Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, 1940 © Howard Chandler Christy | Wikimedia Commons
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, 1940 © Howard Chandler Christy | Wikimedia Commons

I hate anything that smells of “I told you so,” but the only way I can explain the overwhelming success of Hillary Clinton’s race baiting of Bernie Sanders, and the kind of tragedy that represents for America’s future, is autobiographically. My first inkling that Barack Obama’s 2008 talk about a “transformational” presidency, about changing the mindset and so forth, was nothing but smoke in the electorate’s eye took place when Clinton conceded the nomination and Obama responded by taking a series of far-right-wing positions on issues such as gun control and the death penalty. Increasingly, I was repelled by his theatrics, especially the absurd nonsense about how “smart” he was, but it was with the escalation in Afghanistan, a few months after his election, that made me see him for the weak president he was. I began blogging then because I knew that if the American Left, such as it was, did not establish a critical perspective on an essentially opportunist figure, it would never again establish itself as an independent voice.

Blogging critically about Obama over the past eight years was one of the most unrewarding experiences of my life. Almost everyone I knew — friends, colleagues, readers — essentially accused me of something between racism and infantile leftism. Every possible, often fantastic excuse was trotted out to explain why Obama’s progressive achievements were so limited, even though Obama’s values were clear from the time he took the presidency, as expressed in his First Inaugural Address, centered on belt-tightening, and in his cabinet choices, which combined Bill Clinton’s emperors of financial control, Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, with George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. In every way, Obama’s first term was a continuation of Bush’s last term, or at least its last two years. Never, in my view, would Obama have gotten the kind of pass that he got from progressives if he were white.

This is not to say that there were not important elements of racism in the Republican response to Obama, for example, in the “birther” issue, as Sanders explained so well. However, intelligence requires keeping two ideas in one’s mind at the same time. A left, of the sort that America had between the Progressive era and the 1970s, would have had at least some of the resources that would make it possible to see Obama for the bait-and-switch politician that he was and at the same time to unearth and confront racism where it existed. Obviously, this problem was different — more personal — for African Americans. As a Jew and the son of immigrants, I know what it is to be on the receiving end of prejudice; in that situation, loyalty to the group prevails. Nonetheless, I do believe that if American progressives and leftists had been able to maintain a consistent, critical perspective on Obama, Clinton would have gotten 50% of the African-American vote in South Carolina, rather than more than 80%, and in that case Sanders would have won the primary.

Obviously, Sanders was in an impossible situation because everything he stood for was a rebuke of Obama, and he could never say that. The failure of American progressives to maintain a consistent critique of the Obama presidency had left the field open only to the shallowest kind of identity politics and to the kind of apolitical and ahistorical technocratic reasoning that Paul Krugman typifies, and Clinton jumped right in. This is not to say that there has been no progress under Obama, but when one considers the larger picture, the catastrophe of the Middle East, and the almost unbelievable supremacy money has taken on in our society, the creation of two tiers in everything, the waste of wealth and knowledge — and now we are going to have a president who doesn’t even have Obama’s fearfulness in regard to foreign policy — just read about her naive and reckless behavior in regard to Libya in The New York Times. Well, ultimately, people get what they deserve, and perhaps neoliberalism and continual war is what Americans deserve. Personally, I would have thought they deserved better.

5 thoughts on “An American Tragedy

  1. What a terribly shallow, uninformed, myopic and racism-blind critique of Obama. Sanders’ defenders continue to leave me unimpressed with their arguments for their candidate.

    1. Awful, isn’t it? The suggestion that Obama is far right is not that much different from the accusation that he’s a socialist Muslim whatever.

  2. Of course, I don’t agree on the election: on Obama, Clinton and Sanders. I have
    always understood Obama as a centrist working to move the center to the left. His project was not opportunism, but a different position than yours Eli. In my view, Clinton and Sanders are extending Obama’s project. I am pleased with the primary contest and feel strongly that whoever prevails will offer a strikingly different and better prospect for American democracy than Sanders and his opponents. In fact, I believe the election will be a contest between those who support a flawed democracy and those who would undermine it.

  3. As I kind of expected, I find myself sitting somewhere between Eli and Jeff on these issues. I remember voting for Obama, telling my friends I was doing so simply because Obama was not a Republican and I was in an “anybody but Bush” mood. I did not see him as any kind of transformative figure, although I thought it would be a major sign of the country’s possible maturity if a black man was elected president. Many of my friends were aghast: Obama was the harbinger of hope. I chalked it up to my natural Irish-Norweigian gloominess. But the past 8 years have, I think, proven me right: Obama was at best a centrist, did a major bait-and-switch by relying on Geithner and Rubin for economic advice, and while he was fanatically opposed by a radicalized Republican opposition which drastically limited what he could do, he always had that “nice tenured law professor” demeanor that sees political discourse as if it were a faculty colloquium rather than a metaphorical blood sport. Against the far Right (and all of it has been “far” since 2000), we needed an LBJ, but got Adlai Stevenson.

    That said, the gay marriage amendment, an economic rebound however weak and maldistributed, and the sign that SOME healthcare reform was conceivable, are achievements. Not grand ones, but achievements nonetheless. Unlike Eli I do not think Obama was an opportunist, exactly, but I do think he has consistently confused compromise with capitulation and was blind to the need for radical change, especially as regarding the economy, and did not make the critical connections between racism and classism that undergird the economy. Obama’s left critics, like Cornel West and Jeff Stout, have his administration pegged: too little too late, too timid, and not linked to any kind of grassroots movement. Could have been a lot worse. But could have been a lot better too.

    Like Jeff I too support a “flawed democracy” (what polity isn’t “flawed”?) over “those who would undermine it.” I take the latter to mean “Trump”, and I am beginning to expect, or at least hope, that the country will reject the latter as an authoritarian “pluto-populist” demogogue who at all costs needs and deserves to be defeated. But I also think that American Democracy is not so much flawed as BROKEN, too beholden to “malefactors of great wealth” and exceptionalist visions of empire, to be “fixed” in one election or through serious changes in policy. It is not just the policies that are rancid: the process itself is not working as a democracy, and needs to be repaired or replaced before justice in policy can be achieved. (The primaries are, itself, a good indication of this brokenness — the presence of Democratic superdelegates who could undermine Sanders’s chances, or the inability of non-Trumpoid Republicans to get their act together and explode his not-so-crypto racist and nationalist platform.) Sanders and his supports at least realize this, at least inchoately. A Clinton victory would be 2008 all over again: instead of “anybody but Bush”, “anybody but Trump.” A mixture, again, of relief and depression, a distinct “lesser of two evils”, but still a neoliberal “evil.” Could do a lot worse. Could do a lot better.

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