Addressing his usual crowd in Chicago on Monday, President Obama briefly effected some humility. “You,” the president told the sea of reverent faces that had assembled to say goodbye at his point d’appui, “were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.”
Within this stirring string of self-congratulation, two words stuck out, as might the recapitulation in a long-running sonata. “Change” was one. “Hope,” the other. Was it 2008 again?
From the moment he announced that he was running for president, Barack Obama has proceeded as if he enjoyed a monopoly on these words. And never was it so obvious as during his adieu. In the Obamian context, “change” does not mean “alteration” so much as it means “alteration that meets with Obama’s approval.” “Hope,” likewise, escapes the president’s lips as a narrow and cramped conceit. Historically, “change” has served as a neutral term in politics — a means of conveying that the status quo is toast. “Hope,” too, carries along with it no intrinsic value judgments; if a person hankers, its conditions are met.
During the Obama years, however, these terms have been appropriated. When, as he did on Monday, the president tells his audiences “to believe . . . not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours,” he is not being ecumenical or descriptive, but proprietorial and ungenerous. For better or for worse, Donald Trump also represents “change,” and, for many of his fans, he promises “hope” to boot. For better or for worse, the Republican Congress is gearing up for transformation. As secretary of education, Betsy DeVos is set to shake things up. But that’s not what Obama is talking about, is it?
Cynical as it may be, Obama’s trick is a clever one, for it has allowed him to cast even his most reactionary instincts as downright futuristic, and to portray the critics of his agenda as the enemies of progress per se. On the question of, say, entitlement reform, this president has been an unabashed champion of the status quo, whereas Paul Ryan is a radical and a reformer. That, though, doesn’t fit into Obama’s model. That’s bad change, and bad change must by rights be conservative. Nod as he might to the sanctity of democratic control, there has always been something of the millenarian about Barack Obama. Properly understood, politics is the process by which free people work out their civic differences without resorting to arms. In his rhetoric, Obama implies otherwise: There’s a path toward History, he is fond of contending, and he is walking straight down the middle line.
Such obstinate Whiggism can yield perplexing results. Throughout Monday evening, Obama uttered platitudes that, to any neutral observer, could quite easily have applied to Donald Trump. “You know,” the president said, “that constant change has been America’s hallmark; that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace.” Oh, really? Then should we expect him to lobby for the repeal of the ACA and the amendment of the National Labor Relations Act? “Change,” he added, “only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged and they come together to demand it.” But what of Trump’s supporters, who did exactly that, or of the millions upon millions who voted for a Republican Congress? If, as Obama claims, he “still believes” in the capacity of political movements to bring about real reform, he should be Bill Mitchell’s best friend.
Throughout Monday evening, Obama uttered platitudes that, to any neutral observer, could quite easily have applied to Donald Trump.
He’s not, of course, because in his world there is only one direction of travel, and thus there is always an excuse for his opponents’ successes. Unlikely as it was that he would own up to his shortcomings in his own valedictory address, one could not help but be impressed by the sheer number of alibis that the president wheeled out in defense of both his failures and the failures of his party more generally. It was the press’s fault, for not prostrating adequately before their doyen. It was Congress’s fault, for deigning to disagree with him and thus poisoning the well. It was redistricting and suppression and money and the system and the ugly fruits of deliberately engendered cynicism. It was the enormity of the other team, which rejected the Enlightenment and refused to take opinion as fact. It was tribalism, which, magically enough, had been revivified and fortified at the exact moment he took power. And, above all, it was sclerosis within our core democratic institutions, which, try as he might, he could never quite bend to his will. Here he was, this magnificent agent of change, and yet even he had so often been thwarted by the morass. Down with the contumacious legislature that had dared to chart its own course. Down with the seraglio of lobbyists who were possessed only of self-interest and myopia. Down with the fickle press that too often declined to be charmed. How beastly these adversaries had been. How irrational. How dysfunctional. How undemocratic.
When, at the end of his speech, Obama returned to an old refrain, the words sounded tinnier and more hollow than usual. “Yes we can,” he exclaimed. “Yes, we did! Yes, we can!” But who, one had to ask, was “we”? And what, one had to inquire, can “we” do? At the midpoint of his address, the president quoted George Washington: “We should reject,” he said, ‘the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties’ that make us one.” Indeed we should, but one wished that he had taken his own advice, for it was hard to square that sentiment with the remainder of his sermon. In life and in politics, one has eventually to pick a course, and Obama never truly managed to do so. Is he a uniter, blind to the passions of the braying crowd, or is he the charismatic leader of an insurgent faction? If the former, he cannot credibly cling on to his private definition of “change.” If the latter, he must leave George Washington out of it.
In retirement, Obama will have a chance to reflect upon the schizophrenia that has marked his career from the moment he set his sights upon the moon. Was he the young pluralist buck of “no blue states and no red states,” or was he the superintendent of ineluctable transformation — the leader of an exclusive club of “We”? If he hopes to arrive at a meaningful answer to this question, he’ll need to do more than to repeat his most famous overtures one more time for the fans.