A History of Disappointment
by Jackson Lears
The London Review of Books
To those of us who hoped that Barack Obama’s election marked a departure from right-wing rule, the president’s failure of leadership has been stunning. Seldom have insurgent expectations – even sceptical, guarded ones – been deflated so swiftly. From the moment he announced his staff and cabinet appointments (Rahm Emanuel, Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates et al) it was clear that Obama meant to play by the same Washington rules that created the policy disasters he inherited from George W. Bush. Obama had retreated into politics as usual. He never looked back. One did not have to be a sentimental utopian to be disappointed.
In domestic affairs, Obama’s obeisance to the Washington consensus led him to abandon the bold approach he articulated during the campaign in his Philadelphia ‘speech on race’, when he attacked the manipulation of racial hostilities to divide the black and white working class. No one running for high office in America had done that since the 1890s. But once in power, Obama soon abandoned any pretence of promoting social democracy. After pushing through a stimulus package, he quickly (and illogically) embraced the gospel of austerity preached by Tea Party ranters and ‘centrist’ pundits. Indeed, the president played a critical role in legitimating this corrosive creed, which despite its tendency to exacerbate recession has now become orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic. In his first State of the Union address, given in January 2010 when his party still had control of both houses of Congress, Obama announced a three-year freeze on non-defence discretionary spending – a move he had called an ‘example of unfair burden sharing’ and ‘using a hatchet when you need a scalpel’ when John McCain proposed it during the campaign of 2008.
In the same speech, Obama embraced the false analogy between federal budgets and household budgets, overlooking (for starters) the government’s control of taxation and the money supply. ‘Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions,’ he said. ‘The federal government should do the same.’ His puzzling timidity culminated in his supine response to ‘deficit hawks’ during the debt ceiling crisis of the summer. Recently, Obama’s spine has begun to stiffen in response to the Occupy movement. He has finally started to make a populist critique of systemic inequality, but it remains to be seen how sustained or effective this new stance will be.
Obama’s deference to established power has been even more striking in national security affairs. Yet this was the area where he had promised the most. Having opposed the Iraq War ‘not just in execution but in conception’, he seemed to harbour a healthy scepticism toward interventionism. And he assured civil libertarians that he would reverse the Bush administration’s drive towards executive tyranny. He would renounce torture and the ‘extraordinary rendition’ of prisoners to CIA ‘black sites’ where torture took place. He would close Guantánamo, and end indefinite detention and warrantless surveillance. So we were led to believe.
But in practice President Obama has been far more committed to continuity in national security policy than candidate Obama promised. Despite fitful rhetorical displays of dislike for torture, the Obama administration has continued extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention and warrantless surveillance, while expanding the doctrine of state secrets used to conceal those practices from public view. Guantánamo is still in business, beyond the reach of civil law. Though the phrase ‘war on terror’ has fallen into official disuse, the carte blanche it provided for foreign military interventions remains intact. Providentialist assumptions still lend US imperial adventures an aura of sanctity. Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech dragged out all the old tropes, including a familiar set-piece: the United States on the frontiers of freedom, fighting a 60-year war against tyranny that culminated in the battle for Afghanistan. Apart from the echoes of Reinhold Niebuhr – the furrowed brow, the feigned reluctance to use force – the words could have been spoken by George W. Bush.
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