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Learning from Obama’s Presidency

Alex Harris - 24th October 2012
Learning from Obama’s Presidency

“It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.” Such was the rhetoric of the Obama campaign; at once both flirting with the spirit of greatness that comprises American cultural mythology and the dewy-eyed aspiration that is American sentimentality. There was nothing substantive about Obama's 2008 rallying cry, just as there was nothing original, its genesis to be found in the 1972 United Farm Worker's striker's maxim “si, se puede!” which was co-opted by Obama in his 2004 campaign for the Illinois state senate and revived once again for his Presidential bid. The message was as clear as it was vague; that a vote for Barack Obama was as much an exercise in individual self-fulfilment as it was a demonstration of enfranchisement – a vote for me is a vote for yourself, you can make this happen. For the world, the promise was to cleanse the past and erase the unilateral excess of the Bush administration – unilateralism would be cast aside in favour of a renewed effort at global co-operation, with the Obama administration at the centre of discussion. Speaking in Cairo in June 2009, the President outlined in interdependence of nations in the 21st century: “when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk.” The message was that not only did America's domestic problems have global ramifications, but that the prosperity of nations overseas would affect prosperity in the United States.

Obama's domestic mandate was, however, paradoxical – his campaign, for the most part, utilised his strength for soaring oratory rather than fleshing out detailed policy -and so when it came to January 2009, a problem broiled underneath the dazzling spectacle of America having elected its first black President. Since Obama personified the nation itself, voters projected onto Obama their own hopes, desires and, ultimately, policy proposals. Yet pleasing everyone is impossible - such a skirmish of wants and needs meant that the inevitability of disappointment was not just the product of cynicism – it was a pre-ordained statistical certainty.

Domestically speaking, once the economic crisis struck, one could have written the story of The Disappointment in Obama and been accused of lacking creative impulse. A burst housing bubble, leading to an implosion of the financial sector, would reverberate around the world and create a crisis that was not just global, but symbiotic. Each country would be rife with internal political squabbling over how to navigate the labyrinthine journey to recovery, and not all countries could recover equally. Just as the cause of the crash in the failure of the American housing market demonstrated the world's economic reliance on the one remaining superpower, so too did the Eurozone crisis return, boomerang-style, to demonstrate America's increasing lack of self-sufficiency and dependence on the international economic arena in lifting itself out of the mess it had created for itself.

Aside from the predictability of a protracted crisis, the Great Recession had, for Americans, the effect of illuminating and magnifying its cause - a morally bankrupt Congressional body deeply enmeshed with a financial sector so ravenously obsessed with the generation of capital as to embody the id of the American psyche. An elite, shady cabal that sees 'public interest' as synonymous with weak, degenerate altruism and the pursuit of wealth as both a birthright and virtue. These guys had long since infiltrated the Grand Old Party, forming a strange and logically nonsensical alliance with the fundamentalist Christian lobby and being cozy enough with the Democratic party as to have bipartisan approval, yet the damage they caused was enormous. Prior to the 2010s, phrases like 'wealth inequality' and 'the top one-percent' were the hallmark of dedicated left-wing activists and human rights seminars, but hardly close to the national consciousness and certainly not recognised by the political class as being anything besides liberal posturing.

And so for some, “yes, we can” was really just the shortened version of “yes we can...defeat these guys,” to which Obama's unfortunately warm relationship with the financial sector, embodied in the painfully meek Dodd-Frank Act seemed anathema. Yet Obama's promise, ultimately, was never that of the Liberal Napoleon, or even the valiant socialist, remaking America in Scandinavia's image. Obama's promise was more biblically humble, to “set aside childish things” and govern according to tolerance and consensus rather than the unitary executive, steamroller approach of the Bush Administration. Quasi-parliamentarian, Obama's vision for congress was of one in which Democrats and Republicans would recognise their common ends, if not their common means, and operate on an assumption of integrity in their opponents. To “disagree, without being disagreeable” was the change Obama promised.

This was, of course, impossibly naïve. Not only would the Republican Congress refuse the olive branch offered by the Democratic President, but it would double-down; not so much on policy positions, but on blind rage. Projected onto Obama this time were not hopes and desires, but fears and hatreds. Obama was at once a fascist and a Marxist, both an aggressive secularist intent on religion's destruction, as well as a committed, devout Muslim. Not just un-American in an ideological sense, but also in a literal sense – born in Kenya, or somewhere not of this world. Can't you see? This guy is up to something. Gripped with such intense suspicion of the Presidential other, the GOP had one policy and one policy only: Not On Our Watch You Don't. Appeals to bipartisanship were, therefore, fruitless from the outset – even originally Republican proposals, such as the fairly modest healthcare reform which, if passed in the United Kingdom or in France, would be seen as a radical capitalist free-for-all takeover of the countries' respective national health services, were derided as a socialist grand plan and an ultimate victory for the Bolsheviks. It was telling that Michelle Bachmann once accidentally slipped up by saying Americans were concerned about the rise of the Soviet Union – in many ways, they are – for them it's occupying the White House.

In spite of this unprecedented division, Obama has managed to orchestrate something that, from the vantage point of a Europe gripped with austerity and double-dip recessions, looks like a recovery. Unemployment is back to 7.8%, where it was in 2008. A stimulus package passed through the House of Representatives with zero Republican votes has allowed states more leverage in public sector spending, absent a decreased private sector demand and retail sales figures. We are, now, beginning to see the slight benefits of recovery as US consumer demand increases and unemployment continues to decline. Contrasted with the failure of the European austerity experiment, Obama's accomplishment looks marked and, dare I say, impressive.

So as domestic recovery was hampered by predictable partisan division, foreign affairs were far less foreseeable. Nobody in 2008 could have anticipated the wave of anger, optimism and calamity that would come crashing down over the authoritarian despots of the Arab world, but had the GOP ticket been in power, we could have perhaps predicted a response. The eight years of the Bush Administration will forever be remembered amongst historians as a period in which an aggressive, unilateralist Republican leadership sought to exploit the tragedy of September 11th, 2001 and remake the Middle East in its own image, at enormous cost to not just the country's pocketbooks, but the moral foundation of the nation itself. Posturing, unflinching certainty and brusque dismissal of dissent and, indeed, international laws of war were dressed up as 'leadership' as entire nations were torn up in the name of an (avowed) commitment to democracy and security and an (actual) commitment to Western geopolitical leverage in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan died as the result of America's desire to project an image of authority and dominance against belligerent regimes who dared to question the master.

The chief criticism of Obama amongst Republicans is that he's failed to demonstrate this kind of leadership, suggesting that they trade upon a merged asset of stupidity and amnesia in the American electorate – expecting that the memories of the Bush years are dead and gone in the mind of the undecided voter. Obama's approach has, contrasted with the Bush years, been governance in prose, not poetry. The Arab spring was allowed to continue in a way which seemed natural and grass roots to the untrained eye, whilst in reality heavily reliant upon over $1 billion in funding from the US. In this sense, the new regimes would enjoy not just the fruits of success, but the benefits of legitimacy, as the new governments in Libya and Egypt would avoid the inevitable backlash that comes with being viewed as American puppet regimes. And whilst surely Obama deserves the utmost criticism and inquiry for the brutal, clandestine and sinister drone program, the reluctance of the current administration to begin a war with Iran, compared with the rancorous foaming at the mouth from GOP heavyweights like Bill Kristol and John Bolton, should give us pause for thought.

Unrealistic expectations will always lead to hurt feelings, and expectations were nothing if not unrealistic for Obama in 2008. For many, Obama signalled an end to all that is wrong with the American political system, and in order to win the election, Obama's 2008 campaign allowed that expectation to settle in. In governance, however, the high standard Obama has been held to has been at times messianic and impossible; a hope that Obama's charm and charisma would catapult the US and, perhaps, even the world to a new and brighter future. This was surely the thinking of the Nobel Committee in its awarding the prize to Obama before he'd had a chance to contribute much of anything towards world peace. The belief that Obama himself could single-handedly right the wrongs of the American political system is, though, ultimately a desire for totalitarianism - a belief in the Presidential Dictatorship, by which supreme power over not just the policies, but the political culture of Washington DC can be altered overnight. In the real world, Obama is part of a necessarily oppositional and adversarial process, which in these past four years has been unusually unwilling to concede that his election gives him any sort of mandate over US legislative policy.

And yet in the face of such opposition, the administration managed to get universal healthcare passed, has generated a semblance of economic recovery, and rolled back many of the Bush administration's foreign policy excesses feared to be permanent, whilst haemorrhaging al-Qaeda's leadership to the point where it is now a largely spent force. The stakes in the 2012 election are, in many ways, higher than they were before, and a policy of austerity overseen by a Romney administration could plausibly throw the US back into recession which, of course, the could be used to justify more aggressive cuts to welfare programs. A burgeoning democratic movement in the Middle East could be hamstrung by an aggressive neo-conservative foreign policy eager to go to war with Iran and alienate what few allies the US has left in the Middle East, whilst giving full support to Israel to continue its near-genocidal treatment of the Palestinians. “Faced with the alternative, we're a great sight better” is, understandably, not a slogan the Obama campaign is going to be putting in adverts any time soon. It is, however, true, and Obama's record as President, when read along the lines of the pragmatic centrist he always actually was, is the hallmark of a potentially transformative President.

The past four years have increasingly demonstrated the interdependence of national economies as national markets rise and fall has a butterfly effect overseas. The sale of sub-prime securities to banks all across the world prior to the financial collapse of 2008 meant that the US economic crisis was not just a problem for Americans, but for citizens globally. Equally, the democratic movements in the Middle East have shown the importance of international solidarity as well as the human cost of international political deadlock. As the world's only superpower, therefore, the US entails a large chunk of the responsibility. The contrast between Obama's clear-headed, pragmatic realpolitik with his opponents' startlingly ill-informed approach to foreign affairs should worry those of us concerned with global prosperity. Whilst Obama's presidency has been certainly far-removed from the messianic perfection expected in 2008, a calm, rational and logical approach is certainly one that can be appreciated by Americans and citizens the world over.

Alex Harris is a postgraduate student in International Human Rights at Lancaster University and is also currently a Document Intern at the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. He also runs a blog.