Barack Obama is being inaugurated again tomorrow.
We in the USA have now not only elected a black President, we have reelected him. Despite the ubiquitous paeans to America being the world’s foremost exemplar and defender of human rights and democracy, this is still exhilarating. In the USA, Jim Crow is still a vivid memory for many of our older citizens, and unequal treatment because of your race is still a fact of daily life. It is still true in America that ambitious right-wing politicians can advance their careers with racist dog-whistles (no offense to dogs intended) and where entertainers like Rush Limbaugh can still excite their audiences with explicitly racist rants. So yes, I’m very happy that Barack Hussein Obama is now our two-term black President.
But I’m also sad. The thrill of Barack Obama’s reelection has almost nothing to do with the actions of the man himself, Barack Obama. The exciting thing about his Presidency remains the mere fact of his race and the willingness of the American electorate to vote for a black man for President. Not a small thing, certainly, but I can’t overlook my continuing profound disappointment in the leadership of President Obama.
I was reminded of my disappointment today while reading a magnificent review of the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Literature professor David Bromwich points to the similarities between the movie’s gentle treatment of its chief protagonist and our nation’s treatment of Barack Obama:
And the process by which we acquit her runs oddly parallel to the process by which we have spared from blame a young idealistic president who chose to continue many of the same policies that were unconditionally denounced under George W. Bush. It is felt to be different, somehow, when a woman does it, just as it is different when our first black president does it.
I think we overlook the responsibility of Barack Obama for transforming what in 2004 were outrageous abuses of power by the Bush administration, into today’s uncontroversial, institutionalized, status-quo. Whether this is because Obama is black, I’m not so sure, but I think it’s as likely an explanation as any.
To get to where we are now vis-a-vis our unaccountable national security state and all its excesses of domestic violations of civil liberties and international violations of human rights required the two-step of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It required that George W. Bush use 9-11 as an excuse for unconstitutional executive branch behavior. He did that well, and he has been appropriately blamed for it by those who profess to value the rule of law. But it also required the endorsement of those policies by Barack Obama to transform what used to be controversial into the daily mundane features of national life that they are today. Zero Dark Thirty, as Bromwich points out, could not have been made without both the outrageousness of Bush and the placid acceptance of that outrageousness by Obama.
Obama should have been made to pay a political price when he reneged on his original campaign promises and ratified the lawlessness and lack of accountability of the national security state. And this is even more true, perhaps, when it comes to the banks and the financial crisis they and their lackeys in government created. At least Obama has nominally rejected torture. He hasn’t done much of anything to reject the right-wing program of financial deregulation and to solve the too-big-to-fail problem. Dodd-Frank is not a counterexample.
In his second term so far, Obama shows no sign that his performance will be any better. John Brennan at CIA and Jack Lew at Treasury will be keepers of the status quo, just as Barack Obama, sadly, seems to like it.
So yes, cheers to us for reelecting a black man. We continue to make progress against racism, and we should take the credit for that. But in the spirit of rejecting racism, let’s try to hold Barack Obama to the same standards we professed to hold George W. Bush.