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December 21st, 2009
Freethought San Marcos: My failure to comprehend the real Obama

Freethought San Marcos: A column

In my last several columns, I have tried to be brutally honest about the nature and character of President Obama’s foreign policy decisions and the health care reform he supports. While I considered myself a clear-eyed realist about our new president, it is apparent now that my optimism for both the domestic and foreign policy decisions we could expect from him was clouded by several factors that I did not fully appreciate.

Part of my problem was that my hope for Obama as a transformational president and my joy at being rid of Bush (who I saw as an illegitimate president brought to power by a partisan Supreme Court) got in the way of my realism, but there were other factors as well.

Looking through my computer files of the last year, I came across some unedited verses I wrote about Barack Obama’s election in early December 2008. They are cautious, but insufficiently skeptical–

The ripened grape

“A historic reversal,” some might call it.
We have a new captain of the ship.
A new overseer.
A new foreman.
A new conductor.
A new captain.

Dare I call him a new guide, a pathfinder, a trailblazer, a pioneer.
We hope he is all this and more.

This captain was chosen not to oversee slaves,
but to oversee a rebirth of America.

Look at him and see the original inhabitants of this land.
See the slaves, the indentured servants, the workers.

See the folly of the not-so-wise.
Those who took the lives of the willing and unwilling.
Who, as the poet said,
“played with the world like it was their little toy.”

This time, this time, we hope that we have a grown-up in charge.
A new guide, a pathfinder, a trailblazer, a pioneer.
Someone who will find a new north star.
Who will not let our dream become a “raisin in the sun.”
Someone whose blossoming will signal the renewal of America’s promise.

I expected too much of Barack Obama and I should have known better. By the time the primaries of 2008 got to Texas, the Republicans offered me no one to support, so I voted in the Democratic Party primary. I chose Obama over Hillary Clinton because I saw her election as installing just another neoliberal administration like that of her husband’s (his nomination in 1992 was what caused me to break with the Democratic Party and become an independent). I failed to absorb opinions I had read and sent to friends that presaged the same neoliberalism that now characterizes the Obama administration. One of those friends, experiencing his own disbelief at the direction of the Obama presidency, brought three of these articles to my attention recently.

In 2006, Lee Sustar, writing for CounterPunch, pointed out that in Latin America “the kind of politics that Sen. Barack Obama represents” is termed “neoliberalism with a human face.”  Sustar noted that in Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope…,” he announced his support for bombing Iran, failed to understand the devastating carnage committed by multinational corporations around the world, supported the cold war, and favored an increased military budget. In his book, Obama indicated his willingness to give big business what it wants in a guest worker program, supported the border wall between the US and Mexico, and acknowledged his support for globalization (a move that has devastated America’s workers).

The health care plan announced in “Audacity” sounds a lot like the corporate-dominated plan cobbled together by Hillary Clinton in 1994 and echoed in the current bills to “reform” health care now being considered in Congress. Obama even buys in to the nonsense that what’s wrong with America can be cured by tort reform (which prevents ordinary Americans from holding “corporations accountable for faulty products and negligence.”)  Sustar warned us, using Obama’s own words, but I failed to heed them.

Likewise, columnist David Sirota pointed out that Obama had never developed significant legislative initiatives during his first two years in the Senate and did not aspire to “challenging the status quo in any fundamental way.”  Sirota wrote further–

“Obama is a candidate who has kept his record deliberately thin, who has risked almost nothing for the bigger (progressive) movement, and in fact who has sometimes gone out of his way to reinforce dishonest stereotypes about the left. This is a man who has helped launch the Hamilton Project designed to undermine Democrats pushing for fairer trade deals. This is a man who belittled Paul Wellstone (the progressive senator from Wisconsin killed in a plane crash during the election of 2002) as merely a ‘gadfly.’  This is a man who refused to lift a finger for Ned Lamont (the 2008 Democratic nominee for senator from Connecticut, who defeated Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary, but lost to him in the general election when Lieberman ran as an independent). Flocking to a candidate like that without demanding that he change only reinforces the damaging concept that our movement is a Seinfeld Movement about nothing.”

Both Ezra Klein and Tom Hayden warned in 2006 and 2007 that Obama was an empty vessel into which those of us who consider ourselves progressives and populists could pour our fondest wishes for an America that cared about all of its people, not just the wealthy and the corporations. Hayden pointed out that Obama did not support those who might be called the “Tom Hayden Democrats,” or the “George McGovern Democrats,” or the “Jesse Jackson Democrats,” or the Martin Luther King Democrats,” or the “Cesar Chavez Democrats,” or the “Gloria Steinem Democrats,” or the “Bobby Kennedy Democrats.”  And it is true, as well, that Obama does not support those who might be called the “FDR Democrats.”

As Barack Obama is demonstrating, he will work out secret deals with the pharmaceutical companies and embrace the health insurance companies, whose failures to meet the health insurance needs of all Americans are as significant as the failures of the Wall Street giants who made such a mess of the financial system that they had to be bailed out by the taxpayers. He will put no political pressure on reluctant senators and representatives to achieve health care reform worthy of the name. Instead, he allows his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to triangulate his policies by “setting up false polarities” (in Hayden’s words) so that he can position himself in the middle, even when the better and more intellectually honest position is elsewhere. So, we had no hearing on single-payer health insurance, and we will get, at best, a pitiable public option, if we get any option at all.

Undoubtedly, part of the cloud that hampered my vision over the past two years was the fact that Obama is African-American. As one who has supported the civil rights movement since the age of ten, who marched for equal rights, who rallied with Dr. King, who participated in demonstrations against racial segregation, and who negotiated with businessmen to end segregation in their establishments, it was no small event during my lifetime to see an African-American elected president.

But having a president who is African-American, or a woman, or a Hispanic-American, or a Native American means nothing unless that person cares more for average Americans than he or she does for the privileged and the powerful. We need a president who will challenge the status quo, both at home and abroad. It appears that in Barack Obama, we do not have such a person.

My resolve for the future is to push through my own limitations of vision and perceptions to see the world as it really is, not as I wish it were. Happy New Year!

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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9 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: My failure to comprehend the real Obama

  1. Lamar,

    Do you see anything changing in the near future? Or do you think he will continue to disappoint progressives? If so, do you think he will do so to such a degree as to lose his party’s primary for his bid at a second term? Do you think his performance will turn off Democrat voters in 2010?

    In sum, what are the consequences for such disillusion?

    And a Happy New Year right back at you!

  2. This discussion on Bill Moyers Journal last Friday night might provide some insight and a partial answer to your questions:

    BILL MOYERS: If you were Barack Obama in a city that’s overrun by money, how would you try to fix it?

    ROBERT KUTTNER: I would go over the heads of the special interests to the people. I think there’s a lot of sullen apprehension, frustration out in the country. And I think the people are hungry for leadership. He’s not doing that sufficiently.

    MATT TAIBBI: It’s absolutely a political winner for the president to hit Wall Street very hard and do all the things that he’s supposed to be doing right now. You know, that all the things that FDR did. If he did those things, if he remade Wall Street in the way that it needs to be remade, he would do nothing but gain popularity. And I think that’s the strategy he should have pursued.

    BILL MOYERS: But what if by nature, that’s not what he wants to do? What if, by nature, he prefers to head the establishment, than to change it?

    ROBERT KUTTNER: Then he runs the risk of being a failed president. And I do have the audacity to hope that he’s a smart enough, principled enough guy, that some time in his second year in office, he’s going to realize that he’s at a crossroads.

    MATT TAIBBI: This isn’t a purely political problem. This isn’t just a question of how does Barack Obama get reelected. This is a serious problem. He has to put aside maybe his inclinations to think about what he can do to actually fix the country. And it’s, you know, desperately in need of fixing. And so, if he’s not that guy, he has to become that guy.

    BILL MOYERS: You say it’s a serious problem. But isn’t from your own experiences, your long experience, your recent experience, isn’t this the fundamental question issue of why it’s not working, that there’s too much money canceling out other imperatives, other needs, other possibilities?

    MATT TAIBBI: This is the fundamental question. Is there a way that we can have a politician get elected without the sponsorship of special interests? Can we get somebody in the White House who’s independent of the special interests that are in the way of real reform? And that’s the problem. We haven’t been able to have that happen. And we need to find a way to have that happen.

    ROBERT KUTTNER: Right. And I think it’s not accidental that the last three Democratic presidents have been at best, corporate Democrats. And one hoped because of the depth of the crisis and the disgrace of deregulation and ideology, and the practical failure of the Bush presidency, this was a moment for a clean break. The fact that even at such a moment, even with an outsider president campaigning on change we can believe in, that Barack Obama turned out to be who he has been so far, is just so revealing in terms of the structural undertow that big money represents in this country. The question is: Is he capable of making a change — he’s only been in office less than a year — in time to redeem the moment, redeem his own promise?

  3. Looks like someone’s got BUYER’S REMORSE! Not to worry Lamar. You weren’t the only liberal who voted for an empty suit. A ‘leader’ with no prior demonstrated leadership skills. No prior BIPARTISAN inclinations. No prior legislative accomplishments. You pinned your hopes on a sales campaign, foisted by a liberal main stream media that abdicated it’s responsibilities to the public. The same whores who now bleat because the ‘public doesn’t trust them’. I wonder why?

  4. With me, it is less buyer’s remorse, than buyer’s lament that my hopes were not realized. Of course, basing anything on hope is never a good strategy, which is the problem. We need to be able to vote for more than hope. Until we can create a system that is not based on corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats, we won’t have much hope even.

  5. This is not the ObaMao you were looking for?

    To capslize your column, Mr. Hankins, Mr. Obama is not Far Left enough for you. Incredible.

    This makes your “I’m an independent” description – scanning the Republicans and the Democrats for an acceptable candidate – either a canard or ignorance. Which is why an electorate populated by voters like yourself scares the pants off the majority of Americans.

    Not because of your choice, though. You have that right, and it’s what makes America great. No, Mr. Hankins, it’s the dissonant thought process that proceeds your choice and results in the slavish cult of personality following to a candidate like Mr. Obama – and the resultant ‘buyer’s remorse’ that ‘GarandFan’ correctly detailed in his comment above.

    I never thought I’d be agreeing with the likes of Azra Klein or Tom Hayden, but they are half right: Obama was an empty vessel. A vessel that was filled with billionaire, global capitalist George Soros’ millions in order to purchase entry into the White House for a Chicago amatuer who has a lifetime of producing nothing but pretty words – and lack of paper trail to prove it.

    And you’re disappointed? Disappointed that Mr. Obama is nothing more than special interest marionette controlled by his plutocratic masters on K & Wall street – where George Soros parks much of his money??

    You listed Sustar, Sirota, Klein and Hayden to demonstrate the red flags of the oncoming train wreck in slow motion that this administration has become, and you – plus tens of millions of others – eagerly swallowed the kool-aid anyways.

    Let me be brutally honest, Mr. Hankins. Voters like you repulse me; your unicorn forest of emotional entitlement; of your political poetry; your blind celebrity allegiance, and your disdain for reason at the expense of the Republic.

  6. Response to locomotivebreath1901:

    You may conclude that I drank the Obama kool-aid, but that is not an accurate characterization of my position both prior to and after his election. In the middle of September 2008, in a column in the Daily Record, I wrote:

    “I have many policy differences with Obama and I haven’t liked either major party for a very long time, but their stranglehold on the political process often means that we believe that we have no choice but to pick the candidate we think will do the least harm to the country, and who may take us in a direction better than where we have been in recent years.” I decided that Obama-Biden would do less harm than MacCain-Palin, but I did not campaign for Obama in any way – no signs, no bumper stickers.

    As I have been trying to point out, I’m not happy with Obama. Obama is not concerned sufficiently with the needs of the average American. He is a corporatist. It is the corporations that he takes care to look after, not the people. I really don’t know what George Soros has to do with those positions. Soros is a capitalist, speculator, and philanthropist with a wide range of public interests. He helped move Hungary from a communist to a capitalist system, but he believes that a mixed public and private economy works best. I’m not one of his devotees, but I don’t have any serious quarrels with him. He gives a lot of money away all over the world for a variety of purposes – social, medical, and political.

    Whether you believe it or not, I am independent of both major political parties and have not joined any other. When I say I am an independent, that’s what I mean.

  7. Congratulations, and every good wish for Christmas and the coming year to you, Lamar, and your colleagues at the Mercury.

    I have just discovered your column and am following your thinking with great interest.

    Sane people in the USA are now in more or less the same position as millions of British citizens were when the ghastly truth about ‘Tony Bliar’ and his neo-Thatcherite crew began to sink in a few years into his premiership. He had effectively torn down and incinerated the only kind of political home that those who were sneered at as “Old Labour”had ever had.

    As early as 1997 the question I trying tried to answer was “How can those millions who Bliar has effectively disenfranchised make an effective contribution to British society in the 21st century.

    The result of my thinking was a book (co-authored with John Jopling) called “GAIAN DEMOCRACIES:Redefining globalisation and People-Power”. Rather than that ponderous title we should have ‘re-framed’ it as “After Tony BLIAR?”

    In the new year I’ll be launching a new blog called “After Obama” and I hope that everyone who is wrestling with their disappointment and sense of powerlessness will join in the debate.

    And what business is this of a Brit living in Latin America?

    Well, if the USA carries on its current path the human race is doomed along with half the species that have evolved with us. The USA is – to the great misfortune of the whole human family – what someone called “the global system-leader’. Where it leads, the world has to follow. THat is why we all must try to help those in the USA who are on the side of sanity, justice and sustainability to achieve some kind of political/social/ economic/ecological miracle in the coming decades.

    And it has to start thinking politically so that when the disastrous presidency of Mr Obama is over, you and like-minded people have laid the basis for a whole new kind of political system.

  8. “And it has to start thinking politically so that when the disastrous presidency of Mr Obama is over, you and like-minded people have laid the basis for a whole new kind of political system.”

    should read

    “And it has to start by those who want to see the USA doing the job their fellow-citizens and the whole human family needs doing some 21st century political thinking so that when the disastrous presidency of Mr Obama is over, you and like-minded people have laid the basis for a whole new kind of political system.

    Apologies for other typoes too.

  9. Roy,

    Other than promoting your book, your blog, and yourself, your comment offered nothing.

    Please elaborate on your statement, “Well, if the USA carries on its current path the human race is doomed…” What path are we on? How with this path doom the human race?

    You say that you want to help “those in the USA who are on the side of sanity, justice and sustainability to achieve some kind of political/social/ economic/ecological miracle…” Are you saying that the opposition to your previously unstated and ultra-vague positions are insane, unjust, and opposed to sustainability? Would this miracle you reference be consistent with the U.S. Constitution?

    Rather than simply promote yourself, it might help if you offer some insight as to your core principles/beliefs and why Americans should give a darn what some self-proclaimed “Brit living in Latin America” thinks.

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