Monday 10 November 2008

Everyman Goes To Washington

Some first thoughts on an Obama presidency

Finally, America has taken a bold step forward and finally elected… a Hawaiian-American as President...

Only kidding. None but the most hardened cynics will have absorbed the symbolism of Barack Obama’s election or witnessed the extraordinary oratory of the new President-elect during his victory speech in Chicago and not been moved (even if his oft-repeated campaign slogan always makes me smile and think of the children’s cartoon character Bob the Builder. Can we fix it? Yes we can!)

That symbolism represents more than the election of America’s first black President, important though this is within living memory of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, or even that after eight years of the idiocracy of George W Bush we have an articulate, cerebral leader of the United States. The burden of expectation on Obama’s shoulders is also, I think, wrapped up in a deep-seated folk story of American individualism. the template for which are the characters of Frank Capra’s films of the 1930s, like James Stewart in ‘Mr Smith Goes To Washington’ or Spencer Tracey in the more cynical post-war ‘State Of The Union’. They represent the abiding myth of the idealist, honest and untainted by the corruption of Washington politics, men who invoke the spirit of Abraham Lincoln (the most mythologised of US Presidents) and who triumph over adversity and temptation without abandoning their principles. Most Capra films, made in a time of crisis in America, in the midst of the Depression and the uncertainty of a impending war, embody the same unfulfilled yearning for change that has driven the huge popular movement behind Obama.

Many Americans (and onlookers around the word) now evidently believe, after disappointment after continued disappointment, that they have found their ‘Mr Smith’, an Everyman politician who can finally turn what was once just a heart-warming fiction into reality. Unfortunately, the final reel of those old black and white films never showed what happened next. They never told us what happens when the heroic idealist finally attains power and has to deal with the Washington venality he once railed against, but that remains untouched and continues to wield enormous influence. This is Obama’s dilemma: he promised ‘change we can believe in’, but said little about how he would make it happen, or even what ‘change’ might eventually look like.

The very early signs have been far from promising. There has been much talk of unity and bi-partisanship, the same pledge made by Clinton – and surprisingly, in the light of events, by George W Bush. This is hardly a break with the past and neither is the inclusion of so many former Clinton strategists and advisors in Obama’s transitional team and amongst the names of those favourite to become members of his cabinet.

For instance, the appointment of Rahm Emmanuel as White House chief-of-staff – the son of a member of the Zionist terror group Irgun, a civilian volunteer in the Israel Defence Forces during the Gulf War in 1991 and a supporter of both the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the war in Iraq – hardly points to a change we can believe in of US policy in Palestine. Neither does the inclusion amongst Obama’s advisors of President Carter’s hawkish former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, seem like a new dawn in foreign policy. It has been proposed that three Bush appointees will remain in office under Obama, whilst a frontrunner for the post of Treasury Secretary is Larry Summers, a proponent of the financial deregulation of Wall Street that has helped fuel the economic crisis facing America. This already begins to look like the status quo we can believe in.

Obama supporters will of course argue that the President-elect needs these Washington insiders to make things happen, that even an idealist needs ‘realists’. It’s the first compromise of the ‘change we can believe in’ and it won’t, I suspect, be the last. But some things will change, we know: Guantanamo will finally close, there will be a more liberal approach to environmental issues and Americans may finally achieve universal health care. Will there be more? A transformational change in the way government conducts itself? Action on the poverty that blights the lives of millions of Americans? The diminution of the corrupting influence of big business?

It doesn’t seem likely and rather worryingly, it depends in part upon the Democrats in Congress, the power-brokers that Obama relies upon, those who were so utterly ineffective in opposing Bush and who for the whole of my lifetime have incessantly complained that they’ve never had the chance to make the changes they have always wanted. Well, this time they’ll have no-one but themselves to blame if they screw up on delivering their part of the deal.

But much also depends on the ability of the movement that helped elect Obama to keep up the pressure on their Everyman politician and make sure he doesn’t forget who won him the Presidency. The legions of Obama voters will also have no-one to blame if they forget that the myth of the triumphant idealist who single-handedly sweeps away Washington corruption is just that – a myth.

If the only change we can ever really believe in is the product of collective action, of movements that currently are as energised as they have been for years, then there is a battle at the heart of the new Obama presidency. It's a battle between the Democratic party machine and its own supporters.

For that reason, if no other, it should be an interesting four years.

Postscript 1: On intelligence and the CIA, "the early transition effort is winning praise from moderate Democrats" according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, which claims that "President-elect Barack Obama is unlikely to radically overhaul controversial Bush administration intelligence policies."

Eh, no we can't...

Postscript 2: According to the Huffington Post, Obama has informed party officials that he wants Senator Joe Lieberman, who campaigned for McCain and Palin, to continue caucusing with the Democrats, despite opposition from the overwhelming majority of Democrat supporters.

Eh, no we can't...

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