It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena " who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.
-President Theodore Roosevelt, speech, Paris, France, 1910, a year after leaving the White House
Many on the left gave up on Barack Obama years ago; or else they were convinced from the beginning he was just another stooge for the nation's corporate and military elite. His blackness was just an electoral novelty, not unlike the novelty of a Bush father and two-son dynasty or a Clinton marriage dynasty. The right, of course, has been effectively disabling Obama since the beginning, an effort that has now achieved some level of gloating satisfaction with the mid-term rout of Democrats.
Fox News and the leaders of the Republican Party assumed the rout was a silver stake through the president's heart, leaving him no choice but to kowtow to their triumphant leadership.
President Barack Obama: Is he ready to fight? by unknown
But not so fast. Is it possible Barack Obama is so pissed off by this smug notion of having been driven to the mat that he's now ready in the last two rounds to get up and fight?
There are indications: Immediately after the midterm election, he announced a secret deal with the powerful President Xi of China on carbon emissions. It relies on the good faith of both nations to adhere to the promises agreed to, but it establishes a cooperative process between two potentially hostile powers instead of letting the matter fester while rattling sabers. It's long view thinking reliant on science instead of the usual quarterly-focused crisis-managing. It's a crack of light suggesting there might be a future without doom and gloom and war without end. The deal seems to recognize US decline as a reality to be adjusted to. Obama followed it up with an announcement of a $3 billion injection of funds to the developing world to encourage them to join the US/China effort.
Next, President Obama made it clear he's going to use his power of prosecutorial discretion to extend a friendly hand to some five million illegal immigrants mostly from Latin America. Times center-right columnist Ross Douthat suggests this is "creeping caudillismo" on a scale unprecedented in American political history.
But is such discretion really unprecedented? Or is this actually a case of turning on its head a well-established American institution called selective enforcement of our laws. What's unprecedented is the application of selective enforcement to the lowest of the low, poor immigrants. Giving the rich and powerful a break by not enforcing the laws against them is a grand tradition in America. Witness the expected grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, not to charge Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown. Usually selective enforcement is not undertaken under such public scrutiny, which explains the prosecutor's incredibly choreographed grand jury arrangement. Most of the time, selective enforcement happens under the radar, as in cases like the Times has been reporting lately of NFL and Florida State football players being given special treatment by law enforcement in cases of violence and sexual assault. Or even the glaring case of Obama himself and his attorney general choosing not to prosecute bank executives of institutions "too big to fail" for cynically fleecing the public.
Deciding not to harass and criminalize poor immigrants fleeing the horrors of Central American and Mexico is not unprecedented; it's a novelty that makes the political right go ballistic. Let's not forget that the US is implicated in the rotten conditions people are fleeing from in Mexico thanks to our disastrous Drug War and embarrassing coups like the one in Honduras in 2009. Getting at the truth in this area depends on how far back one is willing to go on the cause-and-effect trail.
Bill O'Reilly has framed the immigration plan as a case of President Obama declaring "war" on the incoming Republican leadership. O'Reilly is a major fan of the grand jury scheme in Ferguson and has expressed outrage at people taking "grievances" to the street. Presumably they should rely on the criminal justice system exemplified by the Ferguson grand jury. Michelle Alexander makes a powerful argument out of this kind of historical selective enforcement in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The use of selective enforcement accounts for much of the mass incarceration of African American males in America. Maybe it takes being on the receiving end to see this; but it's hard to make the case prosecutorial discretion is a new phenomenon.
Caught In a Vice Of His Own Making
Barack Obama feels to me like a man caught in a vice -- one he asked for. A very smart, highly educated and ambitious man, he figured out how to be elected the first black president of the United States of America. That naturally involved a certain degree of corruption, since no one chooses to get on the glide path to the presidency and then gets elected President of the United States by remaining clean and honest or by adhering to deep moral ideals. In a highly competitive, capitalist culture more and more ruled by the need to cheat to get ahead at all, becoming president is not for the faint of heart.
Still, call me naÃ¯ve, but I always saw the man as more complicated than my jaded and cynical friends on the left would allow. I actually agree with those on the right -- like Dinesh D'Souza -- who emphasize how Barack Obama is the son of a Kenyan socialist. He's also the son of an Irish-American anthropologist single mom who took her young mixed-race son to live with an Indonesian man in Jakarta whose family had been insurgents fighting the Dutch in a war of colonial liberation not unlike the one we fought in Vietnam -- my war. In my mind, while John McCain, the son of admirals, was bombing Vietnamese from an A-4 Skyhawk, little Barry Obama was being taught by his step father how to handle himself on the streets of Jakarta.
This sort of upbringing should foster a grown man quite unlike the standard imperial white male American politician. I think the right has always sensed this as something they had to keep tamped down, because it scared the hell out of them even more than Obama's blackness. Due to the deep strains of American racism the blackness could be leveraged with coded racism and insinuations that Obama was not in line with the patriotic traditions of Kipling's "White Man's Burden" reaching back to the imperial big stick of Teddy Roosevelt.
I've always felt his back-story gave Obama a worldly sensitivity to the white American imperial mind. It also put him in a most precarious position as a US imperial leader at a juncture in history when US power was ebbing and the problems of imperial decline were becoming quite real. It has been my secret hope that Barack Obama might be a bit of a Mikhail Gorbachev for the American empire -- someone to help guide it gracefully to a soft landing. The trouble with this is (as Ronald Reagan understood about Gorbachev) such a leader can't pull off the trick if the gambit is overtly spoken of, since this will provoke the reactionary right with a fury.
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