Barack Obama’s betrayal will resonate in history long after he has become just another name on the over-priced celebrity speaker circuit. It is a betrayal of far more than the youthful idealists and loyal progressives who put him in the White House. Obama has unmoored the Democratic Party from its foundations – philosophical and electoral. No longer is it expression of the programs and ideas that crystallized with the New Deal and which dominated the country’s politics for sixty years. Its future is that of ad doc assemblage of hustlers and operators beholden to campaign donors of all stripes, a party whose sole claim to govern will be that it is not the amalgamated Tea/Republican Party. Obama, by this Oedipus like act of patricide, has also betrayed the country that voted for an enlightened leader with a social conscience – a country in desperate need of the opposite to the fate he has laid on us.
Barack Obama was the active factor that has precipitated this tragedy. Who and what he is, therefore, is of the utmost importance. It deserves close scrutiny since his unbecoming traits of personality are not his alone, although he does represent their distilled essence – and he alone managed to become President of the United States. There are more Obamas, or Obama look-alikes, in our future. What are the most salient ingredients in his private-public persona? Most striking is a behavior pattern that resembles closely the narcissistic syndrome – even if he is not a clinical narcissist. A narcissist has no convictions other than a total dedication to his own gratification. That gives him the freedom to maneuver without inhibition or conscience with the revered self as the only reference point. All expressions of ideals, of opinions, of intentions are implicitly so qualified. A complementary narcissistic trait is an ease with blurring the line between virtual reality and actual reality. Narcissists believe everything they say – at the moment they say it. Their declarations are sterile acts that have no pride of parentage nor can they expect honor from offspring. Witness Obama’s momentarily rousing support of a labor movement that he has scorned for thirty months. This is the same President who has launched an all-out campaign against public school teachers whose unions serve as the whipping-boy for all that ails American education. Narcissists take as given that they never dissemble or lie – because to do so is to acknowledge that reality has an intolerably constraining claim on them.
Of course, this last is a feature of contemporary American political culture in general. Facts are taken to be infinitely malleable, the very notion of truth is denied, speaking honestly is viewed as a life style choice, and communication is more a matter of self affirmation than an attempt to convey knowledge, emotion or intention to somebody else. We have externalized navel gazing to a remarkable degree. All the demonstrative primping and preening suggests self-licking ice cones looking for an audience. One consequence is that public discourse in not anchored by common standards of honesty. It is a maelstrom of raw opinion, emotive outbursts, mythology and primal screams. Accountability, therefore, ceases to exist. There is accountability only where there are benchmarks of veracity, a reasonably rigorous monitoring of what is said and done, and a dedication on the part of some at least to ensuring that these requirements for a viable democracy are met. The abject failure of the media to perform these functions to any reasonable degree is a hallmark of our times. The think tank and academic worlds are little better.
This amorphous environment is narcissist friendly terrain. It is permissive of twists and turns, leaves no record of what was done yesterday or the day before – much less a year ago, and focuses only on the evanescent existential moment. Case in point is the remarkably uncritical coverage that Obama has received from the supposedly responsible media – especially those who claim to be upholders of the ideas and policies and interests that he has betrayed. This aspect of the Obama saga is overlooked because of the savage, mindless attacks on him by the crackpot right which now controls the Republican Party. Their excesses were the story, the only story. The instinct to protect Obama was so powerful that it stilled the voices of those who should have been both bolstering and cajoling him to remain true to his avowed commitments. To this day, the hesitation about calling out Obama is manifest – witness the minimal reaction to his brazen reversal on clean air standards that he is required by legal stipulation to promulgate. Pressuring Obama early on also would have been the line of political realism since opinion surveys have made clear that it was the Republicans who were out of step with prevailing attitudes on issue after issue. That remains true despite the White House, and the Democratic Congressional leadership, jettisoning them wholesale. This positive disposition toward government’s role in providing for the welfare of citizens cannot last for very long, of course, with the Democrats’ defections that have left American politics with only one narrative, the legitimizing of a Darwinian social philosophy, the ensconcing of moneyed interests on the throne of power, and the deference now shown the Tea Party outrages.
The vow by so many not to hold to account a President (the first person of color to occupy the White House) who engaged in one unseemly sellout after another emboldened Obama to go further and further down that road. They were enablers of his betrayal. Only now that the disaster has occurred are a few tentative, mild voices of serious criticism raised about the man, his methods and his politics. They have little practical meaning since the damage is done, the game is lost, the Democratic Party is denatured, and the great progressive wave of the 20th century that reconciled Americanism with the social ethics of the modern world reversed. Free of any mea culpas and lacking a sense of urgency, these timid chastisements fall into the ignoble category of “grandpa reassurances.” When many years from now a grandchild asks over Thanksgiving dinner: “grandpa, where were you when they ruined my country?” he can dredge up something he wrote in the late summer of 2011 to show that he was indeed a responsible person on the side of the angels.
That is what public virtue amounts to in today’s America in the wake of the great Obama betrayal.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.