Tariq Ali: The Obama syndrome

Audio of Tariq Ali's full address (63 minutes):

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March 29, 2011 -- ABC Radio's Big Ideas -- In 2008, Obama could do no wrong. To the educated middle class, he was an intelligent and reflective writer who had penned his own insightful memoir. To the conservative elite, he was a Harvard graduate and expert in constitutional law. To the young people who came out in droves to vote for him, he liked the same TV shows, listened to the same music and "got" social networking.

To African Americans, he was the first black man to jangle the keys to the White House and command the empire built on the back of unacknowledged black slave labour. To the downtrodden and disenfranchised, he was a humble former social justice campaigner who had trod the streets of Chicago and drummed up support for local health and education programs.

He was indeed a man for all seasons ... a moderate whose ability to emotionally connect with the dreams and aspirations of disparate audiences had allowed him to saunter along hostile class lines and miraculously triumph in the musty halls of old-boy empire politics.

And then came the crash. The financial crisis saw Obama bail out the grubbers on Wall Street and fail to punish those who had caused millions of ordinary Americans to lose their houses, their jobs and the dream of Obama "the reformer" charging in to rescue them from poverty and social humiliation.

Highlights from Tariq Ali's address to the 2011 Perth Writers' Festival, broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Big Ideas.

Despite his gift of the gab, Obama found himself unable to sell health-care reform to the people who would benefit from it the most and only managed to pass an eviscerated policy that primarily benefitted insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Despite receiving a Nobel Peace prize in the early days of his presidency, Obama continued the "war on terror", maintained the status of Guantanamo Bay and increased drone attacks in Afghanistan.

The glow that had settled on Obama for that brief period in 2008 rapidly faded and political apathy followed. In the recent mid-terms, Obama's voters deserted him in droves, some of them turned to the right-wing "tea party" movement for renewed hope. Most simply failed to turn up to vote.

Could Hillary Clinton have done a better job? No, argues Tariq Ali, Obama is just doing what any politician in his situation would do. He's a "skilful and gifted machine politician". Those despondent former supporters have just suffered what he calls the "Obama Syndrome" -- a kind of mass myopic idealism, a "syndrome"that can only be treated, if not cured, by a dose of political reality.

This event was held at the 2011 Perth Writers Festival.

[Tariq Ali has been a leading figure of the international left since the 1960s and his involvement in the anti-Vietnam movement. He has written seven novels and more than 20 books on world history and politics, including The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (2002), A Banker for All Seasons (2007) and most recently, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad (2010). He currently works as an editor for New Left Review and regularly contributes to the UK Guardian, Counterpunch and The London Review of Books.]