Ferguson article on Obama’s unique brand of hazy bullshit

I didn’t invest much emotion in the election’s outcome, but I welcome Obama’s win nonetheless. Democratic administrations are just more interesting than Republican ones. And they have the potential to activate left movements. The “soft” left gets to see that Democrats are war criminals and gay bashers and environmental sellouts and corporate shills same as the Republicans—plus budget balancers, neoliberals and “law and order” guys all on their own. They remember that the long, slow erosion of economic security plods along no matter who is in office. Their checks level out or shrink as their hours and debt increase. Worst of all, they realize they didn’t organize against it because they didn’t expect it from a Democrat, or thought it was the price to pay for all the good stuff they thought he’d do. And sometimes—recalling the Nader phenomenon at the end of the Clinton years—this kicks things into gear.

I know that Obama will let you down because that’s what Democratic presidents do. I know he won’t do shit for the working class because there is no such thing as “presidents doing shit for the working class.”


Anyway, I came across an old article about Obama in the neoconservative magazine Weekly Standard. Its called, “The Wit and Wisdom of Barack Obama” by Andrew Ferguson. I’d been reflecting on how Obama’s relatively progressive, “left-wing” moments (in speeches and his campaign book) are never articulated in the rich detail we suspect he must be capable of. Actually, we know he is capable of it, but never where it counts. He likes to suggest “bad things” with vaguely “economic” causes—but they always seem to happen to us, like the weather, rather than be done to us. (The implication being, of course, that Obama can help fix these.)

Ferguson concludes that his chronic vagueness is a cover for what Obama believes the real causes are, but can’t say out loud. Among others, the author suspects Obama blames the chief directors and beneficiaries of capitalism—such as “stockholders [and] managers of globalized companies”—for these ills. And of course, the right-wing Ferguson thinks Obama is wrong to cast blame there. Obama has to talk about the problems but can’t blame capitalists out loud because he would cease to be the “uniter” and positive force he has branded himself.

Ferguson is dead on with the diagnosis, but his conclusion is off. The drivers and beneficiaries of capitalism—indeed, capitalism itself—are indeed to blame for Americans’ “despair.” But Obama doesn’t believe this any more than Ferguson does. His business-friendly, moderate-to-conservative voting record proves this. What’s more, his donor roll of downsizers, sub-prime lenders, would-be social security privatizers, and the lawyers and lobbyists that represent them, shows that he wouldn’t be free to do anything about it if he did.

Yes, Obama isn’t telling the truth. Either he wants us to think that capitalists and capitalism are the problem, and that he is the one to buck them—the opposite of what he believes to be the case—or he is being cynically “suggestive” without anyone in particular in mind for us to blame.

[Below is a good excerpt from Ferguson’s article. The entire piece can be read here.]

Ferguson writes:

“…Obama truly is the unity candidate. There is no white America or black America, as he says; no blue states or red states, in his famous formulation, but only the United States of America. And what unites all these people—what unites us—is our shared status as victims.

Unfortunately, this raises the question of who the victimizer is. It’s an uncomfortable question for a candidate who, having drawn such a depressing picture, wants to pivot toward the positive and upbeat and hopeful. Suddenly Obama’s gift for the identifying detail leaves him. With unaccustomed vagueness he refers to “lobbyists” and “overpaid CEOs” but never names them. It’s a world without human villains, improbably enough. Who are the agents of this despair? By whose hand has the country been brought so low? Whoever they are, they vanish in the fog of sentences like this: “We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents instead of coming together to make college affordable or energy cleaner.” So not even politicians in power are responsible; it’s decades of bitter partisanship that has forced them into demonization, and the demonization has in turn prevented them from getting things done.

This is a murky place. Cause and effect are blurred. Bad things happen though nobody does them. Instead we face disembodied entities, ghostly apparitions. “Make no mistake about what we’re up against,” he will announce, with what sounds, for a moment, like clarity; but then he goes on to say what we’re up against: “the belief that it’s okay for lobbyists to dominate our government”; “the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington”; “forces that feed the habits that prevent us from being who we are”; “the idea that it’s acceptable to do anything to win an election.”

Some agents of despair these turn out to be! A belief, a way of thinking, an idea, forces that feed habits, and decades of partisanship. He won’t even bring himself to blame Republicans.”


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