Obama is the product of a certain political moment and system
The system let Obama be president. But he still may not
be able to beat it
Even if he is pushing the US in the right direction, it
is unlikely to be far or fast enough in a political
culture resisting reform
by Gary Younge
The Guardian (UK) - October 12, 2009
At an election night party during the primaries last
year I made a throwaway comment disparaging those who
believed Barack Obama's mixed-race identity gave him a
unique understanding of America's racial problems.
"It does," said one woman.
I explained that I was joking. She was not. "It really
does," she continued. "He knows how black people think
and he knows how white people think."
"If that's what it took then Tiger Woods [whose father
is of African American, Chinese and Native American
descent and mother is of Thai, Chinese and Dutch
descent] should be president and Nelson Mandela should
have stayed in the Transkei," I said.
"So why's he doing so well?" she asked. I suggested it
was probably his stance on the war, the state of the
economy and a desire to move on from the Clinton-Bush
duopoly combined with his grassroots organising
experience and use of new technology.
"There's more to it than that," she said. "It's him."
It is almost impossible to have an intelligent
conversation about Obama. The problem isn't that people
come to him with baggage. Everyone comes to everything
in politics with baggage. It's that they refuse to
check it in or even declare it. Any conversation about
what he does rapidly morphs into one about who he is
and what he might be.
In New Jersey more than a third of the conservatives
literally think he might be the devil. A poll last
month revealed 18% of the state's conservatives know he
is the antichrist, while 17% are not sure. In Oslo,
where he was last week awarded the Nobel peace prize,
they think he might be Mother Teresa. A peace prize for
a leader, nine months into his term, whose greatest
foreign policy achievement to date is to wind down one
war so he can escalate another, is bizarre to say the
Obama's particular biography, sudden rise and
unflappable manner have certainly accentuated the
contradictions between how different people understand
his record. But the problem goes far wider than that.
An obsession with celebrity, the cult of presidential
personality and a culture of individualism (all of
which long predated his election) have made
understanding western politicians primarily within
their political context a relative rarity.
We talk instead of "great men", who as Thomas Carlyle
claimed, made history independent of the society and
cultures that produced them. So tales of their moods,
thought processes, psychological flaws and
idiosyncratic genius become paramount. The emphasis
shifts from policy to personality: their inability to
trust, failure to lead or willingness to compromise
become the questions of the day. The fate of the world
lies not so much in their hands as in their gut and
mind. Whether they take tablets or not sparks national
And so for all his individual talents, the fact that
Obama is the product of a certain political moment and
system, and therefore represents both its potential and
its limits, is lost.
Nonetheless, the potential is not difficult to see. At
home his election brought together a new coalition to
transform the electoral landscape. He won the vote of
97% of black Americans, 67% of Latinos and white union
members, 66% of those aged between 18 and 29 and 63% of
Asian Americans. Black people voted in greater numbers
by 14%, Latinos by 25% and young people aged between 18
and 29 by 25%. On his coattails came substantial
Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress.
He is now turning out to be the most progressive
president in 40 years. The agenda he has set out of
raising taxes on the rich, reforming healthcare,
withdrawing from Iraq, softening the sanctions on Cuba,
and boosting the number of student grants marks a far
bolder vision of what government is for than either
Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter did.
Internationally, he remains incredibly popular, not
least for who he is not - George Bush. A poll released
last week revealing which country is most admired
around the world showed America leaping from seventh to
first. "What's really remarkable is that in all my
years studying national reputation, I have never seen
any country experience such a dramatic change in its
standing as we see for the United States in 2009,"
explained Simon Anholt of the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation
Brands Index. This is about as good a result as the
left is going to get out of an American election.
But the limits are also all too apparent. Being the
most progressive American president in more than a
generation is not the same as being progressive. It's
all relative. He has escalated the war in Afghanistan,
continued rendition and maintained many of the most
noxious presidential prerogatives that Bush claimed for
The fact that Democrats have sufficient majorities in
both houses of Congress to pass whatever they want but
are struggling to pass anything that would make a
decisive and conclusive break with the past suggests
the problem in Washington is not "partisan politics".
It's a political system and culture so crowded with
corporate lobbyists, that it is apparently incapable of
fulfilling the wishes of the people even when - as with
a public option in healthcare - that is what they want.
The fact he is a product of that system does not mean
he is not necessarily dedicated to reforming it. But we
cannot measure his dedication, only his achievements.
And so far those achievements have not been great.
Meanwhile, he has precious little to show for his
global popularity. Nobody wants to increase troop
levels in Afghanistan or take in Guant??namo Bay
prisoners. By the time his climate change efforts
emerge from Congress they are unlikely to impress the
international community. "The problem is he's asking
for roughly the same things Bush asked for and Bush
didn't get them, not because he was a boorish diplomat
or a cowboy," Peter Feaver, a former adviser to Bush,
told the New York Times recently. "If that were the
case, bringing in the sophisticated, urbane President
Obama would have solved the problem. Bush didn't get
them because these countries had good reasons for not
giving them." That's not quite true. He is asking for
less and prepared to give more. But the fact remains
that he wants similar things and his concessions seem
Put simply, he doesn't seem to have the numbers to
implement change on a scale necessary to relieve the
pain of people and the planet. This risks great
cynicism and even the possibility of a backlash. People
will say we reached out and nobody reached back; we
tried to reform healthcare but nothing much changed.
Predicting these disappointments, from the left, has
taken no great insight. Given his own politics and the
range of institutions in which he is embedded, the
limits have always been clear. It is the potential for
overcoming them that has been an open question.
This should neither absolve Obama of his
responsibilities nor ignore his considerable abilities,
but simply place meaningful criticism of him here on
Earth - as opposed to in heaven or hell. The fact that
he is pushing the country in the right direction does
not mean he is able to push it fast or far enough.
It seems the world may need more for its future health
and wellbeing than what US politics can produce right
now. His best may just not be good enough.
[Gary Younge is a Guardian columnist and feature writer
based in the US. He was formerly the paper's New York
correspondent. His most recent book is Stranger in a
Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States; he is
also the author of No Place Like Home, published in