Monday, July 8, 2013

Barack Obama: The Man Who Fell to Earth

Daniel Ellsberg, 1971, a different time.
Daniel Ellsberg opens his op-ed piece in the Washington Post this morning with these words:
Many people compare Edward Snowden to me unfavorably for leaving the country and seeking asylum, rather than facing trial as I did. I don’t agree. The country I stayed in was a different America, a long time ago.
Ellsberg is right about Edward Snowden, and he's right about America, and the simple reason is that America, these days, is not a safe place for dissent, let alone the kind of civil disobedience Snowden is practicing. Ellsberg was released on his own recognizance after turning himself in; Snowden, were he to do the same thing, would more than likely be placed in solitary confinement with little or no access to the outside world. We are increasingly cruel to our offenders in general. To our political prisoners, we are downright tortuous.

Barack Obama: a lion in winter, or an
ordinary man in the thrall of power?
For that's what we have become, a cruel, often tortuous nation. Beyond Snowden and the snuffing out of information in, ironically, the Information Age -- for that's what's happening -- there's a failure on all fronts to move this country forward. And the man who suffers the most by this failure, at least in a legacy sense, is Barack Obama.

This is not the change we believed in, and Barack Obama turned out not to be the man we believed would usher in the changes many had not only longed for but indeed expected by his hands. Anyone around for the past four and more years would have to have been blind and deaf not to realize that his failures were to a great extent forced upon him: The opposition was never going to let him be a man of accomplishment and fought him tooth and nail, whether it was against the best interests of the nation or not. The black man must be put in his place. The white, racist, Christian constituency demanded it. The post-partisan president emerged in a time -- and with the color of skin -- that would brook no compromise. Full of hope as we were in 2008, we should have seen it coming. Heaven knows Obama should have.

Berlin, 2008.
Yet he clung to his bipartisan proclivities, not out of naivete but out of a determination to stick to his guns. To some, it has made him look weak and ineffective, to others aloof and contemptuous. I see him as a bit of both. But he was a man of hope and decided to play it out that way. He was waiting for the opposition to find their better angels. That was never going to happen because the opposition had no intention of finding them, let alone even looking.

Still, Barack Obama accomplished some things, most of which you don't need me to detail. And we also know that his more spectacular failures were well intentioned, such as gun control and immigration (I expect failure there, glad to be wrong). I never understood his moves on the Bush tax cuts, the debt ceiling, and the sequester. It could have been merely defensive, or it could have been because he eschewed -- or was incapable of -- bare-knuckle politics.

Obama speaks in Berlin in 2013 to a few thousand invited guests.
The president who fell to Earth, boxed in, figuratively and literally.
The best examples of that were that Barack Obama appeared ready to appease the anti-welfare folks with tweaks and worse to Medicare and Social Security. These "hard choices" were a complete sellout and betrayal of the coalition he appealed to in order to win the presidency and secure re-election. Such betrayal was unnecessary, and history may show yet that it would never satisfy an opposition hellbent on ending America' social safety net. Obama's vacillation on aspects of Obamacare, such as birth control, Plan-B, employer mandates, and whatnot, does not bode well for the rest of the program's rollout. Again, the president's soaring rhetorical skills and masterful framing of the debate leaves us with nothing if he abandons the fight at the first whiff of the smoke of battle. He should dig in and stand his ground. That he rarely if ever has not only shows him in a bad light but also leaves his constituency with nothing to show for its support.

The banks continue with their frauds because
no effort was really made to stop them.
Between the Treasury, the Department of Justice, and the SEC, the handling of the mortgage and banking crisis left homeowners -- and stockholders -- holding the bag. Saving Americans from foreclosure even if by the simple act of handling out free money would have helped the American economy immensely. That we instead coddled the banks and prosecuted not a one showed we cared little for justice and even less for the small guy. What a enormous disappointment, especially as the banks paid their fines, admitted no guilt, and then went on their merry way continuing their fraudulent practices, foreclosing left and right at will, even on those who never missed a payment. Why? Because they can.

Guantanamo was an abject failure, both morally and politically. Blame it on bipartisan opposition in Congress, if you want. But Obama was commander-in-chief and as such could have single-handedly brought the inmates to U.S. soil, placing them in military detention before working them through the civilian courts. He was boss, and he could have done it.

There was ill-intent and conventional hunger for power, as well, and it's that portion of the story of the still unfolding Obama presidency that may yet doom him to a mixed legacy at best. Presidents don't give up power willingly, and Obama proved no exception to that rule. Where Bush/Cheney broke new ground, Obama would give none back, except in the area of torture. Even there we don't know, necessarily, what's going on in the background, in the compounds and secret prisons abroad. That I would even think to say that or that you would find it hard to dispute it illustrates the degree to which such practices still might abound, in light of the massive surveillance here at home and against both our enemies and allies overseas that have come to light in recent weeks.

James Clapper: The face of unyielding abuse
of power in the name of national security.
Which brings us back to Edward Snowden. It's early in Obama's second term, but the Snowden affair has demonstrated how conventional Barack Obama has turned out to be. In many issues, Obama has shown his appreciation of nuance, and he could have here. Secrecy and the surveillance state and its discovery could have offered him a chance to demonstrate that the president gets why we might feel threatened, that there is an important balance between freedom and security. Instead, he gave us platitudes at best, and dishonesty at worst. He would protect the executive's burgeoning prerogatives.

His was to be a transformational presidency. At this point in his journey, he is more of an Icarus than an Apollo. Obama's favorite two words, dreams and hope, which appeared in the titles of his two best-selling books, have lost their potency, as he adhered to the conventional in the ordinary sense as well as in the more sinister sense, that of following the convention of undiminished executive abuse of power.

We did not expect that of Barack Obama, him of all people. That it's what we've received so far means that he is not the only man to fall to Earth. We, too, have fallen with him.


  1. People like you make me think that there's hope for America yet (the America that the Founders envisioned).

    1. Vlad,

      I hope you know that I like Barack Obama. And I appreciate the notion of what our Founders envisioned, though it takes some really hard thinking to extrapolate just what that means.

      But the most important takeaway is that good people -- like Barack Obama -- can fall short of what we as a nation should strive to be: a group of individuals tied together by a common heritage -- that includes new immigrants and others finally getting the freedom and inclusion they deserve in this world -- who want all of us to succeed together. If, for a minute, I thought that my freedom is earned on top of the backs of others against their will, I would give it all back and start from scratch. I win as an individual because those around me signed on as my brothers and sisters. This is the vision of our founding fathers, and it's the vision that I offer to those around me, all the way to including those I vote for. But in the end I will hold those, even Barack Obama, responsible. All the best in the world, my friend, all the best.