BARACK OBAMA’S farewell speech was a self-congratulatory performance that played down political failure but contained a telling reference to the scale of a task that proved beyond him.
The outgoing president highlighted the aspiration of his enthused supporters to a “post-racial” US, acknowledging that this was never realistic.
Despite advances made through decades of mass struggles, “race remains a potent and often divisive force,” he said.
Racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia were deployed by Donald Trump during the presidential campaign, with supporters of Obama-approved Hillary Clinton portraying the contest as progressive versus bigot.
It was never as simple as that. Obama’s record in the White House and the Democrats’ ruthless demolition of Bernie Sanders played a part.
Sanders took a leaf out of Obama’s book by rejecting corporate finance and mobilising countless local activists to raise cash and votes. But, having been elected by dint of his grassroots perspective, Obama slotted seamlessly into the Establishment.
Examining the role of racism in Chicago on Tuesday, he pointed out that, “if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”
Where was this forthright analysis of the class basis for racism during his terms in office?
Obama harked back to his early community activism, telling his Chicago audience to “lace up your shoes and do some organising” to get things fixed, apparently oblivious to his antagonism in office to those who marched in protest against corporate power, freetrade deals and overseas wars.
He pledged to end the war in Iraq but approved military action in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Syria and backed Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen.
One observer estimates that US warplanes have launched an average of 74 air strikes every day of Obama’s entire eight-year occupation of the White House. The US president has adopted a weekly ghoulish ritual of signing off a list of people supplied by the Pentagon to be wiped out by drones, authorising 10 times as many assassinations as George W Bush.
Julian Assange’s refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and Edward Snowden’s asylum in Russia remind us that more whistleblowers — brave people uncovering crimes by the rich and powerful — have been prosecuted under Obama’s presidency than all his predecessors combined.
He suggested that no-one believed eight years ago that the US could rise from recession, the car industry would have a new lease of life, there would be equal marriage, 20 million more citizens would have access to healthcare — leaving over 9 million with no cover — and better relations forged with Iran and Cuba.
But the Guantanamo detention camps still hold dozens of inmates, US police still kill black people with impunity, the gap between rich and poor increases, US troops are still involved in murky overseas wars and the political elite still pursues free trade deals that destroy US workers’ jobs and living standards.
Broken promises and shattered dreams indict Obama both for failures in office and for assisting Trump’s ascent to power.
Working people of all backgrounds who leapt aboard Obama’s perceived Freedom Train fell off or jumped as the president fell short before backing Wall Street warmonger Clinton to succeed him.
“Yes we can. Yes we did,” he boasted. No we didn’t, but his earlier model of grassroots mobilisation against Wall Street, wealth, privilege and injustice can yet deliver future victories.