Obama's Troubled Legacy

He went to Washington with ambitions of change, only to depart it largely intact.

Former President of the United States Barack Obama speaking on the recovering housing sector at Central High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Courtesy of Flickr by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, his platform’s core belief was that the American electorate was only as partisan as its politicians allowed it to be. He resented the distinction between blue and red states, calling for reconciliation so that the nation may finally heal from the wounds of the Bush era–unfortunately for Obama, America’s polarized politics would only take on a new life after he left office, signaling perhaps that a belief in unity as the main thrust for positive change was all-too-naive to begin with.

Being the first African American president in US history, Obama’s tenure in office came to signify a symbolic victory for the liberal left–the then-marginalized political group was wholly convinced that America’s buy-in on its ideas meant that it had finally succumbed to the tenets of pluralism, soon-to-become the norm. If America, with its long history of systemic racism, managed to elect to its highest office a Black man, wouldn’t that necessarily mean it has overcome it?

Looking at the masses of people currently occupying the streets to protest what was thought to be a thing of the past, is proof enough that power indiscriminately corrupts, as it did to Obama. In a fiery speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, his address to the nation comprised the hallmarks of what a civil rights activist would’ve uttered alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–but as the then-Illinois Senator got a taste of presidential politics, it became evident that the office would change him more than he would change it.

As Obama’s sharp justice-concerned edges got sanded off of him in subsequent years, it became a learning lesson for Americans that they could not hang their hopes for radical change on the mere deviation of an identity from the status quo. It was why Bernie Sanders’ ill-fated bid for the presidency represented a massive shift in how the electorate conceived of the change they seek–the Vermont Senator centered his politics around the common struggle of the downtrodden against the clutches of injustice, distinguishing himself on two occasions from Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden who both were still grasping at the lost allure of Obama’s optimistic view of America.

The younger electorate — one that was overwhelmingly in favor of Sanders before he suspended his campaign — doesn’t share that same enthusiasm about the legacy of their country. They saw it naked and unfiltered in Charlottesville barely a year after Trump was elected, and they continue to witness reverberations of it in every facet of American life–between police brutality, wage discrimination, lack of redistributive justice, a disregard of the homeless, and the now critical mass of people who can no longer justify working for a starvation wage in an economy on a steady course towards recession. The government — who Obama said could not fix all of its citizens’ problems — is more-than-ever needed, and it has instead deferred its duties to individual actors, dooming them to fend for themselves when they least could.

When Obama came into office, he’d already witnessed an undoing of the American myth of prosperity in the wake of the financial crisis–now with his ideological opposite overseeing an economic crisis of greater magnitude, it’s unclear whether Obama’s naive belief in reconciliation was ever warranted.

America’s internal fissures are now deeper-than-ever–the divisions between liberal and conservative have become more a matter of cultural warfare than ideological discord. The only group that managed to maintain its political resolve irregardless of shifting trends is the far-left, and they happen to not-so-incidentally be Obama’s most-vehement critics.

It isn’t enough for them that Obama kowtowed to Wall Street when it came time to hold America’s financial weathercock to account–he represented in their eyes what is an ill of American politics, wherein etiquette and prestige defined more of the electorate’s relationship with their representatives than the substance of their policies. In that respect, Obama didn’t change much about the neoliberal status quo–if anything, he supercharged its stock in American culture by convincing a majority of the liberal left that a capitalistic society ruled by the whims of the market still has a place for them too.

Because so much of what was undertaken under Obama was a mere redressing of old conventions under new labels, it didn’t take much for them to become undone once a mischievous soul occupied the Oval Office. Obama’s blind faith in the system — that it wouldn’t discard what he worked his entire political career to accomplish — was ultimately his downfall. He became so embedded into the machinations of Washington, that he forgot his journey to Capitol Hill was facilitated by a promise to see it reformed, not preserved.

This is what makes Obama’s legacy such a pesky puzzle to solve–he donned so much of what Trump is criticized for not having, but it’s not exactly clear whether a more competent and eloquent version of Trump is what America needed anyway. Politics isn’t just the work of crafting masterful speeches and delivering them in a mesmerizing cadence–it is the recognition that the government must galvanize the populace towards positive change, even when malfeasant forces are working against it.

The power of populist co-governance is perhaps something that Obama had underestimated the effectiveness of before leaving office–if he was willing to lead the electorate along his turbulent path of jamming sensible legislation through Congress, change could have been more forthcoming. If weeks-long protests were the catalyst for much needed — albeit inadequate — police reform, who knows what could’ve been achieved with a years-long mobilization effort towards a more equitable and fairer society.