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The Loneliness of Barack Obama


The moment when President Obama emerged at the White House to speak to the press (November 4), less than twenty-four hours after the Democratic Party’s midterm drubbing, provided the most telling picture. There was the president of the world’s most powerful country walking alone to the podium, admitting defeat just two years after an historic triumph so complete that it was hailed as a revolutionary event. As he stood uncomfortably to express contrition and promise that lessons would be learned, there was nobody from his administration standing with him to show support after a defeat as decisive as the victory was magnificent over the discredited Republican Party in 2008.  

Vice President Joe Biden had appeared at election rallies as the president tried to enthuse voters in the final days of campaigning. However, the vice president was nowhere to be seen when Obama walked to the podium to face the world. Neither was the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One of the oddities of this campaign, dominated by the economy, was the absence of debate on America’s foreign wars and their consequences, economic and otherwise. Talking to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, a vocal critic on the American left, Michael Moore, gave a penetrating explanation. The liberal political class had gone along with, even surrendered to, many of the neoconservative war policies in the last decade. Now the same liberal class lives with guilt, and does not want to talk about war because it has been an accomplice.

The heroin of the American neoliberals, Hillary Clinton, has long engaged in warmongering. For her, it would not make sense to appear with Obama in a moment of abject failure. It is safe to assume that her presidential ambition still flickers. In October, Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had left the administration, saying he wanted to pursue his ambition to become mayor of Chicago. His term as Obama’s chief henchman has been an unmitigated disaster. A Jewish American with longstanding ties with Israel, Emanuel’s appointment after Obama’s election was greeted with dismay. Emanuel’s obsession with the art of wheeling-dealing was well known. His mastery of colorful and abusive language was no secret in Washington. His fascination with CIA drone attacks and phone calls to the agency’s director to find out “Who did we get today?” has been written about.

The Palestinians, the Iranians and others in the Middle East were not going to have faith in an Obama administration with someone like Emanuel playing a pivotal role. The collapse of Obama’s dream of resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and peace with the Muslim world, is partly Emanuel’s legacy. With Emanuel gone, neither the interim chief of staff Pete Rouse nor his deputies were by the president’s side when he spoke to the press following the midterm debacle. Not a single Democratic member of the old or new House, or the Senate, was to be seen with him, even a Senator not up for reelection; and not a member of the Democratic National Committee, which has its headquarters in Washington, DC.

Obama’s national security adviser, retired Marine Corp general James Jones, had also left in October. As war had not been part of the national debate in the midterm campaign, the incoming security adviser Thomas Donilon or Defense Secretary Robert Gates were not expected to be visible at the post-election news conference. In any case, Gates continues to threaten to leave the administration from time to time. More significant was the non-visibility of any member of President Obama’s economic team. In September, as the economy looked certain to be the dominant campaign issue and polling day drew closer, two of his leading advisers, Lawrence Summers and Christina Romer, had announced that they were leaving. On the day after the midterm debacle, President Obama stood all by himself to face questions about his handling of the economy.

After nearly an hour explaining the defeat, empathizing with the American people’s difficulties and offering to cooperate with the unbending and unbendable Republicans and tea partiers in the new Congress, Obama’s lone walk back into the Oval Office was symbolic of the wreckage lying around a president once known for his audacity of hope. America’s political establishment remains engaged in civil war. The country is deeply unhappy and polarized. And the leader chosen by the majority of Americans, no less because of overwhelming support from liberals and progressives, is ready to walk away from his troops toward the confronting army, alone, to compromise. 

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