Obama’s progressivism has petered out

by Alexander Cockburn

A friend down the coast here in California called Wednesday to say that her mother, 95, had fallen, cracked her ribs, got a cough and told her daughters, “That’s it. I’m checking out.” She’s given up eating. I remembered all the arguments I’d had down the years with the old lady — a perennial optimist about Democrats when it came to assessing the likelihood that Carter or Clinton or Obama would ever actually serve up the progressive banquets they’d pledged on the campaign trail.

“Tell your mother that at least she won’t have to put up with me saying, ‘I told you so, about Obama.” Her daughter gave a deep, sad sigh. She, too, has been a loyal liberal Democrat all her life and now, she said, Obama’s breaking her heart. So many high hopes, and there’s a man accepting the Peace Prize with one hand, while signing deployment orders with the other, sending 30,000 more young soldiers to Afghanistan.

Imagine having one’s foot on the lip of the great abyss, dimly hearing the radio in the kitchen playing snatches of the appalling drivel served up by Obama in Oslo. Obama was in peak form as self-righteous blowhard, proclaiming that “America cannot insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves…. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.”As his words hang in the air, captives of the

Empire are being kidnapped and rendered to Bagram and other dungeons and tortured, all the while with no legal standing as “enemy combatants.” Stand naked in a cold cell, waiting for the next beating from your interrogators and listen to Obama being piped through the PA at max volume, right after “Born in the USA” (sorry, Birthers): “We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place…. So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.”

McCain loves the speech. Sarah Palin loves the speech. But that doesn’t mean Obama’s Oslo address was a Republican speech. When it comes to invoking “just wars,” Republican presidents can go through the motions, but they haven’t got their hearts in it. Who needs to talk about justice as you drop high explosive and scrawl “Death to ragheads” on the side of the bombs? When you want a just war, whistle up a Democrat who can talk with a straight face about installing democracy in the Balkans. After eight years of Bushian crudities, the Empire needed an upgrade in its sales pitch, which is why we have Obama. Back at the time of the medieval crusades, the Western kings used to take Holy Communion from their archbishops before heading east to battle Islam and scour the land for booty. I thought the ceremony in that austere hall in Oslowas a straight lineal descent: as Obama accepted his wafer, in the formof the prize — in this modern age, a substantial check — and thenpledged his holy war.

Here’sa president who can’t even toss the progressives the one peanut a yearthey need to keep them happy. Obama’s refusal on the eve ofThanksgiving here to sign the US on to the landmine ban was thebreaking point for many.

TheAmerican Medical Association had a study reckoning that an estimated24,000 people, mainly civilians, are killed or ripped apart bylandmines and “unexploded ordinance” (cluster bombs) each year acrossthe world. Mostly, the victims are the rural poor, many of themchildren. As a senator, Barack Obama voted for the ban; as president,he’s against it. Looking at the AMA report’s numbers, it’s a safe betto say that somewhere in the world, even as Obama invoked Martin LutherKing and the peace lovers, some kids the same age as his own twodaughters were killed or crippled by a landmine.

Obamacould have tossed the peanut through the bars and ratified the ban. Theliberals would have cheered and then Obama could have told Rahm Emanuelto pass the word along to Congress that he’d much prefer thelegislators not ratify his decision.

ButObama’s too chicken to risk a gesture like that. What people aresuddenly realizing is that with Obama, there is an absolute disconnectbetween the rhetoric and the reality. Is it cynicism? My own feeling isthat Obama has spent so much of his life putting on the various actsnecessary to get ahead in the world of powerful, rich white people thatdeception and self-deception have become innate and instinctive,several steps beyond crude manipulation.

Everyday now, I meet sad and angry people in this progressive part ofnorthern California, furious at themselves at having believed in Obama,at a time in those early primaries and fundraisers last year when heneeded them to believe. They kept on believing through most of thisyear, even as Obama threw one pledge after another out the window.After the landmine sell-out and the 30,000 deployment, they’ve gotnothing to hold on to, though many of them will stay with Obama tillthe end, particularly the blacks, holding on to the straightforwardassumption, as that “He’s doing the best he can under the circumstances— those ‘circumstances’ being white people.”

Anypresident has the power to do something decent once in a while, even ifit’s declaring a marine sanctuary, which was Jimmy Carter’s last act aspresident. Bill Clinton finally offended Hollywood liberals by refusingto pardon Leonard Peltier, something he could have done at the strokeof the same pen he used to sign the pardon for Marc Rich, thebillionaire crook fugitive from justice. Hollywood is still with Obama.If he was shot tomorrow, someone — maybe even Oliver Stone — would rushto make a movie saying Obama was killed by the Pentagon because of hispledge to pull the troops out of Afghanistan two years from now.

Hopes die hard, but Obama has done a superlative job of assassinating them with all due dispatch.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. Copyright 2009 Creators.Com