It was one of those moments that will live in the memory of all those who witnessed it, registering and resonating as powerfully as the Moon landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11 and, for a younger generation, the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
We all knew that Americans would one day vote a black man into the White House but when Barack Hussein Obama put one hand on the Bible and recited the oath of office to become the 44th President of the United States, even those who had not voted for him understood the significance of the event for a nation built on the blood, sweat and tears of slaves.
There were cynics, of course, who tried to smear the 49-year-old Harvard graduate as an extremist with a sinister agenda and not a real American.
However, among the most articulate of the anti-Obama forces is not a Fox News Channel foot-soldier but Tariq Ali, the Pakistani-born British veteran activist and leading left-leaning intellectual who’s been a thorn in the side of the American establishment ever since his days as a young leader of the Vietnam War protest.
Ali believes that far from being a break with the presidency of George W. Bush, which left thousands dead from the US-led occupation of Iraq and the biggest global financial crisis since the Great Depression, Obama is continuing those disastrous policies, despite his intoxicating campaign mantra “change we can believe in”.
In his startling, persuasive new book, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad, Ali argues that Obama was never going to be the messiah who would revitalise an ailing America and placate a nervous world. Rather, he sees Obama as a silver-tongued opportunist who has happily become a cog in the machinery of empire.
“Unable and unwilling to deliver any serious reforms, Obama has become a master of the sympathetic gesture, the understanding smile, the pained but friendly expression that always appeared to say ‘Really, I agree and wish we could, but can’t and it’s not my fault’, ” Ali writes.
“The implication is always that the Washington system prevents any change that he could believe in. But the ring of truth is absent.
“Whether seriously considering escalating an unwinnable war, bailing out Wall Street, getting the insurance company lobbyist to write a new ‘health care’ bill or suggest nominations for the Cabinet and the Supreme Court, the mechanism he has deployed is always the same.
“A better option is put on the table for show, but not taken seriously. A worse option is rapidly binned. And a supposed compromise emerges.”
Ali is not sentimental about Obama’s election, pointing out that there have been plenty of African-Americans close to the seat of power in the previous regime, including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
“I’m glad it has happened because we can now move past this hurdle of getting a black man into the White House and evaluate a candidate not on who he is but what he does, ” Ali tells me over the phone from his home in London ahead of his appearance at the Perth Writers Festival.
Ali says his greatest disappointment with the first two years of the Obama administration is not continuing Middle East adventurism and miscalculations, right up to the recent failure to support the protesters in Egypt, but his failure in the area of civil liberties.
“He told us that he would extend the war to Pakistan and escalate the war in Afghanistan so that wasn’t a surprise. Some of my American friends who voted for him said ‘Oh, Tariq, he has to say that in order to get elected.’ That’s rubbish. We heard that before from Tony Blair. He was always going to continue to wage war.
“What I was hoping was that he would pull back on the civil liberties front. I thought he would shut down Guantanamo Bay and end this process of detention without trial. His own supporters are disappointed with his inaction in this area.”
However, Ali’s pessimism about the Obama presidency dates back to well before the tumultuous election campaign, in which the relatively inexperienced one-term US senator from Illinois scored a resounding win.
“I was in the States before the election and friends told me ‘Look, Tariq, it would be great to get rid of the Republicans for a while but don’t have any illusions about this guy, he’s a Chicago machine politician and that machine is one of the most ruthless’, ” he argues.
While Ali’s assessment of the early career and character of Obama puts the huge disappointments of his first two years in office in perspective, the book is strongest in its dissection of America’s ongoing problems with the Middle East. Ali has long been considered a part of the British “loony left” but his writing on the Middle East make him one of the essential intellectuals of our age.
Tariq Ali is a guest of the Perth Writers Festival this weekend. His book The Obama Syndrome is published by Verso ($29.95).