Barack Obama has now been in power for longer than Johnson was, and the question remains: “What the hell’s his presidency for?” His second term has been characterised by a profound sense of drift in principle and policy. While posing as the ally of the immigrant he is deporting people at a faster clip than any of his predecessors; while claiming to be a supporter of labour he’s championing trade deals that will undercut American jobs and wages. In December, even as he pursued one whistleblower, Edward Snowden and kept another, Chelsea Manning, incarcerated, he told the crowd at Nelson Mandela’s funeral: “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
If there was a plot, he’s lost it. If there was a point, few can remember it. If he had a big idea, he shrank it. If there’s a moral compass powerful enough to guide such contradictions to more consistent waters, it is in urgent need of being reset.
Given the barriers to democratic engagement and progressive change in America – gerrymandering, big money and Senate vetoes – we should always be wary of expecting too much from a system designed to deliver precious little to the poor. We should also challenge the illusion that any individual can single-handedly produce progressive change in the absence of a mass movement that can both drive and sustain it.
Nonetheless, it was Obama who set himself the task of becoming a transformational political figure in the mould of Ronald Reagan or JFK. “I think we are in one of those fundamentally different times right now where people think that things, the way they are going, just aren’t working,” he said. It was he who donned the mantles of “hope” and “change”.