Obama as a person

There is a data visualisation on the web called ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’, that is anchored to known and recorded drone strikes in Pakistan conducted by the United States. It starts in 2004 and ends in 2015. Around the halfway point, in 2009, out-going President of the US, Barack Obama, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. The exponential increase in drone strikes on Pakistan over the next two years in particular is unmistakable. Here’s an interesting passage taken from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“…government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press. Those suspected of discussing with reporters anything that the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including lie-detector tests and scrutiny of their telephone and e-mail records. An “Insider Threat Program” being implemented in every government department… to help prevent unauthorized disclosures of information by monitoring the behaviour of their colleagues.”

You would be forgiven for thinking this is out of a report dealing with Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa regime. In fact, this is a 2013 report that focussed on the US administration, under President Obama. In what is a lengthy report, CPJ flags a central and I believe entirely original strategy of the out-going administration as the first to in a sense grow up with and fully embrace social media’s reach.

“… government websites turned out to be part of a strategy, honed during Obama’s presidential campaign, to use the Internet to dispense to the public large amounts of favourable information and images generated by his administration, while limiting its exposure to probing by the press.”

If you think about it, the adulation and adoration of the out-going President is a product of a svelte media campaign that no doubt will result in at least one book with an insider-partial perspective after January this year, giving insights into how the media operations in Obama’s White House were planned and executed. Before Obama, we didn’t have a news and policy rapping President who went with comedians in cars, danced his way into talk shows, appeared in self-deprecating comedy shows to promote his administration’s work, took questions from YouTube, appeared on Reddit, guest edited issues of Wired magazine and appeared on its cover, published some of the most shared tweets and images on Twitter for any user on its network, was a Facebook phenomenon, contributed to Cosmopolitan magazine and posted on Instagram. For the first time ever in the history of the American Presidency, there are initiatives like ArchiveSocial’s archive of all the social media content produced by Obama administration, MIT Media Lab’s data driven visualisations of Obama’s tweets, and even now a search engine for all the animated GIF images that featured the out-going President, or were in some way connected to his administration’s policies. Obama was the first social media President of the US, and his success at crafting so well his public image was in no small part linked to demeanour, the strength of conviction and character, a scandal free White House, a remarkably normal, loving wife and family, lovely dogs and a disarming sense of humour.

Yet, this is precisely what masks the significant failures of his administration – the disarming of trenchant critique through the adroit use of telegenics over the Internet could well be a political art that marks best Obama’s time at the White House. From the use of drones often with scant regard for national sovereignty, to pervasive surveillance architectures unprecedented in their ability to undermine privacy, from the inability to shut down Guantanamo – an Inauguration Day promise –  which as of 20 January 2017 will still have around forty inmates to his administration’s crackdown on whistle-blowers, much of what will invariably be flagged as wrong or violent under Trump’s administration would in fact have been seeded, championed, strengthened or wilfully ignored under Obama. A central irony will be that the ‘bubbles’ he warned us all against in his final speech as President were those he himself manufactured and largely inhabited – where an America partial to and who placed their trust in Trump were largely outside of, impervious to and indeed, angered by what they saw framed in White House media output under Obama. The more we were taken up by slick media productions featuring Obama and a concert of staff, family and others including Hollywood’s greats, the more we ignored those languishing outside the frames we shared, liked and reacted to so much. This was Trump’s opportunity, which he exploited, and how.

Another irony is how there is now only after the US election an emphasis on false news generation, a post-factual political culture, the danger of unverified news consumption and the realisation that those outside what appears to be an all-encompassing, all-embracing social media gaze or embrace can actually shift political power. Post-factual politics, or the art of openly lying about policies, statements and accountability, defines Sri Lankan politics for as long as I can recall. There is a spike after 2007, with the manufacture of lies that had to support the war, but a counter-factual political culture, deeply resistant to data driven and evidence based policymaking is deeply ingrained in our country over successive administrations. Citizens don’t demand better. Much of media doesn’t care. Politicians go on with impunity. Nothing of what the US media fears with Trump was what local media didn’t endure under Rajapaksa. It was in fact much worse. Everything that can be said of Trump, from his vitriolic expression to a deeply misogynistic, racist brand of politics, can be ascribed to Presidents, politicians and political parties Sri Lankans have endured, and indeed voted into power, for years. This includes prominent members of the present government.

As Obama leaves office and media even in Sri Lanka reflects on his time as President, I wonder what our current crop of politicians will choose to be remembered for. We have in just the first two weeks of 2017 a PM who was outed as a liar over claims made by him and others in government around Volkswagen’s investments in Sri Lanka, or lack thereof. We have a President completely silent over his party’s claims that he will stand as a candidate for elections in 2020 to elect an Executive President – seemingly a complete volte-face from a promise unequivocally made on the evening of 9th January 2015, after Sirisena was sworn into office, to abolish it. Constitutional reform is in a mess. The economy is in a mess. The transitional justice agenda is in a mess, coloured by resistance and repulsion instead reform and revision. Reconciliation is without any clear agenda or strategic vision. The government is becoming increasingly thin-skinned, especially around criticisms generated on and distributed over social media. That Obama-esque moment of 9th January, where hope for a better country drowned out, for most of us assembled that evening at Independence Square, deep-seated cynicism around meaningful reform, is now long gone. We have in its place a reversion to the politics of yesteryear, and though vastly different by way of scale and scope, the brand of politics we thought we had voted out in January 2015. With Trump, the US will see a political culture they had an eight-year respite from. In 2020, the fear is that we return to the politics of 2014. Trump gives the world a modern, malleable model to exploit those left out of the mainstream political discourse, who swayed through populist promise and inward looking nationalism number more than those social media reaches, and a more liberal, cosmopolitan worldview appeals to. We must be open to the dangers we see in the US under Trump being applicable to us in Sri Lanka, under a different political leadership.

The issue of legacy divides historians. Obama will be remembered variously, as we all are. He was exceptional in many ways. Yet more than politician or President, and in the fullness of time, we may come to appreciate more Obama as that father who supported a daughter skip his last official speech, as important as his first in office, in order to study for an exam she had to sit for the next day. His track-record with children, the handshakes with janitors and security guards, the thoughtfulness, reflection, respect and dignity he brought to office – these are qualities that defined Obama the person, beyond Obama as President.

And for that, if not so much more, he will be missed.


First published in The Sunday Island, 15 January 2017.


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