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The Limits of Eloquence: the Failures of Barack Obama

At the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this July, Barack Obama endorsed Hillary Clinton as his political heir. The significance of choosing his former secretary of state as candidate for the first female president of the United States was the greater for Obama being the first African American to hold that position. But feminists, like black Americans, may soon grow wary of symbols, which are less powerful than the structures they aim to overthrow, yet barely scratch.

In June 2008, after winning the Democratic nomination, Obama told his delighted supporters: ‘We will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.’

If Obama has failed to earn a Nobel peace prize, he deserves an award for eloquence. From US relations with the Arab world (4 June 2009) to inequality in US society (6 December 2011) and persistent racial hatred (26 June 2015), his presidency has been marked by fine speeches with moments of genuine emotion. But there are limits to what this can achieve. On 13 occasions he has deplored that mass shootings in schools, churches and a nightclub have not led to a challenge to the virtually unregulated sale of firearms. A hint of exasperation has crept in: ‘Somehow this has become routine,’ he said after yet another shooting. ‘The reporting is routine. My response here, at this podium, ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it.’

This was an astonishing admission of impotence from a man who had hoped to halt the rise of the oceans. ‘Real change, big change is always hard,’ he once said as apology to those he had disappointed. All that Obama (who had seemed like a Moses in 2008) could do was gloomily record the pitfalls the US political system had dug in his path: a nearly always hostile Congress, a majority of Republican-controlled states, ceaseless election campaigning and a supreme court that has strengthened the power of lobbies and money.

Yet when he has really wanted to, Obama has used his executive powers to overcome Republican obstructionism. A Democratic president capable of electrifying rhetoric could have been more diligent in applying antitrust laws; holding to account the bankers responsible for the crisis of the century (nearly all have been spared); or threatening to cut off federal aid to universities that constantly put up their tuition fees — to the point of becoming unaffordable for a growing percentage of middle-class Americans. And anyway, what’s the point of saying ‘if only we had been able to’, when many states and municipalities run entirely by Democrats look like islands of privilege rather than laboratories for social progress (1)?

For the Republicans and foreign media, Obama is at the far left of US politics. Useless to point out the growing inequality, persistent poverty and mass incarceration on which he has merely commented; his fascination with Wall Street and Silicon Valley; his obsession with free trade; his tendency to seat guests at White House dinners according to how much they have contributed; and his (still growing) use of drones to kill enemies of America (and their families). Yet, compared with his successor, we may very soon miss the man who restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and started a dialogue with Iran.

What Obama has really lacked is the will to fight. When his opponents have used scorched earth politics against him, he has never tried to mobilise his supporters. He has also relied too much on his intelligence, believing he only needed to speak to convince, and to be right to overcome. An inveterate centrist, he once acknowledged modelling himself on Dwight Eisenhower, a moderate Republican who also served eight years as president, but at a time of economic growth and confidence.

Obama thought Americans’ daring had reached its limits in electing him to the White House, and anyway considered: ‘We’re not looking for anything radical here. And frankly, the country doesn’t need radical changes’ (2). At the end of his presidency, he must face the fact that most Americans are, more than ever, convinced of the opposite.

Serge Halimi is editorial director and Benoît Bréville is deputy editor of Le Monde diplomatique.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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