The Search to Understand Barack Obama Continues

President Obama is back in the news, as is demonstrated by recent articles about him by journalists like David Swerdlick, Abigail Tracy, and Ryan Lizza. What prompted all of this attention are remarks he made about the Democratic primary.

Most people are talking about this comment: “This is still a country that is less revolutionary than it is interested in improvement.” That was taken as a critique of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But as Tracy points out, he also said this:

“There is always kind of a battle in politics between hope and fear. You hope things get a little better, you are afraid that with too much change things might get worse, and there’s always that contest that’s taking place.”

“So people also caught that,” he continued. “What they didn’t also catch, though, is another point that I made which is if I were running today, I wouldn’t run the same campaign that I did in 2008.” Conversations around issues like climate change and criminal justice reform have completely shifted, he explained. And as a result, so should the policy pitches. The Affordable Care Act is a “starter home.”

That is consistent with something Obama said to David Remnick back in 2014 (emphasis mine).

“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

I was most interested in Swerdlick’s assessment of Obama because he acknowledged something I have seen in response to the former president: he is misunderstood on both the left and the right. But Swerdlick explains the contradiction by arguing that Obama is a conservative.

[T]he contrast between Obama’s steady approach and the seeming radicalism of his Democratic heirs can’t just be chalked up to changing times. It’s because the former president, going back at least to his 2004 Senate race, hasn’t really occupied the left side of the ideological spectrum…There’s a simple reason: Barack Obama is a conservative.

This is yet another example of the fact that we seem unable to evaluate politicians outside the confines of a pre-determined left-right continuum. By way of contrast, James Kloppenberg studied Obama’s writings and history, and came up with a much more in-depth analysis.

Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do. Perhaps the critics should read—or reread—the president’s own books…

Almost everything you need to know about Obama is there on the printed page. In contrast to the charges coming now from right and left, Obama is neither a rigid ideologue nor a spineless wimp. The Obama who wrote Dreams and Audacity stands in a long tradition of American reform, wary of absolutes and universals, and committed to a Christian tradition that prizes humility and social service over dogmatic statements of unbending principle. A child of the philosophical pragmatists William James and John Dewey, Obama distrusts pat formulas and prefers experimentation…

Obama rejects dogma, embraces uncertainty, and dismisses the fables that often pass for history among partisans on both sides who need heroes and villains, and who resist more-nuanced understandings of the past and the present…

After almost two years as president, Obama has failed to satisfy the left for the same reason that he has antagonized the right. He does not share their self-righteous certainty.

I have always been intrigued by how Obama’s former law school students described him as a professor.

In class, Mr. Obama sounded many of the same themes he does on the campaign trail, Ms. Callahan said, ticking them off: “self-determinism as opposed to paternalism, strength in numbers, his concept of community development.”

But as a professor, students say, Mr. Obama was in the business of complication, showing that even the best-reasoned rules have unintended consequences, that competing legal interests cannot always be resolved, that a rule that promotes justice in one case can be unfair in the next.

The theme of “self-determinism as opposed to paternalism” was captured by Swerdlick, who made the argument that Obama’s conservatism is demonstrated by his embrace of so-called “respectability politics.” For example:

In his first year in office, Obama gave a back-to-school address that Republicans panned in advance as big-brotherism, even though its central idea turned out to be: “At the end of the day, the circumstances of your life — what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home — none of that is an excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude in school.”

That is something we heard often as a critique of Obama. But it ignores the fact that he was first and foremost a community organizer, which is often at odds with those in the so-called “helping professions.” There is a tendency in the latter to assume a posture of paternalism that sees clients as victims who need to be rescued. The job of a community organizer is to empower people to help themselves.

One of the places the victim-rescuer model often plays out is in circumstances of domestic violence. Our entertainment culture reinforces that model with countless movies culminating with the victim being rescued by some man in her life. The one exception to that is a powerful film titled Enough. After the woman played by Jennifer Lopez realizes that her husband will track her down until he kills her, she concludes that she will have to take him on herself and hires a trainer. In this scene, you can think of that trainer as a community organizer.

Of course, Obama supported programs to not only address domestic violence, but promoted reforms to systemic issues in health care, education, and criminal justice. But his message, especially to young people, was always to say, “Never let the barriers stop you from taking charge of your own life.”

No one understands Barack Obama better than his wife Michelle. She captured the essence of the man with this: “Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.” Now that his life as a politician is over, Obama is back to being a community organizer, focusing his energy on raising up a whole new generation of leaders.

Ryan Lizza’s piece explores the desire by some Democrats for Obama to put all of that aside and step in to take control of a contentious presidential primary. That is not a role that the community organizer is going to take. The comments Obama made recently were basically his attempt to say, “Chill out.”

“Just to try to ease people’s anxieties, during this process, whoever emerges as the candidate, their flaws are magnified. People are picking away at, ’Oh, well they are not quite this’ or ‘they are not quite that,” Obama said, dismissing the intra-party debate as paling in comparison to another Trump presidency. “There are tactical disagreements that are natural. That is going to happen in any diverse party. And I am glad we’ve got a diverse party. That is our strength because that is what America looks like…. The differences that we are having right now are relatively minor.”

“I guess to summarize, everybody needs to chill out about the candidates,” the former president said, as the room broke into laughter.

He is saying that we should trust the process of choosing a nominee. After the last three years, it is understandable that trust is in short supply. But Ta-Nehisi Coates might have captured one of the most enduring descriptions of the former president when he said that Obama displayed a “shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity.”

The community organizer thinks we can do this. I sure hope he’s right.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.