Barack Obama’s last address as president was, as his speeches often were, a master class in democratic values and sheer decency: It pointed out the dangers to democracy posed by intolerance, racial division, inequality, aggressive political posturing and an obtuseness towards confronting the facts. It was curiously paradoxical. On the one hand, it affirmed great faith in democracy, reiterated a basic trust that democracy requires. On the other hand, Obama was pointed in his criticism of the electorate. “We sit back and blame the leaders we elect, without examining our role in electing them.” It says something about Obama’s legacy that a poignant call on behalf of democracy should have a touch of admonition about it.
Few politicians in history can match Obama’s sense of occasion, exemplary personal conduct, eloquence, moral delicacy and high-mindedness. The reassuring calm, the complete absence of rancour, scandal, bitterness and the extraordinary intelligence that characterised his presidency have few precedents. He may have made mistakes, but he never appeared small; he wielded power but with a keen sense of its moral paradoxes. In one word, Obama was a class act of the like we rarely see in politics.
While Obama still remains personally popular, it is difficult not to wonder and express regret at the deep paradoxes at the heart of his presidency. His achievements are considerable. It is often said of politicians that a true measure of their legacy emerges not in years, but in decades. Nevertheless, the sheer contrast between the man and the country he hands over to Donald Trump begs unpacking. How could a presidency so above partisanship leave such a bitterly divided country? How could the promise of a post-racial America, always a tall order, unleash a deeper racist politics? How did the politics of hope convert so quickly into a politics of fear? And how did the politics of reason slip into atavism on his watch? How did the achievement of saving the American economy translate into despondency about its future? How could Obama prepare the ground for Trump? These are large questions that cannot be unpacked in a column.
They require a deep engagement with the economic and social forces shaping the world. But they also raise interesting questions about Obama’s political style, and his quest for objectivity. His greatness was that he appeared above politics; in retrospect that was also a weakness.
The most persistent criticism of Obama was that he was always “professorial.” The idea of a politics that could rise above partisanship, a voice of reconciliation that could see the warring parties from on high and grasp the truth in each position, had always an element of fantasy to it. It underestimated the underlying rancour and division that already characterised society. For an alarmingly significant section, Obama’s election was itself an affront; his call for bipartisanship was never going to be reciprocated. The fundamental challenge of politics is that in the final analysis your opponents have no incentive to create the conditions under which you succeed. The claim of being above partisanship infuriates partisans of both sides even more; to them it seems to express moral contempt for the ordinary drivers of politics.
Obama was a metaphysical conservative. To those impatient for radical change, he was disappointing: While he saved the economy with a deft hand, many would argue he did not even attempt the big structural reforms that would make America less class divided. The cruder version of this charge is that he remained, in the final analysis, besotted to the same belief in finance and globalisation that had produced the crisis in the first place. But in Obama’s case, the caution seemed to express a deeper sensibility; the sense that the panacea radical change promised could turn out to be much more uncertain and fraught.
Obama always displayed a keen sense of the limits of our ability to shape the world. It might be easy to overstate the importance of a fragment Obama wrote on T.S. Eliot as a young man. But the literary critic, Edward Mendelson’s gloss on that fragment does seem to get Obama right. Mendelson wrote, “Eliot’s conservatism is instead a tragic, fatalistic vision of a world that cannot be reformed in the way that liberalism hopes to reform it; it is a fallen world that can never repair itself, but needs to be redeemed.” Obama, in that fragment, seems to express sympathy with elements of this fatalism. In fact, fatalism seems to be an almost necessary condition for achieving the kind of objectivity and self-clarity Obama achieved. But it also predisposed him to incrementalism. His resounding cry “Yes, we can” carried the whisper “so long as we are cautious.”
Obama’s studied reticence on the question of race always infuriated critics. As Cornel West, a bitter critic on the Left, in what might be a summation of Obama’s political style once put it, “Obama was above the fray, he was never in the fray.” This has to be the most difficult of political questions for Obama: Given the depth of racial animosity, it is hard to second guess whether more outspokenness would have achieved more or less, politically. But his cool objectivity seemed something of an affront to all sides. To those suffering it sublimated oppression into analysis; to racists it seemed infuriating because it did not take the bait. The structure of the problem remained intact.
The sense of the tragic complexities of power pervaded Obama’s thinking of international relations. His ascent to office was marked by the expectation that he would exemplify the limits of power: Limiting the hubris of what America could achieve in the world, limiting executive power, and restoring America’s credibility in the conduct of war. As he had indicated in his Nobel address, he had something of the same sense of fatalism and tragedy about international politics that Reinhold Niebuhr did: The attempts to limit power also have their limitations. He got criticised for not trying hard enough on Guantanamo and use of executive power more generally. His misjudgements on Russia, Libya, and Syria left a deeply fraught legacy. It has also left America and the world confused about how much of the power of the American example does indeed depend on its exercise of power.
Obama’s humility was to understand, almost professorially, the limits of what leaders can do. It was a philosophy of anti-hubris. It combined high moral clarity with a pessimism about instruments of change. That combination could not withstand an age clamouring for more, and willing to risk hubris. A great president also left a great moral storm. Whether it is because America did not deserve him or he was not up to the task, history will decide.