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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.