by Zainab Cheema (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 6, Ramadan, 1433)
Election year, when the elaborate stagecraft and electoral machinery anointing the US president roars into gear, is now upon us.
Except that it is now oddly muffled through popular indifference, for the American political system is saturated with Obama-fatigue. The Obama White House’s axed social secretary, the stylish Desiree Rogers, liked to boast about “the Obama brand” back when he was a political superstar. Now, the US public is rather tuning out of the program of “Obama vs. Romney,” as if it were a lackluster show desperately promoted by TV networks for ratings. Where’s the remote for changing the channel?
Part of the problem with Obama vs. Romney is that they are like two restaurants located side by side with different decors — the elitist half-Kenyan intellectual, as one newspaper once dubbed the serving president, and the polished big business tycoon — but serving the exact same menu: big business lite and big business largo. Or if you’re a coffee lover, its like you’re trying to decide on a hot Summer’s day, between a Starbucks frappacino and a Caribou Coffee cooler (hint: it’s the same icy, caffeinated drink). To a certain extent, this is part of the system’s mechanics. Presidential agendas are never decided by the man inhabiting the White House — this is the supreme myth of personality politics. Rather, there is a web of power and wealth from which executive decisions rise to the top like radioactive dairy cream. Representatives of big businesses, think tanks, and leviathan lobbies circulate in the corridors of power, etching out the pattern of US special interest politics.
But the extent to which Wall Street has ironed out the simulated three dimensionality of a presidential personality is astounding. For both Obama and Romney, the slogan has become: heil big business! The crashing economy is the foremost topic for most voters, but both business-bots scrambling for the topmast of the drifting ship of state are selling the line that what’s good for business is good for the people. “Yes, foreign policy matters,” Obama declared at his 2012 Cleveland stump speech. “Social issues matter. But more than anything else, this election presents a choice between two fundamentally different visions of how to create strong, sustained growth."
For his part, Romney portrays Obama as a renegade socialist and presents himself as the capitalist superman who will enable “the liberating power of the free enterprise system.” “The President unfortunately… has made it harder for new businesses to start up,” declared Romney, displaying his profound sympathy for the US business sector, “As a matter of fact, the number of new business start-ups per year has dropped by 100,000 per year.” The conservative nexus fueling the Romney campaign has even coined a handy term that lays the US economic doldrums on the shoulders of the hapless Barak — Obamanomics. “[T]he key to Obamanomics,” writes Robert Tracinski, “[is] to focus on government action, government spending, government hiring as the key to everything — while disparaging private profit-making.”
The landmark law defining the 2012 US election is Citizens United (shorthand for Citizens United vsFederal Election Commission), a Supreme Court ruling which tore down a century of legal restrictions on crony capitalism. Restricting the financial amount that could be donated to a single candidate brought out the electoral playing field closer to its elusive ideal — that there is no intrinsic difference between the power of corporations and individuals. With no-holds-barred capitalism, the voters are reduced to indifferent tacks. The race has come down to millionaires and billionaires flushing candidates of their choice with the funds to shape the system according to their preferences, interests, and ideologies.
With the leveling of the playing field to a membership-only group composed of first class frequent fliers and country club blue-bloods, the politician has become all too recognizable as a brand — a signifier of expensive name-recognition, rather than a public servant. Obama, celebrated in 2008 as a president deeply in tune with the nation’s social issues, is tagged now as an ineffective celebrity fit only for hobnobbing with the rich. Vogue editrix Anna Wintour, a frequent visitor to White House social affairs, recently held a fundraiser/fashion auction for Obama where the uber-wealthy could purchase an item from their favorite brands at reduced prices.
“If this is an effort to recapture some of the Obama ‘cool’ of 2008, it feels oddly tin-eared,” observed Decoder Wire correspondent Liz Marlantes. “At a time when millions of Americans are still facing serious economic hardship, a collection of $45 T-shirts and $75 tote bags by designers typically associated with the East Hampton set does not exactly scream empathy.”
In addition, half a dozen Democrats skipped Obama’s glitzy coronation party at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he was designated the party’s official candidate for the 2012 election cycle. "I guarantee that my time will be better spent meeting the farmers, small business owners and other people who put me here,” New York Representative Kathy Hochul told The Daily. The DNC party, which is about executive meetings, glad-handing the rich and wanna-be powerful, and wearing festive party hats with the yokels, has palpable danger of making you seem out of touch with the people you are supposed to govern.
Even brands are effective only as much as the popular support behind them — loss of support means slashing its money value, and casting it on the recycling heap. “Mr. President, remember when the country rallied behind you in hopes of a better tomorrow?” asked Jimmy Kimmel at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner, “That was hilarious.” The art of the unfunny joke is exquisitely appropriate to the post-Citizens United electoral era. The nakedness of business ownership over politics — and of public exclusion from the decision making determining their resources, livelihoods, and futures — is too stark for the subtle jab, the delicate parry. Analyzing the corporatization of politics is a cudgel job.
At present, Romney is neck-to-neck in the polls with President Obama, despite his elitist gaffes and utter lack of charisma. In fact, he slightly leads Obama with 46% to 45% of respondents to the Gallup Poll saying that they would rather vote for him than for Barack, bringing the Republican electoral watchers out of the doldrums of despair. It’s hardly a testament to his attractiveness, but rather a choice between Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum. Mitt once joked about his wife Ann’s addiction to horses at a campaign stop, declaring that he would send her to Alcoholics Anonymous. In a climate where buying bread has become an arduous task, addiction to buying horses is not a hobby that many can relate to in their future president’s family.
One columnist sallied on how hard the Tea Party tried to throw their support behind a candidate other than robo-Mitt — and the uneasy digestion that greeted his coronation as the Republican party’s dauphin. “We know that you find the man inauthentic and that you have buoyed up a string of anti-Mitts [during the primaries],” observed Thomas Frank, “[but] given everything you represent, why wouldn’t you line up behind this quarter-billionaire who’s calling for just a little human love and sympathy for billionaires?” The sad fact of the Republican power base is that to a certain extent, people are. Le Monde Diplomatique’s Robert Zaretsky has found similarities between Obama and France’s deposed Sarkoszy, noting that “in their efforts to respond to faltering economies, both presidents have been checkmated by a conservative opposition.”
For the curious wondering about what a President Romney would be like, the answer is an irreproachably white Obama who would tilt the ship even more fanatically toward corporate-conservatism. Romney is recently holding a retreat in Utah for the top donors to his campaign, and GOP-heavyweights such as former governor of Florida Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice are expected to attend. Romney’s credentials with the US investor elite means that he has had no trouble seducing big business for the big bucks.
Romney’s war chest has recently swelled with donations from old-time supporters: Rocco Ortenzio, titan of a health care empire including private hospitals, rehab centers and clinics, gave $750,000. Houston-based businessman Robert T. Brockman who missed giving Romney’s super-PAC a rounded-off $1 million donation by a single dollar. After being crowned the official Republican candidate, Robo-Mitt is also enjoying the windfall from donors who had previously supported the other GOP candidates. This includes $500,000 from Arkansas investment banker Warren Stephens; and $67,500 from newspaper publisherRichard Mellon Scaife, a longtime conservative fundraiser who publishes the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Obama enviously remarked that he doesn’t expect to raise a billion for his campaign, as Romney has.
No wonder, for Romney promises more of the privatization and breakdown of public services that delights their souls. “Our government has an absolute moral commitment to help every American help themselves and today, that fundamental commitment has been broken,” declared Romney during a campaign speech. Forget about healthcare, medical assistance, and education — the best way for governments to “help” their subjects is to pump public money into corporations, which will in turn dole out jobs to the said grateful subjects. That is, unless, the corporations don’t send the jobs overseas to India and China first.
The list goes on. If Obama has drawn outrage from environmentalists for the BP-Gulf of Mexico disaster during his watch and his foot-dragging on the Alaska Keystone XL pipeline, Romney has flatly denied business involvement in global warming and planetary catastrophe: “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet,” he declared last October (before flip-flopping this year).
And if Obama was dubbed Baruch Obama for his close ties with Chicago’s Jewish community (and Netanyahu certainly considers the Obama White House his house), Romney is determined to out-do his Zionist credentials. During his December remarks to the Republican Jewish coalition, Romney called Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan a result of his bowing to foreign [Arab] dictators. “He has visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iraq,” declared Mitt, “He even offered to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet in three years, he has not found it in his interest to visit Israel, our ally, our friend, the sole Middle East nation that fully shares our values — the nation in President Truman’s words, that is an ‘embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.’” Perhaps because Netanyahu himself likes to pop over so often, especially when he is guaranteed standing ovations from the US Congress.
While Romney likes to pontificate about the economy from his lofty position as executive of Bain Capital, despite his antiseptic-seeming blandness, he is also a promising representative of Pentagon Inc. — the engines of war that keep the US economy humming. This entails the stagecraft of us vs them and all that it entails — Islamophobia, domestic surveillance, detentions, pre-emptive prosecution, drone warfare, renditions, torture, the works.
In the same speech, Romney promised to declare war on Iran, via the tired excuse of its nuclear program, and announced: “I want the world to know that the bonds between Israel and the United States are unshakable.” Robo-Mitt repeats Obama’s devotional promises to US Zionist elites, but with all the éclat of ultimate insider to US power — the WASP businessman who never need prove he’s a closet Muslim. “In short, like a bad episode of the Japanese series Godzilla (where the “our” monster battles the other one to save the day), Obama vs Romney is about the pointless contests endlessly staged within the political juggernaut as a simulacrum of free choice.
Presidential polls are not always accurate barometers for public attitudes — it’s like tracking the stock market numbers for brand name goods (when you know that there is far more than what meets the eye). There are other polls far more effective in capturing the breakdown of public trust in the system in the wake of Citizens United. According to a recent poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News, only 44% of Americans approve of the job being done by the Supreme Court, and say that say the justices’ decisions are sometimes influenced by their personal or political views. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court’s approval ratings were in the 80% range. These days, Congress’ approval ratings hover between 17% and 18%. The free fall of Obama’s own ratings, while personal fodder for GOP attack ads, is more a reflection of how the people perceive the presidency as a whole. As showman PT Barnum once observed: you can’t fool all the people all the time — the state of the nation speaks eloquently of the political sell-out of the United States.