Give Barack Obama this: he knows how to leave the stage.
Commuting the prison sentences of Chelsea Manning and Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera ostensibly showed the Real Obama under the imperial cloak, the savior at whom eager progressives threw themselves in 2008. And who knows — maybe a genuine heart does beat in Obama’s chest. I’m sure that Manning and Rivera embraced the news regardless of true presidential intent. Take what you can get.
Manning’s commutation was especially ironic, given Obama’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers. It put liberals in an odd position, since many have been touting the CIA in reaction to Trump’s victory. Of course, liberal support for secret police is nothing new, and in this they’ve had a friend in Obama. How rich it is to see them scurry about, trying to wrap their partisan minds around Obama’s actions. Imperial decay does have its rewarding moments.
Now that he’s done, what do we make of Obama? If not for him, we probably would have experienced President Hillary, though if she lost to Trump, she might have lost to McCain/Palin as well. (With Hillary, it’s always a crap shoot.) So we can thank Obama for sparing us that.
On the whole, Obama was the perfect neoliberal president at the most opportune time. He steadied the imperial ship after the chaotic Bush/Cheney years, while keeping in place and expanding that administration’s commitment to surveillance and war (there was no way that Obama would ever close Guantánamo). His drone program, operating in at least seven countries, has been more forward-looking than the traditional boots on the ground approach. He bailed out the big banks and preserved Big Auto. His adoption of Mitt Romney’s version of health care produced mixed results, and is now (it seems) heading for the scrap heap.
For Democrats, Obama has largely been a disaster. Unlike the Clintons, who command loyalty and deference from party regulars, Obama didn’t really help down ticket candidates. The party remained in corporate centrist hands, beat back a populist challenge with whatever weapons they could grab, which resulted in the monumental embarrassment of losing to Donald Trump. With Obama leaving, these political geniuses have retrenched themselves, certain that they control the party’s destiny. They probably do, which should alarm Democrats, but it will take more than last November’s defeat for them to learn their lesson, assuming that ever happens.
When my three-chord polemic SAVAGE MULES was published in ’08, Obama-mania was at its height. This didn’t bode well for sales, even though I mentioned Obama only at book’s end. There was little chance that my critique of the Democrats would derail Obama’s campaign, but a number of liberals, from websites to bookstores, wanted nothing to do with it or me. (Glenn Greenwald, then at Salon, was one of the few in the media to honor his commitment to discussing MULES.) Still, I think I got it mostly right:
“Little wonder that Barack Obama’s rhetoric cast such a strong, hypnotic spell over [liberals]. His oratory was sweet music. Hillary simply spooked the room, putting everyone on edge. But Saint Obama spun much gentler yarns, elevating captive moods while keeping all in place. After the madness of the Bush years, Obama clearly seemed the most logical choice to manage the abattoir — smiling, waving, oiling his hammer gun, making sure that the conveyor belt’s running smoothly and efficiently.”
With Trump’s orange riot blowing into Washington, Obama looks better than ever, at least better than he should. He and his glamorous wife Michelle will be the toast of countless parties and benefits, earning millions while receiving praise for his sane, steady leadership. Unless Trump kills us all, that is.