“Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope? … Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: in the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.”
- Then-Senate candidate Barack Obama delivering the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention
“…modern cynicism cannot be cured merely by preaching, or by putting better ideals before the young than those that their pastors and masters fish out from the rusty armory of outworn superstitions.”
- On Youthful Cynicism (1930), Bertrand Russell
It should not be necessary to point out that for all his and his ebullient supporters’ rhetoric to the contrary, President Obama is quite plainly a conventional politician, and as such will inevitably do what is most expedient for him and his party, but such is the exuberance by which his “new politics” has been embraced by many of us that some effort should be expended to abolish, or at least diminish, any lingering expectations of change. Doing so is not mere cynicism, but rather serves to preempt the massive disappointment and desertion of a suddenly awakened youth from politics by providing alternatives, helps us to clarify our own positions and ambitions and finally insists that we move beyond the “anything but Bush and the Republicans” mentality we’ve succumbed to in the past few elections.
On the domestic front, Pres. Obama’s recent decision to extend aid to overseas family planning clinics that are willing to at least discuss abortion and his reassertion of the default position of openness for Freedom of Information Act are merely on par with what is to be expected, indeed demanded, of any Democratic administration following a Republican one. While such historical trends have not been altogether overlooked, they are often brushed aside in favor of histrionics. Certainly there is much to be recommended in comparing the contradictions of capitalism encountered by Pres. Franklin Roosevelt and Pres. Obama; however, the more immediate and uncomfortable similarities between Obama and another affable, even-tempered president are starker still. Pres. Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon so as not to “prolong the bad dreams that continue to re-open a chapter that is closed” is reflected in the current president’s desire to “move forward.” His unwillingness to investigate and prosecute members of the former administration for instigating torture should indicate to all that America’s pervasive reputation for unaccountability, then just as now, will continue and that our vaunted ideals are but shallow and hypocritical utterances of a nation incapable of introspection. The probable appointment of Admiral Dennis Blair as national intelligence director, whose past dealings with the Indonesian junta over independence for East Timor (let us not forget Ford’s own complicity in like subjugation of East Timor) were nothing short of ignominious, is merely a confirmation of this.
All of this, it seems, will occur under the veil of a craven bipartisanship, which in actuality serves as no more than an excuse for the repudiation of policies that the Democrats are unwilling or – because of internal politics – unable to embrace. To take but one example (and here one could dwell on the many non-statements regarding Obama’s reversal on the repeal of the Bush tax cuts), consider the case of universal health insurance. It is beyond dispute that a single payer system, or slight variations thereof, will reduce costs and ensure access to quality healthcare for all, and yet the president’s plan calls for the maintenance of a parallel system of private and public insurers all because of donations from the insurance industry to the Democratic Party (watch for a similar lack of reform in the regulation of hedge funds). In the end, even the president’s compromise plan will meet resistance. If the available insurance plans are in any way comparable and the public plans cheaper, private health insurers will lobby for subsidies to stop or erode governmental competition, which could ultimately endanger the solvency of the system.
The new president is also hewing closely to the bipartisan line on substantive matters of foreign policy. His base assent to the two most overrated lobbies in Washington (the Israeli and Cuban) during his campaign expresses his commitment to a foreign policy based largely on the Clinton mould – a maintenance of the status quo, with an occasional tidying up of the realists’ mess, and an appreciation for the chance to reflect on missed opportunities to stop genocide or ethnic cleansing, as in Rwanda and Bosnia. It should come as no surprise then that Obama has failed to offer the slightest criticism of Israel, even after the Israeli government signaled that they considered him untrustworthy by invading and withdrawing from the Gaza Strip before he assumed office. Perhaps they rightly consider him vulnerable on this issue, as the president did after all decline to offer any comment on the invasion (he was already acting as effective head of state as his work on the economic stimulus package shows, so his demurring on this point can be safely disregarded). When he did finally speak, it was to banally repeat the trope about Israel’s right to defend itself, as if this is in any way commensurate with the suffering wrought upon the Palestinians.
Through action and inaction, we know the policies and views of Pres. Obama. History has taught us that we should not expect him to evolve towards a progressive stance on his own and that it is doubtful that we can persuade him to do so. It must also be realized that the Democrats have actively collaborated against progress or failed to stop its recession since at least 2002 (the core principles of present Democratic governance really date back to Pres. Clinton, so perhaps 1992). When the Republicans finally stop flailing about and muster their opposition, will we have the fortitude to resist compromise and not become defenders of an administration that does not share our ideas, as happened with Pres. Clinton? The transition from Bush to Obama then is not about progressivism moving forward in an institutional sense (it has not) but in how our movement is to continue and what it means.