by Jacob Bacharach
On Oct. 14, 2011, an order by Barack Obama resulted in the murder of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old American boy. Obama had ordered the execution of the boy’s father, also an American citizen, allegedly a member of the al-Qaeda network, two weeks before. Abdulrahman hadn’t seen his father in more than two years; he’d traveled abroad to search for him. We blew the kid up in a restaurant. When confronted by reporters, Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, glibly justified the extrajudicial killing of an American child: He should have had “a more responsible father.” Today, Donald Trump and his sycophants contend that the children of undocumented immigrants are the victims of their parents’ irresponsible law-breaking.
Like most ex-presidents in the last half century, Obama slid out of the White House and into a well-paid semi-retirement of remunerative speaking engagements and ineffectual good works. His and Hillary Clinton’s mutual antipathy was evident throughout the 2016 campaign. After her humiliation at the hands of Trump, a vulgar, racist dummy who continually questioned Obama’s citizenship and who ran in no small part because of his own public humiliation by the then-president at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, Obama made a few desultory efforts to make nice with the new president-elect and then embraced the silence on current political affairs that is the decorous mark of modern post-presidencies. He emerged only last week, as word of the Trump administration’s vicious campaign to separate and imprison the children of migrants and asylum seekers in detention camps came to dominate national media coverage and caused real and widespread popular outrage.
“[T]o watch those families broken apart in real time puts to us a very simple question,” Obama wrote on his Facebook page. “Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or are we a nation that values families, and works to keep them together? Do we look away, or do we choose to see something of ourselves and our children?”
There is some irony in hearing this from the same man who bragged, during the 2012 campaign, that he was “really good at killing people.” The claim was in reference to drone warfare, but Obama’s militarism was not confined to the occasional Hellfire missile, which the national security establishment and its media interlocutors treat as an antiseptic alternative to the messiness of conventional war. In 2011, in part due to the heavy lobbying of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the United States participated in a disastrous Euro-American campaign in Libya, destroying the government of Muammar Gaddafi, a leader who only a few years earlier had been feted for his active cooperation in national disarmament, and plunging Libya into the chaos of failed statehood, from which it has not recovered. Gaddafi was killed and possibly tortured to death. African migrants captured in Libya as they attempt to reach the Mediterranean and Europe have allegedly been sold—in open markets—as slaves.
In Syria, under Obama, the United States managed to support nearly every side in a multi-party civil war. By 2016, it was widely reported that militias armed by the Pentagon were openly battling militias armed by the CIA. The conflict has created one of the greatest refugee crises in modern history, as millions of people seek to escape a wrecked country and reach relative safety in Europe: men leaving wives and children; child siblings making deadly sea crossings without parents; a maze of fences, camps and varying levels of open hostility awaiting them no matter what routes they take. And we should not forget Yemen, where since 2015 the United States has supported and armed a Saudi campaign of terror bombing that has created a man-made famine and cholera epidemic, the scale of which could come to rival the Great Famine in Ukraine.
Compared to the actual madman that is Trump, Obama was a humanist, but then again, so was Thomas More, and look at how many heretics he burned at the stake. Throughout his career, Obama made use of rhetorical appeals to a broad, shared humanity, to the values of empathy, fellow-feeling and tolerance. In practice, his presidency was less liberal rebirth than liberal retrenchment, and he worked to formalize the very systems of brutality that Donald Trump and his evil coterie wield to such terrifying effect.
I was at Kelly’s Bar & Lounge in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood when Obama was elected to his first term. The neighborhood had already begun to gentrify, although it would still be years before the $2,000-a-month apartments, restaurant valet signs, Pure Barre exercise studio and the Google flag flying over the old National Biscuit Co., where, during the St. Patrick’s Day Flood in 1936, my great-grandfather had worked for three straight days baking bread for the city. In the 1960s, an ill-conceived urban development plan hollowed out the neighborhood’s commercial core, and the city built a set of high-rise public housing complexes; the neighborhood developed a reputation for blight, which is to say that it became largely black.
The clientele at Kelly’s in 2008 was mostly white, comparatively well-to-do, liberal-ish. We could hear a dull roar from the neighborhood as the networks began to call the election, and then everyone went out into the street, residents and interlopers, and we all congratulated ourselves and each other, even those of us, like me, who stood far to the left of mainstream Democratic politics and viewed Obama’s occasionally high-flown rhetoric as decoration on an otherwise plain and tepid program of decidedly “centrist” reforms. America had soundly elected its first black president, and you can go to hell if that didn’t at least give you one night to smile and hope for the future.
His election came as a relief. I am not too cynical to say so. It is hard to recall now in this hypersaturated Trump era just how mad and untethered the Bush years were. By the time the 2008 race rolled around, Bush’s popularity was in irrevocable decline, his wars largely accepted as failures, the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina still top of mind. But for much of his presidency, a grim, jingoistic national unity prevailed. There were liberal blogs, and the ineffectual sarcasm of “The Daily Show,” but that was scant opposition, and even the vast antiwar marches in the run-up to the Iraq war swiftly melted away in favor of cable news’ music videos of “Shock & Awe” bombing.
The gaudy insanity of Trump’s campaign seems unprecedented until you look up photos of pasty Midwesterners in the middle of the ’04 Republican National Convention blinged out with patriotic swag and purple bandages as part of that season’s conspiracy theory—that John Kerry had faked a war injury to earn a decoration. Dick Cheney shot a man in the face and faced no consequences; his victim apologized to him! Guantanamo. Abu Ghraib. Heckuva job, Brownie. The financial crisis. It was relentless and mad-making.
Obama felt like a salve, if not a cure. He was reasoned and articulate. His abilities as a great American speechmaker were overrated, but he was still a talented orator. He’d prevailed in a primary race infected by the Clinton campaign’s scurrilous resort to innuendo about his race and origin, and he whipped John McCain, an aging and seemingly unbalanced Senator who was and remains bizarrely beloved by American political journalists. It felt as if it might at least herald a reversion to the mean, a return to the smaller-bore politics of the 1990s; perhaps, due to the discrediting of market liberalism by the rapid succession of early-2000s corporate accounting scandals and the subprime collapse, there might even be a way to claw back some of the vicious attacks on the social welfare system by the neoliberal Clintonites of that decade. Perhaps we might successfully agitate for dismantling the poisonous security and intelligence apparatuses that metastasized under Bush and Cheney.
Instead, Obama largely set about organizing them. Obama would later be criticized, often from the left—I am guilty of it myself—for his seeming diffidence, and defended, often from the center-right that composes the majority of the Democratic Party, as having been almost entirely hamstrung by a Congress controlled by an insane and deeply racist GOP. Both the criticism and the defense give him too little credit as one of the great bureaucratic rationalizers of the modern era, taking the slapdash and ad hoc excesses of the prior decade and normalizing them. Obama’s infamous “look forward, not backward” dictum regarding any criminal prosecutions of Bush-era war criminals and finance-industry crooks was neither the feckless attitude of a weak leader nor the misguided ecumenicism of a would-be peacemaker in a partisan age; it was something more akin to the efficiency-minded corporate fixer who loves the product but wants to reorganize the back office.
Even before the 2010 midterms ushered in a powerfully intransigent Republican legislative majority, it was clear that Obama preferred executive management. He arrogated to himself all of the powers of prior presidents, including the even-more-unfettered war-making authority conferred upon George W. Bush by the machinations of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and the cooperation of a foolish and supine Congress. He took a special personal interest in drone warfare, putting himself in sole charge of the so-called disposition matrix—the infamous kill list—in an unsubtle signal that the president alone held this literal power of life and death. He made some conciliatory gestures toward immigrant communities, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) most notably, but these were firmly undergirded by the guiding post-Third Way principles of the meritocratic, corporatist Democratic establishment: namely, that only the deserving are deserving.
He simultaneously and quietly organized ICE, a fascist reimagining of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (along with parts of the old Customs Service and Federal Protective Service) dreamed up during the creation of the equally spooky and Big-Brotherish Department of Homeland Security. He deported more people than any prior president.
Obama’s most famous public utterance may have been his declaration at the 2004 Democratic convention that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America.” He went on to ding “pundits” for dividing American into “red states” and “blue states.” In the intervening years, a popular map shading red-to-blue, demonstrating that the majority of the country’s land area is “purple,” has become popular among the sorts of people who believe in common-sense solutions and work for think tanks and op-ed pages. But the only real purple America is its imperial presidency, and if we are not simply to survive the present crisis and pray for another Obama-like figure to calmly restore order to agencies and policies that should not exist in the first place, then we must actually engage with his legacy, which despite a few admirable moments, largely consists of solidifying and centralizing the vast executive power he promptly handed over to Trump.
Apologists for the Obama administration will point out that he was in every way a better man and a better president, which is accidentally damning with faint praise. He was better and smarter, but he wasn’t wise, and he wasn’t humble. He believed in the power of the presidency, and we are living with the consequences.