The president is leaving the same way he came in: with a great deal of vague and fruity talk about “hope and change,” very little of genuine interest, and an undercurrent of bitterness communicating his unshakeable belief that the American people just simply are not up to the task of fully appreciating History’s unique gift to them in the person of Barack Obama.
And he is so terribly disappointed in us! Having just endured the electorate’s rejection of his party and his mode of politics with the election of Donald Trump, and grimly considering the likely dismantling of much of his executive-order legacy, President Obama gave a speech about how our democracy has failed and why. You’ll be something less than shocked to learn that his belief is that Americans are so beguiled and befouled by racism and prejudice that we failed to cultivate the sacred spark the Promethean president handed down to us.
Oh, and we watch too much Fox News and read too many Facebook posts from that right-wing uncle of myth and lore, which deprives us of a “common baseline of facts.”
How did we get here?
Barack Obama’s sales pitch was threefold. (His boasting about “marriage equality” suggests that he may have forgotten he ran against that, so he might need some reminding.) First, he would end our expensive, bloody, and thankless campaign in Iraq and replace the assertive thinking behind it with a more sensitive and intelligent global stance that would raise America’s standing in the world and usher in a new era of peace, cooperation, and security. Second, he would turn his attention to domestic affairs, especially the vexing question of health care, which he proposed to rationalize through a single, large, complex package of legislation (and subsequent regulations) that would transcend ideology and be driven instead by disinterested empiricism in the pursuit of pragmatic and effective outcomes. Third — third because the crisis that precipitated it came relatively late in the electoral season — he would lift the country up from the recession that followed the 2008–09 financial crisis, relying on a series of “investments” in infrastructure projects, renewable-energy research, and the like, steering clear of the policies that had for years disproportionately enriched the wealthy, especially large institutional investors and their executives, structuring his policies in a way that would maximize benefits to the middle class and those aspiring to it.
The president did not spend a great deal of time revisiting every jot and tittle of his record in office last night, and neither will we. Historians will have a great deal to say about it, but we expect their judgment to be severe. As commander-in-chief, President Obama effectively lost the peace in Iraq, made a series of missteps that enabled the rise and the flourishing of the Islamic State (the so-called junior varsity of Islamic terrorism), helped turn Syria into a humanitarian disaster with his empty threats and then turned the mess over to the gentle offices of Moscow and Tehran, and failed to take seriously the threat of continued jihadist terror in the United States — all those episodes of workplace violence and that ferocious pack of “lone wolves” that has been so horribly active that we are becoming inured to its predations.
At home, President Obama’s signature health-care program is a shambles, deservedly unpopular across the political spectrum, a resounding legislative and administrative failure that may well be undone early in the Trump administration. The economy is, to be sure, in much better shape than it was when Obama took office; how much credit his policies deserve for that might be indicated in some part by the fact that employment and wage improvements were most robust toward the end of his tenure rather than near the beginning or middle, suggesting the possibility that such measures as the stimulus bill either did very little to improve them or actually delayed organic recovery. Many more words will be written about this, but they will be in the main more expansive considerations of his failures and their causes than odes to his intelligent leadership, which never has been much in evidence.
Last night was billed as a forward-looking speech, but it was in no small part an evening of recriminations: Not only are those who resist his agenda racists, who care only about “people who look like them,” he also went so far as to argue that people who disagree with him about climate change are un-American, acting in a way that is contrary to the spirit of the country. His illiberalism in this matter is really quite remarkable, although perhaps that should not be surprising: Even as he paid lip service to free speech and the value of dissent, his colleagues and his attorney general are working to sue, and perhaps prosecute, those with nonconforming views on global warming. He further proposed adopting new norms in media and political discourse that would suffocate criticism of his party, its policies, and its philosophy.
So, what is to be done? He proposed rewriting campaign-finance laws and redrawing congressional districts to make it easier to elect Democrats. (He did not put it exactly that way, but that is what he proposed.) This, according to the man whose administration weaponized the IRS for political purposes and whose executive usurpations were repeatedly thrown out by the courts, is necessary because Congress is “dysfunctional.” For the imperial executive to argue for weakening the democratically elected legislative branch in the course of a speech purportedly dedicated to revitalizing our democracy was quite something.
His short encomium to his wife was excellently said. “You have made me proud, and you have made the country proud,” he said. At least he made her, finally, proud of the country as well.
Barack Obama will remain in office for a little while still, but we might reasonably consider last night’s speech the end of the Obama presidency. That is because in spite of serving his time during a historical era jam-packed with events — in the Middle East, in China, in Russia (which has grown larger), in the United States, enterprises of great pitch and moment — Barack Obama has spent eight years under the misconception that the job of the president consists mainly in the making of speeches. And for a man who rose to national attention on the basis of his oratory, he has said relatively little that is memorable. That is because he has relatively little to say, being a man who brought no new ideas or insights to the office, only a pointlessly grandiose sense of his own specialness. He is a man who stood astride History muttering “You’re welcome, you ingrates.”