I first wrote this in February in the wake of the Haitian disaster. It reads, sadly, as prescient today in the wake of our environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf.
There is an intriguing paradox at work inside the Obama Presidency. Initially, it looks hard to explain.
On the one hand, many critics and opponents of Obama claim that he represents some kind of radical ideology influenced by the authoritarian milieu that emerged in the late 1960s around figures like Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, and Mike Klonsky in the Students for a Democratic Society and its violent offshoot, the Weather Underground.
Some on the left of the Obama campaign confirmed this, including Manning Marable of Columbia who noted, approvingly, that “a lot of the people working with [Obama] are, indeed, socialists with backgrounds in the Communist Party or as independent Marxists. There are a lot of people like that in Chicago who have worked with him for years.” Marable is a long time presence in this same milieu and is certainly in a position to know what he is talking about.
Of course, readers of King Harvest and its predecessor Global Labor are well aware of the intimate ties between Obama and Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn going back more than two decades, including the alliance formed between Ayers and Obama at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge in midst of the Chicago School Wars of the 1990s.
So assuming that the critics, opponents, and left wing friends of Obama, not to mention me, are all correct about the significance of this melange of authoritarian “leftists” in Obama’s political development and success, how is it that his Administration appears, to say the least, disappointing to these same figures? On health care, the closing of Guantanamo, job creation, you name it, this Administration, far from appearing left wing, appears almost feckless and weak, unwilling to flex the power of the Presidency on any issue of importance to the left.
Some of Obama’s closest allies are now expressing consternation. Berkeley Law Dean Chris Edley, an aggressive promoter of racialist politics, was brought into the Obama campaign to whip white staffers into line at the home of Valerie Jarrett, the black confidante of the President. Now Edley has himself apparently turned on the Administration calling it “complacent.” (Edley reserves most of his bile for Obama’s white chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, while never even mentioning Jarrett.) Even Bill Ayers has publicly criticized the Administration, although not Obama personally, on the escalation of the war in Afghanistan.
Of even greater potential to damage the humanitarian credentials and long term legacy of Obama is his stubborn unwillingness to take any serious leadership role in confronting the Haitian disaster. As noted on King Harvest recently, the Haitians themselves want a much bigger role for the US military. Ironically, Obama took on board as a personal foreign policy advisor early in his Senate career the most stanch advocate of humanitarian intervention by the US military, Harvard’s Samantha Power. Now Power is a National Security Council staffer, yet the US delayed deployment of US troops to Haiti, did not even show up for a key UN vote on the crisis and seems content to let the country descend into a Katrina-like crisis in the unfolding recovery period.
So there we have it, Obama the radical has turned into Obama the feckless. That’s the paradox that requires explanation. Of course, one could dismiss as irrelevant, as some do, Obama’s lifelong radical affiliations and influences from his mother’s third worldism, to his mentorship by the noted stalinist poet and journalist Frank Marshall Davis, to his affinity for the black nationalist politics of Jeremiah Wright, to the identity politics now rampant in many quarters of the progressive movement and the Democratic party. But the evidence of his tendencies is pretty overwhelming, even if he carefully tailored certain comments in order to maintain his electability.
So what can explain the actual impact of the Administration? I would suggest two possibilities.
First, as I suggested during the campaign itself, the problem with the kind of mentorship that Obama got while on the way up, from figures like Ayers and Wright, has left him woefully unprepared for the job he actually was elected to carry out.
When I listen to the comments of people like Bill Ayers or Carl Davidson of Progressives for Obama (oops, now Progressive America Rising – such fair weather friends!) it seems to me they really think that their organizing activities within the Obama campaign were the equivalent to being an anti-war Bolshevik in 1917 Russia as millions of workers, peasants and soldiers abandoned the front and stormed the barricades. That’s a bit of hyperbole but the tendency is certainly felt in their comments and I would submit Obama himself may have thought he could, indeed, “fundamentally transform” this country, as Obama said just a few days before his Inauguration.
Of course, Obama was, in fact, mounting a campaign to become President of the United States, still, by far, the dominant military and capitalist power on the planet (and beyond). There is a good reason for the normal range of ideologies among credible candidates for President to be relatively narrow – the requirements for the job are set in stone by the structure of power that the Presidency represents. A true left wing movement would not delude itself as these people do into thinking that something like the Obama Hope campaign had any hope whatsoever of altering that power structure.
Nonetheless, here we are, with a small group of self described radicals in part responsible for placing in the Presidency our first “radical” President. Of course I use that term advisedly to mark the peculiar stalinoid and authoritarian nature of the politics that marked Obama’s rise to power. But those politics offer Obama no serious guidelines for the actual exercise of the immense power that he now, potentially, wields.
In fact, it gets worse. The problem facing Obama goes deeper. Not only does he not really know what to do with this power, to the extent that he would like to do more that is consistent with his “radical” values he finds himself trapped. To begin to carry out such policies in any serious way would open him up to attack from the right, even from the center. In fact, it is very likely that even rational measures that would not be off limits to a typically liberal Democratic President, such as more aggressive use of the United Nations, are off limits to Obama because they are viewed by his closest advisors as hot button items likely to raise, once again, the charge by the right of the specter of radicalism.
This dynamic may go a long way to explaining the confused and frightening incompetence surrounding events like Haiti or the Christmas underwear bomber interrogation as well as the continuing confusion about how to deal with the Wall Street financial crisis.
Thus it is that the enthusiasm and optimism that marked Obama’s ascension to the Presidency has within a year descended dangerously close to what can only be called a failed Presidency.