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The Obama “Legacy” and Trump, Sanders and Clinton

There is no Obama Legacy. There are achievements to be sure, but a legacy means a way of thinking about the world, and about America, associated with a particular Presidency, and aside from the very important fact that we elected our first Black President there is no legacy. Obama’s ideas: bipartisanship, pragmatism, belt-tightening, no need for a left since most problems are technical problems, no easy solutions, etc. have been utterly discredited by events, and are no longer held even by Obama himself. While Obama has picked up some rhetoric from the great social movements of recent years– Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter– he has not translated their claims into any coherent program of leadership or change. This leaves a vacuum at the center of our national polity, a fact that needs to be grasped before we can analyze the present race for the Presidency. Let me illustrate this by considering the three most interesting of the present candidates: Trump, Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and then point to the implications.

The Trump Candidacy is both complex and important, but I do not think it can be understood simply as racism or nativism, as Evan Osnos, for example, has tried to do in the current New Yorker. The key to understanding it is to grasp the extent to which the Obama Presidency, and its supporters in the media, represented the common sense of the academic elite, which is based on three main ideas: 1) academics are much smarter than the rest of the country, 2) white Americans are racist, and 3) cultural and sexual politics are more important than outmoded ideas of class. Anyone who has listened to Rachel Maddow knows what I am talking about, as does anyone who listened to pundits explaining how intelligent Obama is. The Trump phenomenon is a reaction against this. Trump is in essence saying that the elites are full of baloney. To be sure, there is more, above all on the question of immigration, but the reaction to Obama elitism– not to Obama’s race– seems to me critical.

As to Sanders, let him speak for himself, in his remarks last week at the Democratic National Committee: “The Republicans did not win the mid-term election in November. The Democrats lost that election because voter turnout was abysmally low, and millions of working people, minorities and young people gave up on “politics as usual” and stayed home. Let me be very clear. In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate, will not gain the House and will not be successful in dozens of governor’s races unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a huge voter turnout. With all due respect, and I do not mean to insult anyone here, that will not happen with politics as usual. The same old, same old will not be successful.” “Politics as usual” means Obama.

Finally, the sad spectacle of Hillary Clinton. This spectacle started in 2008 when Hillary gave up her seat in the Senate to serve as Obama’s Secretary of State. Of course, Obama didn’t let her be Secretary of State, he retained control of the Iraq and Afghanistan desks so that she had a negligible term in office, whereas she could have retained her independence and look something like Elizabeth Warren does today. Hillary repeated with Obama the same self-sacrifice she made with Bill Clinton, and that is why she does not inspire enthusiasm today. This brings me to my conclusion. This Presidential election, like all previous Presidential elections, is a referendum on the sitting President. What is most important to see is that Obama on domestic policy followed Bill Clinton and that on foreign policy he followed the last two years of George W. Bush. We need a President that carries through on the promises Obama made in 2008 and failed to honor: a transformational Presidency that breaks not just with Bush but with Bill Clinton as well. That is why we need to support Bernie Sanders, and reject Hillary’s campaign.

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Eli Zaretsky

  • Michael Quirk

    I agree with so much of this that it seems bad form to cavil. But cavil I must, for a number of reasons.

    1) Trump as “anti-elitist”: While the reign of “experts” is a genuine threat to democracy, just as often the charge of “elitism” is a kind of dodge. Which elites? The “academics” who are snobbishly taken by the MSNBC crowd to be “so much smarter than the rest of the country”? Apart from wonkish technocrats, i.e. the Larry Summers-Timothy Geithner-Heritage-AEI acolytes who sell their souls on a regular basis to the mandarins of corporatist power, is it really true that academics and intellectuals are a genuine “power elite”? They are under relentless attack from neoliberal and neoconservative “establishment” politicians alike, and the vast majority of them have about as much clout as pretty much any white or blue collar worker. Ask yourself: who really listens to a Cornel West or a Noam Chomsky — both tenured, both in the public eye, neither making a scintilla of difference to the genuine power elite, of whom Trump is a charter member along with the Koch brothers and their ilk? Trump is simply a more masterful demogogue, a charter member of the 1% who is also the tea-partier with a knack for riling people up. And if you remember where some of the loudest opposition to the Iraq invasion and the advent of the national security state originated, you would find it in the academy. Maybe they have some smarts after all.

    2) You cannot explain Trump only by appeal to racism and nativism — true enough. Trump is against “politics as usual” which means Obama, not to mention Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and a host of others. But populism comes in at least two flavors, left and right, and the latter, which Trump is cultivating like a master gardener, thrives on resentments that have a great deal to do with blatant racism, nativism, and more importantly the narcissism of small-class based differences. John Steinbeck once quipped that the reason there was no significant socialist movement in America was that people did not think of themselves as poor but as temporarily embarassed millionaires. That is the basis of Trump’s appeal, I fear: his middle and working class fans want to be where and what he is, and blame those on the lower-rungs for dragging them down. They are blind to the very elite that has been waging class war on them for decades, and instead are looking for someone to kick down the ladder. As the song says, “Ain’t that America.”

    3) We do indeed need to support Bernie Sanders and reject Hillary Clinton’s campaign, not just because of her neoliberal vacillations but because of her ineptitudes, which threaten to scuttle the Democrats’ chances at a rout in November 2016. (Her lame excuses in the Andrea Mitchell interview are a case in point: how self-important can one get?) But the left also needs to keep its perspective, even if, mirabile dictu, Sanders should actually win. I do not think that this election is exactly a referendum on Obama’s accomplishments or failures. (And to be fair, the accomplishments are as real as the failures, even if the accomplishments are largely negative — i.e., the economy, civil liberties, and so on would have been far worse under a McCain or Romney administration, especially given the Republican congress). It is more a referendum as to whether the center will be pulled further right or nudged, however incrementally, to the left. Whether, for example, the ACA can be superseded by a more equitable single-payer model, or whether Dodd-Frank can be supplemented by Glass-Steagall, or whether real investments can be made in Solar energy, and so on. The key here is “incrementally”, because if there is a Sanders presidency the obstructionism that will occur will make that which Obama faced look like a walk in the park, and should Sanders not win the nomination, I think we need to grit our teeth and vote for the least-worst option, Hillary Clinton as the damage control candidate once again. It would be nice to think that the American people would channel their disaffection with “business as usual” into enthusiasm for a genuine believer in democracy, as I think Bernie Sanders is. But recent events have done little to support the likelihood of this happening, and I am not confident that my fellow Americans are all that enthusiastic about creating a just democratic polity. This might sound cynical, but I think it is simply realistic, to coin a cliche. It would be shortsighted to pin one’s political hope on one man, however inspiring he is.

    Enough cavilling. Nice piece.

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