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Obama's Liberal Critics Find Their Voice

We on the left have been in numb denial about President Obama's failures. But as the crises pile up we can't remain silent

by Clancy Sigal

Until President Obama's first ever Oval Office address-to-the-nation the other night BP's chief executive Tony Hayward was winning the booby prize as "America's most clueless man" for his gaffe-prone TV interviews. But Obama is gaining fast. His self-exonerating speech, full of sparkling generalities and with no hint of frank accountability for his administration's culpability in the nation's worst environmental disaster, was like the man himself, bloodless and emotionally detached from the human costs of an oil invasion that's now spreading from Louisiana to Texas, Florida and as far north as the Carolinas.

Instead, to cover his impotence to cope with the seemingly unstoppable 60,000 barrel a day spillage, and his deference to BP he's appointing - what else? - one of those tired old wheezes, a "tsar" to oversee the Gulf spill effort and a "commission" to investigate its causes which by now are well known by everyone except the clueless White House. Don't they listen to their own scientific advisers?

Tony Hayward must feel a little relief that the spotlight on him as a 24-karat fool shifted momentarily on Tuesday night to our do-nothing-except-make-war president.

But the dogs are waking up and barking in the night.

Until BP's blowout in the Gulf eight weeks ago the American left (what there is of it) trailed poodle-like after Barack Obama, refusing to criticise, let alone, attack "our guy in the White House". We had worked our butts off for his election, and now we were punched out or perhaps felt we had nowhere else to go - and isn't it nice for a change to have a president who can parse a complicated sentence? Any lingering doubts we had were stifled after one scary look at Obama's yowling enemies - racist and crazy about Palin - which was enough to send us whimpering back to our kennels.

But like tiny buds of spring little fragile flowers of dissent are springing up all over the place, sometimes unexpectedly. I live in West Los Angeles, an incubator for the Obama-voting intelligentsia. A few days ago I drove past an ultra-liberal private academy in Santa Monica for the children of affluent Obama-ites, and the lawn sign in big letters proclaimed a snide reference to Obama's dismal failure get a handle on BP's environmental crime. Garry Trudeau's daily cartoon Doonesbury, which bashed Bush for years, now satirises the Obama presidency for its incomprehensible torpor in the national emergency. "The White House grows more passive every day," a Doonesbury character says in a dig at No Drama Obama's habit of lofty detachment.

Once faithful Obama retainers like syndicated columnists Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich are turning on the president for his crushing indifference to the simple human predicament of the disaster's victims. Even TV's Keith Olberman, until now virtually an Obama PR man, complains that the Oval Office speech "was great ... if you were on another planet for the past 67 days". And Rachel Maddow, until now a fervent Obama cheerleader, has criticised his way-off-the-mark speech.

George W Bush gave the (false) impression, fostered by his flacks, of actually liking ordinary people. Obama prefers photo ops to human contact, such as the ridiculous posed pictures of him earnestly examining "tar balls" washed ashore in LaFourche Parish and promising Gulf residents, "I'm here to tell you that you are not alone. You will not be abandoned, and you will not be left behind" - only to promptly leave for a Chicago vacation.

He's not only tone deaf but also growing hostile to public criticism. Indeed, Obama goes after whistleblowers with more punishing venom than ever did George W Bush who whined about leaks but did not indict. In Obama's 17 months in office he has outdone all his Oval Office predecessors in going after anyone in government who dares spill the beans to the media. For example, instead of ordering court-martials for the army helicopter gunmen who murdered unarmed Baghdad civilians - a video shown worldwide by Wikileaks - the young GI leaker, 22-year old Bradley Manning, has been arrested, and the Pentagon cops are frantically trying to smoke out, and shut down, Wikileak's Pimpernel-like founder, Julian Assange. I did not think it possible, but our President Obama has an even thinner skin than Bush.

With each passing day, as crises pile up, from out-of-control unemployment to the Gulf to Gaza to the failed Afghanistan adventure, the underlying liberal authoritarianism of the Obama White House becomes clearer. We, Obama's "liberal base", of which I'm a charter member, were in numb denial that our former community organiser, who elicited such an outpouring of love from his vast network of volunteers, is actually just another Illinois pol - but with a better vocabulary.

But the dogs of dissent are waking up and starting to howl.

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