It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.
-President Theodore Roosevelt, speech, Paris, France, 1910, a year after leaving the White House
Many on the left gave up on Barack Obama years ago; or else they were convinced from the beginning he was just another stooge for the nation’s corporate and military elite. His blackness was just an electoral novelty, not unlike the novelty of a Bush father and two-son dynasty or a Clinton marriage dynasty. The right, of course, has been effectively disabling Obama since the beginning, an effort that has now achieved some level of gloating satisfaction with the mid-term rout of Democrats.
Fox News and the leaders of the Republican Party assumed the rout was a silver stake through the president’s heart, leaving him no choice but to kowtow to their triumphant leadership.
But not so fast. Is it possible Barack Obama is so pissed off by this smug notion of having been driven to the mat that he’s now ready in the last two rounds to get up and fight?
There are indications: Immediately after the midterm election, he announced a secret deal with the powerful President Xi of China on carbon emissions. It relies on the good faith of both nations to adhere to the promises agreed to, but it establishes a cooperative process between two potentially hostile powers instead of letting the matter fester while rattling sabers. It’s long view thinking reliant on science instead of the usual quarterly-focused crisis-managing. It’s a crack of light suggesting there might be a future without doom and gloom and war without end. The deal seems to recognize US decline as a reality to be adjusted to. Obama followed it up with an announcement of a $3 billion injection of funds to the developing world to encourage them to join the US/China effort.
Next, President Obama made it clear he’s going to use his power of prosecutorial discretion to extend a friendly hand to some five million illegal immigrants mostly from Latin America. Times center-right columnist Ross Douthat suggests this is “creeping caudillismo” on a scale unprecedented in American political history.
But is such discretion really unprecedented? Or is this actually a case of turning on its head a well-established American institution called selective enforcement of our laws. What’s unprecedented is the application of selective enforcement to the lowest of the low, poor immigrants. Giving the rich and powerful a break by not enforcing the laws against them is a grand tradition in America. Witness the expected grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, not to charge Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown. Usually selective enforcement is not undertaken under such public scrutiny, which explains the prosecutor’s incredibly choreographed grand jury arrangement. Most of the time, selective enforcement happens under the radar, as in cases like the Times has been reporting lately of NFL and Florida State football players being given special treatment by law enforcement in cases of violence and sexual assault. Or even the glaring case of Obama himself and his attorney general choosing not to prosecute bank executives of institutions “too big to fail” for cynically fleecing the public.
Deciding not to harass and criminalize poor immigrants fleeing the horrors of Central American and Mexico is not unprecedented; it’s a novelty that makes the political right go ballistic. Let’s not forget that the US is implicated in the rotten conditions people are fleeing from in Mexico thanks to our disastrous Drug War and embarrassing coups like the one in Honduras in 2009. Getting at the truth in this area depends on how far back one is willing to go on the cause-and-effect trail.
Bill O’Reilly has framed the immigration plan as a case of President Obama declaring “war” on the incoming Republican leadership. O’Reilly is a major fan of the grand jury scheme in Ferguson and has expressed outrage at people taking “grievances” to the street. Presumably they should rely on the criminal justice system exemplified by the Ferguson grand jury. Michelle Alexander makes a powerful argument out of this kind of historical selective enforcement in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The use of selective enforcement accounts for much of the mass incarceration of African American males in America. Maybe it takes being on the receiving end to see this; but it’s hard to make the case prosecutorial discretion is a new phenomenon.
Caught In a Vice Of His Own Making
Barack Obama feels to me like a man caught in a vice — one he asked for. A very smart, highly educated and ambitious man, he figured out how to be elected the first black president of the United States of America. That naturally involved a certain degree of corruption, since no one chooses to get on the glide path to the presidency and then gets elected President of the United States by remaining clean and honest or by adhering to deep moral ideals. In a highly competitive, capitalist culture more and more ruled by the need to cheat to get ahead at all, becoming president is not for the faint of heart.
Still, call me naïve, but I always saw the man as more complicated than my jaded and cynical friends on the left would allow. I actually agree with those on the right — like Dinesh D’Souza — who emphasize how Barack Obama is the son of a Kenyan socialist. He’s also the son of an Irish-American anthropologist single mom who took her young mixed-race son to live with an Indonesian man in Jakarta whose family had been insurgents fighting the Dutch in a war of colonial liberation not unlike the one we fought in Vietnam — my war. In my mind, while John McCain, the son of admirals, was bombing Vietnamese from an A-4 Skyhawk, little Barry Obama was being taught by his step father how to handle himself on the streets of Jakarta.
This sort of upbringing should foster a grown man quite unlike the standard imperial white male American politician. I think the right has always sensed this as something they had to keep tamped down, because it scared the hell out of them even more than Obama’s blackness. Due to the deep strains of American racism the blackness could be leveraged with coded racism and insinuations that Obama was not in line with the patriotic traditions of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” reaching back to the imperial big stick of Teddy Roosevelt.
I’ve always felt his back-story gave Obama a worldly sensitivity to the white American imperial mind. It also put him in a most precarious position as a US imperial leader at a juncture in history when US power was ebbing and the problems of imperial decline were becoming quite real. It has been my secret hope that Barack Obama might be a bit of a Mikhail Gorbachev for the American empire — someone to help guide it gracefully to a soft landing. The trouble with this is (as Ronald Reagan understood about Gorbachev) such a leader can’t pull off the trick if the gambit is overtly spoken of, since this will provoke the reactionary right with a fury.
The novelist Russell Banks addresses this tricky reality in a wonderful little book called Dreaming Up America:
“So much of American violence arises because of the conflict between the reality of our lives and the perception of our lives, the way we imagine ourselves.” He points out that Americans can slaughter Indians and oppress third world peoples while, at the same time, feeling inside they are “saving them for Civilization, Christianity, and Capitalism.” He quotes the famous lines from D.H. Lawrence: “‘The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.’” Then Banks writes, “The killer is someone who would rather take a life than have to resolve that conflict between self-perception and reality.” This is the kind of thing individuals go to Anger Management classes for or talk to a counselor about. But how do you put a nation — or an empire — on the couch?
Barack Obama seems soft and inscrutable to the sort of white militarist mind that traditionally has occupied the White House with the usual exceptionalist assumptions of American imperialism. Too many times he has assumed this role himself. The post-midterm question in the air is: Is there more to Barack Obama than this? Is there a worldly statesman ready to fight to save the United States of America from itself?
There’s a counter-intuitive power in being a lame duck president. There’s little to lose, while there’s still an imposing array of weapons at hand with which to fight and do damage. Obama is also surely thinking of the Hispanic and African American votes that Republicans want to eat into. The harder Republicans fight the climate change and immigration decisions the harder it will be to gain votes in those blocks.
It’s worth considering Barack Obama and his legacy issues in the light of Jimmy Carter, the president no sitting American president wants to be compared to. Carter is the well-known model for someone more successful as an ex-president than he was as president. Obama is young, smart, experienced and he should be rightfully quite bitter at how he has been treated by “the loyal opposition.” Maybe his current lame duck stage is actually the beginning of his ex-president stage, taking place while he still has a bully pulpit. Maybe he’s not so ashamed that he wants to disappear from view and paint his dog and his toes in the bathtub of a security-gated estate. Maybe he’s ready to fight.
Dorothy, We’re Not In Kansas Anymore
Thanks to computerization and other technological advances, traditional nation-state power centers are evolving into shifting sectors of globalized power. This is happening within the thing we call the United States. The more confusing this gets, the more uncertain people become and the more fear rises. Especially after 9/11, this has fueled militarism and a growing police state reality.
The New York Times just revealed an interesting wrinkle in this story. It seems 40 federal agencies each support their own programs of undercover agents posing in fictitious roles. The Agriculture Department has 100 undercover agents; the same goes for NASA, the Small Business Administration, the Education Department, etc. This has led to all sorts of confusions and corruptions. The most absurd problem is one we’ve seen in Mexico, where two secret police units will open fire on one other. The Times reports this has nearly happened here in the US among undercover units from the different agencies. The Supreme Court even has its own undercover agents in the street infiltrating demonstrations in front of the court.
It gets even more bizarre. Add to the mix a recent Mother Jones report on the national SWAT team competition at the annual Urban Shield conference in San Francisco, which is run in cooperation with the Homeland Security Agency. SWAT teams from local police forces and agencies as diverse as the University of California, NASA and the National Park Service compete against each other in phony scenarios. These days, all sorts of agencies are developing their own SWAT teams.
Both these trend stories are about police units that work in secret and think in terms of loyalty and self-aggrandizement. Community-oriented service seems to be the last thing on their minds. It seems to augur serious trouble ahead for a democracy. At some point one naturally begins to wonder: In order to keep the patriotic notion of dissent alive in such a man-made, institutionalized nightmare, will there come a time when ordinary Americans need to develop their own personal undercover squads and the equivalent of counter-SWAT teams to protect themselves? Surveillance and oppression of citizens by police and the military is being hard-wired into the system, and it’s all legal since the State makes the laws. Meanwhile, surveillance of the State is illegal or made virtually impossible due to the extent of secrecy. It’s noteworthy that the Mother Jones reporter, once his concerns were revealed, was kicked out of the Urban Shield conference.
This is the brave new world in which the office of the President of the United States may be just another power center in the globalized cyber world that has evolved out of President Eisenhower’s parting warning for Americans to beware of the Military Industrial Complex. His warning suggests in 1961 it was even a bit daunting for him, a former five-star general.
The generally non-violent left in America has been shamelessly kicked around for too long by this cabal of militarization. Liberal centrists like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have done much of the kicking, which is why Democrats are losing. As Elizabeth Warren’s appointment to a newly created position of power in the Senate shows, at this juncture the left is Democrat Obama’s only friend. So it behooves him to start fighting. If he’d fought six years ago, instead of negotiating by giving up the farm first, he and his party might not be in such a quandary.
The Republican Party seems to think they’ve effectively neutered Barack Obama and he should sit in a rocking chair a feeble, beaten man like Woodrow Wilson in his lame duck days after the League of Nations failed. That was then; this is now. I’d bet the likes of Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mario Rubio, Sam Brownback, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and the rest of the right wing bully squad are overconfident and what they’ve actually done is finally piss off Barack Obama. I hope I’m right and Obama is ready to climb into that arena Teddy Roosevelt so revered to fight the bastards tooth-and-nail with the power he has.
Sure, they may try to assassinate him figuratively — or even literally. But no one said the job of president should be absolutely safe. I hope he looks them in the eye and says: “You creeps want to shut down the damn country? Go ahead. Make my day!”