After the hard slog of the Bush years, the elevation of Barack Obama to the US presidency brought new hope and optimism to Americans and non-Americans alike. But after one and a half terms, the reality seems to be sinking in that for all the change promised by Obama's campaign, it's the 'same old, same old', writes Australian Greg Maybury.
For folks who were fans of the late, great American comedian Bill Hicks
, they likely will be familiar with one of his more memorable routines wherein he is 'riffing' on about a Global Power Elite that rules the world. In this routine, Hicks unveils a secret induction ritual of sorts, a rite of passage that takes place once new presidents are ensconced in the White House.
In order to keep each president properly briefed on who actually wields power in the home of the brave and beyond, and discourage any altruistic notions about changing Washington and the world for the better via the power of the Oval Office, without any preamble, a cabal of dark-suited people representing the Powers that Be (PTBs) of the New World Order sit him down in the darkened, smoke-filled, windowless Situation Room in the White House bunker and show him hitherto unseen film footage of the actual JFK assassination.
In Hicks' not-so-fevered, conspiratorial imagination, this unique piece of historical cinema verite
vividly reveals the Crime of the Century from a completely different angle than seen in the famous Zapruder
footage. Only this time the fatally offensive projectiles (plural) can be clearly identified as coming from behind the white picket fence atop a certain grassy knoll to the right and in front of the presidential motorcade, the scene replete with a rifle-packing assassin fleeing the area pronto. After the presentation finishes, the lights turned on, and the smoke clears, the PTBs have only one thing to say to the by now ashen-faced, freshman POTUS:
"Any questions, Mr President?"
Once the look of abject fear, shock and horror subsides and the blood drains back into his face, accompanied by the sudden realisation that being president isn't going to be quite what he expected, his composure regained, his response goes something like this: "Nah sh*t man, Arrhhm down with that, let's go bomb Basra!" The cigar chomping PTBs, who by now are all smiles and bonhomie, slap the freshly minted Prez on the back and say in unison: "That's our boy. Great to have you on board!"
As darkly amusing as Hicks' bit is, there can be no doubt that for many of us, the scenario may be uncomfortably close to the truth, and you don't need to be a paid-up member of the 'tin foil hat brigade' to think that.
With this opening in mind, it is now time to ask the following question about the incumbent POTUS. To wit: What happened Mr President? Like many folks, this writer had high hopes for Number 44, and vividly recalls the night of the election win in 2008 wherein Obama's speech to the nation was as electrifying and as inspiring as anything I can remember in the annals of US politics. And I'm not even an American! (Did we see a tear in Colin Powell's eye?)
To a Blind Nation (A nod as Good as a Wink)
Such was Obama's ascendancy to the highest office in the home of the brave that it seemed even for the most jaded, nay
cynical, of political observers that America had taken a turn for the better, and not just for America's sake! Like many of my fellow Australians and doubtless many other non-Americans, it was hard not to feel elated about the prospect that this Sometimes Great Nation had turned the corner. America had woken up to the reality it actually could be a genuine force for good in the world, and it finally had someone in the Oval Office who both understood what was at stake and could bring that change about.
Such a reaction was of course not unexpected after the Bush/Cheney years, and the message of hope and change was destined to resonate with many. By any measure the Bush regime was the most disastrous presidential 'experiment' up to that time, and we will return to George II's reign shortly. But sadly it seems increasingly obvious the buoyant expectations of the future ushered in by Barack Obama's election were misplaced after all.
For those of us prepared to consider this notion, the big question is this: Was Obama co-opted by the PTBs after he was elected a la
the Bill Hicks scenario? Or was he a Judas-Goat
from the off? For those unfamiliar with the term and the intent of the metaphor, it's enough to know that before the slaughterhouses became all 'assembly-lined' and mechanised, the Judas-goat was used to mingle with and gain the 'trust' of the animals, whereupon it would then easily lead them up the ramps to meet their ultimate fate. Readers will get the drift.
The answer to this is hard to know for certain of course, and in seeking some clues all we can do is reflect on Obama's rise to high office and especially his record. Of course there are plenty of people who have done that and continue to do so, and this is not my main purpose herein. What may be a more useful exercise is to look at the Office of the President, and examine the actual power and authority the Oval One (to use Gore Vidal's
priceless phrase) is capable of exercising. This hopefully might give us some useful additional insights.
But as always, a little dose of history is in order. After 9/11, Bush's Pax Americana
morphed very quickly into (a) Pox Amerikana
, an unprecedented, raging, out of control geopolitical pandemic for the zeitgeist, and again, the consequences and outcomes of which will be with us forever and a day. That is unless the next generation beyond Obama can find and administer a cure before it is too late, because it appears even six years after Bush this virulent strain of empire mired hubris and overreach is not going to croak of its own accord anytime soon.
Truth be known, even pre
-'Dubya', the American Empire was probably already something of a Pox Amerikana
. It had in fact been heading in that direction at a rate of knots. This was especially so since the Fall of the Wall, when it could be argued the rot of triumphalism really took hold. Bush II's true 'genius' -- his one lasting achievement and the one that almost certainly will define his legacy -- may have been bringing America's particular and peculiar malaise out into the open for us all to see. Which is not to suggest that "all" of us are "see"ing even now, as a nod is as good as a wink to a blind nation as it were.
Now the spread, virulence and mortality rate of the Bush 'Pox' may not have been foreseen at the time by most. But this is surely one case where even a little objective hindsight confers great clarity, although any such "clarity" now one both expects and
fears may be of the 'too little, too late' variety as distinct from 'better late than never' kind.
Which brings us back to the incumbent president.
Judging by his performance thus far, it would appear that the person who might have taken such 'insights' on board brought about by such "clarity" and done something with them to substantively change the status quo has in many ways, gone back to the future. Whereas Bush under-promised and over-delivered as it were, Obama has over-promised and under-delivered, and it's difficult to say which is the lesser of the two 'evils'. To take just one measure by which we might assess his presidential leadership (and one for which his administration can hardly sheet home any blame to his predecessor), we only need to look at the current situation in the Ukraine, and America's aggressive and geopolitically destabilising stance towards the Russian Federation
This Russian Standoff became especially evident with the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH 17, wherein the Obama administration immediately went into attack mode, blaming Ukrainian separatists who were supported by Russia for the disaster. For weeks on end, after dragging many other Western countries - including Australia - along with them on the "blame Russia" bandwagon, since then there has been very little evidence if any provided by the US that indeed the Ukrainian separatists and/or the Russians were responsible. And not a word has been heard now for weeks about what actually happened to MH 17; it has gone all suspiciously quiet on this front. Indeed, evidence appears to be growing that the US knows more about what happened than they are prepared to let on. There can only be one explanation for this.
As for Obama's performance closer to home, his presidential report card also leaves a lot to be desired. His record here thus far underscores the contention that the presidency is no longer relevant in mapping out a more equitable society for ordinary Americans, and in articulating an achievable vision and positive future for the nation as a whole. Exhibit A in this respect is his failure to reign in the Wall Street Cowboys -- upon pain of them doing serious 'til death do us part' jail time a la Bernie Madoff
-- their most reckless impulses. A GFC v.2 is not a matter of if, but when.
And the presidency appears no longer powerful enough even with a popular
mandate to re-gear the machinery of the National Security State towards something more simpatico
with the spirit and letter of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As for economic and social justice, the fabled American Dream has all but reached its use by date if it isn't passed it already, and Obama has done little to arrest the slide that has been admittedly in motion for two decades or more, certainly since the 'halcyon' days (daze) of The Gipper.
Yet despite all this, the next presidential candidates will tell Americans they can bring back hope and change, and people will vote for either/or candidate en masse
in the fervent hope that they will make good on their word. Or they won't vote at all. Other than the names on the high-security clearance ID's of the champions of the National Security State and the dog-tags of the front-line defenders of freedom and democracy in the US Military though, very little is likely change.
Rethinking the Imperium
In an informal interview with journalist and author Chris Hedges
not long after the beginning of Obama's first term, US political philosopher Sheldon Wolin
-- after indicating he did not expect much from the new Administration and that "the basic systems" [of power and influence] in the US are going to "stay in place" unchallenged -- had this to say about the new president who -- it has to be recalled at this point -- got into that position promising more change than you could poke a stick at in a month of election Tuesdays:
"This [view] is shown by the [Wall Street] bailout. It [the Obama administration] does not bother with [changing] the structure at all. I don't think he can take on the establishment we have developed..
.[Obama] is probably the most intelligent president we have had in decades. I think he is well meaning, but he inherits a system of constraints that makes it very difficult to take on these major power configurations. I do not think he has any appetite for it [ideologically]. The corporate structure is not going to be challenged. There has not been a word from him that would suggest an attempt to rethink the American imperium".
With this in mind, and in view of the fact we're now well into his second term, with Obama then, it appears to be Pox Amerikana redux, deja vu all over again. In short, Obama has spent little time 'rethinking' the "imperium". If Obama promised change, then his first term tenure appeared to have underscored that hoary old platitude that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Whether he instinctively knew that before he was elected is open to debate, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion he did. This would especially be the case if he was/is that "intelligent". As for Obama's purported "well meaning" predisposition, there again appears very little evidence of that. Of course its unknown what Wolin himself might now
think, but it would be hard to see how he might still hold the same view.
On the other hand, it may just be that Obama recognizes -- as Wolin has observed above -- that as president he represents, embodies -- and acts in the interests of -- forces that are larger, more powerful and much more immutable than the Office itself and the person who holds the Office. And catering to these forces is more important than any attempts to cater to the electorate at large, over whom it would appear certain they take precedence.
In his intriguing 2010 book The Next Hundred Years -- A Forecast for the 21st Century
, George Friedman underscored this premise. After noting that in the long-term at least, presidents are not especially "important or powerful" people anymore, he added the following about Obama, and by extrapolation one expects, future
"[He has to] govern within the realities and constraints that [have] defined previous presidencies, and whilst he may or may not be popular, his ability to redefine anything as massive as the United States and the global system [is] severely limited".
Obama may even acknowledge privately that to be 'successful' and 'effective' he needs to recognize the above reality or not harbour any illusions
about it (or any ambitions
of his own at odds with these forces), even if he doesn't always feel comfortable with such "recognition" and constraints. That being the case, there is at present disturbingly little sign -- especially with the lame-duck period of his second term looming -- that Obama is showing any discomfort with that recognition. No doubt there are numerous folk Stateside and beyond who believed in his message of audacity combined with his shill of hope and change would be saying 'more's the pity'.
Interestingly, Obama has apparently received up to three times more death threats than Bush ever did; with that in mind, it's quite possible he realises that demonstrating too much audacity and offering too much hope could -- to use the popular contemporary vernacular -- get his "skinny black ass capped". Just like JFK did then one supposes in the Bill Hicks scenario, and of whom it is generally considered demonstrated a little too much presidential audacity and propensity for change and in doing so, paid the ultimate price for it?
And when we consider the current state of play with the Secret Service
, this would be neither an unreasonable concern for the president himself nor an outlandish proposition for the rest of us. Either way, when we place all this in context, and take on the perspective doing so provides, Obama may turn out to be a bigger disappointment than his still much reviled predecessor. Now who would have thought that
on the night of the first Tuesday in November in 2008? No doubt there are plenty who would now say "we told you so", but I don't recall hearing too many folks doing so, as it would have been tantamount to poo-pooing Old Glory, baseball and Mom's apple pie in one fell swoop. And in the Land of Hope and Dreams, that just would not be the done thing.
Perth, Western Australia.
Greg Maybury is a Perth (Australia) based freelance writer. His main areas of interest are American history and politics in general, with a special focus on economic, national security, military and geopolitical affairs, and both US domestic and foreign policy issues.