There is no Obama Legacy. There are achievements to be sure, but a legacy means a way of thinking about the world, and about America, associated with a particular Presidency, and aside from the very important fact that we elected our first Black President there is no legacy. Obama’s ideas: bipartisanship, pragmatism, belt-tightening, no need for a left since most problems are technical problems, no easy solutions, etc. have been utterly discredited by events, and are no longer held even by Obama himself. While Obama has picked up some rhetoric from the great social movements of recent years– Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter– he has not translated their claims into any coherent program of leadership or change. This leaves a vacuum at the center of our national polity, a fact that needs to be grasped before we can analyze the present race for the Presidency. Let me illustrate this by considering the three most interesting of the present candidates: Trump, Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and then point to the implications.
The Trump Candidacy is both complex and important, but I do not think it can be understood simply as racism or nativism, as Evan Osnos, for example, has tried to do in the current New Yorker. The key to understanding it is to grasp the extent to which the Obama Presidency, and its supporters in the media, represented the common sense of the academic elite, which is based on three main ideas: 1) academics are much smarter than the rest of the country, 2) white Americans are racist, and 3) cultural and sexual politics are more important than outmoded ideas of class. Anyone who has listened to Rachel Maddow knows what I am talking about, as does anyone who listened to pundits explaining how intelligent Obama is. The Trump phenomenon is a reaction against this. Trump is in essence saying that the elites are full of baloney. To be sure, there is more, above all on the question of immigration, but the reaction to Obama elitism– not to Obama’s race– seems to me critical.
As to Sanders, let him speak for himself, in his remarks last week at the Democratic National Committee: “The Republicans did not win the mid-term election in November. The Democrats lost that election because voter turnout was abysmally low, and millions of working people, minorities and young people gave up on “politics as usual” and stayed home. Let me be very clear. In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate, will not gain the House and will not be successful in dozens of governor’s races unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a huge voter turnout. With all due respect, and I do not mean to insult anyone here, that will not happen with politics as usual. The same old, same old will not be successful.” “Politics as usual” means Obama.
Finally, the sad spectacle of Hillary Clinton. This spectacle started in 2008 when Hillary gave up her seat in the Senate to serve as Obama’s Secretary of State. Of course, Obama didn’t let her be Secretary of State, he retained control of the Iraq and Afghanistan desks so that she had a negligible term in office, whereas she could have retained her independence and look something like Elizabeth Warren does today. Hillary repeated with Obama the same self-sacrifice she made with Bill Clinton, and that is why she does not inspire enthusiasm today. This brings me to my conclusion. This Presidential election, like all previous Presidential elections, is a referendum on the sitting President. What is most important to see is that Obama on domestic policy followed Bill Clinton and that on foreign policy he followed the last two years of George W. Bush. We need a President that carries through on the promises Obama made in 2008 and failed to honor: a transformational Presidency that breaks not just with Bush but with Bill Clinton as well. That is why we need to support Bernie Sanders, and reject Hillary’s campaign.