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Obama: Sad and Glad to See the Back of Him

Photo by www.GlynLowe.com | CC BY 2.0

Photo by www.GlynLowe.com | CC BY 2.0

Last January, before Iowa and New Hampshire and Super Tuesday, it seemed certain that a Democrat would be elected President in 2016.

Democrats were widely, and justifiably, despised, but that didn’t matter; there wasn’t a Republican running who wasn’t too ludicrous or too loathsome or both to be taken seriously.

It didn’t matter either that long before last January, Hillary Clinton had the Democratic nomination sewn up.

Hardly anyone was truly happy about that.  But thanks to the Clintons’ connections and their control of the Democratic Party, it seemed inevitable.  Party functionaries were OK with this; under Clinton, they would retain their power.   Outside their circles, there was only acquiescence and no enthusiasm.

The exception was the segment of the party comprised of unreconstructed second wave feminists who thought that a “glass ceiling” kept women from becoming President, and who wanted to see it shattered before they died.  There weren’t many of them.

Even so, Hillary’s victory was all but assured.  Everyone this side of the Tea Party was resigned to it; even, most likely, Donald Trump.  There were, of course, a few old-line Republicans who thought that maybe another Bush could defeat another Clinton, but even they “knew” in their hearts that it wasn’t going to happen.

Eleven months later, Donald Trump — not quite the most ludicrous and loathsome contender for the Republican nomination, but close — was elected President of the United States.

With each passing day, Trump’s victory seems more surreal and nightmarish.

How the hell did it happen?   Did the billionaire make a pact with the Devil?  Were the gods that make playthings of mere mortals being more than usually mischievous?

It is tempting to attribute Hillary’s defeat to super-natural forces, but there really is no need.  She lost because she was just that bad; and because voters were fed up with the neoliberal, “humanitarian” interventionist politics she promoted.  They were also fed up with her.

Inasmuch as the fix was in, the real miracle was that Bernie Sanders came as close as he did to becoming the Democratic nominee.  Had he gone for the jugular, the way that Trump did with his rivals, that would have happened.  Had he even been just a tad less gentlemanly, he would very likely have stopped the Clinton juggernaut in its tracks.

Was unconditional surrender his idea all along?  On that question, the jury is still out.  My guess is that there is no simple answer: sometimes he was running for Clinton, and sometimes against her – without being clear, even in his own mind, what he was up to.

In any case, the movement his candidacy ignited was primed to go farther than he was.  Many Sanders supporters would have been delighted to be led out of the Democratic Party.

Had Sanders seized that opportunity, he would have done far more good than he actually did.  Instead of making himself a footnote to the Clinton and Trump stories, he could have made history itself – by striking a decisive blow at America’s disabling duopoly party system.

But from the moment that he crossed over to the Dark Side by all but swearing fealty to Clinton, the chances that anything worthwhile at the national level could be salvaged out of the 2016 election season – apart from the long overdue fall of the Houses of Clinton and Bush — shrunk to nil.

And so, on Election Day, many Sanders supporters voted grudgingly for Hillary, believing her to be the lesser evil.   Others didn’t vote at all; and a few voted for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate.

Stein had waged a fine campaign, but under a de facto media blackout.  Running as a Democrat, Sanders was able eventually to overcome a similar problem – though only slightly.  Had he joined forces with Stein, as she invited him to do, corporate media would have had to take notice.   Without him on board, the Greens never had a chance even to get past the five percent threshold that would have made it easier for them next time.

Hillary still got many more votes than the Donald.  But thanks to an affront to democracy foisted upon us by our Founders, the Electoral College, many of those votes didn’t matter because they were cast in “red” or “blue,” not “battleground,” states.

And so, what had seemed impossible happened: Hillary, the Democrat, lost and a billionaire real estate tycoon and reality TV star too ridiculous for words – a birther, no less – beat her.

November 8 didn’t just end a dreadful electoral season badly; it locked the country and the world into a horrifying dream world – in which some of the most reactionary plutocrats in America, along with racists, nativists and Islamophobes, run the show, and in which a thin-skinned egotist unable to steer a decent or even a consistent course is Commander-in-Chief.

Nearly a century ago, H.L. Mencken penned a prophecy that has lately been making the rounds on the Internet.  “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.  On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

That quotation surfaced in 2004, when George W. Bush was elected for a second term.  It fits him better than Trump, which may be why, this time around, those who cite it sometimes add words like “narcissist” and “egotist,” to “moron.”  Consider that a fair use of  “poetic license.”

Lately, Trump has been stupidly tempting fate by brazenly antagonizing the CIA and other intelligence services — not so much because he is a moron, but because he is full of himself and because he is ignorant of literature and history.  Nevertheless, he is if not smart, then fiendishly clever.  No matter how ill conceived his projects may be, and no matter how badly they turn out, when they fail, if there is a way to feather his own nest, he finds it.

Still, the Mencken quote, even in its original version, is on point; the nightmarish world that is about to take shape under Trump’s aegis will be moronic or worse.  Look at the cabinet he has assembled!   How could it not?

This is reason enough to be sad to see Obama go.  It is the sadness of moving from awful to a whole lot worse.

There is however an important caveat to bear in mind.  It has to do with Russia and warmongering, and therefore with the risk of nuclear war.

Before electoral exigencies caused the American political class and the media that serve it to fall lock, stock, and barrel under the sway of Russophobic neocons and humanitarian interveners, this concern would have seemed almost comically anachronistic.

But the War Party has been flourishing lately, in “liberal” Democratic circles especially, carrying Obama along; to the extent that he falls under its sway, good riddance to him.  To the extent that, for whatever reason, Trump will hold back the rush to war, then welcome aboard.

It is hard to say where either of them stands.  Unlike the average Democrat, Obama is at least thoughtful; and the Donald lip-flops day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour.

Why is this even an issue?   Corporate media blame Vladimir Putin.  It would make more sense to blame the Clinton campaign.

As her campaign for the presidency dragged on, without her finding much traction anywhere, HRC, an inveterate Cold Warrior, could hardly resist redbaiting Trump for expressing admiration for Russia’s leader and for having a sensible thing or two to say about the importance of getting along with Russia.  It didn’t matter to her that Russia today is about as red as the Goldwater Girls’ chapter in which she began her political career.

Her better half was President while post-Communist Russia was plunging backwards into the capitalist orbit, its economy in shambles, and its people in desperate straits.  Those were the salad days for Russian oligarchs and kleptocrats, and for unreconstructed Cold Warriors who wanted Russia to be weak and ailing.  That is what Hillary wants too; and she seems to think that she is entitled to no less.

As a neocon fellow traveler and as a “humanitarian” proponent of regime change in countries that don’t tow the American line, she just could not pass up an opportunity to go after Russia itself; not militarily – not now, anyway – but in ways that would, at a minimum, prepare public opinion for aggressive measures ahead.

To an alarming extent, corporate media have been collaborating in this project, The Washington Post leading the way.  The tales they spin are nearly as inconsistent as the tweets emanating out of Trump Tower.   One day Putin is a Communist who wants to restore the Soviet Union; another, he is a “populist” who is soft on fascism.  They really ought to get their stories straight.

How appalling can it get!  And which is worse: liberals embracing the CIA and leading the War Party’s charge; or having to rely on a narcissistic egotistical “moron” to turn back a march towards nuclear war?

Pressure from “liberal” and not-so-liberal Democrats, and from Republicans of the John McCain-Lindsey Graham variety, reinforced by the media onslaught, seems to have become too much for Obama to withstand.  When Trump would call Obama weak, he wasn’t saying anything that others hadn’t figured out long ago, but neither was he wrong.

However, it is unlikely, in the waning days of his presidency, that Obama will give the War Party carte blanche to go wherever its recklessness leads; he is not that weak.  And, in any case, he will soon be gone.

It is therefore reasonably safe to conclude that, give the sheer awfulness of what will take its place, there is no reason not to regret the Age of Obama’s much longed for passing.

***

The reason why it will be sad to see Obama go is Donald Trump; had Hillary Clinton been a better candidate, she would have been the reason.

There are many reasons, even so, to be glad that he will be gone – but even in aggregate, they don’t cancel out the reason to be sad.

It is important, however, not to lose sight of the reasons to be glad.

In fairness, though, and not to put too sour a face on Obama’s years in office, two mitigating factors must be acknowledged and taken into account.

Thanks to the thoroughgoing deregulation of the financial sector that Bill Clinton engineered during his second term, and then to the ruinous Bush wars that Hillary Clinton supported, Obama became President just as the Great Recession was unfolding.

And, as if that weren’t bad enough, a Republican Party dead set on doing Obama’s presidency in began lighting into it from Day One.  Their over the top hostility involved more than hypertrophied partisanship; there was a racist component to it as well.  It encouraged their wickedness and steeled their resolve.

Even so, Obama could have done a lot better than he did.  He came into office with Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, and with an enviable reserve of political capital.  He squandered it all.

And because he and his fellow Democrats raised hopes that they went on to dash – not all by themselves, of course; it was a bipartisan effort — the Democrats were slaughtered in the 2010 Congressional elections and, more consequentially, in the elections for governorships and other state level offices that accompanied them.

Gerrymandering is high on the list of ways that the duopoly party system obstructs democracy in America.  What makes it possible is yet another undemocratic feature of the American system: that state legislatures and governors map out legislative districts within their states.   They do it after every census – that is, every ten years — under only minimal judicial supervision or under none at all.

2010 was a census year.   The Democrats’ losses enabled the Republicans to go off on a gerrymandering spree that effectively guaranteed Republican control of the House of Representatives at least until the next time the boundaries are redrawn.

This didn’t affect Obama’s own reelection; he was able to win a second term because he ran against a Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, who was as unpopular with Republican voters as Hillary Clinton was with Democrats.  But his victory did nothing to get the Democratic Party off the ropes; his coattails were useless.

It would have been the same or worse this year in the House elections, even had Clinton not flubbed so badly.  If she had defeated Trump, as everyone thought she would, the Senate might have passed back into Democratic control, but the House would certainly have remained Republican – with Democrats, as always, getting a larger share of the vote in House elections, but still, thanks to gerrymandering, ending up with fewer seats.

Moreover, what happened to Lyndon Johnson half a century ago would likely happen again to Hillary: liberals, never fond of her in the first place, would increasingly turn against her as the consequences of her warmongering sunk in.  One result would be that Democrats would now be looking forward to another 2010-style shellacking in 2018.

Another would be that they, along with the public at large, would soon find themselves looking back upon Obama in much the way that Democrats in the Johnson era looked back fondly upon JFK.

Nostalgia blinded them to the harm that Kennedy’s politics did; it was he, after all, who got the Vietnam War going.   That blindness persists to this day.

Had Hillary won, perceptions of Obama’s “legacy” would be shaped by similar delusions.

But Trump won, and once the consequences of that catastrophe sink in, nostalgia for anything and everything that preceded January 20, 2017 is likely to make the Obama years seem like a Golden Age.

Obama’s vaunted “legacy” is therefore safe – thanks, ironically, to the buffoon who gave Hillary her comeuppance.

Even so, for the sake of struggles ahead, it is important to keep in mind how, in a less nightmarish possible world, Obama’s move out of the White House would be something to look forward to with unadulterated gladness rather than something to dread.

***

In the aftermath of Obama’s victory eight years ago, there was a lot of blather about a “post-racial” America.   No one talks that way any more; the condition of African Americans has hardly improved over the past eight years.  Indeed, African Americans and other persons of color are, if anything, even more afflicted by police violence now than they were when Bush and Dick Cheney were calling the shots.

The main, and very nearly the only, thing Obama did for African Americans was getting elected.  From the moment his victory was announced, and the celebrations in Grant Park were broadcast around the world, it has all been downhill.

“Saving” the economy – keeping a major recession from turning into a full-fledged depression – was another achievement of his.   He did it by saving finance capitalists from themselves, enriching them egregiously in the process.

At the same time, Obama did almost nothing for everybody else.  As a good neoliberal, eager to curry favor with Wall Street, he saved the banksters, leaving their victims to fend for themselves.  Those who were too big to fail were also too big to jail.  Obama let each and every one of them off scot-free.

He also let Bush era war criminals go unpunished; and then went on to follow their lead.  He did stop talking about a Global War on Terror, but, apart from the name change, the main difference between the Obama years and the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency was just that Obama tried, and largely succeeded, in keeping the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on his watch out of sight.

Weaponized drones and special ops assassins are good for that. Obama seems to have enjoyed wielding them.

Then there were the deportations.  If he stays true to his word, which he probably will in this case, Trump will be worse.  But the still reigning Deporter-in-Chief was no slouch.

Trump is seeking out incompetent reactionaries to fill top government positions.  Obama preferred neoliberals to hard right “conservatives,” and he did value competence, but, like Trump. he appointed some certifiable doozies.   For that, he has much to answer for.

Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State?  Seriously?  Was the point to make Condoleezza Rice look good?   Who knows what he was thinking or what debts he was paying off.  All that we do know is that from Libya to Honduras – and worst of all in Syria and Iraq and in refugee camps around Europe — they are still dealing with the consequences.

Obama transformed America’s perpetual war regime — for the worse.   Even Bush sought out Congressional approval for the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.   Obama starts new wars, and expands old ones, without bothering to inform the public or, for that matter, the Congress — in which war-making powers supposedly reside.

As in the nineteenth century, when the U.S. Army would secure the “frontier” by slaughtering the peoples who lived there, it isn’t even clear how many wars the United States is currently fighting – this time to secure what we have lately come to call the “homeland.”

There is so much more: Obama’s attack on whistleblowers, for example, and on government transparency.  And there are countless sins of omission, worthwhile things that Obama could have done, but didn’t – to advance workers’ rights, for example, or to  address the causes and consequences of global warming and other ecological catastrophes.

To be sure, our not very loyal opposition party has a lot to answer for, but Republican obstinacy only explains so much.  Obama’s pro-corporate predilections explain a lot more.

And, of course, there is his “signature” achievement – the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.

That Republicans hate Obamacare so much is odd, to say the least, inasmuch as it is basically a Republican program.   The general idea behind it was contrived at the Heritage Foundation in an effort to ward off genuine health care reform, and something very like it was implemented in Massachusetts by then Governor Mitt Romney, Obama’s rival for the Presidency in 2012.

Moreover, if Trump and the Republican legislators he is currently leading around by the nose  do succeed in replacing it, what they come up with will be something very much like it.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that, for Republicans, the problem with Obamacare is its connection with Obama.  Make a few cosmetic changes, call it Trumpcare, and the loony-tunes who cannot stop trying to repeal Obamacare will stop acting out, and get behind it a hundred percent.

In its present version, Obamacare has generally done more good than harm; mainly by mandating insurance reforms that even Trump knows he dare not alter, and by enrolling tens of thousands of previously uninsured Americans.

But it also did little to control costs, and it further entrenched the power of the private insurance industry, while further enriching Big Pharma and other health care profiteers.  Its enactment into law also set back efforts to establish health care as a right for all citizens, as it is nearly everywhere else in the world.

On balance, though, it will be sad to see the Affordable Care Act go, just as it will be sad to see Trump take over from Obama.

The old order, desperately in need of radical transformation, is now about to change profoundly – not in a salutary way, however; not even in a way that is sufficiently coherent to survive the vicissitudes of political life.   What will become of the country and the world when it all comes crashing down?  One shudders to think.

A major task for now therefore is to do all we can to cushion the blow; another is to work to refashion politics altogether – in ways that will make Clinton-Trump choices unthinkable in the future.

The Trumpworld is so topsy-turvy and out of joint, and so uncharted, that it will take a great deal of effort and thought to figure out how to do either.

There surely are ways, however – especially if Trump and his minions actually do undo Clintonite neoliberalism and humanitarian imperialism; and if, as is more likely by far, their own mindless shenanigans, driven by ignorance and greed, do themselves in as well.

Meanwhile, we can rejoice in Obama’s departure from the political scene, even as we know that it will be a sad day indeed when he does.

More articles by:

ANDREW LEVINE is 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).

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