In his verbose and rather trivial book The Conscience of a Liberal, published in 2007, Paul Krugman made an interesting critique of Thomas Frank’s much more interesting book What’s The Matter With Kansas? Frank believed that the Republicans were dominating the Democrats in American politics because they had mastered the art of distracting their voters through cultural populism — panicking them with homosexuality, liberalism and abortion, marshalling them with flag-waving, working-class iconography and anti-intellectualism — and thus managed to get them to vote for the thing which really matters for American politicians (the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich).
Krugman didn’t want to hear this, partly because it made Democrats look weak, but perhaps also because he was painfully aware that Democrats were almost equally concerned about such a transfer of wealth, whereas his Keynesian principles theoretically worked in the opposite direction. He seems to have cast about for a refutation, and found one in the claim that actually it was all about race. Republicans were racists, Democrats weren’t, case closed.
Why should Krugman have pursued such gibberish? Obviously, because he knew what was coming down the pipeline — that the next Presidential candidate would most probably be Barack Hussein Obama, the junior Senator for Michigan, and the Democrats would be preening themselves over putting a black man up as a candidate. (Hillary Clinton’s lust for power almost made it a woman candidate instead, which would no doubt have startled Krugman who had made no attempt in his book to prove that all Republicans were misogynists — but the Democrat power-structure wore Clinton’s bid down in the end.)
How did the son of a white American woman and a black Kenyan man, born in Hawaii and resident in Chicago, get to become a presidential candidate? Obama had all the necessary privileges; he went to Harvard and studied law, editing the Harvard Law Review, a job they don’t give to underlings. In Chicago he mixed at first with some on the left wing of the Democrats, not that this means much (they’d been radicals when Obama was a toddler, but he was grown up and they’d repudiated their youthful indiscretions) but then, naturally, inserted himself into the party machine, did what he was told, and, being handsome and well-spoken and an ambitious natural bootlicker, rapidly became the coming man and got a Senate seat. Privilege can do a lot for you in Chicago, as the Daley family long noticed.
Obama, however, was also a natural spoiler to keep Clinton out. He was from the Midwest, meaning that he was just folks as opposed to the elitist from New York (the fact that Clinton came up, like her husband, through the Arkansas structures cut no ice in the 2008 primaries, for American Democrats, like American Republicans, suffer from Korsakov’s Syndrome and remember nothing for more than a few minutes). He was black, meaning that the Democrats could capitalise on being non-racist. He was also less conspicuously arrogant, unpleasant and widely-despised than the two previous candidates, Gore and Kerry, because he was such a nonentity; he would not charge about boasting of his Vietnam record or his ersatz green credentials. In short, the Democrats thought he was God’s gift to them.
But he was also, of course, God’s gift to the ruling class. The ruling-class ideology had suffered a degree of embarrassment under the Bush administration; the policy of bloody violence abroad and malign neglect at home had not brought the returns which the American ruling class had anticipated — foreign terror and domestic acquiescence. Instead, both foreigners and Americans were heartily sick of the nonsense which the Republicans had wrought. It was high time for a rebranding of ruling-class ideology — not to change the ideology, of course, but to change the image. It was also important, given the financial and political disasters brought into being by Bush and his allies, to put a Democrat in charge so that they could have responsibility for the disasters imposed on them. Comes the hour, comes the man; a man without principles or beliefs who would do precisely what he was told by his bosses, and who would provide a convenient four-year caretaker until Americans had forgotten the awfulness of the previous regime and were ready to vote for it again.
Plus, if by some miracle Obama managed to weather the storms and got re-elected in 2012, since he had no ideas of his own he was unlikely to challenge anything in his last term; he would not threaten the status quo. He couldn’t, in a sense, for Michigan is not particularly dominant in Democratic terms (unlike New York, where Clinton might potentially have possessed some independent clout) and because even in Michigan Obama had been a dark horse, and therefore he had no independent power-base with which to run wild even if he had wanted to.
But a loyal Harvard lawyer wouldn’t want to run wild, anyway.
Obama made certain promises and undertook certain actions (which amounted to promises) before he was elected. He promised to close the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp, and he promised to pursue renewable energy resources. These were issues which had become of considerable importance among Democrats in the Bush era, and they also made a certain amount of sense; the point was, though, that Obama had to make them if he was to identify himself as a Democrat. Rather more surprising was his promise to wage war on Pakistan if he were elected, which was definitely not something which the average Democrat was concerned about. Less surprising, but still striking, was Obama’s uncritical enthusiasm for the first banking bailout undertaken by Bush and his Congress (a Democrat-dominated Congress, note well), which was essentially a promise to always put Wall Street’s interest ahead of those of Main Street.
The problem with these was reconciling them, for he was thus promising to reign both as a Republican and as a Democrat. Escalating the war against the world meant swallowing the Republican military imperialist agenda, which more or less demanded the demonisation of the nation’s imaginary enemies — so how could he do this and simultaneously close the concentration camps? America’s right-wing financiers were all devoted to oil, coal, gas and nuclear energy — how could he square his support for them with a desire to set up renewable energy on a large scale and thus build a challenge to their dominance?
The answer was that he had no intention of doing this. The famous “Hope” poster displaying a low-resolution monochrome Obama was meaningless; so were his other two slogans, “Change” and “Yes we can!”. If he had desired to say anything he could have said it — there was no doubt that he was able to mobilise Democrat activists, largely because they were quite desperate to get rid of Bush and because many genuinely felt that there was something to fight for — specifically the health-care legislation which Krugman claimed would seal Democratic control of the country by proving that liberals could get things done where conservatives could not.
But in the end, once elected, Obama simply jettisoned the pledge to close Guantanamo Bay and to promote renewable energies. Instead he expanded the concentration camp at Bagram in Afghanistan, since his new war in Pakistan provided an endless stream of victims to go into the bag. Instead he promoted gas, coal, oil and nuclear energy. What a surprise! Then he amplified the Bush financial class warfare to unprecedented scale, bankrupting the United States in the process of giving his political enemies gigantic windfalls. Having done this, he dusted off his hands and provided a plan for universal healthcare which would be expensive, bewildering and unsatisfactory for the participants, but gigantically profitable for the health insurance companies which he put in charge of it.
Tears streaming down his face (to which he held a strategically-concealed onion) Obama explained that he couldn’t possibly provide the single-payer quasi-private healthcare which every other Western country other than Britain (which has nationalised healthcare) provides, because unfortunately he had only three-fifths of Congress behind him, and this wasn’t enough. (As if the President of the United States couldn’t bully a single Republican senator into supporting him if he chose.) Luckily for him, within two years his right-wing policies had so alienated his base that he lost the House of Representatives and only narrowly held Senate, so thereafter he could keep up the pretense of being impotent in the face of the mighty Republicans with a somewhat straighter face.
Well, we know now how it turned out. Obama could, possibly, have governed as a maverick Democrat, trying to exploit his undoubted popularity among Democrat voters, but then he would have been denounced by the Democrat Press and the Democrat establishment and business and who knows what else. Whether he was afraid of these forces, whether he was just unwilling to make the necessary effort to challenge them, we shall never know. All we know is that he kowtowed to them shamelessly and thus gradually shaved away all the support which he had brought to the Democrats, until all that was left was the core of support, which may not be enough to get him re-elected.
But does he really want to be re-elected? Perhaps, all along, he wanted to be a one-term President. He will have all the privileges of Presidency for the rest of his life, including the title. He will not, perhaps, have power, but then he has never had power; throughout his term of office, far more than George W Bush, he has been taking orders from his masters.
If he wants to be re-elected, he has certainly not gone about his governance in a way calculated to ensure this. His promised war in Pakistan did not go well (apart from the slaughter of the hapless Bin Laden) but it went swimmingly compared with his second war of choice in Libya. He lurched from humiliation to humiliation in the Middle East, embarrassingly failed to make capital out of the popular discontent in Arab countries while shambling along behind the disgusting Israeli government, and of course the scourge of economic decline was constantly coming down on the shoulders of all his active supporters, reminding them that Obama was not their friend.
And then he had to face the “debt ceiling” crisis. At last he drew a line in the sand. No simple cuts in social-service spending for him! No, let the Republicans block the funding of the nation! Then they would surely be blamed for the consequences — even though that might be a cut in the national credit rating, and even a stock market crash. He insisted that half the money come from taxes. Well, all right, since the Republicans wouldn’t accept that — twenty percent? No? All right, none, then. But he insisted, did this warmonger President, that there be deep cuts in defense spending. No? All right, shallow cuts in defense spending. No? All right, no cuts in defense spending, if you absolutely insist. And with bad grace the Republicans accepted as Obama gave them everything they had asked for.
And then the stock market crashed and the national credit rating was slashed.
Obama is said to be a serious churchgoer. One may doubt this, but possibly it is true. In which case, as he bows off the national scene in 2012, he may idly wonder what awaits him when he breathes his last on his deathbed. Will it perhaps be the icy frozen lake reserved for the traitors? The Abominable Sand? The river of boiling blood? So many options for Beelzebub to provide for Obama’s shrivelled little soul.
James Fenton summed up Obama best:
There’s a Christ for a whore and a Christ for a punk
A Christ for a pickpocket and a drunk
There’s a Christ for every sinner but one thing there ain’t —
There ain’t no Christ for any cut-price saint.