US President Barack Obama arrives to deliver remarks at the University of Cape Town. Photo: Jason Reed
US President Barack Obama arrives to deliver remarks at the University of Cape Town. Photo: Jason Reed
Cape Town 130630  Anti Obama protest ahead of his address at UCT.
Photo by Courtney Africa
Cape Town 130630 Anti Obama protest ahead of his address at UCT. Photo by Courtney Africa

Cape Town - I have examined myself and cannot find an anti-American bone. I don’t feel conflicted at the fact that I prefer hamburgers to kneidlach soup or cholent or pap.

I’m hardly perturbed that I am more familiar with the lyrics of Bob Dylan than the liturgy of my great-grandparents. Far from a visceral anger at Hollywood for the loss of my identity, I delight in curling up regularly with the best that HBO has to offer. And yet I went to join the protest at UCT before President Barack Obama spoke on Sunday. Why?

Well actually I went, saw a bunch of fanatics protesting under a Star of David and a swastika, and decided to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. I gave the conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites the widest possible berth. But under different circumstances I would join a picket against this president we all admire.

Obama’s election was a time of unbelievable excitement in my life. There were moments in his campaign that demonstrated an integrity that is exceedingly rare in US politics. The highpoint was his speech on race in Philadelphia. At that time Obama was under pressure to distance himself from his former pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright, who was made famous by a YouTube video in which he said “God damn America” for its racism and “for killing innocent people”.

The man who sought to become the first black president said of Rev Wright: “He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”

Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq, his promise to close the Guantánamo Bay prison where men are kept for years without trial, his gentle acknowledgement of the need to undo pervasive inequality of opportunity won me over to this charismatic and intelligent man.

In many ways I am still a fan. His achievements on health care and gay rights are milestones, and he has made significant efforts, although thwarted, to control guns.

Anyone who doubts how cool he is just needs to watch the YouTube video of him beating Clark Kellogg at basketball hoops.

But after the excitement of his inauguration and the honour of his Nobel Peace Prize it now seems probable that Obama will be remembered as the greatest political disappointment of his generation. Perhaps this is a necessary reminder that only movements, not individuals, bring revolutionary change, but he must also bear personal responsibility.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that since 2004 US drones have killed 881 civilians in Pakistan, including at least 176 children. The majority of these deaths have occurred since Obama took office. Obama pledged during his campaign to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, but it remains open.

Obama passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act to protect those who go public and reveal wrongdoing. But at the same time his administration has charged more whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act than all previous US presidents combined.

One of these is Bradley Manning, a US soldier who passed classified documents to WikiLeaks. One of the first things WikiLeaks published from Manning was a video of a US helicopter firing on a group in Baghdad. One man was a journalist, and two other were Reuters employees carrying cameras that the pilots mistook for an anti-tank grenade launcher. The helicopter also fired on a van that stopped to help the injured; two children in the van were wounded and their father killed.

The US government is now pursuing Edward Snowden across the earth for revealing to the world that the US National Security Agency is spying globally on billions of telephone calls and e-mail messages every day. The major public defence to these revelations by the Obama administration is that they only spy on people who are not US citizens.

I am not suggesting that Obama ignore the real danger of fundamentalist terrorism. But we cannot possibly know what we need to know unless we all have far greater freedom of information as a right, and an ability to engage effectively in assessing not only the true extent of the terror threat but the true extent of the threat posed to civil liberties and to civilisation by the methods used in combating terror, and in the name of combating terror. So I maintain scepticism against all assurances from above and support the whistle-blowers and leakers.

A recent victory for poor people everywhere was the decision of the Indian Supreme Court to allow the generic production of an important cancer medicine. To do so it rejected a lawsuit brought by pharmaceutical giant Novartis. The Obama response was to put India on the trade “black list”.

Then the Obama administration did everything it could to block an international treaty aimed at giving access to books to blind people in poor countries. The US was thankfully mostly defeated. These are examples of Obama allowing his government to put intellectual property and profits above the lives of people.

Obama says Africans want to end their “dependency” on the West. The Bush Pepfar programme which keeps millions of HIV-positive Africans alive has been whittled away in recent years.

Since 1776 when the US gained its independence it has been the birthplace of most of the progress in the world. Even while it systematically destroyed parts of Asia and South America it incubated movements of youthful rebellion, civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights that have changed the world. Historic cases such as Marbury v Madison and New York Times v Sullivan taught the world about the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press. As an industrial dynamo it has produced extraordinary innovation and advances, but also extreme global inequality.

No president was ever going to right every wrong, but this one wilted too quickly. The people of the world would have stood behind him if he’d confronted the interests of corporate power that own the US political system. He forgot that. Candidate Obama seemed like a man after Mandela who was prepared to be unpopular in order to be principled, but President Obama is only principled when it’s popular.

* Doron Isaacs is deputy general secretary of Equal Education. This article first appeared on

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