On Friday, January 20, 2017, Barack Obama’s eight-year tenure as the 44th President of the United States will come to an end. Elected on a platform of soaring hope, there can be no doubt that he fell short of his mission, and he will re-enter civilian life in a country and a world more fearful of the future than it has been for generations.
While many will argue that his presidency was a failure – and there is substance to those claims – that alleged failure is not solely his own: it is the collective failure of the American political system and of the American people.
Or maybe failure is an unjustifiably harsh assessment nurtured by an unforgiving Republican opposition that did everything in its power to make him fail. When weighing up the successes and the shortcomings of the Obama years, context is everything.
He entered office with the nation and the Western world at large wounded by the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression some 80 years earlier.
The ticking free market time bomb planted by the voodoo economics of the Reagan administration had finally exploded, and its fallout was further exasperated by the crippling financial weight of Bush’s criminal war in Iraq.
All considered, never, in recent history, had a president entered the White House with so much blood and wreckage to mop up off the floor. Yes, he fell short, but a sizeable chunk of the blame has to sit with the Republicans that burdened him with such an unholy mess. Yet, somehow, he made it work.
According to economic data published in December, unemployment was down to a nine-year low of 4.6 percent. The third-quarter GDP growth rate was reforecast from 2.9 to 3.2 percent. The economy is 16 percent larger than when he took office, adjusted to inflation.
Maybe it’s not great, but it’s an improvement, and we can only speculate what he could have achieved had he not been encumbered by Republican sabotage.
Because it must also never be forgotten that all of his promises, all of his attempts at governing since January 2011 –three quarters of his entire presidency– were actively sabotaged by a Republican majority in the House, and then, as of 2015, in both the House and Senate.
Over his two terms, the GOP proved that they would prefer to watch the country burn and pin the blame on Obama and his party, rather than allow him to successfully serve the American people.
Equally, it shouldn’t be ignored that he was elected in 2008 with a resounding victory, both in the popular vote and the electoral college, that gave the democrats majorities in both chambers of congress and free rein to pursue their agenda.
Damningly, for the democrats, that agenda wasn’t pursued to the fullest extent that their majorities allowed, but there are several reasons for this.
Presidents tend to be more subdued in their first term, ever-wary of trying to do too much too soon and not succeeding, thereby jeopardizing their chances of reelection.
In Obama’s case, I also think that there’s also an element of imposter syndrome at play, which is when highly-successful people don’t truly internalize their successes or feel at ease with the status that it affords them.
This is particularly common to people who come from underprivileged backgrounds, like ethnic minorities or the working classes, and is less common among those born into wealth, who often see success as a given – just look at the unshakeable self-belief of Donald Trump, the egotistical son of a billionaire with a record stained by multiple bankruptcies, if you need an illustrative example.
The presidency, lest we forget, was created by slave owners, and had, for the entirety of its 220 year existence, been reserved for white men. Republican “birthers,” led ferociously by a rabid Donald Trump, never allowed him to forget this.
They peddled lies and questioned his birth certificate, sounding the dog whistle of racism that no doubt still rings in his ears. Maybe if he wasn’t faced with such unapologetic hostility and blatant bigotry he could have governed with greater confidence and been bolder in his decisions.
Never forget that this is the party that devised the Southern Strategy and the Willie Horton ads, mounting racially antagonistic presidential campaigns in ‘64, ‘68, ‘88 and 2016. It is the party that, under their beloved Ronald Reagan, admitted to using “welfare” as a byword for the N-bomb.
Yet, despite this, with incredible dignity, he still tried to put it all aside and make his 2008 campaign promise of bipartisanship work. However, his attempts at extending an olive branch to the GOP only hamstrung him further.
He refrained from pursuing a radically progressive agenda so as to avoid further riling a hostile opposition, but this naively overlooked the fundamentally ruthless and feral nature of the modern, post-Nixon GOP, who prefer a scorched earth policy of government shutdowns over even the mildest of compromise.
This considered, conservatives were always going to hate him, and dignified compromise was always doomed to failure.
Diplomacy only left progressives disappointed and his refusal to use blunt force probably further emasculated him in the eyes of that blood-thirsty, war-hungry, gun-fetishizing segment of American society that brings men like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and now Donald Trump, to power.
But these sort of details are only remembered by politics wonks such as myself. What the rest of the world will remember is his failed promise to close Guantanamo Bay, America’s very own concentration camp.
They will look to a still-deregulated Wall Street, still fat and rich and gluttonous, feasting on the profits of their excess and the misery of many, and remember his failure to do anything about it.
They will likely see his landmark achievement, the Affordable Care Act, gutted by the incoming Trump regime and his legacy neutered.
African-Americans, meanwhile, will forever be dismayed by his anaemic attempts at bettering their standing in a society plagued by ethnic divisions and racial disparity.
The history books will note that his supposedly liberal administration jailed more whistleblowers than the Bush regime. It will also be noted that Obama expanded Bush’s drone program, approving the execution of American citizens without any judicial oversight.
All of this will leave a bitter taste of disappointment for those who devoured his message of hope like sacramental bread.
Each of these failures are unforgivable, yet there’s something about Obama that makes him widely immune to measured criticism. His sympathizers are guilty of giving him a free pass, seduced by his personality, which he used to mask his shortcomings in policy.
He was –is– well-spoken, charming, charismatic, graceful. Even if you’re aware that it was all a well-calculated act to boost his electability, he was difficult to dislike, even when he gave us good reason to.
It was a refreshing contrast to the semi-literacy of the Bush years, and it will be dearly missed throughout Trump’s idiocracy, but it’s scant consolation for those of us who expect politics to be more than just a media spectacle. He promised too much, we hoped too hard, and it’s difficult to avoid slipping into bereft disillusionment.
But there’s a lesson to be learned from this: one man cannot change the world, no matter how powerful, and politics is so much bigger than the two names that contest an election.
The government is a vast and merciless ecosystem of competing interests and egos, comprising of politicians and strategists, lobbyists and Super PACs, unions and financers, and every disparate voting bloc from across the nation.
The challenges of government are immense and competing interests make progress nauseatingly slow. But while members of the public, regardless of their political leanings, are quick to point fingers and groan with dissatisfaction, they’re rarely prepared to accept the blame for their own failures that have contributed to this cirrhosis of the American political system.
Voter turnout rates are shamefully low, usually falling somewhere between 52 and 62 percent. According to Fairvote, a record high of 63.8 percent chose between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. In 1996, a historic nadir of only 51.7 percent validated Clinton’s re-election. The last three elections have respectively pulled in a mere 61.6, 58.2 and 60 percent of the eligible electorate.
In the midterms it is drastically lower. When the GOP gained control of both houses of congress in 2014, only 35.9 percent of the electorate bothered to get out and vote – the lowest turnout since 1942, when many were away fighting fascism in Europe.
That’s a 47 million-strong decline in participation since the 2012 election. In 2010, when democrats lost the House, only 41 percent voted. This is an abdication of democratic responsibility.
When we talk about “democracy,” what we’re really talking about is the system of participatory democracy. As it says on the tin, the key ingredient to this is participation. For the GOP to do so well in 2010 and 2014, a sizeable number of voters that helped elect Obama effectively abandoned him, handing Republicans a blank check to handicap his agenda.
For democracy to function to its fullest potential, it needs full participation and full engagement. Democracy is not just something that you do in the voting booth every four years, it needs to be an essential component of everyday life for every citizen of voting age.
But, of course, not enough people give a shit. Politics is too boring for most, and political illiteracy festers. Because of this, every Obama voter that didn’t vote in the midterms contributed to his failures, but few will accept the weight of culpability.
This is a regular phenomenon in American politics. In ’80 and ’84, the political illiteracy of “Reagan Democrats” in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania drove them to vote Republican and unwittingly enable the neoliberal agenda that would rob their of their jobs and compromise their livelihoods. Now, three decades on, they want a Republican reality TV host to save them from their own self-sabotage.
This what happens when people only engage with politics once every four years, rather than every single day. In the end, we get the politics and the politicians that we deserve.
Academic historians and political scientists often conduct surveys, weighing up a president’s achievements, failures, qualities and faults in an attempt to rank each presidency and give it historical context. FDR, Lincoln and Washington overwhelmingly top the tables, while the chasing pack is a source of constant contention.
Few will rank Obama among the greatest, but I don’t think he fits within the usual metrics that determine these rankings.
His was not an ordinary presidency and his purpose was not simply to govern. I think that history will come to view Obama as a mirror: a reflection of America, and an assessment of the American experiment, some 200 or so years in.
He is a testament to the nation’s progress in distancing itself from its racist past, but also its failure to completely overcome it.
Sandwiched between Bush and Trump, his presidency and the hard right swerve that the nation took in response to it are a snapshot of the constant internal struggle between the way that America sees itself, the ideal that it likes to project out across the globe, and what Hunter S. Thompson called “that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that almost every other country in the world has learned to fear and despise.”
The ideal of a democratic society of fairness, tolerance, progress and hope that probably exists more in the imagination than in reality, but has still managed to lure in oppressed and downtrodden peoples from all around the world, across the expanse of history, is forever in the throes of a never-ending battle with that exploitative, murderous and oppressive drive that inflicts misery upon the world –as well as its own citizens– all while claiming to be its moral authority.
It is a nation that enshrines the freedom of the press in its constitution to strengthen its own democracy, while deposing democratically-elected leaders and imposing dictatorial stooges that serve its interests abroad.
It is a nation that appointed a black man as president who sought to extend affordable healthcare to all of its citizens out of simple common decency, only to replace him less than a decade later with an anti-intellectual bigot representing a party that wants to deny those citizens that right because it equates poverty with moral failure.
It is the nation of Lincoln, FDR and Martin Luther King Jr., but it is also the nation of Goldwater, McCarthy, Nixon, Kissinger, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Albright, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Clinton, Trump, Bannon and a much longer, increasingly shameful cast of representatives that its people freely chose, often twice.
This considered, I would argue that Obama actually represents the fundamental nature of America better than any president that came before him: a man with towering principles and a genuine, albeit deluded, belief in them, who was simply too flawed to serve those principles with the justice that they demand.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
- Lead Image: Acclaim Images