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10 December 2009updated 12 Oct 2023 10:22am

Obama: the cult of personality?

The president's blind supporters infantilise the debate

By Mehdi Hasan

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.

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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 . . .

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