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Tomgram: David Bromwich, The Leader Obama Wanted to Become and What Became of Him

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: We're particularly proud that TD Managing Editor Nick Turse has just won an Izzy, the prestigious independent journalism award, for his work at TomDispatch, the Nation magazine, and above all for his book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. ("Said Izzy judge Robert McChesney, 'Nick Turse combines the fastidiousness of a serious historian and a journalist's intuition for the big story, along with an uncompromising commitment to the truth, wherever it leads.'") Remember that for a donation of $100 (or more) to this site, you can get a signed, personalized copy of that bestselling, award-winning work.  Check our donation page for the details. Tom]

Doesn't this just say it all?  After Majority Leader Harry Reid went the ultimate mile for the president, loosing the "nuclear option" on the Senate to wipe out Republican filibusters of a bevy of log-jammed presidential nominations, and after the Republicans -- the president's proudly disloyal opposition -- had fumed to their hearts' content, Obama still couldn't get his nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division confirmed.  The culprits in a Congress where, from the White House point of view, evil has been every shade of Republican turned out to be seven disloyal Democrats.  Despite a "sustained closed-door effort" by Obama and his aides, they voted the nominee down.  Think of it as a little parable for the Obama presidency.

Meanwhile, in foreign policy, the din has been thunderous when it comes to Vladimir Putin and events in Ukraine.  Denunciations of the Russian president have rung from every quarter in Washington.  Sanctions against individual Russians have been issued with broader sanctions threatened and Secretary of State John Kerry has led the way.  But so far it's been a Charge of the Lite Brigade.  Kerry actually had the chutzpah to say of the Russian troops sent into the Crimea, "You just don't in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped up pretext."  And the former senator, who had voted for the invasion of Iraq (to deal with Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction program), did it straight-faced.  Had the situation not been so grim, it would have been pure stand-up.  

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The poor people of Ukraine are, of course, caught in the ring with global heavyweights and wannabes.  And the action's been hot and heavy.  For one thing, the White House seems to have leaked German Chancellor Angela Merkel's private suggestion to the president that, in a conversation they had, Putin had been "in another world" -- i.e. deranged.  (It was assumedly a good way for the White House to depth charge her relationship with the Russian president.)  As for Putin, if he's crazy, by all accounts he's crazy like a fox. He's managed to go to "war" with what's left of the Red Army and as the leader of a far more ramshackle state than the Soviet Union without a shot so far being fired.  He's been punching visibly above his weight.

Thematically true to the Obama era, Washington has no less visibly been punching below its weight.  Its theme, widely announced, has been to "isolate" Russia, particularly economically.  Even as Republican congressional representatives were clambering aboard the Good Ship Sanctions (while continuing to denounce the president), the Obama administration hasn't been able to rally those who actually matter: its European allies.

Yes, they've all said the right words in the rhetorical war that's been underway, but in a fashion new in the trans-Atlantic relationship, even Great Britain has balked at Washington's urgings to impose real sanctions on the Russians.  And no wonder: unlike the U.S., the Germans and others have significant trade relationships with that country and rely on it for natural gas supplies, none of which are they eager to imperil.  Here, too, for all the sound and fury signifying little, Obama seems to have been trumped by Putin.

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The president's inability to get much of significance done, no matter the topic, has become legendary.  In this, he may be the perfect symbol of our age.  His is a presidency in a time of decline.  As TomDispatch regular David Bromwich indicates today in a sweeping character portrait of the man we've never quite come to know, he's had an uncanny knack for embodying the waning of American power.  Whether at home or abroad, it seems as if that power is somehow mysteriously draining out of Washington.  As Bromwich suggests, the president's words can still soar, but the actions he proposes show a remarkably consistent inability to leave the ground. Tom

The Voice
How Obama Became a Publicist for His Presidency (Rather Than the President)
By David Bromwich

Like many days, March 3rd saw the delivery of a stern opinion by President Obama. To judge by recent developments in Ukraine, he said, Russia was putting itself "on the wrong side of history." This might seem a surprising thing for an American president to say. The fate of Soviet Communism taught many people to be wary of invoking History as if it were one's special friend or teammate. But Obama doubtless felt comfortable because he was quoting himself. "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent," he said in his 2009 inaugural address, "know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." In January 2009 and again in March 2014, Obama was speaking to the world as its uncrowned leader.

For some time now, observers -- a surprisingly wide range of them -- have been saying that Barack Obama seems more like a king than a president. Leave aside the fanatics who think he is a "tyrant" of unparalleled powers and malignant purpose. Notions of that sort come easily to those who look for them; they are predigested and can safely be dismissed. But the germ of a similar conclusion may be found in a perception shared by many others. Obama, it is said, takes himself to be something like a benevolent monarch -- a king in a mixed constitutional system, where the duties of the crown are largely ceremonial. He sees himself, in short, as the holder of a dignified office to whom Americans and others may feel naturally attuned.

A large portion of his experience of the presidency should have discouraged that idea. Obama's approval ratings for several months have been hovering just above 40%. But whatever people may actually think of him, the evidence suggests that this has indeed been his vision of the presidential office -- or rather, his idea of his function as a holder of that office. It is a subtle and powerful fantasy, and it has evidently driven his demeanor and actions, as far as reality permitted, for most of his five years in office.

What could have given Obama such a strange perspective on how the American political system was meant to work? Let us not ignore one obvious and pertinent fact. He came to the race for president in 2007 with less practice in governing than any previous candidate. At Harvard Law School, Obama had been admired by his professors and liked by his fellow students with one reservation: in an institution notorious for displays of youthful pomposity, Obama stood out for the self-importance of his "interventions" in class. His singularity showed in a different light when he was elected editor of the Harvard Law Review -- the first law student ever to hold that position without having published an article in a law journal. He kept his editorial colleagues happy by insisting that the stance of the Review need not be marked by bias or partisanship. It did not have to be liberal or conservative, libertarian or statist. It could be "all of the above."

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This pattern -- the ascent to become presider-in-chief over large projects without any encumbering record of commitments -- followed Obama into a short and uneventful legal career, from which no remarkable brief has ever been cited. In an adjacent career as a professor of constitutional law, he was well liked again, though his views on the most important constitutional questions were never clear to his students. The same was true of his service as a four-term Illinois state senator, during which he cast a remarkable number of votes in the noncommittal category of "present" rather than "yea" or "nay." Finally, the same pattern held during his service in the U.S. Senate, where, from his first days on the floor, he was observed to be restless for a kind of distinction and power normally denied to a junior senator.

Extreme caution marked all of Obama's early actions in public life. Rare departures from this progress-without-a-trail -- such as his pledge to filibuster granting immunity to the giants of the telecommunications industry in order to expose them to possible prosecution for warrantless surveillance -- appear in retrospect wholly tactical. The law journal editor without a published article, the lawyer without a well-known case to his credit, the law professor whose learning was agreeably presented without a distinctive sense of his position on the large issues, the state senator with a minimal record of yes or no votes, and the U.S. senator who between 2005 and 2008 refrained from committing himself as the author of a single piece of significant legislation: this was the candidate who became president in January 2009.

The Man Without a Record

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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