The optimism that arose from Barack Obama’s ‘08 campaign, an optimism that stemmed from his magnetism, youth, and the chance to propel a person of color to the nation’s highest office, was remarkable. It was the first time I’d ever seen people I knew genuinely excited by politics; I hope we see something like that again in our lifetimes.
That optimism has, unfortunately, insulated the former president from well-deserved criticism from the left. Understanding his failures as president is critical to understanding Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign and, ultimately, central to creating the new leftist movement that employs real political resistance, not #resistance.
Look no further than Obama’s use of executive orders. Much has been made of President Donald Trump’s dictatorial desires, but the precedent for exercising the power of the executive branch was Obama’s. Now that the orders are ones we disagree with, we seem to have a newfound respect for checks and balances.
As for the recent military strike that killed an 8 year-old in Yemen, we can’t forget than it was an Obama drone strike that killed her brother just a few years ago, nor can we forget the infamous double-tap strike by U.S.-armed Saudi forces that killed over 140 people a month before the election.
What about his expansion of the NSA, which now wields even more power to spy on American citizens than it did under George Bush? What about the Obama administration treating whistleblowers more harshly than any American government in modern history? He pardoned Chelsea Manning, but what about prosecuting her and throwing her in a men’s prison? What about the fact that income inequality grew significantly under his watch? Whose economy did he save, exactly? What about his severe mismanagement of diplomacy in Syria, which led to today’s refugee crisis? What about his failure to close Guantanamo Bay?
Spare me the obstruction argument: he had a similarly-sized majority when he was first elected to one the Republicans’ currently hold, and they’ve done plenty in Trump’s first two weeks.
We’re so quick to brand Trump the reality-star president, his supporters blinded by his fame, but what about us? When Obama slow-jammed the news, were we decrying the normalization of drone strikes? When he dazzled at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, were we #resisting U.S. support of the Wahhabist government in Saudi Arabia, one of the most oppressive regimes in the world, which is currently engaged in a U.S.-supported, sustained bombing campaign against the Houthis, an oppressed ethnic minority in northern Yemen?
We’re as susceptible to deception as anyone, and to explain away Clinton’s loss as a consequence of dumb hicks who couldn’t tell fact from fiction is embarrassing and untrue, not to mention a polite way to call poor people dumb.
Unfortunately, the centrist liberalism that Obama represents seems content with winning, yes, deeply important social wars—fighting repugnant -isms of all stripes—but has punted on the areas on which leftist politics used to focus.
During Obama’s presidency, where were our leftist voices on our abhorrent foreign policy, or our financial system that helped create the modern racial resentment Trump rode to power? Those issues are far more complex than anything that can be summarized in a Colbert monologue and, consequently, have faded from our consciousness. Those are the fields we need to reinsert ourselves into.
Clinton’s legacy as a politician—helping institute her husband’s mass incarceration program, sponsoring bills to make burning the flag a jailable offense, voting for the Iraq War, resorting to thinly-veiled racial attacks on Obama during the ‘07-‘08 primary, and weak Wall Street policy—was somehow overlooked because she called herself a progressive and wanly stumped for a $12.50 minimum wage.
Our inability to separate the repulsiveness of her worst critics on the right, who hate her because she’s a woman in power, stopped us from scrutinizing Clinton’s career. Ditto with Obama. But rather than realize that people were clamoring for an inspiring vision of the future, one where their jobs would come back and they could take part in this supposed economic recovery, the Clinton campaign tried to stage a moral referendum, and failed.
Obama’s personal magnetism, grace, and real, emotional attachment to public service won’t be forgotten anytime soon, nor should they. But rather than reaction-GIF him into oblivion, we need to avoid what’s happening to Bush now, this revisionism wherein a war criminal is becoming the old guy who paints dogs sometimes.