The Obamas Offered Us a Better Politics. We Turned Them Down.
As I plot out all the things I plan to write on Barack Obama as his presidency comes to a close, I keep returning to one thought: Barack and Michelle were too good for this nation.
By “good”, I don’t necessarily mean some kind of higher moral authority, although you could make that argument as well. What I mean is that they were good in the wholesome, optimistic, friendly, and positive sort of way. At every turn, they stressed an utter rejection of cynicism and a discourse that runs through the gutter. Sure, they fought hard in the trenches, but they consistently engaged in a politics that thought far higher of their fellow citizens than their fellow citizens were necessarily willing to deliver back.
Just look at this recent quote from Michelle Obama when discussing why they are planning on actively helping and supporting the Trumps as they take over the White House:
“Because no matter how we felt going into it, it is important for the health of this nation that we support the commander in chief. Wasn’t done when my husband took office, but we’re going high, and this is what’s best for the country. So we are gonna be there for the next president and do whatever we have to do to make sure that he is successful because if he succeeds, we all succeed.”
It’s funny. A lot of people will read this quote and conclude the Obamas were horribly naïve. But when I read this quote, and I am reminded of why I got on the Obama wagon way back in 2007. After eight years of George W. Bush, whose political strategy was to leverage fear and use wedge issues to eke out victories, I wanted someone who fundamentally rejected Bush's approach. And that was the cornerstone of Obama’s pitch—that he would be relentless in bringing together groups of people who had been pitted against one another. He seem uniquely prepared for the project of fundamentally reshaping America into a place of higher ideals and purpose.
But the Obamas were not gods. They offered us a world where both parties could come together to solve real problems. They offered a country where disagreements were handled with civility and discussed in a calm, rational way. But everything they offered would only come to fruition if a significant majority of the American electorate ratified his approach. And slowly but surely, that vision of a better America was rejected.
First, it was Congressional Republicans who rejected it, refusing to negotiate on healthcare and rescuing the economy. Then, it was Republican primary voters, who made refusing to work with Barack Obama the pillar of their electoral demands. Then it was centrist Democrats, who thought that they might win reelection by drawing arbitrary lines on policy and opposing the President (it didn’t work—they’re all gone now). Then it was the Obama coalition itself that refused to turn out and vote for Democrats throughout the country who would have the Obamas’ backs.
This isn't to say there weren't bright spots. Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012 was a credit to his initial appeal with the greater electorate. With his forceful personality and rhetoric, he convinced voters to stick with him as the nation continued to heal economically and socially. But even with that affirmation, the rest of the electorate went back to its old ways. The 2014 midterms wiped the Democrats out of Congress and ratified the politics of personal attack and refusal to negotiate. And by the end of 2016, the very majority that elected finally Obama abandoned him in full—even as he enjoyed an approval rating near 60%, only 48% of voters went for the woman he endorsed and who would have kept his legacy alive.
If you want to know why our political discourse is only getting worse, if you want to know why there will be even more money in politics, and if you want to know why political progress has ground to a halt, you need look no further than voters actively rejecting what the Obamas offered. The Obamas pleaded with us to turn out and vote in the midterms. They pleaded with us to stay involved in our communities. They pleaded with us to talk to neighbors and preach a message of inclusiveness and forward progress.
But we said no. We all wanted something else. When people didn’t get Medicare-for-all, they stayed home. When people saw that Obama couldn’t transform the country by himself, they stayed home. When people saw that a determined minority could block and stall a popular president and his agenda, they stayed home. Everything that the Obamas failed to achieve is ultimately a result of those who decided not voting fulfilled their priorities for life and government better than supporting him and his allies. It is one of the great tragedies of the Obama era.
What’s incredible to think is that if these voters had stayed engaged for eight years in a row, the dream of a positive and rational politics would have largely been fulfilled. Politicians want votes, and they’ll chase them based on their underlying demands. If these voters had kept turning out, people would have gotten the message that negative ads don’t work. People would have gotten the message that obstruction was a political liability. People would have gotten the message that a basic level of decency is required to have the privilege of holding public office.
Instead, we’re getting a billionaire egomaniac whose entire worldview is that political opponents are corrupt, nasty, evil people who deserve to be harassed and bullied. That is the politics that has ultimately been ratified for now.
And it could get a lot worse. If in 2018, Democrats don’t show up, the dream of a better politics will probably be lost for an entire generation. If Democrats don’t show up, we will have entered an era where being cynical, where spewing hatred and venom, where thinking the worst of your fellow American is in fact the optimal political strategy. That’s the system Americans will be asked to ratify over the next few years.
We lost a lot by not having Obamas' backs. We may lose things far greater than that in the next few years as a result.