[Marxism] Barack Obama, Changeling

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 27 08:31:41 MDT 2011

Counterpunch July 27, 2011
The Politics of Make-Believe
Barack Obama, Changeling


     Damaged goods, send them back
     I can’t work, I can’t achieve, send me back
     Open the till, give me the change
     You said would do me good
     Refund the cost
     You said you’re cheap, but you’re too much

     --“Damaged Goods,” Gang of Four

Barack Obama was in Brasilia on March 19, 2011, when he announced 
with limited fanfare the latest war of his young 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 Powers, 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.

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 where 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 being 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 naïve 
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 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 crème de la crème 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 

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 election 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.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked 
Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. 
His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / 
CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: sitka at comcast.net.

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