Despite the campaign hoopla, it was never in the cards for Barack Obama to be a transformational leader, an FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) or even an LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson). The bold new programs that they introduced to help transform America into a more just and broadly prosperous land were not his style, as should have been clear from a 2006 interview in The Nation magazine conducted by David Sirota. Still, it did seem possible Obama might stumble into being a bit of a JFK, someone whose skillful, inspiring rhetoric raised people's expectations and aspirations, leading others to go out and make history far beyond the bounds of what he himself dared to imagine. This was certainly the impact Kennedy had on civil rights, which helped set the tone for entire decade of the 1960s.
Things did turn out that way in exactly one case: the repeal of the military's anti-gay "don't ask, don't tell" policy. But in virtually every other instance, Obama's influence has been much more reminiscent of the "practical", if not paranoid side of Kennedy, who spent a good deal of time and energy trying to restrain the Civil Rights Movement, ever mindful of the negative impact that headlines of racial conflict would have around the world. Still, Kennedy clearly wanted progress on civil rights, both because he believed it was right, and because it was vital for gaining Cold War support in the Global South in the long run. He just wished the struggle was not so messy, even as his flamboyant spirit helped fuel that struggle, almost in spite of himself.
In 2008, at least, it could plausibly be hoped that Obama's election would unleash a similar dynamic across a wide range of issues, encouraging idealistic pressure from below, even while struggling to contain it. But things have not turned out that way, as Obama has repeatedly undercut, sidelined or opposed the more idealistic enthusiasms of his base with a determined seriousness he rarely, if ever, displays against Republicans.
Civil rights in Gaza
I was reminded of that lost hope once again this week, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker and fifty other American citizens aboard a ship called The Audacity of Hope prepared to take part in the second Freedom Flotilla attempt to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza - even as Obama tried to stop them from sailing with the rest of the international flotilla.
Walker - who married a Jewish civil rights lawyer in 1967 - was moved by a lifetime of activism and reflection, beginning with her own childhood experience of suffering under segregation, much like the children of Gaza suffer today. The underlying continuity she sees is obvious, which is why Israel knows it must remain hidden at all costs - no matter how impossible that may be. And so, just as the American South tried to defend the worst of its institutions with brutal violence against peaceful activists during the Freedom Rides of 1961, Israel is pursuing the same sort of madness against the Freedom Flotilla today.
Yet, as Bradley Burston, Senior Editor of Haaretz.com, so simply explained: "There is nearly nothing which more effectively delegitimizes Israel - and makes Israel look more like an uncaring blockhead state -than does the siege of Gaza. The siege benefits Hamas in a thousand ways and Israel in none. But there is one thing that does the work of delegitimisation even better: attacking civilians in order to protect the siege."
These should have been the words of Obama as well, if he actually were the "true friend of Israel" he now robotically proclaims himself to be. After all, we have a saying here in America, "Friends don't let friends drive drunk". Israel has no such friends in America today. Certainly not Obama.
Unlike JFK with the Freedom Rides, Obama has not simply tried to restrain the Freedom Flotilla for the sake of their own safety. His administration has pursued a multi-track effort to prevent Americans from participating, and is even implicitly threatening to imprison those who participate, making himself more like George Wallace than JFK.
Accustomed as Walker was to red-baiting from her early years in the Southern civil rights struggle, the standard hysterical attempt to terrorist-bait the civilian activists rolled off her like water off a duck. When Foreign Policy magazine asked her, "Are you concerned at all that your trip could be used as a propaganda tool for Hamas?" Walker simply answered, "No, because we will never see those people. Why would we see them?"
Foreign Policy continued to press. "You don't think you're going to see anyone from Hamas?"
"No. I don't think we would," Walker replied. "If we manage to get through with our bundle of letters we will probably be met by a lot of NGOs, and women and children, and schoolteachers and nurses, and the occasional doctor, if anyone is left."
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Foreign Policy took one last stab. "But doesn't Hamas control the security apparatus of Gaza?"
"They may well control it, but we're not going to see them," Walker replied patiently, almost as if explaining things to a grandchild. "It's like everyone who comes to (Washington) DC doesn't see the president."
Walker was similarly prepared for the violence that might lie ahead, should Israel attack the Freedom Flotilla as it did last year, when nine activists were killed.
"Sometimes I feel fear. And the feeling that this may be it," Walker replied, when this possibility was raised.
"But I'm positive - I'm looking at it as a way to bring attention to these children and their mothers and their grandmothers, and their grandfathers and their fathers, who face this kind of thing every day."
"I grew up in the South under segregation. So, I know what terrorism feels like - when your father could be taken out in the middle of the night and lynched just because he didn't look like he was in an obeying frame of mind when a white person said something he must do. I mean, that's terrorism too."
From JFK to Obama
In the 1960s, Walker was one of those youths who made the most of the opening Kennedy provided - though she came from a tradition that had never depended on outsiders for validation. She was one of those who made Barack Obama's Ivy League and White House futures possible. Half a century later, she is still a generation ahead of him - or more - in terms of action and understanding. She knows the struggle for freedom from the marrow of her bones, something that Obama can only try to imagine, and evoke with words whose flowery surface he can never hope to penetrate.
It did not seem that way more than a decade ago, when Barack Obama - then a rising young Chicago politician - was an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights as part of his balanced approach to Middle East peace. At the time, "Obama was forthright in his criticism of US policy and his call for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," recalled Ali Abunimah, co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, writing about Obama's political devolution in 2007.
Obama was also pro-gay marriage at the time, a position he now denies ever holding. Obama's backward movement on these and many other issues reflects a much deeper conservatism and cynicism on Obama's part than anything seen in JFK. Kennedy, at least, clearly believed in his progressive values. His caution - sometimes even paranoia - was distressingly real, but it generally remained confined to the realm of strategy and tactics. Not so for Obama, who has accommodated himself to - if not fully embraced - conservative paranoia on the very substance of issues ranging from immigration to energy policy to budget-slashing to war-making and "national security".
On this last point, Obama has not only firmly closed the book on examining - much less prosecuting - Bush Era crimes, such as taking America to war illegally, or massively violating American's rights, much less the human rights of others. He's now enthusiastically committed to continuing, even expanding on these same practices.
Obama's FBI is now actively investigating 23 anti-war, anti-intervention activists, on the theory - recently upheld in Holder vs Humanitarian Law Project - that almost anything counts as "material aid to a terrorist organization", even working with organization members on non-violent alternatives to put an end to violence. It has been pointed out before that under this same policy Obama himself could have been charged for "aiding terrorists" because of his anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s, since Nelson's Mandela's African National Congress was then designated as a "terrorist organization".
Now, a veiled warning in a state department document suggests that Alice Walker and her compatriots could be similarly charged for taking part in the Freedom Flotilla. I cannot imagine that Alice Walker would relish that fight. Why should she wish to humiliate Obama, whose very possibility she helped to create? But there's no way on earth she would flinch from it.
She has, after all, the audacity of hope.