This is what democracy looks like

Every election in the Caribbean produces broad, often uncritical assertions about democracy, usually with the implicit assumption that those hymning the loudest praises are best placed to lead the country beyond the miserable, hidebound ideological fixity of its incumbents. If only politics was that easy. Three years ago, Candidate Obama strode on to the world stage promising to renew the American Dream, restore the rule of law, and get the country back on its feet after eight long years of dogmatic Republican misrule. The hearts of the faithful overflowed with rhetoric of hope and change, and the brilliant young senator’s promises about bending “the arc of history” towards justice charmed all but the most hardened sceptics into his corner. Then the financial system nosedived after years of Wall Street’s deceitful profiteering in a wonderland of securitized mortgages, squared power options and other postmodern exotica, and the dream of a transformative presidency began to unravel in the face of intractable realities.

Almost immediately  president-elect, Barack Obama seemed, in Ron Suskind’s memorable description, “like an archangel returned to earth … forced to walk the flat land and feel its hard contours.” Nowhere is this transition more striking than the gap between the candidate’s large promises about the rule of law and his deeply questionable record to date. Not only has his administration retained his predecessor’s most excessive powers from the war on terror, it has not even shied away from the assassination of an American citizen in a foreign country, without  due process – as was the case in the recent killing of the Al-Qaeda cleric Anwar Awlaki in Yemen. Criticism of these actions have been sporadic and somewhat disjointed – understandably, few Americans want to risk appearing ‘unpatriotic’ by carping about policies that target people who, as President Bush famously declared, “hate our freedom” – but serious, non-opportunistic criticism of the Obama administration has begun to gather momentum.

Pondering the consequences of the Awlaki assassination, a refreshingly direct editorial in the Los Angeles Times warned that “If the U.S. believes it has the right to assassinate enemies like Anwar Awlaki anywhere in the world in the name of a “war on terror” that has no geographical limitation, how can it then argue that other nations don’t have a similar right to track down their enemies and kill them wherever they’re found?” The Times also published a swingeing Op-Ed by a law professor at George Washington University that concluded, after an unsparing analysis of the administration’s record on civil liberties, that “In time, the election of Barack Obama may stand as one of the single most devastating events in our history for civil liberties. Now the president has begun campaigning for a second term. He will again be selling himself more than his policies, but he is likely to find many civil libertarians who simply are not buying.”

Full-throated criticism of Obama’s failures with regard to the rule of law may have been slow in coming but other attacks on his presidency have been strident from the start. In fact the vitriolic partisanship which has greeted his healthcare reforms, and economic stimulus and job-creation efforts have made effective governance almost impossible.

In the New York Review of Books,  Michael Tomasky observes that after the 2008 economic meltdown the vituperation of rightwing pundits became so inflammatory that: “The reach and impact of their rhetoric placed certain conditions on Republican politicians: that they not support anything that even hinted that the government would intervene in their lives, and of course that they oppose the Kenyan-Muslim-terrorist-pal President above all else. …Policy and ideas mattered a little, but not very much. Rhetoric determined the collective Republican position.”

Anyone who believes that the course of democracy runs smooth should take a hard look at President Obama. Three short years have left him saddled with a jobless economy, a disenchanted base, two expensive and strategically dubious foreign wars, not to mention congressional gridlock, rampant partisanship and a headline-grabbing occupation of Wall Street. During his re-election campaign, Obama will certainly invoke the blessings of democracy, and caution voters against the excesses of the other side, but this time he will do so with fewer illusions. In the Middle East there is a wonderful proverb that says “let us wait until the dust has settled, to see whether we have a horse or a donkey.” Candidate Obama was the most attractive thoroughbred in a generation of American politics, President Obama has proven to be something far less distinguished.

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