Barack Obama & the Death of Idealism

The former president’s deception and warmongering killed the “hope and change” he promised on the campaign trail, writes James Bovard.

President Barack Obama saluting coffins of dead U.S. soldiers returned from Afghanistan to Dover Air Force Base, Aug. 9, 2011. (White House/Pete Souza)

By James Bovard
The American Conservative

Americans are sickened of an “idealism that is oblique, confusing, dishonest, and ferocious,” as H.L. Mencken wrote a hundred years ago. Though Mencken was condemning President Woodrow Wilson, the same verdict could characterize the legacy of former president Barack Obama.

Obama is now on a book tour issuing calls for honest government, civic virtue, and similar tripe. But Obama did more to discredit idealism than any president since Wilson.

A dozen years ago, Americans were enthralled by the newly elected president from Illinois. After the deceit and demagoguery of the George W. Bush era, Obama’s first presidential campaign with its “Yes, We Can” motto swayed Americans that he could personally restore the moral grandeur of government. Its idealism was epitomized by the famous “Hope” campaign poster that practically deified the candidate.

Shortly before his first inauguration, Obama announced, “What is required is the same perseverance and idealism that our founders displayed.” After Obama’s inaugural address, the media rejoiced as if a new age of political idealism had arrived.

Practically the entire world joined the race to canonize the new president. Less than 12 days after he took office, Obama was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize — which he received later that year. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared at a White House state dinner, “We warmly applaud the recognition by the Nobel Committee of the healing touch you have provided and the power of your idealism and your vision.” Shortly after receiving the Peace Prize, Obama announced he would triple the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Peace Prize helped insulate him from criticism as he proceeded to bomb seven nations during his presidency.

Obama-style idealism quickly became a shroud for federal atrocities. On Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 23, 2009,  Obama called for “fighting the silence that is evil’s greatest co-conspirator.” Ironically, on the same day, Obama decided to oppose creation of a truth commission to vigorously investigate and expose Bush administration crimes.

After Obama visited CIA headquarters and praised his audience for helping to “to uphold our values and ideals,” Obama chose not to prosecute any CIA officials who created a secret worldwide torture regime because “it’s important to look forward and not backwards.”

Over the next five years, Obama administration officials vigorously fought a Senate investigation into Bush torture abuses, and Obama personally defended the CIA after it was caught illegally spying on the Senate to thwart the inquiry. The Obama administration also torpedoed every lawsuit by a torture victim in U.S. court.

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In 2011, Obama draped his decision to bomb Libya by invoking “democratic values” and the “ideals” which he asserted were “the true measure of American leadership.” But terrorist groups fighting dictator Muammar Qaddafi were already slaughtering civilians. Obama was so convinced of the righteousness of targeting Qadaffi that his appointees signaled that federal law (such as the War Powers Act) could not constrain his salvation mission. In the chaos that subsequently engulfed Libya, ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed during an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. When their corpses arrived back in the U.S., Obama hailed the victims for embodying “the courage, the hope, and yes, the idealism, that fundamental American belief that we can leave this world a little better than before.” Obama’s soothing rhetoric failed to deter the proliferation of slave markets where black migrants were openly sold in Libya.

(Juli Hansen, Shutterstock)

Obama declared that America’s “ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake” in his first inaugural address. But one of Obama’s most shocking legacies was his claim of a prerogative to kill U.S. citizens labeled as terrorist suspects without trial, without notice, and without any chance for the marked individuals to legally object. Obama’s lawyers even refused to disclose the standards used for designating Americans for death. Drone strikes increased tenfold under Obama, and he personally chose who would be killed at weekly “Terror Tuesday” White House meetings which featured PowerPoint parades of potential targets.

Corroded Idealism

Year by year, Obama’s lies and abuses of power corroded the idealism that helped him capture the presidency. As a presidential candidate, he promised “no more illegal wiretaps;” as president, he vastly expanded National Security Agency’s illegal seizures of Americans’ emails and other records.

He promised transparency but gutted the Freedom of Information Act and prosecuted twice as many Americans for Espionage Act violations than all the presidents combined since Woodrow Wilson.

He perennially denounced “extremism” at the same time his administration partnered with Saudi Arabia to send weapons to terrorist groups that were slaughtering Syrian civilians in a failed attempt to topple the regime of Bashar Assad.

Obama helped establish an Impunity Democracy in which rulers pay no price for their misdeeds. As The New York Times noted after the 2016 election, the Obama administration fought in court to preserve the legality of defunct Bush administration practices such as torture and detaining Americans arrested at home as “enemy combatants.”

Last August, in his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Obama declared, “Look, I understand why many Americans are down on government.” But he has never owned up to his personal role in embittering millions of Americans who bought into his “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” shtick in 2008.

Rather than restoring trust in the government, Obama’s presidency simply confirmed millions of Americans’ worst suspicions about officialdom.

In the final years of his presidency, Obama was far more likely to condemn cynicism than he was to trumpet idealism. By the end of Obama’s presidency, idealism was roadkill on the political highway. Donald Trump’s 2016 pledge to “drain the swamp” was the ultimate perverse political promise — at least according to the standards of the Washington establishment. The 2020 presidential race between Trump and Joe Biden was about as uplifting as a hemorrhoid ointment commercial.

Barack Obama, with Joe Biden and Donald Trump at the latter’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. (DoD, Cristian L. Ricardo)

Last Refuge of a Scoundrel

But this is a positive development for anyone who values straight dealing in public life. Idealism has surpassed patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel. Idealistic appeals were used by Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to vindicate the Vietnam War; by President Bill Clinton to sanctify the bombing of Serbia; and by President George W. Bush to dignify the devastation of Iraq.

The mainstream media is almost always willing to help presidents shroud foreign carnage with pompous claptrap. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius declared in late 2003 that Bush’s war on Iraq “may be the most idealistic war fought in modern times.”

Idealism encourages citizens to view politics as a faith-based activity, transforming politicians from hucksters to saviors. The issue is not what government did in the past — the issue is how we must do better in the future. Politicians’ pious piffle is supposed to radically reduce the risk of subsequent perfidy.

And this could be the hook the media uses to coronate Joe Biden as a born-again idealist, thereby perpetuating the same Teflon shield it provided him during the presidential campaign.

Early Americans idealized the Constitution, yet much of Biden’s career was devoted to obliterating Americans’ constitutional and legal rights.

Biden was the architect of federal asset forfeiture programs that wrongfully plundered billions of dollars from innocent Americans. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden co-wrote the 1994 crime bill which The New York Times noted helped spawn “the explosion of the prison population.” Biden boasted in 1994 that “every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress… has had the name of the Democratic senator from the State of Delaware: Joe Biden.”

But Biden can probably expunge his sordid record if he champions Washington’s favorite type of idealism — one that exalts government action as the highest expression of the best within us. After Trump’s endless denunciations of the Deep State, the political establishment is striving to put the federal government and Washington back on a pedestal.

As a recent Washington Post headline proclaimed, “Washington’s aristocracy hopes a Biden presidency will make schmoozing great again.” (The Post quickly changed its initial headline to “Washington’s Establishment” but “aristocracy” remained in the body of the article.) That same aristocracy hopes that idealism will provide the magic words to make the peasantry again defer to their superiors.

“Idealism is going to save the world,” President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed shortly after World War I left much of Europe in ruins and paved the way for Communist and Nazi takeovers. Nowadays, idealism is often positive thinking about growing servitude. Obama was only the most recent president to rely on “rent-a-halo” rhetoric to blur political reality. Americans cannot afford to venerate any more Idealists-in-Chief hungry to seize new power or start new wars.

James Bovard is the author of Lost RightsAttention Deficit Democracy, and Public Policy Hooligan. He is also a USA Today columnist. Follow him on Twitter @JimBovard.

This article is from The American Conservative and reprinted with permission.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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24 comments for “Barack Obama & the Death of Idealism

  1. Joe Wazzzz
    December 8, 2020 at 07:19

    It stands to reason that you are never going to get what you think you hear a politician saying. But some things are simple. If you elect a president with a Third World, dictatorial mentality, you are going to get a Third World country. Like a computer, “garbage in, garbage out.” That is what we have today as a result of Obama’s reign. (He did say that he was “ready to rule” and he did rule by executive order.) So now we have basically political control of the media, political control of the exchange of information on social media, use of the federal policing agencies to spy on and attack political enemies, allegiance of the Tech Robber Barons, bands of uniformed thugs intimidating citizens and destroying businesses and property and finally massive voting fraud. And they call Trump “Hitler.”

  2. Rob Roy
    December 8, 2020 at 04:10

    Great article, and although I have already commented, I’d like to thank all the other readers who have made such insightful and comprehending comments. Since the truth of the article can make one despair, I find hope from the intelligence of the readers. Nice to know that many do not fall for the propaganda of the New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and the likes of Rachel Maddow.

  3. Realist
    December 8, 2020 at 00:53

    After the creeping wars of choice and shameless catering to the connected insider elites under the Teflon Prez and Bushdaddy, Slick Willy, Bushbaby, Obomber and Orange Man all run on promises they blatantly abandon once in office. Bait and switch is firmly established as an American legacy in national politics. Hope and change is really not permitted or even remotely possible. What’s stunning was the speed with which this reality was effected. Perhaps this has finally sunk in with the electorate because Sleepy Joe essentially ran on the promise that he would not change a damned thing if elected, other than miraculously making Covid go away. Just replacing the barbaric outsider with orange hair should be enough according to the new conventional wisdom.

    Most of the aforementioned presidents quite effectively hid their scandalous records or moral deficiencies during their campaigns which allowed them to get elected. Biden is quite the non-refreshing exception, dragging nearly 50 years of exposed scandal and moral turpitude while in public office behind him. Does anyone out there really expect great things from him? Did he give the slightest hint of any new policies that can turn the unfolding catastrophe that is current American and world history around? Can he realistically do anything to keep the American ship of state, with decks already awash, from going down like the Titanic? Or is he just the latest in a series of treasonous puppets whose specific role is to serve as a bridge to undisguised fascistic corporate rule? If you regularly read this news site, I think you know the answers.

  4. December 7, 2020 at 23:19

    “Death of hope” is a good descriptive phrase applied to Obama, even though it is somewhat inaccurate.

    I think ideals in and about America died long ago, in the mid- to late-1960s.

    Obama’s running did ignite a flicker of hope that a miracle was somehow underway, but it really lasted a brief time, a few months, before it resembled a cigarette butt in an ashtray.

    He proved to be a death’s head with the gifts of an alluring smile and a rich voice.

    He is almost the very definition of a psychopath, superficial charm combined with the ability to manipulate while harboring murderous impulses and possessing no conscience.

    Looking back at his campaign, his ability to assume the warm rhythms of traditional Black preachers with, “Yes, we can!“ while in fact offering, and then doing, nothing for his own people reconfirms the diagnosis.

    He serves almost as a poster child for America’s brutal empire. A bright man of modest means with a career as an untenured lecturer was able to retire from the White House worth many tens of millions of dollars. That is what America’s empire is all about.

  5. sanford sklansky
    December 7, 2020 at 16:18

    There are very few but I think people like Greenwald and a few others on the left would probably agree with this.

    • Rob Roy
      December 7, 2020 at 20:19

      There’s a lot of us who voted for Obama the first round and immediately knew he was phoney with his cabinet picks the first week in office. What opportunities that man had. He could have been the greatest president we ever had. But he was either afraid or too stupid. He was a crushing disappointment. He’s more disgusting than Trump who didn’t bomb seven countries and didn’t start new wars willy-nilly. Trump lied every time he opened his mouth. So did Obama. Difference is, the Dems pretend they are good.

    • bardamu
      December 7, 2020 at 23:16

      We are out there. Utterly wonderful article–applause, thanks, and congratulations to CN and James Bovard.

  6. December 7, 2020 at 16:11

    Thanks to James. This is what REAL conservatives should be, not the vile rightwing haters we see in Pence and Pompass.

  7. December 7, 2020 at 15:42

    Wow, accurate observation and analysis. Obama is the personification of a modern pied piper who led America over the moral cliff and made Trump possible. He lied & cheated about every promise and hope that he made. And now he has the gulls to sell a book loaded with lies that should be titled–“Promises Sold”.
    What’s depressing to me, is that I voted and supported him twice. Shame on me!
    It was interesting to watch the continuation of Obama scam reborn as Trumph, and now, Biden born with the combination of the earlier twins.
    Thanks James Bovard for this timely article.

  8. PEG
    December 7, 2020 at 15:33

    Great article by James Bovard, following on his other very good article recently posted in Consortium News recommending that Trump declassify the government files on the Syrian intervention to prevent Biden from renewing the bloodbath in Syria, which given his roster of national security hawks is highly likely (although the likelihood that Trump will do anything in this regard is sadly close to nil).

    The present article makes the extremely important observation that there is a strong historical strand of hypocritical interventionism – rank, vicious imperialism disguised as promoting democracy and humanitarianism – extending from Woodrow Wilson and WWI, through LBJ and the Vietnam War, to Bush jr. and Iraq, to Obama with Libya and Syria – that is likely to be renewed with new vigor under Biden.

    Thanks to Black Lives Matter, Wilson has recently been unmasked as a racist and bigot, with Princeton University and others now renouncing his legacy – but even more work needs to be done to root out his hypocritical, evil legacy in foreign policy – “humanitarian” and “democratic” interventionism – and in the areas of civil liberties and state propaganda – being the father of the Espionage Act, now being used to persecute truth-tellers like Assange, and of the Committee on Public Information, created to muzzle independent media (an initial incarnation of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth).

  9. Mark Thomason
    December 7, 2020 at 15:30

    Obama was self defeated, but it was by his extreme compromises rather than his own policy preferences.

    It is more the tragedy of weakness than it is evil policy freely chosen.

    Obama is all tragic flaws, and few of the virtues commonly assigned to him. Skin color only goes so far.

    • December 8, 2020 at 19:41

      I find this comment closest to my own understanding of Obama. He started out defending the Black Professor in Boston and highlighting the racism in policework but as soon as he was challenged he backed off the issue. As soon as Jeremy Wright’s sermon was made public he backed off the criticism Wright correctly made of American foreign policy and 911 chickens come home to roost. He called Afghanistan a “stupid war”, but within 5 months of inauguration he was at West Point idealizing the military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  10. Anne
    December 7, 2020 at 13:17

    Thank you Mr Bovard…succinct and truthfully to the point…when has the political arm of the plutocracy been any different, though? We seem to be so keen and eager to kill, destroy, devastate… Not seem – We ARE and that fully includes both Obama and the future admin/White House incumbents…(Hasn’t that bloke sucked off the taxpayer – i.e. ordinary worker -tit for long enough already?????)

  11. Jeff Harrison
    December 7, 2020 at 12:27

    You got that right Mr. Bovard – The Washington elite like nothing more that to be venerated. Unfortunately, they don’t deserve it and the world would be better off with them out of power.

  12. robert e williamson jr
    December 7, 2020 at 12:18

    Great stuff Mr. Bovard. However conservatives have no corner of the market called truth and it is my position that the right leaning politics of both parties fuels the propaganda of idealism and exceptionalism.

    Regardless essentially James is correct

    What the author has to say here, and he does mention some of them, is that Barack was no different than any of the last nine presidents.

    It is my position that after the murder of JFK the message had been sent and even if a candidate didn’t buy into the status quo in D.C. after he get those presidential intelligence briefings he would be persuaded to buy in or be other wise eliminated from the game.

    Our intelligence community ensures they drive the only “Idealism ” of any consequence to this self-assumed “exceptional” country and it is killing our democracy. The idea or propaganda that the U.S. is an exceptional nation is the intelligence communities excuse to exclude all outsiders from their club.

    The citizens of this country have been duped by their own arrogance, ignorance and laziness into believing that simply because politicians and other government perfunctionaries singing praised to the status quo who make these claims somehow empowers these metaphysical beliefs and they are therefor significant.

    In my opinion that is not the way the world works there days. It damned sure isn’t how D.C. works these days is it.?

    Members of both parties should be too embarrassed to claim any allegiance to a pachyderm or an ass and giving the animals a bad name.

    Thanks to all at CN

  13. Arch Stanton
    December 7, 2020 at 11:41

    A brilliant piece James

    Thank you.

  14. Dennis Dubois
    December 7, 2020 at 11:39

    Thank you for laying it out. Others have said so as well, but you forthright in you proclamations. I sincerely hope the chump President will sit in his study and consider the enormity of his mistakes. Likely not, one one is in for a penny, best to go in for a pound.
    Amazing that so many applaud him, wish for his presence, when he would screw them all over again if he had the chance. He is actually doing it now, pulling the strings behind the curtain.

  15. December 7, 2020 at 11:38

    Nice article Jim. I agree with most of it.

    But its wrong to group Kennedy with LBJ and Nixon in growing US involvement in Vietnam. There was not one combat troop in Vietnam on the day Kennedy was inaugurated, and there was not one there on the day he was killed. The previous month, October 1963, he had issued an order to begin withdrawal of all American advisors. He also ordered an evacuation study of all American desk personnel. On the day he left for Dallas, he told Mike Forrestal of the NSC, that when he got back, there would be a complete review of American involvement there, including how we got there in the first place. None of this ever happened under Johnson. We all know what did happen.

      December 7, 2020 at 17:57

      There was a complete review of American involvement there. It is called the Pentagon Papers.

    • rgl
      December 7, 2020 at 21:43

      You state one of the reasons he was assassinated. He refused to invade Vietnam, and as an aside, to support the Cuban invasion. He greatly upset TPTB, not giving them the war(s) they wanted, and they decided he had to go. Additionally, lets not forget that there was an Executive Order on his desk, awaiting his signature disbanding the Fed, and returning the Purse to Congress. Oh yeah … he also wanted to “smash the CIA into a thousand pieces … ” The man made many, many enemies.

    • PEG
      December 8, 2020 at 05:27

      Question for James DiEugenio: I have a question which you – as a leading expert on the Kennedy administration and assassination – will know the answer to (I, being relatively uninformed, don’t): If Kennedy had sincerely been intending to wind down US involvement in Vietnam, why did the massive escalation of the war occur under his very own, hand-picked foreign policy and defense team: Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, W.W. Rostow, and others? — these were the architects of the war. Had JFK been planning to replace these people in his second term? Or was JFK like Trump, who has talked a good deal about ending the never-ending foreign wars, while at the same time appointing people like Pompeo, Bolton, Mattis, Haley, again the list goes on. Actions speak louder than words.

  16. Anonymot
    December 7, 2020 at 10:16

    Obama was not about idealism for a minute; he was a tribal token promising pie in the sky and totally subservient to the MIC/CIA & Co. The Bush family was the CIA et al in person, but they were smart enough to know that their achievements under W were so effective that any schmuck the Democrats put up would win. With the aid of 2 minority people who could be bought cheaply, who were presentable and who would be totally obedient, they effectively bought the Democrats’ Party – and fooled the childish pie in the sky public.

    Then they finished the job of igniting the world of Islam, locking down Venezuela for its oil, destroying the Ukraine to get to war with Russia, and for the pleasure of Netanyahu, threatening Iran. Those were the realities as foreseen by the few who were knocked down by the powers of reality.

    I hate to say it, but we are a Germanic-based country with its tendency to fascism and if you doubt it, just watch Biden! He’s merely more presentable and more subtle than the Trump mess.

  17. rgl
    December 7, 2020 at 09:49

    Isn’t ‘Hope and Change’ something expected after every election? If not, then why bother with the facade? Disappointment with electees is the one, single constant in elections. As this article points out, this hasn’t changed for the last one hundred years. Disappointment. The only constant.

  18. bobLich
    December 7, 2020 at 09:31

    “hope and change” are long gone in America, the land of unfettered capitalism where greed is God.

    I read for a good critique of what our American capitalism really does.

Comments are closed.