Yes we can.
– Barack Obama
I loved the ‘we’.
– Spike Milligan
The juxtaposition is mischievous. The late, lamented and incomparable Spike Milligan died before Obama had even become a Senator, let alone 44th President of the United States of America. Nevertheless, Milligan’s ironic recognition of the multitude of calumnies that can be hidden beneath the first person plural pronoun is not wholly inapt in its application to the ubiquitous incantation that accompanied Obama’s ascent to the White House. Milligan was, after all, referring to the political leadership of the free world (or at least Europe) at a time of vast crisis. Writing in the first volume of his classic Second World War memoir, Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall, Milligan observed that:
A man called Chamberlain who did Prime Minister impressions spoke on the wireless; he said ‘As from eleven o'clock we are at war with Germany’. (I loved the ‘we’).
‘War?’ said Mother.
‘It must be something we said,’ said Father.1
Milligan, proudly Irish, self consciously working class and fiercely iconoclastic was acutely and instinctively aware that deep fissures existed within the British ‘we’ that had fought the ruinous Great War twenty years earlier and was now being expected to saddle up for the sequel. In between times there had been the Great Depression and the debacle of appeasement, a policy of placating Nazi foreign policy grievances led by members of the British upper class who were not especially minded to confront the spread of fascism. No wonder Milligan was wryly inclined to love the ‘we’.
For all of its admirable and talismanic inclusivity, Obama’s ‘we’ is also not without its complications and ironies. It is hard to imagine a political figure less comparable to the hapless Neville Chamberlain, forever identified with the debacle of Munich, than the towering presence of the great hope, Barack Hussein Obama. Indeed, simply by reaching the Presidency, Obama has already achieved beyond measure; a triumph of the melting pot and an apparent exemplification of the genius of US democracy. Outside of the US, weary from the hubris and incompetence of his predecessor, a large majority of the world greeted the arrival of the charismatic philosopher president with a collective exhalation of breath and eyes cast to the heavens.
In US politics, the most obvious divisions eclipsed by the politics of ‘yes we can’, included America’s racial divides, the bitter ‘culture wars’ and the viciousness partisanship of the Bush and Clinton years. Obama’s handling of these matters has been masterful. On the other hand, while the President knows a thing or two about poverty, the politics of inequality are arguably proving more complex than those of identity. Class is not easy terrain in the political culture of the USA; or for that matter in any of the post-industrial ‘Anglo’ nations. The last thirty years have seen inequality rise in the USA (and Australia and Britain), risk increasingly socialised and executive salaries soaring away from those of workers. Yet household and personal borrowing accompanied by an array of ever cheaper consumer goods allowed a collective imagining that the good times were being shared by (almost) all. Then the global financial crisis brought the show to a shuddering halt. Suddenly, in the midst of molten fiscal indicators, the new President has had to explain precisely how ‘we’ would respond to the great economic unhinging.
What is abundantly clear is that in US political life, some of ‘we’ are more equal than others. Former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund Simon Johnson argued in May in The Atlantic that the finance industry has effectively captured American democracy. According to Johnson ‘elite business interests — financiers, in the case of the U.S. — played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse’ and ‘they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed’2. More recently, former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has noted that Goldman Sachs’ recent posting of record earnings ‘should send shivers down the backs of every hardworking American’, not only because it demonstrated that the bank had returned to the old high risk game that almost brought the entire system down but because of the associated politicking through which it had adroitly secured strategic advantage. While it makes hay, Reich writes, ‘Goldman is still depending on $28 billion in outstanding debt issued cheaply with the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’ which means that taxpayers ‘are still indirectly funding Goldman's high-risk operations’3. Nice work if you can get it and very different to what Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has described as the ‘slow-motion human and social disaster’4 of rising unemployment in the real economy. The Moet may be flowing again, but ‘we’ don’t all get to drink.
Then there is the question of climate change. Although the international synthesis report of the latest science is grim in its assessment that we are tracking worst case scenarios, we must operate under the assumption that there is still time if ‘we’ act quickly and decisively. President Obama is the man who pledged on his victory in the Democrat primaries that it ‘was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal’5. Yet the US Government’s planned domestic action falls steeply short of what is required. Proposed climate legislation before US legislators, the Waxman-Markey Bill, commits the USA to a meager 4% cut in US emissions by 2020 from 1990 levels. Washington has come a long way since the demise of the Bush regime, but time is of the essence and what is currently proposed is a mere fraction of the cuts in emissions that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated are the least that is required in developed countries. Sadly, one giant step for US politics is too small a step for mankind.
Obama remains our last, best hope, yet without diminishing his promise, we should not forget to apply Spike’s sardonic ear. Obama’s remarkable qualities and his personification of a certain kind of liberal ideal do not change underlying structures over night. Power is not equally distributed in the United States or the world and the great man must work within a system that is beset by entrenched inequalities, vested interests and sclerotic institutions. It does not require a fevered radical imagination to interpret American influence as imperial in nature, with Washington at the apex of a vast complex of global power. ‘Yes we can’; but those of us on the periphery cannot vote in US elections and do not participate in determining how Washington approaches the ecumenical issues of our time, save through the unreliable labyrinth of international diplomacy and transnational civil society. To be clear, casting the US in an imperial light is not to reach a normative conclusion about the uses to which that power is put for good and ill, but simply to make an assessment of its scale and functioning. Nor is admiration of many things American inconsistent with an analytical assessment that the US bears many of the characteristics of an imperial polity. In that light, we might observe that while the new emperor is an incalculably better man than the last, the imperial nature of the office remains unaltered. The adoration that greets Obama around the world can be read as an expression of the dynamic of empire just as profoundly as the widespread global detestation of George W. Bush. As the beloved new emperor travels the world, surveying the global domain with an abundance of charm, humility and curiosity, we have to ponder the paradox of the man who simultaneously commands both too much power and not enough.
David Ritter is The New Critic's London-based editor. He was for many years one of Australia’s leading native title lawyers. He now holds a senior campaigns position for Greenpeace in London where he has worked on projects associated with oceans, forests and climate change. His first sole-authored book, The Native Title Market, was published by UWA Publishing this winter and his second, Contesting Native Title is slated for release by Allen & Unwin in November.
1. Milligan, Spike. (1971). Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall. Penguin: London.
2. Simon Johnson. (2009) 'The Quiet Coup' in The Atlantic. May 2009. Accessed at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200905/imf-advice.
3. Reich, R. 2009, Sarah Palin's Death Panels. 13 August 2009. Robert Reich: Blog. Available from: http://www.robertreich.blogspot.com/
4. Krugman, Paul 2009, 'Boiling the Frog', The New York Times, 13 July.
5. President Barack Obama's victory speech in St Paul, Minnesota. Full text accessed at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7434843.stm