After Obama was swept into office in 2008 many people, including myself, were hopeful the U.S. ship of state could be steered in a direction conducive to sane governance.  An unlikely and enormous task for sure, but at least on a rhetorical level the new president seemed to be in tune with the progressive voices that helped vote him into office.  Looking back at his first two years, however, I think it’s fair to say that the results have been tepid at best and destructive at worst.   

After the mantra of change was used in one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history, it didn’t occur until after the fact to ask:  in this case, what exactly does change mean?  Many people who optimistically lined up to vote for Obama just assumed that change meant a reversal of the policies of the Bush years.  In reality once you looked beyond the speeches, his campaign promises fell rather right of a progressive agenda and in fact his policies were a seamless continuation of the previous administration.  But can people be so easily self-deceived?  Yes we can

In his new book The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad (2010), Tariq Ali reviews the presidents’ first two years in office and the political direction of both his domestic and foreign policies.  As you would expect, Ali’s analysis is insightful but at the same time rather depressing if you were one of those who believed some daylight was reaching the White House. 

Apart from a complete institutional overhaul, the lesson here is to remember that real change comes not from the top down but the bottom up.  Such change does not simply happen after a successful campaign or even in two years, but it requires sustained effort over many years.  Putting aside what Obama might actually wish to accomplish while in office, it seems to me more important for Americans themselves to decide what they want and work hard to advocate it.  Democratic leaders, even the most authoritarian, eventually consent to public opinion once enough pressure is applied.  At least that’s the theory.