Barack Obama, the President That Punk Gave a Pass To
Punk rock has always been about fighting the government. But when an idealistic Senator from Chicago came along, things got hazy.
All of the people punk rock taught me to hate were already dead or irrelevant by the time I heard the songs about them. Heart failure claimed Pol Pot the same year I first heard Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia." Margaret Thatcher's reign of terror as Prime Minister had ended long before I listened to Crass' "How Does It Feel to Be the Mother of 1,000 Dead." And when I got around to discovering Reagan Youth's discography, The Gipper was a senile old codger counting jellybeans in a rocking chair by a window somewhere.
For those who discovered punk after the 80s, the genre was more influential in theory than in practice. The major enemies covered in early punk songs had been dismantled or worn down, but the music's guiding principle remained: The government is inherently evil and not to be trusted. You may know this ideology better by its street name: FUCK THE GOVERNMENT. That ethos, combined with a studded belt and ╬Void╬ backpatch, was pretty much all you needed for your Punk 101 Starter Pack.
It was easy to apply this antagonistic "murder the government" [citation: Mr. Mike Burkett, 1997, all rights reserved] attitude during the Bush years, which employed an administration that resembled a veritable cast of Batman villains, from Dick Cheney as the war profiteering Penguin to the Joker himself, George W. Bush, a dimwitted country club daddy's boy who fell assbackwards into the rank of world's most powerful patsy. For eight years, punks flew the "Not My President" flag and the spirit of resistance lived on, with no shortage of things to oppose: two illegal wars, the institution of the Patriot Act, the use of torture, a skyrocketing deficit, and the "war on terrorism" blank check for invading and destroying any perceived threat.
But then Barack Obama came along and the line blurred.
On paper, Obama was a step forward—a young, biracial idealist appealing to basic tenants of social progress. In campaign speeches, he spoke of repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, upholding Roe v. Wade, lifting bans on stem cell research, and expanding protections afforded by hate crime statutes to cover those committed based on gender and sexual orientation. It all sounds basic and commonsense in hindsight but even as recently as 2008 it was fairly revolutionary to hear those ideals as part of a major party's political platform. Given the choice between him and yet another decrepit white man who popped a Viagra every time he thought about bombing brown people, punk made its choice.
Somewhere along the line in Obama's eight years as President, aided by a recovering economy, a lowered risk of a draft looming overhead, and a nation worn down from almost a decade of fighting an administration of lying warmongers, the American punk scene became complacent. It got comfortable. Some of the major figures who once took Bush took to task started to sit on their hands, with a few even voicing—gasp—support of Obama. Suddenly, it felt problematic to oppose him, especially when those who were doing so couldn't seem to do it without lacing their critiques with latent racism. Those who railed against Obama risked being shouted down by the liberal hivemind, saddled with racists by association, and labeled right-wing punk, a deathkiss for most.
Cut-and-paste artwork of the President crucified on a cross or blowing his brains out with a German luger stopped gracing the covers of punk albums, and deep down, everyone started to feel like total posers when Against Me! rolled into town and we all sang along to "Baby, I'm an Anarchist."
Punk songs largely became less directly critical of the President (which is a shame because "Barack" rhymes with so many truly vile words if you try hard enough) and instead focused on more on specific issues—women's rights, marriage equality, trans visibility, and police corruption. With the illusion of a reasonably competent person steering the ship, punks could turn to the problems in their own backyard. I might even be so bold as to argue that this method of fighting to achieve targeted goals was a more productive use of energy than just screaming "Fuck the President!" aimlessly into the void.
Now, Obama is in his final days in the White House. By all accounts, there have been plenty of international and domestic atrocities committed throughout his presidency worth standing in moral opposition to—the drone killings of innocent civilians overseas, bolstered NSA spying programs, his Draconian treatment of whistleblowers, letting big bank executives off the hook for their role in the economic crisis, and that Gitmo place we all agreed we wanted closed eight years ago which is still very much open. In many cases, Obama continued, or even expanded upon, the same ugly policies of his reviled predecessor. So before I hear from the angry anarcho crusties hate-reading this on their iPhones on McDonald's' wifi, yes, in many ways, Obama has been a traditional war-as-usual centrist, locked in a gridlocked system heavy on compromise, hungry for profit, prone to corruption, and slow to make lasting changes.
In many cases, Obama continued, or even expanded upon, the same ugly policies of his reviled predecessor.
But aside from that whoooooole inherent being-the-all-powerful-head-of-a-global-death-machine aspect of his job, there was also Barack Obama the person.
Obama is undeniably intelligent and charismatic—an educated man of measured response, a powerful speaker, and a father to a family who brought much needed multiculturalism to the White House. Unlike Bush, whose incessant mouth diarrhea produced enough malapropisms and gaffes to literally fill books, Obama could at least make it through a press conference without shitting the bed, shining a spotlight on how unbelievably low the bar had been set for a job in the Oval Office. As cliché and outright lame as it is to say about the relatability of political candidates, Obama is the kind of guy you'd want to have a beer with. (Hope you like PBR, Mr. President, because it's all punks fucking drink nowadays.)
There's a tremendous amount of punk guilt associated with admitting that a President resembles a decent human being. It's a hard thing to reconcile institutionalized hatred of suits with the appreciation for someone as a monumental historical figure, one that shattered a centuries-long lineage of white male oppressors. This dilemma raised a series of ethical punk conundrums: Can an evil war machine be run by a morally good person? Could one support the accomplishments of their nation's leader without identifying as a patriot? And what happened to all those Rock Against Bush CDs, anyway? Punk often punted on these questions through the Obama years and grew sedentary, probably too much so.
Looking ahead to the hot trash replacing him—a jowly, disingenuous narcissist who can't go one day without upping his own embarrassment threshold—it's only becoming increasingly easy to become taken by a leader who reads books and can string more than four words together, who tried to inspire people instead of rambling nonsense about his own wealth, who had a deep understanding of the problems facing the country, and who worked to serve all Americans instead of attacking them on Twitter. But romanticizing Barack Obama only normalizes Donald Trump. Comparing the two against each other perpetuates the notion that Trump is an acceptable candidate.
Getting a meaty whiff of the shitstorm Trump plans on bringing to America over the last year has been enough to re-energize a punk scene that fell asleep at the wheel. His xenophobic nightmare of a campaign was a catalyst that shocked everyone's brains into coming back online after years of squabbling over petty punk politics, and the bigger picture quickly came back into focus. It even gave birth to a new generation of young activists who hardly knew a time before a black President.
It's been discussed ad nauseum how a Trump presidency might revive the spirit of punk rock and, seeing as how we're dealing with a psychologically unstable egomaniac bragging about expanding nuclear capabilities, who the fuck cares? We'll all be lucky if, after four years, we still have an earth left on which to play any kind of music.
So as the aspiring dictator seizes control of the office of the Presidency this month, and Obama makes his exit, the punks can begrudgingly tip their hats to him, strap on their studded belts, and return to screaming "fuck the government" with a clear conscience.
Call Dan Ozzi a sellout on Twitter - @danozzi