Obama’s Delusion

David Bromwich

Long before he became president, there were signs in Barack Obama of a tendency to promise things easily and compromise often. He broke a campaign vow to filibuster a bill that immunised telecom outfits against prosecution for the assistance they gave to domestic spying. He kept his promise from October 2007 until July 2008, then voted for the compromise that spared the telecoms. As president, he has continued to support their amnesty. It was always clear that Obama, a moderate by temperament, would move to the middle once elected. But there was something odd about the quickness with which his website mounted a slogan to the effect that his administration would look to the future and not the past. We all do. Then again, we don’t: the past is part of the present. Reduced to a practice, the slogan meant that Obama would rather not bring to light many illegal actions of the Bush administration. The value of conciliation outweighed the imperative of truth. He stood for ‘the things that unite not divide us’. An unpleasant righting of wrongs could be portrayed as retribution, and Obama would not allow such a misunderstanding to get in the way of his ecumenical goals.

The message about uniting not dividing was not new. It was spoken in almost the same words by Bill Clinton in 1993; and after his midterm defeat in 1994, Clinton borrowed Republican policies in softened form – school dress codes, the repeal of welfare. The Republican response was unappreciative: they launched a three-year march towards impeachment. Obama’s appeals for comity and his many conciliatory gestures have met with a uniform negative. If anything, the Republicans are treating him more roughly than Clinton. Obama appears securer only because the mainstream media, which hated Clinton beyond reason, have showed up on his side. Americans, however, attend to a congeries of substitute media, at the centre of which lie Fox News Radio and Fox TV, the Murdoch stations. From that source, in the late spring and summer, a message percolated through a crowd of 20 million listeners, a message that was coherent, detailed and subversive of public order. I listened a little every day, as I drove to work and back, and I saw what was coming. The talk aimed to delegitimate the president, and it gave promise of an insurrection. A floating army of the angry and resentful were being urged to express contempt for Barack Obama, and to exhibit their loyalty to principles they felt in danger of losing – the right to bear arms, the right not to pay for health insurance. When representatives from Congress addressed town-hall meetings in the late summer, men in several states came armed with guns in leg holsters. Their local grievance was hostility to Obama’s plan for healthcare, a plan which was detested sight unseen, and which has still not been explained with sufficient clarity to remedy the distrust of the rational. (Clinton made the mistake of handing the construction of a national health system to his wife and a group of advisers she consulted in private. Obama, to avoid that error, left the framing and elaboration of a bill to five committees of Congress: an experiment in dissociation that rendered him blameless but also clueless beyond the broadest of rhetorical commitments.) But beneath all the accusations was a disturbance no ordinary answer could alleviate. The America these people grew up with was being taken away from them. That formulation occurred again and again on talk radio. Barack Obama had become the adequate symbol of forces that were swindling the people of their birthright. ‘This guy’ – another common locution – didn’t have a right to give laws to Americans.

When the Clinton impeachment was going forward, Obama was a young Chicago politician with other things on his mind. He could have learned something then about how the Republicans work. The most questionable of his appeals in the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton was the endlessly repeated bromide with which he dissociated himself from ‘the partisan bickering of the 1990s’ – a piece of spurious evenhandedness if there ever was one. Bill Clinton, who gained his national stature in the conservative Democratic Leadership Council, had been as much a prudent adjuster and adapter as Obama. The fury of the attack on Clinton, which started a few months into his presidency, was not the bickering of two rival parties exactly comparable in point of incivility. Yet such was Obama’s convenient picture of the recent past.

Delays in the passage, first, of Obama’s ‘stimulus package’ to strengthen the economy after last September’s financial collapse, and, second, of his healthcare bill, have been due in large part to his public pauses to wait for Republicans to lend these measures a bipartisan glow. A few came along, at a high price, to vote for the economic stimulus. None has taken up the offer on healthcare. The Republicans stand in place, and give no sign, and watch as the president’s stature dwindles. His reason for waiting doubtless has something to do with fear. Obama receives four times as many death threats as George W. Bush did. Yet he is also encumbered by the natural wish of the moderate to hold himself close to all the establishments at once: military, financial, legislative, commercial. Ideally, he would like to inspire everyone and to offend no one. But the conceit of accommodating one’s enemies inch by inch to attain bipartisan consensus seems with Obama almost a delusion in the literal sense: a fixed false belief. How did it come to possess so clever a man?

Obama’s career up to now, lucky as it was, had been wanting in singular achievements for which he alone was responsible. His experience seems not to have taught him the law of natural selection in politics by which majorities are put together out of remainders. Any act that achieves something concrete will leave small multitudes of the disappointed keening but unheard. There are hurt feelings in politics, which only time can cure if anything can. This is a truth now staring at Barack Obama, on several different fronts, but he does not accept it easily. His way of thinking is close to the spirit of that Enlightenment reasonableness which supposes a right course of action can never be described so as to be understood and not assented to.

The Republican Party of 2009 is a powerful piece of contrary testimony. It has become the party of wars and jails, and its moral physiognomy is captured by the faces of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, faces hard to match outside Cruikshank’s drawings of Dickens’s villains, hard as nails and mean as dirt and with an issue still up their sleeve when wars wind down and the jails are full: a sworn hostility towards immigrants and ‘aliens’. The anti-immigrant bias – from which George W. Bush and John McCain were free, but which both were powerless to counteract – is an underground stream of the party that makes it a bearer of racist sentiments no longer avowable in public. I have been studying the ante-bellum South, for a course on the career of Abraham Lincoln, and have been struck by the resemblance between the Republicans today and the pre-Civil War Democrats. The model of the Republicans today is John C. Calhoun, the political theorist of the slave South and deviser of the rationale for local nullification of federal policies.

That the central lesson about his domestic enemies has not yet been learned by Obama is the mystery of the first eight months of his presidency. He has acted as if he were the leader of no party; as if patience and benignity of temper could bring out the best in everyone. This is part of a larger inward confusion about his role. He seems to speak at once, or rather he seems to speak at different times, as organiser and as mediator, national leader and national healer. There is something strange about the alternation of postures, from the point of view of empirical prudence. On the largest issues that he himself raised in his opening months – his decision to close Guantánamo, to press for a two-state solution of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and to reform healthcare with a national plan – his pattern has been the grand exordium delivered at stage centre, followed by months of silence. He has left his agents or his advisers or his party or both parties to mind the details. During the protracted delay, the very features that give the impress of his intention are sanded away. Thus, a new kind of pressure on Israel and a resolve to create a Palestinian state appeared to be signalled by his Cairo speech in early June. It was a thoughtful speech, and a courageous one, even if you took it as a series of propositions uttered at a certain time in a certain place. Simply to address the Muslims of the world without condescension was sure to make him unforgiving enemies on the American right – including the considerable body of Christian Zionists in the Southern and border states – and Obama went to Cairo and delivered his speech knowing that. Yet the four months since have seemed much longer than four months. Israel has sapped and undermined the settlement freeze. Binyamin Netanyahu gambled that he could trespass against objections by Obama’s negotiators, Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell, and the gamble has worked. The American desiderata were never backed by a sanction, and the Netanyahu government approved thousands of new units for the expansion of the Israeli colonies. This the Americans called ‘not helpful’.

Healthcare has been fretted according to a different schedule of neglect. Here, the undermining came first and Obama’s speech later. After a summer of radio coaching had rendered the opposition to healthcare so clamorous that many town-hall meetings erupted in disorder and some had to be closed early, Obama on 9 September addressed a joint session of Congress, and there, at last, he gave a measured and impressive presentation, which for the first time made the general case for his plan. It sent his approval ratings back above 50 per cent, and it was overshadowed only by the shout of a representative from South Carolina (Calhoun’s state), ‘You lie!’ – in effect a challenge to a duel with the president on the floor of Congress. This breach of protocol could hardly have come from a spontaneous welling-up of anger in Joe Wilson of South Carolina. To violate the hush of that monumental chamber required as much forethought and wild resolution as it would take to shout ‘God damn!’ in a cathedral. Wilson had done nothing previous of note, except mount a defence of the flying of the Confederate flag in the capitol of South Carolina. So the discord that the 9 September address was meant to salve showed its face again at the speech itself. There are people in America who sniff the taint of tyranny in every programme of the federal government; and a lot of them were listening to their radios in April, May, June and July. But there have also been grounds for fear that were genuine: a fact the prosperous neoliberal consensus lightly brushed off. Non-fanatical Americans of modest means have wondered how their children will pay for the emergency measures we are buying now but refusing to tax ourselves for.

Early suspicion of the bank bail-outs found a ready target of displaced resentment in the later demand for health insurance reform. Healthcare had never seemed a main concern of Obama’s as a candidate, and this looked like one more exorbitance. The new president had run up a staggering bill, close to a trillion dollars, to pay the brokerage houses to stave off a depression. He expected a gratitude he did not get. His choice of tactics could never have been easy to explain in a climate where so many bankers survived and so many ordinary people lost their homes and jobs. ‘And you are losing your health coverage, too!’ Obama says. But in a country where 85 per cent have coverage of some sort, more have been worrying about their homes and their jobs. Most people’s health insurance payments are taken out of their monthly pay cheques and put into private plans offered by their employers; when an employer cuts your job you lose the insurance too; but it betrayed a planner’s conceit in Obama to imagine that people would worry first, and most acutely, about the loss of their insurance. Many without a history of political resentment, some of whom voted for Obama, are startled that they keep being asked to foot the bill. It was easier to blame ‘big government’ than to say that the bankers and brokers and the whole financial establishment, with Goldman Sachs at its core, did not deserve the bail-outs. Obama’s speech on 9 September arrived too late to work as a counter-charm.

The pattern of the major announcement, the dilatory follow-up and the tardy self-defence has shown an alarming consistency in his administration. Obama ordered the closing of the prison at Guantánamo Bay as the first act of his presidency. Eight months later, Guantánamo remains open and unsolved, the date of its closing has been postponed, and the question of what to do with the prisoners has become the most explosive of all the matters that confront Obama’s authority. After signing the order in January, he took a long break; and his enemies rallied. Two elements of the syndrome should be distinguished. First, Obama is trying to do a great deal at once, not all of it thrust on him by the disasters of the previous administration. It is also beginning to appear that Obama has a slower ratio to the passage of time than most politicians. When he was attacked for the Guantánamo order, on the grounds that it placed the security of Americans in jeopardy, he let it be known that the issue was undergoing reappraisal; then, on 21 May, he gave a speech on law and national security at the National Archives: the worst speech of his presidency. He said that his paramount duty was ‘to keep the American people safe’: that word, safe, which was accorded a primacy by George W. Bush it had not been given by any earlier president, Obama himself now ranked ahead of the words justice, right, liberty and constitution. The National Archives speech was, more particularly, a response to the charges made by Dick Cheney over several preceding weeks.

In a speech delivered on the same day, 21 May, the former vice president, who has never really retired, gave a digest of his own published criticisms. The decision to release photos of the victims of torture, and to rule out ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ in the future, could only ‘lead our government further away from its duty to protect the American people’. Cheney intimated that if an attack occurred in the coming years, the fault would be Obama’s for having restored an antiquarian understanding of civil liberties and obedience to international law. Obama’s answer was sober and resolute in appearance, but, in detail, the National Archives speech was a capitulation on most of the points specified by Cheney. Prisoners would now be divided into five categories: those who could be freed because they were innocent; those who could be extradited to foreign countries; those who fell under the jurisdiction of military tribunals; those who could be tried in civilian courts in the US; and then a fifth category – those whom we lacked evidence to convict but who (it had been decided) were too dangerous to set free. These prisoners would be held indefinitely under a new legal dispensation still to be devised.

Preventive detention was a step President Nixon had proposed to Congress in 1970, but he never found the support or the temerity to put the programme into effect. Yet here was a Democratic president and professor of constitutional law doing what Nixon and for that matter Cheney and his assistants had only dreamed of. We have yet to see the final result, but the lesson of the encounter would seem to be: when you announce a great change, steal a march on your opponents by clinching the declaration with the deed. In no decision of his administration has Obama followed the wisdom of that Machiavellian precept. His government is also hampered by its want of a spokesman who can hit hard with words when the president wishes not to be seen to strike. Obama’s confidant David Axelrod, who managed his campaign and is often summoned to speak to the press on his behalf, emits a pleasant porridge of upper-media demotic. Another close adviser, Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago friend, is a technocrat to the bone, genially officious but lacking in any pith and point. These people are no match for Cheney, or for the president’s antagonists in the substitute media who speak under no restraint.

What Cheney and the radio demagogues sowed, the less gifted members of the Republican minority in Congress gratefully reaped. The minority leader of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, said on 17 September on the PBS show NewsHour: ‘We’re in the middle of a modern-day political rebellion in America.’ Interviewer: ‘Rebellion?’ Boehner: ‘Rebellion’. He repeated the word without compunction, and added: ‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’ The tone of our public ‘conversation’ (he chose with malice the soft liberal word) Boehner pronounced to be healthy. He only hoped the crowds ‘would be civil’ or somehow would not become ‘too hateful’. But with Cheney at its head – a rebel against the constitution and a man above the laws since 2002 – the popular movement for nullification of the laws of the federal government has again become a force in American life.

Talk radio in the United States is a law unto itself. With the diffusion of authority that has followed wide adoption of the internet, Fox News Radio and Fox TV may be the only major outlets that still command a sizeable fraction of the audience of the old networks. The intuition of Obama and his advisers must have been that any protest in these byways of discourse was right-wing business as usual. That lazy assumption left them unequipped for the gravity of the challenge. They thought the anger would simmer and die down. It did not occur to them that it might simmer and boil. If a threat is seen to spring from a determined opponent, Obama’s inclination is generally to let it go. He will emerge (he trusts) in the long run as the man who takes long views. By the effects of these postponements, however, he is forever giving new hostages to the truckle of compromise; he is put in the position of backing away while his enemies pick up strength; and in a leader whose nature is conciliatory, this means that the declared scope of every undertaking slowly shrinks and recedes. Guantánamo will be closed but not as soon as we said. Israel must recognise the wrong of further expansion of the settlements, but Israel will not be required to stop soon. Healthcare will be passed on some terms or other, but government will not compete with the big insurers; price reductions will be conceived and executed by private consortiums; illegal immigrants will stay uninsured; and even legal immigrants will be prohibited from buying coverage.

There were plenty of people in December 2008 who nursed a prejudice against Obama but were still in search of reasons to back it. Rush Limbaugh was the radio talker who brought those people to a boil. Limbaugh’s style is a mixture of bluster, clowning and poison, in proportions hard to capture without his voice in your ear – a ‘fat’ voice, someone called it, that shifts in a beat from muttering to imprecation. It is always excited, always breathless, yet the pace is unhurried. Part of the appeal lies in a conscious and amiable egotism. ‘Rush Limbaugh,’ he will introduce himself after an ad, ‘with talent on loan from God.’ ‘El Rushbaugh, serving humanity (simply by being here).’ He tells people to believe him and believe no one else: ‘Shown by scientific study to be right 99.1 per cent of the time.’ He was capable, early, of nicknaming Obama ‘Bamster’ (to rhyme with ‘ham’), a semi-affectionate take-down in the parlance of fraternity boys. He nicknamed the health plan, with automatic sarcasm, ‘ObamaCare’. But the tone grew noticeably more bitter by late July. ‘You don’t know how difficult it is for me to say: the president of the United States is lying through his teeth.’ By 5 August it was ominous to the point of open menace: ‘The president of the United States, who is president of all of us, has decided to take aim at over half of the American people as political opponents.’

He was the scourge of Obama in the summer, a palpable challenge to his claim of legitimacy, as much as Cheney was in the spring. On his show of 27 July, Limbaugh could boast without exaggeration: ‘July is the month of horrors for Obama and the Democrats. And I am largely the reason why.’ In the absence of these accusers, the Republican Party would be adrift. With the impetus of such voices, it now stands a chance of winning the midterm elections in 2010. Limbaugh was placed on the defensive some months ago when he said that he wanted President Obama to fail. This seemed an insult to the office as well as the man. It also seemed to suggest a peculiarly self-separating definition of national loyalty. But he justified himself by remarking that Obama’s success would mean the end of America as we knew it. (The president had to fail for the country to succeed.) A link between Cheney and Limbaugh certainly exists. Limbaugh, unlike the other far right hosts, shuns the interviewing of guests, and yet Cheney, who for his part shuns interviews, was the guest of Limbaugh even when he was vice president. More recently Limbaugh has interviewed him in the role of ex officio party counsellor.

When I started taking notes for this piece at the end of the summer, violence was in the air. Has it passed? A protest march was shepherded to the Washington Mall and a monster rally of 100,000 was held on 12 September, the day after the anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. One message of the demonstration was a rebuke of Obama’s supposed offence against patriotic memory by his naming of 11 September as National Day of Service and Remembrance. Service – except for military service – is heard on the American right as a codeword or moral wedge for socialism: it is to socialism as doubt is to atheism. Probably they wanted something more like Pearl Harbor Day (though that is no longer commemorated). But when was there ever a rational fit between the size of a grievance flourished by an audience like this and a single cause the crowd can name?

‘They’ve taken on too much, too fast,’ Limbaugh said of Obama’s domestic curriculum, ‘and they’re not doing it right.’ That was in late spring; and it was close to common sense. By late summer the mood on the right was reminiscent of the rage against Kennedy in 1962, which passed through November 1963 unchastened, and attained a temporary climax with the nomination of Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964. It surfaced again in the run-up to the Clinton impeachment in 1996-97; but the fury of that time was allowed to take a detour through sex mania. Given the emotions he was up against, Clinton may have got off lightly.

Malthus’s doctrine on population and the necessity of many living in adversity, Hazlitt wrote, was a gospel ‘preached to the poor’. Equality in the United States in the early 21st century has become a gospel preached by the liberal elite to a populace who feel they have no stake in equality. Since the Reagan presidency and the dismemberment of the labour unions, America has not known a popular voice against the privilege of the large corporations. Yet without such a voice from below, all the benevolent programmes that can be theorised, lacking the ground note of genuine indignation, have turned into lumbering ‘designs’ espoused by the enlightened for moral reasons that ordinary people can hardly remember. The gambling ethic has planted itself deep in the America psyche – deeper now than it was in 1849 or 1928. Little has been inherited of the welfare-state doctrine of distributed risk and social insurance. The architects of liberal domestic policy, put in this false position, make easy prey for the generalised slander that says that all non-private plans for anything are hypocritical.

Afghanistan is the largest and the most difficult crisis Obama confronts away from home. And here the trap was fashioned largely by himself. He said, all through the presidential campaign, that Iraq was the wrong war but Afghanistan was the right one. It was ‘a war of necessity’, he said this summer. And he has implied that he would accept his generals’ definition of the proper scale of such a war. Now it appears that Afghanistan is being lost, indeed that it cannot be controlled with fewer than half a million troops on the ground for a decade or more. The generals are for adding troops, as in Vietnam, in increments of tens of thousands. Their current request was leaked to Bob Woodward, who published it in the Washington Post on 21 September, after Obama asked that it be kept from the public for a longer interval while he deliberated. The leak was an act of military politics if not insubordination; its aim was to show the president the cost of resisting the generals.

The political establishment has lined up on their side: the addition of troops is said to be the most telling way Obama can show resoluteness abroad. This verdict of the Wall Street Journal, the Post and (with more circumspection) the New York Times was taken up by John McCain and Condoleezza Rice. If Obama declined at last to oppose Netanyahu on the settlement freeze, he will be far more wary of opposing General Petraeus, the commander of Centcom. Obama is sufficiently humane and sufficiently undeceived to take no pleasure in sending soldiers to their deaths for a futile cause. He will have to convince himself that, in some way still to be defined, the mission is urgent after all. Afghanistan will become a necessary war even if we do not know what marks the necessity. Robert Dole, an elder of the Republican Party, has said he would like to see Petraeus as the Republican candidate in 2012. Better to keep him in the field (this must be at least one of Obama’s thoughts) than to have him to run against.

For Obama to do the courageous thing and withdraw would mean having deployed against him the unlimited wrath of the mainstream media, the oil interest, the Israel lobby, the weapons and security industries, all those who have reasons both avowed and unavowed for the perpetuation of American force projection in the Middle East. If he fails to satisfy the request from General McChrystal – the specialist in ‘black ops’ who now controls American forces in Afghanistan – the war brokers will fall on Obama with as finely co-ordinated a barrage as if they had met and concerted their response. Beside that prospect, the calls of betrayal from the antiwar base that gave Obama his first victories in 2008 must seem a small price to pay. The best imaginable result just now, given the tightness of the trap, may be ostensible co-operation with the generals, accompanied by a set of questions that lays the groundwork for refusal of the next escalation. But in wars there is always a deep beneath the lowest deep, and the ambushes and accidents tend towards savagery much more than conciliation.