Former Black Panther chairperson Elaine Brown dismisses the “distinction between this individual president and that individual president” in the USA. For her, they are all “there to protect the interests of the American government as it exists in service to the American corporations. They are the spokespersons for the big rich man who have control of this country.”
Far from being an agent of change, even past president Barack Obama was “the pawn of globalized interests,” according to author Naomi Wolf. “The problem is not left or right. The problem is that whoever’s in the White House has very little room to move.”
Brown and Wolf speak out in the second and final episode of Al Jazeera’s The Big Picture series, The People vs America, which provides a critical look at both George W Bush and Obama’s presidencies and how they contributed to the growing distrust of established authority in the USA, paving the way for the election of Donald Trump.
American historian Michael Kazin recalls the initial optimism that greeted Obama. “He was eloquent. He was African American. He was an intellectual and professor… He seemed like the harbinger of something really new.”
Brown adds, “It didn’t occur to anyone that one of the reasons that Obama could even get this far was that he had to be totally, totally immersed in and protected by a very big… cartel of rich people.”
As Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges points out though, the warnings were there for anyone who looked. “Obama spent two years, only two years, in the Senate. His voting record, which is the only thing that should have counted, was one corporate giveaway after another.”
Obama’s presidency began with the fallout from the 2008 credit crash. In dealing with this, he turned to established stalwarts linked to Wall Street, such as former US Treasury Secretaries Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin, rather than independent experts. Similar establishment figures and Wall Street insiders were appointed to investigate the reasons for the financial crisis, leading former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer, Gary Aguirre, to state, “So any progress against Wall Street is dead on arrival. According to the senate investigations committee, the financial fraud crimes of the crisis cost the US $21 trillion. Nobody from Wall Street goes to prison. Nobody. No-one.”
Voters promised “Change We Can Believe In” instead discovered it was business as usual under Obama. “We saw how it was rigged with the crash,” says sociologist Juliet Schor. “The people who caused the problem got bailed out to the tune of billions and billions and billions, where the ordinary homeowner – no help for them whatsoever. And that fueled so much anger.”
The People vs America also highlights Obama’s crackdown on whistleblowers, such as Edward Snowden, who in 2013, was charged under the Espionage Act for revealing the extent of secret domestic surveillance of US citizens by the US secret services. Obama’s administration would invoke the Espionage Act against a further eight US citizens accused of leaking classified information – three times more than all previous administrations combined.
Obama also signed into law Section 10-21 of the National Defense Authorization Act, enabling the indefinite military detention of US citizens without trial, with no charges against them and no evidence of a crime having been committed. Hedges sued Obama over this, winning the initial case in the Southern District Court of New York before the decision was overturned on appeal, a reversal supported by the Supreme Court.
Wolf says she was in the courtroom in downtown New York and heard “with my own ears” Judge Forest asks Obama’s lawyers, “‘Does this mean that you, the President, can arrest a reporter for interviewing a member of al-Qaeda?’ Right, just interviewing, which is what reporters are supposed to do. The lawyer said, ‘Yes, we can arrest Chris Hedges. We can hold him forever without charge or trial.’”
Like Trump, Obama came to power in response to a will for change, but the critical voices in The People vs America claim both presidents’ actions suggest rather a continuation of a traditional order, decades in the making.
Watch part one, which documents how appeals to race and populism are old strategies used by Presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton.
The election of Donald Trump in November 2016 exposed a deep vein of distrust across the US, where millions have become disillusioned with a political and corporate elite out of touch with the sentiments of ordinary Americans. We explore the construction and mythology of the American Dream and uncover the reality of exclusion and denial. In this two-part series, we chart the history of post-Second World War America to uncover how race has dominated the political landscape and continues to shape American society. We reveal the nexus of political, corporate and institutional interests that created and now curtail a withering middle-class, pushing people into polarised camps, and now furthering disaffection with the traditional ‘establishment’.