Unlike a lot of folks who were swept up in the Obama-mania of 2008, I don’t think I expected miracles. I don’t think I expected Obama to be anything other than a politician, though I hoped he’d be a more ethical and competent one than those who’d held power during the Bush administration. I certainly didn’t expect him to undo eight years of bad policy decisions in a matter of months, or to turn the country into a leftist paradise.
Watching his Afghanistan speech, though, I felt the disappointment sinking in and taking hold where it had previously just danced at the edge of my consciousness. Hearing the fear-mongering, the insistence that this war was different from other wars, the fractured logic that sending in more troops will somehow lead to a quicker exit–it felt like a very bad case of deja vu. The boyfriend and I immediately thought of Bataille and Mbembe (yeah, that’s what grad students do, name-drop theorists in the context of political speeches) and the idea of a state of war being a state of normalcy, the unstoppable force of the “war machine” that, like a corporate entity, will do everything it can to survive, even if that means ensuring that peace doesn’t come.
I’ve been reluctant to criticize Obama primarily because of the barrage of (mostly petty) criticism he receives daily from the right, the hodgepodge of wacked-out conspiracy theories and thinly veiled racist attacks mixed with the occasional legitimate complaint about policy. But then I remembered that criticism of a leader–rational, competent criticism, not the sort of horse-hooey being thrown around by the likes of Glenn Beck–is imperative to the success of any democratic nation. It is bizarre to hear the same people who called any criticism of the Bush administration ”un-American” volleying such harsh and frequently illogical complaints against Obama, and then claiming censorship or the bias of a liberal media when they’re criticized in return. Criticism and self-reflection are healthy. A complete lack thereof leads to totalitarianism.
For the right to focus so much of its attention on unfounded, extremist criticisms of the president seems a self-defeating and utterly unproductive practice, especially when any intelligent person, liberal or conservative, could find plenty of legitimate criticisms to make of Obama’s policies. I for one have problems with his trust in Tim Geithner and William McChrystal, his inaction on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and his continued waffling on whether a public option will be central to the Senate health care bill. I would like to think that conservatives could come up with similarly rational complaints, rather than focusing on his birth certificate or the idea that he has a secret plan to “kill grandma” with the health care bill.
I’d still like to give Obama a chance to prove himself. I think removing the global gag rule was an important step. He’s certainly doing a lot to improve the image of the U.S. abroad. He’s brought intellect and measured planning back into government (critics might call it “dithering,” but rushing in without a plan is what got us into so much trouble in the first place). I want to have hope, to believe that “yes we can” wasn’t just a slogan. But the Afghanistan speech disturbed me, and I’m done holding back my criticism. I hope we see more rational criticism in the months and years to come–less of the birthers and the tea baggers and more people who simply want to engage in the very American practice of holding their leaders accountable.