Bcarack Obama has been bound since the inception of his presidency by the tension between two hopes: the hope for a resolution of unproductive partisan gridlock, and the hope for national transformation. He won the election in 2008 by making both promises. Some of his electoral coalition were attracted by the first hope, others by the second.
He has been able to satisfy neither. The sweeping Republican victories in the 2014 midterms finally free him from the contradictions of his past appeals.
He could not end partisan gridlock because the Republican leadership, reflecting the deep antipathy of their base, dedicated themselves from the beginning to defeating his every move if they could, to demonizing him, denigrating him, deflating him. Certainly the antipathy of the base has some element of conscious and unconscious racism about it. But there are also fundamental differences of values and policy between most Republicans and the Obama who hoped for transformation.
The Obama who appealed to the liberal and socialist base among the more educated parts of American society was the embodiment of the hope for transcendence of centuries of racial oppression.
The Obama who appealed to the liberal and socialist base among the more educated parts of American society was the embodiment of the hope for transcendence of centuries of racial oppression. But that was what scared and angered many white Republicans. Trying to mollify those white Republicans required that he always soft-pedal any statements or actions on the racial front. They would not be mollified, but Obama’s supporters would be disappointed that he avoided frontal assaults on the citadels of institutional racism.
Obama also appealed to those (mostly the same liberal and socialist base) who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afhanistan, and who favored a much less aggressive foreign policy. But if Obama wanted to bridge partisan gaps, he could not afford to forthrightly adopt an anti-interventionist foreign policy. He systematically reduced our commitments in those countries, and largely avoided new military commitments, but without actually articulating any principle behind those actions. And he has now yielded to pressure to intervene militarily in Syria and Iraq after the deliberately provocative beheadings of Americans. He hoped to finally deserve the Peace Prize he received soon after his election; a new War on Terror will now be his legacy.
The one part of his base that has been solid has been the African American population. These are people who understand what Obama is going through because they have to navigate every day through the hazards of intentional white malevolence and thoughtless white neglect. They might wish he had done more to help them, but they understand. They have his back.
Now, though, with Republican opponents in control of both houses of Congress, no one can expect him to pursue a transformational agenda. And, his bargaining power severely reduced by that Republican majority and his own lame-duck status, he can mitigate gridlock only by yielding to the Republican agenda.
Look for him to approve the Keystone Pipeline, for example, as a peace offering to the GOP. Look for him to back off on regulations to restrict greenhouse gas emissions. He’ll probably agree to some changes in Obamacare (though he’ll certainly veto any outright repeal). He’ll no doubt go along with some Republican ideas on cutting corporate taxes. You get the idea.
This president who was invested with the contradictory hopes of so many has proved unable to fulfill those hopes. He defeated Hillary in 2008 because he raised our hopes and she didn’t. Maybe Hillary was right.