Donald Trump’s steady effort to sink Barack Obama’s legacy, and the country along with it, continues apace. Even as he frets about impeachment, this president is eliminating clean air and water standards, his administration is attacking Obamacare in the courts, and his torrid pace of judicial appointments already threatens to overwhelm any influence that his predecessor had on the judiciary. Trump’s childishly vain efforts to best Obama get most of the press attention, but the Trump presidency, even if a 2020 challenger ends it next November, has done sufficient damage.
Strangely enough, Obama also seems intent upon discouraging the type of progress his own administration was able to make. At a private dinner with liberal voters last Friday in Washington, he said, “Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality and the fact that voters — including Democratic voters and certainly persuadable independents or even moderate Republicans — are not driven by the same views that are reflected on certain, you know, left-leaning Twitter feeds or the activist wing of our party.” He added that “the average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”
It isn’t an editorial opinion to say this rhetoric is inherently discouraging. The New York Times interpreted Obama’s remarks as a warning to presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren ahead of Wednesday night’s debate, the fifth of the cycle, but it’s not a departure for the former president: Obama has been sounding this note for a while now.
In late October, the former president criticized “call-out culture” and so-called “wokeness,” the latter an absurdly overused phrase that has evolved, perhaps without Obama’s knowledge, into a derisive descriptor of white Democrats who enjoy signifying their allyship on social platforms more so than actually demonstrating it through substantive action. Still, he critiqued it as if the very notion of proposing über-liberal policy goals was not only counterproductive, but juvenile.
“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” Obama said last week, “you should get over that quickly.” He continued, noting that “the world is messy; there are ambiguities” and that “people who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”
This is startling, if not new, stuff coming from the president who once said that Trayvon Martin could be his son. The issue has never been whether we, as liberals, or as marginalized minorities, share a human bond with those who vote for practicing racists like Trump. We know they care about their kids; what about ours? Many of those people with whom Obama wants the left to empathize preach the fiction of “white genocide,” or vote for people who do. Often, those folks — whom Obama does not typically address in a similarly condescending manner — aren’t pressured to care about children who aren’t white, Christian, cisgender, or heterosexual. Why aren’t figures like Obama challenging Republicans more directly to empathize with the people whom they work to subjugate?
Obama should also recognize that the formula for 2020 success may not lie with attempting to sway people who have voted for his white-nationalist successor but instead by turning out Democratic constituencies in greater numbers than in 2016. That means focusing more on Republican efforts to disenfranchise than, say, what lefties are tweeting. Even today, no one can touch Obama’s oratory skills. Why is he using them to scold folks who are on his team, so to speak?
On that note, we rarely see Obama addressing with similar urgency the spreading plague of white-supremacist terrorism. The FBI released its annual statistical report on hate crimes on November 12th, three days before the “you should get over that quickly” remarks, and found that 7,120 incidents were reported in 2018, only 55 fewer than the prior year. While this is the first year in the past four that such terrorism actually decreased (but not overall violence, which hit a 16-year high), the dramatic rise in hate crimes that Americans saw during the first year of Trump’s presidency has held steady. In 2018, the plurality of the crimes involving race, nearly 47 percent, targeted black Americans. Thirteen percent were committed against Latinos. Of those involving religion, about 58 percent were directed at Jews. Nearly 15 percent of them were trying to kill or injure Muslims.
Obama has issued many a poignant statement when white-supremacist attacks happen, but most lack the fire we have seen from him, or from current community organizers and other activists and leaders. Even presidential candidates muster up more fire, and they have much more at stake. Most every Democratic hopeful has also put forth frank, comprehensive plans to end this terrorist violence, including most recently Warren on Tuesday. But Obama chose last week, in the wake of that report, to not only continue scolding the aspirational left who may have been shouting, “Yes, we can!” 11 years ago but to do so in a manner that invariably influences moderate Democrats in the race.
The timing, more than anything, is why his urging caution now is so curious. Why, after such a long and insistent silence on the primary race, is he weighing in with these warnings at the moment that Wall Street Democrats are panicking about their lack of viable moderates and the ascendancy of both Sanders and Warren? While most of the candidates brushed off Obama’s remarks, they only stand to benefit hopefuls like Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, and perhaps newcomers Mike Bloomberg and Deval Patrick as well.
Despite an October Gallup poll showing that Democratic voters were satisfied with the candidates in the race, Obama has now done something that he seemed desperate to avoid just recently: placing his influential thumb on the electoral scales in favor of moderates.
Yes, it should be surprising to see a figure whose presidency was historic the moment he took the oath now scolding audiences that he once inspired. Black audiences, in particular, have seen him sound off, with patriarchal language, on the very people whom he has previously encouraged. (His stern Father’s Day lecture in a Chicago church, delivered in 2008, and a later commencement speech at Morehouse College are prime examples.) But these actions go to the root of the very slogan on which Obama first ran.
Hope and change, in the Obama parlance, was always too vague. The ethos that the former president promoted during his 2008 run for president carried multiple meanings, surely with intention. His successful campaign fulfilled the dreams of an entire people and party at once, solely because of who and what he was as a human being.
However, he embodied both the hope and change while, in the process, providing not as much in the way of either in his policies. His job, it seemed, was to broaden the American sense of the possible. But Obama was always, at heart, a moderate. At the time, that was enough for voters.
It is debatable whether that is the case now, and Obama can thank himself for that. Surely he had some influence on the fact that more black and Hispanic candidates are running than ever before. Nearly all of the 10 candidates on the debate stage Wednesday night advocate for the federal legalization of marijuana. Most, if not all, have viable and detailed proposals to address the erosion of civil rights and criminal justice, prior to and during President Trump’s term. Some are even talking openly about overhauling how the nation provides health care.
They have good reason to do so, thanks to laws like Obamacare. Accelerated by the candidacies of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the leftward trajectory of Democratic policy is not undeniable. That move is buttressed by the success of many of Obama’s own policies.
It was unthinkable a decade ago that a viable presidential candidate would openly advocate for the legalization of marijuana, be essentially mandated to put forth detailed civil-rights and criminal-justice platforms, and held to standards established and held firm by constituencies of color.
Jemele Hill wrote in the spring of Biden’s early strong showing and why it symbolized how Trump has killed the Democrats’ sense of the possible. A steady campaign of authoritarian tactics has weakened American faith in the system even further. It is jarring that Obama appears to have lost a good deal of the hope that he preached, despite being considered by many to be the physical embodiment of the change he sought. I would hope that he, of all people, would consider that aspiration, might, and nuance are not mutually exclusive.
If anything, I would hope that those pushing for the kind of radical change needed to revolutionize and place systemic injustices on a faster track would inspire past leaders like the president. Activist Jamira Burley had it right when she tweeted last weekend that it is “out of touch and morally corrupt” to ask those who have been marginalized by Republicans, in particular, to wait for progress “simply because the gatekeepers don’t deem those views electable.”
Obama need not look any further than his own campaign to remember that.