Barack Obama and the Cunning of American Exceptionalism

Barack Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land, came out as the world was looking at the US with anticipation and mistrust. It was published as the world awaited the results of the US presidential elections, between the clownish Donald Trump and the visibly incompetent Joseph Biden. The book trumpets the American model as the “promised land” against the failures of the American system that appeared most clearly in the last four years: a corrupt, populist, and maniacal leader at the top of US executive power; the colossal failure of the US medical system to respond to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic— even after Obama’s much-celebrated expansion of the healthcare system through the “Affordable Care Act”; and the general deterioration and defunding of the already rudimentary public services sector in the country. The book coincidentally came out shortly before the failures of the American system played out in the circus of January 6th, when demonstrators, clothed in outlandish costumes and carrying a mesh of medieval, confederate, white supremacist, and Nazi symbols, stormed Capitol Hill to block the ratification of the presidential elections, forcing the world to look at America not as a model but as a spectacle of failures, a farce.

Ideals Against Reality

The book’s readers are thus likely to experience dissonance. On the one side we have the realities, shortcomings, failures, and injustices that characterize the American system and model, and, on the other side the diametrically opposite promised America Obama paints. This dissonance is native to the text of A Promised Land, wherein Obama contradicts his propaganda for the American model with a constant (though generally moderate and shallow) criticism of the American system that did not allow him to implement the change he putatively espoused. Obama resolves this general dissonance through the false dichotomy between the reality of America and American ideals, America “that was promised,” or the American Dream.

This falsification does more than evade criticism. It further mobilizes criticisms of this reality as themselves part of the American ideal and steps towards the deferred realization of the American promise. American history, according to Obama, becomes the stage for “a fundamental contest between two opposing visions of what America is and what it should be”

This contest, which “has defined the American experience,” according to Obama, is “embedded in founding documents that could simultaneously proclaim all men equal and yet count a slave as three-fifth a man. It finds expression in our earliest court opinions, as when the chief justice of the Supreme Court bluntly explains to Native Americans that their tribe’s rights to convey property aren’t enforceable since the court of the conqueror has no capacity to recognize the just claims of the conquered.” Obama then moves from acknowledging (and arguably belittling) the injustices ingrained within the American system—and somehow endowing these injustices with a duality that redeems the American system and erases the plight of the victims of its injustices at the very moment of its acknowledgement, to mobilizing moments of resistance to the American system as themselves landmarks on the road to the American promise: “It’s a contest that’s been fought on the fields of Gettysburg and Appomattox [i.e. the American Civil War, mythologized as a war to end slavery] but also in the halls of Congress, on a bridge in Selma [i.e. the Civil Rights movement], across the vineyards of California, and down the streets of New York—a contest fought by soldiers but more often by union organizers, suffragists, Pullman porters, student leaders, waves of immigrants, and LGBTQ activists, armed with nothing more than pickets signs, pamphlets, or a pair of marching shoes.”

The trajectory of these movements, however, tell a different story. The American system imposed a ceiling on the successes of these movements; as is the case of the systemic and individual anti-Blackness, especially but not exclusively by a prison system that disproportionately targets Black populations and a police force that assaults Black people with impunity. The American system further mobilized the little successes of these movements to promote further injustice; the election of the first Black president as an alibi for anti-Blackness; the repealing of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy under Obama, thus allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the near-genocidal wars of the American empire and market the US military and its conquests as progressive and gay-friendly. The mismatch between the American system and any ideals of justice or radical inclusion is irreconcilable. In a settler colonial context and under the realities of American capitalism and systemic racism, any inclusion is always at the expense of someone else, and any change is mobilized to foreclose change.

The Change to Foreclose Change

In the course of the attempts to posit American ideals as contrary to American reality, Obama asks “Do we care to match the reality of America to its ideals?” Obama’s presidency, however, even according to his memoir, was marked by a commitment to the reality of America even at the expense of these supposed ideals (including the ones that were part of his electoral campaign).

Throughout his apologia, Obama’s repeated and constant failures to implement change, his compromises, his reneging on electoral promises and reform slogans, are themselves marketed as a new kind of politics that eschews the political “bickering” and “partisan food fights” that have characterized the Washington scene, for the sake of new harmonious bipartisanship. In other words, the change Obama enthusiastically sought to introduce is a change that strengthens the forces of the status quo.

Obama’s commitment to resist change was clear from day one of his presidency when he appointed administrators that represented the establishment and the status quo: Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Joseph Biden, and the list goes on. This commitment to the status quo, coded as unity and bipartisanship, extended to Obama’s relationship with Congress, even when both chambers were controlled by a Democratic majority, during the first “mid-term” of his presidency. This was most evidently the case in his administration’s dealing with the healthcare portfolio that led to the issuing of the “Affordable Care Act” (commonly referred to as Obamacare).

The promise to establish a universal healthcare system was one of the prominent items in Obama’s electoral campaign. Whereas the drive to establish such a system would have necessitated the collision with the forces of the status quo (not only the Republican Party and right-leaning members of the Democratic Party or Democratic members of the Congress who answered to right-leaning constituencies, but also the insurance companies and the entire medical-industrial complex), this is a battle Obama could have very likely won—and without even resorting to the arsenal of Trumpesque executive, backdoor, legal, and para-legal practices at the hands of the president, which might have indeed undermined Obama’s re-electability.

An aggressive public relations campaign on behalf of universal healthcare was likely to garner the support of large sectors of the mainstream media, could have won over large sectors of the American public who desperately need affordable medical services, and may have in fact countered the bias many Americans hold against all forms of governmental intervention. At worst, such a campaign could have pressured some of the harsh opponents and critics of universal healthcare into silence. Triumph, to be clear, was not guaranteed, but this was a battle where confrontation was more than likely to prove fruitful. Instead, Obama resorted to preemptive defeat.

Instead of confrontation, Obama made sure to present to Congress a watered down version of the healthcare bill. Whereas Obama’s plan was already based on the Mitt Romney implemented in Massachusetts, Obama made sure that the final version of the bill preemptively appease its critics and detractors: “divisive,” in other words real changes, like the “public option” or the attempt to curtail the power insurance companies hold (effectively over the life and death of the residents and citizens of the US), were completely shunned. Obama only disingenuously engaged the public relations front with timid defenses that failed to offer a clear refutation to outrageous fabrications by the bill’s detractors— including the conservative claim that the bill introduced death panels that would determine who gets healthcare and who is denied life support; Obama lacked the critical courage to point out that under the American regime of undeterred market capitalism, insurance companies already perform this function.

Obama’s failure to shape public opinion on this matter, nay his shunning of any real attempts to engage in a struggle to shape or transform public opinion, is inseparable from his dedication to the American system as it stands: winning over impoverished Americans (many of them right-leaning white working class members) to support the plan to provide them with the healthcare they desperately needed would have required challenging one of the most profoundly engrained mythologies of America: that wealth and welfare are exclusively the product of hard work, that those who worked hard have made it, and that those who lack the means for basic welfare simply need to work harder or else it is their fault. In short, a public opinion campaign on behalf of universal healthcare would have necessarily challenged the American Dream.

The American Dream and the Emperor’s Dilemma

A Promised Land is a lengthy apologia for the American system; a tedious apology for Obama’s failures to implement change. It presents his renewed dedication to the American model, the American system, the American dream, and American exceptionalism. The irony, however, is that the apology Obama presents for his failures is that the American system would not have allowed such changes as the ones he promised and allegedly sought to implement: the same American system to which he renews his dedication and allegiance on almost every page of the book.

Perhaps there will always remain those who look up to the American model and are easily duped by American propaganda, the American media, and the glossy memoirs of hypocritical politicians. There will also always be those of us who are vigilant observers, who refuse to deny or belittle the histories and present of racism, discrimination, genocide, and exploitation that propagandists try to sweep under the carpet of the America Dream; those of us who identify Trump’s presidency as not an exception to but an emblem of the American polity; and those who see, when they look at Washington, not the ambiguous promises of Obama and co., but the Congress and White House that sanction the violence of Empire, and the January 6 circus.

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