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Barack Obama’s Quixotic Quest

The first black president was never going to be able to fix our politics.

Pool/Getty Images

One week before he would be elected President of the United States for the first time, Barack Obama offered his closing argument at a campaign event in Canton, Ohio. His tone was optimistic as he ticked off policy goals and promises. But the man running to be the first African American president was after something transformational. Not merely something corporeal, symbolized by someone with his heritage and melanin taking residence in the White House. Senator Obama had positioned himself as nothing less than the avatar of political healing for America. 

“In one week,” he said that day in October nearly eight years ago, “you can put an end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election; that tries to pit region against region, city against town, Republican against Democrat; that asks us to fear at a time when we need hope.” Though he urged patience, that didn’t tamp down the massive promise he was making: that the election of one man could cure the modern brand of political antipathy and division that had infected American politics since Ronald Reagan. 

President Obama’s final State of the Union address, delivered Tuesday night, harked back to the early days. In the hours since, there have been a number of references to his 2004 star-making speech at the Democratic National Committee, the one that talked about there not being a red America or a blue America and suggested a national unity that always fell upon my ears as more fever dream than actual goal. But the truth is that Obama got carried away in 2008 as he led the most inspiring presidential campaign since perhaps John F. Kennedy. The hope and change that were promised by the simple fact of his election have actually manifested in his policies over the last seven years—chief among them being the Affordable Care Act, nationwide marriage equality, the Iran deal, and a rescued (if still unequal) economy. But during that first presidential campaign, he also set himself a goal that no president should take on—let alone the first black one. And so, in taking stock of his considerable legacy after seven years in office, he felt compelled to admit on Tuesday, before Congress and the nation, that fixing our politics was too much for him.

In yet another plea to heal the rifts and govern responsibly, the president tried to define what fixing our politics would look like: returning to a system in which we don’t always agree, but one that doesn’t accept the questioning of opponents’ patriotism or inherent motivations. That tendency, as he said, has led to a democracy in which the most extreme voices get attention, and one in which the average person feel voiceless. 

“Too many Americans feel that way right now,” Obama said. “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency—that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.” Obama followed that up by saying that this wasn’t his task alone, and it’s a good thing he is recognizing this at last. He acknowledged Tuesday night that a government of, by, and for the people means that political changes only happen when the people demand it.

The trouble is, that’s not what the people are demanding. Many want to see the end of Obama’s policies, of course. But they also seek to inhibit the generational influence of a president who not only shows interest in actually governing, but who has proven he is very effective at it. The right, in particular, has fostered a self-destructive antagonism and bitterness amongst lower- and middle-income white voters that has mutated into human form in this election, embodied by Donald Trump and his fellow Republican presidential contenders. The lot of them, throughout President Obama’s two terms, have successfully positioned the man who sought to magically end political division as the principal catalyst of it. Obama’s unapologetic blackness, despite his occasional detour into respectability politics, has made this demonization quite easy for a Republican Party that has been converting racial anger into electoral results for generations now. 

As attested to by his focus Tuesday night on the Trumpism bubbling up in the Republican electorate, Obama clearly understands that he has lost the unifying narrative he owned in 2008. As Jamelle Bouie alluded to before the address, likely the most important goal for the Obama presidency in 2016 is making sure a Democrat succeeds him, so Republicans can’t erase his achievements. But the division thing keeps coming up in our political conversation, largely courtesy of the party that’s done the dividing.

On Tuesday, the implacable Republican hostility was exemplified by Republican senator and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, who was caught by cameras in the gallery viewing the address with all the enthusiasm of a young child listening to smooth jazz. Afterward, Rubio told Fox News that the president “has been the single most divisive figure this country has had over the last decade.” (Yes, that’s the same one that includes the tail end of George W. Bush’s presidency.) 

The division has indeed gotten worse rather than better on Obama’s watch. But he knowingly took on an impossible challenge, making an assurance of a healing solution that he shouldn’t have made. His ascendance to the White House, as anyone with a scant knowledge of racial strife and political opportunism in America knew in 2008, was never going to heal our politics. 

Just as Obama’s historic presidency would never end racism, but rather lay it more bare, so too was the case of his policies and the political divide. In fact, the politics and the racism are inseparable when there’s a black president. And even though Obama isn’t to blame, he should have seen this coming 

If his recent announcement of executive actions to address guns is any indication, the president is off to a decent start on his pledge to keep fighting for his policy priorities through the remainder of his term. But he has now admitted that he fell short on the most sweeping promise that lifted him into the White House. While I’m hardly ever one to discourage a black man’s ambition, Obama could have saved himself (and many of his unswerving followers) some disappointment had he not set himself the goal of being a political panacea.