The election of Barack Obama in 2008 brought hope and optimism to Americans and non-Americans alike. But after one and a half terms, the reality is sinking in that for all the promised change, it’s the “same old, same old.” The big question is why, writes Australian Greg Maybury.
By Greg Maybury
For folks who were fans of the late, great comedian Bill Hicks, they likely will be familiar with one of his more memorable routines wherein he is “riffing” on about a Global Power Elite that rules the world. In this routine, Hicks unveils a secret induction ritual of sorts, a rite of passage that takes place once new presidents are ensconced in the White House.
In order to keep each president properly briefed on who actually wields power in the home of the brave and beyond, and discourage any altruistic notions about changing Washington and the world for the better via the power of the Oval Office, a cabal of dark-suited people representing the Powers that Be (or PTBs) of the New World Order sit him down in the darkened, smoke-filled, windowless Situation Room in the White House bunker and show him hitherto unseen film footage of the actual JFK assassination.
In Hicks’ not-so-fevered, conspiratorial imagination, this unique piece of historical cinÃ©ma verite vividly reveals the Crime of the Century from a completely different angle than seen in the famous Zapruder footage. Only this time the fatal projectiles (plural) can be clearly identified as coming from behind the white picket fence atop a certain grassy knoll to the right and in front of the presidential motorcade, the scene replete with a rifle-packing assassin fleeing the area pronto.
After the presentation finishes, the lights turned on, and the smoke clears, the PTBs have only one thing to say to the by-now ashen-faced, freshman POTUS: “Any questions, Mr President?”
Once the look of abject fear, shock and horror subsides and the blood drains back into his face, accompanied by the sudden realization that being president isn’t going to be quite what he expected, his composure regained, his response goes something like this: “Nah shit man, Arrhhm down with that, let’s go bomb Basra!”
The cigar-chomping PTBs, who by now are all smiles and bonhomie, slap the freshly minted Prez on the back and say in unison: “That’s our boy. Great to have you on board!”
As darkly amusing as Hicks’s bit is, there can be no doubt that for many of us, the scenario may be uncomfortably close to the truth, and you don’t need to be a paid-up member of the “tin foil hat brigade” to think that.
With this opening in mind, it is now time to ask the following question about the incumbent POTUS. To wit: What happened, Mr. President? Like many folks, this writer had high hopes for Number 44, and vividly recalls the night of the election win in 2008 wherein Obama’s speech to the nation was as electrifying and as inspiring as anything I can remember in the annals of U.S. politics. And I’m not even American! (Did we see a tear in Colin Powell’s eye?)
Such was the nature and character of Obama’s ascendancy to the highest office in the home of the brave that it seemed even for the most jaded, nay cynical, of political observers that America had taken a turn for the better, and not just for America! Like many of my fellow Australians and doubtless many other non-Americans, it was hard not to feel excited about the prospect this Sometimes Great Nation had turned the corner.
America had woken up to the reality that it actually could be a genuine force for good in the world, and it finally had someone in the Oval Office who could bring that change about.
Such a reaction was, of course, not unexpected after the Bush years. By any measure his was the most disastrous presidential “experiment” up to that time, and we will return to George II’s reign shortly. But sadly it seems the buoyant expectations of the future ushered in by Barack Obama’s election were misplaced after all.
The big question is this: Was Obama co-opted by the PTBs after he was elected a la the Bill Hicks scenario? Or was he a Judas-Goat from the off? For those unfamiliar with the term and the intent of the metaphor, it’s enough to know that the Judas-goat was used to lead the animals up the ramps of the early slaughterhouses before they became all “assembly-lined” and mechanized. You get the drift.
This is hard to know for certain of course, and in seeking some clues all we can do is reflect on Obama’s rise to high office and his record. There are plenty of people who have done that and continue to do so, and this is not my main purpose herein. But we can at the same time look at the Office of the President, and the actual power and authority that the Oval One (to use Gore Vidal’s priceless phrase) is capable of exercising. This hopefully might give us some useful additional insights.
But as always, a little dose of history is in order. After 9/11, Bush’s Pax Americana morphed very quickly into (a) Pox Amerikana, an unprecedented, raging, out-of-control geopolitical pandemic for the zeitgeist, and again, the consequences and outcomes of which will be with us forever and a day. That is unless the next generation beyond Obama can find and administer a cure before it is too late, because it appears even six years after Bush this virulent strain of empire-mired hubris and overreach will not croak of its own accord.
Truth be known, even pre-“Dubya,” the American Empire was probably already something of a Pox Amerikana. It had, in fact, been heading in that direction at a rate of knots. This was especially since the Fall of the Wall, when it could be argued the rot of triumphalism really took hold. Bush II’s true “genius” his one lasting achievement and the one that almost certainly will define his legacy may have been bringing America’s particular and peculiar malaise out into the open for us all to see. Which is not to suggest that “all” of us are “seeing” even now, as a nod is as good as a wink to a blind nation as it were.
Now the spread, virulence and mortality rate of the Bush “Pox” may not have been foreseen at the time by most. But this is surely one case where even a little objective hindsight confers great clarity, although any such “clarity” now one both expects and fears may be of the “too little, too late” variety as distinct from “better late than never” kind. Which brings us back to the incumbent president.
Judging by his performance thus far, it would appear that the person who might have taken such “insights” on board brought about by such “clarity” and done something with them to substantively change the status quo has in many ways, gone back to the future.
Whereas Bush under-promised and over-delivered as it were, Obama has over-promised and under-delivered, and it’s difficult to say which is the lesser of the two “evils.”. To take just one measure by which we might assess his presidential leadership (and one for which his administration can hardly put any blame to his predecessor), we only need to look at the current situation in Ukraine, and America’s aggressive and geopolitically destabilizing stance towards the Russian Federation.
Much the same can be said of Obama’s performance closer to home. His record here thus far underscores the contention that the presidency is no longer relevant in mapping out a secure, equitable future for Americans, and in articulating an achievable vision for the nation as a whole.
Exhibit A in this respect is his failure to bring the Wall Street Cowboys to heel so as to rein in upon pain of them doing serious jail time a la Bernie Madoff their most reckless impulses. And the presidency appears no longer powerful enough even with a popular mandate to re-gear the machinery of the National Security State towards something more simpatico with the spirit and letter of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Yet the next presidential candidates will tell us they can achieve the latter and more, and people will vote for either/or candidate en masse in the fervent hope that they will make good on their word. Or they won’t vote at all. Other than the names on the high-security clearance ID’s of the champions of the National Security State and the dog-tags of the front-line defenders of freedom and democracy in the U.S. military though, very little is likely change.
Rethinking the Imperium
In an informal interview with journalist and author Chris Hedges not long after the beginning of Obama’s first term, U.S. political philosopher Sheldon Wolin indicated that he did not expect much from the new Administration and that “the basic systems” [of power and influence] in the U.S. are going to “stay in place” unchallenged. But Wolin had this to say about the new president who it has to be recalled at this point got into that position promising more change than you could poke a stick at in a month of election Tuesdays:
“This [view] is shown by the [Wall Street] bailout. It [the Obama administration] does not bother with [changing] the structure at all. I don’t think he can take on the establishment we have developed. … [Obama] is probably the most intelligent president we have had in decades. I think he is well meaning, but he inherits a system of constraints that makes it very difficult to take on these major power configurations. I do not think he has any appetite for it [ideologically]. The corporate structure is not going to be challenged. There has not been a word from him that would suggest an attempt to rethink the American imperium.”
With this in mind, and in view of the fact that we’re now well into his second term, with Obama then, it appears to be Pox Amerikana redux, dÃ©jÃ vu all over again. In short, Obama has spent little time “rethinking” the “imperium.”
If Obama promised change, then his first term tenure appeared to have underscored that hoary old platitude that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Whether he instinctively knew that before he was elected is open to debate, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion he did. This would especially be the case if he was/is that “intelligent.”
On the other hand, it may just be that Obama recognizes as Wolin has reinforced above that as president he represents, embodies and acts in the interests of forces that are larger, more powerful and much more immutable than the Office itself and the person who holds the Office. And catering to these forces is more important than any attempts to cater to the electorate at large, over whom it would appear certain that these forces take precedence.
In the intriguing 2010 book The Next Hundred Years A Forecast for the 21st Century, George Friedman underscored this premise. After noting that in the long-term at least, presidents are not especially “important or powerful” people anymore, he added the following about Obama, and by extrapolation one expects, future presidents:
“[He has to] govern within the realities and constraints that [have] defined previous presidencies, and whilst he may or may not be popular, his ability to redefine anything as massive as the United States and the global system [is] severely limited”.
Obama may even acknowledge privately that to be “successful” and “effective” he needs to recognize the above reality or not harbor any illusions about it (or any ambitions of his own at odds with these forces), even if he doesn’t always feel comfortable with such “recognition” and constraints.
That being the case, there is at present disturbingly little sign especially with the lame-duck period of his second term looming that Obama is showing any discomfort with that recognition. No doubt there are numerous folk Stateside and beyond who believed in his message of audacity combined with his shill of hope would be saying “more’s the pity.”
Interestingly, Obama has apparently received many more death threats than Bush ever did; with that in mind, it’s quite possible he realizes that demonstrating too much audacity and offering too much hope could to use the popular contemporary vernacular get his “skinny black ass capped.” Just like JFK did as one supposes in the Bill Hicks scenario, and of whom it is generally considered demonstrated a little too much audacity and propensity for change and in doing so, paid the ultimate price for it?
And when we consider the current state of play with the Secret Service, this would be neither an unreasonable concern for the President himself nor an outlandish proposition for the rest of us.
Either way, when we place all this in context, and take on the perspective doing so provides, Obama may turn out to be a bigger disappointment than his predecessor. Who’d have thought that on the night of the first Tuesday in November in 2008?
Greg Maybury is a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia.