Obama's birthday and 'real' democracy

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Maybe they should have postponed Barack Obama's 50th birthday party on Thursday until he shows signs of growing up a bit. He first looked callow, like a kid not quite up to it, in his BP oil spill speech a year ago. His mouth seemed to be going through the motions. "Consumers are buying more efficient cars and trucks, and families are making their homes more energy-efficient. Scientists and researchers are discovering clean energy technologies that someday will lead to entire new industries..." As if he was trying to mimic his hero, Ronald Reagan: not Reagan as president, but as TV pitchman for his employer, GE, back in the 1950s. Hmm...

Last week, refusing to stand up against the bullies in Congress who rejected all tax hikes on the super-rich while demanding cuts for the poor, Obama looked more like someone thinking about his next job, when this one ends in a year or five. It's the reverse of Reagan's route: first be president, then work for business. Ex-presidents like Bill Clinton, who didn't have family wealth, have done well afterwards, but it meant cultivating people like Bill Gates. Obama will still be young, with a young family. He won't be going back to community organizing. Such thoughts enter anyone's mind, including presidents. What matters is how firmly you resist them. That's where the callow part matters.

The last Canadian leader to face this crunch was Liberal John Turner in the free trade election of 1988. He fought and nearly defeated that deal, scandalizing the Canadian corporate world who'd reasonably assumed he was one of them. He even had his own famous table at a restaurant in Toronto's business district. When the deal squeezed through, due to the usual Liberal-NDP vote splitting, he returned home, but to a "mid-sized" Bay St. law firm, not one of the titans. In 1989, I asked Larry Grossman, former Ontario treasurer and a prominent Tory, how Turner's future looked. Grossman paused long and said hesitantly, "He might get directorships."

Maybe Obama could have made no difference, given the power of money to elect politicians, threaten to de-elect them or just buy them off. He probably wouldn't have found the votes in Congress anyway. Even Nelson Mandela, once he became South Africa's president, did little about inequality and economic injustice. It wasn't always quite this bad. The late Dalton Camp told me that, back when he ran Canada's Tory party and the corporate well went dry (imagine!), he went into a bank and borrowed money for a federal campaign. "You'd never get enough that way now," he said.

Is there anything positive to add? I think so. In the 1930s, the last time there was a big spike in rage against the obscenities of the super-rich, many in the West turned to fascism and the cult of the strong leader who took responsibility away from people but supposedly acted for them. Today there is similar fury. Its name is los indignados -- the irate -- but the demand is for more, not less democracy, as long as it's "real democracy," as they say in Spain, versus the phony, purchased kind now common. The shape of it is a work in progress; it's clearer what it won't be than what it will.

But I happen to be reading Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America of the 1830s. The French visitor to the U.S. was mightily impressed by New England's town hall meetings, which weren't elected at all. Everyone participated directly. It doesn't sound so odd in the era of the Internet. He was less taken by elections for representatives. They were prone to corruption by money, even then. It was also clear that the framers of the U.S. constitution were wary of any political system that might get too genuinely democratic. In that they succeeded. It might finally be time for more "real" democracy, even in the U.S.A.

That's my attempt to say something encouraging and I think I believe it. As for cancelling Obama's birthday, it sounds mean-spirited. It's the one day in anyone's life when they don't need to do or achieve anything to be appreciated. You just have to exist. Okay. A grudging happy birthday to the guy.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.