The President Who Wasn’t There: Barack Obama’s Legacy of Impotence

Photo by RubyGoes | CC BY 2.0

Photo by RubyGoes | CC BY 2.0


Barack Obama was in Brasilia on March 19, 2011, when he announced with limited fanfare the latest regime change war of his presidency. The bombing of Libya had begun with a hail of cruise missile attacks and air strikes. It was something of an impromptu intervention, orchestrated largely by Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and the diva of vengeance Samantha Power, always hot for a saturation bombing in the name of human rights.

Obama soon upped the ante by suggesting that it was time for Qaddafi to go. The Empire had run out of patience with the mercurial colonel. The vague aims of the Libyan war had moved ominously from enforcing “a no-fly zone” to seeking regime change. Bombing raids soon targeted Qaddafi and his family.  Coming in the wake of the extra-judicial assassination of Osama Bin Laden in a blood-spattered home invasion, Qaddafi rightly feared Obama wanted his body in a bag, too.

Absent mass protests against the impending destruction of Tripoli, it fell to Congress to take some tentative steps to challenge the latest unauthorized and unprovoked war. At an earlier time in the history of the Republic, Obama’s arrogant defiance of Congress and the War Powers Act of 1973 might have provoked a constitutional crisis. But these are duller and more attenuated days, where such vital matters have been rendered down into a kind of hollow political theater.  All the players duly act their parts, but everyone, even the cable news audience, realizes that it is just for show. The wars will proceed. The Congress will fund them. The people will have no say in the matter. As Oscar Wilde quipped: “All the world’s a stage, badly cast.”

That old softy John Boehner, the teary-eyed barkeep’s son, sculpted a resolution demanding that Obama explain his intentions in Libya. It passed the House overwhelmingly. A competing resolution crafted by the impish gadfly Dennis Kucinich called for an immediate withdrawal of US forces from operations in Libya. This radically sane measure garnered a robust 148 votes. Obama dismissed both attempts to downsize his unilateralist approach to military operations, saying with a chill touch of the surreal that the 14,000-and-counting sorties flown over Libya didn’t amount to a “war.”

This is Barack Obama, the political moralist? The change agent? The constitutional scholar? Listen to that voice. It is petulant and dismissive. Some might say peevish, like the whine of a talented student caught cheating on a final exam.bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550-e1477943826411

Yes, all the political players were acting their parts. But what role exactly had Obama assumed?

Obama, the Nobel laureate, casts himself as a New Internationalist, a chief executive of the global empire, more eager to consult with European heads of state than members of Congress, even of his own party. Indeed, his co-conspirators in the startling misadventure in Libya were David Cameron and Nikolas Sarkozy, an odd troika to say the least. Even Obama’s own Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, seems to have been discreetly cut out of the decision loop.

You begin to see why Obama sparks such a virulent reaction among the more histrionic precincts of the libertarian right.  He has a majestic sense of his own certitude. The president often seems captivated by the nobility of his intentions, offering himself up as a kind of savior of the eroding American Imperium.

While Obama sells pristine idealism to the masses, he is at heart a calculating pragmatist, especially when it comes to advancing his own ambitions. Obama doesn’t want to be stained with defeat. It’s one reason he has walked away from pushing for a Palestinian state, after his Middle East envoy George Mitchell resigned in frustration. It’s why Obama stubbornly refused to insist on a public option for his atrocious health care bill. It’s why he backed off cap-and-trade and organized labor’s card check bill and the DREAM Act.

Obama assumed the presidency at a moment when much of the nation seemed ready to confront the unwelcome fact that the American project had derailed. Before he died, Norman Mailer took to lamenting that the American culture was corroding from a bad conscience. The country was warping under the psychic weight of  years of illegal wars, torture, official greed, religious prudishness, government surveillance, unsatisfying Viagra-supplemented sex, bland genetically engineered food, crappy jobs, dismal movies, and infantile, corporatized music–all scrolling by in an infinite montage of annoying Tweets. Even the virtual commons of cyberspace had gone solipsistic.

Corporate capitalism just wasn’t delivering the goods anymore. Not for the bottom 80 percent, any way.  The economy was in ruins, mired in what appeared to be a permanent recession.  The manufacturing sector had been killed from the inside-out, with millions of well-paying jobs outsourced and nothing but dreary service-sector positions to take their place. Chronic long-term unemployment hovered at more than 10 percent, worse, much worse, in black America. Those who clung to their jobs had seen their wages stagnate, their home values shrivel and were suffocating under merciless mounds of debt.  Meanwhile, capital moved in ever-tightening circles among a new odious breed of super-rich, making sweat-free billions from the facile movement of money.

By 2008, the wistfulness seemed to have evaporated from the American spirit. The country had seen its own government repeatedly prey on its citizens’ fear of the future. Paranoia had become the last growth industry. From the High Sierras to the Blue Ridge, the political landscape was sour and spiteful, the perfect seed-ground for the sprouting of the Tea Party and even ranker and more venomous movements on the American right.  These were not the ideological descendents of the fiery libertarian Barry Goldwater. The tea-baggers lacked Goldwater’s western innocence and naive idealism. These suburban populists, by and large, were white, unhappy and aging.  Animated by the grim nostalgia for a pre-Lapsarian fantasyland called the Reagan administration, many sensed their station in society slipping inexorably away. They wanted their country back. But back from whom?

Instead of blaming corporate outsourcers or predatory bankers, they directed their vindictive impulse toward immigrants and blacks, government workers and teachers, scientists and homosexuals. There’s something profoundly pathetic about the political fatalism of this new species of Know-Nothings. But, it must be said, their wrath was mostly pure. This strange consortium of discontent seethed with an inchoate sense of alienation, an acidic despair at the diminished potentialities of life in post-industrial America.

No, these were not fanatical idealists or even ante-bellum utopians. They were levelers, of a sort, splenetic and dread-fuelled levelers, conspiratorialists with a Nixonian appetite for political destruction. Primed into a frenzy by the cynical rantings of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, mass gatherings of Tea Partiers across the summer of 2009 showed signs of a collective psychopathy, as if the enervating madness from decades of confinement in the hothouse of the American suburbs had finally ruptured in primetime for all the world to watch over-and-over again on YouTube with mounting mortification. Right there on the National Mall could be heard the vapid gibberish of Michele Bachmann and the new American preterite, those lost and bitter souls who felt their culture had left them far behind.

With his sunny disposition and Prospero-like aptitude for mystification, Obama should have been able to convert them or, at least, to roll over them. Instead, they kicked his ass. How?

Obama is a master of gesture politics, but he tends to flinch in nearly every pitched battle, even when the odds and the public are behind him. His political instincts drive him to seek cover in the middle ground. He is a reflexive compromiser, more Rodney “Can’t We All Just Get Along” King than Reverend King.  Even when confronted by bumbling hacks like John Boehner and Eric Cantor, Obama tends to wilt.

Perhaps Obama had never before been confronted with quite this level of toxic hostility. After all, he’d lived something of a charmed life, the life of a star-child, coddled and pampered, encouraged and adulated, from Indonesia to Harvard. Obama was the physical and psychic embodiment of the new multiculturalism: lean, affable, assured, non-threatening. His vaguely liberal political ideology remained opaque at the core. Instead of an over-arching agenda, Obama delivered facile jingoisms proclaiming a post-racial and post-partisan America. Instead of radical change, Obama offered simply managerial competence.  This, naturally, the Berserkers of the Right interpreted as hubris and arrogance and such hollow homilies served only to exacerbate their rage. The virulent right had profiled Obama and found him to be the perfect target for their accreted animus. And, even better, they had zeroed-in on an enemy so innately conflict-averse that even when pummeled with racist slurs he wouldn’t punch back.

Of course, Obama’s most grievous political wounds were self-inflicted, starting even before his election when he rushed back to Washington to help rescue Bush’s Wall Street bailout. This was perhaps the first real indication that the luminous campaign speeches about generational and systemic change masked the servile psyche of a man who was desperately yearning to be embraced by the nation’s political and financial elites. Instead of meeting with the victims of Wall Street predators or their advocates, like Elizabeth Warren and Ralph Nader, Obama fist-bumped with the brain trust of Goldman Sachs and schmoozed with the creme de la creme of K Street corporate lobbyists. In the end, Obama helped salvage some of the most venal and corrupt enterprises on Wall Street, agreed to shield their executives from prosecution for their financial crimes and, predictably, later got repaid with their scorn.

Thus the Obama revolution was over before it started, guttered by the politician’s overweening desire to prove himself to the grandees of the establishment.  From there on, other promises, from confronting climate change to closing Gitmo, from ending torture to initiating a nationalized health care system, proved even easier to break.

Take the issue that had so vivified his campaign: ending the war on Iraq. Within weeks of taking office, Obama had been taken to the woodshed by Robert Gates and General David Petreaus and had returned to the White House bruised and humbled. The withdrawal would slowly proceed, but a sinister force would remain behind indefinitely, a lethal contingent of some 50,000 or so CIA operatives, special forces units, hunter-killer squads and ruthless private security details.  Bush’s overt war quietly became a black op under Obama. Out of sight, out of mind.

By the fall of 2009 even the most calloused Washington hands had grown weary over how deeply entangled the US occupation of Afghanistan had become. The savage rhythms of the war there had backfired. Too many broken promises, too many bombed weddings and assassinations, too many dead and mutilated children, too much cowardice and corruption in the puppet satrapy in Kabul. The tide had irrevocably turned against the US and its squalid policies. Far from being terminally crippled, the Taliban was now stronger than it had been at any time since 2001. But instead of capitalizing on this tectonic shift of sentiment by drawing down American troops, Obama, in a cynical ploy to prove his martial meddle, journeyed to West Point and announced in a somber speech that he was raising the stakes in Afghanistan by injecting a Petreaus-sanctioned surge of forces into the country and unleashing a new campaign of lethal operations that would track and target suspected insurgents across the Hindu Kush and into Pakistan.

That night Obama spoke in a stern cadence, studded with imperious pauses, as if to suggest that he, unlike the fickle George W. Bush, was going to wage the Afghan war until it was won. But he knew better. And so did his high command–even Stanley McChrystal and David Petreaus, who had trademarked the counter-insurgency strategy. There was nothing to win in Afghanistan. Out on that distant rim of the world, there weren’t even any standards to gauge military success. This was meant to be a punitive war, pure and simple, designed to draw as much blood as possible, an obscene war fought largely by remote-controlled drones attacking peasant villages with murderous indiscretion.

Afterwards, the American peace movement could only bray in impotent outrage. But as Obama’s wars spread from Afghanistan and Iraq to Pakistan and Yemen, Somalia and Libya, outside of the redoubtable Catholic Workers and Quakers and a few Code Pinkers–the last flickering moral lights in the nation–even those empty yawps of protest dissipated into whispered lamentations, hushed murmurs of disillusionment. Could it be that the American Left had gone extinct as any kind of potent political force and it took the presidency of Barack Obama to prove it?

And what of Obama’s spellbound followers, those youthful crusaders who saw him illumined in the sacral glow of his ethereal rhetoric and cleaved to him during the hard slog of two campaigns with a near-religious devotion?  What was running through their minds when the mists finally parted to reveal that Obama was implementing cunning tracings of Bush-era policies on everything from the indefinite detention of uncharged prisoners in the war on terror to raids on medical marijuana distributors in states where medical pot has been legalized? What, indeed.

Illusions die hard, especially when shattered by cruise missiles.

This essay is adapted from Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3