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Obama's Legacy, And The Limits Of Soaring Speech

If a fundamental purpose of political language is to persuade people to act, writes Alex Green, was Obama’s soaring rhetoric truly effective? Pictured: President Barack Obama arrives before speaking at McCormick Place in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, giving his presidential farewell address. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
If a fundamental purpose of political language is to persuade people to act, writes Alex Green, was Obama’s soaring rhetoric truly effective? Pictured: President Barack Obama arrives before speaking at McCormick Place in Chicago, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, giving his presidential farewell address. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
COMMENTARY

It has been a jarring transition from the tone and style of President Obama — on full display in his virtuosic Chicago farewell speech last week — to that of President-elect Trump. Anyone with a love for a well-crafted, well-delivered sentence cannot help but feel the shift acutely, and for good reason. Obama is widely seen as the great orator of our time. Trump most certainly is not.

But if a fundamental purpose of political language is to persuade people to act, was Obama’s soaring rhetoric truly effective? It seems difficult to say that it was, and that should matter to us all. We were his audience these last eight years.

He placed his faith in us. We placed our faith in him. There were few consequences when either side failed to live up to the bargain. Just as often as we failed, so did he.

Obama’s was a clearly articulated, well-informed vision with a tint of destiny. He imbued it with a regal bearing that clashed starkly with his opponent’s fumbling attempts to use the same principles. His message was simple: Hope could lead to actions that would change prevailing mindsets in Washington for the better. Voters responded by propelling him into the White House. “This is your victory,” he declared on election night in 2008, and he never wavered from this message.

At the Democratic National Convention last summer, Obama confidently repeated it, telling the audience that they were responsible for any successes he had. But this is hardly the case, and were it true, it would not be a compliment. Obama’s successes were limited, and his great victories far-too compromised. We bought into hope but did little to meet its demands with actions that might have truly transformed this country.

Instead, supporters who could afford to put something on the line took a laissez-fare attitude; the reasonable, well-spoken man in the White House was a reflection that change was inevitable. With a handful of exceptions, his successes happened without sustained, organized backing. All the while, the urgency needed to collectively tackle our most pressing issues was anesthetized by our pride in his words.

He placed his faith in us. We placed our faith in him. There were few consequences when either side failed to live up to the bargain. Just as often as we failed, so did he.

For instance, Obama’s unfettered support for the intelligence agencies offered legitimacy and control they should not have had. The same is true of his appeasement of bankers. The list is long; his abandonment of Elizabeth Warren’s efforts to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the unprecedented mass deportations, the drone killings abroad.

When pressed on these issues, liberals too often pointed to the unquestionable extremism of the Republican Party, resorting to the argument that Obama’s hands were tied. Instead, they should have heeded a notion crystalized eloquently by the late historian Howard Zinn. “They are evil. We are not good.” Then they should have jumped in the fight.

In a participatory democracy, where everything turns on a tight margin of victory, Obama’s hands were tied because his supporters simply did not do enough. The issues that Trump now threatens to exacerbate were severe problems before his arrival. If we did not hear the alarm, there are only a handful of reasons why: Obama didn’t say or hear it right, we didn’t, or both. Perhaps there was some choice involved.

The result was widespread indifference to the kind of change that would have affirmed his rhetoric. The Democratic Party embodied the hostile inertia that prevailed instead. Their highly public battle with Sen. Bernie Sanders boiled down to a refusal to spend political capital on issues where regular people had vested interests. From Guantanamo Bay to Black Lives Matter, the repression of journalists, or the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, it was a dysfunctional marriage of convenience, where pretty words now make for false comfort.

Obama’s supporters sat it out because we did not see ourselves in the fight. No matter how beautiful, our love affair with the outgoing president’s grand discourse was part of the problem.

Nobody who abhors Trump’s words wants to feel complicit in his rise, but there has been something we don’t discuss in the air since Election Day: shame. Even for those who reflexively say they did enough, we know that is not the case. We chose neglect. When Obama, in a rare moment of explicit appeal, asked all Americans to demand that their representatives stem the tide of gun violence, I know I never picked up the phone.

Obama’s supporters sat it out because we did not see ourselves in the fight. No matter how beautiful, our love affair with the outgoing president’s grand discourse was part of the problem. His message persuaded this country to vote for the first black president, but it also failed to get us to take steps to enshrine his ideals. That fact matters for his legacy. It matters more for our way forward as a nation.

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Alex Green Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Alex Green is a writer and researcher.

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