Barack Obama's three year anniversary: a reader

It has been three years since the US President took office. Has he lived up to his promise?

I was on holiday in the US when Barack Obama was sworn in to office three years ago, and the sense of excitement was palpable. My contemporaries, people in their early twenties, told me that for the first time in their adult lives, they could feel proud of their country again. Three years on, and the tides have changed. It was perhaps inevitable that Obama would never quite live up to the hype (that pre-emptive Nobel Peace prize was tempting fate too far), but is the dream over? The right continue to demonise him as a foreigner and a socialist, while the left are frustrated at his perceived inaction and refusal to take a stand.

Over at the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland offers a thorough analysis of the charges leveled against Obama, and the defences offered by his supporters. He notes the impossibility of the situation facing Obama: "an intransigent Republican party in Congress that does not hide its desire to deny Obama anything that looks like an achievement, even if such paralysis damages the national interest." On the other hand, however, he made a tactical error by failing to tackle this challenge head on, remaining "cool, calm and hyper-rational to a fault". Ultimately, though, Freedland is optimistic, saying that "liberal disappointment with Obama is real", we should not ignore his record:

It is not a bad record and there is every chance that it will represent merely the first half of a long game. If, as looks likely, Obama is re-elected in November, the FDR precedent might be invoked once again: it was in his second term that Roosevelt notched up some of his greatest achievements. This president, too, may have learned from his mistakes and got the true measure of his enemies. After three long, hard years, there are still grounds for hope.

Time magazine has secured an interview with Obama. This Q&A with the president is prefaced by a long piece by Fareed Zakaria (not yet online) on Obama's foreign policy. In this piece, Zakaria is broadly positive: "The reality is that, despite domestic challenges and limited resources, President Obama has pursued an effective foreign policy". In the Q&A (which focuses solely on foreign policy), Obama defends his record. Asked about his admiration for George H.W. Bush, he says:

Now that I've been in office for three years, I think that I'm always cautious about comparing what we've done to what others have done, just because each period is unique. Each set of challenges is unique.

Writing in Newsweek, Andrew Sullivan shares Freedland's optimism, writing that "the attacks from both the right and the left on the man and his policies aren't out of bounds. They're simply -- empirically -- wrong". Sullivan first takes on right-wring critics, crunching the numbers on unemployment to show that Obama's economic policies are far more successful than he has been given credit for, and pointing out that healthcare reform was moderate. Next he takes on the left, who "projected onto Obama absurd notions of what a president can actually do in a polarized country". While conceding that the president cannot regain the promise of 2008, Sullivan maintains that now we have gone the other way, "grotesquely" underplaying his talents:

What liberals have never understood about Obama is that he practices a show-don't-tell, long-game form of domestic politics. What matters to him is what he can get done, not what he can immediately take credit for.

At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf takes on Sullivan's piece, lamenting Obama "apologists" who downplay certain aspects of the president's record:

Like President Bush, he is breaking the law, transgressing against civil liberties, and championing a radical view of executive power -- and he is invoking the War on Terror to get away with it.

...

Obama has transgressed against what is arguably Congress' most essential check on executive power -- its status as the decider of when America goes to war -- and he has codified indefinite detention into law, something that hasn't been done since Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. But at least he doesn't torture people! How low we've set the bar.

Meanwhile, at the Washington Post blog, Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake note that Obama's campaign has chosen to launch ads in six swing states ahead of next week's State of the Union address, and ask whether it is too soon, given that the Republicans haven't even chosen their candidate yet. They also argue that a negative campaign would be more helpful than the positive ads currently being broadcast:

Obama has to win the economic argument among loosely affiliated and unaffiliated voters in order to win a second term. And his best path to doing that is to discredit Romney as an effective economic messenger.

Given that reality, one Democratic media consultant suggested that it could well be a waste of money for Obama to run even one positive ad.

The jury is still out, and we can expect more furious debate as the presidential race gets closer and the Republicans select a candidate. Obama clearly has some fighting to do to replay even a fraction of his electoral success in 2008.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.