At the dawn of the Trump Administration, a look back at the best of n+1’s writing on Barack Obama and the Obama era:
Late-imperial malaise prevails on the home front too. Our new President presides over a recession (if not worse), a dilapidated infrastructure, an aging population, and more numerous environmental catastrophes: wildfires and drought in the Southwest, a longer and more brutal hurricane season along the Gulf coast and Eastern seaboard, harbingers of greater, unknown changes to come. We didn’t have a Chernobyl, but we had Katrina. (Or was it Katarina?)
Obama and the Closing of the American Dream by Aziz Rana
If Obama hopes to save his party and to address the interests and experiences of working-class citizens, he will have to challenge the hegemony of the professional and with it the closing of the American dream. The question is whether he and those around him are interested in this task, or whether they are determined to recycle the failed homilies of postwar liberalism and meritocratic success.
Venas Abiertas by Nikil Saval
If anyone was worried that the Obama administration would represent a break with the past, the President’s recent actions in Latin America should assuage any lingering concerns. As Obama was preparing to announce an escalation of American commitments in Afghanistan, he was also preparing, more quietly and furtively, to recognize Sunday’s elections in Honduras, which took place under a military coup government, as well as to expand the US military presence in Colombia to seven military bases, under the pretext of enlarging the limitless “war on drugs.”
What has happened to human rights in the last twenty years is a hijacking, of the sort Napoleon managed with the Declaration of the Rights of Man when he turned Europe into a “bloodbath,” as Power would put it, under its banner. The search around the globe for genocides to eradicate is the ultimate rights perversion, for it reduces human rights to the right not to be brutally murdered in a particular way that fits the definition of genocide given in the Genocide Convention. This cannot be anyone’s idea of a robust human rights. If human rights are to be reclaimed they need first of all to be restored to the realm of politics. Not the realm of morality, which is always and ever a discussion of good versus evil, but politics.
No demands have yet been issued to a political system that couldn’t accommodate them in any case, but the principles of the new society are clear enough: nonviolence; genuine democracy, including the right of assembly; and economic justice. At the moment, the movement to build that society looks like the country’s last best hope. It’s also the first serious political hope—not less serious for its fragility—that many of us have been able to entertain about our country in our few years or decades of adult life.
Election Preview (2012) by The Editors
On Tuesday, as I knew for many months that I would have to, I will pull the lever, or push the button, for Barack Obama. I’ll do this despite my deep disapproval of his drone warfare strategy, his failure to take the United States off of permanent war status, his lack of leadership on climate change and economic justice, his frustrating inability to frame a meaningful discussion of how best to repair America’s broken social contract. I’ll do it without joy, without hope, like a child swallowing a wretched antibiotic.
We Can Keep the American People Safe by Richard Beck
In his 2008 campaign, Obama talked about Guantánamo in terms of constitutional principle. “Our legitimacy is reduced when we’ve got a Guantánamo that is open, when we suspend habeas corpus” he said at a primary debate. “Those kinds of things erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principles.” A week after he won the election, he said that shutting down the prison was “part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.” Obama doesn’t talk like that anymore.
The NSA, in its current form, owes less to 1984 than to 1991, the year the USSR dissolved and Congress passed the High-Performance Computing Act, the bill that funded the development of the US’s fiber optic network and the Mosaic web browser. The end of the cold war and the beginning of the internet, almost universally celebrated, were a disaster for the US intelligence establishment.
One of the pleasures of reading Seymour Hersh’s account is the way it elegantly dismantles aspects of the story that seemed suspect from the beginning, and first among these is the notion that Osama bin Laden, had he surrendered, would have been taken alive. “Let’s face it,” the retired intelligence officer told Hersh. “We’re going to commit a murder.”
Obama at the Palazzo by Richard Beck
Diplomacy talk might have been unsatisfying on its own, but Obama made it clear that US-led forces have conducted more than eight thousand airstrikes against ISIS targets to date—strikes that have dropped some twenty-eight thousand bombs across Syria and Iraq. The US has also been “taking out ISIL leaders, commanders.” The President added that in the coming months, these efforts will be “intensifying.” They will “accelerate.” For nearly an hour, journalists essentially asked Obama, “Why isn’t America killing a bunch of people,” and Obama essentially replied, “Listen, we are.”
In 2008, Obama famously declared in his Jeremiah Wright speech that it was a “profound mistake” to fixate too exclusively on the history of oppression and to believe that the country was “still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.” For him the whole arc of American experience pointed to the steady completion of its founding promise: “this union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.” In the face of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray—and the conditions in Ferguson and Baltimore—Obama continues to repeat the same refrain, as he did at Selma, where he described the civil rights movement as a “manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents”—one that linked King back to Thomas Jefferson and moved the country closer to “our highest ideals.”
Drones have been controversial, especially since the revelation that some 90 percent of people killed by them are not the intended targets. But overall, their political benefits to the current administration have far outweighed their costs, and Obama has enjoyed extremely wide latitude in conducting military operations in the Middle East.
We may be witnessing the completion of a political cycle, one that brings us back to the left dilemma of forty years ago: how to create a truly transformative majority, at once cross-racial and class conscious? This majority will need to be built at a moment when the right is as ideologically and institutionally unconstrained as at any point in the postwar era. How we answer will speak to the legacy not of Obama, but of the freedom movements that emerged in his wake.
In the narrative world of an Obama speech, the protagonist of every story is in some sense a generation, and the climax of every story is a moment. For Bush, time was always running out, like Jack Bauer’s clock in 24. The decision point was that instant when one billiard ball hits the next, and God willing, your aim was true. But in the greatest Obama speeches, because of their eloquence and ceremonial grandeur, time itself slows.
This Is Not the Apocalypse by George Blaustein
There was a pause, though. It came when Obama was gliding over the heroic history of the American spirit, “the essential spirit of this country, the essential spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that guided our founders.” He said that this spirit “took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral,” “cures diseases and put a computer in every pocket.” This spirit, he said, “allowed us to resist the lure of fascism . . .”—pause—“. . . and tyranny during the Great Depression, to build a post-World War II order with other democracies.” It’s been a while since a President has had to speak of fascism as something that has a lure. In American rhetoric, fascism has been a specter rather than a temptation. But here we are.