Notes From An Observer: Obama’s Victory

CounterPunch, November 16, 2012

Bitter Adversaries

The longest, most expensive elections in one of the most polarized democracies in the Western world are over. Now we see contrasting reactions and unforeseen fallout––in the form of elation, bitter disappointment, investigation and resignation. The downfall of the CIA director David Petraeus and investigation into Gen. John Allen’s emails concern both their personal conduct, as well as the uncomfortable fit between President Barack Obama and the conservative military hierarchy.

Nonetheless the current turmoil at the top should not distract us from deeper analysis of American politics. The overwhelming nature of President Obama’s win over his Republican rival Mitt Romney in the Electoral College was achieved by a series of narrow but even victories in hotly contested states. A win by a small margin in a state can deliver all of the Electoral College votes, so the outcome is distorted rather like in Britain’s parliamentary elections, where a candidate can win by just one vote. It hides a greater truth––that the United States is a society split almost in two halves as its demographic transformation continues.

The Republican Party’s hysteria on a range of issues––from Muslims, Hispanics and other non-white communities to slogans of “small government” which threaten the vulnerable, low-income groups, women in particular––has damaged the social fabric of the United States and the party’s own prospects. The trend is most conspicuous in the presidential and senatorial races, where constituencies are huge. However, it is not so accurately reflected in the House of Representatives, where the Republicans have maintained their majority. The omens for President Obama are hardly better in the second term, for there will be fierce battles over the budget. The Republican majority will likely do all it can to thwart the president’s fiscal proposals, clouding his legacy.

Split America

The depth of polarization in American society is reflected in the overall vote. More than 90 percent of blacks and 70 percent of Hispanics and Asians supported Barack Obama. And 88 percent of those who voted for Mitt Romney were white. Yet the difference in the popular vote between the two was smaller than 3 percent. How can these numbers explain Obama’s solid victory over Romney and the Democratic majority in the Senate, but the Republican hold in the House?

Is it because the ethnic (white–black), ideological (Republican–Democratic) and economic (rich–poor) divides are reflected in the smaller House districts more accurately? Is it because House districts are more definitely white or mixed, rich or poor, rightwing or moderate? In other words, has segregation––ethnic, economic, ideological––in the United States widened? Or have other factors been responsible for a very different outcome in the House? An expert with intimate knowledge of the landscape may shed more light on this.

Many of America’s domestic afflictions remain as they were under President Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush––possibly with two notable exceptions. One is Obama’s rescue of the auto industry; the other his healthcare plan, which was compromised during the legislative passage. Its utility will be proven in time. Mitt Romney fatally damaged his presidential hopes by playing the politics of exclusion. Barack Obama helped his reelection by taking steps to rescue the U.S. auto industry and delivering a healthcare plan despite disruptions and dilutions by his adversaries. The former contributed to his victory in the industrial states like Ohio; the latter in states like Florida with large numbers of Hispanic voters and pensioners worried about healthcare.

Now that the victory has been achieved, what are the prospects for President Obama’s second term? I have alluded to the prospect of stalemate between the White House and Congress. The conservatives in the House showed dogged opposition to block Obama’s healthcare plan, resist tax proposals and thwart his presidency in the first term. Obama’s reelection has made the political right more bitter even as its support base shrinks. The real question is whether he will continue to be the compromiser-in-chief, reluctant to stand his ground and fight for the substance of his program. Or his goal remains that the headlines show his presidency in good light, so he can leave a legacy of his choice, not necessarily much needed solutions to problems at home and abroad.

Global Hegemony

In foreign policy, Barack Obama did not take long following his inauguration in January 2009 to get back in tune with the past agenda, albeit with some adjustments, seeking U.S. hegemony over the globalized system. Initial promises of solving the Israel-Palestine dispute, rapprochement with Iran and the wider Muslim world and elimination of nuclear weapons were either diluted or abandoned or not heard again. Aspirations of a better U.S. human rights record were managed by silence, disingenuous definitions of combatant and civilian, and covert operations.

Withdrawal of American troops from Iraq was accompanied by the surge in Afghanistan––and those drones in the skies of Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. President Obama’s announcement of a reduction in America’s military presence in the Middle East actually meant a switch to increased reliance on special forces, drones and other mechanized tools of war, often deployed off-shore. A game of deception in the wider Middle East enables him to turn greater attention to encircling China. Will Obama’s second term be very different from the first? Or will he continue to walk away from positions he appeared to take in the fist six months of his presidency in 2009? That is the million dollar question.

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Obama Fights to Win as America’s Stock Falls: Heading for a Hollow Victory

CounterPunch, September 26, 2012

Important commitments have kept me from my writing interest for some time, but events never wait. We have run into greater turbulence following the appearance of a blasphemous film, Innocence of Muslims, about the Prophet Mohammad. The film was supposed to have been made by a convicted fraudster living in California, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, and was promoted by Florida Pastor Terry Jones, previously involved in the burning of the Quran. That the causes of turmoil lie closer to us may be too unpalatable to accept for many in Western societies. Sadly it is true. When passions run high and it is difficult to see clearly, calm reflection, not ritual condemnation, is preferable. As the thirteenth-century mystic poet and theologian Jalaluddin Rumi wrote, then is time to “close both eyes to see with the other eye.”

The November 2012 elections in the United States are upon us. In the age of ceaseless electioneering, America’s domestic politics determine its behavior abroad, and leave little scope for reflection on anything other than votes and power. This major fault line in the American political system gives extremist individuals and fringe groups a voice far louder than their size would suggest. Their capacity to radicalize the population is significant. They push some moderate figures seeking power to take more extreme positions. Other voices are muted for fear of damaging their political careers. What happens in America thus affects the rest of the world. The phenomenon is unsustainable, but will continue wreaking havoc for as long as it lasts. Islamophobia does exist in Europe, too. But the scale of Christian fundamentalism and the anti-Islamic sentiment in the United States is quite different.

A decade after the United States launched its hegemonic venture under the “war on terror” umbrella, Washington faces an unprecedented challenge to its authority in the Middle East and beyond. The assassination of the American ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, and attacks on Western embassies in other places, are difficult to explain away simply by apportioning blame on a few Muslim extremists.

That open hostility expressed by violent means involves relatively small crowds is not in dispute. The more important and worrying aspect of the anti-U.S. protests is their worldwide dimension, and the depth of disapproval of America’s conduct by moderate Muslims and non-Muslims alike. A Pew survey of global attitudes, published in June 2012, shows a collapse in support for the Obama administration’s international policies, even in Europe and Japan.

The message from the rest of the world to Obama on his drone attacks and his “Kill List” is stark. Of twenty countries where people were asked, only in two there were more respondents who approved killing by drones than those who disapproved. Those countries were the United States and India.

According to Pew, there remains a widespread perception that the United States acts unilaterally and does not consider the interests of other countries. On one hand, many think America’s economic clout is in decline. On the other, people around the globe overwhelmingly oppose the way the United States uses its military power in international affairs. They include people in Germany, France, Italy, Poland and Japan. As Obama fights to win in November his second and final term against a bumbling Republican opponent, Washington’s credibility and moral standing are sinking. It is this trend which perhaps explains the strength of challenge to America’s authority more than anything else.

Another investigation, this time by academics of Stanford and New York universities, puts the blame on President Obama for the escalation of CIA drone attacks in which groups are selected by remote analysis of “pattern of life.” The “dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killings’ of terrorists.” But the report concludes that “this narrative is false.” The number of ‘high-level’ militants as a percentage of total casualties is only about 2% of [deaths]. “The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims.” Residents in remote tribal areas across the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier are “afraid to attend weddings and funerals.”

Developments such as these provide the logic of popular antagonism against the United States across continents. A decade on, the “war on terror” has extended far beyond the Taliban and al Qaeda. As America prepares for a retreat from Afghanistan, NATO troops in that country live in fear not only of the enemy, but Afghans who were supposed to be their allies. Antagonists who challenge the United States come from many sections of populations in Africa, the Middle East, rest of Asia and Europe. They are both militants and moderates who may not see eye to eye with each other on tactics, but their goals are similar. The stakes are high, the prospects gloomy. Barack Obama, a prisoner of forces that have historically ruled America, is unlikely to heed the message from the wider world for as long as he is in the White House. Unlikely, too, is the prospect of the anti-US tide turning.

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The Loneliness of Barack Obama

Palestine Chronicle  (November 7, 2010)  

The moment when President Obama emerged at the White House to speak to the press (November 4), less than twenty-four hours after the Democratic Party’s midterm drubbing, provided the most telling picture. There was the president of the world’s most powerful country walking alone to the podium, admitting defeat just two years after an historic triumph so complete that it was hailed as a revolutionary event. As he stood uncomfortably to express contrition and promise that lessons would be learned, there was nobody from his administration standing with him to show support after a defeat as decisive as the victory was magnificent over the discredited Republican Party in 2008.

Vice President Joe Biden had appeared at election rallies as the president tried to enthuse voters in the final days of campaigning. However, the vice president was nowhere to be seen when Obama walked to the podium to face the world. Neither was the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One of the oddities of this campaign, dominated by the economy, was the absence of debate on America’s foreign wars and their consequences, economic and otherwise. Talking to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, a vocal critic on the American left, Michael Moore, gave a penetrating explanation. The liberal political class had gone along with, even surrendered to, many of the neoconservative war policies in the last decade. Now the same liberal class lives with guilt, and does not want to talk about war because it has been an accomplice.

The heroin of the American neoliberals, Hillary Clinton, has long engaged in warmongering. For her, it would not make sense to appear with Obama in a moment of abject failure. It is safe to assume that her presidential ambition still flickers. In October, Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, had left the administration, saying he wanted to pursue his ambition to become mayor of Chicago. His term as Obama’s chief henchman has been an unmitigated disaster. A Jewish American with longstanding ties with Israel, Emanuel’s appointment after Obama’s election was greeted with dismay. Emanuel’s obsession with the art of wheeling-dealing was well known. His mastery of colorful and abusive language was no secret in Washington. His fascination with CIA drone attacks and phone calls to the agency’s director to find out “Who did we get today?” has been written about.

The Palestinians, the Iranians and others in the Middle East were not going to have faith in an Obama administration with someone like Emanuel playing a pivotal role. The collapse of Obama’s dream of resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and peace with the Muslim world, is partly Emanuel’s legacy. With Emanuel gone, neither the interim chief of staff Pete Rouse nor his deputies were by the president’s side when he spoke to the press following the midterm debacle. Not a single Democratic member of the old or new House, or the Senate, was to be seen with him, even a Senator not up for reelection; and not a member of the Democratic National Committee, which has its headquarters in Washington, DC.

Obama’s national security adviser, retired Marine Corp general James Jones, had also left in October. As war had not been part of the national debate in the midterm campaign, the incoming security adviser Thomas Donilon or Defense Secretary Robert Gates were not expected to be visible at the post-election news conference. In any case, Gates continues to threaten to leave the administration from time to time. More significant was the non-visibility of any member of President Obama’s economic team. In September, as the economy looked certain to be the dominant campaign issue and polling day drew closer, two of his leading advisers, Lawrence Summers and Christina Romer, had announced that they were leaving. On the day after the midterm debacle, President Obama stood all by himself to face questions about his handling of the economy.

After nearly an hour explaining the defeat, empathizing with the American people’s difficulties and offering to cooperate with the unbending and unbendable Republicans and tea partiers in the new Congress, Obama’s lone walk back into the Oval Office was symbolic of the wreckage lying around a president once known for his audacity of hope. America’s political establishment remains engaged in civil war. The country is deeply unhappy and polarized. And the leader chosen by the majority of Americans, no less because of overwhelming support from liberals and progressives, is ready to walk away from his troops toward the confronting army, alone, to compromise.

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