There have been any number of Obama moments over the years. My most recent one came on July 27, 2016 at the DNC. One day earlier, Silverman and Franken had their unscripted car accident onstage. The marriage of Hollywood to Washington was terrible when Reagan did it. Yet somehow Sarah and the Senator from Minnesota made it worse, melding into one gigantic eight-limbed creature of comedic self-congratulation before horrified onlookers. One day later, July 28, Khizr and Ghazala Khan gave an emotionally wrenching tribute to their fallen son. It was the best speech of the convention, edging out the ageless and possibly immortal First Lady, who must be guzzling True Blood at just an appalling rate.
These three encounters – one embarrassing, one moving, and one supernatural – had stiff competition. For in between these speeches, the departing President of the United States gave us a concluding Sermon on the Mount. As usual, it was a work of art: compelling, moving, uplifting, human, convincing. This was almost three months to the day after the Press Correspondent’s Dinner, where the President was actually the funniest guy on stage, a quality usually not associated with men who hold nuclear warheads
But the DNC featured another masterpiece, much less commented on. Before his oration, there was a video about how Barack Obama achieved lasting change through the power of his office, which I thought was an ingenious work of fiction. To be fair, he was not without accomplishment: under the Pope of Hope, corporate profits scored a neat $1.7 trillion in the first quarter of 2016 alone and 2.6 million people, including women and children, had been deported by the Department of Homeland Security.
If they really wanted an accurate video record of his administration, they should have filmed two minutes of him sitting on his spineless ass doing nothing, then given the rest of the documentary time over to the Republicans to direct. The movie would be occasionally interrupted by Obama making a plaintive speech about bipartisanship, as unjailed bankers, Guantanamo guards, NSA workers, and drone pilots applauded and wept silently in the background.
Countless questions remain. Will he be able to continue his hobbies of equivocation and accidental Muslim-killing during his golden years? Only the future truly knows. I plan to mourn his absence by making an eloquent speech about how I miss him, but then I won’t actually commit to the emotional labor of missing him. I hope that isn’t too audacious.
Obama’s failure is a thorough one. Progressives shouldn’t mourn his upcoming departure. There’s a saying about the passage of good times. You can find it on the Facebook wall or yearbook of anybody under twenty: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” We ought to reverse that: cry that it happened, smile because it’s over. Obama let us down.
The question remains: was he too centrist, or too incompetent? In the spirit of Obama-style bipartisanship, I ask: why can’t it be both? This was a man who had no business in progressive politics. But he found liberalism wanting a hero, and had us marked for easy traffic the moment he came on the scene. If conservatives are cheap marks for authoritarian, tribal appeals, then progressives are susceptible to the Echo of Kennedy.
Attack Obama, and you’ll hear the ancient excuse: The Republicans! The Republicans! Oh, the all-powerful Republicans! Give me a break. That feeble klatch of Sizzler’s brunch hopefuls couldn’t win a slap fight with Trump—and he’s never had to do his own fighting—or even read a book. True, no historian will truly be able to capture the depths of the mania that seized the Republican Party. What Obama’s supporters say is accurate: the modern GOP turned into a one-issue faction, a crusade dedicated to denying the wishes of the people and encouraging their own slow suicide as a functional force in American life. They voted against everything the President wanted. An excellent argument, Obama fans. Ten points to the Hogwarts House of Conventional Wisdom.
Here’s the problem with that position: Obama had two years. Two years, and the wind at his back, and a chance remake the country! To change the world! And he blew it.
I expect the elite of the modern Republican Party to be pirates and pious frauds. I know them of old. I assume the right-wing establishment will be a coalition of inbred reptiles. But a Congress full of reactionary narcissists and halfwits doesn’t excuse Obama’s failure of leadership. Other Presidents have fought Congress and won. Was it beyond his power to do the same? Moreover, the kneejerk defense of Obama’s manifest lack of achievement speaks to a deeper problem.
See, anybody who looks at Hillary with clear eyes will know what she is, and how to deal with her limitations. None of the people I knew who put up “Hope” posters in 2008 fainted at the sight of the Clintons. We understood HRC in 2008. Obama is a separate issue. The Clintons succeeded because they surfed the last generational wave of Boomer center-seeking anxiety into the White House. They play a different game. Hillary Clinton’s fiercest defenders think she’s more sinned against than sinning, but very few of them would defend her as the Second Coming. But Obama? He exploited the flaw in the software of liberalism. Clinton slogged her way into power, over mountains of scandals and pantsuits. Barack of Illinois simply marched in through an open door. What does that say about the Democrats?
His collapse as a legitimate preacher of the liberal gospel is troubling, but what it says about the country and progressivism in particular ought to be considered. Obama is our problem.
What Obama did in Philadelphia, and at the Press Correspondent’s Dinner, and at the Nobel Ceremony in Stockholm, is what he’s done his entire life: impress people, make a nice speech, watch as adoring eyes stare his way, and assume the job was done. That’s what we elected. Not a horse-trader, a deal maker, or even a ward-heeler. We voted in a neoliberal student council president.
Sorkinism – which, at the end of the day, is my secret faith and the religion of my nearest and dearest – inadvertently prepared the way. The West Wing inspired a generation of civic involvement. The ideas it engendered carved a Barack Obama-shaped hole in the national imagination. “What is Sorkinism?” you ask. Why, the hope that politics is not entirely a knife fight, but a place where decent and rational people can come together and create enlightened policy which betters the common good. Obama appealed to this yearning, but never delivered. Thus we are left with three options for explaining the curious case of Benjamin Bipartisan:
1) Obama is a progressive who is good at politics, but was blocked by an omnipotent Congress full of political geniuses. This is what many liberals believe.
2) Obama is a progressive, but is bad at politics. This is what I used to believe.
3) Obama is not a progressive, but a centrist, who is also bad at politics. This is what I now believe.
Still, it’s hard to think of him as being a failure at any human endeavor. Pick any point during his Presidency or candidacy for office. Watch a speech during that time. After several minutes of the phase “Ahhhh folks ahhhh folks,” the remarkable would happen: Senator, Candidate, and then President Obama would promise to rise up mountains from the sea. And you believed him.
I did. I put my faith in him, even after I called his office from my white Jeep Wrangler in the Lawton Constitution parking lot back in July 2008, just tell his campaign how angry I was. I’d seen the news about him backing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — a clear violation of American values. As it turned out, this was a mild prelude to eight years of massive, illegal spying, not just on his own people, but everyone else in the world too. Even then, after twelve years of reading and writing about politics, I still had the capacity to be shocked. After 9/11, we all believed the GOP would reign for ten thousand years, fear and night everywhere. And then the prairie fire came. It made you want to believe in miracles.
I have a very clear memory of the lady on the other end of the phone sympathizing with me. There was a hitch in my voice I hadn’t expected, and the woman, who must have been my age, helpfully said, “You feel as if he’s like every other candidate now?” “Yes,” I said.
I wonder how many calls like that were made across America.
Ezra Klein, theoretically sober, actually wrote this:
Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair.
“The triumph of word over flesh.” Imagine if a conservative had written this about Palin, or Bush. They did write this sort of thing, as a matter of fact, and were rightly mocked for it. So why is it okay if it’s about Obama? Why is any grim mistake acceptable when he does it? Why is spying five-by-five when it’s done by a man with a D after his name? If it’s a sin when Dubya does it, it’s still wrong when Hopey does it. When does it become decent to call this man out? Now? Ten years from now? When he’s in the ground? When, liberals, when? Perhaps we ought to ask the man himself what he’d prefer.
Dear Barack — We’re not supposed to criticize you because God forbid the one-issue party, the lumbering sweaty zombie corpse of the GOP, get a hand up. I know this will be shared by strangers whose politics I can’t stand on Twitter, and you know what? That’s fine. Roosevelt’s imprisonment of the Japanese doesn’t give Nixon a free pass to bomb Cambodia. That’s not how the world or decency works.
You’re a Constitutional scholar, so you’re probably familiar with the medieval theory of the King’s Two Bodies. Two Bodies is a solution to an old problem: there’s a living, breathing human being who fulfills the role of king, and then there’s all of the legal machinery which makes up the monarchy, all of the stuff that goes on when the reigning monarch retires from kinging and moves on to an exciting new career as a dead person.
General Washington is long gone, but there has been a President, constantly, since April 30, 1789. I’m a big believer in the President’s Three Bodies — my own take. There’s the Office of the Presidency, which goes on forever. There’s the individual elected to the Presidency, the mortal clay that feels and dances awkwardly on talk shows. And then they intersect in this third creature, President Lastname. The office, the man, the President. Similar but different.
I think about this divide because I end up writing a lot about the Presidency, and personal character as it functions within the office is always fair game. But you have to draw the line somewhere, and it’s a hard border to find. Not just for the sake of being humane, but for the sake of pertinence. For every single article dedicated to your actual political beliefs, there are thousand swoony essays about Obama’s personal dress style. You see what I mean?
It’s complicated. Woodrow Wilson being a widower doesn’t matter; Wilson being an introverted racist does. Clinton’s sexual proclivities are largely irrelevant to his bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, but Clinton’s deep need to be loved is germane to his despicable pardoning of Marc Rich. The fact that Reagan was optimistic and oblivious to reality matters in the execution of policy, specifically the execution of Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans during the 1980s.
I have the same problem with you. We’ve never met, but from what I know of you, I find myself genuinely, unironically liking you as a person; you seem like the kind of guy I would be friends with. How do I square that with my colossal, concrete disappointment in you, from every angle? Your personal charm is directly related to your failure, because it allowed you to get away with so much. The Obama Intoxication worked on liberals for the same reason the Reign of Reagan so bewitched conservatives. Barack Hussein Obama was such a perfect example of everything a progressive like myself would want — such an idealized image of anything we would wish for in a President, that we were willing to excuse the fact that you didn’t do so much else.
But again, perhaps I am underselling the scope of your achievement. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, only educated WASPs had the opportunity to screw the hopes of millions. With the Obama Administration, we arrived at a twisted version of the golden age prophesied by the poets and schizophrenics of our quaint dunghill past. Only in America can an African-American child with a name like yours grow up to be President, and disappoint millions of people — billions if we count the rest of the world. For generations, failing the public was a destiny reserved only for white men, but now every American, regardless of class, color, gender, faith, or sexuality, can aspire to kill the dream.
What Yves Smith calls Obama’s “pattern of grand promises producing at-best-in-name only and at worst outright bait and switch” is well-established. Instead of the Great Society or the New Deal or even Half-Assed Rescue, we got Same As It Ever Was. After all, this is a man who got a Nobel Prize for not being George W. Bush. In retrospect, that set the tone for his entire presidency: the dream of the blank slate onto which all visions can be projected. It’s why he still has defenders now. His failure, they will say, is of a higher, purer level than Bush’s failure.
The fact is, Our Obama never aimed for any progressive steps. Not during the two years he had a free hand, and certainly not afterwards. After the subprime mortgage market crashed, Obama put the criminals back in the driver’s seat: Rubin, Summers, Geithner, and the rest of the brave posse who should’ve been thrown into the darkest federal hole we have. Our economy was kicked down by a flight of stairs by Wall Street felons. Obama adored them. They were lovely in his sight.
What about vaunted Obamacare — Romney’s scheme, which became, in turn, Obama’s ACA? Polls show that Americans support a national health care system, by a sizable majority, in numbers that rival motherhood and Pumpkin Spice Latte plus bourbon. This would have been true even if the market hadn’t exploded in 2008. In the first term of Obama’s presidency, the public option was floated and then dumped. Over eighty percent of Americans wanted to give the government the mojo to haggle drug prices with the vampires at Big Pharma. I suspect even medical executives wanted it; it would have given them a break in between sessions of hiking cancer drug prices and laughing at senior pill-buying trips to Canada. Obama kept that law in place. There are countless other examples of his failure to hold to even the most basic tenets of liberalism.
Shouldn’t the leader of a free people, in the richest and most powerful nation that has ever been, live up to his word? Cap and trade. Immigration reform. Gun control. Real financial regulation. He winked at austerity. When the right called Social Security and Medicare “entitlements,” he grinned and put them on the chopping block. He did this not once, but time after time after time, and we looked the other way. Obama leadership is like the pothead-dad school of fatherhood. He shows up, says a few weighted words, and then stares off into the distance. Does this make him Lancelot?
And the damnedest, most unfair thing of all will happen after he leaves office. Because his predecessor was an incompetent war-loving buffoon who never should have been elected, because his opposition were a squad of raving climate-truthers in the pocket of the Kochs, because he wasn’t impeached and didn’t have an affair in office, because he passed a piece of superficially progressive social legislation, and spoke well, because he was the first African-American president, because he had a lovely and brilliant wife and daughters, and has years to burnish his legacy, he will be seen as a success, instead of the ruin of what could have easily been, if he had fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. That’s all it would have taken.
In the years after he leaves the throne, he’ll teach. Probably at Georgetown, with visits to the University of Chicago. In class, he will speak not to things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; when well-meaning students gingerly bring up his failure, he will sigh like a forsaken groom and lament of John Boehner, the trickster fox of Ohio. He’ll write a fantastic book, one of several, I imagine, and that will start the long process of canonization. I’ll read it, too – every section title in this essay, after all, is a line I took from The Audacity of Hope. Obama will keep writing. He’ll show up on Reddit unannounced, in threads about Conan the Barbarian and The Wire. Still young, eloquent, and relevant, within a few years he will be, by general agreement of BuzzFeed and Tumblr, the most woke ‘n’ with-it ex-President ever. Jimmy Carter will silently grind his teeth in whatever North Korean diner he’ll be visiting in 2018.
By the time Obama’s first retrospective comes out – probably with a title like With Malice Towards None or The Wonder of It All or Both Fitting and Proper — either Trump will have started up the Thunderdome, or, more likely, Hillary will have Kissinger on speed-dial, and Barack the First will seem like Lincoln in the mists of time.
How does this square with my theory about Obama being neither liberal nor any good at his job? After all, malfeasance is hard to achieve. Being hapless is not the same thing as having a negative influence. He managed to get elected twice. He has real political skills, just not the kind that allow him to help suffering people. What remains is a centrist who says liberal words, of a sort, who has enough political skills to survive, to please others, to get reelected, but not enough to do much. He has inclinations of a certain type, and abilities of a particular kind.
The truth is, Obama is something different in our history. Critics of politicians like to label their targets with titles like “whore” or “prostitute,” but this is rude to sex workers, an oppressed profession who prefer to be called by different names. It is also unfair. Sex workers provide a useful service, do what they say they will do, and for a reasonable cost; indeed, they are the embodiment of bourgeois values. The exotic beasts of Congress can make none of these claims.
Obama is not an escort. Obama is a geisha. He is the geisha.
In traditional Japanese culture, a geisha is a professional entertainer, a hostess, who attend banquets, get-togethers, and other hoity-toity shindigs thrown by the Tokyo equivalent of Mad Men, both then and now. They are different from courtesans — a person who sells their body for money. What a geisha does with her body (and they are usually female) is her own private affair. But there have been male geishas, and that’s Obama. He really is a transformational chief executive, after all. He was not just a practitioner of these traditional arts, but a creator of new allurements. What a great innovator he was. He found twenty new ways of doing nothing, and did them all at once.
During the period of their rise in Japanese culture, geishas specialized in pleasing and entertaining the imperial court and the upper class. Particularly the educated fell under their spell. Geishas can speak well, and play-act, and amaze all with their beauty and grace. Indeed, by comparison, what could the dreadful memory of Bush II, or the grasping clumsiness of McCain or Willard do when faced with Obama’s poise, the cultivated art of repose and seduction he had practiced over many a year?
One of the characters in Rob Marshall’s film “Memoirs of a Geisha” says this in voiceover:
Remember, Chiyo, geisha are not courtesans. And we are not wives. We sell our skills, not our bodies. We create another secret world, a place only of beauty. The very word “geisha” means artist and to be a geisha is to be judged as a moving work of art.
Obama also created a fantasy world of beauty. His was public, but he remained an artist just the same. Later in the movie, the protagonist, Sayuri, tells the audience that “The heart dies a slow death. Shedding each hope like leaves, until one day there are none. No hopes. Nothing remains,” which is an even more poetic summation of the reign of Obama, who played the role of the Host President to a T. He entertained us, and kept the rest of the house of American government hospitable for its usual occupants, gigantic corporations. He gave us the show, and gave them the meal – a moving work of art, indeed. This explains why he was incompetent at bringing change, yet competent at continuing the Republic-gutting that started with the Reagan Presidency. That’s what a good host does: says swell words and keeps the party rolling. The powers that be needed a mellow fellow to keep Goldman Sachs from being guillotined in 2008, and wouldn’t you know, the right gent rode in from Chicago to do just that.
The funniest aspect of modern government is that if you commit horrors quickly and openly, you will get struck down: Nixon operated a brazen criminal empire from inside the Executive Branch, and was slapped for it but good. But if you creep your values into the culture slowly, through elite consensus and groupthink, you can achieve practically anything. If Obama had a headsman dispatching foreign nationals on the White House lawn without law, he’d be impeached. But as President he ordered flying robots in distant lands to kill whomever he saw fit. If the UN helicopters came screeching down main street tomorrow announcing Skokie and Mobile were now cities in the One-World-State, the Hunger Games to shortly follow, the armed citizenry among us might rouse from their Rascals and rifle-rich basements and defy them. The pulpit and press would rise in united opposition. But a secret treaty such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, slowly cooked and simmered over many years, sowing opinion, building strength, can grow and sap sovereignty just as effectively, and no windows will be smashed, no alarms raised, no street-fightin’ man to be seen. That’s how he works.
Hopey still supports the TPP, by the way. He’s still playing host. This Sunday, the Post ran a story about how the President — a man hip enough to record an intro to Hamilton’s performance on the Tonys – had, two years ago,
skipped the standard public bidding process and agreed to a deal that offered generous terms to Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest prison company, to build a massive detention facility for women and children seeking asylum.
How clever the market is. It helped to cause the collapse of Central American governments, and now it benefits from their misery. The detention center described in the article sits just five hours south from where I am writing. A mere three hundred and thirty-three miles down I-35. It has a nice smooth irony to it: the President who was accused of being a secret Muslim socialist is using government money to quietly throw immigrants behind walls and locks. I understand the private company that runs the facility made fourteen percent of its revenue from that one center. 2015 was a year of record profit for them.
This was all at the same time Our Hopeness, restorer of Liberal America, was lecturing the Cubans about human rights — coincidentally enough, on the same island where the Illinois Messiah operates another detention center! Isn’t it funny, how fate works out? History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. Warden Obama has not only failed to close Gitmo, he has opened new prisons. The CCA facility in Dilley holds mother-and-child detainees. Brave, iron-boned Barack! The King in the North!
Ahhhh folks ahhhhh folks ahhh my fellow Americans, when we come together, there’s nobody we can’t lock away.
Every era of American history adds its own type to the American story. We’re familiar with Jay Gatsby, the American tragedy, the dreamer who wants to leave the past, make himself anew: the man who sails for the moon but runs aground on the shoals. A lot of us know Willy Loman, who fell into the trap of false dreams. These were the underlying fears of Americans during the Roaring Twenties — when Europe had been destroyed and America was leaving the farm behind once and for all — and of the Fifties, when shared prosperity made intellectuals think we were becoming too materialistic.
But Gatsby and Loman would have no place among us now. The factories have moved overseas and the door-to-door men are scattered by Amazon. This is the epoch of the SAT score, the AP class, the Scantron and the suburban striver. Obama is the president for the age of Adderall, cram sessions, the padded resume, and the fetishization of expertise: when impressing on paper was more crucial than doing in reality. This is the time of the unpaid internship, which Obama’s term in office has resembled so much.
I suggest an imperial power needs a new character in its quiver: the Obama — the unlikely man or woman who wins the dream, who doesn’t stumble around in fear or denial like our salesmen friends, or sink like Gatsby in West Egg. They say fine words and make the right friends. They reach the distant green lantern, the fire of hope, recede how it may. And then gently, quietly, without any fuss at all, they put out the light. Enjoy your retirement, Professor.