After eight years of Democratic rule, the American brand of liberalism that accompanied the country’s rise to global hegemony looks exhausted
In April 2011, President Barack Obama addressed the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and famously mocked the delusional nature of Donald Trump’s political ambitions. The target of Obama’s jibes was actually sat in the audience, grimly trying to suppress his anger at being publicly roasted by his own Head of State. A huge amount of imagination is not required to contemplate the sense of payback Trump will feel on 20 January this year when Obama hands the tenancy of the White House over to his Republican nemesis. The inauguration ceremony will represent the ultimate indictment of the Obama Presidency and its failure to fulfil the lofty Hope and Change rhetoric that propelled America’s first black President into office in 2008.
For most of the last eight years, most Americans have scoffed at the notion of a Trump presidency; the fact that it is becoming a reality has to be seen partly as a reflection of the inability of the most intelligent section of the US ruling class – personified by the outgoing President – to provide any sustainable solutions to the structural deficiencies of the world’s most important capitalist state. The sense of malaise that is accompanying the twilight of the Obama years makes it difficult to envisage a future Democrat candidate re-capturing the idealism of 2008. The banner of American liberalism that was previously carried by Presidents such as Roosevelt, Kennedy and Clinton is looking distinctly tattered and may struggle to revive once the Trump onslaught begins for real.
Obama first entered the White House amid the carnage surrounding the crash of 2008. Many who voted for him that year would have anticipated a repeat of the Roosevelt administration of the 1930s, with its huge Keynesian-style investment in public works and draconian crackdown on the rogue activities of Wall Street. Obama, however, represented a very different sort of Democrat politician from the generation that produced FDR, JFK and LBJ.
In the face of the upsurge of street radicalism in 1960s, the party hierarchy had resolved that association with the left had cost it control of the White House and they began shifting the party’s centre of gravity to the right, culminating in the corporate and neoliberal and agenda pursued by President Bill Clinton.
Obama represented a continuation of this Third Way brand of Democrat ideology, with the gloss of being a black candidate thrown in for good measure. Cabinet appointments such as Wall Street insiders Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner were an early sign that it would be business as usual as far as corporate America was concerned. Those looking for a Roosevelt-style injection of public investment by the new President were initially heartened by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that pumped $787 billion into the post-crash economy. The scheme involved a greater level of government spending than the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan and the Moon landings combined.
Nothing illustrates the structural weakness of US capitalism better, however than the reality that even this astronomical scale of spending has not been enough to raise the anaemic growth rate above much more than 2%. The US economy has survived the worst impact of the recession, but primarily due to interest rates being artificially held down by the Fed – a policy that cannot continue indefinitely. Obama also conspicuously failed to take on the Wall Street fat cats who had allowed the property bubble of the early 2000s to accumulate. There has not been a single significant prosecution of a senior banker during the course of his administration and, in fact, the gratuitous bonus culture remains wholly intact. The victims of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco were disproportionately African Americans and the yet the first black President saw fit to leave most of them drowning in debt.
Obama was always at pains to avoid making an issue of the unique nature of his presidency in terms of colour. To his supporters, the downplaying of his ethnicity was supposed to reflect the US progressing into a post-racial era of politics. Such optimism now looks hopelessly deluded. Unlike black politicians of a previous era, such as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, Obama did not emerge from an activist political tradition that perceived racism as a force that needed to be directly confronted. He represents a generation of middle-class black Americans who have secured positions among the military, political and academic elite of US society but who have been largely content to ignore the structural racism that is hard-wired in the system.
From its eighteenth-century origins in the era of slavery to the segregation of the mid-twentieth century, racism has always been a core component of US capitalism. Despite the political progress personified by politicians such as Obama, American liberalism is incapable of providing an answer to the economic inequality that scars the country through the prism of race. An incoming black Congressional politician has recently spoken of African Americans being in a state of emergency, despite Obama's presidency.
The evidence of the absence of Change You Can Believe In is overwhelming. One out of three African-American children lives in poverty. Black Americans are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed and earn $13,000 less per year than their white counterparts. The unemployment rate of African Americans has consistently been twice as high as for whites over the last half century. Obama has had zero impact in these areas.
For many, the most damning failure of his administration is the depressing regularity with which young black males continue to be gunned by the police. Obama’s characteristically ambivalent response to the Ferguson uprising of 2014 encapsulates the inability of an establishment politician to understand the new dynamics of protest in the 21stcentury. The marginal drop in the black vote for Hillary Clinton last year compared to Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012 has to be seen as not just a lack of enthusiasm for her, but also a strand of disappointment in him.
Likewise, the Hispanic vote for Clinton in 2016 dipped compared to Obama’s presidential campaigns. The latter has to take a share of the blame for this as well, due to the intensified deportation policy of the past eight years that has seen more illegal immigrants expelled than all presidencies of the twentieth century combined. Obama was praised for declaring an immigration amnesty in 2012 but that turned out to be a cynical electoral ploy designed to secure the Hispanic vote in election year.
Both of the above groups are disproportionately located in America’s poorest communities and indubitably have benefitted from the introduction of Obamacare, the outgoing president’s signature achievement. However, even this may not survive Trump’s scorched earth approach to social policy. Although an additional 15 million Americans can now access healthcare for the first time, Obamacare falls far short of what was originally possible at the outset of his presidency. With majorities in both chambers of Congress, Obama had a window of opportunity to drive through a more radical version of the policy that would have provided federal funding for subsidised medication. However, he baulked at this option due to the pressure exerted by the ubiquitous pharmaceutical lobby on Capitol Hill.
Consequently, health insurance premiums for many Americans are far higher than they might have been. As a centrist politician, obsessed with the triangulation pioneered by the Clintons, Obama lacked the political will to take on the entrenched interests of big business. Similarly, on gun control, Obama developed a mastery of responding with emotion in public to America’s persistent spree shootings but proved incapable of actually implementing measures to prevent them, even when 20 kindergarten children were slaughtered at Newtown.
On wedge issues such as immigration, gun control and healthcare, America’s antiquated political structure is increasingly unfit to cope with a post-crash society undergoing intense polarisation. It would not even occur to conventional Democrat politicians such as Obama and the Clintons to challenge the country’s absurd Electoral College system that has twice this century cost their party the White House and handed the presidency to the candidate with fewer votes.
The Obama Doctrine
The disillusionment many Americans feel with Obama’s domestic agenda is mirrored around the world by those who hoped in 2008 he would reorient US foreign policy along a less belligerent path. Shortly after becoming president he delivered a much-hyped speech in Cairo, claiming the excesses of the Bush Doctrine would become a thing of the past. As it turned out, the Obama Doctrine was more of the same but with drones and hi-tech hit squads instead of huge numbers of boots on the ground.
His initial reaction to the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 was to try to prop up the Mubarak regime in Egypt, only being forced to ditch the dictator in the face of overwhelming opposition on the streets of Cairo. The Gaddafi regime in Libya was decapitated on Obama’s orders, but this only resulted in a power vacuum that has left that country virtually ungovernable. Bin Laden was tracked down and eliminated in an operation of brutal swiftness in Pakistan that casually violated national sovereignty and conveniently ensured there would be no trial that might highlight an embarrassing close relationship between the victim and the CIA in the early years of his career. Guantanamo Bay infamously has remained open for business during the Obama administration.
Supposedly a turning point in the War on Terror, in hindsight Bin Laden’s demise was a footnote as, by that time, Al Qaeda had been overtaken by Isis as an even more potent threat to Western interests in the Middle East. Isis itself partly emerged because Obama had turned a blind eye as the newly installed Maliki regime in Iraq pursued a sectarian persecution of the country’s Sunni minority. The President also fumbled badly in neighbouring Syria, initially looking to topple the Assad regime with missile strikes in 2013, only to drawback with the realisation that Isis or similar groups would be the ones most likely to fill a post-Assad vacuum.
Despite his intention to draw a line under the calamitous approach to the region implemented by his predecessor, Obama has struggled to deal with the fall-out from the Iraq War, which remains the most calamitous blunder of US foreign policy since Vietnam. His apologists would argue he fulfilled his pre-election commitment to withdraw troops from the country, but that was only because Prime Minister Maliki insisted on it. Three years after the troop withdrawal of 2011, Obama was again ordering US airstrikes on Iraq in a futile attempt to curtail the expansion of Isis by military might alone. In Afghanistan and other countries of the region, Obama unleashed ten times the number of drone strikes authorised by Bush Jnr.
The first phase of his Presidency was dominated by talk of a pivot to Asia being the priority in terms of foreign policy. The ongoing imbroglio in Iraq and Syria meant that his wish to re-orientate the focus of US imperialism away from the Middle East became impossible. Nevertheless, Obama has continued the military encirclement of China in the Pacific that is emerging as the most likely source of cataclysmic conflict in the future. The Trans-Pacific Partnership that he sought to create among twelve Pacific Rim states was specifically designed to exclude China and to aggravate economic-and therefore military-rivalry between the two superpowers.
The real legacy
Obama’s reputation among some will feasibly improve once the nightmarish nature of the Trump presidency is fully revealed. It is equally likely, however, that his much-vaunted oratorical powers will look hollow as the crisis of US state, at home and abroad, accelerates in the 21st century. The credibility gap between his lofty rhetoric and the reality of racism and inequality for millions will grow year by year. The American brand of liberalism that accompanied the country’s rise to global hegemony under presidents such as Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson now looks politically exhausted. The most valuable legacy of the Obama years is nothing to do with the man himself. The American left has been re-animated over the last eight years, most noticeably in the forms of the Occupy movement, the Black Lives Matter campaign and Bernie Sanders’ nomination bid. These and other movements from below have sowed the seeds of authentic change we can believe in.