Coates allows that Obama, who had “the luxury of becoming black with minimal trauma”, came to his views authentically. Indeed, the “hybridity” of Obama’s biography, his trust in and comfort amidst white America, his sincere embrace of its republican assumptions, his basic optimism, put him in “the only tradition in existence that could have possibly put a black person in the White House.” But the price of victory was that, in critical moments, the president was blinkered by those assumptions, and so could not glimpse the essential, post-liberal, reparative politics that lay beyond them.
This story, told under many glosses in Coates’s work, is positively Sophoclean in its gray determinism: False consciousness enmeshes black bodies in an evil order that in turn foreordains their failure. And Coates offers an added helping of the dialectical with his casual assurance that Obama’s victories somehow necessitated the president-elect’s. That 2016 wasn’t even just a racist reaction, but a restoration—America regaining its bigoted equilibrium after a minor perturbation.
This highly stylized psychohistory of blackness and whiteness in America is at the very least unhelpful, and probably false. Likewise, Coates’s appraisal of Obama’s legacy seems to me both unduly Whiggish and unfair. Whiggish in that Obama never in fact lived up to the promise of his early, ecumenical republicanism—unfair in its implication that that promise was never worth making.
By Coates’s lights, it was the 2004 keynote at the Democratic National Convention that established Obama’s commitment to “the literature of prospective presidents” over the literature of “the struggle”; that is, to a literature that speaks “not to gravity and reality, but to aspirations and dreams,” a winsome promise of no more white America or black America, but only a United States of America. In the years that followed that address, nabobs swooned and mouthed words like “Lincolnian,” progressives and Blue Dogs alike found favorable timbres in his slogans, the fabled Obamacons saw a way up and out of a divisive and diminished administration, and broader swaths still saw a man who might yet free Americans from their racial baggage.
But in 2016—hell, in 2010—that speech and the lore it produced seem from a bygone era, and the Obama who spoke of unity looks little like the Obama who ruled by a tenacious majoritarianism—whose great accomplishments were scaffolded by perverse exertions of executive power and the uncut goonery of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
In the interval, progressive politics, at its loudest, became about Twitter burns from baccalaureates, armed with half-digested Critical Theory and looking for scores to settle. The president himself never sank to this level, and admirably called-out left-wing small-mindedness on campus and elsewhere. But nevertheless, under his watch the Left disappeared up its own fundament, replacing Obama’s sober ecumenicalism with a series of diminishingly original comedians on increasingly obscure cable networks snarking to camera about unflattering images of Ted Cruz projected over their shoulders.