The eight-year performance due to end on January 20 will never, I suspect, be viewed with anything like a historical consensus.
When Americans of the Left look back on President Obama’s conduct in office, they will remember a classy, moderate, sophisticated progressive—too classy and moderate—who was often stymied by extremist opposition, despite his not, usually, swinging for the left-field fences. Americans of the Right will recall nothing like that, but a shallow, evasive, yet persistent leftward agitator with a bloated ego who hated making concessions, at least in the policy realm, to Middle American sensibilities let alone opinions. In memory, Obama will remain what each side has seen all along.
My own perspective on him is largely that of the Right. But rather than reiterate the long conservative bill of particulars against Obama, I would rather, at the moment, reflect on two special kinds of disappointment he has occasioned. They are closely related to each other.
Among the worst political myths we have seen in our lifetimes is the charge that most opposition to Barack Obama is motivated, at bottom, by racism. This poisonous claim requires an assumption that America is full of people who cannot accept a black president. Less obviously, it assumes another premise that’s equally ludicrous even if we stipulate, fictionally for the sake of argument, that most anti-Obama people are racially prejudiced. This second premise is that these tens of millions of Americans wouldn’t also have strongly opposed a white president who was, in all other ways, like Mr. Obama. In addition to ignoring the enormous, well-documented, utterly obvious diminution of racist attitudes over the past fifty-plus years, the smearing of Obama opponents as racists ignores the conservative politics shared by most people who are, usually wrongly, deemed racists by the Left. Conservatives will not, by and large, support a president who is ideologically distant from them. Any more than the Left supported Ronald Reagan.
I can think of two reasons why people make the absurd claim that the opposition to Obama is fundamentally racist. One is either sheer hatred toward the Right or a disdain for truth and logic in fighting it, leading such individuals on the Left to play what is too often a trump card in our post-1960s culture. The other is a weird conceit that either all members of racial minorities, all African-Americans, or at least major black figures such as Obama—if they’re politically progressive—must, by virtue of their identity, be liked and respected almost regardless of what they do. Many Americans have grown sick of such arrogant, divine-right attitudes. Their reactions to these double standards, both political and racial, are not what elected Donald Trump. But they likely helped to weaken the impact that condemnations of him as a racist, etc., would otherwise have had on many voters.
Leftists and liberals made quite a mistake in 2008 and 2009, when Obama was new. It was to believe, even a little bit, that the election of a black man, especially one seen by almost everybody as what Joe Biden called “articulate and bright and clean,” might mean a president not subject to strong opposition. No such luck. What kind of democracy or free society would we have become in that case? Obama changed America in certain ways, at least for now. But I don’t think he “fundamentally” transformed it, as he wildly promised his fans in the final days of his 2008 campaign. History having happened to him at certain points, especially but not only in the devastating 2010 midterm election, Obama’s many adulators among progressives missed the political free lunch they had hoped for and, thus, the fundamental transformation. For that, some will never forgive the Right.
Many bad decisions, and more than a few serious delinquencies, can be blamed on the outgoing president. Almost all were predictable, on at least one of four grounds: his leftist politics, his leftist background, his evident egotism (which, we should admit, coexists with a genuine idealism in Obama), and his being less of a politician by nature than perhaps any other president in our modern history. But it seems to me that these things, and especially his greater comfort in a kind of self-righteously agitational role than as a normal politician, also explain another important failure, one which all Americans, not just those of us on the Right, should see. Obama really could have been a racial healer, in the limited but useful sense of doing more to relax than to sharpen racial tensions. He doesn’t seem to have succeeded in this role.
Although I believe he hoped to play such a role, I don’t believe it was very important to him. Other things were more so—just as other things mattered more than remaining as popular as he was when elected or than keeping his Democratic Congress. In the case of Obamacare, that calculus was and remains worthy of some respect, whatever one thinks about the troubled policy. But in the case of racial and, for that matter, ideological healing, it was not a respectable calculus. The man was too concerned with smiting his foes or, due to ideology or vanity, with obdurately guarding against more than fleeting (and probably insincere) acknowledgements of their most valid points. He was too concerned, also, with being president for some, rather than all, Americans—not so much blacks, I think, as “progressives” of any race.
Obama did seem to want a lack of strong opposition from all Americans. Well, dream on. The irony is that he would have gotten less, and weaker, opposition if he’d shown more respect for the opposition he already had.