In June 2007, on a warm Sunday in San Antonio, Texas, presidential candidate Barack Obama rolled up his white shirtsleeves and addressed a crowd of 1,000: ‘We’re going to close Guantánamo. And we’re going to restore habeas corpus,’ he said. The assembly cheered.
The senator repeated his vow the next month, and in subsequent campaign stops: ‘As President, I will close Guantánamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions.’
In November 2008, after being elected, Obama went on the news show 60 Minutes. ‘I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantánamo,’ he stated, ‘and I will follow through on that.’
It is now 2012. The US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba – which has held hundreds of prisoners without trial and has been the site of torture and abuse – remains open. In December, President Obama signed into law a National Defense Authorization Act that, according to the New York Times, will ‘make indefinite detention and military trials a permanent part of American law’.
We have now reached that season when our New Year’s resolutions have been broken. It seems like only a few Facebook status updates ago when we virtually vowed to better ourselves. And yet those neglected promises already feel quaint.
Of course, we know that by the year’s end, the consequences will catch us. We’ll pay when we still haven’t gotten into shape, still haven’t quit smoking – when the change we seek remains at the bottom of a lost to-do list.
In political life, Obama has also broken resolutions. The question is, will they likewise cost him at the end of the year?
It’s not just the issue of detentions. Candidate Obama railed against the ‘devastating’ impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But this past fall, the president signed NAFTA model agreements with Panama, South Korea and Colombia – a country with an ongoing history of violence against union organizers. He abandoned the Employee Free Choice Act, labour’s top priority. And he stunned greens by delaying new smog regulations because they would ‘burden’ polluters.
To point out such failings is not to say that Obama is identical to his conservative rivals. It is facile to hold that the two parties which have perpetuated corporate rule in the United States have done so equally, or that their differences on social issues are inconsequential.
Republicans have pushed even more aggressively to curtail civil liberties, and they opposed any attempts Obama made to abide by his campaign pledges. Given the chance, they would erase the Environmental Protection Agency and stack the Supreme Court with reactionaries.
Still, one cannot blame those who had high expectations for the administration and now feel betrayed. Maybe we should have been more cynical, more aware of Washington’s limits and more distrustful of the senator’s neoliberal advisors. But Obama, remember, told us not to be. He appealed to idealism. He based his campaign on hope.
On 11 January, the 10th anniversary of the start of US detentions at its shadowy Cuban prison camp, I joined protesters who chanted in drizzling rain outside the White House in defence of due process. They were ardent, but not about getting Obama re-elected. It struck me that he won’t be able to run on hope again.
A week earlier, I sat with conservatives at the Iowa caucuses. There I saw a Right that is full of passionate intensity. Newt Gingrich tells determined crowds: ‘This election is the most important election since 1860.’ Mitt Romney says it is about ‘saving the soul of America’.
Obama’s defenders believe that progressive support will return once his opponent is set and the campaign begins in earnest. Maybe it will. For now, the president’s broken resolutions hover uncomfortably.
Don’t believe in the ‘enthusiasm gap’? Spend some time with the rightwing faithful. Then stop by a protest against Guantánamo.
Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website: DemocracyUprising.