America's Rejection of the Politics of Barack Obama

The president’s belief in policies that can benefit all Americans is being repudiated by voters, in favor of a vision of politics as a zero-sum game.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The 2016 presidential race represents a vivid rejection of the Obama style. This is easy to miss: His approval ratings are climbing, and Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary by running as his successor. But the two most dramatic and portentous campaigns of the year, Donald Trump’s vertiginous win and Bernie Sanders’s astonishing insurgency, both flew in the face of the Obama era’s premises.

The Obama style had two pillars. He brought to apotheosis the American political tradition of redemptive constitutionalism. This is the creed of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s nationally televised speech on the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, in which he promised, “we shall overcome.” Redemptive constitutionalism holds that democracy and equal freedom really are the nation’s foundations, that slavery and Jim Crow were terrible deviations from these principles, and that, if we manage to take them seriously, to live by them, Americans will finally be free together.

In one respect, Obama’s victory and inauguration unavoidably embodied a version of this idea: a black man speaking the constitutionally prescribed oath, as Lincoln had done, and invoking the Declaration of Independence, not to promise equality but to pronounce it. Short-lived fantasies of a “post-racial” America were one symptom of this moment. A Tom Toles cartoon quoted the iconic “all men are created equal” and added, as if a note of legislative history, “Ratified November 4, 2008.” The fantasy of redemption was instantaneously ironized, of course—on the election-eve episode of the Daily Show, Larry Wilmore informed Jon Stewart, “We’re square”—as if the country’s black-white ledger were balanced by one symbolic election. But the audience laughed precisely because so many people wanted to feel it might be true.

Obama’s commitment to a redemptive version of American politics went much deeper than the fact of his race. Both in his campaigns and in the public-facing aspects of governing, he insisted on common principles and the possibility of a shared perspective. His persistent refrain, from the career-making speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to the elegiac address after the Dallas murders of 2016, has been that unity is deeper than division. Race has always been a central preoccupation of the redemptive style of American politics. That is partially because it has been the basis of national crimes and savage inequality. But the redemptive style also promises that, if Americans come together in the right ways, including but not limited to healing the angry wounds of racial injustice, their shared principles can make them whole.

The second pillar of the Obama style has been technocracy. The Obama administration has been intensely deferential to the expertise of conventional authorities: generals and national-security professionals, political operatives like Rahm Emanuel, and, above all, mainstream economists and bankers such as Larry Summers and Tim Geithner. Deference to the professional culture of economists led, in particular, to trade policies that pressed aggressively toward liberalization and harmonization, until a political rebellion against the Trans-Pacific Partnership drove even Hillary Clinton to repudiate it while campaigning. The technocratic approach to governing rests on the idea that there is a right way to manage major policy questions, and that much of the point of electoral politics is to keep the way clear for expert administration. In practice, outside of questions of war and security, this has meant managing the economy for maximum total growth. Even Democratic wonks have tended to promote market-style competition. (The usual difference is that the Democrats believe government has an important role in creating and policing such competition, while Republicans are more likely to think that rolling back government gives “the market” room to work.)

In very different but curiously similar ways, both redemptive constitutionalism and technocracy promise deep reconciliation between different groups of Americans. If they can just take the right principles seriously, they’re square. If they can just plug the holes in the economy, the rising tide will lift all boats.

But these promises are too simple, and they gloss over too much. The insurgent campaigns have insisted, in very different ways, that distributive conflicts remain inevitable in politics. These battles are simultaneously fights over respect, honor, and standing among different racial and cultural groups, and also fights over material resources.

Redemptive constitutionalism has always had two sets of opponents. Some are whites who have benefited from concrete racial advantages—from formal segregation to access to home loans to better police protection—as well as from the softer privilege of feeling that the country is their own. They have resisted every wave of racial change. On the other hand, critics on the left, both black and not, have insisted that the redemptive story glosses over too much. They argue that racist settler-colonialism lay at the heart of the American founding, and for the persistence of structural and psychological advantages conferred by race.

As Obama championed redemptive constitutionalism, white resisters felt that something of utmost importance was being taken from them, and organized their dissent into the Tea Party and the Trump campaign. At the same time, activists on the left and, especially, young people mobilized by police violence against black men coalesced in new movements. The symbolic apotheosis of racial reconciliation in the presidency of Barack Obama, and the reality that he has not changed much about the daily lives of black people, left it seeming a false promise. Black Lives Matter is the political expression of this insight. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is its literary voice. Although neither the Clinton nor the Sanders campaign has succeeded in claiming these movements, their presence marked the Democratic primaries and made Obama-style racial optimism much harder to take seriously than in 2008.

At the same time, the promised reconciliation of technocracy—market policies producing more wealth for everyone to share—has fallen to a newly vital distributive politics. Bernie Sanders’s anti-oligarchic campaign is its most vivid instance. But Trump’s attacks on trade agreements and intermittent complaints about oligarchic politics have also ripped open a distributive politics in a Republican party that, officially at least, had been the country’s most adamantly pro-free-market since the Gilded Age. Both campaigns insist that politics is about who gets what, not just how much there is. Sanders’s version is about class struggle within the country, Trump’s more a kind of neo-mercantilist nationalism; but both reject root-and-branch the strategy of letting experts “grow” the national and global economies for everyone.

Little wonder: The 2013 appearance of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century consolidated over a decade’s work arguing that economic growth does not reliably raise all boats, and that a vast share of new growth in recent decades has gone to a tiny upper echelon of high-earners and to the already wealthy. The French economist’s data-driven argument was an expert technocrat’s repudiation of the premise of American technocratic expertise. It is simply not intellectually creditable anymore to ignore distributive questions. Even the economist and former Harvard president Larry Summers, adviser to both Bill Clinton and the Obama administration, has been arguing for much more aggressive intervention into the economy to break up the power of concentrated capital.

None of this implies that there is some kind of equivalence between the Trump and Sanders campaigns, let alone between Trump and Black Lives Matter. But these kaleidoscopic developments, some hopeful, some troubling, are both symptom and accelerant of the crisis in styles of politics and governing that have defined the last eight years. And not just the last eight: Obama-style technocracy is the defining technique of the New Democrats, the faction of the party brought to power by Bill Clinton and extended their the tenure of Barack Obama. Redemptive constitutionalism has been, since the civil-rights movement’s high-water mark in the 1960s, the major American register of optimism and unity, sometimes together with the exceptionalist nationalism that both the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations celebrated at home and projected abroad.

Hillary Clinton remains the odds-on favorite to beat Trump. She would, in all likelihood, continue the Clinton-Obama style of governance, albeit with populist inflections borrowed from the Sanders movement and some new effort to bridge racial alienation. But a zenith of liberal politics has passed, and her administration would be a transitional one, grappling with new movements that reject failed promises of reconciliation and instead insist on asking who gets what—money, jobs, resources, and respect and standing in the national community. There is much to hope for here, in a realistic grappling with problems of racial and economic inequality that are unsolved and, in some cases, worsening. There is also much to fear in an angry, centrifugal, zero-sum politics of wounded national and racial pride. It is the misfortune of the present to face these two prospects entangled in a single pregnant moment.