The Barack Obamas [2011, Meet 2008]

Jose VilsonJose6 Comments

For months, possibly years, I’ve been waiting for this Barack Obama to make an appearance to the general public:

Hot-damn. The Barack Obama of 2008 made an appearance again at the MLK Memorial today to thousands of people watching in DC and on CSPAN. (For full text, here’s more.) I was not aware that any version of the President would show up to this memorial today, but if I did, I would have asked this one to come. This is the one I swung open the curtains for, the one I pulled the lever with. This is the one I cast my post-destructive-George-Bush-the-2nd upon, and whom I believed that, despite his positions on education, would improve the bottom line for those who needed this help the most. This is the same Barack Obama who I thought would walk along side us in Wisconsin, would silence the guns locally and abroad, would more readily welcome our brothers and sisters abroad and looking for a chance, and would put a dent into a government broken by the very very few.

Alas, I found that, nested within that representative, the pragmatism and middling of Barack Obama 2009-10 appeared. These two Barack Obamas look alike, for sure, the latter greyer and less photo-opportunistic. Yet, I sincerely lost almost all hope and came crashing with the reality that he willingly took part in the continuation of the America that perpetuates the schism of haves and have-nots. In winning the Nobel Prize, he understood the irony of starting a war in another Middle Eastern country. In shaking hands with Jeb Bush and Michael Bloomberg, he allowed people who exacerbated the achievement gap and over-testing to take control, even as he told those of us who speak Spanish that he would not want the same for his own children.

Alas, this speech symbolizes his first term, a capsule of the two Barack Obamas.

Sure, some politicians might consider me unfair. Every politician makes promises that exceed what actually happens in their tenure. Some presidents might exceed their own expectations by chance or with some of the conditions they create, allowing them to make broad-stroking programs that cement their ostentatious legacies. Barack Obama, having to take over the Oval Office from a president who hammered nails into a resurging economy and more than half of the original tenets in the Bill of Rights, had no choice but to follow the given program because the American people fear change. And fear him.

Yet, I can’t accept that. We who cast our votes for him (with an overwhelming majority) had hoped that, amongst other things, he would show courage and conviction in very specific moments. Some of us who are more sensible than others knew there wouldn’t be radical change, but if we thought that Barack would continue to assure progress on the items that the American people care about most, then he’d be well on the way to putting us on the right track. With a re-election campaign in the early phases, Obama has already tossed out bits of his 2008 version to his target audiences, the Jobs Bill largest amongst them.

I just wish he took more of that self even after he won. In one of his speeches in 2008, he implored us, both malcontents and well-wishers, to keep pushing him, keep vocalizing. Implicitly, he meant that to say that, as a politician, he can only do as much as the American public asked him to. Today, he reiterates that by analogizing himself with Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who helped pave the way for Barack to ascend to the White House. As if to parody himself, he states that it’s not just about soaring oratory, but concrete action.

2008 Obama, welcome back to the fore. Unlike Martin Luther King, you have a chance to make things right now …

Mr. Vilson, who has been paying attention, and lots of it …

Comments 6

  1. I get where you’re coming from. His presidency has not been what I thought it would be, but I don’t completely see it as his failure but as ours. We allowed a Republican party that was and is more interested in ensuring President Obama is a one term president even at the expense of Americans.

    It’s very sad. Sad that President Obama had to walk the line that all of us do in our jobs sometimes because we fear a lack of support. We elected him and expected him to do it. We let the Tea Party become the voice of America. We let the Republicans think that their near-treasonous obstructionism would go unnoticed.
    To coin a phrase from Shakespeare…
    “So the fault Dear Jose is not in Barack Obama, but in ourselves that we are underlings.”

  2. Sorry, but his shifting rhetoric notwithstanding, the man has never been anything other than a middle-of-the (ever moving rightward) road corporatist and creature of the neoliberal foundations. His presidency was never intended to be anything other than an attempt to harmlessly divert the oppositional energies that were developing under Bush, and to provide the cover of a Democrat opening the door to attacks on Social Security, medicare, and the remnants of the New Deal.

    What has substantively changed as a result of this speech? His education policies still favor privatization and attacks on teachers, he continues to expand US militarism across the globe, and his economic policies are those of finance capital, those “savvy businessmen” who financed his campaign in 2008.

    Please don’t be fooled again.

  3. Post

    Keishla and Michael, you ought to read each others’ comments. You both have poignant rejoinders to my post, and neither of you agree with the purpose for that either. Keishla, I’d say that we as a people did a fair amount to assure that he got into office, including assuring him an overwhelming majority in both the Senate and the House. We knew there’d be a backlash of immense proportions considering his dispositions, but we can’t blame ourselves for CNN giving them the time of day where other real news venues didn’t. Michael, you and I both know I’ve been highly critical of his first term as President, and I was hoping that I alluded to that disappointment throughout the essay. From my purview, I understand the bias I have towards Obama as president (what it means, etc.), but it doesn’t make me any less critical of what’s happening. I stand with Harry Belafonte on these sorts of things.

    Thanks to both of you. Glad you’re both comfortable with disagreeing.

  4. Acts of faith: Daughters are expensive, and will cause a good man to worry more than he should, and even to sometimes have doubts in their future. This is a critical passage for the husband, and father, for it is written; that no man may serve two masters.

  5. Jose,
    I agree that “we” or whoever considers themselves a part of that “we” did the work to ensure that he was elected, but “we” acted as if that was that was sufficient. I can’t say that I agree with the sinister mindset of Michael in that Obama is a tool of the military-industrial complex, but I don’t think that we gave this administration the political capital to stand against a machine that questioned his legitimacy as a citizen and a ruler, that challenged him at every turn often for the sake of being contrary in most cases as opposed to true philosophical differences. I’m not blaming CNN, though the media has a role in abandoning its role as the people who are supposed to ask questions and challenge inaccuracies. We have evolved into a place where you can write your own truth, cultivate your own audiences who will consume what you produce at a ravenous rate. That is not the fault of Barack Obama or George Bush. We have allowed ourselves to be alienated from that which bonds us. In the past, the American Dream wasn’t to get rich, but to be comfortable and satisfied, to have time with your family. Now it’s something for nothing. Get rich quick, even dishonestly. That was not Barack Obama, nor could we expect him to solve that which is becoming embedded in our psyche.

    I appreciate the dialogue.

  6. Jose,
    I am aware of your criticisms of Obama, but my point is that there are not two versions of the man, as I understand you to be saying. There is only one: a chameleon-like neoliberal on domestic and economic issues, and a straight out neo-conservative in foreign affairs. His genius, as he himself has written, is that he is (or was, as I think more and more people are on to him) a blank screen upon which people projected their own internal wishes and fantasies. For his entire career he has been little more than a cleverly marketed brand. In fact, he literally was Advertising Age’s “Brand of the Year” in 2008.

    I voted for the man – although I’ll primarily admit it was because I thought there would be creative possibilities in the inevitable disappointment people would feel in him – and will not minimize the significance of his election. But history is a great trickster and ironist, and it is not beyond the pale that a black man might have been elected only to take the fall for Depression 2.o.


    There is some truth to what you say about the forces that elected Obama becoming complacent in the aftermath of the election. But that passivity was abetted by the administration, which explicitly saw itself electing a brand (their term, though they back away from it now), and not empowering a movement. Obama came into office with a once-in-a-century opportunity to use the office of the president to turn the historical tide of hyper-inequality that we are living through. I don’t think it is paranoid, or sinister as you say, to suggest that he squandered that opportunity – look no further than his appointment of Goldman Sachs delivery boy and tax cheat Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary, and Larry Summers as chief economic advisor – and that the financiers who provided the bulk of his campaign financing in 2008 had a fair degree of confidence that he would do just that. Do you really think that these people, who have cash registers for brains, would not do their own due diligence on a presidential candidate before they cut a check?

    In 1996 (!), Adolph Reed, who teaches at Penn and at the time lived in Obama’s Illinois senate district, wrote the following: “In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do good credentials and vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundations and development worlds.”

    How prescient; how sadly still true.

Leave a Reply