Fri | Jan 19, 2018

John Rapley | The Obama years – dignity and disappointment

Published:Thursday | January 19, 2017 | 12:15 AMJohn Rapley
The Obamas restored dignity to the White House.

As the final months of Barack Obama's presidency have dwindled to days, and now hours, the sense of foreboding is increasingly laced with disappointment, and even anger. To many of his most ardent supporters, Mr Obama was the man who came to power raising high hopes, only to let them down. As he leaves office with high approval ratings only to pass the baton to a successor much of America can barely stand, many are asking if Mr Obama couldn't have done more to prevent the rise of Donald Trump.

Before things get gloomy, let's start with the shine that will never tarnish. Some of Mr Obama's legacy will never be undone. In particular, getting elected was itself a huge achievement. In so doing, Mr Obama smashed a barrier that many people, myself included, worried might never fall. Today, African-Americans can reasonably cling to that little piece of the American dream, that any child can grow up to be President, and journalists now regularly scan the horizon for the promising young black politicians who might yet be White House material (Cory Booker? Kamala Harris?).

Mr Obama and his wife also did something that apparently mattered a lot to Democrats, still smarting from the Clinton presidency: they restored dignity to the White House. Memories of his calm, statesmanlike leadership, and his and Michelle's unerringly dignified demeanour, will only grow fonder, now that the White House risks becoming the stage for schoolboy antics.




Yet that reserve and reflectiveness also had a cold, aloof aspect to it. Mr Obama seemed to retreat so far into the Oval Office that he neglected the needs of his party, of which the President is usually considered the leader. He spent comparatively little time fund-raising, pounding the hustings for allies or building the party's networks. Partly as a result, under his watch, the Democrats were ill-prepared to resist the Republican fightback from an exile that once looked, back in the heady days of 2008, like it might last a long time.

While Mr Obama neglected the Party, the Clinton machine, which also looked to have been soundly defeated back in 2008, staged its own fightback. Bill and Hillary gradually worked their way back to the centre of the party and put their allies in powerful positions, making her 2016 candidacy an all but done deal. Despite overwhelming evidence that America was in an insurgent mood, the Party chose a nominee who was the old guard incarnate, and Mr Obama went along with it.

It was a catastrophic misjudgement, and we will all have to live with the consequences. Today, with two-thirds of America's governors and legislators being Republican, and with all branches of the federal government in Republican hands, Mr Obama's signature policies, like Obamacare, may be rapidly undone.

In the short term, too, things will probably only get worse for the Democrats. Since the drawing of electoral boundaries is a state responsibility, and is politicised in legislatures, Republican dominance at the state-level will ensure that redistricting will continue to favour the governing party.




Apparently mindful of this, Mr Obama has been hinting of late that he might stick around for a while to help his party to start rebuilding. We can only hope that if he does so, he returns to his roots. It's easy to forget now, but back in 2008, Mr Obama ran as something of an insurgent himself. After building a vast grassroots network via social media, he overwhelmed the Democratic establishment, whose commanding heights were solidly in the hands of the Clinton machine.

In theory, Mr Obama neglected his party because he was going to build upon this network, enabling him to mobilise support for the transformational presidency he wanted to bring about. In practice, he neglected the movement as well. Instead, once in office, he quickly made peace with the establishment. At the height of the worst financial crisis in history, he brought in the same Clinton-era officials that many Americans held responsible for the crisis. They set about bailing out the banks and foreclosing homes, setting in motion the populist insurgency that has now come into full bloom.

The Democrats are headed into an exile of their own, and Mr Obama seems ready to accept his share of the blame. If he attends to the unfinished work of his presidency, his may end up being one of those cases in which the historical record is determined as much by a post-presidency as by a presidency.

- John Rapley @jarapley https://brixtonsubvn