We Need Barack Obama to Speak Out
Former President Barack Obama speaks during the Goalkeepers Conference hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
His legacy is being undone, and his prophetic voice is a strong antidote to Trumpism.
Not much ties together the incoherent ideology of Donald Trump, but one signal is all too clear through the noise: If Barack Obama did it, Trump is obsessively determined to expunge it—never mind whether the policy is good or bad, never mind how the policy comports with Trump’s other goals.
Expunging Obama and his achievements is among the most overtly racist aspects of Trump’s none-too-subtle racism. Obama gave us eight years of leadership. This is his reward.
Expunging Obama describes Trump’s crusade to destroy the Affordable Care Act, which in Republican demonology even carries his loathed predecessor’s name—Obamacare. It describes Trump’s insane decision to swamp one of the few islands of stability in the Middle East, the Iran nuclear deal, a superb and risky act of presidential statesmanship that paid off handsomely to the benefit of the United States. But it was Obama’s handiwork and it must go, notwithstanding the dismay of Trump’s own top military advisers and America’s allies.
Also on Trump’s Obama hit-list are the policy to spare Dreamers deportation; the Clean Power Plan, centerpiece of Obama’s effort to deal with global climate change; the mandate for employers to provide birth control coverage on their health insurance plans; repeal of the Title IX guidelines on sexual assault; as well as a rollback of major provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, and a good deal more.
Now, some of this is just Republican ideology. But the part that especially attracts Trump’s hatred is anything that Obama accomplished.
Some of these policy reversals are so unpopular even among Republicans that Trump has punted the issue of the Dreamers and the proposed Iran reversal to Congress. That way, Trump can signal his own hatred for anything Obama did but rely on Republican legislators to save sensible policy.
So, where, you might ask, is Barack Obama, as his legacy and his most important accomplishments are being systematically dismantled? Well, at last report he was in Brazil, offering a totally unremarkable set of platitudesto a corporate audience.
The common characteristic of those who heard it was that they could afford to pay upwards of a thousand bucks a ticket. According to The New York Times, “Mr. Obama has given at least 10 paid speeches since leaving office, charging as much as $400,000 per appearance.”
Disclaimer: There is a lot of simple nonsense on the internet contending that critics of Obama’s cashing in on his post-presidency are somehow racist. Don’t white guys do that? Are we denying the black man the right to make a living? (When a version of this column first appeared, I got thousands of angry tweets whose basic point was, How dare you?)
It should not need saying that it’s dubious when an ex-president of whatever race or party uses his prestige mainly to cash in. The more compromised the audience (i.e. Wall Street), the more compromised is the ex-president.
Bill Clinton was far worse in this regard, and his sins rubbed off on Hillary, to her detriment in 2016. Jimmy Carter was the best and most noble in his post-presidency.
But I digress.
Obama has earned his extended vacation and his quality time with family and friends. He’s earned the right to some speaking fees, and yes, he served his country well. But his country needs him again.
The question is not whether Obama has the right to make as much money as he can. Of course he does—this is America, folks. The question is whether this is the best use of his time, his prestige, and his potential influence. And it is not.
Obama is pursuing several public-minded initiatives, including one on redistricting, but they are fragmented and don’t add up to much.
The first sign that Obama’s post-presidency would not be everything we might hope came in his farewell address. A farewell address is a moment for a departing president to issue difficult truths and admonitions.
Five-star General Dwight D. Eisenhower used his to warn against, of all things, the military industrial complex. George Washington used it to warn against this mischief of faction.
Washington’s words especially resonate in the era of Trump:
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
But Barack Obama, surely knowing that his most important achievements were about to be destroyed and that our very democracy was in dire peril, used his farewell address to take a victory lap.
Instead of a giving solemn speech, Obama staged his farewell address as a Chicago campaign rally. And yes, he had a right to do this, but was it the best use of a farewell address? Not even a rally rousing the people to resist Trump but a rally celebrating his eight years—whose achievements were about to be undone.
Among other things, Obama said:
The economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again. [Applause.] The wealthy are paying a fairer share of taxes even as the stock market shatters records. The unemployment rate is near a ten-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower. [Applause.] Health-care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I’ve said and I mean it—if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health-care system and that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.
And a lot more self-congratulation that was backward-looking and beside the point. This happy stance amounted to massive denial of what was about to unfold.
In the eight months of Trump’s presidency, we have scarcely heard the prophetic voice that drew so many us to Obama from the first time we heard him give that keynote address to the Democratic National Convention Boston in 2004, when he was a nationally unknown candidate for a Senate seat from Illinois.
Remember that one? It was the speech where he insisted that we are not a nation of red states and blue states, we are the United States. Obama took office as president trying to make that wish a reality.
But after Obama’s presidency, the Republican effort to block him at every turn made us more dis-united than ever. And Trump has made divisiveness the essence of his strategy.
So where is that prophetic voice? So far, Obama has declined to weigh in on the greatest threat to this Republic since the Civil War, not to mention the greatest threat to racial justice.
In fairness to Obama, it’s clear that he is reluctant to be a lightning rod for even more racism. But on that front, as on other fronts, Obama’s signal weakness both as president and as post-president has been an excess of caution.
He was at his best when he acted with audacity and tenacity, as in his quest for an Iran deal, a climate change agreement, and an affordable health law. He was not at his best when he temporized, as in his Syria policy or his over-reliance on Wall Street advisers on his economic team. He was understandably cautious on race.
But when events compelled him to talk about race, for example when inflammatory remarks by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, threatened to upend Obama’s campaign in March 2008, nobody did it better.
Wright, in a fiery sermon, listed all the ways the American government lies, and then added:
The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America.” No, no, no, not God Bless America. God damn America—that’s in the Bible—for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.
God damn America? This was Obama’s pastor. He had married Barack and Michelle, and baptized their two daughters. Obama credited him with the words “the audacity of hope.”
Had Obama’s speech in response to the God-Damn-America disaster not been pitch-perfect—and it was—his campaign would have been over. Obama’s eloquent and discerning words, delivered at Philadelphia’s Constitution Hall March 18, 2008, when the primaries were still see-sawing, were one of the best discussions anyone has offered on the complexities and tragedies of race. I will not attempt to extract, since the speech must be read or heard in its entirely.
So where is that prophetic voice, as our republic and everything Obama fought for goes to hell? What will history say of Obama’s post-presidency? Will it be God Bless Obama? Or God Damn Obama? We need him to be speaking out.
With a potential Democratic presidential field in excess of 20, Obama is the one Democratic leader whose words can’t be discounted as part of an incipient campaign. He should be speaking out, not as a Democrat, but as a national leader whose very presence, dignity, honor, and intelligence, serve to shame Trump.
He should be giving a series of speeches on all the threats to democracy, decency, unity, and sensible policy that Donald Trump represents. The point is not that he should be speaking out about race per se. He should be reminding working people just how Trump is screwing them and using racial division as the distraction.
As a black man, wouldn’t he just be fomenting more of a racist backlash? I don’t think so. He would be reminding Americans what a leader looks like, black or white. Don’t forget, in 2008, 40 percent of the white working class voted for Obama. When real leadership appears, there is more to America than racism.
Normally, ex-presidents don’t speak out. But these are not normal times.Obama’s entire life has been about breaking through norms.
Ta-Nehisi Coates titled his new book We Were Eight Years in Power. Like so much of what Coates writes with such moral witness, this is a partial truth. During Obama’s eight years as president, we had the powerful symbol of an African American president. But his power and our power were constrained by everything from Wall Street to Republican obstruction, residual racism, the constitutional separation of powers, and Obama’s own excess of caution.
We need Barack Obama to find the voice that he found in Philadelphia in March 2008, or in Boston in 2004. Today, it’s not his campaign that hangs in the balance, or even his legacy. It’s America.