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Obama’s America

Change the government and you change the country, Paul Keating once said. But eighteen months into his first term, how much has Barack Obama’s America really changed, asks Dennis Altman

Dennis Altman 12 June 2010 2191 words

President Obama at a Cinco de Mayo reception at the White House last month. Matt Ortega/Flickr

IT WOULD be gratifying to be able to say that visiting Obama’s America was tangibly different from the experience when George W. Bush was president, but it would be untrue. The immigration officials at Los Angeles Airport were pleasant, but they usually are if you arrive with an Australian passport. Flying through US airports remains less pleasant, as bulky fellow passengers divest themselves – slowly – of far too much hand baggage, shoes, belts and other potential weapons of destruction. But, like plastic knives on board, this is the price of pretending we know how to prevent terrorist attacks.

Nor has the political atmosphere in the United States noticeably softened. One of Barack Obama’s promises was to move beyond the divides of the 1960s, to unify the country after forty years of cultural wars. In this he has failed spectacularly. The United States remains deeply polarised and the language of its political debate is increasingly truculent and uncivil. On the interminable television current-affairs talk shows, commentators interrupt each other constantly, without even the pretence of listening to each other.

The paranoia of the right towards Obama echoes the hostility of left-wing critics of two earlier presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, without the leavening humour that was part of earlier protest. One of the more depressing moments during my visit came when I was browsing through the stacks in a Seattle bookshop, where the politics section was crammed with titles like The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality and How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting the U.S. Economy. Clearly such books sell, even in downtown Seattle, one of the “bluest” cities in the already liberal north-west.

No different, you might say, from the rhetoric now being deployed against the Rudd government, but the tone of the Republican right, and particularly of its disreputable cousin, the Tea Party, goes far beyond Australian political language. There is a mix of anger and a sense of betrayal that has infused many on the right, leading to bizarre results in several recent primary elections. The victors have been Republican candidates who repudiate even the hardliners in their own party whom they regard as not having been sufficiently energetic in opposing Obama’s attempts to create an American bolshevism.

In language even more colourful than Barnaby Joyce’s, the right now denounces Obama for the stimulus spending initiated by President Bush, without ever, it seems, questioning the breathtaking amounts spent on defence. Possibly some of this anger is displaced racism, and it is true that the Tea Party is remarkably white in composition. But it is perhaps more accurate to say that this movement represents one side of a general discontent with politics, a mood pervasive through the western world.

The whole of the House of Representatives, and a third of the Senate, are up for re-election in November, and the Democrats expect losses. Even in states like California and Illinois, both swept by Obama in the 2008 election, his party’s Senate candidates are in trouble. And a number of Democrats will survive by making clear they do not support the president on some key issues.

I was in Seattle for the premiere of a new opera, Amelia, which – despite the reference in its title to the legendary aviator – is primarily an opera about the ongoing impact of the Vietnam War on American life. (The opera, with music by Daron Aric Hagen, is based on the story of librettist Gardner McFall, whose father was shot down over Vietnam.) It’s hard not to see in this theme, and the success of films about the Iraq war – including this year’s Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker – growing uncertainty about the continuing military presence in Afghanistan, even though there is remarkably little debate about that commitment from either right or left.

This lack of debate is particularly disquieting as the parallels with Vietnam become more apparent: the endemic corruption of the Kabul government; the civilian casualties of the war; the attempt to win “hearts and minds” while ignoring the reality that the continued presence of foreign troops recruits support for “the enemy” (who, given the strange politics of Afghanistan and Pakistan, is not always clearly definable). It is as if the bitter debate in Iraq has left people exhausted, and they see no strategy other than the current one of escalating and then withdrawing, whatever the consequences.

The leftist protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s focused on war and race, but those of the right today clearly target economic matters, and seem to grow from a deeply held grievance that sees taxation as a way of stealing the hard-earned wealth of the deserving in order to subsidise the lazy and the undeserving. This is a persistent theme in American political life, and one Reagan milked successfully in his attacks on welfare cheats. It led to the unfortunate Proposition 13 in California, passed by referendum in 1978, which limits the ability of the state to raise taxes and helps explain the crisis in that state’s public sector today.

Few western countries hear as much about socialism as does the United States, where the term is applied to any expansion of government services, such as Obama’s much-watered-down healthcare reforms, and where large numbers of people can be mobilised around the spectre of growing government interference. This seems all the more odd given that most Americans are equally critical of Obama for not doing more to prevent the oil spill in the Mexican Gulf, but rhetoric has its own logic.

In practice Obama is a cautious centrist whose major project seems to be to create a greater acceptance of some restraint on the worst excesses of the capitalist individualism that has flourished since Gordon Gecko proclaimed that “Greed is good” in the 1987 film Wall Street. In trying to rein in the excesses of Wall Street, which turned out to be far greater than anything Gecko could have imagined, Obama is assailed from both right and left, attacked both for interfering with the market and for bringing into his administration the very people who oversaw the financial deregulation that proved so risky.

But if Obama has not succeeded in healing the divisions of American society, and has been unable to win bipartisan support for his major initiatives, he has, nonetheless, changed the United States. As Paul Keating said, change the government and you change the country. It is not accidental that Americans tend to think of their history as divided into four- or eight-year tranches, marked by particular presidents.

Most obviously, Obama’s election has changed racial politics, even if the latest research suggests that the income gap between African Americans and others is actually widening. There is a new self-confidence among black Americans, and a gradual decline in the remarkable social segregation that exists, symbolised by increasing rates of interracial marriage.

The new racial politics are symbolised by the relentless gentrification of Harlem, a major centre of African-American political and cultural life from the 1920s onwards, which had become associated with crime, drugs and poverty by the 1970s. Over the past decade, Harlem – some of whose streets recall the most genteel areas of London – has experienced huge real estate investment and significant demographic change. While still predominantly black it has become a fashionable part of New York, and these days no one says, as they often did twenty years ago, that it is dangerous to go above 96th Street. One evening I ate in the heart of Harlem in a restaurant whose cooking could have come from MasterChef, and most of whose patrons were not African American. My companions included Americans who had grown up hearing stories of slavery passed down through their grandparents.

Of course racism remains, but it is more likely to be directed against unwanted immigrants, as became clear when the state of Arizona passed legislation allowing identity checks of anyone who might appear to be an illegal migrant, which in practice means anyone who looks poor and Mexican.

The differences in wealth and basic security that separate the two countries across the Rio Grande poses a political problem for the United States beside which the apparent issue of “boat people” in Australia is trivial. And, again, it is a bitterly polarising issue, and balancing the fear and anger over illegal entrants against the growing Hispanic vote, and against the reality that these immigrants perform much of the labour no one else is prepared to do, is a dilemma neither Bush nor Obama has been able to resolve.

On so-called social issues Obama is quietly reversing the fundamentalism of the Bush years. He lifted Bush’s ban on stem-cell research and ended federal support for abstinence education, whose success was so vividly symbolised by the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s daughter. The gay movement is angry at Obama’s slowness to embrace their concerns, but he has set in train a process of ending discrimination in the military, an issue on which Bill Clinton failed. He is seeking to appoint a liberal woman justice to the Supreme Court, although it will take at least one more vacancy – unlikely to occur in this presidential term – for the balance of the court to shift.

THAT President Obama has twice cancelled his visit to Indonesia and Australia reminds us that for any politician the home front is the most important, and this is particularly so in a mid-term election year.

Obama’s most difficult task in foreign policy is to persuade Americans that they need to adjust to a world in which American power is slowly declining. As he said in announcing a limited surge in Afghanistan: “Our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended – because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own.” In stressing his desire to develop more multilateral relations, and to move beyond Bush’s simple view of the world as divided between friends and enemies, Obama is a classic realist, who is willing to compromise on principles to achieve limited goals.

Do not expect this president to pressure allies such as Egypt, or powers such as China, to observe human rights better. Do not even expect too much pressure on Israel, whose actions since the attacks on Gaza in January have infuriated Obama. The combination of a powerful Democratic Jewish lobby and an even larger emotionally pro-Israeli Christian right in the Republican Party places real limits on how far he can shift American policy.

The combination of Obama and Hillary Clinton may be the most appealing presented to the outside world by the United States for fifty years, but it cannot disguise the emergence of a multi-polar world, in which countries such as China, India, Brazil, Russia, Iran and Turkey all seek to foster their influence, often coming together to thwart American desires.

Obama understands this in ways his predecessor clearly did not, and it was revealing that at the Copenhagen climate summit he ended up negotiating with the new developing powers, and largely ignoring Europe and Japan. But the wilful ignorance of the rest of the world in his country is a huge obstacle to developing a smarter foreign policy, one that recognises the centrality of issues such as climate change and food shortages to global security. Obama has, however, taken a major step by leading the way in developing a global response to uncontrolled nuclear proliferation.

In May the most discussed new film in the United States was the truly execrable Sex and the City II. Few of the comments seemed to understand the extent to which its parade of mindless consumerism was offensive to the Arab world in which it ostensibly takes place, or that this may aggravate the already troubled image of the United States across much of the world. Like so much of American popular culture this film underscores the attitudes Graeme Greene pointed to fifty-five years ago in The Quiet American.

Yet we should not rush to write off the United States. Sit for a while in Times Square, now freed of both cars and porn outlets, or walk through the newly landscaped areas of its big cities, such as Millennium Park in Chicago, and one is reminded of the vigour and diversity of the United States. As Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself”:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The United States will slowly lose its economic and military dominance, but this does not mean it has lost its ability to reinvigorate itself. The twenty-first will not be the American century in the way one might describe the second half of the twentieth. But the United States will remain the single most powerful influence on global ideas and imagination, and its universities, its entertainment industries and its intellectuals will continue to set much of the agenda of global debate. •

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