by Horatio Guernica

“I’m not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” – Senator Barack Obama, “Anti-war Speech,” Oct. 2, 2002

This should have been an early warning sign to progressive voters.

In his “anti-war speech,” from 2002, then-Senator Obama showed that he was willing to parse his position even on something as absolute as war. Afraid to take a true anti-war stance, Obama’s statement implied that he believed there is such a thing as a “smart” war.

What’s more, linguistically, Senator Obama seemed to belittle the significance of the Bush/Cheney plot to commit our nation to an unprovoked act of devastating aggression. The war that then-President Bush and V.P. henchman Dick Cheney were concocting was not merely “dumb,” it was illegal, immoral and based on a bonfire of lies.

Why not be opposed to all wars?

Surely all commanders in chief or state leaders should do everything in their power to avoid sending their people into danger. Even Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” stressed this point. After all, war is the ultimate failure of diplomacy.

As Candidate Obama’s campaign developed last year and his voting record as a senator came into focus, it became apparent that the only reason he didn’t vote for the Iraq war was because he wasn’t yet in Congress at the time. Had he been, it seems pretty likely he would have voted with the majority in favor of it.

Presidential Candidate Obama was later able to use this loophole of chronology to win over the anti-war progressives by showing them he had no blood on his hands, in this particular instance. And for some, that was the one fact that distinguished him from Hillary Clinton and won Obama their vote.

This same convenience of chronology allowed Obama to avoid having to vote on the unconstitutional “Patriot Act” when it was initially proposed. But his subsequent votes for the reauthorization of the act cast retroactive doubt on any liberal heroism he may have claimed by not casting the initial vote.

If this is convoluted, so too is Senator/Candidate/President Obama’s political leanings and voting record. And I suspect that is why many Obama supporters are feeling betrayed and confused right now and wondering who exactly they elected president.

In his nine months in office, as President Obama equivocates on the public option in health care reform, pushes the failed Bush corporate agenda disguised as “Education Reform” and backtracks on various other issues of crucial importance to his most fervent supporters, concerns about Obama’s true character are starting to spread to those who thought they were his base and who had overwhelmingly supported him.

“Is Obama Punking Us?”asked Frank Rich on Aug. 8.

“The best political news for the president remains the Republicans. It’s a measure of how out of touch G.O.P. leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are that they keep trying to scare voters by calling Obama a socialist. They have it backward. The larger fear is that Obama might be just another corporatist, punking voters much as the Republicans do when they claim to be all for the common guy.”

On Aug. 20, columnist and economist Paul Krugman referred to “Obama’s Trust Problem”: “According to news reports, the Obama administration — which seemed, over the weekend, to be backing away from the “public option” for health insurance — is shocked and surprised at the furious reaction from progressives

“Well, I’m shocked and surprised at their shock and surprise.

“A backlash in the progressive base — which pushed President Obama over the top in the Democratic primary and played a major role in his general election victory — has been building for months. The fight over the public option involves real policy substance, but it’s also a proxy for broader questions about the president’s priorities and overall approach.

“So progressives are now in revolt. Mr. Obama took their trust for granted, and in the process lost it. And now he needs to win it back.”

Yet Candidate Obama was already showing this trait last year during the presidential campaign, and cast some troubling votes that should have been red flags for his liberal backers back then.

In the waning months of the campaign, Candidate Obama supported the $700 billion taxpayer bailout of Wall St., despite the thousands of calls from voters to members of Congress urging them not to. He also reversed the Democratic position on offshore oil drilling and said he’d support it.

One of his most egregious reversals was his vote for the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Bill amendment after vowing to vote against it. (FISA gave the government the power to conduct warrentless wiretapping of ordinary citizens and granted retroactive immunity to the telecom companies that had collaborated with the Bush administration.)

When Obama reneged on FISA, even his most stalwart devotees, like Markos Moulistkas at Daily Kos and Dan Savage at Seattle’s alternative weekly, The Stranger, to pick just two more public examples, appeared broadsided by that reversal from their hero. Kos and others threatened to withhold their donations from him (as if that mattered at that point—Obama went on to raise something like $700 million). Still, they stayed with their guy – where were they to go? Vote for McCain? Vote for Ralph Nader (who supported pretty much everything they believed in, by the way– single-payer universal healthcare, gay rights, impeachment, opposition to both wars)? God no.

I worked on the Nader/Gonzalez presidential campaign in 2008, and at first thought our efforts would be lost in the clamor and fascination inspired by the historic battle between the potential First Black President or the First Woman President.

But as the year progressed and the recession spun into the widening gyre, as an alarming number of people lost their homes, their jobs, as entire financial enterprises fell and came begging for public rescue, when we reached Black September, it became clear that the perspective and work of Ralph Nader couldn’t have been more relevant (see “Nader Predicted Wall St Meltdown”).

All our campaign’s points about the need for government regulation of capitalism, the need for consumer protections and concern about the destructive corporate infiltration of our democracy became validated.

What’s more, warnings from Ralph Nader and Matt Gonzalez about Obama and the Democratic Party proved sadly prescient.

Obama’s FISA capitulation should have been a clear warning to those progressives and moderates who were planning to vote for him. Hillary had the sly sense to vote against it. No skin off her nose at that point (she was out of the running to be the nominee), and she likely knew her vote wouldn’t change the outcome. But Obama caved. Why?

It was reminiscent of President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Welfare Reform Act” in 1996, allegedly in order to ensure reelection against Bob Dole (!). The kick-in-the-shins legislation targeting the poorest Americans is a part of Bill Clinton’s legacy of shame. And, from a purely politically pragmatic point of view, it was totally unnecessary.

Similarly, did Obama really think this one vote would make the difference between a President Obama and President McCain?

Maybe not the difference, but he probably felt it would shore up support and reassure those middle-of-the-roaders from both main parties who needed signs that Obama wasn’t really a left-wing radical. It was already clear back then, before he was even elected, that he was more concerned about sending signals to and wooing them, than keeping faith with his progressive base.

But the extent to which he has ignored, insulted, betrayed or hurt his most fervid supporters even since he’s been elected is astonishing.

His choice to include Reverend Rick Warren at his historic inauguration was another example of this strange indifference toward his most loyal. It was a startling affront to gay Americans to have this anti-gay preacher elevated and legitimated before an enormous national—and international–audience.

What was he trying to prove? Who is he trying to impress?

His decision to head his economic team with the likes of Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers–some of the very same people who helped direct our economy into its current mess–is also mind-boggling. And it certainly doesn’t represent change.

I’m disturbed by how accurate our misgivings were about Obama. If Obama continues to kowtow to the corporate rightists and not truly change the way things have been run in this country that has gotten us to this historically wretched point, then he will become an enabler, not a leader, and not the great historic figure he might have become.

I first saw Senator Obama speak at a sold-out engagement in the fall of 2006. It was a book tour, so he was not yet publicly entertaining or discussing a presidential run. He was charming, smooth. He offered more of a quiet sermon than a stump speech. There was definitely a buzz around him. And he looked the part–his slender stature and retro style evoked a Kennedy, his deep voice called to mind the great (and underappreciated) Johnny Hartman, while his delivery was far more measured than an impassioned Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. He struck me as a bit of a pastiche artist and peppered his talk with references to quotes from others, not always attributed – Shakespeare, MLK. I later read (many months before the controversy erupted) an interesting article about the influence of Obama’s pastor, Reverend Wright on the aspiring young senator ( “The Church of Obama,” by Jonathan Raban, The Stranger, Jan. 9, 2008). He admitted that a line from his speech, and the title of his book —”The Audacity of Hope”—was “pilfered” from his pastor.

What I took away from this engagement above all was how hungry the audience was for some kind of hero to reverse all that had gone wrong for our country those past eight years –or more. And how understandable that was. This audience wanted Obama to run for president, they wanted to vote for him, they wanted him to win, they wanted him to be the eloquent, moral, principled, multicultural, insightful, anti-war populist they thought him to be.

As we know now, he went on do to all three of the first things, but it appears he never was the last.

What I also saw that night was beleaguered American progressives’ willingness to project onto this person all their hopes and dreams for national reconciliation for, well, pretty much everything this country had done wrong, from slavery to assassinating black leaders to starting senseless wars and ravaging our democracy under Bush/Cheney.

Obama was an enormously potent symbol of all we wanted to be as a nation.

Being on the outside of Obama’s campaign gave people like me an interesting perspective. I had quite a few friends and family who passionately supported Obama. Sensing they might be in for a bitter disappointment even if Inauguration Day saw their guy win, gave me no satisfaction whatsoever. Seeing them since taken for granted has been very troubling.

As election year 2008 progressed, it became clear to me that there was a disconnect between Obama’s many fervent supporters and who Obama the candidate really was.

This appears to be what we are seeing now. From President Obama’s unwillingness to pursue justice against the Bush/Cheney administration despite the overwhelming evidence that theirs was a criminal regime, to his recent wavering on including a public policy option to health care reform, to his authoritarian bullying of individual public school districts via his education czar Arne Duncan who is pushing the failed Republican agenda of privatization in the name of “Education Reform,” Obama is not blazing a trail of change but seems to be backing down a crumbling path that we as a nation are trying to escape from.


Is he merely dancing with them that brung him? (To quote Molly Ivins.) If so, who the heck does he think brung him? The masses of ordinary people, my friends, my neighbors, who tirelessly canvassed, fundraised, caucused for him–or some other shadowy conservative, corporate interests?

Why does he feel compelled to invoke the paternalistic cadences of Reagan, which masked a bellicose and reckless capitalism and disregard for democracy? Why is he capitulating to the fake anti-single-payer mobs that mimic James Baker’s contrived “mobs” during the infamous recount in Miami-Dade County in 2000 and helped robbed this country of its 43rd president? Why can’t he be as forceful about single-payer healthcare as Bush/Cheney was about invading Iraq? Pass the damn thing, name it in honor of Ted Kennedy, and tell the “tea-baggers” to go jump. Why can’t he declare all war senseless, and bring an end to the two wars in which our country is currently mired?

People have a right to be outraged over the damage Obama’s capitulations will cost this nation–and the damage he is doing to their hopes. (Though they ought to have been paying closer attention to his record.) It is also sad that Obama is apparently forfeiting his chance to be a great president and a true leader. If he continues on this path, I predict that historians will study his successful political campaign more than his presidency.

And even more of his once-hopeful supporters will realize that he is not the person he had the audacity to promise to be.

–Horatio Guernica

Further Reading:

When Johnny Comes Limping Home by Horatio Guernica, 8/3/09

Heckuva Job, Arne by Horatio Guernica, 7/22/09

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