Published on March 1st, 2017 | by Contributor


Response to “Ode to Obama”

By Aydin Jang

With the specter of nostalgic progressivism looming over the country, it would seem inevitable that the study of former President Barack Obama’s legacy becomes an exercise in carefully designed contrasts. Sandwiched between a warmonger and the obscene comedy of our current presidency, it becomes easy to romanticize Obama’s time in office, to talk with sentimentality of the now gone “good ol’ days”. Surely, if we had to choose between him and the present monstrosity that controls the federal government, we must pick our good friend Barry! And yet a solely comparative analysis does not suffice, if the task at hand is to examine Obama’s tenure with at least a bit of critical thinking applied.

Symbolic imagery and emotional representation form the basis for liberal politics. Through the use of public gestures, politicians communicate their messages to the media and their constituents. A snappy tweet, a clever soundbite, an emotional speech given by a celebrity; these are the mediums through which members of this political machine express commitments to positive change.

“Isn’t it great that Congressperson X is taking a stand?” “Did you see Senator Y on the Daily Show last night? You can tell that they really care.” Action and policy becomes less important than the construction of emotional, personable facades. This is true even for the highest office in the land, with the emergence of considerable cult of personality around the now former president. Regardless of what he did during his time in office, people will always rush to defend him on the basis of character. “He was a good person, at least he tried to make a difference,” the refrain goes, as the tyranny of good intentions looms large.

Humorous, witty, presidential, stoic. These are some of the many adjectives used to describe Obama, as devotees trip over themselves to reap retrospective praise on the former POTUS. One must wonder if the thousands of Middle Eastern and African civilians whose neighborhoods were destroyed by drones in the past eight years comforted themselves with the fact that the man ordering the strikes was a good comedian. Somewhere in Syria, did a father turn to his terrified children and say “I heard he was really good at the press correspondents’ dinner,” as a missile crashed through their roof, obliterating the whole family? As she was dragged away by immigration officers and separated from her family, did a mother console herself by remembering that at least the man who was presiding over 2 million deportations seemed like a really cool guy? There’s reason to doubt the probability of such occurrences.

Since this piece is largely a response to the article “Ode to Obama”, it’s worth examining some of so-called accomplishments of his administration that are listed there. If hard-pressed, most of his supporters can throw up a list like this, but how does each item stand up to closer analysis? The answer, you guessed it, is not very well.

Of course the first “grand achievement” to be trotted out is the administration’s work on healthcare. It should be noted that when he first came into office, Obama’s party controlled a majority in Congress. So did he take this opportunity to propose national single-payer or socialized healthcare? Of course not. Instead, we got the Affordable Care Act, a series of market-based reforms originally championed by the Republicans. This statute, based in the concept of managed competition, was merely a regulatory measure, and did nothing to guarantee health coverage to anyone. The plan was praised for lowering of rates for people with pre-existing conditions, which is certainly admirable. However, it allows insurance companies to maintain their profit margins by adjusting premiums and deductibles to the detriment of consumers deemed to be “low risk”. This increase in costs forced many lower-income people to choose healthcare plans with the least amount of coverage. Consequently, Obamacare has only further entrenched healthcare inequality along class and racial lines, and we are no closer to socialized, universal health care than when the bill was first enacted.

The author of this ode also informs us that we are lucky to have known Obama as a commander-in-chief. It is not even entirely clear what the intention behind this statement is, or even how we are to measure the quality of a commander-in-chief. The only specific mentioned is the death of Osama Bin Laden, as if this isolated incident somehow resolved the problem of global terrorism. Once again we are faced with a problematic emphasis on symbolic value, rather than actual consequences. As to the question of qualitative evaluation of the president’s military legacy, what about bombs? According to the Council on Foreign Relations, 26,172 bombs were dropped overseas in 2016 alone. Under Obama, the United States military has been consistently carrying out bombings in seven different countries, killing numerous civilians. Furthermore, despite his public denunciations of torture, he has failed to close Guantanamo Bay or bring any charges against those who engaged in the use of torture during the previous administration. And let us not forget the troop surge in Afghanistan ordered by Obama, after all his talk of peace. So if invasions, torture, bombings, and collateral damage are what you’re into, then count yourself lucky to have lived through Barack Obama’s tenure as head of the armed forces.

Another significant component of the myth of Obama regards the issue of race. If we are to believe his admirers, the election of the first black president represented a mighty blow to racism in America. We are told that with the single event of his election, the racial dynamics within our institutions and culture were suddenly changed. It is certainly true that it had an impact on national discussion, but it is absurd to suggest that one man’s election came even close to dismantling the oppressive and exploitative systems that have dominated this country for so long. It’s too convenient for Obama’s supporters to ignore that police brutality, wealth inequality, gentrification, and discrimination continued at full force under his presidency. “But at least he talked about race!” Yes, but what did he actually do about any of this? Actions speak louder than words, if you’ll excuse the use of such a clichéd phrase. In Obama’s case, it was actually the lack of action, the refusal to do anything but spit out the same empty platitudes, that speaks the most to our ex-president’s legacy on race.
When engaging in these various mental gymnastics, supporters will often provide an apologetic and vague acknowledgement of the president’s flaws, as if this were enough. You could say that nobody’s perfect, but that’s not really the point. The yearning for a mythical golden age of Obama is a retreat from reality, a refusal to accept the possibility that maybe, just maybe, this sort of attitude has contributed to our current predicament. What use is looking backwards for something that isn’t there? To continue engage in this blind, circular discourse is both irresponsible and dishonest. It’s time to discard the odes and eulogies and the forgetful praise, and time to start thinking.

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