The last forty-eight hours have left me getting an idea of what the fictional Scrooge must have felt like around Christmas time. Its not a perfect analogy, but its the closest I can come up with right now. I’ve even taken to saying ‘Bah humbug’ at opportune times. What, you may ask, is the cause of this situation? None other than the inauguaration of President Obama.
Tuesdays this term is my long class day, the closest thing to my previous workday schedule. Class starts at 0900hrs, teabreak at 1045hrs, Lunch at 1230hrs, and then solid class from 1330hrs to 1600hrs. Its a fun and interesting class, concerning participation in policy and planning, and I’m learning alot that I can see being applied in Bermuda, and my past experiences are helping me out, although mostly by seeing what I did wrong. Such is life. So, after that long workday I usually go off to the nearest library, spend an hour rereading my notes and the handouts, do some quick reference searches, check the blog and read the news. After about an hour and a half of that I go the student union pub for a pint or two.
As was my custom, I ended up in the pub at about 1730hrs, finding it jam-packed. I realised that due to the time difference, Mr. Obama was in the process of becoming President Obama, and everyone had come to watch. After a brief conversation with the bartender who thought I was a US citizen, and then the now routine questions about why we’re still a colony, I made my way to the tables full of my neighbours and classmates, heavily dominated by US citizens and, bizzarely, Germans wearing pro-Obama badges.
I tried hard to be civil and not to rain on their parade, ending up sitting quietly with the lone Republican supporter, also in a stoic silence but for different political reasons. Ended up somehow at the later Obama-party being thrown by the Americans. I may not share their enthusiasism, but I’m still a student who can sniff out free food and beer from a block away.
Today’s been pretty similar. Professors in class, students, neighbours and the like. Its not like I’m not used to holding vastly different political positions, heck, I only know a handful of Marxists and anarchists in Bermuda, what may be the closest to the ideological heart of capitalism on this planet. But rarely is the contrast so obvious. I think Christmas my rival it. Then too bizzare alliances form, not with Republicans, but with hard-core Christians who reject the commercialisation of the day. don’t get me wrong here, I love the tradition, the food and family, but the religious and commericial aspects mostly make me roll my eyes.
I’ve been mostly holding my tongue in light of the heartfelt enthusiasm of my US friends. At most I’ve been pointing out that he’s not that much different from any other politician, and he’s practically identical to Bill Clinton, but with a tan. I’ve been hoping to keep the more incisive class and political analysis till next week once some of this inauguration haze has cleared away. Don’t worry, you’ll find that here whether you like it or not!
And with that, before I leave my final bah humbug, I thought I would give readers an opportunity to get at least an introduction to the criticism to come. This article by Paul Street gives a pretty good historical account and general critique of Obama. Its a relatively long article, but well worth the read. Below I’ve copied and pasted two sections that I feel are particularly relevant to the Bermudian discourse that is attmpting to gain political capital (from both political parties and partisans).
Race and the Illusion of Greater Liberalism
Besides helping his novelty dividend, Obama’s race fed the false notion that Obama was more liberal than his leading opponents in the Democratic primary race – something that proved very useful in capture a Democratic voter base that had been pushed left by the Bush administration. The fact that Obama is black helped deepen his appeal to certain voters by making him seem more liberal than he really was
According to researchers studying the political psychology of race, voters asked to compare a black and a white candidate with similar political positions will tend to see the black candidate as “more liberal.” Consistent with the finding, exit-poll data shows that Obama did much better than his centrist ideological soul-mate Hillary Clinton (who actually ran slightly to his left on domestic policy during the primaries) with Democratic primary voters who identified themselves as “very liberal” in numerous key states. Clinton did somewhat better with the large number and percentage of Democrats who called themselves “moderates.”
Since Obama’s actual policy agenda was generally no more liberal than Clinton’s – his housing and health care plan were more conservative – it seems likely that many voters were identifying Obama as more liberal because of his race.
This was a great problem for John Edwards, who ran without success to Obama’s populist left on both domestic and foreign policy in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In this critical way, his skin color helped the “deeply conservative”  Obama’s skin color helped him capture and co-opt the progressive sentiments and mood of many Democratic primary voters at the end of the Cheney-Bush reign.
Race and “Holding Domestic Constituencies in Check”
At the same time, many of his elite sponsors have certainly long understood that Obama’s technical blackness helps make him uniquely qualified to simultaneously surf, de-fang, and “manage” the U.S. citizenry’s rising hopes for democratic transformation in the wake of the long national Bush-Cheney nightmare. As John Pilger argued last May: “What is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s [in 1968]. By offering a ‘new,’ young and apparently progressive face of Democratic Party – with the bonus of being a member of the black elite – he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent.”
Obama’s race is part of what makes him so well matched to the tasks of mass pacification and popular “expectation management” (former Obama advisor Samantha Power’s revealing phrase). As Aurora Levins Morales noted in Z Magazine last April, “This election is about finding a CEO capable of holding domestic constituencies in check as they are further disenfranchised and….[about] mak[ing] them feel that they have a stake in the military aggressiveness that the ruling class believes is necessary. Having a black man and a white woman run helps…make oppressed people feel compelled to protect them.”
“BLACK BUT NOT LIKE JESSE”
But Obama’s ability to play the race angle to his advantage has been critically predicated on him proving that he will do nothing to challenge underlying structures of institutional racism or to address the steep price that centuries of racial oppression have inflicted on black, brown, and red America. Even as he won large majorities of black votes in the Democratic presidential primaries and the general election, candidate Obama was remarkably reluctant to align himself with the historical struggle for black equality in any way beyond simply being black. He steered clear of any effort to fully and forthrightly confront the continuing problems of race and (more to the point) racism in American and global affairs. He consistently downplayed the extent of racial inequality in the U.S. and the rooting of that inequality in the persistence of deeply racist policies, structures, and practices.
He played the “black, but not like Jesse” card to perfection, repeatedly demonstrating his “safety” to Caucasian voters and elites who long ago decided that white racism no longer poses serious barriers to black advancement and racial justice in the U.S. He skillfully let whites feel good about their willingness to vote for a black man without pushing defensive white buttons by meaningfully addressing the powerful role white skin privilege continues to play in the U.S.
As a result, he was able to survive the efforts of Hillary Clinton, the Republicans, and certain media powers to destroy and/or (at least) discipline his candidacy by parading his close past association with the viciously demonized “angry black male” Jeremiah Wright. Obama masterfully distanced himself from his former pastor, suggesting in his instantly famous Philadelphia race speech that black anger (on Wright’s officially dysfunctional and dangerous model) was no longer appropriate in a nation that had transcended racial oppression on the whole.
From a Machiavellian perspective, Obama’s racially neutral, white-friendly strategy has been very smart indeed. However much it offends radical and race activists, his conservative and accommodating approach to the race question is perfectly pitched to the racism-denying skin-color politics of the “post Civil Rights” and neoliberal era.
Distancing himself from meaningful resistance to racism is a key part of how Obama won.