The Greasy Pole

We Need to Fall Out of Love With Obama

It’s hard to imagine the current scandals wreathing the White House will do much to dim the glowing image of Barack Obama over here. The fact various administration officials targeted political opponents with tax probes, spied on journalists and failed to protect the Benghazi embassy seems strangely separate from image of Australia’s most popular president. But if we’re paying attention at all, this should be the point we put away the cardboard cutout of Obama forever. It no longer looks anything like the real thing.

As usual, you can blame George Bush. There’s a strong West Wing tendency in uncertain times to imagine a parallel universe presidency, a jerk-off fantasy version of the Oval Office where the hard decisions are taken by a good man. Obama was us finally getting the dream girl. His feted eloquence was also in short supply domestically, where the gear-grinding prosody of our politicians was reaching a new low. Imagine this guy selling the carbon tax, the left pined. The fact that the soaring rhetoric rarely seemed to land went unnoticed.

Remember this line from 2008? "This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal." That ethereal skein of gossamer twaddle sank without a trace, the administration’s efforts at climate change resistance getting no further than larding some electric car companies. As speech-fodder boondoggles go, it’s a harmless one; not so “this was the moment when we ended a war”. It was in fact the moment Obama began waging five wars of varying illegality, making him the only recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize less worthy than Henry Kissinger.

Being someone other than George W. Bush has been Obama’s greatest achievement - it won him the Nobel, and it won him the enduring love of the Australian public. But I’m not sure the comparison is such a flattering one. In hindsight, Bush Jr looks like a decent, weak and incompetent man, poorly advised and swamped by the tidal wide of events. In codifying his predecessor most maligned mistakes, Obama can call on none of those excuses. Not only have Obama’s actions effectively endorsed the Bush doctrine, they’ve automated it in the form of the Disposition Matrix, an algorithmically-driven program of capture, killing and rendition, subject to almost no oversight, run by a torture apologist, and with an indefinite time-frame of operation. This week the administration admitted it had been used to extrajudicially assassinate four US citizens outside the theatre of battle.

Obama had a mandated chance to trim the creeping tendrils of executive paranoia, and instead, inexcusably, he’s let them grow, fouling the separation of powers and the rule of law in the process. The current scandals look distinct, but together they’re very significant - they represent the seep of the Disposition Matrix mentality from the foreign sphere to the domestic, where the targets are threats of disclosure and opposition from political enemies, journalists and even principled objectors inside the security state itself.

Here, none of this seems to have taken the shine off Obama the Good, an image so powerful it’s now running as a parallel presidency. You can see it in the omissions of Assange’s supporters - if only Obama knew what Obama was doing to Assange, they seem to say, he’d put a stop to it. That’s not going to cut it any more when we’re talking about a man who has prosecuted more leakers than every other US administration combined. Australians need to stop crediting Obama with not being George Bush - that’s no achievement if he turns out to be worse.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 

@rgcooke

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