Obama unmasked

What's going wrong for the man who would be president? Our US editor Andrew Stephen reports from Was

We at the New Statesman must take some of the blame, I suppose. Barack Obama had been a senator for just ten months in 2005 when we devoted a cover to his face, anointing him as one of ten people likely to have an impact on the world. It was only during 2007, however, that the American media fell head-over-heels in love with Obama; when he trounced Hillary Clinton in the Democratic party caucuses in Iowa on 3 January, it seemed that the electorate was swooning in a headlong rush to the altar with Obama, too. By the end of the first week of the '08 presidential election year, the media had all but handed over the keys to the White House to him.

So it all came as a shock to the pundits and pollsters on the night of 8 January when, despite predictions of an overwhelming Obama triumph, it became clear that the voters of New Hampshire had given Hillary Clinton the victory over Obama she badly needed. The reason for the media's distortions, I believe, is that Obama's relationship with the press and the electorate is still at the stage of starry-eyed infatuation. Yes, he is a mesmerising political orator who offers a magic elixir that somehow contains both stimulants and sedatives: that we need not worry about the present or future, because we can look forward to a new dawn of hope and reassurance in the safe hands of President Obama. Exactly how and why this would happen is not clear, but it is heady and exciting stuff.

I suspect that the longer the relationship continues, however, the more Obama's many faults and shortcomings as a presidential candidate will emerge. In his speech admitting defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, for example, a hint of his bad-tempered haughtiness emerged. He is not the fresh-faced young idealist the media like to portray, but a hard-headed 46-year-old lawyer whose monumental drive and political calculations make the Clintons seem like a pair of amateurs. The media and electorate may have fallen in love with him spontaneously, but Obama has been carefully plotting his strategy to seduce them for decades.

A little "blow"

Even dedicated political operators such as the Clintons, for example, did not publish self-promoting memoirs at the age of 33 - but that is exactly what Obama did, revealing his use of cocaine ("a little blow") before anybody else could beat him to it, for example. In those memoirs, Dreams from My Father, he burnished a personal and political résumé that, in places, seemed almost unbelievable - so I was not surprised to read in his introduction to the reissued edition of "selective lapses of memory" and "the temptation to colour events in ways favourable to the writer".

I'll provide two brief examples of how Obama did just that. He wrote movingly of a turning point in his life when, as a nine-year-old, he read in Life magazine of a "black man who had tried to peel off his skin". But the Chicago Tribune - it and the Chicago Sun-Times being honourable exceptions to the media quiescence I have described - reported that "no such Life issue exists", and an exhaustive search of similar magazines failed to find any article remotely similar to the one Obama had described. The Obama media machine, too, obligingly enabled television crews this month to interview Obama's very elderly Kenyan "grandmother"; the only problem was that the woman in rural Kenya was not Obama's grandmother, but the alleged foster mother of Obama's father. "Give me a break . . . this whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," huffed Bill Clinton, visiting Dartmouth College on the eve of the New Hampshire vote, telling his audience the US media are not being tough enough on Obama.

Politically, there is remarkably little difference between the three leading Democrats - Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Obama was not in the Senate in 2002 and did not therefore vote for the resolution that authorised the invasion of Iraq. But he has not been the sainted man of peace his supporters portray, either. In his three years in the Senate he has kept his head safely below the parapet, leaving two congressional colleagues - Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania - to spearhead opposition to the war on Capitol Hill. In 2006 he voted against a Senate resolution calling for the withdrawal of troops and has also voted to continue funding the war.

Most recently, he said he would not hesitate to send US troops into Pakistan without Pakistan's permission to hunt down terrorists, and he insists that the US must not "cede our claim of leadership in world affairs". He wants the military to "stay on the offensive, from Djibouti to Kandahar" and to increase defence expenditure. Like most identikit US mainstream politicians, he talks of "rogue nations" and "hostile dictators", and says the US must maintain "a strong nuclear deterrent" and be ready to "seize" the "American moment". He appeared to support Israel's attack on Lebanon, but then said "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people" - which, in turn, he denied saying.

In the meantime he let his mentor and fellow senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, swing alone in the wind after Durbin - perhaps the most liberal Democrat in the Senate - compared US interrogation techniques of prisoners in Guantanamo with those of the Soviet Union, Nazis and Khmer Rouge. He voted to reauthorise the Bush administration's repressive Patriot Act, and says that as president he would not rule out a US first-strike nuclear attack on Iran.

His equivocations and contradictions thus proliferate. He promised solemnly on coast-to-coast live television on NBC in 2006 that he would complete his six-year Senate term and definitely not run for the presidency. He voted in favour of President Bush's nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. I am not the first to see Obama's self-portrayal as almost Christlike: a young black man is tormented by racism and gets into drugs, and only his own inner goodness rescues him from the ghettos to which he was surely consigned. Human foibles - that he smokes and likes playing poker, for example - are determinedly kept under wraps.

Dysfunctional

The sad point of all this is that the reality of his life is actually much more fascinating than the manufactured version. His background is strikingly dysfunctional but by no means economically underprivileged. His eccentric white American mother met his Kenyan father when both were students at the University of Hawaii, but like so many male politicians - Bill Clinton, for one - his father, an alcoholic who ended up fathering several families before being killed in a car accident in Kenya in 1982, was literally and figuratively absent from his life. He abandoned Obama and his mother to take up a scholarship at Harvard when the young Barack was a toddler. So much for his Kenyan "relatives".

His mother, who died in 1995, subsequently remarried an Indonesian student destined to become an oil company executive, and the newlyweds took the young Obama to live in Jakarta when he was six. He duly attended a local school that the Fox News channel gleefully but inaccurately labelled a madrasa. His middle name, like his father's, is Hussein - though Obama insists that his father was not, in fact, a Muslim but an atheist. The adult Obama now attends the evangelical Trinity United Church of Christ in Chi cago and says he is a devout Christian.

The young Obama acquired a half-sister when he lived in Jakarta (she is now a Buddhist), but his mother sent him to live permanently with his white grandparents in Honolulu when he was ten. He then began a new, elitist life that even he describes as "a childhood dream": surfing in Hawaii and attending the renowned private Punahou School, founded by Congregationalist missionaries in 1841 and known to local people as a school for the haole (whites). Its annual tuition today costs $15,725.

Far from being the brilliant student his image suggests, Obama was a consistently B-grade pupil. He went on to attend Occidental College, a perfectly respectable private liberal arts college in Los Angeles, but hardly an academic powerhouse; its present-day endowment is $377m. He transferred to Columbia University in New York and completed his degree there, and finally graduated with a degree from Harvard Law School at the age of 30. His upwardly mobile ascent had begun, and Obama joined the Chicago law firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland. He began his professional political career when he stood successfully for the Illinois General Assembly (the state senate) in 1996.

Here we come to one of the major contradictions between Obama's image and reality. The media, both here and in Britain, assume that Obama has the black vote sewn up - a Daily Telegraph columnist, with stupendous racism, casually asserted on Monday that Hillary Clinton has lost an opportunity because American blacks now "have one of their own to support" - but Obama is regarded with suspicion by most African Americans. My postman, for example, screws up his face with disdain at the mere mention of Obama's name. He alienated much of the black political Establishment in 2000, when he ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primaries against the incumbent congressman for an Illinois district, Representative Bobby Rush - a former Black Panther and current leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus. His congressional district has more black people than any other in the country, and Obama lost to Rush by 31 points.

In a career that has seemed - until now, at least - to be unstoppable, he nonetheless went on to win the Democratic nomination to run for the US Senate in 2004. The seat was being vacated by a retiring Republican, Peter Fitzgerald, but Obama had a tremendous stroke of luck: the former wife of his strong Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, made sordid allegations about their sex life and Ryan was forced to drop out. He was replaced by Alan Keyes, a former black activist and diplomat who had morphed into a figure of the far right and become one of America's fully paid-up political lunatics. Obama, having won national attention for the first time by delivering the keynote address at John Kerry's Democratic coronation convention in Boston the previous July, won by a 70-27 per cent landslide.

Which brings us back to his entry to the Senate in 2005 and our cover of him less than ten months later. Part of Obama's contrived sainthood is an undertaking that he will not take funds from lobbyists or political action committees. But, like the Clintons and just about any other American politician, he has assiduously done just that. According to the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton has so far raised $78,615,215 and Obama $78,915,507; Obama's campaign has relied heavily on people such as Kenneth Griffin, a Chicago-based hedge-fund manager who reportedly earned $1.4bn last year.

The further away you get from Chicago, though, the more the saintly image takes hold. Publications like the New Yorker may coo for pages over "the conciliator", but the two Chicago newspapers are much more interested in Obama's close 17-year friendship with Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a long-time Obama donor and property developer awaiting trial on charges of attempted extortion, money laundering and fraud. A low-income housing project received more than $14m from taxpayers while Obama was a state senator, but he consistently denied that he had done any favours for Rezko.

The hope mantra

That was until the Chicago Sun-Times unearthed two letters Obama wrote to state officials in 1998 urging them to grant extra funds for Rezko's project. Democrats and Republicans alike in Chicago, too, are intrigued by the question of why Obama paid $1.65m for a mansion in the city's south side in 2005 - $300,000 less than the asking price - on the very same day Rezko's wife happened to buy the house next door for the asking price. In their tax return for the following year, Obama and his wife, Michelle, who is vice-president of a non-profit hospital organisation, reported taxable income of $983,826 for 2006, down from $1.6m the previous year.

"Hope" is the mantra word in Obama's magic elixir, but Bruce Reed - president of the Democratic Leadership Council - points out that tens of millions of Americans are supporting Obama not because of what he's done, but because of what they hope he might do. "We don't need leaders to tell us we can't do what we need to do," Obama said in a typical stump speech on 7 January. "We need them to say 'yes, we can', to say 'yes, we believe'."

Huge crowds roar their approval over lines like this, long on beautifully delivered rhetoric but short on facts and concrete undertakings. A casual observer might assume Obama is proposing a vastly more ambitious health-care plan than Clinton; in fact, the reverse is true.

Those who know Obama say privately that he has a healthy sense of entitlement that often manifests itself in an imperious, thin-skinned manner. We caught just a glimpse of this peevishness in his concession speech in New Hampshire, I thought - of a man somehow denied his rightful Schadenfreude over the second humiliating defeat of Clinton that he and the American punditocracy had confidently anticipated. Obama's latest book may be called The Audacity of Hope, but it really should be called The Audacity of Hype.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war