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.