Friday, 27 January 2017

Farewell, Barack Obama

So, after eight years Barack Obama's presidency is over.


Nothing on my Facebook feed is as polarised as the reaction to Obama's departure and the man who will replace him.  Some are mourning, others are celebrating.  Some are praising his graciousness and his lovely family, and dreaming of his wife Michelle launching her own candidacy in 2020.  Others are celebrating wildly, rejoicing that his destructive reign is finally over.  And that's just my Australian friends.

I'm certainly not a fan of Donald Trump (I'll get to him in a moment) but I find it hard to join in the full-throated weeping for Obama.

To my mind, Obama's presidency is summed up in his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009.  At the time he had been President for less than a year.  The Nobel Prize Committee cited 'his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples', his 'vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons', the fact that under his Presidency 'the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.'  'Only very rarely,' they said, 'has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future.'  'The Committee endorses Obama's appeal that "Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."'

In other words, they gave him the prize for his fine words and noble intentions.

Of course no one person can rule a country.  Even the most ruthless and powerful dictator needs the consent of key elites to remain in power and this means they have to compromise.  For his entire two terms, Obama had to negotiate with a Congress dominated by his opponents.  They were often more intent on thwarting him for their own political purposes than on good governance.  Hence, when we talk about Obama's record this is really shorthand for the record of the US government during his Presidency.

Bearing this in mind, how did they go delivering the hopes of the Nobel Prize Committee?  It started out well, with Obama claiming to have ended the war in Iraq.  In fact, as David Kilcullen points out, they just left it.  The result was not more peace but a rapid deterioration, the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq and its transformation into Islamic State.  His meddling in Syria made matters worse, encouraging rebellion but then not following through with any action, ensuring the country's descent into civil war.  In Israel strong words about settlements and the Road Map for Peace were not matched by any action - settlements went on apace and the blockade and invasion of Gaza destroyed its infrastructure, deepening the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the point where it seems all but insoluble.

Are you sensing a theme here?  Obama and his offsiders talked about peace and diplomacy, but the result was war and chaos.  Was this just incompetence, or something more sinister?  Noam Chomsky suggests that this is part of the ongoing deliberate pattern of US foreign policy, which is primarily aimed at protecting and promoting US corporate interests.  Others suggest more charitably that Obama was just too tentative and timid, and perhaps a little naive, in the face of more ruthless rivals like Putin, Assad and Netanyahu.

Either way, Obama has shown himself as someone whose words promise much but whose actions deliver little.

Is it the same in US domestic policy?  There seem to be some genuine gains.  On energy, he reversed Bush's refusal to address climate change and brought in some modest emissions reduction measures.  On health, he managed to run the gauntlet of a huge and baffling campaign and introduced subsidised health care for the country's poorest citizens.  There are a number of other small programs that do some good.

However, as Matt Taibbi shows, the 'War on the Poor' has continued unabated.  Poor people are subject to summary arrest and punitive welfare policies, while undocumented immigrants (on whom much of the economy depends) are harassed and deported.  Meanwhile, corporate criminals get away with fraud and misconduct on a grand scale.

Whenever there was a mass shooting - and they happen far too often in the US - Obama would say something like "this must stop" and talk tough about gun control, but in eight years no effective limitation on access to firearms has eventuated.  Unarmed African Americans continue to be shot by police officers at regular intervals, but there are no changes to policing practices.

Have I said enough to paint you the picture?  Obama is a convincing orator.  He interacts with people respectfully, he talks reasonably, he rejoices at justice and condemns injustice.  He respects facts and knows how to build an argument.  He doesn't steal from the people, he doesn't have affairs, he is a respectful loving husband and a caring father.  He is the personification of sanity.

Yet behind his calm, sane, rational words is a whole world of crazy.  Obama's biggest achievement has been to make it seem somehow less crazy than it really is.

Which brings me to Donald Trump.


If anything is clear about Trump, it is that he will not provide a veneer of sanity on anything.  With Trump, the crazy is right up front.  The question is, what will he do?

Unlike Obama, Trump has a Congress which is at least nominally on his side, although they do not love him.  They were quick to turn against him when they thought he was going to lose the election.  If he wants their cooperation, he will have to earn it.

When he wants to introduce pro-business legislation, cut welfare and cut taxes they will be waving the legislation through.  They will be with him 100% as his cabinet of wealthy climate skeptics dismantles emissions reduction measures.  They will not have to block attempts to improve gun control because he will not present them with any.  On the other hand, Trump has promised that he will simultaneously cut taxes and spend billions on infrastructure, and Congressional Republicans have been loud and proud deficit warriors.  Will they change their tune?

This important because where Obama's symbols were reassuring words it seems that Trump's will be buildings.  After all, he has achieved fame and fortune by placing his name on huge, ugly monumental structures.  His much hyped wall along the Mexican border is a perfect example.  US immigration policy is already harsh and punitive.  In practice a wall will add little of value beyond a minor logistical challenge for those wanting to cross it.  I imagine Plan A will involve ladders.  Or planes.  It will, however, look strong and reassuring and convince voters Trump is serious.  Incidentally it will also be a bonanza for construction contractors, many of whom will probably employ Mexican wage labourers.

Our best hope out of all of this is that once all this crazy is put on public display, Americans will decide they don't like what they see.  In the short term it will not be hard for Trump to undo the modest good that Obama has achieved.  He could, indeed, do some serious damage of his own, especially beyond America's borders where if left to his own devices he will be like a heavily armed wrecking ball swung by a crane with no driver.  But as I say, things are already pretty crazy.

Hilary Clinton, like Obama, would mainly have tried to make the crazy look sane, probably with less success.  Our best hope is that a Trump Presidency will persuade the Democrats to endorse a candidate who will actually try to change the crazy.  In 2016 Bernie Sanders seriously challenged Clinton for the Democrat nomination by refusing corporate donations and mounting a passionate grassroots campaign.  Sanders will not be back - he will be 79 in 2020 - but his supporters will.  Perhaps after eight years of reassuring words and four years of open craziness, Americans will finally get the opportunity to vote for real change.

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