Barack Obama’s farewell address was not one for the ages. Like his presidency, it was full of hope yet ultimately disappointing. When Obama rode into office eight years ago, he had two mandates from the public: to right the economy after the Great Recession and to end the wars that George W. Bush had started but couldn’t finish.
Beyond that, yes, his voters hoped this first black president would usher America into a post-racial future. Even many Americans who had voted against him wished him well. He was enormously popular, and he had majorities in Congress to prove it. He was in a position to make good on his promises.
But he didn’t, and he doesn’t seem to realise it. In his farewell, Obama boasted that ‘the economy is growing again; wages, incomes, home values, and retirement accounts are rising again; poverty is falling again.’ All true, but not true enough. The Great Recession didn’t just inflict economic damage in the here and now, it shattered Americans’ confidence in their future—and more importantly, their grandchildren’s. Obama never restored that confidence, and even if unemployment has declined and GDP has grown, the sense of doom is not misplaced. Segments of American society, particularly lower-class whites, have seen a fall in their standards of health and life expectancy. Meanwhile other segments, including among his own voters, have not seen the remarkable improvements they had hoped for under Obama.
The wars, of course, continue: the US still fights in Afghanistan—that conflict is now America’s longest ever—and though the troops are out of Iraq, the regional conflagration that began with the invasion of 2003 has never ended, only mutated and moved.
Obama couldn’t win a war for the same reason he couldn’t really repair the economy. When the times called for a statesman, he behaved as a partisan politician. He prioritised his divisive healthcare legislation—Obamacare—which stoked a backlash that cost him his congressional majorities after just two years in office. He then blamed the failures of the rest of his years on the fact that his Republican opponents in Congress actually opposed him.
Obama bought into his own myth: even as he polarised the country with a left-wing agenda, he believed he was a unifying leader. And he’s believed this right to the end. His farewell blamed America’s economic woes on the stock villain of Occupy Wall Street’s left-wing rhetoric, ‘the top one percent.’ Lamenting that ‘we keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible,’ he then asked, ‘How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations?’ Does Obama really not understand the distinction conservatives draw between spending taxpayer money on government programs and not taking away private persons’ money in the first place? He need not agree with conservatives, but can he really call for greater understanding and good-faith argument when he has so little understanding of his opponents’ fundamental views? (Or worse: he understands and chooses to distort them.)
All along Obama has lacked a sense of proportion: he can’t discriminate between the country’s real needs and the politically correct passions of progressives. So in the same breath he refers to infinitesimal groups like ‘transgender Americans’ alongside ‘blacks and other minorities’ and ‘the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor’ as well as ‘the middle-aged white man … who’s seen his world upended.’ In Obama’s America, everyone is a loser; the only thing citizens seem to have in common is grievance. Against whom? Corporations and the one percent.
Actually, they do have one other thing in common: the ability to organise politically, another theme of Obama’s speech, and another one more appropriate to a campaign rally than a president’s farewell to the nation. Identify your grievance against the rich, then vote on the basis of it. The Democratic Party could ask no more. But the country does.
Donald Trump now has an opportunity to accomplish what Obama promised but could not deliver: real change for all Americans, a restoration of economic confidence and opportunity (not just statistical growth), and a fix for our foreign policy. He may or may not succeed—but he has the example of Obama’s mistakes to show him what to avoid.
Daniel McCarthy is the editor at large of The American Conservative.