SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The Obama presidency was one of inauguration and restoration. Barack Hussein Obama was the first black president and he was to the White House what Hamilton is to Broadway. Both brought a hip hop sensibility to unfamiliar terrain in a dignified manner that not only changed the way we think of those institutions, but served as a reminder of how powerful representation can be. In epitomizing the ‘best of black people,’ Obama was ironically also a throwback to the halcyon days of America. His elegance and regality conjured up comparisons with the Kennedy family. Gary Younge described the Obamas as the Camelot without the castle.
Whether it was bending down to let a young boy touch his head, cracking jokes at the White House Correspondence Dinners, or writing a 56-page article for Harvard Law Review, Obama restored grandeur back to an institution that had been tarnished by previous blemishes of senility (Reagan), irrelevance (Bush I), infidelity (Clinton) and treachery (Bush II). One might even say he made the American presidency great again. He was the black president many thought would never happen and a distinguished president many thought would never return.
The bittersweet irony is that his best might not have been enough. Disillusionment emerged from the failure of his inspiration to be transformational. Even though he had a vision, strategy and a mandate, he was nevertheless hampered by the choices he made, the constraints he faced and the backlash he provoked. His plan to rescue the economy catalysed Occupy Wall Street; his reforms on criminal justice spurred the emergence of Black Lives Matter; his actions on immigration mobilized the Dreamers. At the same time however, he had to face a recalcitrant Congress, an incorrigible Republican Party and an insidious deep state. And let’s not forget the immense backlash, whether it was in regards to his birth certificate, his upbringing or his supposed plans to create death panels.
Amid such a context, it should be of no wonder then that he entered the White House amid proclamations about the death of conservatism and left with declarations regarding the end of identity liberalism.
As pundits vie to sort out his legacy, it is not coincidental that these accounts mirror the debates swirling around the results of the last election. Obama either represents the end of ‘progressive neoliberalism,’ which is what propelled the working class (who happen to be white) to vote for Trump, or Obama represents the implacable nature of racism, which is what propelled whites (who might happen to be working class) to vote for Trump. As these questions hover around the election, it is also impacting presidential hopefuls like Cory Booker. Last week after Booker testified at the nomination hearings for Jeff Sessions, he also vetoed a bill that would have lowered the price of medicine. Obama’s legacy, the post-mortem around the 2016 presidential elections and the imbroglio surrounding Booker are all proxy battles over the endemic valence of racism, the hegemonic status of neoliberalism and the degree of political dissatisfaction to address either.
The dramatic clearing house of twenty-first century presidential elections, starting with Obama who campaigned as the anti-Bush and now Trump who fashions himself as the anti-Obama, also signals a new kind of reactionary politics that further extends the ideological spectrum beyond that of liberal and conservative. Fascism and socialism are now viable electoral platforms by which to run campaigns, win elections and perhaps even govern. With great repudiation comes great responsibility. It also comes with expectations that are increasingly impossible to achieve. This vicious cycle of promising a lot, delivering some, and disappointing many portends a new kind of politics that extends the bounds of the possible.
Questions about his legacy will hinge somewhat on what he did. Part of the answer is policy-oriented: will Obamacare endure to become a permanent fixture of American life like social security, or will it become a brief hiccup for future historians to marvel at like Prohibition? Another aspect is discursive: to what degree is his politics of hope a naïve rhetorical move to paper over endemic issues, or an ambitious form of pragmatism that is needed to overcome such insidiousness? We can’t forget about culture: in breaking the glass ceiling, has Obama further hastened a post-racial era or initiated a post-assimilationist one?
With that said, Obama will nonetheless probably be defined not by what he did, but what he did not do. As unfair as this is, it is in part because his administration was guided by a particular vision of America that may have reached its limits. Obama wanted to ameliorate racism without confronting it, restore the economy without punishing the culprits responsible for the crisis, and mollify the imperial presidency with more subtle tactics like drones, targeted killings, and indefinite detention. His administration marked an end point, a liminal boundary of a kind of politics that would rather nudge than confront. There might not have been anybody better at nudging than Obama. He was so good in fact, that it raises the question of the value of the strategy as a whole.
He ushered people in with his message of hope and unity but ended with many looking for the exits. The divisiveness that has emerged from Obama’s inspirational story and aspirational politics inverts the cliché of ‘united we stand, divided we fall’. Trump showed that we can in fact stand divided and that Obama perhaps was the last staving off of the barbarians at the gate. In this regard, Obama’s legacy is not just one of inauguration and restoration but also exhaustion. The first black president brought prestige back to an office that sorely lacked it and exhausted a politics that severely limited it. Poet Audre Lorde famously wrote that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. After Obama’s two terms as president, it looks to be the case that those tools can’t fix the house either.