Obama: the cult of personality?

The president's blind supporters infantilise the debate

As I've pointed out before, I took a lot of heat over my cover story in the New Statesman, back in October, in which I criticised Barack Obama for adopting and/or continuing so many policies of George W Bush, at home and abroad, but in particular on issues of national security and civil liberties.

Many of my critics had plainly not read my piece and had perhaps been distracted by the deliberately provocative cover image (of Obama morphed into Bush). Others, to be fair, did read it -- one of them, the Fabians' Sunder Katwala, nonetheless chose to describe it (memorably) as "slightly moderated Pilgerism".

Since then, however, others have joined the fray -- including David Bromwich in the London Review of Books, Garry Wills in the New York Review of Books and Bob Herbert in the New York Times. In an interview with me in the New Statesman, the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh said: "If he decided to be a one-term president, he could be marvellous, but it's not clear he's decided that", adding that "the trouble is that hope sprang anew in America last November. And I think the dashing of that hope is going to be much more lethal than even the cynicism under Bush and Cheney."

Then, last month, Newsweek published a behind-the-scenes look at the downfall of the White House counsel Gregory Craig, who had been charged with pushing Obama's liberal agenda on national security issues -- including the closure of Guantanamo Bay -- but who resigned after being "sidelined" by a cautious and conservative president.

But the more closed-minded of the Obamaniacs don't what to hear any of this. They don't want to recognise the continuity in policy on renditions or indefinite detention, or the failure to crack down on Wall Street excess. Instead, they rally around their hero in the White House and condemn the left for "abandoning" the president. But the left didn't abandon Obama; he seems to have abandoned us.

In a typically passionate post, responding to the anger and denunciations of pro-Obama commenters on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, the acclaimed liberal blogger Glenn Greenwald hits the nail on the head:

These outbursts include everything other than arguments addressed to the only question that matters: are the criticisms that have been voiced about Obama valid? Has he appointed financial officials who have largely served the agenda of the Wall Street and industry interests that funded his campaign? Has he embraced many of the Bush/Cheney executive power and secrecy abuses which Democrats once railed against -- from state secrets to indefinite detention to renditions and military commissions? Has he actively sought to protect from accountability and disclosure a whole slew of Bush crimes? Did he secretly negotiate a deal with the pharmaceutical industry after promising repeatedly that all negotiations over health care would take place out in the open, even on C-SPAN? Are the criticisms of his escalation of the war in Afghanistan valid, and are his arguments in its favor redolent of the ones George Bush made to "surge" in Iraq or Lyndon Johnson made to escalate in Vietnam? Is Bob Herbert right when he condemned Obama's detention policies as un-American and tyrannical, and warned: "Policies that were wrong under George W Bush are no less wrong because Barack Obama is in the White House"?

Who knows? Who cares? According to these defenders, it's just wrong -- morally, ethically and psychologically -- to criticize the President. Thus, in lieu of any substantive engagement of these critiques are a slew of moronic Broderian clichés ("If Obama catches heat from the left and right but maintains the middle, he is doing what I hoped he would do (and what he said he would do) when I voted for him"), cringe-inducing proclamations of faith in his greatness ("I am willing to continue to trust his instinct, his grace, his patience and his measured hand"), and emotional contempt for his critics more extreme than one would expect from his own family members. In other words, the Leave-Obama-Alone protestations posted by Sullivan are fairly representative of the genre. How far we've fallen from the declaration of Thomas Jefferson: "In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

Greenwald decries personality politics and even goes so far as to compare the blind supporters of Obama to the cultish and ignorant foot soldiers of the conservative grass-roots movements that coalesced around first Bush and now Palin:

Those who venerated Bush because he was a morally upright and strong evangelical-warrior-family man and revere Palin as a common-sense Christian hockey mom are similar in kind to those whose reaction to Obama is dominated by their view of him as an inspiring, kind, sophisticated, soothing and mature intellectual. These are personality types bolstered with sophisticated marketing techniques, not policies, governing approaches or ideologies. But for those looking for some emotional attachment to a leader, rather than policies they believe are right, personality attachments are far more important. They're also far more potent. Loyalty grounded in admiration for character will inspire support regardless of policy, and will produce and sustain the fantasy that this is not a mere politician, but a person of deep importance to one's life who -- like a loved one or close friend or religious leader -- must be protected and defended at all costs.

Greenwald's analysis is spot-on. Those of us on the left, or liberal left, progressive left, or whatever you want to call it, need to open our eyes, stop the romanticising and judge the man on the basis of his actions, not his (beautiful) words. I, for one, am neither a blind supporter nor an opponent of Obama. I supported him over first Clinton and then McCain and I continue to support him when his policies are right, but criticise him if they're wrong.

Is that so odd? Or outrageous? Some people have said that I shouldn't have compared him with Bush and perhaps, in hindsight, it was deliberately provocative, though not, I would argue, groundless. The fact is, as I say in the original piece (read it first!), that there are significant areas of policy overlap between the Obama and Bush administrations. In fact, I am in esteemed company in making the comparison. As Michael Isikoff reported in Newsweek a few months ago:

According to three sources who attended the [White House] meeting, Obama reiterated his intention to retain a version of the military-tribunal system established to try terror detainees and said his administration will likely end up adopting some form of "indefinite detention" policy to justify holding some selected suspects without trial. Still, Obama brusquely rejected suggestions by some of those present that, in doing so, he was adopting key tenets of Bush-era policies considered unacceptable by his liberal supporters.

"It doesn't help to equate me to Bush," Obama said, arguing that such comparisons overlook important differences between the two administrations' policies, according to several sources attending the meeting.

Even Obama White House staffers have been reminded of Bush!

On a related note, one prominent British cabinet minister told me in a recent conversation: "To be honest, I don't think Obama has done very much. I mean, what's he actually achieved on the international stage in the past year? Not very much. But you're not allowed to point that out. You're not allowed to say any of this out loud." I think, however, that might be starting to change . . .

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era