In a recent piece, Paul Waldman explored how Barack Obama’s legacy hangs over the 2020 Democratic primary. I’d suggest that with this, he is actually describing how that legacy hangs over our entire political situation these days.
I’d argue that the reason many Democrats are so ambivalent about Obama is the emotional journey he took them on…It started with the 2008 campaign, an extraordinary enterprise that gave Democrats not just hope that Obama could win but also hope that the entirety of American politics could be transformed into something that, frankly, it has never been. During that year’s primaries, Hillary Clinton argued that he was selling a gauzy vision that was blind to the cruel realities of politics, and most Democrats responded, “We don’t care. This feels too good.” It’s a testament to Obama’s singular political talent and charisma that he could pull that off.
Then it turned out that governing is not just hard, but often unpleasant. It involves setbacks and compromises even when it’s successful. And Republican obstruction poisoned everything. By the end of Obama’s eight years, what Democrats hoped would be a glorious dance into a shining new era turned out to be a crawl over broken glass for every incremental victory.
And then to top it off, Donald Trump got elected. So Obama started by lifting liberals’ spirits as high as they had ever been, and left with those spirits in tatters. Trump’s election said to them, “Everything you thought was true about America, about how it could be open and inclusive and diverse and forward-looking? Well, America just elected this guy.” Had they not felt so much hope eight years before, it might not have been so painful.
I can especially relate to that last paragraph. Prior to the 2016 elections, I constantly told my friends not to worry because the voters who elected Barack Obama would never turn around and elect Donald Trump. Obviously I was terribly wrong, which meant that I had some deep soul-searching to do. The optimism I’d adopted about this country took a blow, and I’m continuing to get more pessimistic as time goes by.
Obama is a singular political talent with all the charisma that it takes to get elected president these days. But let’s take a minute to ponder what he meant when he talked so much about hope. Here are a few excerpts from one of his most famous speeches, which he delivered the night that he lost the 2008 New Hampshire primary (emphasis mine).
But the reason our campaign has always been different, the reason we began this improbable journey almost a year ago is because it’s not just about what I will do as president. It is also about what you, the people who love this country, the citizens of the United States of America, can do to change it.
That’s what this election is all about. That’s why tonight belongs to you. It belongs to the organizers, and the volunteers, and the staff who believed in this journey and rallied so many others to join the cause.
We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that, no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.
We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics. And they will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come.
We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check. We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.
For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
That description of hope was repeated endlessly by Obama during the campaign and his tenure as president. You can suggest that it was simply political rhetoric, but as a former community organizer, it is actually what Barack Obama believes.
Perhaps it was precisely because our 44th president was so intelligent and charismatic that a lot of people thought that he could transform American politics into something it’s never been, and that governing—especially given Republican obstructionism—would ever be anything other than crawling “over broken glass for every incremental victory.” Perhaps Obama should have been more stern in his warnings that he couldn’t pull it off all by himself. A speech extolling the importance of citizenship at the 2012 Democratic convention might not have been direct enough.
As we head into the 2020 election, a lot of liberals remain intent on looking for someone to save us. In the meantime, the fingers are being pointed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with people assuming that if she simply followed their advice, she could dig the country out of this mess. But Pelosi can’t save us any more than Obama could. In a democracy, no single figure should have that kind of sweeping, totalitarian power.
In her stump speech, Kamala Harris has suggested that she is going to be the candidate to tell us some uncomfortable truths. I’ve been waiting for the day that she tells us that the reason our democracy is threatened is because we keep looking for a savior. That’s not how it works. Even someone as talented as Barack Obama couldn’t pull it off on his own. It’s time we started looking at ourselves and contemplating the kind of collective action that has always been the root of what it means to live in a democracy. That is the basic truth that so many Americans don’t want to hear. In the immortal words of John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”