Barack Obama may be the greatest presidential orator in modern American history. But his comments yesterday about the killing of George Floyd were awkward and strained. The reason is that Obama told the same story about America that he’s been telling since he entered national politics 15 years ago. It’s a hopeful story about a country that is more united than divided. And it’s never felt more dissonant than it does now.
“As tragic as these past few weeks have been,” Obama suggested in a speech delivered from his home in Washington, D.C., “they’ve also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened.” He was particularly “hopeful,” he explained, because “so many young people have been galvanized and activated and motivated and mobilized.”
As he has many times before, Obama saw in current events the seeds of a more decent nation. And yet that faith in America’s moral direction—which was so prevalent among progressives when Obama took office—feels out of step with the embitterment and radicalization that have brought protesters into the streets today.
Look back over Obama’s past statements on race, and you notice two core themes. First, America’s is a story of progress. In March 2008, under pressure to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright, candidate Obama condemned his former pastor for not recognizing America’s capacity for change. “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons,” he declared, “is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static, as if no progress had been made.” In 2015, Obama even found a narrative of hope in Dylann Roof’s murder of nine African American worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina—a massacre that proved to many the historical continuity of white terrorism in the South. Roof, Obama told the mourners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, “was being used by God.” The Almighty had used his atrocity to make “us to see where we’ve been blind … to the pain that the Confederate flag stirred into many of our citizens.”
Obama’s use of the words we and our—an odd choice of pronouns for a black president to employ at a black church when discussing people who don’t grasp the pain caused by the Confederate flag—hints at Obama’s second core theme: that, across racial and ideological lines, Americans are more alike than they are different. No matter what the “spin masters and negative ad peddlers” say, Obama famously declared in his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America—there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” He ended his 2008 speech about Wright with the story of an elderly black man in South Carolina who—after meeting a young white Obama organizer named Ashley, who had grown up in desperate poverty—explained that he had joined the Obama campaign “because of Ashley.”
The message was similar: that Americans can see beyond the identities that cynics use to divide them. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama conjured “the white Southerner who growing up heard his dad talk about niggers this and niggers that but who has struck up a friendship with the black guys at the office and is trying to teach his own son different, who thinks discrimination is wrong but doesn’t see why the son of a black doctor should get admitted into law school ahead of his own son.” In other words, black people and white people and liberals and conservatives might disagree about public policies such as affirmative action. But deep down they share the same values.
Donald Trump’s presidency has challenged both of Obama’s favored themes. While Obama described his election as another chapter in America’s story of racial progress, Trump’s election has convinced influential progressives that the Obama era was a second Reconstruction, a brief interlude between eras of white domination. And the fact that white voters favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by 21 points has undermined Obama’s assertion that, policy differences notwithstanding, Americans share a broad consensus that racism is wrong.
The killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has done additional damage to Obama’s narrative of progress and unity. Along with other recent incidents, it has convinced many progressives that, no matter how many times African Americans and their allies protest, police brutality continues. And, along with the coronavirus pandemic, it has revealed a country profoundly divided among racial and class lines.
In his comments yesterday, Obama labored to reconcile these bleak developments with his core themes. Echoing his 2015 comments in Charleston, he suggested that the very horrors that others see as evidence of America’s structural racism would spur Americans to counter it. But while COVID-19 and the recent police killings may have politically mobilized some Americans, few of them are as hopeful as Obama. One hundred thousand Americans have died from the pandemic and the unemployment rate may soon hit 20 percent. Sixty-nine percent of Americans, and 85 percent of African Americans, believe that the country is on the wrong track. Trump does look politically vulnerable, but there’s little evidence that the young people leading the current protests have much faith that electing Joe Biden—whom they overwhelmingly opposed during the primaries—will bring the fundamental change they desire.
Even Biden himself, in his comments on Monday, sounded less optimistic than Obama. He described America as “a nation that’s exhausted” and offered a grimmer historical narrative than the one favored by his former boss. “The American story is a story about action and reaction,” Biden declared. “That’s how history works. We can’t be naive about it … American history isn’t a fairy tale with a guaranteed happy ending.”
In addition to describing the current moment as hopeful, Obama—as is his tendency—used it to depict an America that is more unified than it appears. He suggested that many “folks in law enforcement” are “just as outraged about the tragedies as are many of the protesters,” which is a far cry from Black Lives Matter’s call to “defund the police.” And he argued that, in comparison to the 1960s, the current protests enjoy support from “a far more representative cross section of America.” That’s partly true. Polls show that a majority of Americans sympathize with the protesters. But most white Americans retain a favorable impression of Trump. And political scientists suggest that, since Obama’s presidency, racial attitudes have grown more polarized, not less.
Although Obama disparaged comparisons to the 1960s, the contrast between his message of unity and hope and the disillusioned, radicalized Millennials and Zoomers who backed Bernie Sanders and have now taken to the streets evokes the difference between the beginning of that decade and its end. Listening to Obama yesterday was like listening to Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. Despite King’s fundamental critique of American racism, capitalism, and imperialism, he and Kennedy offered far more hopeful and inclusive messages than those of the Students for a Democratic Society, Stokely Carmichael’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panthers—voices that gained prominence as the decade wore on.
Yesterday, the former president, with his unshakable faith in America and Americans, sounded like a messenger from a more innocent age. Ironically, Biden—who on Monday evoked “communities that have had a knee on their neck for a long time”—better captured this moment’s fury and pain. And yet the basic discrepancy between the reformist, institutionalist perspective that he and Obama share and the new militancy on America’s streets will likely create strained and awkward moments for him too, in the months to come.