Obama was never going to have room to effect radical change
In his book Where Do We Go from Here? Martin Luther King recalls the only time that he was booed at a meeting. His hecklers were young black power supporters. “Unfortunately, when hope diminishes the hate is often turned most bitterly towards those who originally built up the hope ... For 12 years I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress ... They were now booing because they felt we were unable to deliver on our promises ... They were now hostile because they were watching the dream they had so readily accepted now turn into a nightmare.”
Barack Obama is no Martin Luther King. The former stood for election and now stands at the pinnacle of American power; the latter led a movement dedicated to challenging the power structure. King practised a politics that could not be accommodated within the electoral mainstream, Obama drew those into the electoral mainstream who had either given up on or never practised politics.
But for all their differences, both adopted goals, strategies and allies that were ultimately incapable of delivering the results their rhetoric had promised. When King was assassinated, his opposition to war, economic inequality and armed self-defence had left him a marginalised figure, abandoned by many white liberals and black radicals.
As the mid-term elections approach, Obama is struggling to renew the sense of optimism and ambition of two years ago and finds himself battling to keep both centrists and radicals on board. There are areas of the country where his presence on the stump would hinder rather than help; a handful of Democratic candidates are not just running against Republicans, but him. As Democrats prepare for a likely drubbing at the polls, the question many who backed him are asking is whether he raised their hopes too high or their expectations were unrealistic? The answer is neither.
It is not unrealistic to believe that a country as wealthy as the US should be able to provide healthcare for all, a dignified life for its elderly, an infant mortality rate better than Cuba’s, a life expectancy higher than Bosnia’s, a foreign policy that does not hinge on military aggression, and an economy where fewer than one in seven live in poverty. What is unrealistic is to believe that any of those things can be achieved, or even seriously tackled, with just a single vote.
Their mistake was to believe that transformational change was something you could impart to a higher power—the president—and then witness on CNN. The problem was not that many set their hopes too high but that rather than claim those hopes as their own they invested them in a single person—Obama—and in an utterly corrupted political culture. For the narrow ideological and organisational confines within which American electoral politics operates do not leave much room for real change.
A winner-takes-all voting system where both main parties are sustained by corporate financing, the congressional districts are openly gerrymandered and 40% of the upper chamber can block anything, is never going to be a benign vehicle for radical reform. Virtually every enduring progressive development in US politics since the war has been sparked either by massive mobilisations outside of electoral politics that have forced politicians to respond, or through the courts.
Despite these limitations, Obama has achieved more in just two years than any Democratic president in a full term since Lyndon Johnson. The trouble is that these achievements have been inadequate and cannot compensate for an enduring economic slump.
That does not absolve Obama from his share of responsibility for the disappointments. There are also many things he said he would do that remain undone. George Bush’s torture apparatus—including Guantánamo—remains virtually intact; Obama has sent government lawyers to defend “don’t ask don’t tell”, which he promised to repeal; having pledged to impose a foreclosure moratorium he now refuses to do so despite evidence of irregularities and possible illegalities in the process.
Moreover, rhetorically, at least, he projected a far more dynamic, idealistic and populist campaign than the one he was actually running. As the community organiser-cum-presidential candidate, he managed to simulate the energy and vision of a movement and then super-impose it on to a tightly run, top-down presidential campaign bid.
Resonance of race
Nowhere was this more evident than the manner in which he sought to harness the symbolic resonance of his race while simultaneously denying its political significance: at one and the same time posing as a direct legatee of the civil rights movement and little more than a distant relative. That he accepted the Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was no mistake; nor was the fact that during his nomination address he failed to mention King by name.
But when it came to matters of substance, far from raising expectations too high he actually set them quite low. He stood on a moderate platform in the middle of an economic crisis that demanded drastic action. And even with that tepid agenda he won only 53% of the vote against a weaker candidate, with an even weaker running mate, who conducted an incoherent campaign.
So, given the institutions in which Obama was embedded, it was no great feat to predict today’s disappointment. The challenge was to see some opportunity in the surge of activists, previously dormant, depressed or despondent, who found in him a reason to return to or enter political activity and the possibility that they might form an independent movement.
The fact that this has not yet happened hardly negates the fact that it might have happened and needs to happen. For it will take some kind of movement, rooted in communities and adopting strategies, both inside and outside the electoral system, to bring the changes that many former Obama supporters want.
Lacking that, we are poised to see a flowering of the cynicism that has already taken root, fertilised by the financial crisis. When Sarah Palin mocked Democrats with the question “How is that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?” she was essentially championing the political sclerosis stasis she claims to oppose. Those on the hard left who mistake “I told you so” for analysis or an alternative, are doing the same thing.
Nobody ever went broke denouncing politics or politicians. Indeed, it is precisely these denunciations that are guiding the two contradictory trends shaping the current electoral season. For distressed Democrats and driven Tea Party activists are, in very different ways, expressing their frustration and disaffection with American politics.
If Obama imitated radicalism to great effect, then the Tea Party has done an even better job of affecting anti-corporate populism. Its candidates, bankrolled by big business as never before, don’t talk about social issues such as abortion or gay marriage, but instead campaign on their opposition to the bank bailout, healthcare reform and their desire to create jobs through small businesses.
Republicans will head to the polls to elect people who will actually cut jobs and support bankers. Democrats may well stay at home because their candidate has not made things better, and in so doing make things worse. Neither disaffection nor rage are electoral strategies. But in the absence of an alternative, frustration has political consequences. - guardian.co.uk