Forget the platitudes, the promises and his uphill battle against a once presumptive candidate - Barak Obama is the Democrats’ brightest hope since that sax-playing chubby chaser from Arkansas. But what does this firebrand mean for America? More importantly, who the hell is he, and why do I care? For these answers and more we go to Michael R., fresh back from his trip to scenic Boulder, Colorado (pretty much the only place in Colorado where it’s safe to be gay or Democratic):
Q: Who is Barak Obama, and why does everyone love him so much?
A: There is Barak Obama, the man, and there is Barak Obama, the phenomenon. They are quite different things.
First, Barak Obama the man: a 47-year-old graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School (a member the editorial board of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, who graduated Juris Doctor magna cum laude), former civil rights lawyer and member of the Illinois Senate (garnering an impressive 70% of the popular vote), and professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School. As a Senator, Obama contributed to legislation to control conventional weapons, delimit lobbying, prevent electoral fraud, address climate change and prevent nuclear terrorism. As a presidential candidate, he promises to withdraw troops from Iraq, establish US energy independence and institute universal health care.
Obama’s employment history has also been typically liberal in nature: a year with the Business International Corporation, a business-oriented think-tank, followed by a few years with the New York Public Interest Research Group, then on to the Chicago’s Developing Communities Project, where he was a community organizer for three years, simultaneously working with the black congregation-based community organization, the Gamaliel Foundation. In 1992, Obama worked with the Illinois Project Vote, registering black voters. In 1993, Obama joined Davis, Milner, Barnhill & Galland, a law firm specializing in civil litigation and neighbourhood economic development. At various times and for various periods, Obama has also held seats on a variety of liberal foundations, including Public Allies, the Woods Fund of Chicago, the Joyce Foundation and the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.
In short, Barak Obama represents the humanitarian, liberal wing of the Democratic Party. While there are those who would claim that he represents the American left, this is more a comment on the mainstream nature of the US left than on the man himself.
All of this places Obama in a long line of liberal Democrats who have been presidential candidates or even the President; for instance, the original great white hope of the Democratic Party and liberal America, John Kennedy; ’60s icon, Eugene McCarthy; Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jimmy Carter, or the Democrat’s last great disappointment, Bill Clinton, to name but a handful. It is worth noting that the three men named above who became President exhibited a far greater degree of liberalism out of office than in. We will return to this point.
It seems to me that Obama-fever has only one parallel in post-World War II American history, and that is the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. The frenzy surrounding Obama’s presidential campaign is more about the historical juncture than it is about the man himself. America, with its oversized collective ego, has never brooked defeat well. After going down in flames in Vietnam in the mid-70s, the US engaged in a veritable orgy of handwringing and self-pity, by turns overwhelming and nauseating, for some 15 years. It was only with the Reagan administration’s illegal invasion of Grenada and the illegal Contra war in Nicaragua that Americans began again to securely feel they were “number one,” a sentiment reinforced by the dubious military exercises in Libya, the former Yugoslavia and Sudan. Both American politicians and media pundits began to speak of the US as the world’s policeman.
However, the US romance with itself proved short-lived: first, the economy began to tank under the pressure of foreign competition, particularly cheap labour and the outsourcing to the Third World; then came the collapse of major industries, such as the automobile industry, with formerly vibrant working class communities suddenly reduced to black holes of unemployment and economic depression, i.e. Flint, Michigan; and, finally, nineteen men armed with box cutters carried out the single largest act of non-governmental terrorism in history, killing over 2000 people and costing the American economy trillions of dollars in the subsequent seven years to date. By the time the events of 9/11 occurred, the US had already begun its decline as the world’s leading power, and a handful of shrewd, albeit diabolical, men and women knew it.
The neocons saw in the events of 9/11 the opportunity they had been looking for. If the US was to reverse its gradual, but inevitable, economic and political decline, drastic measures were required. The invasion of Iraq was the key plank in the strategy. (There seems to be little point in summarizing the illegal and illegitimate nature of that invasion here; the public record is glaringly clear.) The invasion of Iraq was not, as many seem to presume, about “oil for SUVs.” The US was already importing the better part of the oil Iraq was producing – since the war, oil production has declined and prices have risen, so if access to oil was the issue, the strategy was deeply flawed. I would submit, however, that the invasion of Iraq was not about gaining oil for the US, but about how to prevent that oil from reaching the growing economies in China, India, Indonesia, etc, as well as preventing Russia from reasserting itself as a major power on the world stage. (In this regard, it is also worth looking at where the US maintains a military presence in the former Soviet Union.) Essentially, burning oil wells were better than oil wells exporting oil to America’s competitors.
But something happened that the US psyche was ill-prepared for. The US found itself getting its ass kicked in Iraq, just as had been the case in Vietnam some 20 years earlier, and its putative allies weren’t willing to die indefinitely for somebody else’s imperial hubris. So after eight years and two dubious victories for the neocon-hijacked Republican Party, with a relatively high level of unemployment, runaway levels of personal bankruptcy, a declining dollar, record fuel prices and an ongoing and apparently unwinnable war, Americans seem ready for “change.” Just as the American populace turned to Carter and Clinton in the past when they grew tired of bellicose Republicanism, they are turning to Obama now.
An inordinate amount of attention has been paid to Obama’s pigmentation. Can a black man win popular support? Can a black man win the Democratic Primary? Can a black man win the Presidency? And, most ominously, will a black presidential candidate/President be assassinated? And, more recently, if a black man can really do those things is he really a black man? (This one coming from long time black political leader and media whore Jesse Jackson, amongst others.)
Not much positive can be said about the neocons and the Bush administrations, but they did exhibit an exemplary level of colour blindness. Blacks were represented by Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, both of whom served as Secretary of State, arguably the third most powerful position in the administration and the most important public office, Alphonso Jackson (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) and Rod Paige (Secretary of Education). Albert Gonzales (Attorney General), Carlos Gutierrez (Secretary of Commerce) and Mel Martinez (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development) are all Hispanic, with the latter two Cuban-born. It seems incontestable to me that the particularly prominent roles played by Powell and Rice, the former consistently the most popular figure in the first Bush administration, laid the groundwork for Obama’s presidential campaign – it is quite obvious that had Powell wished to run for the Presidency as either a Republican or a Democrat, this would have been favourably greeted in many sectors.
The enthusiasm surrounding Obama’s campaign is undoubtedly rooted in a crypto-religious faith in his capacity to turn the situation around in the US – to end the war in Iraq in a dignified way, to rejuvenate the economy and get oil prices back down and to deliver the social programs, particularly medicare, the US so desperately needs. The man’s liberal credentials speak for themselves, and he has both governmental experience and roots in his own community – even the man’s sincerity seems obvious. All of this will doubtless serve to raise expectations to dizzying heights.
This might be a good place to review the realities surrounding past liberal presidents in whom much hope was invested. John F. Kennedy was unquestionably the prototype for the “great white hope” in America. In spite of a truckload of liberal rhetoric, Kennedy was arguably the most aggressively anti-communist president in American history and succeeded in substantially ratcheting up Cold War tensions. He was responsible for the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in 1961, a major embarrassment. Out of what can only be called sheer hubris, Kennedy brought the world to the cusp of nuclear war in 1963, with the so-called Cuban missile Crisis. In the same year, he was responsible for the decision to take over the failing French war in Vietnam, flooding the country with US soldiers and setting in motion what was to become the most divisive internal conflict in post-WW II American history. And in the same year, he supported the coup in Iraq that put Saddam Hussein in power. He also disappointed civil rights leaders with his slow, clumsy and at times retrograde action regarding America’s notorious racism – for instance, in 1962, he distanced himself from civil rights legislation for fear of antagonizing southern Democrats.
Jimmy Carter, the next major liberal to serve as President, took positive steps to establish civil rights, to legalize abortion and to replace the death penalty with a life sentence (admittedly with mixed results on all counts). However, in the area of Cold War politics, Carter took a step that would serve subsequent administrations, including those of George W. Bush, in their bellicose interests in the Middle East, the Carter Doctrine. The Doctrine was written by Carter’s Secretary of State, Zbigniew Brzezinski (it might have been called the Brzezinski Doctrine, but nobody could remember how to spell Brzezinski) in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (the outcome of which was an object lesson the US failed to learn). It asserted America’s right to intervene in the Persian Gulf at will to defend its national interests, i.e., access to oil. It was an essential step in the American exceptionalism that led to the current war in Iraq.
The next great liberal hope was Bill Clinton. Domestically, Clinton expanded the death penalty to include crimes that did not result in death, for example large-scale drug dealing and, most importantly, failed to deliver the universal medicare that had formed a central plank in his electoral campaign. On the international level, Clinton was the first President to raise the spectre of Saddam attaining weapons of mass destruction, and to use the claim to rationalize aggressive military action against Iraq. In 1998, following the al-Qaeda attacks on the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, Clinton authorized a cruise missile bombing campaign against putative al-Qaeda sites in Sudan and Afghanistan (Operation Infinite Reach), famously destroying the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, a factory which produced 50% of Sudan’s human and veterinarian medication. He also authorized the US and NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia in 1999. The long and the short of it is that Clinton’s foreign policy was marked by a substantial upramping of the aggression against Islamic countries and undoubtedly served to contribute to the factors that led to 9/11.
It is in this context that one must realistically consider the Obama phenomenon. On the one hand, the forthcoming election will serve as a veritable IQ test for the American electorate. The rest of the world is telegraphing to the US the fact that they want to see Obama and not McCain in the Oval Office – Obama’s handsome, smiling face has graced the cover of virtually every major magazine in the world in recent weeks and, when visiting foreign countries, he has been uniformly well received. In Berlin alone, 70,000 people turned out to greet him. (And he didn’t even claim to be a German pastry known as a Berliner.) On the other hand, the powerful forces that make up the core of US capitalism, the most powerful capitalists in the world, are unlikely to be supportive of more than limited initiatives towards change on Obama’s part, and this is no small issue. In the unlikely event that Obama were to buck that pressure, countless voices have predicted his assassination, which could quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy – doubtless the work of a lone gunman in a library repository somewhere.
So what should one expect from a victorious Obama? Some concessions to his liberal base, but don’t hold your breathe waiting for universal medicare – the insurance companies are extremely powerful and private medical insurance is an unholy cash cow – pious expressions about “peace on earth” coupled with a “realistic” necessity to remain in the Middle East, possible military expansion should the Russians continue to assert their right to control their sphere of influence and a liberal-left at least temporarily neutered by their support for their candidate, giving an Obama administration the kind of leeway Dick Cheney has wet dreams about.
Remember kids, no matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.