President Obama's recent actions regarding Cuba and North Korea provide insight not only into his presidency but also the nature of US politics. Like any calculating national politician, he plays to his base as he tries to minimize flack from the loyal opposition. These recent actions reflect some important lessons about the nature of the US political psyche.
Obama's basic operating principle is to thread his way through issues balancing his priority to serve the financial and security state elites with the need to throw bones to the liberal establishment, which indirectly contributes to the first purpose as well. The North Korea-Cuba episode is a case in point.
As historian Bruce Cumings says, North Korea (DPRK) is the country that Americans love to hate. Like me, Cumings does not condone their behavior, but feels that isolation is no solution either. In any case, the DPRK has no constituency at all in the US. You just can't lose politically by demonizing the Kim dynasty and everything that goes on there regardless of whether or not it goes on in US client states as well. Their racist slurs calling Obama a monkey are stupid but hardly worse than the overt racism in "The Interview."
Our purpose here, however, is to analyze Obama's reactions to the alleged hacking. First, claiming victimhood is a consistent US public-relations strategy and not a little ironic for the world's only superpower. Blaming the other in sanctimonious tones is another. Any international incident can quickly be turned into an opportunity for further myth inculcation. Americans are easy-going, freedom-loving folk. Some people just don't understand the meaning of good clean fun like "The Interview." But once the cheerful, kindly Americans are taken advantage of, watch out! Thus, Obama, president of "the greatest nation on earth," took the lead to call on Sony not to give in to terrorism but to bravely air the film and called on North Korea to reimburse Hollywood for the money lost. Business is business.
Cuba is a different story. Obviously, moving beyond sanctions and establishing diplomatic relations is long overdue. There is at least one vocal constituency on this issue--the rabid anti-Castro Miami group and their vocal Congressional spokespersons, so it had to be handled carefully. But there's a clear liberal constituency in support too so there's a political opportunity. Obama risks very little by alienating the anti-Castro crowd; indeed, he comes out ahead in the eyes of the majority of Americans who support the policy and are repulsed by the anti-Cuba fanatics.
In the end, anyway, the Cuba move is nothing more than the usual promotion of neoliberal capitalism for the US' own benefit, sometimes done violently as in Iraq and sometimes indirectly by first getting a foot in the door. Furthermore, the notion that bringing crass consumer capitalism to Cuba as a "force for democracy" is an article of faith at the heart of the US mythology that capitalism = democracy. In spite of their squawking, the anti-Castro Miami crowd surely knows this about Obama. Ultimately, they are all on the same side.
Cuba vs. North Korea seems like a contradiction for Obama but actually it's not. It's all just the usual political calculation and serves to reinforce myths of US freedom and democracy as the mirror image of all that's evil in the world. China, Russia, Iran, not to mention non-client-state Arab nations, provide endless opportunities. Pandering to myth, nationalism and interest groups is not leadership, but it's the touchstone of US politics and Obama is master of the art.