Well, in less than 24 hours it’ll all be over. The swearing-in will have taken place, whatever nightmare inauguration ceremony is planned will have begun, Donald J Trump will be president of the United States, and the Obama era will be over. Fallen over, too, is a some-thousand-word assessment of the man and the times that your correspondent has been noodling away in buses, ferries and sinister cafes across Eastern Europe, only to realise that it was hopelessly self-contradictory, impassioned in its ambivalence and vice-versa, and flying off in all directions at once. Even the most preliminary sustained assessment of what is now just ending will have to wait a while.
In the interim, this. Barack Obama was a man who came from the American left, broad, but still recognisably left, to become President of what remains the most powerful republic/empire on the face of the planet. Born of a mother radicalised and liberated by the currents of the 1960s, with an absent father who was a senior figure in a socialist post-colonial government, he lived first in Indonesia, and then in Hawaii, of the United States only by politics, a multiracial Pacific kingdom. He was mentored for a time by a radical black poet-journalist Frank Marshall Davis; he attended Punahou, the Hawaiian Eton, a place that excluded the subcultures and identity definitions of the American high school system. When he went to college, it was to the inaptly named Occidental, in California, a place taken over by the radical postmodern politics of the ’80s and before, Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. He earned a master’s from Columbia, writing about nuclear weapons control, a very ’80s topic, a sign perhaps of both an orientation to big questions and a desire for a heroic role in them. But after a couple of years in minor corporate work in New York, he became a community organiser on the south side of Chicago, where community organising — the idea of enabling people to organise themselves, clarify goals, identify and contest power structures — had been born. Saul Alinsky, its founder, was dead, but the tradition lived on, imparted to Obama by Alinsky’s next generation.
Some could spend a life there, doing that, but they are few, and Obama wasn’t one of them. Whether his next move — to Harvard Law School — was out of ambition or the sense that only major change could make the change that places like the south side needed, or both, is a key question about him. But it certainly served ambition well; he became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, a professor of constitutional law, and was contracted to write a memoir of his journey, which became Dreams From My Father. On the way, he met Michelle Robinson, who was assigned to train him during an internship. The fact that an entire feature film has been made about their first date says much about the position they know hold in the firmament. He was an Illinois state senator and a failed congressional candidate; his political career came close to stalling, before he was taken up by David Axelrod, a journalist-turned-Illinois politics consigliere; he gained the Illinois Senate seat without a stint in Congress; and made bank by opposing, unequivocally, the Iraq War, at a time when Demcrats were rushing to support it.
He put himself front and centre with a speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which drew on the loftiest traditions of civil rights oratory, without reviving old notions of past struggles. He could speak from the black experience without bearing many of the scars and resentments, the embattlement of a previous generation, raised in southern racism or northern indifference. In 2008, he and his team put together a campaign that, modest in its aims by world standards, was radical by US ones, and inspired in a way that Hillary Clinton’s first lacklustre outing could not. The 2008 campaign brought together smart internet campaigning with old street politics: extraordinary speeches and rallies that not only got out the vote but a whole army of organisers; an intensity of focus and sureness of purpose, which they would repeat in 2012, making mincemeat of Mitt Romney.
When he took office in January 2008, his stocks were high among friend and many foes alike; they fell quickly. His campaign and plan had been focused on an America still in boom, imagining full healthcare, a massive green jobs new industrial revolution. But that vanished in the last two months of the campaign with the ’08 crash. By January, the economy was in free-fall, with 700,000 jobs being lost a month, the banking system only just held back from collapse. Obama was urged to abandon the healthcare plan and focus on the revival of the economy, urged especially by centrist Democrats; the move would have meant no great change at all, a Democratic presidency much like Bill Clinton’s, lacking real structural positive change. Obama’s solution was to press ahead with healthcare and hire the standard Wall Street team to run the heights of the economy. The move earned him the enmity of many on the left, who wanted both healthcare and a structural change to the American economy.
This will be argued about endlessly, not least by Obama in memoirs to come, but the argument for it is this: healthcare — even the US-style mandated health insurance — had been attempted and had failed for a century, since Teddy Roosevelt. Each time, it retreated further into the realms of the fanciful. Getting it, and nailing it down, in any form, seemed a first step to genuine universal coverage. Those wanting a bolder move pointed to Democratic control of Congress, but this was chimerical, since a section of the Democrats — the now vanished “blue dogs'” — would have voted down anything more ambitious than what became Obamacare. Even that fight took many months of sharp contestation and then had to weather two Supreme Court challenges. The legislation has enrolled 20 million in healthcare (87% of them have their premiums state subsidised ) and ensured that 120 million people are covered for pre-existing conditions, have reduced premiums for chronic conditions, etc. Politically it has created an army of people who have something to lose, rather than something that was never got. The idea that Trump’s coming attack on it means that it was of no value is pure defeatism; the political task, as such premiums disappear, is to make clear what a disaster this is, not least for Trump supporters.
Losing, it must be said, was the theme from then on. The Democrats lost filibuster-proof control of the Senate through an inept campaign for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, a harbinger of Hillary’s 2016 campaign; the Tea Party rose up, was risen up, against them; blue dogs proved resistant to a ground-level stimulus package of more than $1 trillion, when $2 trillion to $3 trillion was needed; the Obama White House was arrogant and inept at spuriking their own politics — a cash bonus tax credit went out to 100 million people, without them knowing what it was, or who it came from. The House was lost in 2010, along with a bunch of governorships and statehouses, which allowed the Republicans to gerrymander new states. Obama’s attempts at building consensus against an oppositional Republican Party was carried on years too long. The Afghanistan war was plagued by indecision; the Iraq withdrawal gained little credit from right or left. Involvement in Libya was the same, falsely constructed by opponents of both sides as a repeat of Iraq; his drone wars against al-Qaeda and the proto-groups of Islamic State and others were harshly and justly criticised by the left, but gained no support from the right. After 2012, his increased use of executive powers to halt the deportation of whole classes of undocumented immigrants brought Supreme Court challenge and fury from the right, and sailed him close to grounds for impeachment; but wilfully misconstructing the powers of the presidency, sections of the left labelled him, using spurious figures, “deporter-in-chief”.
The right’s hysteria against him, before the 2012 victory, had been about race, identity, the ethnos of America, and the fact that a global personage, a new human being, had suddenly taken hold of the highest office. After 2012, it was a hysteria directed at repeated success, the fact that the American people had reconfirmed their choice. By then a pump-primed economy was starting to come good in parts — although the Democrats were too eager to look at the figures rather than the patchy reality of recovery; the union movement had been helped in a refloat by mandating unionised workplaces for all stimulus package contracts. Equal pay, retroactive suing for it had been made possible, federal action against state marijuana legalisation had been stayed, the commutation of decades-long sentences for minor offences had been enacted. These were all things done using executive orders, all that Obama had in his kitty. Co-operation with Congress on small matters and everyday budgeting was possible — especially after the Republicans lost after a shutdown — but on any comprehensive program, it was non-existent.
Presidents usually take that opportunity to make foreign policy splashes; the Obama administration’s possibly wise but politically difficult path was what Harold Wilson once called “the messy middle of the road, where I feel most comfortable”: small bets on US-backed rebels in Syria, more drones, expanded surveillance and “smart” war powers, ultimatums issued — the “red line” — but then not visibly followed up. In the Cold War, this would have been seen as tactics and strategy. But as their real unipolar power disappeared, many Americans wanted a restatement of it, even if all the means by which it could be achieved — a boots-on-the-ground war — was something they rejected. In realpolitik terms, the US came through Obama’s era with no major wars and a very small number of combat casualties; the US dead, maimed, psychically destroyed and prematurely dead from George W. Bush’s Iraq war will eventually top 150,000. Add in the families of such, and the figure heads towards half a million.
What sort of legacy does that make? A bolder president would have gone for a reconstructed economy and healthcare, green jobs and free college — and might have won them. But he might have lost them all too and become a second Jimmy Carter. A President more like the peacenik he was painted by enemies as being might have pulled back from foreign entanglements and client wars, such as the cruel war-by-famine Saudi Arabia is now enacting on Yemen. Anyone who wants to judge a US President on foreign entanglements is simply judging the office as it currently stands, not the occupant.
The US is a republic and an empire, and empires are hard to quit. Obama was the first black president; he wasn’t going to be the one who pulled back from the provinces and was blamed for the barbarian invasions, perhaps for the sake of his people within America, as much for America himself. He was clearly a man who could be arrogant, diffident, duck the gladhanding of politics when he shouldn’t have, exasperated by its absurdities in America. But I think of him as clearly a man of the left who, at some point, made the decision that power must be seized, in whatever limited form it is offered. Child of a mother who made him get up at 4am to learn English in Jakarta (“this ain’t easy for me either, buster”), a product of the confluence of the century, a man of Bandung as much as Kansas or Oahu, he saw America as the world saw it, but also as it saw itself. He was not infected by the virus of American liberalism, its craving for personal virtue and the clear conscience; he took seriously Mao’s dictum: “Seize power, seize power, seize power.” He took a social democratic principle to the heart of the American state and built a huge force of people who will fight to keep it, He made mistakes, he did not ascend to the heights of an FDR, he killed innocents abroad. Not being American, I was not burdened with having to choose what position to take in relation to him; had I been, I would have died in the ditch when it mattered, every time. As that old bastard Churchill, who imprisoned his grandfather in a Kenyan concentration camp, said, facts are better than dreams.
And now we return you to la deluge…