Yesterday when I read about Barack Obama’s nomination of union busting, school closing, fund raising billionaire Penney Pritzker for Secretary of Commerce, I was reminded of some words by Pete Hamill I read long ago concerning his take on the nature of politicians. Hamill was writing about former Queens Borough President Donald Manes just after Manes’s grisly suicide as the scandals that ended the Koch years moved closer and closer to Manes, promising to completely expose his public image as a public lie. Hamill, who had known Manes his entire adult life, noted that Manes had mastered the politician’s art of becoming whoever he thought you wanted him to be whenever you wanted him to be it. What Hamill wrote was this: he never knew which Manes to greet because he never knew which Manes he would be talking to. Hamill’s words have stuck in my memory ever since, perhaps because they so precisely encapsulate what seems to be the nature of so many politicians.
But not Obama. The same words welled up in my head yesterday precisely because the phenomenon known as Obama so deftly defies them.
Some process that is related to what Hamill wrote of but is at the same time strikingly different seems to guide many perceptions of Obama. Somehow, Obama doesn’t need to pretend to be whoever he thinks you want him to be. Somehow, no matter what Obama does, even if he does it for years, there are people who pretend that Obama remains what they want him to be. Accordingly, just as Hamill had no idea to which Manes he would be talking, many a time with many a person, I often have no idea which version of Obama people are talking about.
To an extraordinary extent, after more than four years in office, Obama remains to many — or at least to many I know or am somehow in contact with — a projection of their own desires, fears or hopes. This, after becoming the first Noble Peace Prize winner with a kill list; this, long after pointlessly and cruelly prolonging the agony of the innocent in Guantanamo; this, after refusing to prosecute both the Bush administration‘s blatant war criminals who plunged the U.S. into two needless wars or the Wall Street criminals who crashed the world economy, this, after his assault on civil liberties and so much more.
For many Obama continues to be a kind of ambulatory human Rorschach test. For these people, Obama is what they want him to be. No matter what Obama actually does, certain people, including those most hurt by his policies, still cling to the fantasy that Obama‘s words and Obama’s policies have something to do with each other. ( In a similar way, the same something that made intelligent people believe Bill Clinton was lying even when he was telling the truth persuades other intelligent people that Obama is telling the truth even when he’s lying. ) And the Rorschach factor holds as powerfully for those who love Obama as to those who despise him; holds, that is, for Republicans and well as for “Birthers” and Tea Partiers and those who see Obama as a secret Muslim socialist or Nazi or whatever.
But it is not those people of whom I speak.
I am speaking here rather of a group of people who continue to believe in Obama and refuse to define him in terms of his policies and actions, clinging instead to his soaring rhetoric and image. I am speaking of those to whom, as intrepid Black Agenda journalist Glen Ford writes “ Obama acts like a narcotic.” I am speaking of those who, in respect to Obama, have skillfully avoided reality.
Some of the lingering hopes, if dangerous, are understandable. Think of the strange helpless horror of the Bush years. There is no doubt in my mind that millions of Americans were traumatized by the eight year presidency of George W. Bush, eight years in which many, myself included, felt ashamed to be an American. Shame is too powerful and destructive an emotion to carry in you for long. The desire to exorcize the ghost of Bush, his macho idiocy, his endless needless wars, his lies and the fear brought on by the financial collapse that occurred under his watch was, I believe as primal and powerful a factor in embracing Obama as was Obama’s charisma and eloquence: the very charisma and elegance that led so many sensible people to believe in the myth of the one term US Senator with the paper thin resume whose most frequent vote in Congress was neither “yea” or “nay” but “present.”
Think too of the extraordinarily potent symbolism in the election of an African American to the presidency of a nation with a legacy of over 400 years of slavery. Symbolically, this was and remains an immeasurable step in the right direction. In some quarters the symbolism remains just as potent today as it did four years ago, even as African Americans slip further and further into poverty and are incarcerated at alarming rates.
There is a desire to believe in Obama that is almost religious in nature.
I understand this emotion. No one wants to believe this guy is as vapid or weak or treacherous or cunning as Obama proves to be again and again and again. No one wants to believe that the ship of state has been so thoroughly hijacked by the most rapacious and reckless forces on earth: corporations No one wants to know that things are as awful as they are. It is the fear of having no where to turn and no one to turn to. No one wants to feel abandoned or betrayed even, if by every objective criteria, you have been.
And yet this is where we are.
If only for the abomination known as Race to the Top, a policy designed to do nothing less than undermine both the public school system and teacher unions across the country,
Obama should be seen as one of the most corporate minded presidents in U.S. history. But somehow many — who knows how many — do not seem to be getting it. Something stands in the way.
I work in a school in Harlem, New York, where almost everywhere one looks one sees images of Obama looking back at you. The posters were placed there by teachers, even though Obama’s RTTT may force the school to be closed, even if half the teachers are fired as a result of the grossly unfair and unproven evaluation plans mandated by the Obama administration.
And there it is.
Obama is not the anti- American cartoon character his enemies in the Koch brothers’ funded Tea Party want to believe he is.
Obama is not the thwarted progressive his more naïve fans still insist he is.
Obama is not, in any meaningful way, a Democrat.
Obama is not a centrist, a moderate or a pragmatist.
Obama is not a conservative.
Obama is something that has never before risen to the presidency of the United States.
Obama is that which Wall Street and corporate CEOs have dreamed of for decades: Obama is a president of the “party of labor” who is wholly beholden to capital.
Obama is a working man’s worst nightmare.
Obama is a corporatist but not just a corporatist.
Obama is a radical corporatist intent on the complete evisceration of unionism and the eventual privatization of all public life.
And nothing proves than better than Race to the Top.