Obama in Question: A Progressive Critique and Defense

Many progressives are upset about how President Obama has coddled Wall Street. Yet he has also signed the biggest antipoverty bill in forty years and attained health coverage for millions of uninsured people. How is he doing on his promise to deliver the “change we need”? Credit: Creative Commons/Anne Fitten Glenn.

Four years ago we seemed to take a shortcut to some kind of national redemption. The same nation that enslaved African Americans until 1865 and imposed a vicious century-long regime of segregation and everyday abuse upon them elected an African American to its presidency. The same nation that elected twelve slave masters to its presidency elected a president whose wife was a descendant of American slaves. The same nation that never would have elected a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement to national office fulfilled some of the movement’s most idealistic hymnody. The same nation that made “USA” synonymous with imperial smashing in Iraq and torturing prisoners at Guantánamo made a bid to dramatically change its international image.

We elected an inspiring, eloquent, dignified, reflective type who understood very well that his candidacy offered, and rested upon, a series of shortcuts. Politics is always about power and is only sometimes about social justice. It has a relation to redemption—the healing of life and the world (tikkun)—only through its connection to social justice. The Obama movement of 2008, although long on redemptive aspects for a political campaign, wrought nothing like redemption for centuries of U.S. American slavery and apartheid, and it did not change the fact that African Americans are subjected to unemployment, imprisonment, and bad schools at higher rates than other groups. Even as ordinary politics, the Obama campaign was a shortcut. Otherwise Obama would not have been compelled to play down the memories, ideals, and struggles that tied his campaign to the Civil Rights Movement. And otherwise it would not have mattered so much that Obama’s many political talents include his Oprah-scale capacity for making white Americans feel good about themselves and their nation.

Obama was only the third African American to serve in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, and he had been there for only three years when he ran for president. He skyrocketed to national prominence, and then the presidency, on the strength of his once-in-a-generation talent, intelligence, and self-confidence. In the Senate he pleaded with supporters to give him time to accomplish something before they talked up a run for the White House; Michelle Obama was adamant on this theme.

All was to no avail. The vast crowds of mostly white liberals and moderates who packed into Obama’s speaking engagements could not wait for him to run on his record. Since Obama had planned all along to run for president as soon as possible anyway, he had only to change his mind about when it was timely to do so. One shortcut led to another.

Obama is a figure of protean irony and complexity. He wrote a lengthy autobiography in his early thirties, yet he is short and guarded about what makes him tick. He is decidedly introverted, yet in public settings he has an extroverted charm that is not forced or phony. He is audacious about himself and his career, with enormous ambitions for his presidency, yet he governs with deep caution, even timidity, even as he pushes for huge, risky, historic things. He is disciplined to the point of having disciplined even his feelings. He is almost eerily self-possessed, more comfortable in his skin than any American political leader since Ronald Reagan, who, like Obama, was sometimes described as an actor portraying a politician.

Reagan was more complicated than he seemed. Obama, by contrast, is obviously complicated, which unnerves many Americans. Yet Obama’s blend of informality, centered ease, reasonableness, and personal guardedness epitomizes the style of sociability that is prized by American professional and business culture. Obama developed his affable cool in Indonesia and Hawaii—places where being affably cool helped him get along, negotiating his outsider status.

Obama’s First Year in Office

Obama had barely been elected president when he had to start governing, and he was in full governing mode before he was inaugurated, pushing a huge stimulus bill that he wanted to sign on his first day in office. A month after he was inaugurated, he signed seven landmark bills at once—the largest tax cut for the middle class since the Reagan administration, the biggest infrastructure bill since the Eisenhower administration, the biggest education bill since the Johnson administration, the biggest antipoverty and job training bill since the Johnson administration, the biggest clean energy bill ever, and huge investments in housing and scientific research.

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