Candidate Barack Obama reemerged at the United Nations on Tuesday, bookending his presidency with an uplifting address critical of American power and calling for an end to economic inequality at home and abroad.
The speech revealed the president Obama could have been, and many people hoped for, had he successfully confronted the American Deep State. But he waited until his farewell U.N. address, much like Dwight Eisenhower, to say what he really thought on the way out the door, without having to suffer the consequences inside the Beltway.
Obama didn’t mention the word “exceptional” once as he has in his past U.N. speeches, and he kept his distorted criticism of Russia and China to a minimum. (He briefly tried to say the U.S. was not behind the Ukraine coup.) Last year bashing Beijing and Moscow was the main point of an address steeped in hypocrisy.
We saw a glimpse of this outspoken Obama in his wide-ranging interview with the Atlantic magazine last April, in which he expressed his frustrations with obstacles put in his way by the Washington foreign policy elite. But at the U.N. he went full bore.
He uncharacteristically criticised his own country before allies and perceived enemies for the way the U.S. had at times used its power in the world.
“Power hasn’t been unipolar for most of history,” he said. “The end of the Cold War has allowed many to forget this. America’s adversaries and some of its allies believe all problems are caused by and can be solved by Washington. Too many in Washington believe that too.
“I do not think that America can — or should — impose our system of government on other countries,” he said. “As leaders of democratic governments make the case for democracy abroad, we better strive harder to set a better example at home.”
He Even Attacked Capitalism
“Twenty-five years after the Cold War the world is less violent and more prosperous and yet there is uncertainty and strife,” he said.
A world in which “one percent of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99 percent will never be stable,” Obama said. Advanced communications have made vast numbers of people painfully aware of this, and legitimately resentful, he said.
“Expectations rise, then, faster than governments can deliver, and a pervasive sense of injustice undermine people’s faith in the system” he said. It can’t be fixed by going back to planned economies, but nor are the “excesses of capitalism” the answer.
There is another path, he said. “It doesn’t require succumbing to soulless capitalism,” but instead “we must recognize that closing the inequality gap and bringing economic growth that is board-based” is what’s needed.
He called for rebuilding trade unions and “investing in our people and strengthening safety nets so people can take more risks.” This wasn’t charity, he said, but what was necessary to create a stable world economy and social justice.
Obama offered a defence of the U.S. But he dispensed with “indispensable.” While the U.S. had made mistakes, he said, it had worked to create higher standards for world banking to reign in the “excesses of capitalism.” It is rare to hear a U.S. president mention the word “capitalism,’ let alone in such a negative light.
“While open markets and capitalism have raised standards of living around the globe, globalisation combined with rapid progress and technology has also weakened the position of workers and their ability to secure a decent wage,” he said.
“In advanced economies like my own, unions have been undermined, and many manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Often, those who benefit most from globalisation have used their political power to further undermine the position of workers.”
He said “global capital is too often unaccountable — nearly $8 trillion stashed away in tax havens, a shadow banking system that grows beyond the reach of effective oversight.”
A world in which “one percent of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99 percent will never be stable,” he said. “I understand that the gaps between rich and poor are not new…but technology now allows any person with a smartphone to see how the most privileged among us live and the contrast between their own lives and others.
“Expectations rise, then, faster than governments can deliver, and a pervasive sense of injustice undermines people’s faith in the system.” His concern seemed to be how to avoid a world-wide revolt.
But the speech took on a surreal tone when contrasted with the reality of Obama’s eight years in office. This may have been the president that Obama imagined he would be.
But it wasn’t the president that he was. He was a president who bailed out the bankers and jailed the whistleblowers. A president who used the Espionage Act more times than all his predecessors combined. He was a president who upheld the neoliberal economic order; signed a bill that would allow the military to make arrests on U.S. soil and supported the establishment of a Salafist principality in eastern Syria that would turn into the Islamic State.
He was a president of drone strikes against civilians; and coups in Ukraine, Libya and Honduras; a president who continued NATO’s march to Russia’s borders; oversaw vast illegal surveillance of American citizens and a president who backed a global trade deal, the TPP, that will complete the corporate coup d’état (though he bizarrely said at the UN it would protect workers rights and the environment.)
If this address was any indication of what’s to come, Obama will become very successful—as an ex-president.