January 16th, 2017

I voted for Barack Hussein Obama in 2008, but not in 2012. While I fully understand the emotional and symbolic importance of President Obama, he won election and re-election because he was the best in a really horrible field of candidates, and in the years following the historic 2008 election of President Obama, the disastrously failed Democratic National Committee covered its ears and made lalalala sounds while Republican National Committee offered up Mitt Romney as a sacrificial lamb in 2012 and allowed president-elect Donald John Trump stomped all over the occupants of the Republican clown car in 2016.

Gary Younge, writing in How Barack Obama paved the way for Donald Trump for The Guardian, makes his case:

As Obama passes the keys and the codes to Donald Trump at the end of this week, so many liberals mourn the passing of what has been, remain in a state of disbelief for what has happened, and express deep anxiety about what is to come. It is a steep cliff – politically, rhetorically and aesthetically – from the mocha-complexioned consensual intellectual to the permatanned, “pussy-grabbing” vulgarian.

But there is a connection between the “new normal” and the old that must be understood if resistance in the Trump era is going to amount to more than Twitter memes driven by impotent rage and fuelled by flawed nostalgia. This transition is not simply a matter of sequence – one bad president following a good one – but consequence: one horrendous agenda made possible by the failure of its predecessor.

As I’ve listened to and read reflections about the past eight years, I’m not hearing about how America is better for President Obama having been at the helm, but rather I see story after story about what I can only characterize as style. I don’t want style from the President of the United States, I want substance. I didn’t see that in the first four years and that was why I didn’t vote a second time for President Obama. (For the record, I’ve only voted twice for a single President: Jimmy Carter, who, despite the popular vilification, remains, in my estimation, the best American leader of my adult life.) Younge continues:

Racism’s role should not be underplayed, but its impact can arguably be overstated. While Trump evidently emboldened existing racists, it’s not obvious that he created new ones. He received the same proportion of the white vote as Mitt Romney in 2012 and George W Bush in 2004. It does not follow that because Trump’s racism was central to his meaning for liberals, it was necessarily central to his appeal for Republicans.

There is a deeper connection, however, between Trump’s rise and what Obama did—or rather didn’t do—economically. He entered the White House at a moment of economic crisis, with Democratic majorities in both Houses and bankers on the back foot. Faced with the choice of preserving the financial industry as it was or embracing far-reaching reforms that would have served the interests of those who voted for him, he chose the former.

For whatever reasons, Obama caved.

Just a couple of months into his first term he called a meeting of banking executives. “The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability,” one of them told Ron Suskind in his book Confidence Men. “At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.” People lost their homes while bankers kept their bonuses and banks kept their profits.

In 2010 Damon Silvers of the independent congressional oversight panel told Treasury officials: “We can either have a rational resolution to the foreclosure crisis, or we can preserve the capital structure of the banks. We can’t do both.” They chose the latter. Not surprisingly, this was not popular. Three years into Obama’s first term 58 percent of the country—including an overwhelming majority of Democrats and independents—wanted the government to help stop foreclosures. His Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, did the opposite, setting up a programme that would “foam the runway” for the banks.

Did Obama know something that Younge, I and the rest of the world didn’t know? Possibly. I would think, however, that if that were the case, we would have heard about that before the 2016 election. The Obama legacy will not be the Affordable Care Act, his legacy will be the missed opportunity to end too-big-to-fail financial institutions. Younge concludes:

This time last year, fewer than four in 10 were happy with Obama’s economic policies. When asked last week to assess progress under Obama 56 percent of Americans said the country had lost ground or stood still on the economy, while 48% said it had lost ground on the gap between the rich and poor—against just 14% who said it gained ground. These were the Obama coalition – black and young and poor – who did not vote in November, making Trump’s victory possible. Those whose hopes are not being met: people more likely to go to the polls because they are inspired about a better future than because they fear a worse one.

Naturally, Trump’s cabinet of billionaires will do no better and will, in all likelihood, do far worse. And even as we protest about the legitimacy of the “new normal”, we should not pretend it is replacing something popular or effective. The old normal was not working. The premature nostalgia for the Obamas in the White House is not a yearning for Obama’s policies.

The horror of a Trump presidency may make us nostalgic for Obama, but Younge is right: we must remember how we got here.

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