Obama Agonistes

Why the 44th president still thrills and grates

When Barack Obama speaks, all these years later, you still have to listen. It’s impossible not to. There will never be a president again like him, the first Black man to govern America, a Kennedy for the 21st century who assumed office with the kind of world-historical gravitas that will probably not be known to future generations. Those born in the late 1990s and 2000s were too young to understand the mass adulation that greeted Obama upon his victory in 2008. It was a valediction, a new end to history, the launch of an era that would bear this once fallen country so far. Baby Boomers had felt that way about John F. Kennedy, but Kennedy had barely defeated Richard Nixon and would live on as the embodiment of midcentury’s greatest trauma. Obama wasn’t dying. He was here, living with us, a Enlightenment figure with a life story drawn from a novel he could have written himself, had he chosen another path in life. He was better than us but of us. College students, Generation X, and the Baby Boomers across race and class lines had united behind him, rushing voting booths in big cities, tony suburbs, and rural towns alike to make this man the 44th president of the United States.

When Obama defeated John McCain in 2008, he appeared to have realigned politics permanently in the direction of liberalism—virtue and reason. It wasn’t merely that he had won 365 electoral votes. It was how he had won. Obama triumphed in Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Florida, and North Carolina. He swept Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. He had erected the kind of multiracial coalition long dreamed of by the left, joining working class whites, Latinos, and African-Americans with the affluent whites who had been traditional catnip for the GOP, the party of big business. And his victory carried far. Democrats expanded their majority in the House to 257 members. In the Senate, Democrats did not merely expand the majority—they swept Republicans everywhere. By the summer of 2009, Democrats held 60 seats in the Senate, compared to the Republicans’ 40. This was the future and it looked unassailable.

I still keep this all in mind when Obama, now hawking his incredibly lucrative memoir, speaks out. Lately, he has angered much of the left by attacking the messaging behind the defund the police movement, which more moderate Democrats and a few on the left have blamed for losses down the ballot in 2020. “If you believe, as I do, that we should be able to reform the criminal justice system so that it’s not biased and treats everybody fairly, I guess you can use a snappy slogan, like ‘defund the police,’” Obama said in an interview with Snapchat. “But, you know, you lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.”

“The key is deciding, do you want to actually get something done, or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with?” he added. “And if you want to get something done in a democracy, in a country as big and diverse as ours, then you’ve got to be able to meet people where they are. And play a game of addition and not subtraction.”

Criminal justice reformers who have fought since George Floyd’s death to slash funding from police budgets and reorient them into various social services understandably took offense. Some in the media came directly after Obama, mocking him for a brand of politics that can seem defunct in this polarized age. A writer for Jezebel shot back that the former president wasn’t one worth taking advice from.

“Brushing past the fact that people calling for the police to be defunded aren’t saying their ultimate goal is police reform, now we’re supposed to take unsolicited slogan edits from a man whose most memorable Presidential campaign slogans were the wildly creative zingers “Change” and “Yes We Can”? Sounds pretty “snappy” to me,” wrote Justice Namaste.

In 2020, a sharp divide exists between a younger left that views Obama with jadedness and derision and the millions in Democratic primaries that selected the candidates he deemed his successors, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. At the heart of the debate is a truth not always easily reconciled, one worth setting down in blunt terms: Obama was a hall of fame candidate, not a hall of fame president. For those who graduated into the Great Recession and bore the brunt of a neoliberalism never checked, Obama nostalgia offers little: no free health insurance, no canceled student or medical debt, no end to the forever wars. What did you do with your historic majorities, Obama? If you’re a severely underemployed twenty-eight year-old who can barely afford rent and will never own a home, the glories of 2008 are meaningless.

On one hand, Jezebel and other critics are absolutely wrong: the Democratic Party should take messaging and campaign advice from Obama, who was to national politics what Ted Williams, the last man to bat .400, was to hitting a baseball. Obama was a preternatural talent with a singular ability to unite disparate groups of people. Two of the states Obama won in 2008, Iowa and Indiana, are now hardcore bastions of Trump support with little chance of moving in a liberal direction. There is no serious way to mock hope and change and yes we can because they were wildly successful. While I may be a socialist who grew up in New York City learning from an early age about the sin inherent to the nation’s founding, most Americans crave affirmative, patriotic messaging that points to a future in which we overcome a history of violence, exploitation, racism, and civil war. Obama is an ill fit for our tribalistic moment, but he was inarguably a winner. For a brief moment, he helmed a campaign that overcame severe polarization—or stayed it for a little while.

The Democrats may produce no better a political candidate than Obama in our lifetimes. In a campaign setting, his instincts were impeccable, and the central challenge behind defund the police, as Obama understands it, as a political message is how easily malleable it can be and how it invites addendums. There are those that strenuously argue we mean demilitarize and reimagine police encounters to mitigate death while redirecting these funds to various social services, which is an admirable goal. Gang violence won’t take hold in affluent suburbias because young men and women have access to well-funded public schools, strong afterschool programs, and, most importantly, the hope of future success. There is the promise of college and a middle class job on the horizon.

For mental health crises, social workers should be present, and there are police officers who should not carry guns at all. Emergency calls do not always need to be answered by uniformed people toting weapons. The tragedy of Deborah Danner, an elderly Black woman who struggled with mental illness and was killed in a police shooting, should not be repeated in any civil society. And there are funding cuts that can absolutely be made to bloated overtime budgets, particularly at the NYPD. Why do they need a vice squad at all? The department these days functions as an overly militarized fiefdom that should be shrunk in scope.

Not all advocates of defund the police, though, merely want to defund. There are those that seek to abolish—to end policing altogether, a proposition that is unpopular and deeply alienating to a vast majority of Americans. Most neighborhoods that have suffered gun violence don’t want policing to entirely disappear. “Bring the police. Why y’all not out here? Nobody’s out here. That’s crazy. They gave up,” Daquan Sincear, a Flatbush resident, told Gothamist as shootings were spiking in his neighborhood this summer. “They on their cell phones. They’re on fucking Facebook, shit like that, they right there on Facebook and n-----s getting shot right in front of them,” he said of the NYPD. “It’s not real. This can’t be my life.” This is the reality Obama is speaking to and it should not be dismissed out of hand. There are many activists who call for police abolition and politicians who amplify them. That is their right. But words count.

As a slogan, Black Lives Matter was successful because it was so life-affirming, able to place its revanchist opponents on the immediate defensive. Are you arguing Black life doesn’t matter? As a wrenching cry of recognition, born out of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner protests, it spoke to a new civil rights movement in which masses of people could march together against racism and police brutality. Defund the police is a direct demand, a radical step forward, and also more complex—not the stuff, certainly, of an Obama campaign. And activists would rightly reply that their job isn’t to placate any political campaign or a former president.

Obama was able to convince tens of millions of people to vote for him twice. As a fabulously wealthy and powerful person, he exists in his own bubble of flattery, but he was once invested in the enormous task of coalition-building across this vast country. Where activists have more of a case against Obama is in the eight years he spent in government, where he failed to meet the promise of his candidacy. Trump was both a reminder of all we missed about Obama—a polished, cerebral, and empathetic man in the White House—and how little he transformed America. The Affordable Care Act, passed with those large Democratic majorities, failed to include a public option to control costs and saddled many working class and middle class Americans with healthcare plans only marginally more affordable than what they encountered before. It was a system designed to prop up the health insurance industry and one insurers happily welcomed. The ACA, in states that expanded Medicaid, did help poorer Americans, and it was a great innovation to force insurance companies to cover those with pre-existing conditions. As a signature achievement, it was a vital one, but pales in comparison to the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s, when Democrats previously enjoyed such formidable control of government.

Obama the president could frustrate as much as he could inspire. For all the justified criticism of Biden’s cabinet picks, it is important to remember just how much more retrograde many of Obama’s top advisors were, conservative men with deep ties to Wall Street and an aversion to financial regulation. Obama ignored liberal economists who predicted his 2009 stimulus would be too small to adequately rescue ailing local governments—Trump’s COVID-19 stimulus bill was much larger—and failed to bail out homeowners in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis. His misguided attempts at bipartisanship and obsession with deficits yielded the sequester, a pointless and counterproductive reduction in government spending.

He cemented the national security state erected by George W. Bush and never unwound the military-industrial complex. He could not end the War in Afghanistan. His drones murdered innocents abroad. He wielded the 1917 Espionage Act with shocking aggression, prosecuting more people under that law for leaking sensitive information to the public than all previous administrations combined. He allowed pernicious tech monopolies to flourish. He never took simple steps to lower the prices of pharmaceutical drugs. Without the incendiary rhetoric, his administration aggressively deported undocumented immigrants.

Obama, the first Democrat to govern America since Bill Clinton was president, operated under the diminished horizons of that era, when welfare was gutted and free-trade deals chased jobs beyond America’s borders. There were Republicans like Ronald Reagan willing to assault the New Deal consensus, but Obama was not a Democrat ambitious enough to restore it to its full and necessary glory. From here, the indignation and anger rises, and it is real and lasting. Obama may be the last Democrat for a generation handed such majorities upon taking office. Democrats haven’t controlled the Senate since. There was so much more, we see now, that could have been done. And there were executive actions—on war, on immigration, on criminal justice—that could have made a difference once Republicans took control of Congress. Obama the president would have been defeated utterly by Obama the candidate.

Now he returns from the abyss of the Trump years to lecture us while selling a book that, from various reviews, seems more impressive by the standards of political memoir than by those who write for a living. Obama the president, for a certain class of liberal, was more about a comforting idea than any particular policy. The deficiencies were lost in the charm. Four years of Trump made us all long, unconditionally, for what came before. Now we will be treated to a sequel with Biden, who arrives with only a fraction of the euphoria and hope. Obama’s victory in 2008 was entirely his own, not defined by the Republican he vanquished. Biden may end up as a historical footnote to Trump, history’s most unusual president. He will either have the barest of a Senate majority or none at all. There may be relatively little bitterness felt by progressive activists towards Biden because they expected so little from him to begin with. He never campaigned with a snappy slogan like hope and change.