The Obama Syndrome | Tariq Ali
In politics, as in love, election to a desired position usually turns out in hindsight to have been a challenge far easier than that of actual incumbency. Few people can have discovered this in a harder way than Barack Obama.
The mood of warmth, optimism and confidence on which Obama was meteorically elected 44th president of the US has been violently eroded in a little more than two years, the palpable indicator of which was the Democratic Party’s crushing defeat in last month’s midterm elections.
It could be argued that given the problems Obama inherited when he entered office—a busted economy at home and difficult, long-drawn-out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—the odds were stacked against him from the beginning. Nor has he been helped by the violence with which he has been attacked by the opposition on every front—from healthcare reform to the management of the economy.
The dream of a rational, bipartisan governance that he floated at the time of his election has been swiftly consigned to the dustbin. The current political mood in the US is dire. Travelling around the country last month in the wake of the midterm elections, I sensed a pervasive bitterness and despair that suggested that ideological divisions among the citizenry and in the media had become even more deeply entrenched than before.
Opinion polls showed that Obama’s approval ratings had fallen steeply in two years, from the mid-60s to the low 40s. In the bookshops, the first wave of Obama literature—Obama’s own books Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, David Remnick’s massive and mostly positive biography from 2009 The Bridge and Jonathan Alter’s report on the first year of the Obama presidency The Promise—was being replaced by books such as Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, a detailed and often damning account of the administration’s internal bickering and point-scoring over Afghanistan and Iraq, Roger Hodge’s caustically titled The Mendacity of Hope, and, hottest off the press, Tariq Ali’s short but scathing The Obama Syndrome.
The fall: Ali says Obama has proven to be no different from other American presidents. Charles Dharapak/AP
Ali is an outspoken British left-wing intellectual now in his 60s, and a longtime critic of America’s foreign-policy shenanigans. Best-known for his 2003 book The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihad and Modernity, Ali now applies his considerable polemical energies to an assessment of the Obama presidency midway into his first term. His main thesis, strikingly and wittily made by the book’s cover image (surely it is not long before there appears somewhere in the world a museum dedicated to George Bush-themed artworks) is that although Obama triumphed over a Republican adversary, and that Obama himself campaigned on a radical plank of wide-ranging change and reform, time has proved, instead, that his administration is essentially a continuation of the one that preceded it.
At home, Obama has sparked resentment because of the generous terms of his bailout package to Wall Street—investment banks being one of the prominent contributors to his presidential campaign—and by his inability to fight the powerful oil and pharmaceutical company lobbies at critical moments such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the healthcare reform Bill passed narrowly in Congress earlier this year. “The implication (from Obama) is always that the Washington system prevents any change he could believe in,” writes Ali. Abroad, he is yet to make a significant break with the main thrust of American foreign policy since the dawn of the Cold War, or to show a deeper American commitment to the cause of democracy worldwide. The promised rollback of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has been endlessly deferred, and the early hope of a more nuanced approach to West Asia has disappeared.
“From Palestine through Iraq to Iran,” Ali charges, “Obama has acted as just another steward of the American empire, pursuing the same aims as his predecessors but with a more emollient rhetoric.” Nor is Ali willing to let Obama off on merely a charge of misgovernance and collusion with powerful interest groups, serious though this is. In Ali’s view, Obama was never, even potentially, the outsider to the establishment that he made himself out to be during his election campaign.
Both voters and observers around the world were gullible enough to buy this story, especially because of the romance of a mixed-race president in the White House for the first time. Obama’s radicalism was, inevitably, more rhetorical than real, simply because the American political system is now such, and leans so heavily on the financial support of big business, that a genuine outsider can never make it all the way to the top (contrary to campaign mythology, the Obama campaign actually raised more money from corporate donations than Hilary Clinton’s did).
The Obama Syndrome: 148 pages, £9.99 (around Rs715).
Ali suggests that what we see in the US today is a version of what American political theorist Sheldon Wolin’s calls a “fugitive democracy”, in which “the corruptions of empire and the stranglehold of the corporations have created a system that has killed any meaningful democratic activity.”
“In reality,” Ali thunders, “Barack Obama is a skillful and gifted machine politician who rapidly rose to the top...to talk of betrayal (by Obama) is foolish, for nothing has been betrayed but one’s own illusions.” Ali certainly brings a particular kind of ideological doggedness to his prosecution of Obama and the US, but even if we are not to go all the way with him, there is no denying that his book exposes powerfully the cankers and contradictions that lurk at the roots of the world’s most powerful democracy.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf and editor of the forthcoming book India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.
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