In the midst of an election which has morphed into a farcical contest between ‘no change’ and backwards change, it’s hard not to wonder what happened to American progressivism.
Eight years ago almost to the day, a young, fresh-faced, no-grey-hairs Barack Obama spoke to the crowds in Chicago, and declared that “change has come to America.” If it came, too many never saw it.
It’s tempting, then, to see the current contest as a reaction to the failure of “the politics of hope”, that it reflects the hollowness of politicians’ vague promises and the electorate coming around to the need for pragmatism and realism. But amongst the mediocrity and universal dislike of the two candidates on offer this time around, it’s worth reflecting on the Obama years – with every passing scandal reminding America, and the world, what they’re going to lose when President Obama leaves office on January 20.
Every since he appeared on the national political scene in 2004, through his primary campaign in 2007-08 and subsequent national presidential run, Obama has had hurled at him from all sides the criticism that he’s “just words”; he can give a good speech, sure, but he’s basically incapable of securing the practical change the country needs.
I argue that’s unfair for two reasons: that the importance of communication in political life should not be undervalued; and that there have been serious real changes in Obama’s time in office that are reflective of a man much more competent and pragmatic than critics give him credit for.
The way politicians communicate to citizens is of vital importance because it has a real tangible impact on how a country does its politics, and therefore what policies it ends up with. Donald Trump legitimises bigotry, Clinton entrenches the cynicism of ‘politician-speak’, and the pair of them make a mockery of what should be a festival of democracy. JFK hailed the peaceful handover of power in America a “celebration of freedom”, but it’s hard to imagine election day or either candidate’s inauguration as anything better than a celebration of apathy.
But Obama understood that the role of the President is not just policy-creation and pragmatism – far more so than most country’s leaders the US Presidency is “a place of moral leadership” (Franklin Roosevelt’s words). It sets the tone of debate and political discourse for a country of 350 million people, and then communicates the values and ideals of that people to the rest of the world.
America throughout its history has been a ‘shining city on a hill’, a beacon of hope for believers in democracy, individual liberty and legitimate government for people all over the world. That position was threatened by Bill Clinton, imperilled by George W. Bush, and would be destroyed by Donald Trump. In that climate, and despite inheriting two wars, a disgusting torture regime and an economic meltdown, Barack Obama restored the United States to global respectability. That’s no small victory.
Most important of all, we need to understand that politicians are products of their time – they emerge at the whim of voters to articulate, and hopefully answer, the defining question of the moment. Obama in 2008 heralded a national soulsearching – willing to ask the hard questions about the place of America in the world. It’s easy to dismiss that as “just words” but it is a vital part of politics, and one that is conspicuously missing today. After a damaging and divisive eight years of George W. Bush, and a painfully partisan 2004 race, the American people felt and knew that while there were some things that made America exceptional, there were others in which it needed desperately to change. As he said in a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma march:
“What greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
It is that subtle bravery, more than anything, which is lacking in 2016’s candidates. They have retreated into the divisive and well-worn politicians’ tactics of saying only what their supporters want to hear, or holding one position in public and another in private. Obama had the courage to celebrate America when it was right, and dare it to change when it was wrong; that is the essence of real leadership.
‘Politics’ is nothing more or less than a people coming together to resolve their differences and pursue their collective interests. In part, that means engineering and administering policies that make them prosperous, more secure and so on. But it also means having the rare ability to bring diverse strands of the national culture together to articulate its identity and its future. The art of rhetoric is not just about flowery language or feel-good speeches, it’s about giving voice, coherence and direction to the deepest held ideas of the nation. That’s what Obama did, and continues to do.
It is essential because if a people cannot look at their leaders and find people that they believe in, that they see a little of themselves in, that they are inspired by – we are left with a technocratic professionalisation of politics. In a political age so often defined by apathy and low turnout, we should not be embarrassed to praise the greatest political communicator of our generation.
On top of that, anyone who peddles the narrative that nothing really changed under Obama should try saying that to the millions of low-income Americans who have access to health insurance for the first time; to the undocumented immigrants who now see a path to citizenship; to the soldiers brought home from “dumb wars” in far-off lands; to the prisoners subjected to waterboarding and unspeakable abuse by the cruelty of the Bush administration; and to the countless citizens around the world who saw their jobs, their mortgages, their life savings going down the drain, before the economic system was brought back from the brink of total collapse.
When all is said and done, the Obama years are littered with historic achievements – from the Iran nuclear deal and restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba, to appointing two of the four women justices ever to serve on the Supreme Court (who went on to vote for the groundbreaking ruling on marriage equality).
Many reading this will nevertheless be disappointed: the rate of change has seemed frustratingly slow, and in some important senses the Obama administration has represented continuity far more than change. I sympathise with the sentiment, and am myself of the view that had Obama been all that many voters thought he’d be, a candidate like Bernie Sanders (or for that matter Donald Trump) would not have been necessary.
But with that said, and perhaps this is damning with faint praise, given a choice between Clinton, Trump and Obama I’d choose Obama by an incomprehensible margin. No mention of climate change in the debates, totally shallow discussion of every issue, and the vapid personality-contest back-and-forth of insults is a far cry from the serious debates of 2008 and 2012; the unfavourable numbers for both candidates discredit any claim to be able to unite the country; and neither seem like they have the desire or imagination to seriously find new solutions to the problems of the twenty-first century.
I do not believe that Barack Obama is a perfect President, by any means. But he is surely one that history will judge favourably, and we will come to appreciate what America and the world had in him with time.
When that optimism, quiet dignity, subtle bravery and long-sighted commitment to ‘hope and change’ is gone – we’ll notice. And it won’t be long before we all miss the days of a President who could so beautifully encapsulate the spirit of a people.