Johann Hari: The real reason Obama has let us all down

On the night he won, I too shed a little tear; but the people weeping today are those having their homes repossessed

Tuesday 26 October 2010 00:00 BST

Is Barack Obama a politician whose actions should be judged soberly, or a figure from a feel-good fairytale to be revered from afar?

For two years now, most of the good and honorable people who desperately wanted him to beat John McCain – as I did –have watched his actions through a distorting haze of hoping for the best. So when Obama set us all up for another global crash by refusing to reregulate the banks or stop even their riskiest practices, we looked away. When Obama set us all up for more terror attacks by trebling the troops in Afghanistan and launching a vicious air war on Pakistan that is swelling the ranks of jihadis, we didn’t want to hear it. When Obama set us all up for environmental disaster by refusing to put the brakes on his country’s unprecedented and unmatched emissions of climate-destabilizing gases, we switched over to watch’s YouTube rejig of the President’s “yes, we can” speech. And when a week from now he is beaten at the mid-term elections – after having so little to show the American people – by a group of even more irrational Republicans, we will weep for him.

As Rober D. Hodge writes in his excellent new book ‘The Mendacity of Hope’, “Obama is judged not as a man but as a fable, a tale of moral uplift that redeems the sins of America’s shameful past.” Our longing for him to be Martin Luther King reborn has meant good people have not pushed and pressured and opposed him, even as he endangered us.

But if you choose to see this as another fairytale – of how one man who seemed like a Good Prince turned out to be a Traitor – you will miss the point, and the real need for change. This is not primary a question of individual failings, but of the endemic corruption at the core of American politics. The facts are not hidden. If you want to run for national office in the US, you have to raise huge sums of money from corporations and very rich people to pay for the adverts and the mailings that get you on the ballot and into office. These corporations will only give you money if you persuade them that you will serve their interests once you are in power. If you say instead that you want to prevent anything destructive they are doing to ordinary people, or tax and regulate them, you will get no money, and can’t run.

As the Wisconsin politician Ed Garvey puts it: “Even candidates who get into politics with the best of intentions start thinking they can’t get re-elected without money. Senators get so reliant on the money that they reflect it; they stop thinking for themselves, stop thinking like the people who elected them. They just worry about getting the money.”

Barack Obama knows this. In 2006, he said that taking money from the rich is “the original sin of anyone who’s ever run for office” in the US, and it ensures that “Washington is only open to those with the most cash.” There’s a term for this: legalized bribery. It is so naked that corporations routinely give to both sides in an election: Goldman Sachs, to name just one, gave to both Obama and McCain to ensure whoever became President was indebted to them.

In the Land of the Fee, Obama was brought to power by the “donations” – actually investments – of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, IBM, Morgan Stanley, General Electric, and others. So it is unsurprising that his Presidency has largely served their interests, which are very different from our interests. His first act after the election was to appoint an economics team headed by the people who caused the crash: the Clinton-era deregulators and the former heads of Goldman. They proceeded to ensure that any reregulation to prevent another crash was gutted, while the bankers’ bonuses continued to flow. In his official report to Congress, Treasury Department Inspector General Neil Barofsky warned this year: “It is hard to see how any of the fundamental problems in the system have been addressed to date… We are still driving on the same winding mountain road, but this time in a faster car.”

The corporations are getting massive returns on their investment in Obama. Two-thirds of them pay no federal tax on their income. These corporations get to veto any law that would eat into their short-term profits, like a freeze on kicking Americans out of their homes while the banks’ dodgy and probably illegal boom-time mortgages contracts are clarified, or a transition away from climate-destabilising oil and coal. And they rake in a fortune from the reality that 44 percent of the entire federal budget is spent on a largely unnecessary war machine – a figure that is growing rapidly on Obama’s watch.

The fact that corporations have this power over what the US government can do means Obama – or any other President – is unable to approach a problem by asking: how do I fix this? Instead he has to ask: how can we get corporations to consent to a small cosmetic gesture that will, for a while, appease public anxiety and anger about this problem?

The healthcare “reform” trumpeted as Obama’s greatest achievement illustrates how this works. The biggest problem with US healthcare is that squatting between a doctor and his patient are the bloated insurance companies whose job is to turn down any claim from a sick person they possibly can, in order to maximize their profits. Some 45,000 Americans die every year as a result. Obama had within his grasp a way of taming these corporations and saving the lives of all these people. It was called the public option: a government-run healthcare insurance programme that would guarantee affordable care to all American citizens. It was supported by 61 percent of Americans. But it would cut into corporate profits – so Obama’s outgoing chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, said its defenders were “fucking retards,” and the administration killed it.

Instead, Obama pursued the polar opposite approach. He guaranteed the healthcare companies that he would never use the bargaining power of the government to force their prices down. His “reform” has been simply to force millions more Americans to buy from the insurance companies – without any mechanism for making that care more affordable. There were a few brilliant tweaks, like making it illegal for the corporations to refuse insurance to people with “pre-existing conditions” – but their share-prices jumped after the package was announced for a reason: Obama overwhelmingly served their interests, not the patients’. At the end of this, millions will be still left uncovered, and others financially broken, so a tiny number of corporations can profit. If Obama can’t stand up to corporations in a situation where Americans are demonstrably being killed in huge numbers and a majority is behind him, isn’t his subservience almost complete?

All this corruption means Obama has very few achievements to show the American people. He is left presenting pitiful corporate-fattening tweaks as the best he could do. They aren’t nothing – but they aren’t much. His inadequate stimulus was slightly bigger than McCain’s would have been, so unemployment is about 2 percent lower. He has restored federal funding for stem cell research, and for abortions abroad. He hasn’t bombed Iran. These make a real difference: they’re reason enough to vote Democratic over Republican. But we have to be honest: the continuities with Bush are far more pronounced than the differences.

There are Democrats who refuse to be corporate shills – and they deserve to be defended with every ounce of your energy. If you’re an American and you have time over the next week, phone bank or donate to Representative Alan Grayson, or Senator Russ Feingold, to name two of the best who do it the hard way, run their campaigns by collecting small donations, and actually defend the American people. But they are, alas, a minority in the Democratic Party.

Contrary to the glib stereotype, Americans aren’t stupid, and they can see what is happening: a recent CNN poll found 60 percent of Americans said Obama “has paid more attention to the problems faced by banks and other financial institutions than to the problems faced by middle class Americans.” They’re right. It’s not that they want him to be “more liberal” or “more conservative”: few think in these terms. No. They are asking – is my job more secure? Is my home more secure? Is my healthcare more affordable? And the answer is no, not really. They know the people who caused the crash are fatter than ever, while the people who had nothing to do with it take the pain, and Obama is left calling this farce progress. In the absence of a liberal populism that would have actually fixed these problems, all the oxygen goes to the fake populism of the Tea Party. US politics has ended up as a battle between the mostly corrupt and the entirely corrupt.

I’m sure Obama believes he is doing the best he can in a corrupt system – but it’s not true. There is another way. Imagine if, when he came to office, he had articulated the real solutions – and, when he was blocked, named the corrupt corporations and the corrupt Senators stopping him getting healthcare for sick children or preventing another crash. Explain that it is time to drive the money-lenders out of the temple of American democracy. Tell the American people they will always be screwed over until they end this corruption and pay for the democratic process themselves, and propose serious measures to achieve it. Call for a mass movement to back him, just as Franklin Roosevelt did – and succeeded. At least then there would be a possibility of real progress. Would the outcome conceivably have been worse than this – being beaten by the foaming Tea Party Republicans with almost nothing to show for it?

At moments, there have been flickers of what this alternative Obama Presidency would have looked like. His huge government bailout of the auto industry kept millions of people in work, was hugely popular – and is already making a profit for the government. In the final days of this election campaign, he is railing against the massive corporate donations to the Republicans – a hypocrisy, for sure, but a popular one, pointing to a better path he might have chosen, and still could, if enough sane Americans shake themselves awake and pressure him hard.

Yes, on the night Obama won, I too felt that great global ripple of hope, and shed a little tear – but the people weeping today are those having their homes repossessed in the Rust Belt and their homes blown to pieces in the SWAT Valley as a direct result of Obama’s decisions. They are the ones who deserve our empathy now, not the most powerful man in the world, who has chosen to settle into and defend a profoundly corrupt system, rather than challenge and change it. It’s long past time to put away your Obama t-shirt that and take out your protest banner.

For updates on this issue and others, you can follow Johann on twitter at:; or you can email him at:

To watch Johann on US TV discussing Britain's austerity cuts, click here:

To read Johann's latest article for 'Slate', about one of the great taboos of our time, click here:

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