The Real Obama

The White House that shook in last Tuesday’s earthquake has been home to its present incumbent for 32 months. Obama wasn’t around to watch the furniture shake. He’s up on Martha’s Vineyard for the third year in a row, with Michelle and their two daughters, bunkered down in a $25,000-a-week holiday rental of a lush 28-acre estate in the little town of Chilmark.

He’s keeping a low profile. Words like “standoffish” roll petulantly off the tongues of the island’s liberal elites. They were spoiled by Bill Clinton who spent six presidential vacations on the Vineyard. No renter he. Bill free-loaded on rich pals and party donors, mostly synonymous. No one could ever accuse Bill of being standoffish, though he confided to Vernon Jordan that he preferred Jackson Hole, Wyoming,  to Martha’s Vineyard as a vacation spot since it was impossible to get “pussy” in the stuffy Massachusetts resort.

Obama’s standoffishness includes – I am informed by one knowledgeable Martha’s Vineyard local – failure to show at an exclusive fundraiser, also to a party of his friend Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard prof whose July 2009 spat with the Cambridge police prompted the normally hyper-prudent Obama to say the cops had acted “stupidly” – probably the most vivid off-the-cuff judgment of his entire presidency.  Perhaps the hyper-prudence accounted for failure to appear chez Gates last week.

The president did show up for one event, hosted by Harvard Law School prof Charles Ogletree,  but without Michele. The presidential excuse for her no-show was that he and Michele didn’t “want to leave the kids alone.” Alone? One of the houses on the Chilmark estate is occupied by the Secret Service; another by close aides. You’d think at least two could have been press-ganged into child-minding duties.

Like many presidents trying to have a holiday, Obama has drawn fire for lounging about on the Vineyard for ten days while ordinary Americans battle hard times, and Hurricane Irene menaces the Atlantic seaboard. So, as with other presidents, his press secretary claims 50 per cent of Obama’s time is spent doing the nation’s business, much of it hunkered down with his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan. Presumably, they are reviewing intelligence reports that Al Qaeda is planning something really big, to mark the tenth anniversary of the destruction of the Trade Towers.

As president, Obama is not doing well. It’s not just a matter of the 53 per cent disapproval rating, reported Wednesday by Gallup. After two and a half years, people are beginning to come to settled opinions about their president, and many of these aren’t flattering. In 2008, liberals and most leftists were deeply in love with Obama and genuinely believed the promissory notes about a better America that he strewed along the campaign trail and has since welshed on at a rate of well over 95 per cent.

The face-off over the debt ceiling at the stat of this month was the final straw . Take a man I have known for many decades, William Broyles, former Marine, lifelong Texan Democrat, speechwriter in the Carter White House, former Newsweek editor, co-creator of China Beach, Apollo 13 and Cast Away.

Ten days ago, Bill wrote a furious Newsweek/Daily Beast column, headlined “The Oval Office Appeaser.” Bill is normally a courteous man, not one who likes to hurl moldy cabbages from the balcony. I’ve never known him write more bitterly.

“After each betrayal, after each terribly bad bargain, Obama comes out waving a piece of paper, a one-sided agreement to appease the Republicans – peace in our time. … A despair grips America today, a cold fear that our best days are behind us, that we are adrift and powerless. Yes, the Republicans are to blame. But so is a president who treats core American values as bargaining chips, who won’t fight for anything, who refuses to lead. It turns out hope does matter. … Americans aren’t inspired by well-meaning weakness. We like strong leaders, particularly in desperate times.”

Obama is a very curious fellow. I don’t think any writer thus far has got the measure of the man. Take the Obama White House. From the news-leak point of view, he presides over the tightest ship in living memory. Leaks, corridor gossip, my-side-of-the-story confidences of policy-makers battling for the president’s ear, depth charges planted by such powerful cabinet members as Hillary Clinton? None of the above. This is the White House of a man in total control, contrasting markedly with Clinton’s fitful supervision of the shambolic White House of his two terms.

But yet Obama, where it counts, isn’t in control at all. Republicans, regarded as nuts by a lot more Americans than disapprove of Barack Obama, face him down and he leaps to do their bidding, even as they kick him in the teeth for not doing more. He tugs his forelock to Wall Street, the defense industry, the oil companies, Monsanto, the ag industry, Israel.   Appeaser, as Broyles charges. When the dust of battle rises, he cuts and runs.

Last week, the Democrats got a nasty shock when the New York Times ran a story reporting on the battle for Anthony Weiner’s Brooklyn district. Weiner resigned June 16, done in by Twittering photos of his penis to women, none of them his wife or even a constituent. The Republican challenger is apparently making a strong showing in this traditionally Democratic district. The Times quoted life-long Democrats expressing their discontents in virulent terms.

There are plenty of Obama loyalists out there. I know leftists who still forlornly try to make a case for the man and will stay true to the end. But if they vote for him next year, it won’t be for any positive reason, such as the one that sent them delightedly to the polls in 2008, in search of hope. They’ll gesture to Rick Perry or some other Republican challenger and fall back on the “lesser of two evils” argument. But will this work with the sort of blue-collar union people and independents who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 because they thought Carter was a wimp who couldn’t handle the economy?

Bill Clinton survived incompetence and scandal because enough Americans felt like somewhat disillusioned brides after two or three years of facing the Real Thing across the breakfast table. “Dump him? For who? Anyway, he’s promised me he’ll try to do better.” He’s a flake and a liar, but he’s our flake and liar.

No one feels like that about Obama. The object of mass adoration in 2008, he’s not a man who elicits mass affection. People whose vote he courts are genuinely confused. Does he believe in anything beyond raising a billion dollars for the 2012 campaign? Now he’s on the trail again, assuring people without jobs that he’ll put them back to work. Reasonably, his audiences aren’t convinced. His sell-out in the face-off over the debt ceiling is a noose around the neck of any Democrat in the upcoming campaign arguing that Obama and his party are the last best defense against ongoing destruction of the safety net.  Of course, as one reader reminds me, being a black man in authority carries great danger in itself. Too much fight, and people start showing up with guns at your meetings plus signs about watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants. Too little fight and you’re a weakling. It’s never right.

Meanwhile, the Texas Governor Rick Perry, who entered the Republican race a week ago, is surging against his opponents. A Gallup poll now has him in a commanding lead over the “moderate” Republican Mitt Romney, with 29 per cent saying they are most likely to support Perry. Former front-runner Mitt Romney (17 per cent), Ron Paul (13 per cent), and Michele Bachmann (10 per cent) are next, with four other candidates at 4 per cent or less. In the east Romney leads Perry by one point and lags everywhere else in the country.

The conservative Perry’s done this by staking out fierce positions, just as Reagan did against Carter. It doesn’t matter that the opinions grate on the sensibilities of the liberal commentariat. He’s not after their approval. Perry’s a tough campaigner, not like Bob Dole, whom Clinton had the luck to face in 1996. His record as governor of Texas is freighted with scandalous paybacks to big contributors, but in scale they scarcely match the huge pay-off now being promoted by the White House with the drumbeat campaign by Obama, Obama’s Attorney General, the Secretary of HUD, the Fed and the attorneys general of 49 states to guarantee the banksters permanent immunity against both civil and criminal lawsuits for any of their recent fraud, perjury and grand larceny. Once again, a New York Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, is gumming up the cozy deal. But as CounterPuncher Pierre Sprey writes, “we can  predict a short public career for poor Eric, ending soon in another wiretap-fueled scandal — or, since we are now a banana republic, a regrettable accident.” And guess what, Warren Buffett did just drop $5 billion into BoA and then held a $30K a plate fundraiser for Barack Obama.

Our  Re-Design

Yes, as you know, we launched our new look last Tuesday and have been in teething pains ever since as our server struggles to adjust to the new data base. (Hint: emptying your cache on a regular basis may help.)  Cheers and curses fill our editorial inbox.

When it comes to re-designs people mostly hate change. I do. So does Jeffrey St Clair. On my shelves I keep ancient copies of publications, just to remind me of the way they used to be: the old London Times, on beautiful old stock, with classifieds on the front page; the Italian Espresso of the 60s, with its vast rotogravure photos. Jeffrey and I liked the way the CounterPunch site looked. But technologically it was getting progressively harder to deal with, with many of you shouting for features it couldn’t accommodate, like a print-friendly feature, RSS feeds, ease of linking, a data base archive and so forth.

You’ve got them now, and boy, are some of you mad! When emotions cool we hope outraged CounterPunchers will see that under our mandate   designer Tiffany Wardle stayed pretty close to the old design. We’ve kept changes to a minimum – no video, no ads, the same  three-column lay-out.

Here’s a bouquet of reactions, starting with Sam Chandler’s rock through the editorial transom, about an hour after the resdesign went up.

“I do not appreciate the new look. It is horrible.  It is not respective of the academic look CounterPunch has cultivated over the last few years.  It is jarringly eye-wrenching shit. It is corporate capitalism without style. Sam Chandler.”

Jeffrey, who evolved our old layout piecemeal across the years, winces at the cruel phrase “academic look.”  I’d say the typographical heritage here with the new site goes back to German lay-outs of the 1920s, not to mention the Constructivist heritage, but maybe that’s me being sentimental.

“It’s about time!  Love the new layout. Pete Stanislaw”

“I thought I had the wrong web page for a second.    Nice new streamlined look! Great work from my favorite source for news of what is happening. Congratulations, Glenn Ierley.”

“Just my 2 cents..  I much preferred your previous page layout to the new look changes you made in the last day or 2.   FWIW, I’m a subscriber and will be renewing. Regards, Ron Bianco”

“As a person who has found your site to be an invaluable trove of alternative voices and views, I’m greatly distressed to see the new graphics of the site.  The colors are harsh and distracting, the fonts are unattractive, and in general there seems to be a very aggressive look to it, one I would associate more with the sites of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (I have seen them) — the only thing that seems to be missing is an American flag. Teresa Schiano”

“I like the new layout of the website. Very fresh.

Be well, Vijay Prashad”

“I’m a faithful reader who believes in you and depends on you for my daily dose of hopelessness. I just don’t like that it was redesigned at all. All New! has gotten so passe. Our news sources should be staid and steady. Walter Cronkite never got a facelift or even shaved off his moustache, and we trusted him, whether or not we should have. I still hate the redesigned Wall St Journal, for instance: it’s so generic now. Likewise my hometown daily paper, the Keene (NH) Sentinel.

“We want news sources to be about content, not style. In a world where even the light switches are designed, the un-botoxed gets more and more beautiful. Wabi-sabi, the Japanese called it, beautiful decreptitude. Boo to urban renewal of websites. Let the words speak. Stacia Tolman”

“I love the easy-to-read new look, particularly the print option (I’ve probably sent a half dozen emails requesting such a change over the past decade). Thank you. Bob Siver”


I like the revised format; the change is greatly appreciated. Respectfully, Dave Fargher.

Impressive website redesign – addition of RSS feed is very welcome.Cheers!

Will Astle.”

“Drudge has stayed the same and is still one of the most popular sites. There’s something gratifying and attractive about remaining low-tech – don’t let well-meaning bumblers tell you otherwise. In two words, it is repulsive and UGLY!! (Add a third word: Unreadable).


Let’s see how you all feel in a month or two. Meanwhile, it’s a work in progress. We appreciate the plaudits, ponder the advice and dodge the brickbats.

Our New Newsletter

I love it when Doug Lummis sends us something. He’s got a truly original mind and alert intellectual antennae. Twenty years in Tokyo and Okinawa gives him an extra depth of perspective. Now he’s sent us a truly wonderful piece on war guilt and two Americans who spent lives earning expiation: Howard Zinn and Allen Nelson. Zinn we all know. But Allen Nelson?

“Allen Nelson was raised in the black ghettoes of Brooklyn; he joined the Marines in large part to get some decent clothes and three meals a day. If there was ever anyone who had the right to say, ‘Look, I had no choice,’ he was one.  But for him, that evasion didn’t work.  In the end he decided that, though the choice he faced in combat was a terrible one, with terrible consequences on either side, it was still a choice, and he was responsible for what he chose to do.

“I was happy that I could get those words out of my mouth. . . . When you’re in combat . . . you’re making these choices on your own.  And no one can make you do what you don’t want to do, regardless if they kill you, put you in prison.  You do what you want to do.  That realization was so painful for me: that I was killing people . . . . not because America was making me do it, not because I was a Marine, not because I was in combat, not because it was a war, not because he was shooting at me – I wanted to do it.  But that was the freeing point for me.

“After some two decades of medication and counseling, his doctor posed the forbidden question:  ‘Allen, I want you to tell me why you killed people.’

“I broke down and started crying, weeping, and I looked at him and I said, ‘Because I wanted to kill them.’  It was like a key went into my brain and unlocked something – I felt free from that point.”

Also in this terrific new edition, “The cop just shot my dog!” Patrick Higgins on why you’re right to worry that the police might blow your best friend away. PLUS Coutts and Stuckler on the English  riots and the economics of anger.

Subscribe now!

Alexander Cockburn can be reached at


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.