The Obama Editor
If nothing else, Barack Obama values discipline. He eschews the 24-hour-news cycle, the emotionalism borne in crisis, the short-term jab in a three round fight. Provoking frustration in critics and adoration from supporters alike, President Obama has adopted a decidedly panoramic attitude in leadership. When scandal strikes, the President, without fail, encourages a collective breath of consideration before assessing solution. “Detached,” “cold,” “professorial,” — pick your poison — Barack Obama is an advocate of the long view.
As the administration’s final year ushers in general discussion on legacy, Barack Obama’s own reflections, unsurprisingly, already bear an historian’s perspective. When sitting down with the New Yorker, Obama mused:
“… And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch we have. But I think our decisions matter. And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President… it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality… I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
Humbling, to say the least. One paragraph for nigh three thousand days. Such a passage will not suffer waste for minutia, but must capture the soul of the Presidency, the man. But paragraphs do not stand alone. As Obama pointed out, the past weighs heavy on his present, informing the decisions made today. Extending from this line of thinking, the future too holds the capacity to remake the past. “Winners write history,” offers an apt summary in the abstract. But more, a quick thumbing through of American history uncovers ample specifics.
Would FDR have held strong in the pantheon of American greats had The New Deal coalition not dictated election outcomes and Congressional composition for the subsequent three decades? Can’t we fairly tie Reagan’s mythology to the country’s lasting rightward shift, the motive behind a Democratic President pronouncing, “The era of Big Government is over,” eight years after Reagan left office? Or, best of all, how could the still fierce debate over a Civil War fought over 150 years ago — the Confederate Flag, and “states rights” justification — exist independent of contemporary racism? The present and future continue to modify our understanding of history, and President Obama’s legacy is no exception.
Which brings us back to everybody’s favorite discussion: the contest for Obama’s successor.
While each Republican candidate would wreak his (and it really is just his at this point) unique style of vengeance on the Obama legacy, suffice to say no GOP candidate would further the President’s agenda or gains he made. Perhaps Governor Kasich’s ubiquitous peace and love message softens the edge, but no matter how smoothly digested, his Reagan-esque vision to cut taxes and vaporize government effectively brings the country back to square one. Obamacare no more. Dodd-Frank repealed. ISIS a haze of post nuclear radiation. A Republican may very well return America to its pre-eminent, “greatest nation to ever grace the planet” status, with the Obama administration demoted to footnote as collateral.
The President’s historical impact, then, resides within his own party. A Democrat must win the White House to solidify the Obama legacy. But who?
Over the past few weeks, Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders have begun jockeying in earnest over who most embodies President Obama. Hillary Clinton spent many-a-debate bear hugging her former rival, while Bernie has subtly shifted from full-out “Break the System!” rhetoric to suddenly sharing a few kind words toward the President before diving into his macabre take on American politics. By no means does Bernie exhibit unqualified acceptance, nonetheless, his pivot signals a growing respect for the essential Obama voters who propelled, and maintained a Democrat in the Oval Office for eight years.
In the summer of 2004, America met Barack Obama. Standing in front of the raucous TD Garden crowd, still the 13th District of Illinois’ modest representative, Barack Obama challenged the nation to a larger question:
“Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?”
His answer, delivered over a decade later to a joint Congress in the nation’s capital:
“It’s a lot easier to be cynical; to accept that change is not possible, and politics is hopeless, and the problem is all the folks who are elected don’t care, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future.”
After all the hard fought fights, the President leaves a simple farewell message to the American people. Never stop believing in a better way of politics.
Using the the President’s own words as criteria, the choice whittles quickly. Bernie is the only candidate who wants to fundamentally better our political process. When she announced her Presidency, Secretary Clinton made a conscious decision to run a campaign committed to piece-meal reform within the system as exists. Meant as no slight, Hillary Clinton is at her best navigating the Washington as we know it. Even more, Secretary Clinton has recently emphasized her storied “pragmatism” as antithesis to Sanders’ style. The policy-experience one-two punch does not render Secretary Clinton an incompetent candidate, however, neither aligns with President Obama’s doctrine.
Bernie, on the other hand, promotes political disruption with abandon. His entire thesis, bringing the ninety-nine percent into the fold, the poor, disenfranchised, disillusioned — the needy — urges political transformation. Likening his movement to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election in Thursday’s debate, the Democratic-Socialist made plain his yearning for a new political order. Now, I do not believe Sanders’ “political revolution” equivalent to Obama’s Hope and Change grassroots movement. Having said that, Sanders campaign does rely on the same optimism President Obama tapped in two-thousand-and-eight.
Unlike Donald Trump’s xenophobic, racist, and sexist insurgency, Bernie dares Americans to buy back into the political system once more. Striking a decidedly ideological tone, Sanders imbues populist policies with an emotional plea to believe, just once, that individual, normal Americans can actually make a difference. The Bernie supporter is not angry; they are energized, inspired — hopeful.
In the end, only one Democratic candidate hazards to address President Obama’s query: In spite of everything, do we still venture to make a more perfect union?
From an ideological perspective, furthermore, President Obama holds a precarious balance on the scale of history. On one level, Barack Obama is the most liberal President since Lyndon B. Johnson. He not only enacted the most comprehensive healthcare policy in history, he also pioneered Wall Street restrictions, advocated for environmental regulation, criminal justice reform, massive economic stimulus, and the most socially liberal policy in the nation’s history. As many have noted, under President Obama the country shuffled leftward, marking a reversal in political fortunes where conservative ideology reigned supreme for decades. At such a pivotal moment, moreover, when the embryonic liberal tilt attempts to phase into established truism, the next President’s commitment to leftist policy is paramount.
Hillary Clinton is a Democrat’s Democrat. Examining her voting record reveals a Senator who, like a good soldier, marched the Party line. In the 1990s mainstream America called for crackdown on the Willie Horton’s of the world. Hillary talked tough. A few years later, Bill Clinton took a hatchet to welfare programs, a popular position at the time that later precipitated a dramatic rise in poverty and deepened economic inequality. Hillary said nothing. And in the early George W. Bush years, Secretary Clinton rallied around tax cuts and the mythical “balanced budget.” Then, as the country turned left, so did Clinton. She came out in support of gay marriage, reversed positions on crime legislation, welfare reform, and tax policy. The point is not to discredit Secretary Clinton’s liberalism. Rather, she has consistently adjusted her positions to match the liberal zeitgeist. If the country blushed red, Hillary adopted centrist dogma. Under Obama’s tenure, she inched left. Always savvy to the contemporary political environment, Hillary’s career illuminates a politician constantly influenced by, and evolving with her surroundings.
A Clinton presidency does not regress the country to Bush’s America. President Obama moved the needle, and Hillary 2016 exhibits neither the appetite nor desire to reign Democrats back. But, in the same way Hillary Clinton operates best within given parameters, President Clinton will not advance the ideological football forward. In substantiating almost every campaign proposal with the Obama legacy, Hillary guarantees her administration will take up the same fights, battle for the same scarred political turf. Or to put it plainly, she will make herself in his image.
Senator Sanders, meanwhile, promises to wage war over legislative ground virgin to American politics. The policy prescriptions founding the Sanders’ vision — dissolving the big banks, ridding money from politics, enshrining higher education a right for all — bases in a long-defunct ideology that finds its most recent advocate in Robert Kennedy. Building off Obama accomplishments, President Sanders would harness the nation’s leftward energy to renovate the foundation of American political debate. Within Sanders’ newly imagined discourse, socialized medicine and public campaign finance would morph from political anathema to legitimatized concerns requiring serious consideration. Just as Barack Obama broadened political conversation to include healthcare policy, LGBT protection, renewed gun safety legislation, and most recently, addressing the nation’s rampant racism, so too Bernie Sanders implores us to reject the menu of “mainstream political issues,” carefully curated by pundits and D.C. lawmakers, parroted daily on cable news and bully pulpits.
To fulfill the Obama legacy, one must embody the spirit of the man. Cloning the President verbatim misses the symbolic importance his presidency may hold. On one hand, Barack Obama could be remembered a dynamic, flawed figure, who ultimately failed to track sufficient momentum for lasting change. His successor could forward every single unfinished proposal only to undercut the grander mission Obama sought. After eight years of bitter struggle, the country elects Secretary Clinton, acknowledging the rifts laid bare under Obama insurmountable, accepting the Obama message a failed experiment.
Should Bernie Sanders gain the American peoples’ vote, he will have Barack Obama to thank. In a Sanders America, history will remember President Obama as a necessary predecessor. Obamacare cracked open the healthcare discussion, allowing more radical single-payer proposals to flourish under President Sanders. Championing the first organized attack against conservatism in decades, Barack Obama reminded us of the America built on social justice, environmental conservation, and economic fairness. While Washington politics of the time foreclosed much of the President’s agenda, his indefatigable dream penetrated deeply, ripening the public for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ eventual campaign. The nation’s first black President gave clearance for the American people to think differently, to engage more powerfully, to vote according to their own beliefs. His hard-fought, if initially unsuccessful, transcendent view of American politics became a central tenet of 2016’s “political revolution,” and beyond…
Of course, 2020 will further revise the Obama paragraph, and 2024 after that, but for now, the President has a good place to start.