The President of Disappointments How Obama Has Failed to Deliver
Part 4: The Most Commercial Campaign Ever
The news stories consistently state that Obama is cautious, that he urges the military and intelligence services to exercise restraint, and that he rejects operations that don't have him 100 percent convinced. But what does this Obama, judge and hangman alike, have to do with the senator from Illinois whose words of hope once brought tears to the eyes of his admirers in front of the Victory Column in Berlin?
It's a shame, of course, but it's also true: Obama has become a different person. Within four years, a period of constant stress in which the burden of decisions, often life-and-death decisions, has weighed heavily on the president, he has become visibly older and grayer. Nevertheless, Barack Obama seems to feel relatively comfortable in his role. Would reporters be given access to such secret information if Obama's campaign staffers weren't convinced that the tough-guy image is good for their candidate?
It's all about selling, much more so in American politics than elsewhere, but the utter commercialism of this election campaign is unprecedented. There have always been rich benefactors and donors, but now they are allowed to join forces with super-PACs, and that can produce a fiery mix.
PAC stands for Political Action Committee, which sounds harmless enough, and yet PACs pose a threat to democracy in America. They exist because the conservative judges on the Supreme Court felt that there was no connection between large donations and the appearance of corruptibility, and that no one would lose faith in democracy. Whether that's true still isn't entirely clear.
At the beginning of a campaign based on new rules, the Supreme Court's "Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission" decision came into effect. It completely upends the political landscape. Now anyone with the means and desire can support the candidate or his choice with as much money as he wants, and he can even remain anonymous in the process. All the transparency that was once so carefully regulated is gone. Restrictions? There are none, except one that's purely theoretical: Today's donors are not permitted to coordinate their efforts directly with the candidates.
'Tsunami of Slime'
Practically speaking, however, there has never been such a direct connection between big money and big politics. Although wealthy donors may be barred from "direct coordination" with the candidates, no one, of course, had prevent them from sharing meals with candidates, traveling with them or standing next to them on a stage. This has created a de facto situation in which many of the superrich can now anonymously invest in attack ads that disparage Obama and benefit their preferred candidate, Mitt Romney, who promised tax cuts to the rich long ago.
In the words of New York Magazine, the super-PACs will unleash a "tsunami of slime" in the coming months. They already spent more than $100 million in the Republican primaries, with some of the money coming from a group of very wealthy individuals that the Washington Post has dubbed "kingmakers." Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, also a big spender, expresses his view of the new laws in a nutshell: "I'm against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections. But as long as it's doable I'm going to do it."
In the upcoming duel between Obama, 50, and Romney, 65, super-PACs are expected to spend $200 million to support Romney. The Democrats are fighting back. Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, is traveling around the country to collect large donations for the Priorities USA Action PAC, which will also use every trick in the advertising book to disparage Romney.
As a result, campaigns will become even more toxic than they have already become since the Tea Party came into existence. There will be no honest questions, discussions and debates about Obama's successes and failures, his goals or his projects. Calling for questions, discussions and debates already seems obsolete, because the American national political contest has been turned into an all-or-nothing game.
Candidates who lose elections try to undermine their outcome. It isn't too much of an overstatement to say that the Republicans are stubbornly ignoring the will of the people, expressed in the form of Obama's election to the presidency. It's as if they had treated his presidency as unworthy of discussion from the very beginning, an accident of American history.
Democrat in the Diaspora
The Republicans are not at home in the cities, the metropolises along the coasts, where the leftist Occupy movement has also vented its displeasure over Obama's performance. Instead, they derive their support from America's forests and mountains and plains, its rural areas. It's worth paying a visit to such places to examine the limits of Obama's chances of succeeding in the vast stretch of country between the coasts -- to a place like Washington, Oklahoma, for example, where retiree Hershel Franklin is already seen as a misfit because he drives around with an "Obama '08" bumper sticker on his car.
Franklin is a Democrat in the diaspora. In Oklahoma, a state wedged between Texas and Kansas, that's enough to be considered an outsider. The town of Washington is a place where people say business transactions are still sealed with a handshake, and a man's word is worth more than a contract. In this Washington, with its 520 residents, where everyone knows everyone else, people don't lock their doors and they leave their car keys in the ignition when they go into the post office. It's a place that attracts people who want to get away from the cities, and from their licentiousness and liberal lack of morals.
Franklin came to Washington because of his children. He is 70, white-haired, slightly overweight and a football fan. He worked as a criminal lawyer for 30 years. His wife is the marketing director at a local bank, and their two children, 14 and 16, a boy and a girl, are both adopted.
Washington, Oklahoma reminds him of his childhood and of the idyllic image of the American small town, says Franklin. It's the America of high-school proms and the America where entire small towns turn out to watch the local high-school football game on a Friday night. In the Domino Building, the retirees still smoke as if there were no smoking bans, and they make crude jokes about Obama, saying that they would drive him out of town if he ever had the audacity to show up there.
Washington, Oklahoma, is fighting against change. Change is suspect, almost a crime against the past. Oklahoma is deeply in red-state territory. In the last presidential election, all 77 counties voted for the Republican candidate John McCain, giving Oklahoma the distinction of being the only state in which McCain won every county. "Ironically," says Hershel Franklin, "the people here really ought to be voting for the Democrats."
Touch of the Irrational
In rural towns like Washington, the people are even more dependent on the government and on government assistance than elsewhere. There is little infrastructure and a lot of poverty. Until recently, Franklin lived on a farm, where he received his electricity through the Rural Electric Cooperative, which installs power lines to remote areas. Today, like almost all retirees in Washington, he benefits from Medicare, the government healthcare program for retirees. These are both programs that were introduced by Democrats, because Democrats, unlike Republicans, believe in the government's capacity to benefit citizens. But it hasn't done them any good in Oklahoma.
The Republicans, says Franklin, have managed to convince people that completely different issues are more important: the right to bear arms, a ban on all forms of abortion and the rejection of gay marriage. The Republicans, says Franklin, have claimed that the Democrats want to ban prayer in schools and desecrate classrooms. "God. Guns. Gays," says Franklin. "They behaved as if Jesus himself was a Republican! And eventually the people here actually believed this nonsense."
This touch of the irrational always pervades the political debate in America, partly as a result of an unwillingness to confront the excessive complexity of the tasks at hand. The biggest project of Obama's term in office, healthcare reform, has been talked to pieces to such an extent by now that even the experts are clueless about its details. There are sharply contradictory calculations that predict either financial salvation or ruin for the United States as a result of the program, known derisively as "Obamacare." Even Obama himself hasn't managed to come up with clear enough brushstrokes to paint a convincing picture of his reforms.
There is a chance that the Supreme Court will overturn the entire body of laws at the end of June, a court whose judges have openly said during hearings that no one can expect a court to actually read a bill consisting of thousands of pages. The same applies to the similarly voluminous bills on the regulation of the banking system and insurance companies and, on the other side of the aisle, to the Republicans' budget proposals. Confusion is being produced where clarity ought to prevail. And when legislation becomes so complex as to confuse even lawmakers and the courts, the lobbyists, the true regents in Washington, come into play.