In the present circumstances, one could justly be accused of misspending one’s energies on denunciations of Barack Obama and his legacy. But so ambitious, pernicious and thoroughly sick-making has been the revisionism with respect to Obama’s time in office that it cannot be allowed to advance unchallenged and harden into fact.
The last few weeks have brought forth many a paean to the ’emotional intelligence’ and ‘instinctive empathy’ of a man too ‘gifted, sensitive and creative’ to be ‘perfectly calibrated for power’. The ‘professorial’ Obama appeared ‘composed and serene’ to the very end, having ‘governed impeccably for eight years without any ethical scandal’. Indeed, not four weeks after its denouement, Obamatime ‘already look[s] like a golden age of decency and common sense’. This ‘deeply reflective man’ has stepped aside now, to recuperate in the company of great philanthropists, but ‘everything we know about Obama suggests he is far too good a person to simply surf while America burns.’
One wonders what would it have taken to pulverise in the bud this perception that Obama is a Good Man, all grace and moderation. For instance, what if he was a war criminal who had dropped tens of thousands of bombs per year on seven Muslim-majority countries from Somalia to Pakistan? Or used drones to liquidate hundreds of innocent Muslims as part of the ‘most extensive global terrorism campaign the world has yet seen‘? What if he had personally approved every Muslim name on a hypothetical ‘kill list’ and signed off on drone strikes himself at ‘Terror Tuesday’ meetings, all in the utmost secrecy? Would we still think of him as dignity personified if he had then joked about the extrajudicial killings for which he was responsible, not just to his aides but at public functions?
Suppose Obama had failed to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or close Guantanamo Bay. Suppose he had doubled to 130-odd the number of countries in which U.S. Special Operations forces covertly carry out the dirty work of empire. Imagine he had armed one of the most repressive regimes on Earth with cluster bombs so that it could slaughter thousands of civilians in Yemen, or that he had refueled its fighter jets before each deadly sortie. And just think: if this ‘unique human being’ hadn’t been so ‘compassionate’ and ‘understated’, so enamoured of ‘consensual solutions’, perhaps he might have sought or helped to overthrow the governments of at least three foreign countries.
What if, after describing himself as a ‘stalwart friend’ of Israel, Obama had done more to shield the self-proclaimed Jewish state from ‘international pressure at the United Nations than any of his predecessors’? If he had approved a new military aid package to Israel worth a record $38bn over 10 years? If he had wriggled out of condemning the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by affirming Israel’s right to defend itself, which does not exist in law? What if he had helped to re-arm the settler-colonial entity as it massacred Gazans during Operation Protective Edge [sic] in 2014? Indeed, what if Obama had exported more arms overall than any POTUS since the end of World War II?
But enough of Obama’s ‘restraint’, of his ‘respect for people who don’t look like [him] or pray like [him] or love like [him]’. What of his endeavours in other policy areas, for example the environment? Knowing as we do that irreversible climate disaster looms large on the horizon, shouldn’t we be grateful that Mr Obama didn’t open up tens of millions of acres of land and sea for oil and gas exploration? That he didn’t boast of having built ‘enough new oil and gas pipeline to circle the Earth and then some’? That he refused to grant hundreds upon hundreds of fracking permits in the Gulf of Mexico, most notably as the largest marine oil spill in history was ravaging that very locale? Won’t it redound to Obama’s credit — if humanity survives for long enough of course — that he neither oversaw the biggest oil boom in the U.S. in more than 40 years nor poured tens of billions of dollars into dozens of toxic fossil fuel developments across the globe?
Turning to domestic affairs, would our assessment of Obama differ if he had expanded the apparatus of the surveillance state to a point where it systematically and indiscriminately collected, retained and monitored vast amounts of data — including but not limited to personal communications and ‘nearly everything a typical user does on the internet’ — on virtually every single U.S. citizen? What if a federal judge had described such mass surveillance as ‘almost Orwellian’ before concluding that it was both illegal and unconstitutional? And what if Obama had responded to that ruling by asking a secret court to overturn it?
Would our paeans to his goodness be as full-throated if he had deported more immigrants and prosecuted more whistleblowers than any of the previous occupiers of his office? If he had extended immunity from the rule of law to those CIA operatives who tortured innocent Muslims during the reign of George Bush II? If he had authorised a program to upgrade his nation’s nuclear weapons of mass destruction at a cost of $1 trillion over 30 years?
As far as the economy is concerned, what if Obama had swept to power on the crest of a promise to deliver change for the poor and minorities but given us instead another ‘Wall Street presidency’? What if, in the immediate aftermath of an economic collapse that laid off, dispossessed and impoverished millions, he had told Wall Street executives that ‘[y]ou guys have an acute public-relations problem that’s turning into a political problem’ and had added with a grin that ‘I want to help’? What if he most assuredly did help, by neglecting to prosecute even a single firm or individual for precipitating the crisis; by appointing several Wall Street insiders and Rubinites to his top team, many of them on the recommendation of an investment bank; by legislating to loosen controls on exactly the kind of taxpayer-backed, high-risk trading that was the proximate cause of the crash in 2008?
What if Obama had faithfully served corporate power by championing secret neoliberal trade deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership? If he had violated his campaign pledge to free the ‘democratic’ process in the United States from the stranglehold of corporate lobbyists? If after-tax corporate profits during his tenure had soared by 170 per cent to more than double the heights scaled by Reagan?
Indeed, what if 95% of income gains during the first three years of Obama’s time in office had been captured by the 1%? If wealth inequality across the board had grown to its highest recorded level under his watch? If African Americans in particular had seen their median household income fall, their median household wealth fall, their rates of home-ownership fall, but the numbers of their children languishing in poverty increase?
To summarise, then, what if Obama was simply a telegenic front for the same old subterranean forces of capital — and identified as such more than twenty years ago? What if his accomplishments had helped to produce historic quantities of anger and despair? What if — God forbid — one unignorable aspect of his legacy was Donald J. Trump?
Of course, every single one of the acts and omissions above occurred in the course of the Obama administration, and no sane assessment of Obama’s years in office will allow his celebrity or the symbolic potency of his becoming POTUS to enshroud them. Indeed, no such assessment could deviate very much from the one advanced by Norman Pollack nine months into Obama’s second term:
Surveillance. Assassination. Teleprompter. . . Three little words, actually the three-cornered stool of a societal formation embarked on a trajectory of corporatism, confirm in practice the underpinnings of repression necessary to stabilize an hierarchical class system in which mega-banking and –business, enjoying the bounty and protection of government, can function free from internal challenge.
And yet many liberals, when presented with the stark and terrible facts of Obama’s tenure, will continue to sentimentalise the man and equivocate for him, or else lapse into outright denialism. In their eyes, the eyes of the wilfully deranged, ‘[i]t never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter.’
When the Marxist historian Christopher Hill upended our understanding of the English Revolution, he started by stating that
[t]he orthodox attitude to the seventeenth-century revolution is misleading because it does not try to penetrate below the surface, because it takes the actors in the revolution at their face value, and assumes that the best way to find out what people were fighting about is to consider what the leaders said they were fighting about.
For as long as these words encapsulate the approach of the liberal class to their chosen gods and to world affairs in general, the members of that class cannot claim that their opposition to, say, Donald Trump is any more than a conditioned partisan response, let alone begin to understand or effectively counteract the rise of the hard right.
Stated another way, they need urgently to renounce their allegiance to Obama Nation.