IN a speech on the eve of Martin Luther King Day this week, Barack Obama invoked the memory of the great civil rights leader (and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner) in advising his critics to put things in perspective and show a little more patience.
“Sometimes I get a little frustrated when folks just don’t want to see that even if we don’t get everything, we’re getting something,” he pointed out.
For a large proportion of Americans, it seems that “something” isn’t good enough. And Obama hinted that he, too, could be one of them: “There are times when it feels like all these efforts are for naught, and change is so painfully slow in coming, and I have to confront my own doubts,” he confessed.
A year after his inauguration as the first African-American president of the United States – a watershed whose value is unlikely to diminish regardless of what lies ahead – Obama could clearly do with a bit of sympathy.
No US president in more than 50 years has faced lower popularity ratings a year after assuming the post. But then, no president in nearly 50 years has come to office burdened by so many expectations. No doubt the eloquent Democratic candidate’s campaign rhetoric contributed to them – but then, he could hardly have hoped to get anywhere with a pitch along the lines of, “Vote for me but don’t expect very much from me if I’m elected.”
At the same time, the expectations were in part also circumstantial: the majority of Americans were thoroughly fed up with the Bush administration, albeit not necessarily for the same reasons that accounted for its enduring unpopularity abroad. Obama was able to project himself as the candidate who offered the biggest contrast with George W. And voters, in turn, projected on to him their own ideals.
Some of the activists who campaigned for him saw him as a radical figure, but that impression owes more to innuendo from the far right than to anything Obama claimed for himself. His message, when not vacuous, was doggedly centrist – to the left, no doubt, of the Bush administration in most respects, but that’s not saying very much.
A record of opposition to the invasion of Iraq helped his standing among Democrats, but his stance wasn’t necessarily based on an analysis very different from that of so-called realist conservatives – who tended to deride the neoconservative project because of its cost to America rather than its devastating effects on Iraqis.
Barack Obama may not see eye to eye with Pat Buchanan, but in many respects he also does not share the vision of Dr King – whose fate may well have been sealed once he decided it was immoral to keep silent on Vietnam and began deriding his nation, quite accurately, as the biggest purveyor of violence in the world. More than 40 years later, that fact remains unchanged.
Obama, shortly after announcing a surge in Afghanistan, decided to pontificate in the Nobel lecture in Oslo last month, on the concept of a “just war”. He sees vast differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan, and, sure enough, there are indeed plenty. But he overlooks the parallels and perhaps fails to see that for those at the receiving end of violence perpetrated by the most powerful nation in history, his just war is just another war.
Powerful militarily, that is – not morally, as Dr King recognized. One of America’s biggest weaknesses in the international sphere is its arrogance (a particularly toxic mix when combined with ignorance), and it comes into play even when it ostensibly sets out to do good for a change – as in the case of this month’s relief mission to earthquake-stricken Haiti, where it was deemed necessary for US troops to occupy the airport in Port-au-Prince – much to the consternation of western allies such as Britain and France, as well as aid agencies, whose flights had to be diverted to the neighbouring Dominican Republic.
The infamous US radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, meanwhile, has been exhorting fellow Americans not to donate a cent to the Haiti relief effort lest Obama should steal the funds. Hard to believe? Well, if Obama were indeed a messiah, the teabaggers, rednecks and crypto-fascists would crucify him without a qualm.
Those on the left who find fault with Obama on the grounds that his stimulus package wasn’t big enough; that those behind the financial meltdown have been allowed to profit from it which their victims continue to suffer; that the health reform bill currently before Congress involved too many compromises with Big Pharma and the insurance industry without offering universal coverage; and that the year-old administration remains beholden to vested interests as much as its predecessors – well, they aren’t wrong, but did they really expect any different?
It’s unfair, of course, to pass judgment on the Obama presidency one year into its tenure. And it’s unreasonable to expect one man to transform the twisted structure of power in the US, even if he wanted to. It’s also worth remembering that all US presidents who achieved something worthwhile – the abolition of slavery, the New Deal, civil rights, the end of the Vietnam War – did so on the back of powerful popular movements for progressive change. Obama has indicated on occasion that he wouldn’t object to being pushed along similar lines. Shortly before he was elected, for instance, he told his grassroots supporters: “The greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result. You have shown what history teaches us – that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington. Change happens because the American people demand it – because they rise up and insist on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time.”
The disgruntled left could do worse than follow the prescription offered by the executed working-class hero Joe Hill. His last words were: Don’t mourn – organize!
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