When it comes to the legacy of Barack Obama, the Left is divided. Some see him as a heroic figure that did his best for the country, despite Republican opposition, while others see him as a traitor to progressive values. With Trump’s election, it’s essential that we understand what took place during Obama’s presidency because it’s only in knowing our recent history that a unified progressive movement can make it’s way forward. We owe ourselves and the coming generation of activists at least this much.
To understand what I see as the tragedy of the Obama era, we have to look back to where we were in 2007. We have to also have a sense of this country’s history as it relates to black and brown people. We were coming out of the Bush-Cheney years, the ‘post 9-11 world’ as Cheney called it, that saw an illegal war protested against, and the shredding of the constitution. The neo-cons had their sordid legacy dating back to Reagan, and the extreme rightward lurch of the country these last 30 years: minority disenfranchisement, the environment without a protector in office, looting of the public treasury, and jobs shipped out of the country. To say that working class people of all colors needed an advocate to step forward is an understatement. Into this huge void stepped an African American man. The country was at first incredulous, then amazed that he could actually get the nomination, and then thrilled by the possibility he could win the presidency.
The black progressive tradition is a force of nature and everyone in this country, and many abroad knew it, and knew that someone from this tradition was exactly what was needed to counter not only the crimes of the previous administration, but also the historical injustices dealt to people of color. Obama knew this and played it to the hilt. Imitating a Southern accent on the campaign trail when it worked for him to do so, he knew exactly what kind of archetype he was projecting, even if he didn’t have a whit of the same progressive humanist values and aims in him.
In a way, Obama represents another tradition in America, that of the professional politician who will say and do anything to get elected, but then once in office will show his true colors. The tragedy of this particular person however is in the hope that was placed in him, in the great needs of the time, and in his utter failure to address any of our 21st century’s profound problems, of militarism, racism, economic inequality, environmental desecration or the anti-democratic influence of corporate wealth.
My father, the documentary photographer Frank Espada, referred to Obama as ‘a Manchurian Candidate’ – someone who once in office suddenly turns in the opposite direction. He is the quintessential traitor to the left, to progressives, and to all those who elected him believing that the time for social justice had come at last. This is a man, let’s remember, whose arrival on the international scene was welcomed rapturously, representing hope for justice not only in America, but worldwide. He was given the Nobel Peace Prize not on the strength of anything he had done, but in the hope that he would fulfill the promise of a humanist, progressive vision. That he turned out to be the drone president, a war criminal, the deporter-in-chief, and enabler of unbridled neo-liberal corporate power completed the betrayal.
The left, however, is resilient, as seen by the rise of Bernie Sanders the last two years, and yet there will be much work to do, to see fully and to undo the harm done by this one man who exploited the hopes of so many, as well as the precious legacies of genuine civil rights and human rights activists.
I came the conclusion a few months ago that while Barack Obama is intelligent and ever articulate, his thinking is shallow. This was a surprise for me to finally be able to see. Some teachers would call the way he uses his intellect ‘clever’, and they don’t mean that as a compliment – it is deceitful, vain and manipulative. The only way to counter such a display is with a sustained, thorough, and dispassionate analysis of what he actually said, as well as his motivations, in light of his actions or inactions, seen in the policies that effected so many of us.
The anti-war movement in 2017 is almost non-existent, and yet the Middle East is on fire. That there is almost no protest against our wars there at all can be attributed to Obama, and the confusion he’s sown on the left. He still pretends to represent democratic values, and he is widely believed, in part because of his color.
Because of that, in the minds of too many, he gets a pass. We have wrongly believed that to be a black public official in America is to represent progressive values, and the needs of the people, especially ‘the least of these’. By now we should all know better, but it will take years for the disempowered anti war left to recover.
The loss of opportunity represented by his presidency also falls especially on people of color. They had the most to gain if he was legitimate, and not a fraud, and they have suffered the most from his failure to address the systemic injustices they in particular face, of mass incarceration, the pathologies of poverty, environmental and economic injustice. We thought collectively that perhaps someone had stepped forward who would advocate for restorative justice for people of color, black, latino, and native, from the inside, and as one of them. He knew this has long been the great need, and great hope, and he exploited it to the full. That chapter has been written. So much for him.
My one consolation at this time in history is in knowing that the neo-liberal democratic party is being exposed for what it is – a party that represents militaristic corporate interests at the expense of everyone else, here and abroad. It’s more clear now than ever that we need a populist, third party movement in this country. This too is the legacy of Obama, if we are willing to claim it.
Postscript: Now that Trump has been elected, the rejection of the mainstream democratic party has been writ large for all to see. Obama, and the democrats’ callous disregard for the working class is one factor that has brought us to this moment: A neo fascist movement has rushed filled the void left by what used to be the people’s party.
From Bill Clinton through Barack Obama, the democrats over the last 30 years have abandoned unions and the working class, and made it inevitable that millions would look for leadership elsewhere, however facile and reactionary.
Naomi Klein put it this way: “Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatization, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.”
Now we have someone as president who promises far worse for our country and world. Trump won’t deliver on his claim to represent the disenfranchised, the billionaire class alone will profit, and many of our hard won civil liberties are bound to suffer. Much of this can be laid at the feet of the current president and the democrats, and what they have tragically become. Those who love and admire the man won’t see it this way, of course, which is a reflection of the deep confusion on the left in 2017. He leaves us in this sorry state, and with a great discord between his popular image and substance of this actions.