On Tuesday, as millions of Americans debated whether the president of the United States might be a Russian asset firmly in the pocket of Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama gave a speech.
Until now, the former president's post-Trump-election activities have been the stuff of Occupy propaganda videos. A kitesurfing sesh with billionaire Richard Branson. A yacht hang with Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen and David Geffen. Wall Street speaking gigs worth $400,000 a pop. A book deal, in combination with his wife Michelle, with a total advance reported to be in the $65 million range. Plans to get into the Netflix streaming content game.
Obama has also, to be fair, engaged in more Normal 50-Something American Male throwbacks such as showing up for jury duty before being sent home for the day, and dancing like an awkward dad. And in keeping with ex-presidents before him, he launched a charitable foundation stocked with uber-wealthy financiers—one of them is named, I shit you not, J. Kevin Poorman.
Despite all that activity, Obama's been glaringly absent from the public stage in the Trump era, leaning into the Responsible Norm that former presidents shouldn't critique their successors. On Tuesday, however, he gave the most significant speech of his post-presidency, the keynote address at an annual tribute to freedom fighter and former South African President Nelson Mandela, one of Obama's personal heroes. It was a sweeping review of world history and the benefits and perils of globalization, as well as a denunciation of the authoritarian forces that have bubbled up all over the world, including in the United States.
The only problem with the speech—mellifluous, grandiose, hopeful, and intellectual, as many of Obama's other speeches have been—was the world in which he delivered it. What was intended as a love letter to democracy, a thinly-veiled warning to beware the Donald Trumps and Vladimir Putins of the world, a paean to tolerance and the promise of technocratic capitalism, instead read like a laundry list of all the ways Obama, and democracy, had failed America. The message wasn't bad; the problem was the messenger. A proper survey of the powers that have damaged the world would include the inescapable truth that Obama and other liberals are partly to blame for the shape we're in.
Of course, Obama didn't somehow concoct the toxic sludge of white and male resentment that powered Trump's shockingly successful campaign—even if it's clear part of what made the latter so attractive was the prospect of a symbolic reversal of social progress. There are a lot—a LOT—of people to blame for the way things have gone since, say, the summer of 2016. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who refused to support Obama speaking out about Russian interference before the election. James Comey, who broke FBI procedure on the Hillary Clinton email probe and helped tip the election to Republicans. Hillary Clinton, who ran an atrocious campaign that for all its policy positions had no coherent message and failed to speak to a significant chunk of Obama voters. And, of course, the guy actually spewing the vile hate that has made women and people of color and the LGBTQ community and immigrants and so many others feel fear and pain and despair.
But Obama played a part in making this American nightmare possible, and we should treat his pronouncements after the fact accordingly.
To be clear, most of Obama's speech on Tuesday was unobjectionable. Democracy is good; autocracy is bad. Capitalism is usually good but needs to be regulated, and unions and collective-bargaining rights protected. (This is a real concern right now.) Racism is the worst. Rich people are OK but need to be aware of their role in causing global financial panics, and the suffering in pockets of the world left behind by the so-called End of History and neoliberal revolution. Technology is cool but doesn't change the reality of sexism or violence against women. It's good stuff, especially when compared to the kind of rhetoric spouted daily from the White House.
Then there are strange passages that suggest Obama wasn't the most powerful person on Earth for eight years—that he didn't have a chance to change the country so many of us are now miserable in and fearful for. To take one example:
Democracy depends on strong institutions and it’s about minority rights and checks and balances, and freedom of speech and freedom of expression and a free press, and the right to protest and petition the government, and an independent judiciary, and everybody having to follow the law. And yes, democracy can be messy, and it can be slow, and it can be frustrating. I know, I promise. But the efficiency that’s offered by an autocrat, that’s a false promise. Don’t take that one, because it leads invariably to more consolidation of wealth at the top and power at the top, and it makes it easier to conceal corruption and abuse. For all its imperfections, real democracy best upholds the idea that government exists to serve the individual and not the other way around. And it is the only form of government that has the possibility of making that idea real.
This starts strong before veering off the deep end. Yes, checks and balances and a strong judiciary are key. But that judiciary might include another check on Trump in the form of Justice Merrick Garland if Obama hadn't caved in the face of unprecedented Republican obstruction—a refusal to even hold hearings on the man's nomination to replace Antonin Scalia—in 2016. Instead, he could and should have called the GOP's bluff and seated Garland anyway. Yes, the Constitution requires the advice and consent of the Senate, but the Senate wasn't willing to do either. Why not force the issue and let the legal system he has so much faith in decide?
OK, maybe that's nitpicking. Obama was a law professor. He likes norms. Let's stick to "normal" policy issues. Here's one: Obama presided over a vast retrenchment of wealth at the top of American society while refusing to prosecute Wall Street bankers after the financial crisis. His strategy for fixing the economy was to prop up big banks and, by extension, rich people. He engineered, as part of a deliberate policy of "rescuing" the economy, what amounted to the catastrophic destruction of middle-class wealth, especially in black America, in the form of mass foreclosures. Communities like Detroit and Cleveland and Milwaukee felt the pain of a broken recovery in 2016, and they subsequently failed to come out hard for Hillary Clinton, who lost not just Ohio, but the normally blue states of Michigan and Wisconsin.
Obama rightly notes that democracy is messy, and, elsewhere in the speech, nods to the problems of elite failure and monopoly. But he fails to realize this is a mess generations of Americans have put up with and can't take anymore. Incomes have been stagnant for decades. The same Wall Street executives who helped cause the financial crisis got massive bonuses. Given the opioid epidemic, massive job loss, broken unions, and shrinking populations in small communities across the country, it's no wonder so many people figured the government was so corrupt they might as well pick the rich guy who might somehow be immune to further corruption.
Obviously, Trump has proved the opposite—he's happy to run the government like a slush fund for his friends and his businesses. But Obama's refusal to punish bad actors in the upper echelons of American society reinforced the cynicism that powered the backlash he bemoans.
We should pause to remember that the president achieved a lot of good in his eight years. He passed the Affordable Care Act, likely saving tens of thousands of lives. He took real steps toward police reform, steps Attorney General Jeff Sessions has done virtually everything he can to undo. He created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a real watchdog that has been gutted by Trump and his ilk. But time and again, Obama simply refused to fundamentally challenge the way things worked. He had a populist headwind when he took office in 2009, and decided to push a modest stimulus package that did, as he reminded us in his speech, help turn the economy around. But it mostly helped high finance, rather than say, homeowners. So when a strongman came along and said he'd stick it to the Chinese, the Mexicans, the rich people at Goldman Sachs, many Americans believed him.
Obama, like all politicians in democratic systems, felt the limits of his own power; as Mario Cuomo famously explained, liberals often campaign in poetry and govern in prose. OK, Obama did that. But now we're watching his successor govern in sloppy finger paints—and the ongoing explosion of dark money in politics (which Obama rhetorically opposed but failed to reverse) means Trump will be almost impossible to keep out of a second term.
It's no wonder so many of us miss Obama—we miss a smart, compassionate man who believes, as he noted in his speech, in facts and reality and even knows he's not perfect. Who challenges us to do the right thing. Obama was inspiring. He was even sometimes effective. But he wasn't exactly a great steward of American democracy, and his speech shows why: He portrays the failure of elites as the failure to understand the lot of the poor or those left behind. He sees their fatal fault—our fatal fault—as a lack of vision or sympathy.
But it was more than that. Obama's failure was a failure of ideology. He preferred to leave the system mostly intact. And now the whole thing is blowing up before our eyes.
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