and enlisting young people to destroy things on a gigantic scale, generally making little meaningful change in world affairs.
So, imagine being the first black man elected president, a young man without family wealth and influence, but a man who understands problems of which a Bush is not even aware. You are faced with needed fundamental change in America, being elected out of years of sheer despair over Bush, enjoying the rare blessing of a Congress not controlled by opposition. You nevertheless are opposed by an extremely powerful establishment, hostile to most change. You are also opposed by the limited understanding of many ordinary Americans. Do you really try to do what you may have a unique opportunity to attempt?
If you do try, can you survive the assaults of America’s establishment, as dark and ruthless as the fabled Borgias of Renaissance Italy? They can make you look terrible, as they did Clinton, and they can even make you disappear, as they did Kennedy. Change is dangerous stuff in a country like America.
JOHN CHUCKMAN lives in Canada.