Who is Barack Obama?

I’m someone who is far from sympathetic to postmodernism, seeing it as, at best, mildly interesting observations couched in a silly insular language and, at worst, reactionary attitudes presenting themselves as radical intellectual chic. Yet I find it difficult to watch a video like the one below and not feel compelled to go running back to Baudrillard. News just in: the President swatted a fly! Isn’t that cool? Well, to be entirely honest, I think it is. Or at least I did when I first saw the video. Yet I also find it absurd that I had that reaction. Even more so the fact that this act (so fitting for a POTUS who chose the Secret Service codename Renegade)  was covered so widely in the media. So what’s going on?

In his book The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad Tariq Ali, the ‘urbane, Oxford-educated polemicist’, sheds some light on these questions. This short book, which has the air of an essay project which spiralled out of control once Ali got writing, has a twin focus: the underlying continuities which can be witnessed in Obama’s domestic and foreign policy, in relation to what went before, as well as the spirited and incisive attempts made by the administration and its defenders – to present these continuities as anything but. Ali’s writing is, as always, thorough and pointed, continually substantiating his claims without losing the flow of his polemic. However he is at his most adept when it comes to picking apart the prevailing narratives about the President which abound in the contemporary United States:

“on Fox television and right-wing radio, where these venues’ shallow, coarse and swaggering rabble regularly present Obama as a ‘socialist’ who is soft on Islam, not sufficiently pro-Israel, and may not even have been born in the United States and therefore may even be an ‘illegal president’ but in any case certainly remains an out-of-control radical. If only. None of the right-wing hysteria bears any relation to reality.”

But we know all this, don’t we? Obama himself tore this idiocy apart with genuinely impressive comic timing (another example of how cool Renegade is) at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

If we reject this view, it still begs the question of who Obama is and how he fits into the current politics of the US. Ali also takes aim at the common liberal doxa of Obama as an (overly?) consensus-orientated politician, a good and intelligent man in a wicked and corrupt system:

“The portrayal of Obama as a good man in a bad world is no more convincing. The argument that compromises are sometimes essential to achieve limited progressive aims is correct. The problem is that Obama, while an extremely intelligent human being, is not a progressive leader by any stretch of the imagination. Wishing that he were is fine but does not bring about the required transformation.

In reality, Barack Obama is a skilful and gifted machine politician who rapidly rose to the top. Once that is understood there is little more about him that should surprise anyone: to talk of betrayal is foolish, for nothing has been betrayed but one’s own illusions.”

So if neither of these prevailing views are correct then who is Barack Obama? The difficulty of answering this question is why I presaged this post with a couple of sentences about postmodernism. We know Obama, intimately, yet we don’t. He’s written a genuinely engaging, multi-million selling memoir. He’s done talk show appearances (complete with all-too-human gaffes) in a way no other President has done. Yet the man is a chimera, an empty signifier onto which an entire country’s dreams and nightmares can be projected. It would be naive to think that Obama, as well as his team, are anything other than intimately aware of this fact. Nonetheless, the question remains: who is Barack Obama? I can’t answer that question. Nor can Tariq Ali. But he does compile some interesting quotes from former acquaintances of Obama when he was embedded in the brutal machine politics of Chicago. While not answering the question, they left me with the thought that the answer lies in the memories of those who knew the man behind the renegade in his earlier career:

“He’s a vacuous opportunist. I’ve never been an Obama supporter. I’ve known him since the very beginning of his political career, which was his campaign for the seat in my state senate district in Chicago. He struck me then as a vacuous opportunist, a good performer with an ear for how to make white liberals like him. I argued at the time that his fundamental political center of gravity, beneath an empty rhetoric of hope and change and new directions, is neoliberal.” – Adolph Reed, African American scholar and activist

“Barack leaned over and stuck his jagged, strained face into my space and told me in an eerie, dark voice that came from some secret place within the ugly side of him, ‘You embarrassed me on the Senate floor and if you ever do it again I will kick your ass!’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You heard me, [expletive], and if you come back here by the telephones, where the press can’t see it, I’ll kick your ass right now!’ – Rickie Hendon, African American politician during Obama’s time in the Illinois state senate.

“‘It’s amazing how he formed a black identity,’ Rush said, rising from his desk and starting, theatrically, to sashay across his office, mimicking Obama’s sinuous walk. ‘Barack’s walk is an adaptation of the strut that comes from the street. There’s a certain break at the knees as you walk and you get a certain roll going. Watch. You see?’ Rush laughed at his own imitation. ‘And he’s the first president of the United States to walk like that, I can guarantee you that! But lemme tell you, I never noticed that he walked like that back then.'” – former Black Panther Bobby Rush who beat Obama in a 2000 congressional primary.

Written for SociologicalImagination.Org


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