After rereading The God That Failed, a book in which six prominent ex-Marxists relate their disillusionment with communism, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said expressed his irritation at what seemed like a show trial for a straw man. “Why as an intellectual did you believe in a god anyway? And besides, who gave you the right to imagine that your early belief and later disenchantment were so important?”
Obama’s first anniversary in power is approaching to howls of betrayal from parts of the left. Let’s begin by acknowledging that there are many grounds for disappointment. The failure to show leadership in the healthcare debate; the decision to leave much of Bush’s torture apparatus intact; the lack of alacrity on ending the Iraq occupation; failing to get rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; bailing on his pledges to renegotiate NAFTA and impose a foreclosure moratorium.
Some of these things can be explained, but none should be excused. It is true that Obama inherited a mess. But that is no reason to give him the benefit of the doubt on his campaign promises. He’s the president. He has all the benefits he needs. With one in eight people on food stamps, one in six black people unemployed and thousands still being slaughtered in Afghanistan and Iraq, “change” is not a slogan for many who backed him; it’s an urgent necessity.
The past year has been a painful lesson in the distinction between elections, politics and power. Elections change personnel; politics changes agendas; power is the means by which those agendas are put into action. Getting Obama into the White House was the beginning of the process, not the end. In the context of his campaign, the balance of forces in American politics and the demands of those who elected him, these frustrations make sense. Outside it, the leap from disenchantment to accusations of betrayal owes more to emotional and cognitive dissonance than political critique or strategic intervention.
Broadly speaking, this outrage flows from two camps–those who placed too much faith in what he might do and those who placed none.
From the first, there is the anguish of the infatuated suitor scorned. I loved you, I followed you, I believed in you and this is how you repay me. This is little more than projection. Obama never claimed he was a radical. True, he did offer hope and inspiration. But I don’t recall him saying that within a year the entrenched interests of American capital, the lobbyists, corporations, Fox commentators and militarists would throw their hands up in surrender at the flash of his smile and the lilt of his rhetoric. His decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan, for example, is definitely wrongheaded. But to qualify as betrayal he would have had to have promised something else, when the truth is this is one pledge he kept and many of us wish he hadn’t.