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Obama’s Historical Touchstones

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This Eric Foner essay on the history of radicalism from the perspective of the end of the Obama era is really outstanding. And it builds upon my previous post by noting that Obama’s own understanding of his historical heroes was flawed.

 Obama’s 2008 campaign, which mobilized millions of people new to politics, served as an illustration of the symbiotic relationship between popular movements and political action. Unfortunately, even before Obama assumed office, it became clear that he had little interest in building upon the popular upsurge that helped to elect him. A revealing moment came at a press conference at the end of November 2008, when he was asked how he reconciled his campaign slogan, “Change We Can Believe In,” with the appointment of an economic team largely composed of the same neoliberal ideologues who had helped bring about the financial crisis. “The vision for change,” Obama replied, “comes…first and foremost…from me.” As I mentioned to my class, one can compare Obama’s top-down remark to a comment attributed to the early-20th-century socialist Eugene Debs: “I would not lead you to the promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out.”

 Debs understood that movements, not just political leaders, make social change possible. Obama has never really learned that lesson. To be sure, he sought to cultivate an identification with history by embracing the civil-rights movement, though this is hardly a controversial stance at a time when Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday and even Glenn Beck claims his legacy­. But even then, Obama embraced a sanitized version in which the movement represents a fulfillment of basic American ideals, not the unfulfilled “revolution of values” that King hoped to see. Obama doesn’t invoke the radical King who spoke of “democratic socialism,” launched the Poor People’s Campaign, and supported the antiwar movement.

Another historical figure that Obama has consciously channeled is Abraham Lincoln. He announced his candidacy in 2007 in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln’s hometown, and took the oath of office on the same Bible that Lincoln used for his inauguration. But unlike Lincoln, who respected people to his left such as the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the Radical Republican leader Charles Sumner and took their objections to some of his policies seriously, Obama seems to view criticism as little more than an annoyance. He has accused liberal critics of being sanctimonious purists, more interested in staking out a principled position than in getting things done. Lincoln welcomed criticism; Obama, who has always considered himself (and often has been) “the smartest guy in the room,” doesn’t appear to think that he has much to learn from others. Alternative viewpoints never seemed to penetrate his administration’s inner sanctum.

You can probably argue that Foner is being a little too harsh on Obama here, but I think in the wake of the Trump election, it’s worth at least considering what Obama leading a social movement would look like instead of seeing himself as above the fray, a fray that caused him any number of problems and ultimately led to the election of a fascist. Not that he can be blamed for that of course and Foner isn’t doing so. But one thing that is absolutely an important lesson for the left is that we can NEVER believe that one person can solve our problems, whether that’s Obama or Bernie or Warren or whoever, while at the same time realizing that at least from an electoral perspective, we have to nominate people who the average voter does see as a leader who can help them. That’s a tightrope.

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