Thursday, January 19, 2017

Some Lessons from the Obama Years

In the grand scheme of things the world hasn't actually changed that much since Barack Obama took office in January 2009.  I've never bought the idea, touted by tech journalists and people who write books about "synergy", that the world changes over night.  The world is much the same place it was before, piling up small changes while we're looking for big ones.  Nonetheless, the world of 2017 is not exactly the same as the world of 2009.

When Obama took the oath of office in January 2009, a recession threatened to destroy the world's economy, only the more tech savvy among us had smart phones, social media was mostly a way to keep up with high school friends, anything called a "tea party" usually involved actual tea, and Donald Trump was a reality TV star. 

As the Presidency of Barack Obama ends, it's worth reflecting a bit on the Obama years.

Racism: Still a Thing

The Obama years taught me that racial resentment among many white Americans is still very real and very nasty.  As a naïve liberal white person, my attitude before the Obama administration was basically that, with a few annoying exceptions, white Americans were moving in the right direction on racial issues.  But then we got the Tea Party, the Birthers, and all manner of opposition to the policies of the Obama administration that exhibited a vehemence far beyond what one would expect in cases of mere political disagreement.  

While I don't doubt that some of this was genuine disagreement on policy, the Obama years have forced me to admit that the best explanation for this level of sheer loathing is racial resentment based on the fact that a biracial man with an African name failed to know his place and held the highest office in the land.  Maybe you have a better explanation.  I've been hoping for the sake of our nation to find one for years.  

Instead, in 2016 we elected a candidate to replace Obama that tapped directly into this racial resentment with healthy doses of xenophobia, misogyny, and plain old bullying.  Given this lesson of the Obama years, Trump's election should not have been a surprise.

Fear and Hope of a Black President

Obama's election and Presidency have been deeply meaningful for many African Americans (here's one reaction from Ta-Nehisi Coates and another from Dennis Parker).  Some people made fun of Jesse Jackson for crying at Obama's victory celebration in 2008, but I can't blame him.  Imagine spending your entire life fighting for something, watching the person you admire most murdered before your eyes, and then finally seeing some part of what you were fighting for becoming reality against all odds.  I'm getting misty eyed just thinking about it.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the Obama years is how they laid bare some of America's fundamental contradictions.  We are a country that was founded on the promise of freedom for all while counting slaves as 3/5 of a person and denying the vote to the majority of the population.  We are a country with tremendous wealth and opportunity, but there remains a stark inequality when it comes to who receives that wealth and opportunity.

Perhaps historians will someday look back at the Obama years as a time when America's promises and America's injustices came more fully into focus.

A Reader in the White House

President Obama is a cool nerd.  It's no surprise that he's a reader.  Check out this New York Times article on his reading habits. I was pleased to learn that he enjoyed Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem (a science fiction novel I enjoyed and which won the Hugo for best novel in 2015).  He also apparently has been influenced by reading philosophical writings of Augustine, Nietzsche, Emerson, Sartre, Gandhi, King, and Malcolm X.  Maybe now that he'll have more time to read, he'll continue developing his interests in science fiction and philosophy by reading blogs like this one!

Politics is a Messy Business

The Obama years continued to show me that politics is messy and politicians are imperfect. The enthusiasm with which many on the left embraced Obama in 2008 was a bit unnerving to me.  You would've thought this guy was going to save the world (and maybe compared to his predecessor it seemed that way).   Obama became a sort of Rorschach test for leftists; some seemed to believe he was going to single-handedly stop the inertia of decades of American military hegemony and transform America into a Western European-style socialist paradise.

Unfortunately politics just doesn't work like that.  In 2012 I found it odd that many on the left were disappointed that someone who had consistently endorsed center left positions would govern as a relatively standard center left American politician. Sure, he didn’t close Guantanamo, but Guantanamo is a hard place to close.  You can't just do it by clicking your heels and repeating "I close Guantanamo" three times.

What I'm shocked by is not what Obama failed to accomplish, but what he succeeded in accomplishing.  Passing the Affordable Care Act was a political magic trick.  After decades of nothing at all, we finally made some progress that is admittedly incomplete, problematic, and now in serious danger of being completely undone.  The administration made massive changes to student loan laws, which will benefit millions of Americans (including me).  Under Obama's watch, same sex marriage became legal in all 50 states.  Obama recently got the number of detainees at Guantanamo down to 41 from over 200 in 2009.  

This isn't to say that I love everything about the Obama administration.  I don't like all those drone strikes.  I've never understood why the administration stepped up deportations.

But Obama showed us that you're never going to like everything a politician does, even one as likable as him.

An Era of Comedy

Last but not least, we got some great comedy out of the Obama years.  The President himself can be quite a comedian, and you've gotta love the uplifting cuteness of Kid President.  Two of my favorite Obama related comedic outputs are The Onion's long running series on Joe Biden (see the last one here) and the series on Obama's anger translator from Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

The last anger translator bit sums all this up better than I could.  Thanks, Obama.

1 comment:

  1. This is great! What is your email? I would love to get in touch with you!