Wednesday, 10 August 2011

What Might Martin Luther King Say Now?

Much else has been forgiven, or blithely ignored, but for many this was the last straw.

Obama's failure to mount even a mild defense of the social contract during the fake debt ceiling crisis has caused many to ask if the man ever really wanted to be president, or was he simply delivering exactly what was expected.

Before we get to the matter of his intent, let's state the obvious, that, of course, Obama wanted it.  He bent all his will toward the presidency.  His rise to prominence could not have been better scripted -- early years as a community activist, time in the Illinois state senate, and a term as a US Senator set the stage for his presidential bid.  Along the way, he crafted a compelling narrative which culminated in his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic Convention.   He became the rising star of the Democratic Party for his style, oratory and message of hope.

More interesting than whether he wanted the presidency, is what he wanted to do with it when he got it.  And Candidate Obama was quite clear about what he would do:

 - "We need a President who sees government not as a tool to enrich well-connected friends and high-priced lobbyists, but as the defender of fairness and opportunity for every American; 
 - We cannot settle for a second Gilded Age in America.  And yet we find ourselves once more in the midst of a new economy where more wealth is in danger of falling into fewer hands; where the average CEO now earns more in one day than an average worker earns in an entire year; 
 - It's time we had a President who tells the drug companies and the oil companies and the insurance industry that while they get a seat at the table in Washington, they don't get to buy every chair;
 - I know that in every campaign, politicians make promises about cleaning up Washington.  So it's easy to become cynical.  I know that for me, reform isn't just the rhetoric of a campaign; it's been a cause of my career;
 - As a candidate for President, I've tried to lead by example, turning down all contributions from federal lobbyists and the political action committees that the special interests use to pass out campaign money;
 - We will return government to the people by bringing government to the people -- by making it open and transparent so that anyone can see that our business is the people's business;
 - It's time to renew a people's politics in this country -- to ensure that the hopes and concerns of average Americans speak louder in Washington than the hallway whispers of high-priced lobbyists;
 - Early in his presidency, Teddy Roosevelt gave a famous speech before farmers and factory workers that laid out his vision of what government at its best should be. He said, "The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us, and therefore in public life, that man is the best representative...whose endeavor it is not to represent any special class or interest, but to represent working for our common country."  It's time to get to work once more for our common country.  It's time we had a politics that reflected that commitment."

These remarks, from a 2007 campaign speech called Taking our Government Back, are consistent with his repeated themes of hope and change; they are also completely at odds with the present-day reality of his administration.  Of all the statements above -- and all should now make Obama wince in shame -- the last is particularly disheartening.  At no point since his election has Obama "laid out his vision of what government at its best should be", much less has he defended it.  The "audacity of hope", the "fierce urgency of now", "Yes, We Can" and "Change We Can Believe In" -- these phrases have long-since been sacrificed on the alter of expediency.  Worse still, they have become gag lines, joining other fan-favorites like "read my lips".  Or, perhaps Matt Taibbi got it right when he asked, following the debt ceiling capitulation,
"Is it possible that by 'surrendering' at the 11th hour and signing off on a deal that presages deep cuts in spending for the middle class, but avoids tax increases for the rich, Obama was doing exactly what was expected of him?" 
And this brings us to the intriguing question, What would Martin Luther King say to President Barack Obama?  The question is very much a relevant one -- in light of the disconnect between the 2008 campaign and today's reality; given the degree to which Obama's narrative was written in the language of Dr. King; and in anticipation of the coming presidential contest, and Obama's defense of the facts of his administration.   

As a black man seeking the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2008, Barack Obama could not have invoked a more iconic figure than Martin Luther King Jr.  This he did, relentlessly, wrapping himself in the warm mantle of Dr. King.  It was much more than Obama's evocative use of language and his gift of oratory that linked him so directly to King, although this was critical.  He also tapped into the same symbolism that King employed, none more important than Abraham Lincoln.

The clear and calculated linkage by Barack Obama to the legacy of Martin Luther King (and all that MLK represented) served to energize the core of the Democratic base; it brought new voters to the party that would otherwise have never participated; it offered a reassuring message to independents; and it provided a stark contrast to the continuation of the Bush policies in the form of John McCain.  In short, the effective use of Martin Luther King was central to Obama's victory.

The number and nature of the references to Dr. King (and to Lincoln, as well) during the campaign are a study unto themselves but, on election night, Obama came to represent nothing less than the glorious manifestation of Dr. King's dream.  Perhaps you remember.  As the results rolled in King was hailed as "the man who made Barack Obama happen".  Martin Luther King III, who had campaigned on Obama's behalf, said "Our father and mother are smiling down on us right now.  We are on our way.  We have taken a monumental step."  For his own part, Obama referenced Dr. King in his victory speech and declared, "But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America".

And on that night the world marveled at the apparent transformation of America in the aftermath of George W. Bush.  Not only were the 2008 results the most widely viewed in American history, they were followed with unprecedented enthusiasm worldwide.  From virtually all nations, there was an outpouring of relief and a hope for real change.  Obama's message had resonated beyond America -- the reputation repaired, the dream now fully realized.  And this makes the failures of his administration all the more catastrophic.

And among Obama's failures are these.  His health bill, the signature accomplishment in his first term, is a boon to Big Pharma, Insurance, and the health operators.  He is a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has doubled-down on Afghanistan, continued the war in Iraq, and started new actions in Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and perhaps (soon) Iran.  He has not closed Guantanimo as promised; he has extended the Patriot Act and he continues the surveillance of American citizens on an industrial scale; his administration has pursued whistleblowers with an uncommon zeal; and his use of drone attacks is unprecedented, and in countries with which the US is not at war.  He has chosen austerity over employment, as he delivers to the monied elite on virtually every domestic issue.  And from the 2008 campaign, again in his own words, this is some of what he promised

 - "You said that the time has come to tell the lobbyists who think their money and their influence speak louder than our voices that they don't own this government -- we do.  And we are here to take it back.
 - Change is building an economy that rewards not just wealth, but the work and workers who created it.  It's understanding that the struggles facing working families can't be solved by spending billions of dollars on more tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy CEOs, but by giving the middle-class a tax break, and investing in our crumbling infrastructure, and transforming how we use energy, and improving our schools, and renewing our commitment to science and innovation.  Its understanding that fiscal responsibility and shared prosperity can go hand-in-hand.
 - And if people tell you that we cannot afford to invest in education or health care or fighting poverty, you just remind them that we are spending $10 billion a month in Iraq.  And if we can spend that much money in Iraq, we can spend some of that money right here in Cincinnati, and in big cities and small towns in every corner of this country."

The disconnect between President Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. is enormous, almost as great as the disconnect between President Obama and Candidate Obama.  More than just his failure to deliver on anything that remotely resembled his campaign rhetoric, Obama's betrayal has disenfranchised and disheartened millions, both at home and around the world.  Afterall, if Barack Obama turned out to be such a monumental failure, and a calculating one at that, what possible redemption is there for electoral politics anywhere?  Obama told us that "reform isn't just the rhetoric of a campaign; it's been a cause of my career".  And by skillfully mimicking the tone, language and symbolism of the most distinguished black man in history -- one of the most singularly distinguished men of any color in history -- people believed him.  Turns out he was actually the Manchurian Candidate for the monied class.    

So, what would Martin Luther King say to Barack Obama?  We'll never know, but the Reverend might remain tactfully silent about endorsing him for a second term.

By David.


Your musical accompaniment for the day: Birdland by WeatherReport, from Heavy Weather.  Enjoy.

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