We Don’t Need Barack Obama to Save Us

In light of all the hyperventilating about civility after Sarah Huckabee Sanders was refused service at a restaurant, David Roberts went on a tweetstorm.

The salient fact about US politics is that the right has been going steadily more crazy for decades — breaking the law, disregarding norms, sinking into a hermetically sealed media bubble filled with paranoid conspiracy theories, seeking to disenfranchise opponents, etc.  At every stage, it gets worse. Norms & values we thought inviolate are crapped on, lawlessness becomes more brazen, ugly prejudices we thought buried, or at least suppressed, roar back to the surface. And with every increment, the question re-presents itself: What should the rest of us do? The ~25% of Americans who believe & want horrible, illiberal shit (“deplorables,” you might call them) have taken over the GOP. They are driving it toward fascism as fast as the system will allow them. What’s the right response?

Frankly, I don’t know about you, but those are questions I’ve been asking myself almost every day since Donald Trump got elected. It is impossible to not be enraged and fearful about that slide towards fascism. Those emotions can lead us to feel empowered to fight back. But they can also make us think we need a savior, which is an example of how authoritarianism gets baked in the cake too often in our culture.

That was my reaction to reading the piece by Gabriel Debenedetti titled, “Where is Barack Obama?”

How did the most ubiquitous man in America for eight years virtually disappear? Over the course of his presidency, Obama cast himself as the country’s secular minister as much as its commander-in-chief, someone who understood the moral core of the nation and felt compelled to insist that we live up to it. What explains his near absence from the political stage, where he might argue publicly against the reversals of his policy accomplishments, and also from American life more broadly? What is keeping him from speaking more frequently about the need to protect democratic norms and the rule of law, to be decent people?…And, tactically, what is behind the relative silence of one of the most popular figures alive just as American politics appears to so many to be on the brink of breaking?

I’ve been hearing those questions a lot lately. They sound like fear to me. It’s not as if we don’t know what Obama is doing. He’s writing a book and working on developing the next set of leaders both here at home and around the globe. Just two weeks ago, one of the biggest stories of the day was the fact that Obama was meeting with 2020 hopefuls to discuss the future of the Democratic Party. So the question isn’t so much “where is Barack Obama” as it is, why isn’t he visibly leading the resistance?

To answer that question, you need to know that our 44th president is the anti-authoritarian. As Michelle once famously said, he isn’t a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist who wanted to explore the viability of politics to make change. In that quest, he made it to the top of the hierarchy in the world of politics and that part of his quest is over. Now he’s on to the next chapter of being the “elder” statesman giving his encouragement from the sidelines. For example:

Josh Earnest, who started with the 2008 campaign and finished as Obama’s press secretary, summed it up quite well.

He’s recognizing that the party and our country will benefit from other voices having an opportunity to weigh in, and that opportunity would be all but completely obscured if he were regularly sharing his opinion on these issues.

Unlike Donald Trump, Barack Obama is very well aware of the fact that he alone can’t fix it. The only sure way out of authoritarianism is if the rest of us recognize that “change doesn’t come from Washington, it comes to Washington” and embrace that old saying about how “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Anyone who thinks that what we need right now is one person to lead the charge is looking for a savior and doesn’t understand what we’re up against. If you’re feeling scared and in need of encouragement, simply look to the young people Obama was referring to in that tweet up above, or the thousands of people all over the country who are organizing at the grass roots level, or the hundreds of women running for office and doing it their own way.

Obama has done his thing in politics and is now playing the long game of developing our next generation of leaders. We don’t need him to be our savior. But even more important than that…we don’t need a savior. We need our democracy back.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.