Misery in the age of Obama

Published in The Express Tribune – cover photo by Scott Olson

Best known for a blistering stand-up routine (and voicing an animated zebra), Chris Rock is angry at the world again. In a recent rant to New York, Rock proved his powers of observation weren’t just limited to situational comedy — the Obama Administration might have wished they were.

To say Obama is progress, is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. My kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced.

Rock’s comments come two years after endorsing Mr. Obama as ‘a white president you can trust.’ Battered by healthcare, bruised by immigration, and held hostage by Republicans, it’s now come to this: Barack Obama’s lost the plot on race.

Because America’s recent race riots have shown three things: for a nation that made a statue out of liberty, the police are brutal. For a nation so rich, the justice system is broken. And for a place premised on equality, the rivers of racial bias run deep and flow free.

That this is happening while a black man sits in the lily-white White House isn’t a tragedy, it’s a pattern — Barack Obama’s surrendered everything he vowed to fight for.

In his leaner days in the ’90s, an unknown community organiser wrote one of the most beautiful memoirs ever written, subtitling it A Story of Race and Inheritance. And seconds after his swearing in, it was race that powered a long, lyrical inaugural address, ‘Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free.’

Speaking on the same subject today, Mr. Obama is a different person. The facts are stark: on the suspicion of ‘selling single cigarettes without tax stamps,’ Eric Garner was put in a chokehold by the police last July. A civilian cell phone captured it all on video: Mr. Garner dying from his neck caving in. But a grand jury opted against indicting the white officer who killed him, and rage and riots followed.

Consider the agony: Eric Garner said ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times before he died.

This was Mr. Obama’s chance, and he didn’t take it. Fresh from Ferguson, the president’s usual eloquence deserted him, ‘It is incumbent upon all of us as Americans — regardless of race, region, faith — that we recognise this is an American problem, not just a black problem.’

Barack Obama was wrong, and Chris Rock was right: White America was the problem. Witnessing protestors — black, white, and Hispanic — cry ‘I can’t breathe’ is evidence enough.

But race may just be the latest domino to fall. For all other issues, Mr. Obama had already become the king across the sea. While George W. surrounded himself with millionaires, Mr. Obama surrounded himself with columnists — and watched his opinion polls plummet anyway.

Not all of it is awful. As a campaigner, Mr. Obama was a phenomenon in every sense of the word: between beating angry old McCain in ’08, and then outdoing McMillionaire Romney in ’12, Obama topped 51 per cent of the vote twice: not seen since Eisenhower. And as president, he finally kicked the economy awake. His real dreams however — health and immigration — were sabotaged by the reds at every turn.

And yet the damning indictment comes not from the usual suspects: the crazy people on Fox, the jackals on Wall Street, the good offices of Rumsfeld, Cheney & Co. Mr. Obama is being bashed by his believers instead; or at least, those who may once have believed him.

The criticism ranges from stand-up comics to civil rights activists, from rabble-rousing populists like Michael Moore to Washington sophisticates like Vali Nasr. Different Americas have grown tired of Mr. Obama, just as Mr. Obama has grown tired of Capitol Hill. And there’s no clearer alarm bell than when Jimmy Carter thumps you on foreign policy.

In retrospect, it was impossible not to be taken in by the whole thing: Barack Hussein seemed the seal of a 21st century, post-racial, post-Reagan America. By the same token, Senator Barry’s own dreary career — patronised by white liberals and the Daley machine in Chicago — seemed irrelevant.

But leaving aside the record at home, Mr. Obama has floundered abroad.

‘I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,’ Mr. Obama once said, after the blighted Bush years. ‘[…] One based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.’

Yet as of this writing, the president has already bombed seven countries. They are, in order of Muslim population, Syria at 93 per cent, Pakistan at 96 per cent, Libya at 97 per cent, Somalia and Iraq at 98 per cent, and Afghanistan and Yemen at 99 per cent. In an unrelated percentage, 55 per cent Americans think Obama doesn’t deserve the Nobel Peace Prize either.

Cairo, where Mr. Obama spoke those golden words, was once evolving toward a democratic order; it is now back under the combat boots of General Sisi, with the warm tidings of the Obama Administration (and not a few Gulf kings).

That pattern — the grand gesture followed by a muddling slog— remains unbroken. In his first week as president, Mr. Obama swore to shut down Guantanamo; it remains wide open. He inherited fresh wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from George W.; he will leave behind fresh wars in Iraq and Syria (not to Brother Jeb, God help). He thought to reset ties with Russia; Russia reset Ukraine for his trouble.

His contempt for Pakistan, however, was constant. His resounding legacy — the drone strike — is quintessential Obama: clinical, hypocritical, and counterproductive. It is hoped the deaths of 168 children, via Hellfire missile, pray on his conscience, and the consciences of the Pakistani state and establishment that were utterly complicit.

At the end of it, Mr. Obama may not come to signify evil in the world as intentionally as the Bush boys did. But his legacy has already begun defining itself, somewhere between aloofness and inadequacy. For a man thought to be the deliverer, that is a sour dusk.