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August 24, 2021
[Q] The subscription-only post excerpt from "The Vanishing Legacy of Barack Obama" was long enough for me as well. Trump has, in the end, embraced being the "heel" of American politics, because that's what the Republican Party needed in the absence of principles, ideas and/or vision. There has been a constant attempt by writers on the right and left to make Obama responsible for the election of this miscreant. Should Obama not enjoy a 60th birthday party, because of the resolute "heel turn" in the Republican Party that followed his popular presidency? Do you think an Obama-like gravitas in response to these accusations and absurdities is the best hope for the future health and sanity of American democracy? -- Eugene, Atlanta, GA [2021-08-16]
[A] Isn't there a famous logical fallacy about assuming causality from sequence? [There is: Post hoc ergo propter hoc.] Trump is almost perfect as the polar opposite of Obama, but his election doesn't prove that most Americans rejected Obama, let alone that Obama's faults demanded such a radical change in direction. It seems probable to me that had Obama been able to run for a third term, he would have beat Trump rather handily, but I've come to have a pretty low opinion of the Democrat Trump beat.
I won't try to explain how writers on the right think, but I can give you several thoughts as to why those of us on the left might blame Obama for the rise of Trump:
None of these things really explain why Trump won. The roots of that go back to the insane reaction of right-wing media to Obama's win in 2008. Trump was the only candidate who had a personality to match the inchoate outrage whipped up by Fox. He was an outsider, relatively free of the taint of partisan Washington, but was still able to line up the billionaire right-wing donors with their crazy economic ideas. They gambled that they could control the demagugue, much like the far right in Weimar Germany thought they'd domesticate Hitler. Due to his laziness and incompetence, they had more luck this time -- not that Trump didn't leave quite some mess.
The problem with the 60th birthday party is that Obama is still primarily viewed as a political figure -- loved by most Democrats, loathed by most Republicans, in a time of intense polarization so the distinction matters a lot -- and one expects a certain sense of decorum from public servants (exempting Trump). But Obama is not too old to contemplate a post-presidential career, and he's decided to do it in show business. From what little I've bothered to glean from the guest lists -- slighting old political allies (like David Axelrod) in favor of celebrities like Beyoncé and Tom Hanks -- his party was aimed at making a social splash for his new career. Maybe he came off as a bit of an arriviste, but that appears to be the intent, and as far as I know, such events are routine in that set. (Of course, I'd have to revise this if you found a lot of politically active and/or merely rich guests on the list. Like the Clintons, Obama spent much of his political career sucking up to the rich, so he could never quite shake the notion that his end game was to be one of them.)
I don't have an answer to your final question other than to note that Obama's "gravitas" -- his reason, integrity, erudition, empathy, sanity, faith in a very idealized America few of us even recognize except as myth -- didn't play all that well, even among people who voted for him because the Republican alternative was unthinkable. And it certainly didn't convert his sworn enemies, or even make much of an impression on the swing voters. Maybe as a black man he felt he had to be perfect to get elected, but that made him a different kind of target. Joe Biden is a much less imposing figure, and that element of fallibility seems to be working for him. We live in a world where a lot of things are going wrong (pandemic, Afghanistan, climate), so maybe it's better to have someone who cares and reacts than someone who supposedly knows it all and tries to project confidence.
By the way, that last word brings up another peeve about Obama. His economic team convinced him that the key to recovery was confidence -- much like Franklin Roosevelt opened his presidency with "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." It's a truism that economies rise and fall on confidence and panic. But you can't reverse a panic just by pretending confidence, which is what Obama tried to do. (Ron Suskind's 2011 book on Obama's economic team was called Confidence Men. At the time, Paul Krugman regularly made fun of their faith in "the confidence fairy.") But the problem isn't just that confidence preaching doesn't work. More important is that you lose the edge you had to blame your present woes on the people actually responsible for them -- the greedy bankers and the Bush administration that let them run amuck (and, hitting close to home, the Clinton administration's deregulation moves) -- and the people currently trying to prevent the government from helping (Republicans, starting with Mitch McConnell and his "one-term" austerity agenda).