Good god, when I try and assess the doings of Barack Obama, I understand the premise of those made-for-TV-true life telemovies, when the just-married wife (played by the actress you get when you can’t get the actress you get when you can’t get Diane Lane) ignores all the signs that her tightly wound orthodontist husband is a serial killer. “Just going for a 1am jog, darling. Have you seen my gaffer tape and chloroform mask?”
The President of the Republic, whose domestic record I would still defend, is also the ruler of an Empire, run through a synergy of total surveillance and mass assassination. This neat division can’t be sustained, of course; since the revelations by Edward Snowden, we know with certainty what we always suspected — that total external surveillance has been turned inwards, to treat the American public as a suspicious group with regard to the American state.
How much Obama, or anyone outside the National Security Agency, knew of the specific nature of such surveillance remains to be seen, but there can be no doubt that he knew of the general outline — and reform was only prompted by the Snowden papers. Worse still is the interconnected drone program, which uses “metadata” — non-content traffic analysis of calls to and from “known” al-Qaeda leaders — to choose its targets. Conceivably, you could be killed for repeatedly ringing the wrong number.
What is truly dangerous about this is how efficient it is, and how effective an imperial president Obama is. George W. Bush, with the Iraq War, did more to raise up the republic against the empire than just about anyone could have done. Obama, by making it invisible and American casualty-free, has made it acceptable again. Bush invaded two countries; Obama has violently extended the US state across half-a-dozen boundaries.
There’s no real denying that he is the most efficient and effective warrior president in this regard since Eisenhower. Yet this will not be recognised until long after he has left the White House. American liberals will not acknowledge it because it gives the lie to the idea that Obama is a real break in the imperial succession (as I noted in 2008, he never claimed he would be other than an imperial president); the Right cannot acknowledge that he is the judicious conservative that two Bushes and a Reagan failed to be.
Indeed, Reagan was a hippie compared to this guy. No matter how sanguine one can be about the realities of presidential power, the unique mix of surveillance, robotics and assassination Obama has streamlined and stabilised is something else.
And yet, and yet …. the difference about Obama as far as domestic politics goes is that he’s been willing to do the big things that just about any other Democrat on offer in the last two decades would have ducked — or, as with the Clintons’ ’90s healthcare plan, let go down to certain defeat, to be buried forever. Obamacare has extended better healthcare to tens of millions who had none at all, or very poor options. It has put the principle of universality at the centre of American life and created an army of people who have something to lose from a Republican victory.
The second, barely noticed, major move was to tie the 2009-10 stimulus package to union recognition, which has allowed unions to shore up their position against right-wing union-busting state governments. Now the third part has been an announcement of the target of a 30% cut in US carbon emissions from power plants by 2030 and a change in the way that the Environmental Protection Agency operates in order to enforce such changes. As American economist Jeffrey Sachs notes, it will be criticised as either too little or too much — but it is about as much as can be achieved using executive power only, since there is no chance the hard-right Republican-dominated House of Representatives would agree to anything like it.
Such moves are part of what Obama announced last year — that he would use executive power to push through as much of an agenda as he could against the resistance of a House that has passed less legislation than any in living memory. That announcement — “I have a phone and I have a pen” — sent the Right into a frenzy and began a push from the “Tea Party” (i.e. the shadowy-moneyed Republican Right) for impeachment. Despite the political disaster of the government shutdown, for which the House was blamed, such calls have only increased, as the Right has constructed any and all executive action as “illegal” or unconstitutional.
Some of these accusations are not without grounds, though they are very minor. Obama, like all presidents, uses “signing statements” — documents specifying how the government will interpret wiggly bits within new laws — to exploit loopholes in execution. Thus, elements of the Obamacare roll-out have been delayed for political reasons on fairly tendentious grounds. George W. Bush set a new standard of looseness for signing statements, and Obama has continued it, in places — for the Right, this amounts to an overthrow of the constitution and the self-crowning of “King Obama”, as Fox News styles it. There was no chance the Republican leadership would go near this as impeachment grounds — but then came the killing of the US ambassador to Libya and three others in Benghazi, and a degree of ineptitude and spinning of the news set in train a right-wing obsession with the story, which has now lasted more than a year.
“The sense of a wily, traitorous President with some nihilistic agenda to destroy American power became necessary to explain this curious non-acceptance of the Tea Party message.”
“Benghazi” was simply a more broadly appearing version of birtherism; it offered “proof” that Obama’s desire was to have Americans killed by Muslims. Demoted as a cause when the deadline for Obamacare loomed in March, it was promoted once again when the benchmark of 7 million signups was achieved and passed. When it began to flag, cover-ups of lethal maladministration at the mid-level of the massive Veterans’ Affairs Department (which runs as a huge socialised medical system — one that no Republican will touch) became a new scandal. Forty excess deaths had resulted from waiting-list manipulation — part of the 40,000 or so preventable deaths in US healthcare per year — but it once again helped to advance the idea that Obama liked to kill soldiers.
By now it was obvious that the Right had become addicted to scandal — mainstream Right Republicans were being prodded into it by further Right Tea Partiers, threatening them in primary contests for this year’s mid-terms. The latter’s attachment to these were simply delusional. The public had unaccountably failed to rise up and storm the White House — the sense of a wily, traitorous President with some nihilistic agenda to destroy American power became necessary to explain this curious non-acceptance of the Tea Party message. And the impeachment talk grew louder — especially as it appears the GOP will increase their majority in the House in the mid-terms (due to low turn out of independent voters and “low-information” Democrats in off-presidential elections).
Impeachment, it should be noted, is not the sacking of a president, it is the act of committing a president to trial. The House impeaches, the Senate runs the trial. To convict the president in an impeachment, a two-thirds majority is required. Even if the Republicans win a simple majority in November, winning a Senate trial against Obama is out of the question. So if such a push occurred, it would be largely dictated by the Republican mainstream’s desperate desire to fight off its increasingly demented Right.There is no doubt that the Obama camp take such a threat seriously, since such a move would be so wildly unpredictable. The White Houses’s strong domestic line — wind up extant wars, avoid confrontation, focus on the domestic — cuts with the grain of the public. Impeachment on spurious grounds may serve as a final exasperation of a wider swathe of the public with the Republicans (including such moderates as remain). But it could also suggest no-smoke-without-etc, especially if a Benghazi-based impeachment could target Hillary Clinton as well.
But it is also now possible that the Obama camp are now using the GOP’s appetite for scandal against them — witness the prisoner swap for the sole US Afghan POW, Bowe Bergdahl. The main purpose of this was as part of wrapping up the Afghan war. The secondary purpose is to test the constitutionality of some legal blocks the Congress put on the White House unilaterally releasing Gitmo prisoners. Even The Wall Street Journal thinks these laws are unconstitutional — the release of five Taliban dares the Congress to challenge the move in the Supreme Court.
But one wonders if there is a third level to this: to get the Republicans embroiled in an utterly confused campaign against Obama’s actions, where they line up against the return of an American. Like many who signed up in the aftermath of 9/11, Bergdahl was a confused and lied-to young man, who discovered, in Afghanistan, what military occupation really involves. He may have deserted; he certainly denounced the US in letters. Yet the public just want the war over, over, over — so it is quite possible that even the spectacle of fellow soldiers denouncing him does not reflect badly on Obama’s actions. Conversely, Republicans have backed themselves into implicitly arguing that we should leave Bergdahl there — and continue the war indefinitely, one presumes. It is part of the Right’s increasing celebration of an idealised soldiery, over against the bedraggled and all-too-human reality. Bergdahl can become a focus for the deep disdain the Right display for actual soldiers, for their failure to live up to the quasi-fascist ideal they’re converging on.
Is it possible that this is not, as it may look, a team Obama stuff-up, but a measure of their confidence that the Right have become a self-defeating cult whose scandal-mania should be fed? Is it a return of the NUBO* principle –both in terms of advancing progressive causes. And of course, the other thing. Because, unnoticed below all this, is the announcement that the US will leave 10,000 troops behind in Afghanistan.
*Never Underestimate Barack Obama, for new arrivals