Obama is not your saviour
Sean Collins on the cult of Obama and the crisis of American politics.
The most striking feature of Barack Obama’s presidency has been the consistent focus on the man himself. From the earliest days of his running for office to now, the final days before he leaves the White House, the discussion has always seemed to be about his person: his background, his abilities, his personality, his style. Fans say Obama is cool and graceful, while critics say he’s aloof and arrogant, but either way, he has seemed to float above the usual rough and tumble of politics.
Obama and his campaign advisers self-consciously created the notion that Obama’s own biography endowed him with the capacity to transcend everyday partisanship. Before running for office, he published two autobiographies (Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope – the latter was ostensibly about policies, but in fact was highly personal). In his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which introduced him to the country, he famously called for an end to national division, saying ‘There is not a liberal America and a conservative America: there’s the United States of America’. Whereas the US was divided by identities and ideologies, Obama suggested that his background – his combination of black and white parents, of both homegrown (Kansas and Hawaii) and immigrant (Kenyan) origins – meant he was uniquely positioned to bring unity.
His 2008 election campaign promoted Obama as the individual agent of transformation. His themes of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ were anchored to his special talents, rather than working with Congress or mobilising a social movement. ‘I’m the one who brings change’, he told the Washington Post. As Henry Kissinger would later say, ‘Obama seems to think of himself not as part of a political process, but as sui generis, a unique phenomenon with a unique capacity’.
In office, Obama would often personalise issues as a way of claiming that his background gave him special insights. In his address at Cairo University in 2009, he cited his Muslim relatives and childhood in Indonesia as proof that he would not be an ugly, imperialist American and could improve relations in the Middle East. In response to the Trayvon Martin killing in 2012, he interjected his personal situation as a person of colour, saying: ‘If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.’ Even when Obama’s second term in the White House was ending, and the spotlight had moved on to the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, he sought to bring the conversation back to himself. As he told a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus: ‘I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election.’
Obama’s relentless crafting of his image, and the insertion of his personal story in political situations, would not have had such longevity without many others accepting and promoting it. During his 2008 campaign, his supporters spoke of him in terms of a religious saviour. His wife Michelle said her husband would be ‘a leader who’s going to touch our souls’, and Oprah Winfrey referred to him as ‘the one’. But even after that initial glow had worn off, Obama would be viewed by both supporters and opponents alike as an exceptionally influential president, one who stands above the fray yet has had a strong sway over political life. Perhaps the greatest testament to Obama’s supposed special powers has been the Republicans’ ongoing attempts to demonise him, from the ‘birther’ claims that he is not an American citizen to routine assertions by conservative op-ed writers that he is a dangerous radical who has changed the country fundamentally, on everything from healthcare to race relations.
The stress on Obama the individual means that, as Obama now departs the White House, there is an unwillingness to address his real record in office. His supporters tend to talk all about his dignity, the lack of scandals, his beautiful wife and daughters, and little about his actions or policy achievements. The most hardcore of Obama fans are too tearful and bereft even to think about politics. Having considered him a ‘psychologist-in-chief’, who makes us ‘feel good’, they see his departure as something far more wounding than the usual changing of the political guard, and they are at a loss as to how to respond.
Obama supporters who do defend his accomplishments are most likely to cite, as the New York Times does, ‘pulling the nation back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression’. It’s true that the economy stabilised following an Obama-led stimulus recovery package and Federal Reserve pumping money into the economy. But even here there is an unwillingness to examine Obama’s record too closely: seeing him as the economy’s saviour is a one-sided view that ignores the historically sluggish recovery, and how propping up a finance-based economy has created the conditions for the next downturn.
It is truly remarkable how the radiance from Obama’s halo blinded the liberal-left, leading them to overlook his record and ignore causes they claim to care about. Obama’s economic policies have led to a huge drop in labour force participation, while easy money has increased asset prices to the benefit of the rich. He’s the first black president, yet he oversaw a decline in African-Americans’ economic fortunes. Despite claims of being immigrant-friendly, he administered approximately 2.5million deportations, a record number. In foreign policy, he continued wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and started a new intervention in Libya. In 2016, US special operations were in 138 countries, a 130 per cent increase on the George W Bush administration, and he authorised 26,000 bombs in 2016 alone, in the Middle East, killing civilians as well as military combatants. In response to all of this, hardly a peep from liberals. A Republican president would have been crucified for this record.
Obama’s re-election in 2012 marked a turning point in the way he sought support and governed, though he still maintained a focus on himself. The theme in his first campaign for president, in 2008, was about ‘making history’ – not just by becoming the first African-American in the White House, but by promising sweeping, transformative changes to politics. This captured the public imagination and desire for change. But by 2012, Obama was lowering expectations about what could be achieved, and blaming Republicans for his inability to deliver big changes.
Instead of presenting an uplifting message that could unify all sections of society, Obama’s campaign in 2012 targeted a ‘new coalition’ of the professionals, minorities, unmarried women and youth – a coalition that left out white workers, among others. He and his fellow Democrats also went on a Culture War offensive, presenting themselves as progressive and moral on issues like same-sex marriage, and in opposition to Americans with more traditional values. At the head of the new coalition was Obama himself, whose unique background and personal character could hold together the various identity groups. Gone was Obama’s goal of overcoming a divided America – this was a play to mobilise blue (liberal) American voters, with the hope of out-numbering red (conservative) American voters. It was a risky strategy, but Obama managed to win by a narrow margin over Mitt Romney.
The focus on Obama himself turned out to be to the detriment of the Democratic Party. As Chuck Todd wrote in his 2014 book, The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House, ‘The White House did little to dispel the notion that Obama came first, over and above the party’. The elevation of the Obama brand over the party meant that his victories did not translate into support for Democrats – in fact, the opposite. Over Obama’s eight years in office, Democrats became the minority party in both houses of congress, in state governorships and state legislatures. And as Hillary Clinton discovered, a coalition of identity groups is not necessarily a ticket to electoral victory.
More importantly, while Obama’s identity-group strategy may have guaranteed his personal political survival in 2012, it has led to a more divided country. Election results now fall more in line with demographic characteristics. A majority say that race relations are worse than when Obama entered office. The Culture War rages on, with entrenched partisans on both sides. Obama and the Democrats are not solely to blame for this situation, but his political strategy has played upon and exacerbated these divides.
Indeed, Obama’s legacy is Donald Trump. By a two-to-one margin, Americans said they believed the country was on the wrong track, a discontent that Obama bears responsibility for. His uneven economic recovery generated job losses in the rustbelt states, while Hillary Clinton continued his stance of ignoring, when not denigrating, huge swathes of the working class. And in various ways – charging Americans with being Islamophobes, dismissing those who didn’t evolve on same-sex marriage, introducing edicts to colleges regarding sexual consent — Obama and his administration’s Culture War onslaughts generated a backlash. All of these factors contributed to Trump’s victory.
But there is another way that Obama begat Trump. Of course, to his supporters, there is no one more different to Trump than Obama, who is restrained, urbane, intellectual, a citizen of the world and anti-sexist. Yet the elevation of Obama the individual above the fray has created a precedent for another individual, one more bombastic and demagogic, to present himself the same way, albeit with different political views. Both Obama and Trump are clearly enamoured with, and use, their own personal stories. Both have been dismissive of their parties, and make direct appeals to the public above the heads of political institutions. As Trump said during his election campaign, ‘I am your voice’ and ‘I alone can fix it’. These sentiments are not a million miles away from Obama’s ‘I am the one who brings change’.
Democrats fear what Trump may do in office, worried that he will be an authoritarian strongman. But they did not complain when Obama expanded the powers of the executive presidency over congress. As Jeffrey Rosen notes, Obama ‘independently enacted 560 major regulations during his first seven years in office— nearly 50 per cent more than during the two terms of the George W Bush administration’. Obama used executive orders to defer deportations for illegal immigrants; his Education Department issued regulations on gender identity on college campuses; he signed treaties for the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate-change accord without seeking congressional approval. Of course, Obama will now pay the price for relying on regulation rather than legislation, as it is now relatively easy for Trump to overturn Obama’s initiatives, using his own pen. Having facilitated Obama’s imperial presidency for eight years, Democrats have no principled grounds on which to oppose Trump now.
In voting for Obama in 2008, many Americans were signalling their desire for something new. It was a vote for a different future: it seemed to be a rejection of the petty, managerial Third Way politics of the past, and expressed hope that politics could mean more. Despite it being clear to some of us that Obama would never be able to deliver on his promises, the public’s re-engagement with politics was nonetheless a positive thing. And because the elites also swooned for Obama, they applauded the masses for their wise choice, and congratulated the country for electing the first black president.
In electing Donald Trump in 2016, Americans are again indicating a desire for change. What’s different this time is that, while the elite still fawns over Obama, a significant section of the masses have moved on from him. This effective rejection of Obama has brought down the wrath of the elites: the people they once praised for voting a black man into office are now called out as deplorable racists. In the face of this, many ignored elite opinions and shaming tactics, and voted for Trump anyway.
Thus, the experience of the Obama years can be seen as a form of political education for many, as they began to see through him and went in a different direction. Let’s hope that people learn in the years ahead that they can’t rely on self-regarding, narcissistic presidents of any political stripe.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.
Picture by: Getty Images.