Obama brought hope and inspiration to millions of Americans. Two years on, a new book by Tariq Ali looks at the balance sheet.

Tariq Ali, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad (Verso 2010), ix, 156pp.

During the election campaign and at the start of his presidency, Obama’s image seemed to carry a life of its own. The image was projected into the minds of millions of people, who looked to him as a sign of hope after the Bush years. Recently that sign seems to have collapsed. Tariq Ali’s new book, The Obama Syndrome, attempts to fill the void by striking a likeness more in keeping with reality. The major tests of Obama’s presidency – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis, healthcare reform and the Deepwater Horizon spill – have all seen Obama demonstrating his commitment to neo-liberalism and imperialism.

The recent withdrawal of US ‘combat’ troops from Iraq breaks with Obama’s own pre-election pledge to get them out by May 2010, but puts him on track with Bush’s Status of Forces agreement, which stipulated that US troops would leave Iraq by December 2010 (p.44). In Afghanistan Obama has outdone his predecessor, adding 30,000 extra troops and expanding the war to Pakistan (p.57). Ali also has Obama on record in 2004 as saying that he would support an attack on Iran (p.50).

On the economic front Obama backed the $700 billion Bush bailout (p.84). The architects of financial deregulation were resurrected or preserved by the new administration: figures like Lawrence Summers, who helped create the ‘too big to fail’ phenomenon by dismantling 1930s controls; Tim Geithner, who in 2006 praised the financial sector for its contribution to the growth and stability of the US economy; and Gary Gensler, who helped push through the deregulation of derivatives under Clinton. All of them were given key positions by Obama in running the country’s economy (pp.88-91).

With healthcare, Obama’s tendency towards compromise, cowardice, and opportunism are at their most visible. In 2003 he was speaking in favour of universal healthcare based on a single-payer system (p.93). By 2006 his views had already begun to change. He now rejected the idea that those who could afford it should have to pay for health insurance in order to subsidise the poorest: ‘I think there’s a way to do it voluntarily, that’s more in keeping with the American character’. By the time he got into the White House he was desperately lobbying his own party congressmen to adopt compromise measures that they had declared their intention to vote against (p.94). Once again old enemies were suddenly redeemed and brought into the heart of the administration: people like Billy Tauzin, a chief lobbyist for the medical industry (who Obama had attacked in TV ads during his election campaign), and Liz Fowler, a former executive for a private health insurer (pp.95-8).

Hypocrisy is perhaps the vice best demonstrated by Obama’s response to the Deepwater oil spill. At first Obama was slow to get going. However realising that people were angry he was soon enough threatening to kick Tony Hayward’s ass and freeze BP dividend payments. The main purpose of this outburst of rage was to deflect blame from himself and the political establishment. Only a few weeks earlier he had sent a proposal to Congress for increased offshore drilling. Again, a look at the personnel is revealing: Obama appointed Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior, a man who had been critical of Bush for the slow pace of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. ‘During the first twelve months of Obama’s presidency, Salazar approved the lease of 53 million acres for a new surge of offshore drilling’ (pp.102-4).

By now all this is very familiar: the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the fulfilment of Bush’s legacy in Iraq; a healthcare bill so compromised that it does little more than enshrine in law the ills of a ramshackle system; an ineffective response to a major ecological disaster, while systemic problems are wilfully exacerbated; and the unwillingness to enact even moderate financial regulation in the face of the economic crisis, alongside massive bailouts for the credit market in the face of huge unemployment. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book however is the part that deals with Obama’s origins. Here we get the central thrust of Ali’s argument. It is not that Obama has sold himself out to the system since becoming president; he is and always has been a creature of the system. Many liberal commentators have depicted Obama as an ‘entangled giant’, a progressive-reformist president ‘caught in the cogs of the US imperial state apparatus’ (p.71). Ali argues that this kind of thinking is an abuse of the principle of systemic analysis. Every moderately progressive politician will be limited by the system in which they operate, forced to make compromises and bend to the rules. But the problem is that ‘Obama is not a progressive leader by any stretch of the imagination’ (p.33).

The policies he is pursuing in the White House follow a trajectory begun early in his political career. An interesting point of intersection in the course of Obama’s development was his encounter with Bobby Rush in a Congressional primaries election of 2000. Rush was a member of the Black Panther Party who became a Democrat after the Panthers were destroyed as an organisation. By the early 90s Rush had been elected as a Congressman (House of Representatives). Obama came to challenge Rush for a place on the Democratic slate, but the journey that got him there was somewhat different. He was a Harvard lawyer who won a state senate seat ‘built on a base in the liberal foundation and development worlds’ (p.15). He then quickly entered the Chicago machine of Richard M. Daley. The contest with Rush was partly a put-up job by Daley: ‘the notion that he could have won the Illinois nomination without the central nomination of the Chicago machine and its cogs is risible’ (p.27). Partly it was ‘blind ambition’ on Obama’s part.

Rush thrashed Obama two to one for the Democratic nomination to stand for the House of Representatives seat, and later gave an interesting characterisation of him: ‘It’s amazing how he formed a black identity… Barack’s walk is an adaptation of a strut that comes from the street. There’s a certain break at the knees as you walk and you get a certain roll going… And he’s the first President to walk like that! But let me tell you, I never noticed that he walked like that back then’ (pp.27-28). Obama’s hagiographers make heavy use of the Civil Rights movement to explain his political and intellectual formation, deploying the struggle against segregation as ‘a pleasing spectre’, ritually recalled in order to legitimise the present and whitewash the past (p.17). But the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Panthers should be seen in sharp contrast to Obama.

For Ali, the idealisation of Obama as a black politician is the ultimate failure of identity politics. ‘The fact that the United States is less racist, less homophobic than it was a hundred years ago is a cause for celebration, but all this is dramatically counterbalanced by the growing disparity in wealth’. Between the late 60s and the present day, inequality (as gauged by the distribution of wealth between the top and bottom fifths) has increased not decreased (p.79). And, as before, this inequality is accentuated by race. Looking at the ‘heartland of “yes, we can” politics’, Obama’s home city of Chicago, ‘94 percent of … the most poverty-stricken neighbourhoods were predominately African American’ (p.13).

Ali’s account punches holes in the myth of Obama’s past. Along the way there are plenty of fascinating incidents, like the encounter with Bobby Rush, or a confrontation over spending cuts that ends with Obama starting a punch-up in the Senate (p.78). The whole thing is carried off with Ali’s customary flair: ‘proximity to power has an unsurprising ability to mutate a politician’s spinal chord into bright yellow jelly’ (p.93). But in the end the book leaves you feeling short-changed. This is unfortunately not a substantial critical biography. Nor is it a sustained attempt to place Obama as a phenomenon in the contemporary context. There is no consistent analysis and no clear theoretical framework.

The book leaves you with more questions than answers. For example what was Obama’s early role in Chicago politics? How seriously was he involved in community organising or was he simply ‘a virtual, surreal or unreal part of the Daley family apparatus patiently and carefully built up over the last 60 years?’ (p. 27). In the end we have the impression of Obama as a kind of cypher, an image with nothing behind it, an effective but vacuous ‘machine politician’ (p.33). This might well be an accurate description but it leaves us to account for the various external forces that are propelling this empty vessel.

Obama’s election campaign was won partly on the back of euphoric levels of grassroots support – a rebound from previous dismaying levels of grassroots disaffection. But it was also won through massive corporate backing, of which he had more than Hilary Clinton during the primaries and more than his Republican rival during the actual campaign. Donors included Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Google and Lehman Brothers (p.32). The list of names and corresponding sums of cash are revealing, but at no point is there an analysis of why or how the corporate elite came to favour Obama. Moreover there is little said about the mass of working people who supported Obama. What has happened to all those disappointed voters and campaigners? A large majority of them for example still believe in universal healthcare (p.96). Can they mobilise themselves following the perceived betrayal of the president and in the face of a new era of enforced austerity?

Similarly Ali makes the point that the pleasing image Obama projected was useful to international allies: ‘propagandistically there has been a significant upgrade… nothing grated more on international opinion than the lack of requisite unction with which Bush and Cheney all too often went about their business, exposing allies and audiences otherwise well disposed toward American leadership to inconvenient truths they would have preferred not to hear’ (pp.71-3). But what about that propaganda function now? How much permanent damage has the Obama myth sustained and how effective is it in the changed circumstances of global recession and heightened international rivalries and tensions?

If The Obama Syndrome is simply a polemical attack then it does its job well. However by the end we are left ill-equipped to judge where Obama came from or where he is going. Important questions, like the ones hanging over Obama’s chances in the 2012 elections remain unanswered. Will Obama’s mass base of support have survived sufficiently intact after the years of betrayal to see him through, and does the corporate elite still see him as supporting their interests in a sufficiently rational and stable form to continue their backing for him? If Obama’s most significant attribute has been his image then Tariq Ali’s book is a useful counter-image, but it largely fails to go below the surface. If Obama is a syndrome then we need to know the underlying causes and the prospects for real change in the future.

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.