The man who seized the White House by fomenting a mood of irrational expectation is now facing the bitter price exacted by reality. The reality is that there can be no “good” American president. It’s an impossible hand to play. Obama is close to being finished.
The nation’s first black president promised change at the precise moment when no single man, even if endowed with the communicative powers of Franklin Roosevelt, the politic mastery of Lyndon Johnson, the brazen agility of Bill Clinton, could turn the tide that has been carrying America to disaster for 30 years.
This summer many Americans are frightened. Over 100,000 of them file for bankruptcy every month. Three million homeowners face foreclosure this year. Add them to the 2.8 million who were foreclosed in 2009, Obama’s first year in office. Nearly seven million have been without jobs in the last year for six months or longer. By the time you tote up the people who have given up looking for work and the people on part-time, the total is heading toward 20 million.
Fearful people are irrational. So are racists. Obama is the target of insane charges. A hefty percentage of Americans believe that he is a socialist — a charge as ludicrous as accusing the Archbishop of Canterbury of being a closet Druid. Obama reveres the capitalist system. He admires the apex predators of Wall Street who showered his campaign treasury with millions of dollars. The frightful catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico stemmed directly from the green light he and his Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, gave to BP.
It is not Obama’s fault that for 30 years America’s policy — under Reagan, both Bushes and Bill Clinton — has been to export jobs permanently to the Third World. The jobs that Americans now desperately seek are no longer here, in the homeland, and never will be. They’re in China, Taiwan, Vietnam, India, Indonesia.
No stimulus program, giving money to cement contractors to fix potholes along the federal interstate highway system, is going to bring those jobs back. Highly trained tool and die workers, the aristocrats of the manufacturing sector, are flipping hamburgers — at best — for $7.50 an hour because U.S. corporations sent their jobs to Guangzhou, with the approval of politicians flush with the money of the “free trade” lobby.
It is not Obama’s fault that across 30 years more and more money has floated up to the apex of the social pyramid till America is heading back to where it was in the 1880s, a nation of tramps and millionaires. It’s not his fault that every tax break, every regulation, every judicial decision tilts toward business and the rich. That was the neoliberal America conjured into malign vitality back in the mid 1970s.
But it is Obama’s fault that he did not understand this, that always, from the get-go, he flattered Americans with paeans to their greatness, without adequate warning of the political and corporate corruption destroying America and the resistance he would face if he really fought against the prevailing arrangements that were destroying America. He offered them a free and easy pass to a better future, and now they see that the promise was empty.
It’s Obama’s fault, too, that, as a communicator, he cannot rally and inspire the nation from its fears. From his earliest years he has schooled himself not to be excitable, not to be an angry black man who would be alarming to his white friends at Harvard and his later corporate patrons. Self-control was his passport to the guardians of the system, who were desperate to find a symbolic leader to restore America’s credibility in the world after the disasters of the Bush era. He is too cool.
So, now Americans in increasing numbers have lost confidence in him. For the first time in the polls negative assessments outnumber the positive. He no longer commands trust. His support is drifting down to 40 per cent. The straddle that allowed him to flatter corporate chieftains at the same time as blue-collar workers now seems like the most vapid opportunism. The casual campaign pledge to wipe out al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is now being cashed out in a disastrous campaign viewed with dismay by a majority of Americans.
The polls portend disaster. It now looks as though the Republicans may well recapture not only the House but, conceivably, the Senate as well. The public mood is so contrarian that, even though polls show that voters think the Democrats may well have better solutions on the economy than Republicans, they will vote against incumbent Democrats in the midterm elections next fall. They just want to throw the bums out.
Obama has sought out Bill Clinton to advise him in this desperate hour. If Clinton is frank, he will remind Obama that his own hopes for a progressive first term were destroyed by the failure of Clinton's health reform in the spring of 1993. By August of that year, he was importing a Republican, David Gergen, to run the White House.
Obama had his window of opportunity last year, when he could have made jobs and financial reform his prime objectives. That’s what Americans hoped for. Mesmerized by economic advisers who were creatures of the banks, he instead plunged into the Sargasso Sea of “health reform,” wasted the better part of a year, and ended up with something that pleases no one.
What can save Obama now? It’s hard even to identify a straw he can grasp at. It’s awfully early in the game to say it, but, as Marlene Dietrich said to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, “your future is all used up.”
Ben Sonnenberg: Farewell to A Friend
Ben Sonnenberg died on June 26, at the age of 73, and with his passing CounterPunch has lost its long-time counselor. The world has lost a true humanist in the full Renaissance strength of that word, one in whom refinement of taste, wideness of reading mingled with political passion. I mourn a very close friend.
His greatest literary achievement was Grand Street, the quarterly he founded in 1981, and edited till 1990, when multiple sclerosis was far advanced and his fortune somewhat depleted. His friend Jean Stein took the magazine over and it ran till 2004. As he put it laconically, “I printed only what I liked; never once did I publish an editorial statement; I offered no writers’ guidelines; and I stopped when I couldn’t turn the pages anymore.” As another great editor Bruce Anderson, of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, wrote after Ben’s death, “Grand Street under Sonnenberg was the best literary magazine ever produced in this doomed country. His Grand Street was readable front-to-back. If you've never seen a Grand Street, the last literary quarterly we're going to have, hustle out to the last book store and get yourself one and lament what is gone.”
When I first came to New York in 1973, I went to a couple of parties thrown by Ben’s father, Ben Sr., one of the trailblazers in public relations who gave elaborately staged parties to advance the interests of his various clients, at 19 Gramercy Park. He looked a bit like a comfortably retired Edwardian bookie in London of the 1890s, with enough knowingness in his glance to deliver “fair warning” to the unwary. Though he publicly prided himself on never have taken a dime from either Howard Hughes or the Kennedys, Ben Sr. certainly milked big clients like General Motors of plenty of moolah, a satisfactory chunk of which he left to Ben.
Ben Jr. detailed his somewhat raffish and caddish youth in his 1991 memoir, Lost Property, but I had already known for almost a decade the tastes that he listed on the first page and that endeared me to him: “My favorite autobiographers in this century are Vladimir Nabokov, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin.” A paragraph later he cited “my friend Edward Said,” whose savage essay “Michael Walzer’s ‘Exodus and Revolution’ — a Canaanite Reading,” Ben had published in Grand Street in 1986. There was no other cultural periodical at that time that would have given the finger so vigorously to polite New York intellectual opinion. The finger could be prankish. In January of 1989 he faxed me his offer — which I promptly published in The Nation -- on behalf of himself, me and others, to Marty Peretz….
You want to know what Ben wrote to Peretz? My full tribute to Ben is in our latest newsletter, along with wonderful pieces about Ben from JoAnn Wypijewski and Daniel Wolff. And also in our newsletter, hot off the presses: Part two of Jeffrey St Clair’s superb, path-breaking investigation of how BP and the Obama administration have been joined at the hip in the creation and handling of the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Find out here how Obama and Interior Sec. Ken Salazar put a top BP exec in charge of deep sea drilling in the Gulf.
How much does it cost to be driven past a corrupt border patrol agent at an official port of entry to the U.S. from Mexico? Frank Bardacke reports from Watsonville on the real border-crossing economy. ¥¥
(Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com.)