Last November, the country elected Barack Obama, the first African American President of the United States. His election victory was won mainly on his promise of change, and the nation was more than ready for that change, particularly after eight years of George W. Bush and all that it meant: incompetence at the highest levels of government, unprecedented government spending which wiped out the budget surplus left over from the Clinton administration, an imperial presidency (or vice presidency), assaults on civil liberty and wanton abuse of power. The collective euphoria, both here at home and abroad, could only have been the result of the relief felt by those who saw the end of the Bush presidency as the beginning of a new era which would usher in that change in all its ramifications. Mostly, the change would reassert America’s ideals and its standing as the bastion of freedom and democracy. The expectations of Americans and the rest of the world for the Obama era were as high as the euphoria over his electoral victory.
It is now a little over six months into the Obama presidency and there are signs of an ebbing of the euphoria and enthusiasm that followed his election as the Commander-in-Chief. One can argue that this was not entirely unexpected, given the enormity of the problems he inherited from the Bush administration. At the top of the list of the problems was the economy. America was on the brink of economic disaster, comparable to that of the Depression era. The widespread bank failures, the crash of the housing market, AIG near collapse and the intervention by the government to bail out Wall Street with taxpayer money combined to present an unprecedented challenge to the new Obama administration. Compounding these were the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and yes, Pakistan too. The jury is still out on how well the president is handling these enormous and formidable problems, despite recent polls that indicate a decline in his job approval rating, particularly over the recent added problem of health care reform. His personal popularity, however, is scarcely diminished.
What is now clear is that the change promised by Obama during the campaign is proving to be easier said than done (or delivered). The president is clearly the object of attacks from all quarters, particularly from the GOP and the vociferous right wing faction of the party. Some of these attacks, granted, were evident during the campaign but have intensified lately amidst the president’s struggle to get his legislative agenda to pass through Congress. He is accused of trying to achieve too much at once, of plunging the nation further into debt with his unfettered spending (mostly from the Wall Street and auto industry bailouts). His attempt to reform health care is being assailed by special interest groups from the insurance industry and big pharma, whose proxies in Congress are working surreptitiously and sometimes not so subtly to thwart his efforts. The cruel irony is that some of these industry proxies are from the president’s own party. The attacks on the president have also turned personal, ranging from those who question his legitimacy as a citizen of the US to those who accuse him of being a socialist, a Muslim and an enemy of the American tradition of free enterprise.
America is now at the crossroads of change and deeply divided over the type of change to live with. Clearly, there are those who would prefer the status quo or worse; a return to the era of white domination, Reagan-era conservatism marked by the theme of less government, deregulation of commerce and industries, tax cuts and unchecked military spending. It matters not to these people that these are the very things that have brought us to this economic disaster threatening our standard of living and the rest of the globe. Trickledown economics has failed miserably and yet proponents of its other component, disaster economics, as promulgated by Milton Friedman, continue to preach its virtues unabashedly. Liberalism, for reasons not easy to understand, continues to be on the defensive in spite of its obvious ideals and historical benefits to the ordinary citizens of this country.
Many years ago, I was fortunate to read a book by Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom. I have since read another book, The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein. These two books provide a profound insight in different ways into what is at the core of the cultural, political and ideological split we are witnessing today. It is ironic that a new president who won an election on the promise of change in a bold attempt to unify the country has, through no fault of his own, merely seen his efforts further widen the schism in all these areas.