Conor McFall looks at Obama’s reign as POTUS and examines the delusion surrounding his presidency and its legacy.
As I was sitting in a student bar with a few friends and associates a week or two ago, the conversation inevitably turned to politics. Most people there were members of a political party and all fell into various shades of left thinking. We each offered our takes on the Assembly election, abortion, the state of the local parties, Corbyn as well as Hilary vs Bernie and predictably enough, came to pretty similar conclusions. But when conversation shifted to an assessment of Barack Obama’s time in office and I inevitably began to get stuck in, something quite strange happened – the others defended him as someone who ‘tried hard’ and was ‘well meaning’ but had too much Republican opposition. As Obama took to the stage in London today to address a carefully selected audience of young people and my Facebook went haywire with hero-worship, I thought back to this encounter and tried to work out why people loved this guy so much.
After a bit of consideration, I think I found an answer. For people of my age, Obama’s election in 2008 was our first transcendent political moment where it felt like we were witnessing history was being made. We were just old enough to understand what was going on and to be swept away by his message of Hope and Change. Trite and meaningless as this was, when it was delivered in Obama’s charismatic tones, it made people feel good. This unfortunately, has led to a prolonged suspension of reality.
Let’s look beneath the surface of Obama’s words to see what he’s actually done. Healthcare in the US is no doubt in a better state than it was before he entered office but, while more people have some form of coverage, Obamacare was still a big win for insurance companies and the lack of a public option means the US still lags far behind most of the developed world. On gun control he has made no ground and his choice to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court comes firmly from the centre-right. Much is made about Republican obstructionism preventing Obama from making progress, as no one will deny that the GOP has gone off the deep end of lunacy, much of the reason for that is because the Democrats have stolen their usual territory with their push to the right in the 1990s. Simply put, Obama never intended to be the harbinger of radical change. He has always had a comfortable relationship with America’s most powerful political faction – capital. For while Obama preached ‘Change’ in post-crash 2008, his campaign received six-and-seven-figure donations from Citigroup, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. Maybe it ain’t Clinton money but still not bad going.
Well, you say, he’s not as dumb as Dubya. This is true of course and is best shown in his radical update of Bush’s rendition programme. You see, instead of sweeping up Muslims with alleged Al Qaeda links and sending them to Guantanamo to be imprisoned without trial, Obama has managed to cut out all that hassle by simply pulverising the suspects and whoever is unlucky enough to be in their general vicinity with drone strikes. Innocent until proven guilty? Habeas corpus? Who needs it? Certainly not Mr. Obama, who continues to be hailed as a moderate and the defender of freedom and democracy as his bombs continue to fall over Syria, Libya & Iraq remain in tatters and American support is happily provided for the Saudi war in Yemen.
Couching capitalist imperialism in technocratic language or vague-but-nicely-delivered messages of hope rather than overt nationalism and Christian rhetoric doesn’t make it more progressive. But it does make it more palatable for liberal commentators who are paid to shill such garbage. See for example Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, who took to their opinion pages twice this week; firstly to tell us to ‘Be thankful the US is willing to be our global policeman,’ and secondly to praise Obama for crushing ‘the Brexit fantasy.’ One wonders if the enlightened liberal pundit class will ever tire of grovelling. A Republican president is more likely to be hauled over the coals for such conduct because their rhetoric seems somewhat foreign to Europeans and they make an easy target for Guardian columnists etc. Meanwhile the likes of Obama and Hilary Clinton are praised to the high heavens and for good reason; to put a cap on our ambitions and to convince us that the triangulations of the Democratic party are as good as it gets.
In fairness, Freedland’s latter piece does at least illuminate the major purpose of Obama’s latest UK visit. In spite of what BBC news coverage would have you think, the President didn’t hop on Air Force One to high-five the Windsor’s latest majestic spawn or to answer the softest of soft-ball questions from young people invited to bask in his presence. He came to make feelings known on the EU referendum, warning the public that Britain would go to “the back of the queue” for US trade deals if it left the EU. Yes, that’s right, Obama wants to ensure the safe passage of a TTIP deal that would see the NHS opened up for the vultures of private capital to feast on it more than they already have. But then he said a nice thing about everyone deserving good health care or something, so it’ll all be grand, right?
It was at the town hall event that the President made his brief comments on Northern Ireland which prompted many a “Yaaasss Obama” across my Facebook wall and the usual worship from BBC Newsline that greets every utterance from a US President. Obama told young people in NI that they must “forge a new identity” and see themselves as Northern Irish. Of course, people aren’t going to suddenly stop identifying as Irish or British and anyway, identity isn’t our biggest issue. In a period with austerity cuts to social services come in tandem with tax cuts for corporations, poverty and mental health crises ongoing and women still denied autonomy over their bodies, questions of flags and loyalties are a somewhat of a sideshow. But whatever, being nice to each other is good and it makes for a nice soundbite. People will happily switch off their brains and applaud because the words, though ultimately saying very little, make them feel good. I guess that’s classic Obama.