I should have sent President Obama a present for his fiftieth birthday last week, but I didn’t. A lot of things should be but aren’t. Obama should have been an ideal chief of state to reverse the previous twenty years’ self-destructive policies, but he wasn’t. He should have kept a few promises—not to the banks and military contractors, but to the voters. He should have kept the one about ending torture, but he didn’t. He should have kept the implied promise to the middle and working classes to restore their relative earning power to what it was before Ronald Reagan trickled their dollars up to fatten the oligarchy. He didn’t do that, either.
Now, a confession. Mea maxima culpa. I voted for him. Yet I am neither disappointed nor disillusioned. My expectations were low (although not as low as Obama has gone). My vote’s sole purpose was to send the party of Bush and Cheney into the wilderness for four years. To a libertarian left-winger like me, no administration was more venal than theirs. None had shown such contempt for the Bill of Rights, for due process, and for the guarantee of equality inherent in the Declaration of Independence. How could anyone vote for a party whose leaders plundered the US and Iraqi treasuries to benefit corporations in which they had vested interests? Alas, voting Democrat was not much better.
Before celebrating his birthday on August 4 in DC, Obama flew off to Chicago for another birthday party. The city is his adopted home, where he learned politics in the Cook County Democratic machine. Chicago has been a one-party fiefdom since Tony Cermak beat the last Republican mayor in 1931. One-party rule in Chicago has lasted longer than it did in the old Soviet Union. The high rollers gave him a birthday bash that cost them up to $35,800 per coiffed head. In the Washington Times, T. J. O’Hara wrote that was “a 17.7% increase year-over-year” on Obama’s 49th and estimated the “take” at $3.65 million. Not bad for a man of the people.
New Mayor Rahm Emanuel, fresh from his disastrous tenure as White House Chief of Staff, was there. Former supporters Tony Rezko and Rod Blagojevich couldn’t make it. Obama airbrushed them from his curriculum vitae, just as he’d done with Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, and Rashid Khalidi (scholar and Obama’s ex-Chicago neighbor, whose only offense was to be a Palestinian). My greatest disappointment was that the woman selected to do the slinky “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” à la Marilyn Monroe was Jennifer Hudson and not, in shimmering sequins, Hillary Clinton. You can’t have everything.
If I had sent a present, it would have been Shelby Steele’s A Bound Man. I bought it in a secondhand bookshop because of the subtitle: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. Published late in 2007, it was out less than a year before Obama won. It seemed one of the most inapt subtitles of all time, as if Hannibal had written a book about his Italian campaign and called it How I Conquered Rome. Though I bought it for a joke, I read it with fascination. The “can’t win” had nothing to do with the election. It concerned a more fundamental defeat: Obama is so compromised that he cannot know himself.
Steele has much in common with Obama. Both are American-born of African and European descent. Both went to the best schools and universities. Both understand the masks that African-Americans have worn to survive among a dominant white majority. Both are intelligent, intellectual, and successful. The resemblance ends there. Steele has more integrity, at least from my reading of his book. He also has more insights into Obama’s character than Obama revealed in his well-written coming-of-age memoir, Dreams From My Father. Steele explains why many whites, like me, voted for Obama: “So you don’t vote for Obama merely because of his policy positions on health care and school subsidies; he is an opportunity to vote for American redemption.” Well, there is much to redeem, but not so much that I would elect Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or Colin Powell.
There are two Obamas: one who cuddles up to his financial backers, the other who fawns on the poor voter. He is the man with a poor mistress and a rich wife. He promises the mistress he’s leaving the wife, and he keeps the wife in the dark about the mistress so he can keep her money rolling in. Fine for him, not great for the family (i.e., the country).
“He is decidedly not a conviction politician,” Steele wrote. “His supporters do not look to him to do something; they look to him to represent something.” The synthesis he represented, of black and white American dreams in one person, holds power. Yet he does nothing with it. The ship of state cruises toward the whirlpool as it did under Bush and Cheney, only with a master salesman rather than a babbling buffoon at the helm. He talks the talk but does the Wall Street Walk.
If Obama rather than Lyndon Johnson had been president from 1963 to 1969, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts would have waited years while the White House discussed with the Dixiecrats and other racists in Congress a bipartisan approach to the “Negro problem.” In the Middle East, Obama is famous for telling a BBC reporter before his Cairo speech of 2009 that Hosni Mubarak, now on trial for corruption and murder, was “a force for stability and good.” Obama’s commitment to Palestinian statehood, one of many rhetorical flourishes, means he will veto it at the UN next month. The president who promised peace has prolonged the Bush policy of treating Pakistan as a free-fire zone, and he has yet to close a base in Iraq or Afghanistan.
John McCain, despite coming from the same party as Bush and Cheney, could have done better. Next time, I’m not voting. The Republicans are putting up clowns, and the Democrats are stuck with Obama. Does anyone remember his inaugural commitment to “remake America”? He kept the promise. America is remade all right. It’s broke.
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