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.