Whose Obama is it anyway? Inspiring lame-duck SOTU vs. six tepid years

With the clock running down, Obama reinvents himself as a progressive. But where has that guy been since 2009?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published January 24, 2015 5:00PM (EST)

Barack Obama, Barack Obama     (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Photo montage by Salon)
Barack Obama, Barack Obama (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Photo montage by Salon)

Liberals have been waiting to exhale for more than six years, and Barack Obama – the ultimate in noncommittal Problem Boyfriends – finally gave them that chance this week. Social media erupted in a chorus of Whitmanesque ecstasy: This was the guy they, or we, rallied around and swooned over in 2008, and have fruitlessly pined for ever since. This was the political visionary and masterful orator who announced himself, with that electrifying speech on the night of the Iowa caucuses (it almost seems a generation ago), as a transformative figure in 21st-century American history. Tuesday night’s State of the Union address was certainly full of refreshing rhetoric, and represents an intriguing political tactic (which a cynic might describe as pretending you have a governing majority when you don’t). But hang on a minute: Where has that guy been, anyway, and who was that other, somewhat less inspiring person who occupied the Oval Office between approximately Jan. 20, 2009, and this week?

After the dire and arid political slog of the past several years, the lame-duck SOTU of 2015 was a veritable cornucopia of big ideas: Free community college for all! A national childcare policy, to replace our national parental-enslavement policy (one of the most insidious victories of American capitalism)! Soaking the rich, albeit modestly, with higher capital-gains taxes! Diplomatic openings to Cuba and Iran, and an above-board military campaign against ISIS, duly authorized by Congress! A rational energy policy that looks toward the long-term future and addresses the climate crisis, instead of the build-a-pipeline-and-let-our-grandkids-suck-it approach! Rhetoric absolutely matters, in politics as in life, and before I go all Cassandra on you, let me be clear that I’d rather hear the president say things like that than not.

However – and you knew there was a “however” coming, didn’t you? – Obama’s bravura Jimi Hendrix solo from the other night was more than a little puzzling, and requires some decoding. Why all these quasi-utopian visions after years of nothing – and why now, after a crippling midterm defeat, with the shot-clock on his presidency running down into the single digits? I’m not entirely sure how to understand all this, except to say that its meaning is not obvious on the surface and that it feels inadequate to exclaim “At last!” and collapse onto the divan.

This SOTU feels like an “overdetermined” event, a concept from political theory meaning something caused and shaped by many different factors, which may be disharmonious or contradictory. My guess is that this speech and its agenda were both heartfelt and calculated, both an attempt to get us to gaze toward the far horizon and an attempt to put the Republicans on the wrong foot next year. No doubt it’s overly smug, after a speech that made so many disheartened Americans feel hopeful, to observe that actions speak louder than words. But Obama’s mixed and troubling record of official deeds stands in sharp contrast with the high-flying, big-picture rhetoric of that Throwback Tuesday speech. And at least when it comes to the remainder of his presidency – which will get swallowed up in the 2016 campaign any day now -- Sen. Mitch McConnell’s crack that the SOTU felt like a laundry list of programs specifically designed not to pass is disconcertingly on target.

How do we square this inspiring vision of progressive advances that might happen one day, but certainly won’t under Obama's administration, with the record of the drone-warrior president, the “kill list” president, the Wall Street smoochy-face Tim Geithner president, the Grand Bargain-hunter, the president of the most secrecy-obsessed and leak-averse White House in history? Let’s assume, for the moment, that Obama is not just sadistically taunting his left-liberal base, after the fashion of an old-time cheating husband who occasionally gets a yen for home cooking. Hell, we can go further than that: Let’s assume that Obama means what he says (insofar as any politician ever does), that he feels immensely frustrated with the political paralysis of Washington and hopes to seize the moment to make one last impression on American history before retiring into several decades of overpaid foundation work. Given all that, I see a few plausible hypotheses, none of them entirely exclusive of the others.

1. This was always the real Obama. But the Republicans were so mean!
We get this a lot, am I right? Let me see if I can ventriloquize without mockery: It’s amazing what Obama has been able to accomplish, given the level of racial hatred, paranoid bile and short-sighted obstructionism from his political opponents. One day we will all understand what a great president he was.

There’s a pretty big half-truth lurking here; it might even be three-quarters of a truth. Obama has undeniably been the target of poorly disguised or undisguised racism, and the target of a scorched-earth Republican strategy of total non-cooperation pioneered under Bill Clinton. That latter portion results mainly from GOP panic over its aging, declining and entirely white voter base and didn’t have much to do with Obama’s parentage or skin color. But the combination has been toxic, and during his first term Obama seemed perpetually surprised to learn that congressional Republicans’ only mission was to make him look bad in every way possible, up to and including not ever quite being convinced he was a real American.

One can argue that the GOP’s ideological terror tactics affected White House policymaking in all sorts of ways, and consistently put Obama on the defensive. He kept on trying to forge statesmanlike compromises on budget-cutting, immigration and emissions policy, all of them in the depressing vein of neoliberal realpolitik, and the Republicans kept on being Lucy, pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. But was it Republican persecution that led Obama to entrust the financial system to a slightly different constellation of the bankers who had wrecked it in 2008? Or to expand the drone war into a covert campaign of airborne assassination whose true scale we may never know? Or to prosecute more whistle-blowers, under a World War I-era law designed to target foreign spies, than all previous presidents combined?

If the argument is that Republicans took advantage of divided government and a fragile economic situation to derail nearly all of Obama’s somewhat-activist domestic policy goals, especially following their stinging defeat on the Affordable Care Act, that’s clearly true. But the nature of the opposition is not sufficient to explain the Obama contradictions.

2. Obama was trapped by a crappy economy other people had broken and stupid wars other people had started. He had to focus on those things, and couldn’t get around to a progressive agenda until now.

This is the president’s version of events, pretty much: Now that we’re notionally out of recession and not exactly at war in Iraq and Afghanistan (although not exactly out of it either), it’s time to think big once again about shaping our destiny as a nation. Conveniently, I’m on my way out the door -- so good luck, everybody!

Again: Yeah, kind of. Obama rode into office was on the back of a whopping economic crisis and an unpopular war, and his responses to both were remarkably timid, at least compared to what many or most of his supporters had hoped for. Economists, historians and political scientists will hash all that out for years to come. Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, among others, clearly believe that Obama had the authority and political leverage to pursue a more activist, FDR-style response, one that might have addressed underlying structural problems that produced that economic crisis and will almost certainly produce others.

This anticipates my next hypothesis, but one way to think about what happened is that Obama learned fast that in the current dispensation of power he had no choice except to leave the spooks and generals and plutocrats in charge of their own affairs. Or, more likely, that he came into office knowing that already, because the nature of a political education is to learn who’s really holding the knife and slicing the butter.

3. Obama was always a tool or prisoner of dark forces we can’t see, and was never really free to take on Wall Street or the national-security state. This speech was his feeble act of political protest against the status quo, if not empty political theater designed to mollify disgruntled liberals so they’ll come back for more.
The conspiracy theory: I love it! It’s partly true, like everything else on this list, and has the additional advantage of being a totalizing and irrefutable description of all visible reality. Democracy is entirely a sham, we live in a fascist dictatorship so cleverly disguised we can’t recognize it, and the only viable response is revolution, or perhaps getting high and watching TV.

I am highly susceptible to this genre of explanatory theory, but this one’s overly simplistic and does not cover all the peculiarities of Obama or his era. The ways in which it’s true are largely a matter of unconscious patterns and overlapping, self-interested ideologies, not grand conspiracy. Obama can be a deeply sincere person with whom I have areas of agreement and disagreement, who wanted to work a damaged system as best he could in the interests of democracy and other noble causes, but who found out the system was too dysfunctional for that. He can have been partly but not entirely corrupted by power, and most certainly straitjacketed by it, while still believing what he says and wanting to leave office on a note of promise. He doesn’t have to be a cyborg drone, cleverly programmed by a secret ruling cabal to defeat all analysis and drive us insane. It just feels that way.

4. Obama is really good at making speeches and really bad at getting stuff done. So there’s no downside in promising all this pie in the sky when it’s way too late.
This is the deeply annoying Republican talking point of the entire era, the one just echoed by McConnell and the one that was supposed to get Mitt Romney elected: Obama is an inept windbag, a community organizer who’s out of his depth when it comes to real politics and real governance. If you haven’t made the tough choices in life, like meeting a payroll or firing hundreds of people from thousands of miles away or tying your barfing dog to the roof of the car, how are you going to make the tough choices in Washington? (If that smarmy douchebag is enough of a masochist that he’s gonna run again, then we get to recycle all the old gags too.)

I’m virtually certain this narrative has a strong undercurrent of racism – the “unqualified black male” theme from the 2008 primary campaign – and I also think that Obama’s real or perceived flaws as an executive are not central to the paradoxical nature of his presidency. But the Republicans have been fairly successful at implanting this meme, which is likely to drive the forthcoming Ms. Fix-It campaign of his most plausible Democratic successor. Speaking of whom ...

5. Obama is trying to shape the future of the Democratic Party and the 2016 campaign. This was his present to Hillary Clinton – a ticking present.
Taken to its illogical extreme, this is the tortuous but intriguing argument articulated by David Frum in the Atlantic: By abruptly putting forward this activist agenda, Obama is trying to shove Hillary Clinton away from the neoliberal policies of the “Democratic Party’s business wing” – which seems to presume Obama has not represented that wing himself – and “to set the post-Obama Democratic Party on a more leftward course than he himself had the strength to steer.”

Say what? If nothing else, this is an ingenious and idiotic combination of all four preceding hypotheses: Too incompetent, too hamstrung or too persecuted to pursue his dream agenda over the last six years, Obama now uses the dying moments of his presidency to sock-puppet Hillary into the firebrand progressive he never was. Frum appears torn between the conviction that this imaginary Frankenstein maneuver is bad politics (because any suggestion of “tax the rich” policies makes him uncomfortable) and his pundit’s delight at reducing an ideological division within the Democratic Party to a soap opera of warring personalities and feuding dynasties. He considers the idea that Obama is trying to shift the national dialogue in new directions before he loses the spotlight, and dismisses it in a single sentence. It’s way more satisfying to argue that he just wants to screw Hillary. That brings us to my last hypothesis, which requires no elaboration.

6. Obama will go down in history as the most maddening and enigmatic of modern presidents, a figure whose symbolic importance far outweighs his accomplishments. This was his last, best effort to fend off that judgment. Maybe that’s noble and maybe it’s pathetic, but either way it’s pretty damn late.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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