Of course expectations were too high. Barack Obama's ascension unleashed the pent-up hopes of liberals who'd seethed helplessly through the eight-year idiocracy of George W. Bush. Reflective, intelligent, resourceful, Obama seemed the opposite of his predecessor. It's no wonder he was taken for a savior.
However, supporters who hoped for a 180-degree turn from Bush's presidency saw a number of developments in Obama's first year that should have given them pause. Though it would be too much to ask of officeholders to divest themselves of authority, Bush's unprecedented concentration of powers to the executive branch remain, and they're being used to some of the same ends. Despite the Obama administration's promises, the prison in Guantanamo Bay is still open, extraordinary rendition continues and the government invokes state secrets to thwart investigations of torture.
Some voted for Obama believing he would bring our troops home. Though combat operations are officially over in Iraq ("mission accomplished" redux?), we still have nearly 50,000 soldiers there, and Obama has substantially ramped up our presence in Afghanistan. That was actually one of his campaign promises, and he has fulfilled it, despite al-Qaida's having likely moved its home office to Pakistan, and growing evidence that we're in a quagmire. The imploded economy he inherited would seem to call for sensible regulation of the banking industry, but this summer's banking reform bill is widely seen as toothless, favorable to the banks and powerless to prevent another meltdown. And then there's health care.
In The Mendacity of Hope, Roger Hodge, formerly editor in chief of Harper's magazine, enumerates the failings of the Obama presidency. With a cataloging of his major donors, an assiduous review of his actions before and during his presidency and a foray into early American history, he builds a case that Obama has betrayed his liberal base. Rather than the mealy-mouthed excuses of his supporters—"Be patient. Give him time. It's hard to change the government." Or, more cynically: "He's the best we can do"—Hodge argues that, for the principled left, his governance demands "serious, sustained opposition."
The book grew out of an article by the same name in the February 2010 issue of Harper's, which hit the newsstands around the time Hodge was fired by publisher John McArthur, ostensibly for declining sales.
Having lost his job in the middle of the downturn, Hodge's view of the plight of the American proletariat is personally informed, as when he lets slip a single autobiographical detail in Mendacity ("Ah, benefits. Everyone loves benefits. I once had benefits myself, before I was summarily fired without warning one bright January morning"). And it's on the subject of benefits—the vehicle for our country's absurd employer-provided medical care rationing system, and in answer to the ancient Latin phrase cui bono? (who benefits?)—that Hodge is most convincing.
The health care bill Obama signed in March was hailed by the media as a signature achievement, the most sweeping social legislation in a generation. But keep in mind—cui bono?—that "the drug and insurance industries supported this bill from the very beginning," as Hodge writes. Without the public option that Obama had repeatedly promised during his campaign, it forces everyone to buy into a private insurance plan or face penalties. Like Bush's Medicare prescription drug act, a giveaway to the pharmaceutical companies, the bill is essentially a delivery system that feeds some 30 million new customers into the private health insurance industry, to "support the continued profitability of parasites, which add no value whatsoever to the transactions between doctors and patients."
"Far from reshaping our patently insane system, ObamaCare merely entrenches its most irrational elements," Hodge writes, "and though the law contains praiseworthy measures that mitigate some of the most harmful insurance practices, in broad terms it merely postpones the kind of fundamental reforms that our broken health-care system demands."
The bill was ruthlessly attacked by Republicans, despite its resemblance to former Gov. Mitt Romney's Massachusetts plan, which was built on ideas developed at the conservative Heritage Foundation 20 years ago.
ObamaCare is, "in essence, a Republican plan," and Republican wailing about a government takeover was pure political theater, with an eye to the upcoming midterm elections. Hodge sees the Hobson's choice of our current political system—same shit, different party—as the result of the complete appropriation of the mechanisms of government by moneyed interests. It's not a new argument, but it is one that Hodge makes convincingly, with an astute reading of American history that places our current situation in context.
Hodge dedicates Mendacity to Lewis Lapham, who preceded him as editor of Harper's. In Lapham's 30-year tenure at the magazine, his columns reared a generation of readers on the rituals of hypocrisy enacted by our leaders, who make a show of answering to the voters while ever serving the interests of the men who loan them their Gulfstreams.
As Lapham often did in his writings, Hodge illuminates current events with historic parallels. He traces the roots of our present oligarchy to the rival visions of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in the early days of the republic. While Hamilton sought to build an economic system that would cleave the interests of the wealthy to those of the state, Madison, the principal architect of the Constitution, warned of the dangers of excessive inequality, which he thought should be remedied "by the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort."
Hodge writes about events in the 18th and 19th centuries at some length, explaining our corrupted democracy as the belated victory of Hamilton's "stockjobbers, brokers, speculators and other capitalists" over Madison's (small r) republicans. Even if this makes Mendacity slightly pedantic, and diverts a good portion of the book from its putative subject, it's refreshing to see a liberal thinker quote so extensively the founding fathers, whose varied and fractious voices have lately been simplified and co-opted by tea partiers.
Despite its acerbic title, The Mendacity of Hope isn't so much an attack on the man: Hodge grants that Obama is "significantly more intellectual than the politicians we have grown accustomed to in recent years," "well-spoken, brilliant and beautiful," with a "great persuasive gift," and he doesn't deign to speculate on his internal motivations. His point is that any honest look at Obama's actions in office shows that, rather than practicing a "different kind of politics," he's beholden to the same powerful interests that circumscribe the actions of every other politician, no matter how fervently his supporters might have hoped for a change.
This book surely won't change any liberal's hopes for the presidential election of 2012, but it might start serious conversations about what kind of change they might hope for in 2016.