Losing Hope in Obama

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

We previously aired emails from readers who voted against Obama but ultimately sided with him in office. Many other readers, however, supported him at the polls but ultimately turned their backs on his presidency. For Blake, that moment came very early in the first administration:

I proudly voted for Obama in 2008, not because I believed his soaring rhetoric, but because of the significance of electing a black man to be president. I was in tears on election night when he won and remember the jubilation of the bar crowd quite fondly.

My mind changed within a couple of weeks after his Cabinet appointments began. His appointment of Hillary Clinton to Secretary of State—after months of attacking her lack of foreign policy judgement as a major flaw in her candidacy—smacked of political opportunism. He himself had convinced me that she was unqualified for such a position, thus the appointment could only have been to curry favor with her camp (i.e., not for the benefit of the country). It was a clear indicator that Obama was going to continue the well-established D.C. tradition of quid pro quo cronyism.

Appointing Geithner to Treasury Secretary was even worse: a betrayal of Obama’s stated principals. There was no way to reconcile his rhetoric on the economy and the middle class with his economic appointments. I completely lost my optimism in those few weeks.

William also soured on Obama for his approach to the banking crisis:

“Keep Hope Alive” worked for me after Bush II. But as a former banker who lived through Reagan’s dismantling of consumer protection regulations that led to the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999, Obama lost me when he failed to channel the nation’s outrage at the 2008 crash to reinstate a New Deal style regulatory scheme. Instead, he appointed the foxes that raided the hen house and took down the barn to now guard that same hen house. No one was charged or went to jail or even had to return all their ill-gotten gains, neither individuals or institutions. [Actually there was a single prosecution.] Instead, they got punished with bonuses at taxpayer expense.

Obama lost me that early, and later, he kept losing me—one major bonehead move after another. His Presidency was a series of “Bait & Switch.” It’s been heartbreaking.

For Erich, it was Obama’s approach to education policy that lost him:

Like many white civil-rights supporters, I supported Obama in 2008.  As a public school teacher in D.C. public schools, my hopes quickly faded when he, through his disastrous appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and promotion of so-called education reform policies: school “turnarounds” that hold teachers collectively responsible for students’ school-wide standardized test averages resulting in teachers being fired and charter school expansion. In 2012, I voted for a third party candidate.

From a reader in Wyoming:

The “moment” I lost faith in Obama seems to be remembered by almost no one now. On the campaign trail in 2008, candidate Obama talked a good deal about instituting a system of national service, echoing JFK who, to his great credit, set up the Peace Corps. Obama did nothing of the kind. Not one word about this since being elected.

I remember in the heady early days after the election, there was a website where you could go to offer your ideas and to volunteer to work on this new America. It seemed, for a brief moment, that Obama might really follow through on his promise to remake America into a place for everyone, not just elites and Washington insiders. Then, of course, he got to D.C. and proceeded to pack his administration with elites and Washington insiders, and before you knew it, he was lobbing drones around the globe and okaying massive government surveillance of its own people. Etc.

Obama’s election was inspirational; his administration was mediocre.

Speaking of the Peace Corps, here’s Andrew:

I am a 67-year-old white man. I have been a Peace Corps volunteer, an infantry officer, a commercial banker, and a high school teacher in a poor, mixed-race school. I have voted for Democrats and Republicans at all election levels. I think of myself as a moderate conservative.

I voted for Obama in 2008 for two reasons. First, I thought he was a better man, and a smarter man, than McCain; and second, it seemed historically “right” to elect a man of color to the presidency.

I did not vote for Obama in 2012 for two reasons. First, he accepted a Nobel Peace Prize for having done nothing. This was a “tell” into his essential vanity. Second, he lied first and always about Obamacare: “keep your doctor, keep your plan.” This lie was not shading the truth on a minor matter; it was a calculated untruth designed to sway the thinking of tens of millions of people.

For David, the president didn’t live up to that Nobel Prize:

In 2008, candidate Obama had my support. In 2012, President Obama had my vote. But in 2016, his hand-picked successor did not receive my vote. The Democratic Party had lost my vote. Now, I no longer view the president with starry eyes and I definitely do not share the nostalgic longing for him that many Americans already feel.

The truth is that our Nobel Laureate president ordered extrajudicial killings of suspected terrorists at a higher rate than any previous president, and he did not hesitate to order the killings of American citizens. For a candidate who long criticized President Bush for imprisoning U.S. citizens and others as an affront to American ideals, it is disheartening to realize that their deaths was the president’s preferred policy measure.

Joe also looks to foreign policy:

Obama told the head of Syria that the use of chemical weapons on his own people would cross a red line. Well it did happen, and Obama backed down for the world to see that the U.S. didn’t stand for much anymore. That opened the door for Russia to make major moves on its neighbors as well get involved in Syria.

Our final reader is an “international economist originally from India who has lived and worked in the U.S. for over 30 years”:

I was impressed by Mr. Obama’s capacity for hard work, commitment to finding the middle ground on any issue, and to working with people who were not his supporters. I admired his eloquence, his ability to mobilize the young. It was also impressive to see the American people elect twice a man of color to the presidency.

At some point, Mr. Obama’s idealism and belief in basic human goodness seemed to shade into naiveté and a lack of decisive action to head off great dangers. This was true with regard to the reactions that built up to a black president from white Americans whose economic and social insecurities in a changing world made them more vulnerable to prejudice. It was also true with regard to the reaction from well-funded groups on the right to his progressive policies.  

Finally, it was most tragically true in Mr. Obama’s underestimation of the risks of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. His actions on this extraordinary act of cyber-warfare and also to the unprecedented intervention in the last days of the campaign by the director of the FBI were subdued and lost in the overall noise.

The world and America will surely miss Mr. Obama, most of all his basic decency. But most of his legacy is likely to be overturned by Donald Trump. And Obama had a part in leading up to a situation where he will hand over the presidency to a man he correctly described as manifestly unfit for the position. The consequences are likely to be dismal for the U.S. and the world.