I thought it was a good idea.
In the midst of Trump-panic and electoral finger pointing, The Nation magazine offered a special issue devoted to assessing the Obama Presidency. Providing a bit of historic context to the Trump victory would, I should hope, dampen the hysteria embraced by US liberals in place of sober analysis.
The Obama Years (The Nation, January 2/9 2017) does have its moments of insight, but far too many of the contributing liberal/soft-left writers tried desperately to polish the dull finish of the Obama stewardship. Most sought to retroactively apply a glow by comparing the Obama years with a yet-to-be experienced Trump reign.
Bizarre comparisons abound: Marilynne Robinson found Lincoln in the Obama legacy, while Patricia J. Williams detected a bit of Frederick Douglass in Obama’s character. Eric Alterman announced that “Obama was the coolest guy in the room.”
Obama defined a new “progressive patriotism” for John Nichols. Katha Pollitt opined under the headline--How Good We Had It-- without a hint of irony. She offers a weak attempt at a clever epigram with “...too many Americans weren’t ready for a black president, even if they voted for him.” Didn’t they know he was Black?
Faint praise indeed from Laila Lalami: “...I’ve never doubted that Obama tried to put his country’s interest above his own.”
In a lengthy appraisal of Obama’s foreign policy, Andrew J. Bacevich charts Obama’s course from “callow rookie to seasoned veteran.” He finds the mature Obama in the carefully staged valedictory interview delivered to trusted journalist Jeffrey Goldberg (The Obama Doctrine, The Atlantic, 4-2016 [my commentary is here]). Unfortunately, the mature Obama that Balevich sees as rejecting the “foreign-policy establishment” only found himself after he had surrendered to conventional thinking for over seven years. Remember the talk of the real Obama who would be unleashed in his second, lame-duck term?
Robert Barosage agrees that the Obama epiphany came belatedly, if at all: “Although Obama grew skeptical of the Washington “playbook” on foreign policy, he failed to offer an alternative.” He questions whether Obama was “transformational,” since transformational “presidents do more than simply govern well. They challenge and change the direction of the country.” Barosage continues by recounting the disappointments and policy shortfalls that kept Obama from being “transformational.”
Following Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, Barosage recommends envisioning Obama rather as a “pivotal” President. That is, on “his watch, the United States began to recognize its corrosive inequality, the power of big money to rig the rules, and the way the deck was stacked against the vast majority.” But surely this is a howling non sequitur. Obama didn’t bring about any of these realizations, they simply happened while he governed.
It is far better to understand Obama as a “transitional” President. He was the choice favored by a majority of the ruling class to clean up the mess left by the Bush administration, a thoroughly discredited regime both nationally and internationally. With a raging economic crisis, failed wars, and barely measureable poll numbers, a fresh face, a face that promised renewed confidence from “hope and change,” Barack Obama was the prescription.
The Obama story was as distant from the Bush narrative as the two-party dictatorship would allow. Race, youth, and eloquence separated him from his predecessor. Never mind that, excepting race, these traits were of little serious consequence.
Like President James Carter, after the Nixon fiasco, Obama was meant as a transition back to political credibility, a purifier of a political stench.
As such, Obama was a trusted cheerleader for the existing order. Christopher Hayes, in his lead article, unwittingly admits this when he notes that the “story that Obama kept telling was the story of meritocracy and social mobility.” Of course, it was a Black man who could make this story credible at a time when both merit and social mobility were disappearing.
Hayes relates an interview with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid in which Hayes pressed him on the message of the Democratic Party. Reid obliged: “I want everyone in America to understand, if Harry Reid can make it in America, anyone can… That’s what America is all about.”
Obama, similar to Reid and other political elites, sought to keep this mythology alive. Is it any wonder that a significant portion of the devastated US industrial working class abandoned the Democrats after the Obama era?
The thoughtful Eric Foner concludes the Nation chronicle of the Obama years with useful insights:
Obama’s 2008 campaign, which mobilized millions of people new to politics, served as an illustration of the symbiotic relationship between popular movements and political action. Unfortunately, even before Obama assumed office, it became clear that he had little interest in building upon the popular upsurge that helped to elect him.
Foner offers a counter-narrative to Obama-worship that simply ignores Obama, the figure, and focuses upon the forces erupting around him that he, opportunistically, rode to power. For Foner, the popular social forces are far more indicative of what is possible and worthwhile than the personalities that ride those social forces in and out of the Presidency. Rather than heap unwarranted praise on Obama, Foner traces the often-tortured path that the popular urge for change takes through US institutions.
Thus, Foner sees manifestations of the urge for change that are springing up at the close of the Obama era as more worthy of discussion:
For a while after the end of the Cold War, it seemed like we were condemned to live in a world where the only alternatives to unregulated capitalism were religious fundamentalism or xenophobia and racism. Then the financial collapse of 2008 drove a stake through the heart of neo-liberalism, the dominant ideology of the past generation (although its ghost still walks the earth, including the corridors of the Obama administration). The great achievement of the Sanders campaign was to step into the vacuum and begin to offer a new vision. The election of Donald Trump, while disastrous in so many ways, is yet another illustration of the bankruptcy of neoliberalism. It is also an opportunity for the left to forge a new set of policies to promote political, social, and economic equality.
While the current political moment is indeed an opportunity to restore what Foner calls the “American Radical Tradition,” it is wishful thinking to imagine that the popular thirst for change will be satisfied with the final demise of “the dominant ideology of the past generation.” It is not the “bankruptcy of neoliberalism” (“unregulated capitalism”) alone that opened the door to Trump, but the bankruptcy of the two-party system that disallows a social democratic insurgency or a third-party opening to the left.
Moreover, it is not the latest incarnation of capitalism (neoliberalism) that is demonstrating its bankruptcy, but it is capitalism itself that stands accused.
With his stress on social movements, Foner knows that the existing political institutions, including both major parties, have resisted the “American Radical Tradition” at every juncture. Radicalism must always be sparked and nurtured independently and outside of the two-party system. Foner’s academic work attests to the fact that real social change-- including the New Deal, the Great Society, etc-- never comes when insurgents accept the limitations imposed by capitalist political organizations.
And where right-wing populism threatens-- like the Trump candidacy-- it draws its oxygen from the failure of the left to offer authentic options that address the popular yearning for change.
Those who uncritically thought the Obama Presidency would satisfy that yearning helped pave the way to the Trump victory.