By the time Barack Obama was about to be elected, I had just enrolled in a Master’s program in English, having grown up around conservatives and now surrounded by liberals. I had a respect for both Republicans and Democrats and their differing perspectives, but didn’t feel like either one. I’ll never forget the emerging polarization as Obama was elected: the celebration and the grief. Obama’s presidency is the first I witnessed since coming to a political maturity. Under his presidency, and my college education, I learned the depth and complexity of American politics and culture.
YES WE CAN
By the time I started grad school I was fascinated with the power of rhetoric. I remember my first thought was how genius Obama’s campaign rhetoric was. His policies wouldn’t matter as much as his speeches and iconography. How simple, how positive. It’s the first thing that told me this guy could get elected. Who is against hope? Who doesn’t want change? It was vague enough, positive enough, simple enough, bold enough even spiritual enough for unhappy Americans, particularly liberal ones, after 8 years of a Republican president. It’s also typically progressive. Progress and change were presented as audacious protest, reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement. Liberals electing Obama saw themselves just like activists of the 1960s, bringing not just another administration, but a revolution. Genius campaign strategy for a young senator with very little experience and few specific plans, except the vague and controversial promise to gain entitlement for various identity groups despite a lack of consensus from the population.
I soon saw riveting polarization like I’d never seen before. The Affordable Care Act was passed, everyone seemed to either hail Obama as a people’s Messiah or curse him as a taxing witch doctor. There was no room for those who saw him merely as a less-than-informed man with good intentions and a flawed philosophy who inherited a complex issue that he would mostly make a mess of, but probably also help some people out. I didn’t remember this much polarization during Bush or Clinton (though to be fair I was younger and paid less attention in those years).
Looking back, I never became a fan of Obama, but I always felt some sympathy for the man after every barrage of hatred from conservative critics, much of which was based on ignorance, misinformation, and hypocrisy. I am sure that to many conservatives a fella like me probably looked like an Obama fan. I never had a “Nobama” bumper sticker. Never called him an abomination president. Never accused him of being a communist/secret Muslim/Kenyan/witch doctor/anti-Christ. My college education at a Christian university prevented me from arriving at such conclusions. I was taught to look into rumors to see if they were true, and to let my speech be seasoned with salt. I guess that made me a secret Democrat?
So I blame conservatives for the “failure” of politically transcendent folks like me to criticize him enough. If they’d actually approached him with educated minds and just judgments, I wouldn’t have found myself having to respond to their critiques with “actually…that news story is a hoax,” and “actually, if you watch the whole video, the quote had a different context.” I found myself defending Obama not because I liked him, but because his enemies hated him so much they either made up lies about him or were too blind to tell the lies from truth. A minister trained in a rigid preaching academy once even called me a CINO (Christian In Name Only) because I praised an educational reform Obama supported and didn’t condemn him for being NEA friendly. I searched the scriptures to find support for his theology, but the only Barack I found was a minor character in the book of Judges.
I look back at some of the myths about Obama that in 8 years never came true:
- Those death panels in Obamacare? There never were any.
- The part in Obamacare where it gives free healthcare to illegal immigrants? Actually, while some local aid may extend to undocumented immigrants (like when hospitals treat anyone in an emergency regardless of their status, a policy that predates Obamacare and even most conservatives are ok with), the AFA actually forbids federal money from going to undocumented immigrants.
- What about his Muslim faith? You mean his Christian faith? The fact that he, a long-standing member of the United Church of Christ, stated he was a devout Christian who believes in “the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ”? Sure, his biological father was raised Muslim, but turned atheist. He eats pork (even during Ramadan), drinks alcohol, promotes LGBT rights, and swore his oath of office on the Bible. Yet every diplomatic gesture toward the people of the Middle-East and Arab Americans was seen as a sign of Obama’s secret Islam-i-ness. Shoot, after the election, almost a quarter of Americans thought he was part Arab, and two years in, nearly 1 in 5 Americans thought he was Muslim. And even if he was Arab, that’s an ethnicity, not a religion. Americans who don’t know the difference should stay away from the polls.
- And wasn’t he supposed to have been born in Kenya? It was a rumor perpetuated by famous critics like Donald Trump. Even when a birth certificate was supplied, 20% of Americans still believed that Obama was still born somewhere other than on U.S. soil.
- And when did he take all our guns? Or any of them? On the contrary, during his 8 years, guns rights have expanded. He signed two bills that reduced restrictions on gun owners. Obama signed a law allowing people to carry guns on Amtrak trains.
- The time he told illegal immigrants to vote? He never did such a thing.
- Or how the book of Revelation allegedly predicts him as The Anti-Christ?…Which book of Revelation are you readin’, honey?
In addition to defending the president from false attacks, I found a number of his actions praiseworthy:
- He sort of banned some torture (including waterboarding)
- He placed restrictions on lobbying the Whitehouse
- He added 2 million acres of land to National Wildlife Preservation
- He increased regulation on credit default swaps on Wall Street
- He successfully used diplomacy with Russia and Iran to reduce nuclear weapons
- He lifted the economic embargo on Cuba
- He supported a plan to resettle Syrian refugees
- He presided over the de-population of our over-populated prison system
- He deferred deportation for 7000,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children.
- He urged diplomacy and understanding between the West/Christians and the Middle-East/Muslims, and identified extremist groups who exploit the vulnerable, rather than vilifying peaceful Muslims for the actions of extremists.
- He made efforts to block the Dakota Access pipeline, preventing a corporation from desecrating land that does not belong to the United States of America
Seeing the election of Donald Trump, I already see some of the things I will miss about Barack Obama’s personal character: his collected temperament, his class when addressing criticism, his tactful use of precise and cogent rhetoric. The problem is, regardless of how essential they are to responsible leadership, these are mostly symbolic, surface impressions.
So if I defended Obama so much, and if there is so much I suddenly miss about him as President, why am I not an Obama fan?
Many reasons. For one, as the Associated Press put it within the first few months of his term, he “backpedaled on an array of issues, gingerly shifting positions as circumstances dictate while ducking for political cover to avoid undercutting his credibility and authority.” I don’t trust any politician who behaves that way, and sadly, many of them do. If you were a liberal expecting a political Messiah, it didn’t take long for Obama to fall into the space most every president does—being much like the old boss, choosing expediency over ideals, just like Trump began doing before he even stepped into office.
Consider this list of flaws I found in Obama’s leadership:
- He forced the Affordable Care Act through prematurely, passing a highly complicated and counter-intuitive law, and further dividing both Congress and America.
- His blatant dishonesty with the American people about everyone keeping their insurance plans and doctors under the AFA.
- Most of the jobs he created were only temporary or part-time.
- He allowed our tax system to remain and become further complicated, doing little to lower our national debt or prevent corporations and the one percent from taking advantage of tax loopholes.
- At first he made the Whitehouse more transparent than in the past, but soon became known for his “war on whistleblowers,” including the national hero Edward Snowden.
- He only “ended” one U.S. War, the war in Iraq, and initiated drone strikes in 5 other countries, which are acts of war. I do think he demonstrated exceptional personal diplomacy, but his realpolitik approach only made his diplomacy seem a cover for continuing unsound warfare in the Middle East and create further enemies.
- He expanded the use of drone warfare that has led to civilian casualties.
- He failed to close Guantanamo (granted, he seems to have tried, or tried talking about it).
- He tried to persuade Europe to implement deficit reduction strategies that he himself was not willing to implement, focusing too much on stimulus.
- He pushed for liberal interventionism in countries that did not want liberal democratic involvement (nor would it have worked).
- Even as a black president championing the rights of urban minorities, his justice department distances itself from addressing institutional racism and corruption in police departments across the country.
- He failed to use his executive power to bail out the island of Puerto Rico, an American colony that has no power to vote (and therefore couldn’t vote for or against him) and has long been set up for economic failure by our government.
- While his efforts to heal divides between America and the Arab world were at times admirable and respectful, often his diplomacy with the Middle East and Muslim people erred on the side of naivety and irresponsibility, as when he continually insisted the victims of Islamic jihadists were random, or when he said, “future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” It’s no wonder many conservatives thought him a “secret Muslim.”
- Also, at the same time, he implemented imperialistic policies in the Middle East that subverted his own efforts to build trust between two very different worlds.
And then there’s his smugness, combined with his coolness that groomed America, particularly the young, into believing he was a good president because he was a cool president. He sometimes carried the air that he knew what he was doing, that it would obviously work, that responsible and progressive and hip Americans would just get it, and backwards, uninformed Americans just muddled up his efforts to do what was obviously the right thing for America, being on “the right side of history” in every decision he was making. This smugness deafened the ears of liberals to any criticism. A clear example is when Obama took credit for taking in Syrian refugees, exaggerating the number and claiming he was “very proud of this moment,” despite previously doing nothing to halt the bloodshed.
And while his coolness made him the coolest president in decades, drawing countless Americans to actually focus on politics for once, I believe this actually backfired. People who liked Obama seemed to like him most because he was cool. Ironically, it could be that our first black president was judged not by the content of his policies, but by the hue of his trendiness. Think of how many times you saw him show up on SNL or reading mean tweets about him. That was cool. The problem is, the President’s job isn’t to be cool, and it’s especially not his job to get you to like him because he’s cool. With a cool veneer, it didn’t matter what his policies were or what decisions he made. He was cool. His approval rating would never drop enough. Because he was cool and did an episode of “Between Two Ferns.”
In a way, Obama’s addiction to being cool with the public helped paved the way for a Trump presidency. Obama reads mean tweets, Trump creates mean tweets. Obama goes on SNL, Trump goes on SNL. Before you know it, several seasons of Celebrity Apprentice somehow looks good on a political resume, because hey, the current president was interviewed by Zach Galifanikas as a joke. Obama’s efforts to remain cool with younger generations based on things irrelevant to his job bred in the public both a love for such tactics and a disdain for Obama for using them, insomuch that right wing populists chose a “cool” president of their own, a man brimming with irrelevancies that the public nevertheless saw as somehow qualifying. Obama wasn’t telling youth that presidents can be cool; he was telling America that he was cool. Now, we have an upcoming president who gained popularity because he told the nation he would to tremendously the best things, but didn’t say how they would be accomplished, or why they should be done. Like Trump, Obama knew how to coast on his own popularity by assuring fans that he was good for the job mainly because they found him to be really, really cool.
Looking back, it’s always hard to tell what kind of President we had until many years later, but in this moment I see Obama as a lukewarm president. I see this firstly because his supporters set his expectations too high: “Our first black President! And a lawyer like Ghandi!” Secondly, because if you total up all the damning criticism of everything he did by the right, in comparison the real him ain’t that bad. Where Obama failed, he wasn’t too different from his predecessor, George W. Bush. The main difference is that Obama’s election and continued popularity survived on the promise to liberals that he would accomplish goals that never came to fruition.
How did the country overall do? I think it all depends on your perspective. From an economic standpoint alone, the national debt increased tremendously. Yet it has increased for the past 100 years. We had the biggest job growth in 20 years. Unemployment was cut in half. The Stockmarket tripled.
And did America ever become post-racial? That seemed to be the hope from liberals. Clearly we were not racist enough to not elect Obama 8 years ago, especially considering his name was Barack (which sounds like Iraq) Hussein (as in Saddam) Obama (rhymes with Osama). How many apocalyptic conspiracy theorists thought this was a sign of doom? And yet, if America isn’t racist, how do we explain the racist anger that drove so much of the Trump campaign’s success?
What I learned about race in America is that we are far from resolving tensions, and, like with many issues, neither liberal or conservative politics are the answer. During Obama’s whole term, Democrats and Republicans attacked each other as racist. “Republican policies are against minorities.” “Democrat policies give minorities free stuff and Obama hates white people.” Like a domino effect, the fear of racism, almost more than racism itself, made those who disagree fear each other. Obama was our first black president, and I’m glad we have reached a place where we could elect a black man as president. I also think we have been in a place where many people would elect a man, no matter how qualified, simply because he was black.
I know it’s too soon to evaluate the effect of the Obama years historically, and every era is far more than just one man, but from where I stood in the past 8 years I came to see the outright smugness of liberals and paranoia of conservatives. Spending time with academic liberals, I learned they weren’t the conspiratorial monsters conservatives made them out to be, and Obama wasn’t worth hating. However, I saw in liberalism the hypocrisy of their idols: tolerance (except for the white Christian male world), equality (except when we’re elitist), inclusion (even though you work in a mostly white office) progress (through policing language rather than making tough legislative calls). I spent some time around well off, educated, insulated liberals whose beliefs were easy because they were never challenged. In other words, I witnessed a liberal version of what I myself was in my time with conservatives. Disagree with a liberal, and you’re a racist, misogynist homophobe. Well, I’ve known countless conservatives in my life, and many of them were far, far more decent people than the confidence man Donald Trump.
I learned in the past 8 years that conservatives and liberals have a lot more common than they admit: Self-righteousness, disdain, fear, intellectual laziness, and a desire to have their views forced on others. I think Obama’s presidency was one thing that helped reveal that to me. I fear that a Trump presidency will deepen that gulf of entrenched hypocrites on both sides even more. But I also learned that conservatives and liberals have a lot in common in other ways: belief in America as a place of freedom, safety, security, opportunity, and prosperity.
While hatred from alt-right groups, Tea Party enthusiasts, and conservative media clowns like Beck, Lumbaugh, and Hannity are in large part responsible for the wave that gave rise to Donald Trump, I think that Obama himself shares some of the blame for Trump’s success. As Josh Kraushaar of The National Journal explains, “By spending his final two years doing end-runs around Congress on immigration and resisting any changes to his signature health care law, he all but invited Trump’s autocratic promises to fix things.” Obama had a smug way of telling the world he would fix things by bypassing all naysayers. Trump has an abrasive way of doing the same.
Ironically, the liberal Messiah’s smug stubbornness in the remainder of his second term was like the straw that broke the camel’s back, or in this case, the donkey’s back, and let the elephant parade on in with an anti-Messiah of their own, a man who, like Obama, used his identity and charisma to gain favor despite having little experience with politics or having a clear plan for the country.
In this current reflection, I see Obama as a lukewarm president. But that doesn’t make him stand out as one. In fact, I think most have been. I think most world leaders are. With every election, I am reminded of why Christians must invest our faith and energy in the Messiah, not some worldly puppet we prop up with the same false hopes.
Can we do that? Can we serve Jesus and not the state? Yes we can.
I believe in the audacity of hoping in Jesus, not in world leaders. In the next 4-8 years, I fully expect all Christians to believe in the same thing, and not be conned.