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The Stupefying Mediocrity of Barack Obama

Photo by Maryland GovPics | CC BY 2.0

As a Marxist, I’m not very interested in the psychology of the powerful. I don’t think it matters much, and it tends to be pretty uniform and predictable anyway: self-overestimation, self-justification, moral rationalizations for every horrendous decision made, brutal callousness to human suffering beneath (at best) a veneer of concern, energies directed to machinations for increased power, cowardly accommodation to the path of least political resistance, a collective insularity of the golden-boy culture gilded with sycophants, etc. On the other hand, as a despiser of the complacent powerful, I enjoy belittling their grandiose pretensions. So sometimes I do like to wade into the muck of their psychology.

A New York Times article on May 30 entitled “How Trump’s Election Shook Obama: ‘What if We Were Wrong?’” provided an opportunity to indulge in this sordid pastime. According to one of his aides, after the election Obama speculated that the cosmopolitan internationalism of enlightened intellectuals like him had been responsible for the stunning outcome. “Maybe we pushed too far,” he said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.” In other words, we were too noble and forward-thinking for the benighted masses, who want nothing more than to remain submerged in their comforting provincial identities. We were too ambitious and idealistic for our flawed compatriots.

“Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” Obama sighed. The country hadn’t been ready for the first black president and his lofty post-racial vision.

These quotations are all the evidence one needs to understand what goes on in the mind of someone like Barack Obama.

In fact, the last quotation is revealing enough in itself: it alone suggests the stupefying dimensions of Obama’s megalomania. It is hardly news that Obama is a megalomaniac, but what is moderately more interesting is the contemptible and deluded nature of his megalomania. (In some cases, after all, egomania might be justified. I could forgive Noam Chomsky for being an egomaniac—if he were one, which his self-effacing humility shows is far from the case.) Obama clearly sees himself as the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement—he who participated in no sit-ins, no Freedom Rides, no boycotts or harrowing marches in the Deep South, who suffered no police brutality or nights in jail, who attended Harvard Law and has enjoyed an easy and privileged adulthood near or in the corridors of power. This man who has apparently never taken a courageous and unpopular moral stand in his life decided long ago that it was his historic role to bring the struggles of SNCC and the SCLC, of Ella Baker and Bob Moses, of A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr. to their fruition—by sailing into the Oval Office on the wave of millions of idealistic supporters, tireless and selfless organizers. With his accession to power, and that of such moral visionaries as Lawrence Summers, Hillary Clinton, Timothy Geithner, Eric Holder, Arne Duncan, Robert Gates, and Samantha Power, MLK’s dream was at last realized.

Obama was continuing in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists when his administration deported more than three million undocumented immigrants and broke up tens of thousands of immigrant families. He was being an inspiring idealist when he permittedarms shipments to Israel in July and August 2014 in the midst of the Gaza slaughter—because, as he said with characteristic eloquence and moral insight, “Israel has a right to defend itself” (against children and families consigned to desperate poverty in an open-air prison).

He was being far ahead of his time, a hero of both civil rights and enlightened globalism, when he presided over “the greatest disintegration of black wealth in recent memory” by doing nothing to halt the foreclosure crisis or hold anyone accountable for the damage it caused. Surely it was only irrational traditions of tribalism that got Trump elected, and not, say, the fact that Obama’s administration was far more friendly to the banking sector than George H. W. Bush’s was, as shown for instance by the (blatantly corrupt) hiring of financial firms’ representatives to top positions in the Justice Department.

And it’s only because the masses are stupid and prejudiced that they couldn’t see the glorious benefits they would have received from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the few issues in which Obama seems genuinely to have been emotionally invested. What primitive tribalists they are to be worried about the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, the increase of prices for medicines, inadequate protection for the environment, and in general massive empowerment of corporations.

Taken together, the two quotes above that constituted Obama’s initial explanation of Trump’s victory—‘we pushed too far’ and ‘I was too ahead of my time’—also confirm the not very surprising fact that the moral issue of classdoesn’t exist for him, as (by definition) it doesn’t exist for any centrist politician. Obama may have paid lip-service to it in his rhetoric, but what he cared about more was a threadbare type of identity politics, cultural inclusivity, symbols and spectacles of the post-racial, post-nationalist millennium, of which he saw himself as the great exemplar. If Trump was elected it can only be because people aren’t ready for this millennium quite yet. But that doesn’t affect Obama’s own place in history: he is certain he’ll be vindicated, indeed will be viewed as even more remarkable for having come too soon.

This perception of his probably also explains his general reluctance to publicly criticize Trump. He simply doesn’t care enough to do so—he has nothing like a deep outrage against the continuous injustices of Trumpian politics—because his task has already been accomplished: he has written himself into the history books by being the U.S.’s first black president. That achievement is what matters, that and his eight years of (supposed) attempts to “heal the country’s divides.” Again, it’s too bad the country wasn’t ready for him, but that isn’t his fault.

Thus, rather than getting involved in any thoroughgoing resistance to Trump—which might exacerbate cultural divisions, horror of horrors, and wouldn’t be decorous or “presidential” (for the powerful shouldn’t criticize each other)—the Obamas are now planning to produce shows on Netflix that will be unpolitical and “inspirational.” This new project of theirs is symptomatic. Powerful people like to propagate “uplifting” stories, for anything else might prick their conscience, challenge the legitimacy of the social order from which they benefit, and inspire resistance movements. Better to focus on feel-good stories that reassure people about the essential justness of the world, or that inculcate the notion that anyone can improve their situation if they only try. This is the same reason that Bill Gates’ new favorite book is Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which argues that things are far better now than they’ve ever been, so we should all be grateful.

I happened to watch a video recently in which Norman Finkelstein psychoanalyzed Obama, and his interpretation stuck with me. Not because the pathetic person who was being analyzed is of any intrinsic interest, but because the type he representsis always with us—and will always be popular, and will always be morally and intellectually vacuous. Finkelstein had learned from reading David Garrow’s biography that, as president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama had a very conciliating style. Whenever arguments arose between the conservatives and the liberals he approached the problem in the same way: he took the interlocutors aside and said, “Don’t get so excited, it’s not such a big deal. Why are you getting so excited? There are bigger things in life.” “Because for Obama,” Finkelstein explains, “there was only one big deal in life: me. Everything else was just small change, except him.”

That’s the key. When your overriding value in life is self-glorification, what you tend to get is the moral cowardice and fecklessness of people like Obama, the Clintons, and, in truth, all centrist politicians. They’ll do whatever they have to do to rise to power, so they can realize their “destiny”—of being powerful. They’ll always try to please “both sides”—a binary notion that leaves out the genuine left, which is to say the interests of the large majority of people—because that is the safest and surest road to power.

Which brings us to Obama’s real legacy, as opposed to the one he imagines. The moment he committed himself to a life of pale centrism in a time of escalating social crisis, he determined what his place in history would be. I’m reminded of Georg Lukács’s analysis of Germany’s waffling liberal intelligentsia during the 1920s in his book The Destruction of Reason. The elite liberals of the Weimar Republic couldn’t countenance fascism but wouldn’t commit themselves to a decisive democratic program to resist it—for they feared socialism even more than fascism—so they ended up vacillating pathetically, criticizing mass democracy while on occasion semi-defending it, fecklessly counseling moderation, thereby enabling ultra-reaction.

While the U.S. is certainly not Weimar Germany, and the risks of full-blown fascism are not as great now as they were then, one can see parallels. Just as the feckless, vacillating liberalism of Jimmy Carter ushered in the reactionary age of Reagan, so the vacillating liberalism of Obama prepared the way for the semi-fascism of Trump and the reinvigoration of white supremacy. (So much for Obama’s supposed furtherance of the Civil Rights Movement. He is arguably one of the worst things to have happened to minorities since the end of Jim Crow.) You can’t be neutral on a moving train. If you try, you’re actually on the side of the reactionaries.

Congratulations, Barack. You’ve written yourself into the history books.

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Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is the author of Notes of an Underground HumanistWorker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, and Finding Our Compass: Reflections on a World in Crisis. His website is www.wrightswriting.com.

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