How Obama Could Find Some Redemption

Photograph Source: jamesomalley – CC BY 2.0

History, literature, film, and scripture are loaded with stories and examples of redemption. Buddhism gives us the story of Aṅgulimāla, a pathological mass-murderer who became a follower of the Buddha and went on to be enshrined as a “patron saint” of childbirth in South and Southeast Asia.

Rick Blaine, the character played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 Hollywood classic Casablanca, put side his cynical bitterness and seeming indifference to the rise of the Nazi Third Reich to help Isla Lund (played by Ingmar Bergman) – the former lover who jilted (and embittered) him – escape the grip of the Nazis with her husband, an anti-fascist Resistance fighter. The movie ends with Blaine declaring his determination to join the Resistance in Morocco.

The New Testament tells the story of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector and a wealthy man:

“Jesus looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to Jesus, ‘Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.’ And Jesus said to Zacchaeus, ‘Today salvation has come to this house. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.’”

Zacchaues was perhaps inspiration for Charles Dickens’ character Ebeneezer Scrooge, a vicious exploitative capitalist turned into a benevolent and kindly employer when the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future visit him to tell him the story of his heretofore miserable, money-grubbing, and misanthropic life.

Malcom X told his life story to Alex Haley as one of redemption. It was a tale of progression from violent and criminal hustler (known as “Detroit Red”) to the righteous and radical channeling and focusing his anger at White Society as a fiercely eloquent Civil Rights fighter for all the oppressed.

When the leading munitions and arms manufacturer Alfred Nobel read a premature obituary that condemned his as “the merchant of death,” he bequeathed his fortune to establish the annual Nobel Peace Prize.

After a long career of leading bloody, racist, and imperialist interventions in the Philippines, China, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, the United States Marines Major General J. Smedly Butler was at the time of his death, 1940, the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. Upon retirement in the early 1930s, however, Butler became widely known for his outspoken lectures against war profiteering, U.S. military adventurism, and what he viewed as nascent fascism in the United States. In 1933, he exposed the “Business Plot,” telling a Congressional committee that a group of wealthy American industrialists were planning a military coup to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt, with Butler selected to lead a march of veterans to become a fascist-style dictator. Two years later, Butler published War is a Racket, which has been widely quoted by antiwar activists ever since. America’s left and anti-imperialist intellectual Noam Chomsky has long kept on his wall a framed picture of the following statement from Butler’s book:

“WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives…I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

The United States’ greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, found a measure of redemption on the slavery issue during the Civil War. Like many moderate Republicans in the late 1850s and 1860-61, Lincoln was – much to the chagrin of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass – “unwilling to jeopardize the Union by interfering directly with slavery in the states” (Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War [New York: Oxford University Press, 1970], p. 215.) He undertook the Civil War with the sole stated aim of restoring the treasonously seceded slave states of the southern Confederacy to the Union. Faced with early Confederate victories and the need to cripple the South’s slave-based economy to defeat it, however, Lincoln bowed to pressure of the abolitionists and let his longstanding moral opposition to slavery find voice in the Emancipation Proclamation. From that point on, the epic conflict was a struggle over the slave system. In his justly famous Gettysburg Address of November 1863, Lincoln called the Civil War a struggle to see whether a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…can long endure.” He identified the Union Army’s cause as “a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In his less well remembered but equally eloquent Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 18654, Lincoln left no doubt about where he stood on the need to abolish chattel slavery:

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Another American president who deserves at least some redemption credit because of a speech he gave near the end of his time in office is Dwight Eisenhower. A lifelong militarist whose presidency undertook numerous murderous, destructive, and imperial actions around the world, Eisenhower concluded his two terms in the White House by warning against the rise of an authoritarian “military-industrial complex” in his January 17 1960 Farewell Address:

“Th[e] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist…We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

(Eisenhower hardly invented the notion of the “military-industrial complex.” The notion suggests a deadly anti-democratic nexus of political, economic, and military power that lay at the heart of the left U.S. sociologist C Wright Mills’ haunting 1956 study The Power Elite. Still, it was a remarkable and prescient warning for Eisenhower to issue in his final public statement from the peak office atop the world’s leading military superpower. The warning has gone un-heeded ever since.)

There is always hope for a change of legacy and a measure redemption. We do not live in the past. As the Buddhists say, the present moment is the only moment that exists. There is always a chance to change one’s path, building on the lessons of one’s mistakes and even one’s crimes to chart a new direction – to seek a measure of redemption, “salvation,” and recovery.

What would redemption look like for Barack Obama? It would involve eight things, for starters. First, it would entail admitting something unpleasant: his own deep complicity in the deadly ascendancy of the neofascist Donald Trump, who Noam Chomsky aptly calls “the most dangerous criminal in human history.” To no small extent, Trump owes his disastrous and malevolent presidency to the silver-tongued Obama’s eight years of White House service to the rich and powerful. The corporate-Democratic Obama presidency betrayed the working people, poor, and minorities in whose name Obama campaigned under the banners (inherited from the master corporate Democrat Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign) of Hope and Change. Obama’s eight years in the White House demobilized and depressed the nation’s progressive majority while antagonizing the nation’s racist right-wing in ways that produced dangerous political openings for an ever more apocalyptic and authoritarian, white-nationalist Republican Party – a party that united behind an at least instinctual fascist (Trump)who was under the influence of actual and conscious fascists Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller in the summer of 2016. I published a long Counterpunch essay on precisely how Obama contributed to the rise of Trump. It was titled “Barack Von Obamdenbug: Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens.” The title says it all but please read the whole thing for the details.

“Please stop wearing those t-shirts that say, ‘Do You Miss Me Yet?” Obama would tell liberals. “Yes, Trump is terrible, he’s a monster, but guess what: I’m a big part of why he’s in power.”

Second, redemption would require Obama apologizing to the nation for following Trump’s election by going out into the Rose Garden the next day and telling the American people to give Trump a chance and “root…for his success in uniting and leading the country…because we’re actually all on one team. We’re Americans first, we’re patriots first, we all want what’s best for this country.”

That was idiotic, deeply conservative advice and Obama knew it. During the 2016 campaign, we learned from a recent Hulu documentary on Hillary Clinton, Obama said this to Hillary’s lame vice presidential pick Tim Kaine: ‘Tim, remember, this is no time to be a purist. You’ve got to keep a fascist out of the White House.”

It was an all-too accurate description of Trump. No responsible political actor tells the American people to “root for the success” of a demented arch-authoritarian racist, nativist, sexist, and eco-cidal demagogue – a fascist – in the world’s most powerful job.

Third, Obama would apologize for helping kick off RussiaGate, which turned out (predictably) to be a “great political gift to Trump” (Chomsky). As the Russian dissident Masha Gessen warned early on, Russiagate “will not bring down Trump.” Further:

“He may sacrifice more of his people, as he sacrificed Flynn, as further leaks discredit them. Various investigations may drag on for months, drowning out other, far more urgent issues. In the end, Congressional Republicans will likely conclude that their constituents don’t care enough about Trump’s Russian ties to warrant trying to impeach the Republican president. Meanwhile, while Russia continues to dominate the front pages, Trump will continue waging war on immigrants, cutting funding for everything that’s not the military, assembling his cabinet of deplorables—with six Democrats voting to confirm Ben Carson for Housing, for example, and ten to confirm Rick Perry for Energy. According to the Trump plan, each of these seems intent on destroying the agency he or she is chosen to run—to carry out what Steve Bannon calls the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state.’ (emphasis added).

Other, far more urgent issues like the corporate war on livable ecology, which raises the real specter of human extinction, with Trump in the vanguard of the effort to turn the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber. Like the lack of elementary and responsible readiness for a global pandemic that public health experts had been warning the U.S. government about for many years – a public health crisis that Trump has predictably used to deepen his authoritarian rule.

Fourth, redemption would require the Obamas giving away the tens of millions of dollars they have received from the nation’s ruling class as deferred oligarchic payment for their obedient service to the wealthy Few while the rest of the country struggled to keep their heads above water in the wake of the Great Recession. That service helped put a fascist in the world’s most powerful job. The money could be given away to the victims of the current new Great Depression or to the formation of grassroots organizations equipped to fight white nationalism and plutocracy.

Fifth, Obama would suspend work on the environmentally toxic gentrification project that is his big presidential library on Chicago’s South Side. He could invest remaining project funds into a library dedicated to research on how the American corporate and financial ruling class rules, how that rule leads to disastrous consequences (including but not limited to fascism in its various forms, and what the working-class majority can and must do to meaningfully counter and overthrow ruling class power. As one of Obama’s distinguished biographers (or at least chroniclers), I, the author of They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Routledge, 2014), will be happy to deliver the Keynote Address at the unveiling of this library.

Sixth, Obama could go public on a regular basis with his all-too pathetically private understanding of the Trump presidency as neo-fascistic – and with an admission that this corporate-Democratic administration helped hatch that presidency. If that is too much to ask (it probably is), Obama could at least use his status as “more popular than Jesus” among Democrats to show some guts and challenge Trump’s policies and behavior in a direct and forceful way. It’s been disconcerting to (not) hear Obama’s deafening silence as the nation has drifted ever further into Trumpism-fascism, now under the cover of Trump-amplified COVID-19 – a creepy hush that has persisted even as Trump regularly attacks every one of Obama’s policies he can get his hands on and blames Obama for every imaginable evil at home and abroad.

Seventh, Obama would suspend work on his forthcoming 1000-page book – his third volume on his favorite topic: Obama. It is certainly going to be a self-serving whitewash of his two decades of “public” service in elected office to the possessing classes and their domestic and global Empire. Who needs that?

It would useful if he would turn the volume into a short and readable reflection on how and why he became a servant of the corporate and financial oligarchy and a deadly imperialist – and on how those life choices influenced world history in disastrous ways, including his contribution the ascendancy of Donald Trump. Obama could channel J. Smedly Butler, with a little Eisenhower thrown in (Obama once described himself to corporate CEOs as an Eisenhower Republican), reflecting on his years of service to Wall Street and the military-industrial complex.

Eighth, Obama would give a speech in which he rescinded his endorsement of the center-right corporatist Joe Biden. He would apologize for his central role in foisting the depressing Biden atrocity on America and the world. He would tell Americans that Bernie Sanders was the only major party candidate who ran in accord with the policy wishes and values of the nation’s silenced progressive majority. The onetime community organizer Obama would also tell Americans that voting under the deeply flawed and corporate-captive U.S. elections and party system is a very minor and marginal act compared to the kind of peoples’ politics they need to develop in order to fight the combined authoritarian forces of corporate and financial oligarchy, imperialism, militarism. white nationalism, racism, sexism, and ecocide. Obama’s address would include the following passage from the late radical American historian Howard Zinn’s brilliant March 2008 Progressive essay “Election Madness,” published as liberals, progressives and even some leftists were losing their minds over., well….um, Obama:

“Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war….Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

What are chances of Obama doing any of these things?

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).