Recognizing that there is a deep personal or individual aspect to Obama’s failure to seize the opportunity offered him in 2008 is a prerequisite for moving on. Without that recognition, we will remain trapped in the faux-progressive sludge of the Obama era, which tells us how hard it is to achieve change, how evil Republicans are, how racist America is and, not incidentally, how many great things Obama did achieve. To face the sad but necessary truth of the last eight years, at least three things need to be understood.
First, the American Presidency is a unique institution, which has evolved precisely to meet the kinds of crises that 2008 represented. To see this, we have to see how conservative the American Constitution is. The Supreme Court was devised to protect property rights, especially after John Marshall’s reign. The Court has always been a force for extreme conservatism, with the exception of the Warren Court, which was essentially the product of the New Deal. The second branch of government, Congress, has also always been as we see it today: a “club of millionaires,” special interests, narrow thinkers, opportunists, businessmen, sharpies, confidence men and lawyers. By contrast, from Jefferson on, the Presidency evolved into a special kind of democratic institution, one that gave the country the opportunity to bet on an individual periodically– to say, in effect, lead us somewhere new. It was for this reason that Hannah Arendt could offer the US as a real alternative to the European revolutionary tradition; in a sense it contained the possibility of permanent revolution. Sometimes the institution lent itself to right wing populism, as with Andrew Jackson, but mostly the great Presidents were forces for progress. This brings us to our second point, the role of the Left in American history.
The American radical tradition is one of the glories of the world. In its diversity and breadth– it includes abolitionism, trade unionism, socialist feminism, gay radicals and, of course, the African-American freedom struggle– it is one reason that Leftists, facing the disasters of the twentieth century, can persist. The American Left will always be a minority, but a very special one, one that comes to the fore in moments of crisis and helps define the long-term meaning of structural reforms, like health care and financial reform. Now, it was the current incarnation of the American Left– the antiwar Left of the Democratic Party– that gave the nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, and it did so because Hillary Clinton continued to defend her support for the Iraq intervention. We did that not only (though partly) for the symbolic value of electing the first Black President, but also because Obama (or at least Axelrod) explained that the problems did not start with Bush; they started with Clinton and Reagan and that we need not just a new policy but a new mindset. Obama’s failure to honor the words with which he defeated Hillary Clinton is the basic cause of his failed Presidency.
Finally, one has to understand Obama’s role in African-American history. Because this is a country founded for centuries on slavery, a country for which the term genocide can be considered (the slave population having gone from 11 million to 6 million in the course of a colonial century), for such reasons, African-Americans have played a unique role in American politics. While the African-American community has produced many conservative figures, Booker T. Washington most preeminently, every African-American politician that achieved national leadership, in the sense of having followers and supporters from both races, has been on the Left. I am thinking of people like Frederick Douglass, WEB Du Bois, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. When Obama ran in 2008 he signaled that his candidacy should be looked at in this context by the very shrewd tactic of describing his background as that of “community organizer,” a true buzzword for the collective unconscious in America, one that took us back to the sixties, and even the thirties. Obama’s failure to keep faith with this tradition, which had been so key to his election, has to be considered along with his contempt for the Left, and his failure to understand the role of the President in framing the meaning of his times.
As any reader can see, I think it is important to hold Obama personally responsible for his failure to respond when so many people throughout the world looked to him for leadership. Just as I admire figures like Lincoln and Roosevelt, so there are Presidents who I blame and criticize– Truman, for example, but that would be another blog. But, in spite of appearances, the ultimate target of this post is not Obama but the so-called progressives who have been unable to distance themselves from him, and speak in their own voice. Truly, the last six years have been pathetic from the point of view of political criticism. This is a very sad moment in the history of the American Left, without whose voice and actions the country will continue its downward slide toward plutocracy and mindless war.
10 thoughts on “Why Obama is Responsible for the Debacle of his Presidency”
I strongly disagree with Eli’s basic premise – that the Obama presidency is a debacle. Yet, ironically, I agree with an important part of his conclusion, having to do with the failure of the left to speak in its own voice, or voices. I think the disappointment with Obama is improperly focused. The problems of recent years has as much to do with the fact that the reaction against Obama was highly mobilized, sustained and politically effective (i.e. the Tea Party), while the forces that needed to push him left were sporadic, fleeting and politically ineffective (i.e. OWS). Obama always presented himself as a centrist, trying to move the center left. The popular support to do that was weak at best. The contrast with FDR (no leftist either) is instructive, having less to do with personality, more to do with the social movements. The great Presidents may have been on the whole progressives, but they were made so by social movements.
That said, Obama still managed to create a major change in the fabric of the welfare state (from here on in, universal healthcare is a social goal, with millions already being much better off than they would have been). He also has moved the economy forward, in the aftermath of the global crisis, that compares favorably to his counterparts in the other major economies. And it is a big deal that the American people voted for a black man openly committed to social justice to be the President, and this commitment has never been hidden.
I think the left and its eloquent supporters, such as Eli Zaretsky, need to focus more on the struggle for social justice, less on blaming President Obama. There is a significant reaction happening in this country, likely to be electorally supported in tomorrow’s elections, how to counter that is most what needs to be the central focus. To paraphrase Joe Hill: don’t blame, organize.
Has Jeffery’s view of Obama changed a tad. He was touting him as a trans-formative president a while back, even though it was clear Obama was very much a neoliberal with rather weak opinions about unions and little stomach or conviction for class conflict. Although he rightly blames a weak and disunited left, Obama could have done more when he came in as the champion of change and hope, but he cowered before the deficit and simply did not want to rock big pharama, insurance and medical technology companies. Too disruptive he said although he suggested a single payer while running. He also did nothing for unions except throw them a few bones (appointments), even though he said he would find some comfortable shoes and walk the picket lines. Guess he never found those shoes. .
He was and is very conservative when it comes to change and hope. No way is he a trans-formative president by temperament or policy. His critique of Alinsky as being too confrontational ( and proponent of class conflict) was telling, and he was not an organizer but more of an advocate and social service guy
That said, can’t blame him as the right won the hegemony war and is embedded in society and government, and maybe no one could tackle the military defense industry in all its forms. His stimulus plan was weak and ill conceived, but at least it was something. His bailout of the banks could be criticized but they did have the makings of international fiscal and credit crisis and freeze on their hands. The quickest and most expedient solution was to print money real fast.
The reality is that we basically elect a CEO of corporate America, and opposition forces are weak such as unions and a professionalized and bureaucratic liberal or progressive opposition that just too affluent to fight in the trenches or organize. Writing position papers, signing petitions, and holding conferences is their Mo and it is silly to say they should organize. They can’t Hopefully the working class can develop their own “organic” intellectuals and organizers..
My view of Obama has changed. I overestimated his rhetorical talents and thought he would help transform what “geojos” labels the hegemony war, more than he did, could. On the other hand, I see what Paul Krugman now sees (and I know that Eli doesn’t): from the progressive point of view, Obama has been a significant net plus, though accomplishing less than I would have liked. I never mistook him for a leftist. I understood that “hope and change” were campaign slogans. As I wrote here and as I wrote during his campaigns, he has been consistently a centrist trying to move the center left.
And I think it is a mistake to waste one’s time “Waiting for Lefty.” Such waiting leads, it seems to me, nowhere. It is a prescription for inaction and resignation.
Jeff , my friend and colleague, thinks that Obama was a “net plus,” citing health care as an example. Jeff’s evaluation rests on a well-developed philosophical point of view according to which we shouldn’t waste time “waiting for lefty.” We should be “pragmatic,” accept incremental change, not get our hopes up. Who, however, is the greatest exponent of the “lets hit singles” theory of history, but President Obama himself. under the guise of presenting analysis of Obama, Jeff has simply reproduced Obama’s worldview.
Unlike Jeff’s my view of Obama is genuinely historical– ie I try to look at Obama as future historians will. Jeff’s view comes down to cynicism, which pretty much tells us a lot about Obama as well. Jeff apparently knew in 2008 that Obama wasn’t serious when he said we need a new mindset, when he conveyed that he understood that the US”s actions in Iraq were a sign of a really dysfunctional society, when he questioned the obsession with terror, when he criticized Bush for using torture, when he refused to wave flags at every junction. Jeff knew right then and there that Obama was just playing the political game, that this was just a way to get elected, that we shouldn’t really think that an American politician could see what so many Americans were able to see in 2008, namely that the question was on a really bad course, and needed a radical shift in direction.
Very few episodes of our time are more telling about the incredible shallowness of the public sphere today than the liberal consensus, which Jeff shares, that we were naive in 2008 to expect much, to get our hopes up. No one thought that Obama was a leftist, but everyone thought at that time that he saw what was so plain to everyone– the domination by the 1 percent, the rule by the banks, the creation of a two-tier society in every area, such as education and health, and the incredible ignorance of America’s belligerent, provocative stance toward the rest of the world, and especially toward the Muslim world. In reminding people of the potentiality of the Presidency, the importance of the radical tradition and the key role played by African American radicals in our history, I was trying to remind people of what 2008 felt like. As Walter Benjamin said, the true historian, fans the embers of possibility that lie in the past, and does not simply repeat the self-serving commonplaces of opportunism and monied control.
The election results prove my point. Obama let the Republicans walk over him from the beginning. They had the narrative, they had the noral upper hand, their idiocies seemed like high prose compared to obama’s talk of bipartisanship, and technical solutions. Of course his Presidency will be seen as a debacle: one of the great missed opportunities in history
I have been disappointed that Obama didn’t play a more active role in the elections. But blaming Obama for the election results is bizarre. Scott Walker won in Wisconsin. How does this have anything to do with Obama? Obama tried to move the center left. There was a deep and wide reaction to this, a reaction facilitated by racism.
And friend and colleague Eli, I find the idea that my reading is cynical to be strange. I am a democrat. I believe that change happens in actually existing democracies through the moving of common sense, or to put it another way, its about hegemony stupid. Obama has not been as effective in this as I had hoped, but you and many of our friends on the academic left forget that the job is to convince people beyond our circles. Obama did this in his great speeches, but has failed to do it in everyday politics. It is his fault, but it also has to do with the fact that he hasn’t had an active supporting and critical cast pushing him and the nation forward. Progressives don’t turn out in off year elections. What’s that all about? What have we done to address this? Why didn’t OWS go beyond the already convinced, the actually existing people who struggle to make ends meet?
Condemning Obama as a reactionary, comparing the US with China as a repressive force, imagining that the realpolitik of Putin to be anything other than imperialism, to blame Obama for involvement or disinvolvement in North Africa and the Middle East, and thinking that the isolation of the left is somehow Obama’s fault, all is far off the mark. Such are the positions of the disengaged left: indeed, more like waiting for Godot, than for lefty.
Perhaps we should have a public debate, a teach in at the New School, as was done after the re-election of George W. Bush, so that this isn’t an empty debate?
yes, I’d like to hear from other people.
I for one find your debate and this thread useful and interesting. As I now live in France and am more absorbed by debacles of an entirely different order (and in which your left is my right), it is very useful even for those of us on the mostly disengaged left to assess the causes of our disappointment. Ultimately I think we have to concede that Obama himself does shoulder more responsibility than I would prefer to give him, but this is no way to “blame everything” on him…
Republicans decided to filibuster his entire presidency. Only during the couple of months in which the Democrats were able to muster 60 votes in the senate were they able to pass any meaningful legislation.
Good point. There have been many great leaders in American history coming from the left which have accomplished historical social reforms. Obama seemed to be such a leader (at least to those that bought into his message); he is simply not that. Yet to claim that there is “a deep personal or individual aspect” to the “debacle” of the Obama presidency, is an exaggeration which misses much of the unique political context of the past six years; ideological extremism on the part of Republicans and a lack of moral courage on the part of many democrats have also been key factors.
And oddly enough, the word “debacle” resonates with the Republican’s obsessive focus holding Obama personally responsible for his “disastrous presidency.” To be sure, Obama must take a significant share of what has been a disappointing, mediocre presidency. Yet let us not forget that politics is a collective endeavor. While exceptional individuals can accomplish great things, they do not accomplish these alone. The same can be said for failure. In politics, both are more often than not the products of joint action.