MEDIA ROOTS — The function of the U.S. presidency, essentially, is to give a human face to the empire, to offer a humanizing appeal to barbarism abroad and domestically—at least under our rigged de facto two-party dictatorship. A point Obama doesn’t deny: “People have a sense the game is rigged…” Enter Obama, to assure them otherwise.
So, when uncritical corporate rock magazines interview the so-called Commander-in-chief, we’re supposed to feel warm and fuzzy, rather than dreadful or indignant about the $750 million in campaign funds he took in 2008, nor the projected $1 billion for 2012, and all of the pro-1% policies which flow from such obscene funding. Last week’s Rolling Stone interview with President Obama conducted by the magazine’s Editor and Publisher Jann S. Wenner (alongside RS Executive Director Eric Bates) evokes many familiar tropes we’ve grown accustomed to during his last four years in office. But let’s take another look at the sympathetic campaign-promoting interview from a more critical perspective.
Robbie and Messina
The recent Rolling Stone interview with Obama evokes many familiar tropes we’ve been accustomed to during his last four years in office. Indeed,
“[…] even when asked a direct question, [Obama] focused primarily on the very real constraints he operates under as president […]”
Out the gate, Obama employed what Glenn Greenwald refers to as the ‘impotent presidency‘ excuse, setting the tone for the interview wherein anything remotely controversial is deferred to other areas of government, taking the president off the hook of showing any meaningful leadership, as we’re expected to agree the president has no power to change the system, nor try.
Instead, in his introduction Wenner primes readers for Obama’s campaign rhetoric:
“[…] ending discrimination against gay soldiers, pulling US troops out of Iraq, killing Osama Bin Laden […]”
These, of course, are lists of ‘accomplishments’ Obama prefers to emphasize. Although, we weren’t aware that, by dragging his feet for years on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell‘ (DADT) and finally removing it, he was “ending discrimination against gay soldiers.” From our estimates, sexuality in the military is still stuck 50 years in the past, with women charging rape being labeled mentally ill by commanding officers. If heterosexual discrimination is still so prevalent, we don’t even want to imagine how far in the past homosexual discrimination is (DADT repealed or not).
As, Obama strove to set the tone for the interview with the ‘impotent presidency’ defense, Wenner assisted the humanization process by depicting Obama as a regular guy. If Bush 2.0 was the guy you might want to have a beer with, Obama is the guy you can text with.
“Obama began to air-thumb an imaginary text. ‘See I’m hip,’ he said with a laugh.”
Oh, Obama, you’re so funny!
“Do you think racial politics and race relations in America are any different now than when you first took office?”
“Look, race has been one of the fault lines in American culture and American politics from the start.”
Here, Obama uses his familiar condescending sentence structure, starting out his statement with the word ‘look.’ And, of course, avoids the glaring statistics, which betray a virtual war on Black and Brown and immigrant communities, not to mention the function police departments play in criminalizing people of color and low-income.
“You’ve shied away from demanding marriage equality for all. Are you at least willing to say that you support it on a personal level?”
“I’m not going to make news in this publication. I’ve made clear that the issue of fairness and justice and equality for the LGBT community is very important to me. And I haven’t just talked about it, I’ve acted on it.”
Completely dodging the question and in a defensive posture, Obama claims he’s made clear LGBT equality is very important to him, even though he personally does not support gay marriage and has said so repeatedly.
“And we’re going to keep on working in very practical ways to make sure that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are treated as what they are – full fledged members of the American family.”
Since the president himself doesn’t believe in marriage equality, maybe he’s referring to ‘we’ as in his administration. You can’t be a full-fledged member of the “American family” if you can’t get legally married to the person you love.
“You vowed in 2008 […] you would not ‘use justice department resources to try and circumvent state laws about medical marijuana.’ Yet we just ran a story that shows your administration is launching more raids on medical pot than the Bush administration did. What’s up with that?”
“Here’s what’s up: What I specifically said was that we were not going to prioritize prosecutions of persons who are using medical marijuana. I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana – and the reason is, because it’s against federal law. I can’t nullify congressional law.”
Actually, Mr. President, you did say, literally, what was quoted above. There isn’t anything more ‘specific’ about it. Your statement, as well as the one made by Attorney General Eric Holder, stated clearly criminal prosecutions of people in violation of federal law, but not state medical marijuana laws, would be a very low priority. Effectively, you did “nullify” the DEA policy by making such a statement in office. Unfortunately, it was merely a platitude and a statement without any intention of being honored. Smoking marijuana, medicinally or not, is against federal law. So, why all of a sudden are you worried about federal law in regards to marijuana? Medical pot needs to be grown somewhere, but it’s probably more convenient for the DEA to go after the big fish because they have the most money and resources that the DEA can ‘seize.’
Regarding questions on why criminal charges have not been leveled against Wall Street: “Despite all the fraud and manipulation, why is nobody on trial?”
“First of all, we’re a nation of laws. So in some cases, really irresponsible practices that hurt a lot of people might not have been technically against the law. They might have been the wrong thing to do, but prosecutors are required to actually build cases based on what the law is.”
Obama makes the neoclassical economics argument, albeit ahistorically, about how Wall Street is supposed to innovate and then government can regulate after the fact. There’s no mention of the deregulation, which laid the foundation for the economic disaster under President Clinton’s Administration. And, of course, many of those same people flocked to Obama’s Administration. Moreover, Obama employs a form of doublespeak wherein the first half of his response negates the second because while the thrust of his response involved regulation, his first said it all: “[…] really irresponsible practices that hurt a lot of people might not have been technically against the law.” And, of course, we note the linguistic coup in Obama’s transformation of “fraud” into “irresponsibility,” completely scrubbing culpability from the entire discourse.
Wenner: “So, you think there’s still a possibility of criminal prosecution?”
Obama: “I think there’s still possibilities of criminal prosecutions. But what I’ve instructed the attorney general to do is to follow the evidence and follow the law. That’s how our system works.”
Oh, really? Is that why there are still gulags (Gitmo and Bagram) operating under your direction where people can be held indefinitely without charges for merely being suspected ‘terrorists’? When it comes to prosecuting the powerful, Obama, all of a sudden, respects our justice system? Obama must have learned through his coaches and PR team not to give a definitive answer either way. Right after he was elected, people started asking him, ‘will there be Bush Administration prosecutions?’ And his answer became a familiar mantra: ‘We must look forward not backwards.’ This time, he leaves it open-ended to give the false impression he still has the intention to prosecute rich and powerful Wall Street criminals: The recent housing settlement “doesn’t provide any criminal immunity whatsoever.”
Actually it does, perhaps not as bad as the NSA telecom immunity bill Obama flipped on when he was in the Senate, but close.
“The thing is, if you look at what has happened in the last decade in the United States,” explains Greenwald, “think about the kind of crimes that we have seen by the most powerful people.
“So, we’ve seen the construction of a worldwide torture regime, spying on American people without the warrants required by the criminal law, an aggressive attack on another country that killed at least a hundred thousand innocent people, multiple acts of obstruction of justice, systematic fraud on an enormous scale, that triggered a worldwide economic crisis, that destroyed the economic comfort and middle-class security of tens of millions of people, mortgage fraud where homes were taken without legal entitlements. And every single one of these crimes has been completely protected. None have been investigated meaningfully, let alone prosecuted.
“Then at the very same time that we’ve created this template of elite immunity we have created the world’s largest penal state, prison state, in the entire world.
“So, people are extremely well aware of this vastly disparate treatment, that people who are powerful and in positions of privilege and prestige receive versus how ordinary Americans receive treatment before the bar of justice. And we’re inculcated the idea we’re all supposed to be equal before the law.”
But never mind reality, Rolling Stone has more important questions to ask.
Wenner: “You came into office as a young president with no military experience. Can you tell us a bit about your experience with overseeing the Pentagon and how you’ve grown as commander in chief, how your leadership style has evolved?”
Obama: “In part because of really good work by Bob Gates, who I kept on as a secretary of defense […] I think they know I care about them and I respect them, and I think they respect me and listen to what I say. They understand that I’m the commander in chief.”
Again, Obama carefully words his answer to reinforce the false notion that he can only do so much. He expresses his desire and uncertainty of the Pentagon having mutual respect for him. Keeping the Bush Administration’s defense secretary was a way for him to offset his lack of experience, or so he claims.
Wenner: “I heard you liked the TV show Homeland.”
Obama: “I did, it was a great show.”
Laughably, here Rolling Stone readers are, apparently, supposed to get the sense Wenner is really sticking it to Obama with her questioning by reiterating:
“In the show a drone strike destroys a madrassa and provokes an assassination attempt on the vice president of the United States. What did you enjoy about it?”
But, again, this is merely another frame, by which Obama is humanized and his responsibility for unprecedented drone killings is scrubbed clean from the discourse.
“What I liked was just real complicated characters. […] It’s a terrific psychological study, and that’s what I enjoy about it.”
Obama likes the show Homeland because, like another propagandistic show before it, Sleeper Cell, it reinforces the false premise that the USA is under domestic threat from ‘Islamic terrorism‘ because of ‘blowback’ resulting from U.S. imperialism and heavy-handed military attacks.
Wenner continues with the humanizing questions, coming full circle from the introduction to the conclusion, by asking him for more TV-viewing recommendations and giving Obama a chance to name-drop celebrities, such as George Clooney, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and so on.
“I like The Daily Show[…] I think Jon Stewart’s brilliant. It’s amazing to me the degree to which he’s able to cut through a bunch of the nonsense […] he ends up having more credibility than a lot of more conventional news programs do.”
Utilizing a familiar trope from late Bush-era commentary. It used to be ‘hip’ to say these things about Stewart, now the president is saying them. Is something wrong with this picture? Jon Stewart has been noticeably hands-off in regards to criticizing the Obama Administration, even frequently having on as guests people from his cabinet. Democrats and liberals still love the Daily Show, since it never really stopped attacking Republicans on a regular basis, even when Democrat Obama became Commander-in-chief, buttressing the false left/right paradigm, by which Republicans simplistically play the antagonist to the Democrats’ protagonist role in the de facto two-party system and alternative parties are scrubbed from the people’s consciousness.
“There are a handful of blogs [I read], Andrew Sullivan’s on the Daily Beast being an example, that combine thoughtful analysis with a sampling of lots of essays that are out there.”
If you weren’t sure what to think of “former” neo-con Andrew Sullivan’s blog before, hopefully this helps. When Obama himself starts praising your work as a journalist, it’s time to re-evaluate whether you even believe in the concept of the Fourth Estate. By the shamefully uncritical treatment of Obama, it’s clear what Rolling Stone thinks about it.
Written by Robbie Martin and Felipe Messina for Media Roots
Photo by Flickr user Donkey Hotey