Barack Obama’s Farewell
Nine days ago, Barack Obama delivered his farewell speech as President of the United States, not just to Americans, but to the world. But he began local. “Hello Chicago.” And then shifted to, “My Fellow Americans” after cracking a joke about how the unruly audience was proof that he was a lame duck. He then immediately pivoted to a populist beginning. Conversations [in contrast to public rallies or even town hall meetings] kept him honest, kept him inspired and kept him going. A conversation is an exchange of thoughts, not by writing essays and critiquing other ones. It is an oral exercise. And conversations only really work if you try to listen even more than you speak. The American people in the diners and farms, in the factories and fortresses abroad were, he claimed, his teachers. They gave him his energy to wake up every morning. They were also the instruments of change – “when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.”
This is a specific kind of populism. It is not the populism driven by economic insecurity and resentment of the rich à la Bernie Sanders that played its way in one town hall meeting after another across America last year. For that type of populism depended on a shared ideology and a shared and identified and identifiable enemy – the richest 1%. The latter populism participated in a common worldview, in ideas and ideals that were the foundation stones of their activity. It thrives when economic insecurity is pervasive in a fast-changing world in which the jobs and positions people held for years are under threat as they seem to be in our emerging post-industrial communications economy. Obama’s populism was of the more intimate kind, one in which differences were discussed rather than common passions and hatreds articulated. It is bottom-up as distinct from lateral populism, and it depends on a set of shared rules for discourse – a logic for exchanging ideas.
Nor was Obama’s logical populism of the top-down variety dependent on mass rallies and sloganeering rather than conversations or shared ideas and ideals. In this latter idiological rather than ideological populism, shared thoughts are not the basis for political action and certainly not conversations that require listening and coherence. The forces driving the idiological populist upsurge are NOT primarily economic, though that may be present, but cultural. That populism is driven by people who once saw themselves as the heart and paradigm of the polity, but now see themselves as looked down upon by a condescending elite – intellectual, professional, wealthy – reinforced when that same elite ignores rather than openly disdains them.
Idiological populism rests on the politics of resentment rather than articulating a political direction. It is the politics of anger driven by radical shifts in value far more than even economic challenges. It should be no surprise to learn that the average family income of a Trump supporter was evidently $70,000. It is this latter populism that was primarily the force behind the Arab Spring. It is the driving force of the populism sweeping across Europe. And it is this populism, not that of Bernie or Barack, that captured the White House when the opposing candidate lacked any instinct for any variety of populism whatsoever. Cultural much more than economic insecurity is its driving force.
Where Bernie saw pain, suffering and deprivation, where Donald saw unfulfilled dreams and fantasies, Barack saw, “the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.” As Michelle put it so succinctly, “When others go low, we go high,” and Hillary could only mimic those words without any deep faith behind them. Obama claimed that his view represented “the beating heart of our American idea.” If that is the beating heart, then it is suffering from both atrial fibrillation and, even more dangerously, ventricular premature contractions. The heart of America is in a profound state of double arrhythmia.
Of the three populists, Barack Obama was clearly and by far the most conservative. For he articulated the liberal idea of self-government in which all citizens are created equal with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Bernie was far more concerned with economic inequalities and the failure to live up to that ideal in economic terms than with primordial and abstract ideals of egalitarianism. Trump despised egalitarianism of any kind as he fed off the energy of the people at his rallies to insult Mexicans and women, the handicapped and everyone of his competitors. No political correctness for him in the face of what he called a rigged system that allowed each individual in a mass rally to fill in the balloon above the cartoon caricature with whatever bothered that man or woman.
What did Obama have to offer in contrast but the most “radical idea”? A great gift that our Founders gave to us: the freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat and toil and imagination, and the imperative to strive together, as well, “to achieve a common good, a greater good.” Did Trump ever once cite the fundamental principles behind American democratic ideals? He never appealed to ideals at all, just fantasies to “make America great again,” whereas Barack insisted that America had been founded on the greatest and most radical premise ever. Greatness did not depend on abandoning that belief, but holding it even closer to one’s heart and mind. There was no common good, only an uncommon and ghostly bad that haunted the land.
If Barack saw his fellow Americans as citizens and Bernie saw them as subjects exploited by the economic power of the wealthy, Donald saw them as idolaters intensely enthralled by an entity that would be otherwise considered unworthy of worship. In fact, it was the unworthiness that was the attraction. And the fact that the unworthy displayed his wealth with garish and ostentatious enthusiasm, the fact that the calf was all glitter and gold, only added to its attraction. Trump offered the populace the fantasy of a new gold rush. Not hard work, not blood, sweat and tears, but a new beginning sui generis based on getting rid of the elites who traded American jobs for foreign deals, who created a porous border that allowed others to flow through the sieve and that lacked a defensive wall and a moat around the American castle. Mexicans, migrants, movers and shakers were all grist for his mill of grinding resentment.
Obama believed in the great God of progress, in two steps forward and one step back. Bernie believed in peaceful revolution, in up-ending the economic order and using politics to redistribute the enormous wealth accumulated by the few. If Obama believed in a zig-zag line than nevertheless always tended to move forward and up, and Bernie saw the line moving downwards and needing to be reversed, for The Donald, there was no line at all, only a direction of moving into the future by restoring an idealized pristine past created by the Hollywood films he saw in the late fifties when he was moving towards becoming his father’s son.
Obama offered evidence to back up his belief in progress. Under his watch, had not America reversed the great recession? Had it not rebooted the auto industry that was on its knees? Had it not unleashed the longest and largest job creation record in American history? Had it not reconciled America with Cuba with which the U.S. had been alienated for almost sixty tears with its music, with its rhythms, with its lust for happiness and joy? Reconciling America and Cuba was the icing on the cake of the American dream, more important for America’s dream life that the U.S. was for Cuba’s drab and deprived ordinary life. Had not the shadow of nuclear weapons now been dissipated once again in the nuclear deal with Iran as the proper follow-up to Ronald Reagan’s Reykjavik concord with Mikhail Gorbachev, and, once again, “without firing a shot”? Had Obama not taken out Bin Laden, the embodiment of evil in the modern world until displaced by the even greater evil of ISIL? Had not Obama allowed America to begin to catch up with the rest of the Western world by providing health insurance to twenty million more Americans?
We can. We should. And we did. This was Obama’s claimed record. We. Not I. In fact, not even we. But you. That is what you did. Obama never claimed that he made America great again, but that we together accomplished that task. Donald Trump boasted that he and he alone could make America great again. And Bernie promised not greatness but greater equality. Barack only held the tiller steady of the ship of state. The power driving the ship through the high seas belonged to the people.
And then the arrow that shattered that beam of shining light – the beauty of American democracy had been proven by the election and peaceful transition of power to a man like Donald Trump. Was it any surprise that his audience booed, that these citizens of Chicago whined “Noooo?” Barack Obama promised to be true to the highest and strongest premise of American democracy – the peaceful transfer of power to an incumbent who won in the Electoral College, though he lost by the greatest margin ever in the popular vote. Who could have ever imagined that the Electoral College, that had been designed in good part to protect America from the whims of the populace, would be the institution that put the gold seal of the republic on that whim! Had states surrendered to populism by surrendering to a popular vote the power state governments had to choose the electors of the Electoral College? That question was now moot. The very institution designed to prevent that outcome had become the vehicle to ensure it.
Trump had campaigned on the slogan of, “Make America Great Again.” Obama insisted that America remained “the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth,” even as its wealth was more maldistributed than almost anytime in its history, even as its power in the world was shrinking and even as respect for America had been on the decline ever since the Vietnam War. Sweden, Norway and Canada were each far more respected around the world than America even as everyone stood in awe of the power and creativity and accomplishments of the U.S. But a society that spent almost double its much higher Gross National Product to deliver health care that for a large minority rivalled Third World health systems did not earn or deserve respect in those areas. A country with the best and greatest universities, in most of them still reserved more spaces for the children of the 1% than the children of the bottom 20%. This was not a country to be respected, unless the obeisance given to an imperium is considered respect.
Barack Obama could say loudly and clearly that “for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one,” but the reining economic orthodoxy belied that claim for it celebrated an ethos of each man and woman for himself. When Obama helped pull the country in the great recession back from the brink of disaster, the economic power houses and banks and huge companies were restored to their place in the sun while millions lost their homes and little if anything was done to help them.
Barack recognized that growing inequality, but he was not a Bernie Sanders. His approach would be gradual and by the end of his term middle class incomes were finally showing real gains. He recognized the specter of terrorism and became the ghoulish controller who directed the drones that decapitated the leadership of ISIL, one or a few at a time. Only Donald Trump would promise their immediate incineration. Whereas Bernie preached greater economic equality, Barack preached greater economic opportunity. Whereas Barack saw all ships rising even as the luxury yachts rose even higher and faster than any of the other ships at sea, Bernie only saw those yachts becoming longer and more luxurious and more concerned with ostentatious display. Whereas Barack celebrated a stock market that was breaking all records, Bernie scowled at the billions more pouring into the pockets of the already super-rich. Whereas Barack pointed to unemployment at an all-time post WWII low, Bernie pointed out the low minimal wages, that were, in effect, half of what they were in 1970, the insecurity of jobs and the increased use of part time and independent members of the work force lacking both security and benefits.
Barack could promise that, “if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system and that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.” But, of course, a single payer universal health insurance plan would certainly do that. However, in the U.S. this was a non-starter so in that sense, Barack Obama was telling the absolute truth, though it would have been clearer if he inserted the phrase “politically feasible” alternative plan.
All three populists agreed that stark inequality is a bad thing, but they located the source of that distortion in very different locations and attributed the responsibility to very different agents. All three agreed that too many families in inner cities in the rust belt and in rural areas have been left behind. But Donald Trump, while glancing at this reality, really focused on how the values of the once great white middle class had been left in the dust as Barack Obama and his ilk pursued the god of progress. All three populists railed against government only serving the interests of the powerful and who would know that better than someone who had spent his life gaming the system and accumulating wealth while paying little if any taxes?
While Barack preached the need for a new social compact and Bernie preached the need for a radically improved contract between the middle class and those who held the levers of economic power, Donald did not even offer a glance towards either a compact or a contract, but only insisted that he and he alone could make a better deal. Deals were made piecemeal. Compacts and contracts undergird deals. But in the Trump world, they only get in the way; nothing could or should stand in the way of a deal, including the basic principles of American democracy.
Was Barack willing to put a bell on the cat? Was Barack at that point willing to confront the ideological heresy confronting Americans? No. In the name of respect for American democracy and the peaceful transition of power, his remarks could only offer subtle reminders of what was at stake. Though he celebrated the vision of a post-racial America, he pointed to the reality of an America that remained deeply racist without stating boldly that this was one of the lost values to which Trump was appealing, a time when the American white middle class lived in security in their suburbs. Barack might insist on upholding laws against discrimination, but given his marriage to civil discourse, he would not point out that the Donald had been a serial abuser of these laws when he managed his father’s apartment complexes in the Borough of Queens.
Barack could preach that we begin with the premise, “that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do,” he would not point out that different Americans have very different conceptions of the country they love. The myth of a basic true faith for America was as much a chimera as Trump’s whimsical fantasies and Sander’s dreams of a better world in the face of a neo-liberal America. Blunt confrontation and dissing were political sport for Donald Trump that broke the laws of civility that Barack Obama insisted Americans must live by. Barack Obama could complain about citizens creeping into their own bubbles, but he lived in an intellectual bubble common to many if not most educated North Americans, for our beliefs about secular society go as deep as any religious belief and are as immune to falsification as any of them. One must always remember that Barack Obama was a community organizer and not a street brawler.
Is Obama’s secular faith based on evidence as he contends or is it replete with beliefs immune to falsification? Is his belief that politics is “a battle of ideas” rather that of competing forces, as in Bernie’s world or of irresistible force, rather than Trump’s world which eschews ideas in favour of opinions and prejudices? While Barack favours “healthy debate,” his successor disregards the rules of debate altogether as he lurked and shadowed and interrupted and insulted Hillary when he was on a debating platform with her. The fact that Trump lost all three debates, but went on to win, could possibly throw some doubt on Obama’s contention that debate is the rock-solid foundation of American democracy. Is not Barack Obama guilty of the very self-selection he accuses others of, and in a more self-damning way precisely because Obama believes in evidence-based conclusions?
For Trump, selective sorting of facts is the least of his intellectual crimes. He could not care less about facts in the first place. What is real is what he believes in his own mind and he does not even trust that reality, a distrust that allows him to engage in intellectual shape-shifting all the time. Obama is not guilty of that sin, but he has his own mindblindness – ignoring, for example, the role of private capital fostering renewable energy even in the context of a polity like Texas led by two successive climate change deniers. Perhaps Trump in ignoring reality with respect to climate change might also avoid the constraints and heavy bureaucratic burden that states, so sensitive to climate change as California, have burdened those struggling to innovate.
Obama may cite his faith in the spirit of innovation displayed with Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral, American faith in reason and the primacy of right over might, but the winner of the last presidential election is a bully with no respect for reason at all but with an uncanny ability to innovate in what was considered a settled political order. When Trump brought the tools of entrepreneurship to the political process and first upended the Republican Party and ran a hostile takeover, and then the political process in America altogether, that is the spirit of innovation, that is the spirit of entrepreneurship, and that is what should make anyone wary about turning the polity over to the get-rich-quick boys.
You may not think, after these comments, that I do not hold Obama’s farewell speech in high esteem. In my mind, it was the greatest and best crafted political speech that I have ever heard. And it makes abundantly clear, in spite of the brilliant oratory and the rhetorical skills, how thoughtful Obama is. But he is far from perfect. And his political position has many shortcomings about which I have only hinted. In the next political blog, I will turn to the strengths and weakness of his past practices and claimed successes.
With the help of Alex Zisman