Skip to main content
black leadership

Was Obama Soothing His Base Rather Than Firing it Up?

Listening to President Obama’s Farewell Address, I wished I could forget that his long list of accomplishments had been routinely denounced by his successor, Donald Trump. America had a chance to bring about what many saw as a projected Obama third term in the form of Hillary Clinton, and rejected it.

Barack Obama is as savvy as they come. He knows that voter suppression, racial discrimination, and anti-immigrant attitudes are central to United States history. He also knows that the backlash to his election as the first African-American president built a powerful white nationalist electoral force willing to sacrifice its own government benefits to stop the nation’s trend toward greater racial, religious and sexual tolerance.

Americans failure to vote in 2010 and 2014. built Republican power. So why does Obama think that these Americans will go to the polls to vote out Republicans in 2018?

Americans failure to vote in 2010 and 2014. built Republican power. So why does Obama think that these Americans will go to the polls to vote out Republicans in 2018?

I wish Obama had been more direct. I understand that he did not want to leave the popular vote majority who voted for Hillary Clinton in despair. Obama always seeks to inspire hope, not fear.

Yet his references to the need to protect democracy and promote racial and religious tolerance were too oblique for the current moment. Obama was soothing his base, rather than firing it up.

Discounting Trump

Barack Obama fervently believes in the American system. He loves referencing the Founding Fathers and would never claim the system is “rigged.”

But I felt during his Farewell Address as I did during various stages of his presidency, that his lack of partisan combativeness helped Republicans out to destroy him. His confidence in the fundamental goodness of the American political process was misplaced.

November 2016 was not just another election. The winning candidate pledged to remove twenty million Americans from health coverage, deport ten million immigrants, “lock up” his presidential rival (a pledge since withdrawn), and got technical campaign support from Russia. That it is not a normal election.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Yet Barack Obama was saying, as Al Gore did when the presidency was stolen from him in 2000, that while we may not like the 2016 election result the system works. Instead of firing up his base to support the agenda of the candidate who won the popular vote, he suggested small steps to supporters. If they get engaged in the process, all will be well. If they talk to those with different views rather than stay in their own social media box, constructive dialogue will ensue. He urged people to run for office and become organizers, two paths which worked well for him. Obama also reminded us what he has been saying since his 2008 campaign: that change is not made by politicians, but by people themselves.

This is who Barack Obama is, and has always been. He is the greatest President of my lifetime and a remarkable human being.

But when we look back at the high hopes of 2008, many of us will not share the President’s speech ending affirmation that “Yes We Can” became “Yes We Did.”

Obama used “Yes We Did” to refer to his outstanding record of accomplishments. But the combination of his 2008 campaign for change and Democrats winning House and Senate control in the 2008 election left many seeking more than specific accomplishments from a two-term president.

Many saw Obama’s victory as broadly transformative. As the modern version of the New Deal coalition that transformed America from 1933-1952.

But that did not happen. The 2010 midterm elections proved calamitous for Democrats in both federal and state races. Those blaming Hillary Clinton personally for Trump’s victory should recall that Democrats did poorly in every national election of the Obama presidency—-Obama’s own 2012 re-election was the exception.

Many of us thought the 2008 wave was about ideas and shifting demographics, not simply Obama’s extraordinary personal magnetism.

randy shaw

Randy Shaw

Obama’s base is fired up and ready to resist Trump’s agenda. And while Obama was not firing up the troops this week, I expect citizen Barack Obama to be part of that resistance in the years ahead.

Randy Shaw