In the final press conference of his presidency, Barack Obama reiterated that he would largely keep mum once his successor took office. “It is appropriate for him to go forward with his vision and his values,” Obama explained. However, that statement did come with a bit of a caveat.
For Obama, there would be “certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values are at stake” that might “merit me speaking out,” he said. Those issues included “systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion,” “explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote,” “institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press” and “efforts to round up kids who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are American kids and send them somewhere else.”
Still, this has not been enough for many who are understandably drowning in the misery of this administration—one spearheaded by a terribly erratic aspiring tyrant whose only real consistency since taking office is to dismantle the accomplishments of his predecessor, the man whose citizenship he questioned to gain political legitimacy.
In recent weeks, more men—notably white ones—have publicly called on former President Obama to play a larger role in the resistance of his successor. They want him to go further than he has—and forgo the tradition of former presidents taking a more apolitical stance after leaving public office—because citizens are suffering under the most atypical president in American history.
Among such men are Charles Pierce, whose work I greatly admire and who just this month wrote for Esquire that while Obama has more than earned his time of leisure ...
[T]he country is burning down at the moment, literally and figuratively. A concerted effort being made to obliterate all the achievements of his eight years in office is one or two timorous votes away from succeeding. We’re lurching toward war on the Korean peninsula, and there’s one natural disaster after another being dropped on a government that is half-staffed at best, and being run by fools and lunatics in any case. Race and class and gender and all the other national wounds are being inflamed purposefully in the hopes that nobody will notice that the institutions of American democracy are unable to cope with the simple fact that the American people elected, yes, a fucking moron.
Those institutions are not capable of withstanding these assaults much longer without cracking.
... and Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of the American Prospect, who, in a piece for HuffPost titled, “Missing in Action: Barack Obama,” also published in October, claimed:
But the part that especially attracts Trump’s hatred is anything that Obama accomplished.
Some of these policy reversals are so unpopular even among Republicans that Trump has punted the issue of the Dreamers and the proposed Iran reversal to Congress. That way, Trump can signal his own hatred for anything Obama did but rely on Republican legislators to save sensible policy.
So, where, you might ask, is Barack Obama, as his legacy and his most important accomplishments are being systematically dismantled? Well, at last report he was in Brazil, offering a totally unremarkable set of platitudes to a corporate audience.
The common characteristic of those who heard it was that they could afford to pay upwards of a thousand bucks a ticket.
And then there was another piece published this month at HuffPost from former presidential candidate and election-2000 spoiler Ralph Nader, who, in an essay titled, “Obama: Too Cool for Trump’s Crises,” had this to say:
Obama could, for example, work to strengthen civic groups and help substantially to create new organizations to address urgent needs (such as averting wars); he could back opposition to Trump’s destructive policies that are running America into the ground while shielding Wall Street and the dictatorial corporate supremacists whose toadies Trump has put into high government positions.
Obama is a big draw and can raise hundreds of millions of dollars faster than most. Furthermore, he has the unique ability to fill the void the mass media is desperately looking to fill by serving as a counterweight to Trump. Hillary, hawking her latest book, doesn’t fit the bill here.
Instead, Obama, besides raising funds for his presidential library (about $1 billion), is getting press primarily for being paid $400,000 or more per speech before Wall Street and other big-business audiences.
The fact that Kuttner and Nader take issue with Obama’s doing what many modern presidents have done after leaving office is a curious critique, especially because they are essentially asking him to forgo amassing a fortune in order to clean up another mess made by white supremacy.
And yet, when Obama was treated to unprecedented amounts of hostility from the political right, neither Kuttner nor Nader came to his defense. I recall Nader claiming that Obama was worse than former President George W. Bush and dubbing him a “war criminal.” Years before that, Nader called Obama an “Uncle Tom for the giant corporations.” But suddenly, Nader now is repeatedly calling on Obama to be his hero.
Kuttner may not have employed hyperbole and slurs to criticize Obama, but he certainly did criticize him on health care and on trade, and he wrote an entire book dismissing his presidency based on a failure to live up to progressive standards that those who paid arguably closer attention to the campaign never saw candidate Obama promise to live up to.
Obama is not above criticism. I didn’t like his excessive use of drones, either. Nor did I care for his health care plan not including a public option. Obama had a lot of legislative accomplishments in the beginning of his term, but those who believe that he squandered other opportunities or sometimes caved in to Republicans too easily—assuming that they would behave in kind—have a point.
Obama has a lot to do with the fact that the Democratic Party nationally was weak from an organizational front when it came time for the 2016 presidential election, which would have been the burden of any nominee. And he sure should have said a lot more about Russia’s role than he did.
There are other complaints, but most of all, I loathed the way he talked to black people: a paternalistic, admonishing and often condescending tone that he never duplicated with white folks.
That said, people like me spoke about the racism in which Obama’s administration was often entangled—while two of these exhausting, self-righteous, progressive white men feigning moral clarity did not.
Charles Pierce did, but his error mirrors those of others who want Obama not only to jump in with “the resistance” butalso to lead it: Obama is not that guy.
Obama is not “too cool” for the resistance, but he is incapable of delivering the sort of messaging required of it. Look no further than his return to the campaign trail in New Jersey for Phil Murphy, the Democratic candidate for governor of New Jersey, and Sheila Oliver, who is running to be his lieutenant governor. Obama did not mention Sweet Potato Saddam by name, but he did speak about the tone on which his political ascension has been built. To the cheers of an adoring crowd in Newark, Obama claimed:
Some of the politics we see now we thought we’d put that to bed. That’s folks looking 50 years back. It’s the 21st century, not the 19th century.
Fifty years? George W. Bush won in 2004 in part by fanning the flames of homophobia and then-majority anti-marriage-equality sentiments. Bush also won by an outside group pathetically distorting John Kerry’s service in Vietnam. Before that, he won in 2000 thanks to the Supreme Court and his brother—Jeb!—suppressing black votes in the state of Florida.
Before that, his father won his presidential election in part because of a racist campaign ad crafted by Lee Atwater, the racist behind the inherently racist Southern strategy. And before that, Papa Bush served with racist Ronald Reagan, the “welfare queen” stigma slinger, who originally promised to “Make America great again.”
Obama knows this, but as he illustrated in his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, he chooses to see America differently even when it rubs its racism directly in his face.
That’s why it was frustrating to hear Obama also say in Newark:
You cannot complain if you didn’t vote; you did not exercise the power the Constitution gives us that people fought for. This is entirely under your control. If you don’t like how things are going, you gotta vote.
Many of us who are black are turned away from the polls. It is no coincidence that the first black president was succeeded by a demagogue who fanned long-stemming racial tensions in America in the first election to take place after the gutting of the Voting Rights Act.
Speaking about Obama’s appearance in New Jersey, a senior adviser to Obama told Time magazine:
It’s in no one’s interest—including the former president’s, the Democratic Party’s, or the country’s—for President Obama to become the face of any resistance or the party. Instead, he is creating the space for leaders in the party to craft the best path forward that will make our country better.
Obama believes in America’s mythology too much to lead the resistance anyway. Obama, as Tressie McMillan Cottom brilliantly articulated in The Atlantic last December, has a misguided faith in white America.
Funny enough, while Obama delivered the political equivalent of the same old two-step, former President George W. Bush also criticized the 45th president without saying his name. Bush, however, did say something more direct:
Our identity as a nation, unlike other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. ... This means that people from every race, religion, ethnicity can be full and equally American. It means that bigotry and white supremacy, in any form, is blasphemy against the American creed.
The son of a political dynasty that largely owes itself to white supremacy and bigotry condemning it now is a bit comically ironic, but ultimately, much of what is happening now is related to white supremacy and the desperate clinging to maintaining the status quo. White people are so desperate to protect whiteness and maintain the societal hierarchy, they voted for a ding-dong with the intellectual curiosity of roadkill.
I wish Barack Obama would say that with his platform, but he won’t. He believes in the institutions despite the fact that 45 has gone above and beyond to show on what they were founded and on what they continue to thrive.
Obama is performing within his capability. It’s time for people to measure their expectations accordingly, to set their projections aside and to see him for the man he’s always been.
He is not anyone’s mule. Obama remains the anomaly; it’s white men who have the monopoly on power.
If white men see the country burning, they need to look inward regarding how to fix it. After all, this is all a mess of their making anyway.
As it’s always been.