“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.”*
Today is Barack Obama’s last day as president. Eight years ago, he came to office on a couple of promises. He promised the nation that he would transform Washington. A heftier promise was also made, mostly by others on his behalf: to redeem America’s racial sins of the past. Obama himself has admitted that his understanding of the presidency was flawed. But in his farewell address, and in many of the speeches before it, he revealed that his faith in a few things remained strong. One is the idea that transformation is usually about progress, change for the better. The other is that the deepest and most violent racism is in America’s past.
Those things might still be true, but it’s a lot harder to take them as articles of political faith. And even a year ago, I still imagined, as did many of my colleagues, that party elites would do something, that voters would lose interest, that layers of institutions and values and beliefs and tendencies separated us not just from the reality of a Donald Trump presidency but even from a fully imagined version of it. We believed there were too many political layers to keep an inexperienced, volatile, and nationalist candidate from getting close to the office. Was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was.
We learned in 2016 that those safeguards are weaker and racial resentment is a more powerful electoral force than anyone thought. Many voters will, under the right circumstances, choose a candidate with little relevant experience or apparent understanding of the system. So those are observations about the electorate, and about the party system. But what have we learned about the presidency from Obama’s eight years?
Political scientists like to scoff at the idea that presidential rhetoric can be powerful or that presidential symbolism matters. It’s hard to measure the impacts of these things. Nevertheless, as we cast about for new hypotheses, it is worth considering that the president — whose face and words surround us — operates as a kind of national mirror. We don’t know how many people turn to ugly, resentful politics when that mirror doesn’t reflect what they would like to see. But we know that number is not zero.
Many people, of course, also know that the presidency is about governance, not just reflection of the nation’s values, beliefs, and self-image. But the governance part is subtler, and boring, and harder to detect. Roads. Post offices. Student loans. Foreign policy. What reason would we have to believe those won’t function just as they always have? We may soon find out.
But the connection between the presidency and the more mundane aspects of governance is not completely obvious. When faced with the choice, some people — enough to swing an election — seem to pick the rhetoric that resonates with the moment. We don’t know this for sure, but we ought to take it more seriously as a hypothesis, and work harder to understand the presidency at both levels.
The most profound lesson of Obama’s presidency is about the transformation he promised, and how that transformation was delivered. Most analyses get this lesson exactly wrong, suggesting that what we should take away is how hard it is to change Washington or the rest of the country.
It’s true that Obama learned a lesson that Trump is likely to soon learn: Campaigning is not governing. The tactics that make for a badass rally are not the same ones that persuade members of Congress, navigate the bureaucracy, or accomplish feats of foreign diplomacy. We have to remember, though, that none of this diminishes the capacity of presidents to fundamentally alter politics. At the end of Obama’s administration, Democrats are still Democrats and Republicans are still Republicans. Lobbyists are still lobbyists. Political scientists are mostly still arguing about the values of the people in the blue, red, and purple states. But all those things mean something different than they did in 2008.
The lesson of Obama’s presidency is that you don’t have to shake the foundations to transform politics. You just have to change a few crucial factors — the first African American in the White House, a few pieces of major legislation. The rest of the system remains in place, and that’s where the real disruption lies. This principle can tell us a lot about what we’ve already seen from Trump, and generate some hypotheses about what’s to come.
Obama’s inauguration eight years ago was a cultural event unlike any I had seen before or have seen since, and in retrospect, that should have been a sign of the cultural potency of the presidency. The context is important to remember too. We were in the depths of the great recession: job losses, home foreclosures, plummeting stocks. The hope some people felt was tempered by those realities.
But it was hope. I keep rewatching the video of Bruce Springsteen singing “This Land Is Your Land” at the 2009 inauguration, with a choir that can only be described as magnificent and with folk legend Pete Seeger, who has since died. It’s an iconic American song, but a sad one; a lamentation, not a celebration. It’s about exclusion and inequality. And yet it was sung then with great joy. I’ve always found this performance powerful in the depth of its hope. There was a time when I thought the meaning of the song might be reimagined; that something different might be on the side that was made for you and me. Those days seem a long time ago.
*This post draws on some themes and language from Joan Didion’s 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That.” Where I have taken lines directly from her essay, I included a link back to that text.