With Barack Obama bowing out, it’s time to talk about how extraordinary his presidency was. No, not for its achievements. Aside from Obamacare, which is hardly the New Deal, policy-wise there’s little of substance from his eight years in the White House. Nor was his stint extraordinary for its contrast with the Dubya years. If Obama was any kind of president it was a continuity one. He maintained, and in fact spread, Bush’s meddling in the Middle East, and intensified Bush’s undermining of civil liberties in the name of combatting terror. Yet where Bush was a ‘fascist’ for those things, Obama, we’re told, had little choice. He ‘inherited’ this mess, his apologists say.
No, the extraordinariness of Obama’s presidency lay in its replacement of politics with therapy. Its turning of the commander-in-chief into therapist-in-chief. Its confirmation that political leaders no longer concern themselves with such earthly matters as wealth and liberty and really improving people’s lives, but rather see it as their role to boost self-esteem, soothe historical wounds, be a ‘catalyst for psychological change’, as one appraisal of Obama puts it, as if American adults were patients not citizens. The Obama era was striking for its decommissioning of the political citizen, and of politics itself, and its building of an empire of emotion in which leaders emote and the citizenry is expected merely to feel and not do much else. There were no jackboots or watchtowers but this is a species of tyranny nonetheless.
The response of the media and much of the political set to Obama’s leaving has been intensely emotional. Not since Princess Diana died have respectable newspapers been so stuffed with gushing photo-spreads and memorials and over-the-top comparisons (Di was a secular Virgin Mother; Obama is an amalgamate of Lincoln, Gandhi and King). Observers and the Twitterati are expressing a sense of loss entirely out of proportion to a politician leaving office, which is a regular occurrence in the adult realm of politics. That’s because they’re losing more than a politician. They’re losing a healer (of history’s wounds); a voice of ‘wisdom and grace’, as every gushing editorial describes him; a man who applied ‘balm’ to our personal and political ‘traumas’, as one observer sees it; someone who in recent months had become ‘therapist for those suffering from Trump anxiety’, in the words of the Guardian. The turning of Obama, of the institution of president, from commander of a nation into shaper of feelings, into provider of historical medicine and guarantor of self-esteem, means his leaving is experienced as a profound loss, a mourning. It opens a psychological gap. Some observers claim they feel genuinely ill. The usurping of politics by therapy, and of the citizen by the patient, is complete.
For those of us who cling to an old-fashioned view of politics as the affairs of state, as ‘the science of good sense applied to public affairs’, as 18th-century US congressman Fisher Ames described it, the past few weeks have been incredibly frustrating. Any attempt to analyse, seriously, the things that were done by the Obama administration — or, as some see it, the things that merely happened under Obama, their authorship unclear or obscured — meets with confusion or even hostility. Obama, it has been made clear, is not to be judged by such earthly matters as industry or liberty or war and peace, but rather by how he made people feel; by what one author has described as ‘the profound shift in the American psyche’ he brought about. Obama’s impact is mental, not political; curative, not concrete. Even newspaper pieces on his legacy that include discussion of Obamacare and his decisions on the Middle East swiftly move back to the realm of character and emotion, to his grace and style and wisdom. His legacy is judged psychologically rather than politically.
These highly emotional appraisals of Obama are in keeping with how he has always been viewed by the mainstream media and political set. Back in 2008, in the run-up to his election, the Chicago Sun-Times said the most important thing about Obama was the emotion he evoked in sections of the populace. And it refused to be defensive about this: ‘Yes, this newspaper is endorsing a man because of how he makes us feel [my italics], because of the hope he evokes within us’. With Obama, feeling and imagery have always trumped achievement. As the left-wing author Sasha Abramsky put it in 2009, ‘simply by virtue of who he is’, Obama can bring about ‘psychological shifts in how America understands itself’. Never mind what this politician says or does; it’s who he is that counts, and it counts in terms of changing psychology, not infrastructure.