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We Wanted a Nelson Mandela; We Got a Clarence Thomas

Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez

President Barack Obama is an enigma. No one quite seems to know what he actually stands for.

Most progressives saw in the election of Obama, a Nelson Mandela figure. Based on his first year in office, many are understandably disillusioned.

Conversely, much of the right wing of this country demonize(d) him as a Joseph Stalin figure, this in a “right-center” country.

The context of the 2008 election is important in making sense of these views; it was a landslide. Obama garnered 54% of the electorate compared to 46% for McCain (Apparently, someone forgot to tell the electorate that we live in a “right-center” country).

Understanding this, the 2010 analyses of McCain/Palin and their supporters matter little because it is their views that were thoroughly repudiated in the 2008 elections. And their hostile opinions of the president have not actually changed. If anything, they’ve been emboldened by now having 41 votes in the senate – compared to 59 for the Democrats (Apparently neither party can count as Bush never needed 59 votes to govern forcefully, albeit for the wrong causes). They would be quite happy with a Torquemada figure, someone who governs from a place of fear, with an iron fist, who is not afraid to employ torture.

The Obama enigma has more to do with the expectations of those who swept him into office. In truth, those who thought they had gotten Mandela – a liberator – were few because most understood that Obama was elected head of an empire, not head of the UN Human Rights Commission. Many more Democrats and Independents thought they had elected a Martin Luther King figure – someone who would fight for the rights and dignity of all human beings. Unquestionably, Obama indeed can speak like MLK, but his actions, especially on matters of war and peace and human rights, have been much closer to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

The Obama/Biden administration is clearly different than a McCain/Palin administration would have been. Obama has set a different tone worldwide, but he has not substantively altered the Bush-Cheney doctrine. And rather than investigate former administration officials for their roles in carrying out an illegal war, Obama unilaterally has given them “get-out-of-jail free” cards. Worse, he’s embraced most of Bush’s extra-legal policies in court. The only substantive difference has come in relation to Guantanamo. For conservatives, Guantanamo is Nirvana – a place outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts. While he has moved swiftly to close it down, he has not repudiated its most reprehensible feature: indefinite detention of suspects without charges.

The context of the 2008 election was a clear repudiation of all things Bush-Cheney. Bush argued that September 11, 2001 had given him the right to ignore the U.S. Constitution, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, and international law. Beyond that, he crafted a circular argument for his assertion and exercise of dictatorial powers; we were a nation at war. That assertion depended upon a condition of permanent worldwide war.

That’s why people had hoped for an MLK figure. That instead we got a Clarence Thomas is not hyperbole. Time and again, the Obama administration has upheld virtually every Bush war policy in and out of court, including the notion of an all-powerful unitary executive, the right to permanent worldwide war, the right to hold prisoners indefinitely without charges and to rendition them and to illegally spy on Americans.

At home, Obama has bungled his electoral mandate, especially on health care, the economy and immigration. Rather than govern with a clear moral authority, he has instead governed weakly from “the middle,” as a naïve politician, appeasing the same right wing opponents that detest his every move. Ironically, Bush did not receive a decisive electoral mandate, yet he governed decisively. Contrarily, Obama was given a massive electoral mandate, only to govern timidly as though he owes his victory to the sore losers Tea Party Movement.

There are several precedents for governing from the middle. One came in the early 20th century in Mexico after the ouster of dictator Porfirio Diaz. The naïve new president, Francisco Madero, thought he could reconcile the nation by ignoring his own supporters while appeasing Diaz’s allies. He left them in power where they soon deposed him.

Hopefully Obama will not suffer the same fate. However, unless and until he begins to act upon his stated convictions, he will continue to find himself proverbially in the middle of the political highway as roadkill. He doesn’t have to be Mandela; the 2008 Obama will suffice.

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Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, can be reached at:

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