My administration,” said Barack Obama to a roomful of bankers one bright Friday in D.C., “is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” This is how I would like to remember President Obama: two months into his presidency and wasting no time to sell out. It has all the phoniness of one pretending to stand up to those who turned a buck on economic catastrophe, while revealing in the very sentence just which side of the class war he was on. Of course, to the more capitally inclined among us, those same words may seem positively Bolshevik, or anyway not very chummy. That’s Barry for you—attack him from the left or from the right and either way you wouldn’t be exactly wrong.
I happened to come of age about two weeks after the election of the 44th President, so you can say that while I had an unenthusiastic support for Mr. Yes We Can, I never really had a say in it. By the time of my last term at university, and with hardly a right-wing credential to my name, I had progressed to a sort of unenthusiastic non-support. As much as I could barely stomach it to see a Nobel Peace Prize winner gloating to the world of his political assassinations, neither could I stand to find myself agreeing with the Kochs and Cruzes of the disloyal opposition. The Obama years were an exercise in keeping, as Hitchens used to say, two sets of books. Perhaps to spare myself the shame of proving right the old dictum that disillusioned college lefties grow up to be conservative, I split the difference by settling on apathy. The state and federal governments were packed with lizard-brained reactionaries, the Middle East was bursting at its seams, but really then why even bother? The world was ending soon, was it not?
That spring, the radio preacher Harold Camping added to the long and sorry tradition of Great Disappointments when he predicted, a bit too prematurely, the second coming of Christ. One year later, the Mayan calendar would prove likewise to be an unreliable heuristic of our doom. Well, how’s this for apocalyptic let-downs? Barack Obama was supposed to be the Antichrist; at the very least, an emissary of the global New World Order. If only half the things were true that right-wing crackpots thought of Barack Obama—that’s Barack Hussein to you—then at least things would be interesting. Instead we had eight years of an extremely centrist neoliberal, who lacked the courage of his convictions as well as the convictions of his courage, who could be loved for very bad reasons and loathed for even worse.
This is the essential dilemma of Barack Obama’s legacy: how ought we to criticize him without dignifying or vindicating the reactionaries? Can it be—to lift a question asked by Susan Sontag—that our enemies were right? Donald Trump was likely wrong to say Obama will go down as the “worst president” in U.S. history. Then again, Obama did preside over the Jon Stewart school of smug and ineffectual and bourgeois liberalism that brought us, after eight delirious years, nothing but Donald Trump. So maybe Donald has a point, after all.
One of the hardest things about disliking President Obama is that he’s so damn likable. That indisputable charm, along with his command of language and culture and diplomacy, in the face of an increasingly unhinged Republican opposition, will cement the figure of Obama the symbol in the landscape of political history—if being the first black president, in a former slave society with a not-too-distant record of apartheid, doesn’t do it by itself.
The more I think of it, the more I’m sure that it is only fitting that a president as charismatic and well-spoken and wholesome as Barack Obama would be followed by a character as lurid and blithering as Trump. It was under Obama that the personalization of politics reached its high point. Both Barack and Donald are larger-than-life figures who will have entered into office as the mirror of their fans’ and enemies’ projections. Obama may not have been the socialist we were warned of—he was barely a progressive, whatever that means—but many of us were hoping that he’d give it the old college try. Likewise, it wouldn’t quite be right to label Trump a fascist stricto sensu, although a few of his supporters would be displeased to know it. Perhaps we’ve all been rather eager to believe the other side’s propaganda.
There will be much self-congratulation, not to mention self-pity, among liberals these next few days. As expected, the pundit class have readied their assessments of Obama like prewritten obituaries. Here is an example of one believing their own propaganda. You can find it (where else?) in the columns of the New York Times:
Barack Obama is leaving the White House with polls showing him to be one of the most popular presidents in recent decades. This makes sense. His achievements, not least pulling the nation back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, have been remarkable—all the more so because they were bitterly opposed from the outset by Republicans who made it their top priority to ensure that his presidency would fail.
What does it take to look back on the last eight years—the greatest wealth disparity in history, a broken healthcare system compromised at birth, a totalitarian surveillance state at the center of a permanent and secret war—and to preempt all blame by heaping it upon the other guys? The same selective and rose-tinted thinking that goes into this:
Even now, these stubborn biases and beliefs [of bigotry and prejudice], amplified by [Trump’s] divisive and hostile campaign that appealed not to people’s better instincts but their worst, have blinded many Americans to their own good fortune, fortune that flowed from policies set in motion by this president.
Shame on you, racist rubes, for being so ungrateful to our Dear Leader—after all he’s done for you! If this sounds a little gaslighty, that’s because it is. Obama represented in his person and his leadership the triumphant self-regard of the liberal bourgeoisie.
Aziz Rana, who was a dear professor and a guide to me in law school, describes Obama as a living symbol of the “American creed”: the abiding myth of the fundamental goodness of a nation founded, and expanding, on equality and inclusion. It’s the kind of sentimental story that regards injustice as a bug, and not a feature, of the status quo; that’s told to make rich liberals feel good, in other words. For all that talk about him being a socialist ideologue, Obama was in fact a throwback to a narrative of self-advancement and exceptionalism, the self-congratulation of the ruling elite. As Professor Rana puts it, “Obama’s skill as a politician was bound to how perfectly he embodied that creed, even as more Americans grew suspicious of the story —from its presumptions about class mobility and inevitable racial accord to those concerning the basic justness of existing institutions.”
Yet the election of Obama was more than just a whitewash (or maybe blackwash?) of our national mythology. It was the coronation of a liberal anti-politics—where progress could be measured in markets and meritocracy, where policy was a question of technocratic tinkering, where stodgy “worn-out dogmas” would be foregone for competence and respectability. Emerging from a decade of neoconservative blunder, this must have seemed appealing: a post-ideological future, ruled by likable professionals.
What do we have to show for it? The party of Hope and Change became the party of diminished expectations; our nation’s wars are more widespread and deadlier than ever; the torturers and rapists of the previous administration walked away unpunished and now are creeping back to power; the financial sector’s debts were nationalized while the recovery was privatized; the surveillance state has grown into a bona fide police state; health care has become a byzantine and unaffordable nightmare; the young are saddled with a lifetime of indentured debt and a retirement plan of ecological devastation; racial and religious tensions are sharper than before; fascism and theocracy are nipping at the carcass of the neoliberal order; and a bloviating prick is waiting by the doors of the Oval Office with his coterie of billionaire reptilians. A president who was believed to be a Muslim communist from Kenya is soon to pass the torch to a racist gameshow host moonlighting as a Manchurian candidate for Russia. I can think of no firmer a rebuke than that.
So maybe he was never meant to bring about a socialist utopia, nor to reign over a dark satanic empire on Earth. A more modest endeavor, apocalyptic in its own dreary way, might be the Fukuyama thesis: the global triumph of bourgeois democracy as the last remaining ideology. Or, in the more exultant tones of Francis Fukuyama, “the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” But even that self-certain fantasy was thwarted and refuted under Obama, as he built up an increasingly illiberal security state partly in response, but also antecedent, to fanatical extremism abroad. If we’re dialectical about it, we might add that this was answered by the rise of xenophobia and fascism within the so-called liberal democracies. Whatever can be said about the neoliberal order, it’s surely not invincible. In my own case, I think that my political “reawakening” from apathy and disillusion was helped along by my suspicion that these conditions were leading to a fight that no one rightly could sit out.
Hindsight can and does confirm that we really should have seen this coming. The Obama presidency was marked by not just one, but three or four populist “insurgencies,” which ought to have apprised us of the emperor’s new clothes being a sham. First there was the Tea Party, that early throb of white anxiety, jazzed up with libertarian groans about the “crony capitalists” (as if the essential problem of Actually Existing Capitalism is that the capitalists are friends). Then the left rejoined with a distemper of its own when thousands occupied Zuccotti Park against “the one-percent.” Both these currents reemerged, in slightly different forms, behind the populist campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. As far as radical potential goes, all of these were hamstrung by fixating on the personal—their enemies were always some version of a mischievous elite—instead of the systemic. But all the same, they pointed to the crisis lurking just beneath the liberal façade: the neoliberal center could not hold. The only question was which sort of politics, revolutionary or reactionary, would be loosed upon the world instead. That question was answered for us in July of 2016 at the Democratic National Convention.
With that in mind, it’s important to review exactly what role Obama played in this vertiginous moment of history. Just when the hulking corpse of the neoliberal consensus was collapsing under its own weight, Obama was conscripted to make sure that capital and empire would continue unabated. He was the friendly face deployed to sell an antiquated ideology, the narcotic soothsayer of liberal triumphalism. At the same time, his rhetoric and charm ensured that popular discontent was toothless or rerouted to support the Democrat machine—even as they built a bloated, untransparent, authoritarian spy-state as their legacy. More and more, I find myself returning to a passage found in R. Palme Dutt’s study of historical fascism; namely, as it relates to the German social democrats’ “line of unity with the bourgeoisie and support of the bourgeois State, even under conditions of dictatorship.” He writes:
This was the so-called line of the “lesser evil.” What was this conception of the “lesser evil”? The existing bourgeois dictatorship…was declared to be a “lesser evil” than the victory of Fascism…But these forms of dictatorship were only preparing the ground for complete Fascism, destroying the resistance of the workers step by step, and, as soon as their work was complete, handing over the State to Hitler.
Without belaboring the point, I think the parallel should be clear.
In the end, the Republicans seized on these conditions by being partly right—but right, for very wrong reasons. The status quo was unsustainable, producing the “mass disillusionment in the midst of growing economic crisis and gathering revolutionary issues” that Dutt detected as the “general background for the growth of Fascism.” But our centrist liberals, having nothing new to offer but their crumbs, held more tightly onto a discredited and obsolete mythology.
The failure of Barack Obama is the failure of the liberal imagination. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the doting and infantile hero-worship we see so much today. Its corollary is, of course, the liberal revulsion to Donald Trump as a unique and singular threat, as if the only thing that’s wrong is individual pathology, as if the republic could be saved by etiquette and inspirational cliché. That fantasy—the unshakable faith in the ruling class to save us, if only they were more benevolent—has left us unprepared to navigate the crisis stage we’re in. It’s left us incapable of thinking about politics beyond personality and credentials, limiting our vision from the structural and material rot of a system in decline, as we long for the same lackluster managerial liberalism that enabled this decay. In point of fact, it was the right-wing who turned out to be the only “radical” alternative, while the so-called left is mired in sentimentalism and nostalgia. Much will turn on whether we wise up enough to say goodbye to all of that.
Los Angeles, 2017.