Everybody develops a relationship with the American President. They enter and influence everybody’s lives in some way or another – from aggressive acts of war, to domestic health policy, trade deals, and speeches you may have caught wind of. For the past eight years, Barack Obama has been ever-present in our lives, whether we noticed it or not. For what it’s worth, this post is about my two terms with President Obama.
In part it’s a response to the global outpouring of liberal grief following the President’s farewell address, which he delivered with vintage oratorical charm. I completely get this reaction. With a Fascist Satsuma waiting impatiently to nest in the Oval Office, I can’t help but look at the future feeling that the floor is about to fall from underneath my feet. But I struggled to truly relate to this sentiment – I have a far more ambivalent and downbound attitude toward the outgoing President – one that is nine years in the making.
I remember when I got the Obama bug. I was nineteen – naïve, spotty and meek, living away from home (Birmingham) for the first time. In my first year at university, I was a pale brown kid in a predominantly white middle-class environment that I had not properly experienced before, even though I thought I had. I was seriously confused by the looks, the club security pat-downs, the “where are you froms” and my slow characterisation as an oversensitive chipped-shouldered teenage strop-monster.
It was Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech in March 2008 that perked my ears up. It’s curious, looking back on it now, as to why exactly it moved me so much. For the previous few years I’d been affected by post-9/11 racial politics, which had, among other things, made me wary of running for a bus or growing my beard too long. Bush, Blair and Brown had made all of us who were teenagers during the Iraq War desperate to hear something else – a politician who did not acquiesce to the hawkish racial profiling of the Naughties, where anyone not white was expected to behave in a certain manner (….and so it remains). In Spring 2008, as the American political classes rounded on Obama for his association with his preacher Jeremiah Wright – who’d once said “God Damn America” – it seemed as if Obama was to be subject to this policing. I think what I liked most about his response at the time was that it did not feel like an acquiescence, rather it appeared to me that here was a black politician taking command of the debate, channeling his own personal experiences into a speech on race in the USA. He did not seem afraid to take this issue on.
I now believe this speech to be more of a sleight of hand – a nuanced way to disparage Wright, his friend, whilst proclaiming an air of statesmanship. But at 19, struggling to even think about my race without imploding, I couldn’t believe my eyes. At the time, the symbol of Obama’s candidature overrode the underlying crude politics of his campaign. I feel that those who have always been cynical about HopeTM have missed that some of the fervour surrounding Obama was not of his own making. Here, in front of us, was a confident man, a smart-as-nails spine-tingling orator – in the eighth year of Dubya you can imagine how this must have seemed to desperate eyes. After four centuries (and counting) of Jim Crow and his ancestors, to see a black politician speaking passionately and earnestly about an issue from which white America has always preferred to duck and take cover, it felt so far removed from the vacuousness of Bush and the conniving of Blair. It felt so far removed from the USA.
And so I started rooting for him. I stayed up late to watch the primaries and checked the state-by-state polling obsessively. I also read his book over the summer. The first one, Dreams of My Father. I still wasn’t doing great that July, and it helped me to read of how the young Obama came to understand his multi-ethnic roots. It wasn’t particularly profound stuff and he certainly wasn’t the first person to have ever written about these issues, but his book was the one I read at the time and it made me feel slightly less alone, and slightly more comfortable in my own skin. Even now, that still means something to me. Eight years later, when everything Obama does feels very calculated and deliberate, I wonder to the service of what end he wrote Dreams. It is said he wrote it before he decided he wanted to pursue office. I don’t know what to think.
Ending the war in Iraq, closing Guantanamo Bay, preventing drilling in Alaska. Yes we can. Can we? Who’s we? Thousands of miles away, I felt a part of this, and so did many others. A wave of futurism, the audacity of hope. The Nebraska Second District, North Carolina. Indiana. SERIOUSLY? INDIANA? Even the American voters were getting behind this. The President of the USA is black.
Alongside, the Lehmann Brothers collapsed. Over here, Northern Rock followed. The financial crisis had been bubbling away quietly all summer and now it hit hard. It hit us for years, and all of us who graduated straight into the eye of this storm had quite a bit of fun trying to get jobs. Some of us worked for the Disney Store, or the Odeon, or Solihull drinking holes, and I fixed gearboxes for my uncle for a while. Some of us were paid by the hour, zero hours a week. Some of us didn’t work at all. Obama was elected into this global mess, and he began by rescuing those whose opulence, negligence and man-childish irresponsibility had sent half the world up the creek, without asking very much in return.
But still people believed, and they believe still. There exists and remains among many an unusual amount of faith in the US President – and in politicking in general – that far exceeds the constitutional role that a sitting president can take and the historical role presidents have largely played. Obama himself cultured this belief in his presidency especially, and he believes in it himself. He sees himself as a disciple of Lincoln, building behind him a Team of Rivals, for he believed that in debate and disagreement comes good policy and statesmanship.
As for his supporters, many people I know blame The West Wing. It may sound a bit silly, but the show has had a hold over liberal political consciousness over the last two decades. It presents an ideal liberal presidency – a USA run by Jed Bartlett, a genius economist with a strong moral core, ably supported by a gang of beautiful moral geniuses – complete with noble backing music, grand speeches, and rooms full of passionate-yet-civil debates between the absolute kindest representations of DC Republicans and Democrats. The belief among liberals that this is what Washington could be coalesced with Obama and his own self-image of rigorous statesmanship. Obama was as close to the West Wing ideal of the presidency as yet seen. This is more than mere comparison – Obama was the blueprint for Bartlett’s successor Matt Santos, and Obama-brand Democratic politics was certainly an influence on the show.
I was into this idea then. HopeTM got me good. I’ve always been left, but for a little bit I hoped that putting the right people in charge of existing institutions could provide necessary change. I thought about becoming a human rights lawyer and moving myself to DC where things happened (fortunately for me, the world has too many lawyers already). I binge-watched The West Wing in ’08. Like everybody else, I was watching only the veneer of the show. I see The West Wing differently now – likewise I see US political institutions in a very different light. President Bartlett is the perfect liberal candidate, yet in three seasons he transforms from a moral idealist into a stone-faced international assassin, ordering the killing of foreign diplomats from the gallery of a theatre. In eight years he does little but keep the USA ticking over, to the point where on his final day in office he has to be consoled by his wife, telling him over and over that he has done good.
Obama, the New Democrat, was always more of a pragmatist. The American President is assigned to preside over the myriad of checks-and-balances scribed within the Sacred Constitution that served to try and keep everybody *important* happy both in 1789 and for all eternity. On the domestic front, the President is Equivocator-in-Chief, a middle manager in an oval office. In 2008 Obama knew this and believed in this. He knew that it was better for his job security – better for the American President – to bail out the financial sector with little consequence. It was better to avert crises, he thought, than risk destabilising US political life for serious change. However, in healthcare policy he bucked this trend. The passing of the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”) cost Obama a shedload of political capital, but in doing so, the number of those without health insurance in the USA has almost halved since 2010.
In some cases, Obama’s desire for change was handcuffed by the job, especially after the Democrats lost the House. Obama was clearly frustrated and exhausted by his inability to increase gun control in the face of US firearm culture and a hostile political environment. The USA largely brushed Sandy Hook under the carpet, and there’s quite a company beneath that rug. It’s difficult not to grow jaded in the face of such national carelessness. However, the excuse of presidential powerlessness runs very thin in other examples.
I think often of the black people killed by law enforcement. Crimes that go unpunished. Crimes committed with impunity. When Trayvon Martin was shot dead by neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman, Obama was able to strike a small gesture of empathy, perhaps trying to educate white America as to the daily dangers of being black in public in the USA when he noted that Trayvon could have been “my son” or “me 35 years ago.” Yet Obama’s great “conversation on race” never really proceeded past this point, as the list of names grew ever longer, the executions ever public. When Mike Brown was killed, his body lying in the streets for hours, protests erupted in Ferguson, MO. Where were you then Mr. President? Where the fuck were you? The President could only ever muster some horseshoe centrism about “both sides,” and a plea for “non-violence” as law enforcement donned riot gear and rolled in on armoured vehicles. Obama ducked and took cover.
I moved to DC for six months in 2014, on a fellowship to continue studying Haitian history. I was there when the ruling was delivered that Brown’s killer was not to be indicted, watching the news in a diner on the Hill. They waited until the evening to tell everybody what we already knew, delaying it in an attempt to trigger a response. In the days following, the President stayed true, as he always has done, to vague appeals to “peace,” dialogue and patience following in the footsteps of some fictionalised, diluted version of Dr. King (it recalls also his speeches on gender, which were so often injected with grating “wives and daughters” rhetoric). These seemed like empty words, but in an ever-divided USA, they were a cold shoulder to some of his most faithful constituents. If the President is equivocator-in-chief, Obama increasingly seemed willing to earnestly play this role. It no longer held true that he was simply a man hampered by his institution.
Every major city experienced a massive mobilisation of people protesting this Ferguson hatchet-job. In DC there was a huge march that night, and sporadic marches bubbled up through Washington for the next few weeks. By then, it felt increasingly like the president was not on their side.
Then there’s foreign policy. The “Obama Doctrine” fittingly seems to defy definition, opaque to the core. Riding into office on a wave of anti-Iraq fervour, Obama quickly sought a way to continue business-as-usual whilst appearing to have changed tack. The pledge to close Guantanamo – carved out of Cuban soil, that symbol of US hawkish interventionism fuelled by extraordinary rendition – simply disappeared.
Drone warfare suited the Obama Doctrine to a tee, of intervention without deployment. Throughout the world, the USA was to no longer be seen, but always be felt, often with devastating effect. However, this misdirection, coupled with the scaling-back of US boots on the ground, was enough to convince the Nobel commission that we were back on the road to utopia. Yet there have been some changes. Obama has moved to warm relations with Iran and Cuba – moves for which he has been called a traitor and a communist. He received similar vitriol for expressing sympathy with Trayvon Martin over his racist assassin, and when he pushed through Affordable Care.
The intervention with which I am most familiar was in Haiti. In 2011, Secretary of State Clinton personally intervened in the presidential elections in order to place Michel Martelly, a friend of US interests in the country, in a position where he could take power. Ever since, US policy toward Haiti has actively discouraged Haitian democracy from behind the scenes. Clinton receives much of the criticism for this policy, but it was conducted under Obama’s White House and with Obama’s consent. This was an act of harm that continues to harm Haiti, and it upsets and infuriates me still.
By the time I made it to DC, the allure of “being there” had long evaporated. The Capitol Building outside my window held no romance in its scaffolding. Inside, its rotunda was adorned with stylised images of the conquest of the New World, and its stewards that November had moved decidedly rightward. But it was a city that captivated me regardless – DC is beautiful, cosmopolitan, and well-and-truly alive with the past and the present. It was here I saw President Obama speak.
For all of his fame as a great orator, the President gave a pretty strange speech about Jesus, and how the Messiah was basically a stand-up gent. It was a talk that would have fit in well on U Street at 2am. Michelle Obama read “Twas the Night before Christmas” and was, of course, brilliant. It was a weird feeling, seeing the President there in front of me. It was like going to a gig to watch a band you loved as a kid but had long since found them a bit tacky and issue-riddled. It was underwhelming, yet there was still something about them that you’d not lost – that there was a reason you liked them in the first place when you were younger and didn’t think about things so much.
The President on occasion still had the ability to pull my strings and echo the man I used to think he was. When he sang Amazing Grace in South Carolina at the memorial for the victims of Dylan Roof’s mass murder, my cynicism briefly melted away and I burst into tears. But then I think about how Roof was taken for dinner by his arresting officers, whilst police shoot down black kids with toy guns, and I realise this feeling is almost entirely window-dressing.
Of course I’ll miss him. I’ll miss the symbol of a black president in the US seat of power – the influence of which cannot be understated. I’ll miss the days when there was not a vicious, race-baiting kleptocratic sexual predator in the White House, and I’ll certainly miss not existing under the daily threat of global annihilation. Trump is a visceral reminder that the USA – and the world they influence so greatly – can yet fall leagues below its current state.
Gary Younge argues that “judged by what was necessary, Obama was inadequate; judged by the alternatives, he was a genius.” Similarly, by the relative standards of those who have previously served the Office of the Presidency, Obama will surely rank highly. But this isn’t sufficient to give Obama a free pass, and view him solely as a brief period of sanity between two destructive Republicans. These have not been eight years of national and global healing – many of the tensions that boiled in the Bush era have persisted and, in some cases, worsened.
What then, of hope? Was Obama’s dream of a New America just a lie? A simple ruse with which to take the Presidency? These last eight years I’ve definitely changed. My youthful idealism has vanished, and I view the way US Government works with fatigued scepticism. I don’t blame President Obama for this. When the promise is broken, you go on living. He was by no means the sole author of the hope that spearheaded him to power, nor did he co-opt it completely. Any frustration I have now with Obama is not rooted in any feeling of betrayal, rather it’s the result of my concerns with the choices he has made whilst within the office. The hope that I had felt was a product of misunderstanding the role of the Office of the President, believing that Obama was the liberal idealist he presented himself to be, and lastly believing that liberal idealism itself was sufficient to transform the Office of the President. Obama’s presidency helped me learn this lesson. Nowadays, if most of my heroes don’t appear on a stamp, then certainly none of my heroes have been President of the United States of America.
Nowadays, I look elsewhere for my hope. At this moment, we need it to give us strength in opposing everything the 45th president will throw at the world. President Obama’s long-forgotten pastor Jeremiah Wright was right about hope’s audaciousness.
In spite of a being on a world torn by war; in spite of being on a world destroyed by hate; in spite of being on a world devastated by distrust and decimated by disease; in spite of being on a world where famine and greed were uneasy bed partners; in spite of being on a world where apartheid and apathy fed the fires of racism…her harp all but destroyed except for that one string that was left – in spite of all these things, the woman had the audacity to hope. She had the audacity to hope and to make music and to praise God on the one string she had left.
On the worst days, I still hold on to this, tightly.