Obama’s Inauguration: the Hopes of a Nation, the Needs of an Empire

By Dennis Loo 

Barack Hussein Obama is the new U.S. President. Bush and Cheney looked awfully small and dyspeptic that day, Cheney especially, since he was wheel-chair ridden, having thrown out his back while heaving boxes of ultra secret documents from the White House on his last day in office. Apparently, staffers couldn’t be trusted to move this stuff for the man who kept a safe as tall as a man in his office.

 

Millions came to watch, hundreds of millions glued to the TV, to celebrate the end of the Bush/Cheney years - never a more richly deserved and so-long delayed good riddance to a despised regime - and the beginning of the administration of this “skinny black man with the funny name,” as Obama has called himself.

 

On the Sunday preceding Tuesday’s inauguration, a concert dubbed “We Are One” was held in front of the Lincoln Memorial, featuring headliners Bruce Springsteen, U2, Stevie Wonder, Usher, Beyonce, Rene Fleming, John Mellancamp, and many others.

 

Crafty 89-year old Pete Seeger, blacklisted during the 1950s and banned from TV for decades, accompanied by Springsteen, in a rousing finale, restored the original lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s ode to the American people. Mellancamp performed his “Pink Houses,” a sardonic look at the American experience for working people.

Perhaps even more than Tuesday’s events, the “We Are One” Sunday event illustrates the complicated terrain that Obama must negotiate. On the one hand, here are the hopes of a nation, perhaps never more elevated with this man who looks so “Other” compared to the outgoing gang and the forty-one other prior presidents (Grover Cleveland was president twice in

Well there's people and more people

What do they know know know

Go to work in some high rise

And vacation down at the Gulf of Mexico

Ooh yeah

And there's winners and there's losers

But they ain't no big deal

'Cause the simple man baby pays for the thrills, the bills,

the pills that kill

 

Ah but ain't that America for you and me

Ain't that America somethin' to see baby

Ain't that America home of the free, yeah

Little pink houses for you and me, Ooooh

 

-- John Mellancamp,  Pink Houses

 

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;

Sign was painted, it said private property;

But on the back side it didn't say nothing;

That side was made for you and me.

 

-- Woody Guthrie, This Land is Your Land

non-consecutive terms), and never so much unalloyed joy evident in the faces of the people. The artists who performed for Obama on Sunday, some of whose own songs for the event underscore the differences they have with Obama, whether they know this now or not, will come to know this more sharply in the months and years to come, representing, as artists always do, the cutting edge of masses’ hopes and dreams that Obama has so skillfully parlayed into winning the presidency in this time of national crisis.

 

On the other hand, there are the needs of American Empire that Obama is charged by the people who really run things to preserve, protect and advance. If truth were to be revealed in deeds, the Presidential Oath of Office would say: “I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear to preserve, protect and defend the American Empire.”

 

As Marine Major General Smedley Butler, the most decorated Marine in US history at the time of his death, and who was recruited by American industrialists to lead a fascist coup against FDR, but who instead blew the whistle on the plot, put it in 1935:

 

"I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."

 

What direction will things go in? Can Obama hold the center together, or will the centrifugal forces be too strong?

* * *

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Inauguration’s MC, introduced the event touting it as a peaceful transfer of power rooted in the people’s right to elect their leaders. She left unsaid the fact that electing one’s leaders, even if the votes are all counted, couldn’t possibly be “democracy” since it means that the voters don’t really have a say over what goes on between elections. Funny further that she should say this since in 2007 she announced that the Democrats, now back in control of Congress, would not do anything about the ever so hackable electronic voting machines at least until 2010: the same messed with machines that delivered Bush and Cheney the White House illegitimately in 2004, after having been bestowed the White House illegitimately in 2000.

 

Rev. Rick Warren, who has publicly described gays as the equivalent of pedophiles and engaging in acts akin to bestiality, delivered the invocation, feeling no evident irony intoning to god that we are “united in our commitment to freedom and justice for all.”

 

Then after Chief Justice John Roberts stumbled over the ever so short Presidential Oath of Office, was the time for the much-anticipated new President’s Inaugural Address. Some pundits had predicted before this day that portions of his speech would one day find their way into marble in the capital. For such a build-up and from someone who delivered such stirring calls for “change” during the campaign and upon capturing the nomination, this inaugural speech was notable neither for soaring rhetoric nor for inspirational content. Missing perhaps the alliterative agility of Kennedy’s principal speechwriter, Theodore Sorensen (“pay any price, bear any burden”), Obama’s talk was oddly subdued. In explaining this, pundits have ventured various explanations – he’s trying to downsize expectations, he’s speaking frankly to the American people, he’s treating us with respect for our intelligence and telling it soberly to us. As CBS’s Bob Schieffer put it, what’s more notable about this speech is not what he said, but who he is that said it. Truth be told, Obama could have simply stood at the podium and raised his arms to the crowd and the people there would have beamed and applauded in happiness. 

 

Obama is hemmed in less by the limitations of his twenty-seven year old speechwriter and his own writing then by the nature of the crisis of US imperialism and the role he can and will play as its chief political leader.

 

He used the word “change,” which he so incessantly invoked during the campaign, only once: “For the world has changed, and we must change with it.” And in this line change becomes less the leading element but the requisite response to the vanguard element, the fact that the world has changed and we must meet that.

 

He used the word hope three times, twice from the George Washington speech that he ends his talk with “in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive,” “With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.”) and once here: “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

 

Obama calls for a return (I couldn’t help but think of Frank Capra and his films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”)  “to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history.” There is a “sapping of confidence across the land – a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable.” Not Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech, but a far cry from Reagan’s “morning in America.”

 

Some parsing out of two disparate items is in order. This “sapping of confidence” in America should be broken down. If Americans are feeling less confidence in imperialist wars then this declining confidence in it is a good thing. There are, of course, those in America who delight in American dominance over other countries and “our way of life” that Obama says we won’t apologize for: with less than 5% of the world’s population, the US consumes 25% of non-renewal fossil fuel, produces the same percentage of global warming chemicals, and incarcerates 25% of the world’s population who are behind bars. Yes, We’re No. 1 in many categories that we have no business being proud of.

 

What just America and sustainable planet would not be one in which the American way of life with its oversized carbon footprint is put away along with other “childish things?”

 

“[O]ur time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

 

“Protecting narrow interests,” “those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame” are very mild rebukes for the likes of Enron, Madoff, Wall Street, corporate America and the Congress and White House that gave them the reins and now have sold out generations ahead their futures to bailout these modern day robber barons.

 

At a time when tens of millions are feeling in their daily lives the pain and consequences of neoliberal policies of unleashing the “free market” through deregulation, privatization,  and deindustrialization, Obama tells us that the question before us is not “whether the market is a force for good or ill.” Indeed. Is it not? Are you sure? Compare Obama’s mild criticism of a system that has taken us to the brink of catastrophe to the frank admission of former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan that his tenet of faith in the market was a mistake.

 

How is hard work and sacrifice going to help with this except if this sacrifice is at the price of the working class and middle classes of this country and not those who have been bailed out by the rescue funding that Obama and McCain both backed?

 

“Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” 9/11, as horrible as it was, and even assuming that it was not an inside job, is not comparable, I’m sorry, to the ongoing carnage unleashed in the name of 9/11 by our government. Over a million Iraqis have died, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Tens of thousands of Americans have died in combat or after combat by suicide (eighteen a day by suicide according to the VA). Afghans continue to die from American strikes and more to come as Obama shifts the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran is in the crosshairs of the new administration and Palestinians got no support from President Elect Obama while Israel was massacring them in the last few weeks.

 

This war on terror is a war OF terror. It is a war for empire. It is a war that must be repudiated. Obama says that “We Are One” and the sense of unity you could see everywhere in the last few days. Many believe that Martin Luther King’s Dream has now been fulfilled. But less than three weeks before the first black president takes office in the US, another black man is murdered in cold blood by the police: Oscar Grant, executed in the back while facedown at the Oakland Bart Station.

 

Obama wants us to join him in his quest to meld the legitimate desires of the nation to the needs of imperialist empire. To try to accomplish this difficult feat he appeals to America to work hard, sacrifice and band together. Activists from World Can’t Wait, Vets for Peace, Arrest Bush, Code Pink and others who took to the streets of DC in the days preceding and including the Inauguration reported that tens of thousands of people enthusiastically asked to have their pictures taken alongside signs that said “Arrest Bush,” “From Gaza to Guantanamo Stop the Endless Wars of Terror and Torture, “Prosecute War Criminals Bush and Cheney.”

 

Obama speaks of an era of responsibility. OK, I can do that. Let’s start by holding the war criminals who you shared the podium with on Tuesday responsible for their crimes against humanity. If you do that, which means, of course, that Obama must repudiate the co-operation and collusion that he and the rest of the Democratic Party leadership extended to the Bush White House over the last eight years, I will applaud you and pat you on the back. If you don’t, then you should be condemned as a hypocrite and as the president who sealed the fate of the nation by looking the other way in the face of tyranny and lawlessness from the highest office in the land.

* * *

The armored car that Barack and Michelle Obama rode in for part of the inauguration motorcade is nicknamed “The Beast” by the Secret Service due to its size, its 4-5” armored plates and other high-tech features, including its ability to drive even if the tires have been flattened. As I watched this “Beast” move slowly along Pennsylvania Avenue and as the NBC commentators remarked that the vehicle was hard to maintain because going over DC potholes created problems for the armor plates, and as Fox News commentators mentioned that the “Beast” produced noxious diesel fumes, I couldn’t help but think of it as a metaphor for US imperialism. Fortified. Armor-plated. Thick walls and windows. But slow and difficult and jeopardized by everyday matters like potholes. 

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