The triumph of rhetoric

Barack Hussein Obama IIMichael Smith in the US 


Barack Hussein Obama is left-handed, like Bill Clinton, George HW Bush, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. But his upbringing is unique in the history of American presidents. He has a back story that can only be described as epic, having grown up without a father in an international, Pacific environment alien to many in the American heartland.

Obama’s parents met in 1960 in a Russian class at the University of Hawaii: Ann Dunham, a 17-year-old from Kansas, and Barack Obama Senior, a 24-year-old Kenyan foreign exchange student. She became pregnant and they married secretly in Maui in 1961. His academic father left home when young ‘Barry’ was two, attending graduate school at Harvard University on a scholarship. He returned to Kenya in 1964, after divorce, and remarried, as did Ann. He visited Barack in Hawaii only once, in 1971 when he gave his son his first basketball.

Obama began his extraordinary memoir ‘Dreams from My Father’ with a description of the phone call in 1982 from which he learned his father had been killed in an automobile accident in Nairobi.

Obama lived for four years in Indonesia, but returned to Hawaii for high school and was raised by his maternal grandparents. He tells how his mother was dependent for much of his childhood on food stamps, though she took education seriously. “It’s no picnic for me either, Buster”, she’d say when she woke him up for language classes in the middle of the night.

Barack’s half-siblings are Maya Soetoro-Ng, George Obama and Mark Ndesandjo.

Reflecting later on his years in Honolulu, Obama wrote: “The opportunity that Hawaii offered – to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect – became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear”. Obama has also written and talked about using alcohol, marijuana and cocaine as a teenager to “push questions of who I was out of my mind”. He was a founder member of the “choom gang”, a self-described group of friends that dabbled with marijuana. At the 2008 Civil Forum on the Presidency, Obama expressed the usual regret for his early recreational drug use.

After high school Obama moved to the continental United States and became an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York. He worked for a year at the Business International Corporation, then at the New York Public Interest Research Group. He began an apprenticeship at the Altgeld Gardens public housing project in Chicago, as a community organiser which he felt offered a “promise of redemption”. But he quickly became the pawn of professional organisers, intent on profiteering from money gouged out of the city budget. Whether or not the experience redeemed him, we see little focus on the importance of communities in President Obama.

In 1988 he went to Harvard Law School, famously becoming the first black editor of the Law Review. His appointment brought him national attention and a contract for his first book. A 1995 New York Times review of ‘Dreams from My Father’, commented, “Although Mr Obama is no more black than he is white, his quest for acceptance is aimed at the African-Americans with whom he shares his organisational duties, and his story bogs down in discussions of racial exploitation without really shedding any new light on the subject”.

During a summer internship at a Chicago law firm Obama was put under the supervision of another young lawyer, Michelle Robinson. Two years later they were engaged and Obama returned to Chicago, Michelle’s hometown. In 1991, Obama accepted a position as Visiting Law and Government Fellow at the University of Chicago whose well-regarded, typically rightist Law School specialises in research into the nexus of law and economics. He taught constitutional law there for 12 years. He continued to practise law at Davis, Miner & Barnhill from 1993 until 2004. In 1996 Obama’s first salvo at politics gained him a seat in the Illinois State Senate.

Obama abortively ran for Congress in 2000, failing to unseat a veteran Democrat. Four years later he won a competitive primary to run for the US Senate and gave the keynote address to the Democrat National Convention, calling for an end to partisanship and declaring there is not a “a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America”. There was room, he said, for “a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too”. The reaction was startling. The New York Times dubbed him “the Democratic party’s new rock star”.

Obama cantered to the 2004 Illinois State election and there was some speculation that he would run for president. While a State Senator , Obama cultivated a reputation as a courteous colleague and a phenomenal fundraiser but kept any presidential ambitions to himself. But somewhere among the organising and lawyering he had picked up the bug: after meetings with donors and strategists Obama became convinced he could take on Hillary Clinton – one half of the most indomitable couple in Democrat politics – and win.

Building a coalition of young people, liberals and minorities, Obama won an astonishing victory in Iowa. Clinton won in New Hampshire but trailed Obama for the rest of the campaign, eventually withdrawing and throwing her support behind her former rival. The Republican offering was septuagenarian war hero John McCain with beach-body bantam Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Weeks before the election, Lehman Brothers collapsed, sending shockwaves through the global financial systems. Obama was judged to have responded more deftly and on election day he won by 8 million votes, 52:46%, as the Democrats made gains in the House and Senate. Obama created hostages with a rhetoric that infused a generation with new enthusiasm for the political process.

Obama is a likeable man with an unimpeachable integrity, and a willingness, which he publicly explored in dealing with a sensitive row over a quasi-racially-profiled arrest of a black Harvard professor, to resolve matters over a beer. He is said to be ultra-sharp, cool and analytical in his decision-making.

In his private life, he tries to join his family for dinner in the White House a minimum of five nights out of seven. Even Romney realises that a gentle approach is most effective in subverting the President: “Hope and Change had a powerful appeal”, Mr Romney told the Republican Convention. “But tonight I’d ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him”.

Obama seems like a regular guy, despite initial Republican attempts to present him as an outlier and alien. Some hold his lack of business experience and his background in community organisation to task. Indeed the imagination evinced in ‘Dreams from my Father’ might have led to expectations of activism and radicalism. But his inclination to consensus seems more acute than his instincts for Real Change. Close scrutiny reveals that it was always merely in the consensus that Obama saw the Change. Many, duped by an electric rhetoric, failed to see the original poverty of the vision and, worse, the failure to see the overwhelming imperative to convert oratory into policy. For example close scrutiny of his speech to the Democratic Convention when they accepted him as their candidate shows that amid the images of tucking up his children and journeys from Kenya, expressed in language taken from the Bible and Martin Luther King, the centrepiece is a nebulous ‘dream’, on ‘unity in common effort’, on ‘binding together in spite of our differences’ for a ‘better future’. There is no ideology, no focus on fairness or equality, fraternity or sustainability. Furthermore it seems that the radical politics and the openness of perspective he describes in ‘Dreams from My Father’ perished as soon as he faced a federal caucus. This became manifest when he started to govern.

As to human rights, in his first week in office, Obama signed Executive Order 13492 suspending all the ongoing proceedings of Guantanamo military commission and ordering the detention facility to be shut down within the year. In fact it remains open and Obama, who hopes remaining detainees will be tried within the regular general legal system, now speaks only of a “lawful, sustainable, and principled regime”, implying no early closure. He also signed Executive Order 13491 – Ensuring Lawful Interrogations requiring the Army Field Manual to be used as a guide for terror interrogations, banning torture and other coercive techniques, such as waterboarding. Obama issued an executive order entitled “Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel”, setting stricter limitations on incoming executive branch employees and placing tighter restrictions on lobbying in the White House.

Obama’s biggest success is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The healthcare legislation, which was largely drafted in Congress, provides a number of incentives – including subsidies, tax credits, and fees – to employers and individuals in order to increase the numbers of citizens covered. It has been criticised for failing to address long-run inflation of Medicare costs as baby boomers retire, and for adopting the “fee for service” model that drives health-care inflation. The link from employment to insurance that explains why so many Americans have traditionally escaped coverage, is retained. In part because of aggressive lobbying, the costs of liability insurance are enormous, driven by that US speciality, ambulance-chasing lawyers.

Ironically, the core Obamacare concept of the “individual mandate” which required all Americans to buy insurance or face a fine, was something the president himself had opposed when vying with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Obamacare had to survive a challenge in the courts: in June 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the law by a 5 to 4 margin, although it did limit the act’s planned expansion of Medicaid.

The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act also passed in 2010 aimed, as it turned out unrealistically, to end “too big to fail”, and banking bailouts. Up to this stage Niall Ferguson noted, “After the imperial presidency of the Bush era, there was something more like parliamentary government in the first two years of Obama’s administration. The president proposed; Congress disposed”. In November 2010, Republicans rolled to their greatest mid-term gains in 80 years, recapturing the House of Representatives and cutting the Democrats’ majority in the Senate. After what Mr Obama termed a “shellacking,’’ he pronounced himself ready to co-operate with Republicans.

In the lame duck Congressional session that followed, Obama struck a surprise, jarring compromise with Republican leaders on extending the profligate Bush-era tax cuts for top earners, in return for a one-year cut in payroll taxes and an extension of unemployment benefits. To the surprise of many, Mr Obama and Congressional Democrats then rolled up a string of victories in the session’s closing days.

These included the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, and the Budget Control Act of 2011. In foreign policy, Obama ended US military involvement in the Iraq War, increased troop levels in Afghanistan, signed the New START arms control treaty with Russia, ordered military involvement in Libya, and orchestrated the military operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. In May 2012, he became the first sitting US president to openly support same-sex marriage, via a tweet from the White House signed ‘BO’.

One of the biggest problems facing the US is that it is living beyond its means, the more so as it promotes counter-cyclical stimulus. Recoiling from his indulgence of the Bush-era cuts, Obama also effectively sidestepped the recommendations of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform of approximately $3 trillion in cuts and $1 trillion in added revenues over the coming decade. As a result there was no “grand bargain” with the House Republicans. Instead, if agreement never materialises, the US will face $1.2 trillion of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts and the expiry of the Bush tax cuts.

His trudge to the centre has inevitably alienated his fresh-faced political base. The Economist considers that “Worn down by the difficulties of office, the great reformer has become a cautious man, surrounded by an insular group of advisers”. Even worse, he is somewhat indecisive. According to Ron Suskind’s book ‘Confidence Men’, Summers told Peter Orszag, Obama’s Budget Director, over dinner in May 2009: “You know, Peter, we’re really home alone… I mean it. We’re home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes [of indecisiveness on key economic issues]”. Niall Ferguson says he has heard similar things said off the record by key participants in the president’s interminable ‘seminar’ on Afghanistan policy.


Economically, as president, Obama introduced stimulus: the $787bn American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2010. But the economy has not flowered.

The argument against Obama’s economics is well laid out by Ferguson in a recent Newsweek article: “Certainly, the stock market is well up (by 74 percent) relative to the close on Inauguration Day 2009. But the total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak. Meanwhile, since 2008, a staggering 3.6 million Americans have been added to Social Security’s disability insurance program. This is one of many ways unemployment is being concealed.

In his fiscal year 2010 budget – the first he presented – the president envisaged growth of 3.2 percent in 2010, 4.0 percent in 2011, 4.6 percent in 2012. The actual numbers were 2.4 percent in 2010 and 1.8 percent in 2011; few forecasters now expect it to be much above 2.3 percent this year.

Unemployment was supposed to be 6 percent by now. It has averaged 8.2 percent this year so far. Meanwhile real median annual household income has dropped more than 5 percent since June 2009. Nearly 110 million individuals received a welfare benefit in 2011, mostly Medicaid or food stamps. Welcome to Obama’s America: nearly half the population is not represented on a taxable return – almost exactly the same proportion that lives in a household where at least one member receives some type of government benefit. We are becoming the 50–50 nation – half of us paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits…”.

Ferguson might also have mentioned that three million more Americans are out of work than four years ago, and the national debt is $5 trillion bigger. Obama himself has conceded that his economic record is deficient or “incomplete”. It may further be alleged that Obama has been a servant of Wall St. He appointed insiders associated with the disastrous deregulations of Wall St, such as Tim Geithner and Larry Summers. He has compared their roles to that of Joe Kennedy in Roosevelt’s New Deal government. But as Ron Suskind notes, Kennedy was beyond Wall St when he became a consultant. Summers and Geithner seem to straddle it. On Joe Kennedy, Suskind believes “a comparable figure, in equal measures expert and unencumbered, is precisely what he has needed, and lacked”. He feels Obama’s gratitude for those who’ve ushered him to power gets in the way of “tough love”, that – because of lack of experience – Obama can’t manage some of his advisors. “He doesn’t feel like himself”. But the question is if someone who promised so much – including, repeatedly, unprecedented change we could believe in – deserves any indulgence if he defers to Wall St hacks and eschews radical solutions. What in Obama’s psychology has rendered him so anxious to please insiders, the elite, the comfortable?

Yet on some policy matters, Obama has found opportunities to strengthen his standing with his most committed backers. For example, he’s delayed a decision on an oil pipeline that would run down through the US from Canada and he’s come around to gay marriage. But it scarcely constitutes change, let alone that which we could believe in, and rhetoric remains his real forte: that is not good enough, Buster.

On the environment, Obama’s record is better than almost any Republican. However, it has long been clear that the president and his administration don’t think that climate change is an issue that will carry them to a second term. He has in effect focused on clean energy while avoiding the ‘climate’ word.

In foreign affairs, his policy in the Middle East has been inert. Israeli nerves, as well as those of the Jewish community in America, are jangled by Mr Obama’s perceived coolness towards Israel, exemplified by his early attempts to reach out to Arab and Muslim public opinion. Meanwhile he has done little to advance the position of the Stateless Palestinians. In the case of Iran he did nothing, as the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed dissident demonstrations. He has achieved nothing in Syria. In Libya he was cajoled into intervening. In Egypt he tried to have it both ways, exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, then drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition”. The result was a foreign policy debacle. Not only were Egypt’s elites appalled by what seemed to them a betrayal, but the victors—the Muslim Brotherhood—had nothing to be grateful for. In the case of Britain, Obama’s relative recent warmth towards David Cameron is in part an acknowledgment that his predecessor, Gordon Brown, was mishandled, as the president dismissed British demands for reassurance and access.

Although – prematurely as it turned out – Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”, and the “special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons”, the world has moved on from four years ago, when, as a mere hopeful, Obama was able to draw a crowd of around 200,000 to a speech in Berlin.

The Economist considers that “Incumbents tend to win presidential elections, but second-term presidents tend to be disappointing. Mr Obama’s first-term record suggests that, if re-elected, he could be the lamest of ducks. That’s why he needs a good answer to the big question: “just what would you do with another four years”? Optimists may hope a returned Obama will marshall the centrist goodwill he may have garnered to radical social, economic and environmental ends. But that is not assured.

Suskind describes an incident early in his first Presidential campaign when answering his wife’s insistent question as to why he wanted to be President, Obama impressed those present by replying he wanted to serve the beleaguered black community by becoming their first President. In 2012, with his radicalism diminished and a reputation for betraying an agenda for change, and the hope that went with it, that agenda has been shown not to be enough.