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Change We Can Truly, Deeply Believe In … or Not

January 20, 2009


On January 20th, 2009 at 12:05 pm EST, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the USA–the first African American to become president of a nation founded upon the institution of slavery.

The mainstream media has plenty of articles and commentary on the momentous historic significance of Obama’s inauguration and how it represents the renewal of America’s promise and a chance to restore its “moral credibility” in the world, etc.

One of the primary political themes that defined Obama’s campaign and in fact powerfully drove his popularity was the promise of “change.”

His presidential campaign slogans, for instance, repeatedly hammered upon this meme:

Change We Can Believe In.

Change is Coming.

The Change We Need.

For many grassroots supporters of Obama, he is the living embodiment of change both symbolically as the first African American president of the USA and in terms of a fundamental shift in policy from the Bush regime.

Barack Obama represents their greatest hopes. Their deepest desires. Their fondest dreams. 

The only question is whether this faith is warranted.

Is Obama’s audacity of hope based upon substantive reality, or is it merely a cruel illusion that will bring disappointment and shatter the aspirations of many?

Meet the New Boss

As has been noted by more critical analysts, Obama’s rhetoric of change is perhaps belied by his actual voting record in Congress, his public stand on policy issues, and his political appointments:

  • His voting for the FISA-free domestic spying bill in Congress despite his earlier promises to oppose it.
  • His support of the $700+ billion dollar bailout of Wall Street, with his aides pressing Congressional Republicans to allow the first $350 billion to be released.
  • The decision to retain Bush Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in the same post.
  • The selection of corporate centrists and war supporters like Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.
  • His appointment of people like Timothy Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury, Lawrence Summers as director of the National Economic Council, and Paul Volcker as head of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. These three figures in particular have a demonstrated track record of supporting economic austerity and free market “reform” policies. For instance, Geithner was head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank under Bush and thus a played a critical role in (mis)handling the current financial crisis.
  • His calls for increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan and US attacks on Pakistan, despite his putative antiwar reputation.  

Of course, some will suggest that the change Obama represents lies in the mere fact that he is the first African American president of the USA. As a result, some people have effectively abandoned critical questioning of Obama’s actual policy positions in favor of a “cult of personality” devotion to Obama the icon. In fact,  everything from Obama comic books to Obama sneakers has been popping up.

While the (racial) symbolism of Obama is to be noted, it begs the question as to how Obama will differ from his predecessors on actual concrete issues including that of White supremacy and racism.

In fact, during the Democratic Party presidential campaign, the NAACP did an extensive questionnaire and analysis of both Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s positions on important policy issues. The findings?

As one article put it, Obama and Clinton’s positions are remarkably similar, most often nearly identical in content, if not style.”

Even neoconservatives like William Kristol of the New York Times have noticed the continuity of Obama’s politics with the past, with Kristol titling an editorial about Obama accordingly: Continuity We Can Believe In.”

Indeed, Right Wingers have praised Obama’s cabinet choices in particular, with Dick Cheney giving the kiss of death/stamp of approval to Obama’s national security team.

An even better analysis is an article by Paul Street where he dissects the hidden political motivations that drove the rise of Barack Obama and how they likely will powerfully shape his regime:   Barack Obama: The Empire’s New Clothes.”

The gist of Street’s article is that Obama politically represents an attempt by the US ruling class to “rebrand America,” or give the USA a political face lift, so as to more effectively carry out the same basic foreign and domestic agendas–this time with a more progressive veneer.

Given that the past 8 years of the Bush regime have caused widespread political revulsion both around the world and domestically, US ruling class policies of economic austerity at home and American geopolitical expansionism abroad have been thrown into crisis. For the ruling class, there is a need to “change horses” and find a kinder, gentler political face in order to more convincingly sell these policies.

In contrast to the “Texas cowboy” George Bush, this person ideally should have a more multicultural heritage amendable to a world that is increasingly not White nor Western. Indeed, what better way to symbolize a break not only from the Bush era but also politics as usual than to put into power a racial minority who can serve as a more effective frontman for the American empire.

Enter one Barack H. Obama.

What’s that line from The Who’s song “Won’t Get Fooled Again”?

Meet the new boss … same as the old boss.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2009 5:52 pm

    As far as cabinet post appointments, I think maybe he could’ve done a better job. But if you really think about it, no one can ever be successfully elected to the presidency without having to conform or compromise some of their ideals, much less run for congress. He needs people that know their way around. Ultimately, regardless of his appointments and some of the mistakes he’s made along the way, he is pretty much the embodiment of people like us.

    I disagree with the bailout and keeping Gates in the cabinet, but those are the moves he’s gotta make to until he can get his feet wet. I don’t think Gates will be there more than a year and a half. The bailout, he doesn’t wanna get blamed for a depression when he could’ve done something about it.

    On the other hand, I also don’t but too much into the hope that this man is going to change the world with a wave of his wand. Realistically, I’m sure many people realize this and can accept that he will not be able to deliver all of the things he said he wanted to tackle during his tenure.

    For me, if he can implement healthcare reform, get us out of Iraq smartly, transition us into a green economy, and make sweeping change in our education system, he will have done more than the last four presidents combined. That’s the hope I have for him. So if he’s not on his way to resolving the aforementioned by the end of his first term, I’ll put my bet on someone else in 2012. =)

  2. January 21, 2009 7:16 pm


    I probably agree with all the facts you laid down, and I agree with the idea that he isn’t everything some people believe he is, but when it comes to his appointments, I wonder what the alternative is. On the Cabinet, for example, who would be better than the ones he appointed? We’re in a financial crisis, and in order to navigate through a financial crisis, we need people familiar with finance. Much as those guys may not have a perfect record, they are the ones who happen to have some kind of know-how (even if they messed things up royally). Gates isn’t expected to be there for very long.

    It’s kind of what MM is saying–they are part of the system, but we need people who know their way around the system.

    Agree? Disagree? I just don’t see how bringing a total outsider with less experience in the system would be better (nor would it fly through the confirmation process).

  3. January 22, 2009 1:51 pm

    To me, Obama always seemed pro-war from his speeches, and Islamophobic. It’s the right that thought he was antiwar and Muslim.

    Even if I don’t agree with his policies, he’s an intellectual, which is a welcome change.

    Of course, listening to the inauguration speech was sobering to me as a Canadian, because it was more of the same American exceptionalism, insisting that the United States be the “leader” of the world.

  4. January 23, 2009 8:21 am

    Hi Minority Militant, JaeHwan, Restructure:

    To me, Barack Obama is not just a politician. He is an important social phenomenon that expresses many significant issues that can’t be fully addressed in a short message like this one. But that said, here’s my take on some of the points raised.

    One argument made above about Obama’s cabinet choices and policy positions is that he has to compromise and be realistic, etc.

    If that is the case, he should have never made the entire basis of his political campaign one of Change That We Can Believe In.

    If Obama’s campaign had been more honest and stated that he will essentially continue the policies of the past (with some cosmetic tweaks) instead of delivering political change, there would be less call to criticize his appointments and decisions.

    But, as stated in the post, this is the very opposite of what the Obama campaign was about.

    Political Change was the defining basis of Obama’s politics and probably the decisive reason that he won and *why people supported him.*

    As such, his cabinet (and policy) choices deserve to be assessed based upon his own words and promises: Is this change that you can believe in?

    If you talk the talk, you should walk the walk.

    Regarding Obama and US Exceptionalism, that is definitely true. Like most American elites and indeed people themselves, there is underlying–almost religious belief–that the USA has a moral and political right to rule … er lead the world. America, after all, is the Shining City on a Hill uniquely chosen by God as a beacon of liberty for all humanity.

    That a minority like Obama also upholds this idea underscores the idea that he is old wine in new bottles.

    There are many others things that could be addressed about Obama like his economic program and foreign policy; whose interests he serves; and what he really symbolizes in terms of racial politics in the USA. Some of those things are addressed in the linked articles above.

    Here are some other links on these topics:

    Glen Ford: The Obama ‘08 Phenomenon: What Have We Learned?

    Obama, King and Kennedy: Empire and the “End” of Racism An interview with Juan Santos

    The Colorblind Con (my own personal take on Obama and race)

  5. January 26, 2009 2:12 pm

    Obama’s speech was great. This one is even better! To know more about the speeches and economic policies Check out this short movie on creating a truly sustainable economy. Adapted from a new book by David Korten.

  6. January 26, 2009 6:56 pm

    Change is always relative. Obama still wears a suit, but already he’s started a departure from the previous administration:

    1. Issuing an executive order to close Gitmo in a year.
    2. Working to tighten emission standards on automobiles
    3. Repealing a ban on U.S. funding for aid organizations who offer abortions

    These are huge changes, change that we believed in and is now taking place. I don’t know if we’re going to change up the economy, but I think it’s what everyone would like to do.

  7. January 29, 2009 8:21 pm

    I’ll give Obama credit for the emissions and abortion funding measures for now.

    Closing Gitmo is more debatable. Here’s a different take on this move, suggesting that it’s mostly for public relations:

    Obama’s orders leave framework of torture, indefinite detention intact

    Regarding Obama’s inauguration speech, this article below compares it to Bush’s 2001 inauguration speech and challenges readers to tell them apart:

    “Obama in 2009 sounded a lot like Bush in 2001”

    It is kind of eerie how they echo one another.

    As the French say, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

  8. January 30, 2009 6:46 am


    That Guantanamo article was published on the 23rd–three days into Obama’s presidency. To accuse the guy of acting cowardly after he’s been in office for just three days and is still learning the ropes seems to me both naive and excessively harsh on the writer’s part. I used to work at Burger King, and it took me longer than three days to learn the ropes. I can only imagine that running the country has to be a bit more complex than running the cash machine at a fast food restaurant. Maybe Mr. Ely is just a really fast learner, but most of us take some time to adjust to new surroundings.

    As for the Bush speeches, I personally liked Dubya’s speeches when he first got into office. It was only after realizing that his speeches made absolutely no difference in his actions that I started to get annoyed by him. (For example, whatever happened after he told us we were “addicted to oil?”)

  9. February 1, 2009 9:50 am

    Hey Jaehwan:

    Yeah, you could also make the opposite argument as well, however. All the positive hype, praise, and outright adulation that Obama received was undeserved given that he has only been in office for a very short period.

    And you used to work at Burger King? I used to work at Wendy’s. I have to admit that you guys (BK) were far superior to us or McDonalds in hamburgers! 😉

  10. February 2, 2009 8:02 pm

    Haha…well, your fries were much better! I like the BK fries, but I have to admit that Mickey D’s and Wendy’s fries had a lot more substance. Ours tasted more like hot potato chips.

    By the way, what was the policy on employee meals? We only got half off for one sandwich, one drink, and one fries. I heard the McDonalds people got their food for free. 🙂

  11. February 3, 2009 5:02 pm

    We had a similar policy to Burger King with an employee discount. I can’t remember the exact percentage however.

    And if McDonalds was giving their employees free meals, that might be saying something about the quality of their food.

  12. February 3, 2009 5:22 pm

    Okay, so I don’t feel so bad.

    It was before I got into activism, but I was going to protest Burger King’s policy by driving through the McDonalds drive-thru and bringing my takeout back. Half off is nothing. Peanuts for a hard day on the job!

  13. rodeNeort permalink
    February 9, 2009 11:52 am

    Hi, cool site, good writing 😉

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