If You're Disillusioned with Obama, You Don't Understand How He Won

The distance between the aspirations he raised and his record a year on is the distinction between the electoral and the political

You've got to feel sorry for the Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid. In 1995, when it seemed Colin Powell
might run for president, Powell explained his appeal to white voters
thus: "I speak reasonably well, like a white person", and, visually, "I
ain't that black".

More than a decade later, Reid said almost the same thing about Barack Obama,
arguing that the presidential candidate owed his success in part to his
"light-skinned" appearance and the fact that he spoke "with no Negro
dialect, unless he wanted to have one".

There is a crucial
difference here (leaving aside that Reid has not updated his
terminology since the 50s). Powell was talking about himself and is
black, while Reid was referring to someone else and is not. But if the
ensuing brouhaha was embarrassing for Reid - on those rare occasions
when Fox News finds a sliver on the high ground, it tends to take out a
long mortgage and build on it - it was emblematic of a far bigger issue
for Obama.

Because on top of an economy in collapse, two wars
unravelling and plummeting approval ratings, he has what can best be
described as a "discursive" problem.

A full year after he took
office, people have not found a sensible way to talk about him. One
minute Jesse Jackson, in an unscripted moment, says he wants to "cut
his nuts off"; the next he is crying in Chicago's Grant Park as Obama
delivers his victory speech. The same people on the right who insist he
is a Muslim fulminated over his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. When you
point out that Muslims don't have pastors, they just shrug. Europeans
who wish he led their country also wish their countries would pull
their troops out of Afghanistan - the very war he is escalating.

it comes to Obama, it really doesn't have to make sense - it just has
to connect. Those who misunderstood how Obama came to office are now
struggling to understand what has happened in the year since he has
been in it for three main reasons.

First, Obama was never a
radical. He won on a decidedly middle-of-the-road Democratic platform.
Beyond the Iraq war, which he opposed and she supported, there was
little to chose between him and Hillary Clinton in terms of their
programmes. They had voted the same way in the Senate 90% of the time.

he represents a dramatic progressive shift in direction from the
previous eight years. But in almost any other western country his
policies on the Middle East, gay marriage, trade and capital punishment
would cast him out of polite leftwing company. Yes, there are grounds
for disappointment. Bush's torture infrastructure has been left largely
intact, the Iraq withdrawal has been extended by two years and the
healthcare reform debate might have panned out differently had he led
more decisively. But there is a world between that and accusations of
betrayal and treachery. In Afghanistan in particular, the problem was
that he kept his campaign pledge whereas many of us wish that he had
broken it.

"Why as an intellectual did you believe in a God anyway," asked the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said
after rereading The God That Failed, a book in which six prominent
ex-communists relate their disillusionment with communism. "And
besides, who gave you the right to imagine that your early disbelief
and later disenchantment were so important?" Those who think they have
been let down by a leftwing champion must answer for their own
selective hearing.

What really distinguished Obama's campaign
from Clinton's was its grassroots energy. Which brings us to the
second point. While it was a grassroots campaign, it was never a
movement. That didn't mean there wasn't the possibility that it might
have become one. But its sole function was to get him elected. When you
pointed this out to his supporters during the election, many would
become indignant. But one year on, the question is: "Where are they
now?" In a handful of areas, the energy and determination of those days
is still evident. But for most of this year the right has been making
all the running outside of the electoral politics and forcing the
administration on to the back foot. It is reasonable to argue that
Obama should tack to the left. But given the range of forces he has to
deal with, from Fox News to corporate lobbyists, it is not reasonable
to argue that he would make that leftward journey without some pressure
from outside or to expect him to organise the left opposition himself.

for all his financial and organisational advantage, the fact that he
ran a far better campaign, had a far more impressive running mate, was
a far more charismatic candidate, and was campaigning against a party
that had overseen a huge economic crisis and two unpopular wars, Obama
did not win by much. In terms of the popular vote he won 53% of the
vote against John McCain's 47%. True, there were 192 electoral college
votes between them. But 73 of those - Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and
Indiana - were won with just 51% of the vote or less.

When it
comes to health reform and the economic stimulus bill, Obama may
reasonably be accused of timidity in promoting a more progressive
agenda, but only in the context of what is legislatively possible. He
needs 60 votes in the Senate to get a bill passed. No 60, no bill.

of this comes by way of critique rather than criticism, and explanation
as opposed to excuse. Obama does not need the benefit of our doubt. He
is the president of the most powerful country on the planet. He has
enough benefits already. But the absence of rational discussion will
lead, ineluctably, to the absence of rational conclusions. As today is Martin Luther King day, those who want to compare him to the
civil rights leader must first acknowledge that King never had to stand
for election. If he did, he would certainly have lost. We are only
still talking about Obama because he won. And his victory was secured
with narrow margins on a mainstream agenda. One need not accept these
limitations in order to acknowledge their existence.

What the
response to his election indicated was a sizeable constituency, both at
home and abroad, for a shift towards greater peace and equality than
the politics that dominated the last decade. But, given the entrenched
interests in the American polity, no election by itself can deliver
that. The distance between the aspirations invested in him during his
campaign and his record after one year is the distinction between the
electoral and the political in this current period. Popular demands
thwarted by institutional stasis and ideological sclerosis.

are early days. But the risk at this moment is twofold. First, that
Obama ends this year with no progressive legislative victories. Second,
and arguably worse, that he embraces legislation that sounds
progressive but does not substantially improve people's lives. People
don't want healthcare reform; they want affordable healthcare. They
don't want a stimulus bill; they want jobs. The time for lofty rhetoric
has long gone. The time for measured analysis has been too long coming.

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