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By Stefanos Argyros, Features Editor
In 2008, Barack Obama’s election to the most powerful office in the world generated ripples of hope that spread across the world. His political creed, communicated with unparalleled eloquence and grace, was imbued with compassion, self-reflection, and a powerful sense of urgency and responsibility to come together in striving for a better future. His sweeping rhetoric was not meant to be self-fulfilling, but was anchored in the belief that progress can only be achieved by citizens embracing their civic responsibilities and toiling through the challenges of America’s imperfect democracy. It was incumbent upon him, as president, to lead the way, to justify the trust bestowed upon him by the American people.
In his 8 years in office, Barack Obama toiled away, achieving more tangible progress than his detractors ever thought he could. Confronting a hostile Congress set on undermining his every initiative, he succeeded in passing the Affordable Care Act, providing healthcare coverage to millions of Americans. Faced with an unprecedented economic recession, his administration rescued the auto industry from collapse and put the country back on track towards steady growth, creating millions of jobs in the process.
Measured progress was also made in social issues. Despite his initial ambivalence as a presidential candidate, Obama firmly supported the legalization of same sex marriage and has since consistently opposed laws discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. He also fought staunchly against gender discrimination, signing the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013 and ensuring that under the Affordable Care Act insurance companies could not charge higher premiums on the basis of gender. When Trayvon Martin was killed, Obama reminded the nation that it could have been his son instead. Throughout his presidency Obama reminded us of the struggle of the millions of African Americans who fought for justice time and time again, defying the forces of oppression and prejudice. Obama’s 2008 election victory in an America still permeated by overt and subliminal racism did not usher the nation into a post-racial world, but confirmed that the powers of change were stronger than ever.
On the foreign policy side, his assiduous efforts to introduce climate friendly policies at home, and his willingness to heed the concerns of developing countries, paved the way for the adoption of the Paris Climate Change agreement. After decades of parochial policy consensus in Washington, his administration also reopened diplomatic ties with Cuba and struck a promising deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear program.
These achievements were often overshadowed in the public discourse by many shortcomings. Obama’s solemn promises to close Guantanamo remained unfulfilled, the Criminal Justice System is still in a dire state, college education is unaffordable for far too many ordinary Americans and Immigration Reform has been halted by a divided Supreme Court. Despite many impassioned speeches and legislative proposals, Congress refused to pass comprehensive gun control legislation. Abroad, the scourge of war continues to plague the Middle East, claiming the lives of millions of innocent civilians in the process, and forcing millions of others to flee their homeland in search or a better future.
During his last year in office, Obama strived to ensure that his successor would address these issues and continue the kind of responsible politics that became the hallmark of his presidency. His vocal support for Hillary Clinton during the election campaign was unprecedented for an outgoing president. On the campaign trail, he made his case to the American people one more time, urging them to rebuke the politics of hate and division offered by Donald Trump. In more ways than one, his legacy was on the line, and he knew it.
And yet, against all odds, and despite Obama’s popularity soaring, the American people elected Donald Trump to the most powerful office in the world. The election result sent a powerful message confirming that American society is as divided as ever. As Obama regretfully acknowledged in his last State of the Union speech, the rancor in American politics has become more pronounced during his presidency. Old divisions have become more entrenched and new ones have emerged, feeding off the simmering discontent of disenfranchised segments of the population eagerly looking for someone to blame for their plight. America now seems far removed from Obama’s ideal of a united country rejecting the parochial dichotomies of race, class and political allegiance.
It is hard not to feel a sense of despondency and fear after the election. The first black president of the United States will now have to relinquish his place to a man endorsed by the KKK, a man whose rhetoric has oscillated between the absurd, the racist and the misogynistic, whose policies have preyed on the fears of the vulnerable at the expense of minorities and historically oppressed groups. The progress painstakingly achieved under the Obama presidency is now in the hands of a man whose campaign was set on vilifying everything Obama has done. The office of the presidency might temper Trump’s discourse and actions, but there is no doubt that his presidency will stray from the path Obama had taken.
Obama, as he indicated more than once on the campaign trail, is undoubtedly cognizant of the threat a Trump presidency poses to America and the world. Yet, despite the bleak outlook, the president wore a stoic face as the transition of power commenced. He urged Americans to stick together, to have faith that the country will avoid the trappings of hate and division. His poised demeanor is not a sign of naiveté, but stems from an unshakable belief that with hard work and self-reflection, setbacks, however painful, can be overcome.
In a poem he wrote while still at school, Obama spoke of a “crooked world”. Growing up as a biracial young man, without a father to look up to, without a clear sense of identity, Obama has always been acutely aware of complexities of the world and has sought to find unity in his life and in the life of others, always seeking resolution as opposed to conflict. As a Trump presidency looms, these ideals and aspirations are pertinent to all of us. Anger, disbelief and commiseration are all necessary feelings, but they are only useful if they spur actions and self-reflection that seek to identify and address the shortcomings that led to Trump’s election.
Amongst those who voted for Trump, many unabashedly adhered to his vile utterances while others felt abandoned by a society moving forward too fast, belittling their professions and eroding their values. After Trump’s election, the media has often been divided between those blaming the former, and those blaming so called ‘elites’ for ignoring the latter. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Racism, religious intolerance and misogyny have their own distinct momentum in American life and cannot be explained solely by reference to the plight of the white working class. Conversely, it would be difficult to deny that extreme poverty and inequality often induce people to vote with a sense of desperation, shunning the advice of the perceived elite. In response to Trump’s election, both issues must be addressed.
The lesson emerging from Obama’s presidency is that unless we all contribute in this endeavor to fight intolerance and inequality, the forces of bigotry and hate will lurk right around the corner, fertilizing the ground for opportunist demagogues. Throughout his presidency, Obama has stressed the fundamental importance of civic responsibility, arguing that we cannot solely rely on our elected representatives to safeguard democracy and progressive values.
We should be proud of our democratic values and proclaim them out loud. We should always advocate for equality, fairness and compassion in our politics, but we have to do this consistently, smartly and effectively. Instead of clustering in bubbles, we need to reach out; we need to confront misogyny, racism and intolerance wherever they are manifested and constantly lay out the virtues of progressive politics. In the process, we need to ensure that our economies work for everyone, and that those who are downtrodden and disenfranchised by the forces of globalization are not forgotten and excluded from the conversation.
In an ideal world, the virtues of progressive politics would become self-evident as the world becomes more diverse and interconnected. We do not live in such an ideal world. The forces of regression can be as powerful as the voices of hope that propelled Obama to the presidency. Progress has to be fought for relentlessly. The young generation we represent has to make a better case for democratic values and inclusive growth than the previous one did.
After winning the 2012 presidential election, Obama famously gave a speech to his young staff in which he reiterated his belief that young people today are more ambitious, educated and competent than ever before. As LSE students, we fall into this category. No matter which career path we choose or where we decide to live, we should always be mindful of our responsibility to reach out and defend democratic values while listening to those in need.
As lawyers, we should ensure that our legal system is inclusive and gives citizens an opportunity to defend their rights against the state. As journalists, we shouldn’t be content with preaching to those who already agree with us but seek to make our arguments resonate with those who might hold a different view. As social media innovators, we should reflect on the dangers of misinformation promulgated through Facebook, Twitter and the rest. As businessmen we should ensure that our companies pay equal wages for equal work regardless of gender, sexual orientation or race. As economists, we should strive to create inclusive growth that benefits the many and not just the few. As teachers and academics, we should strive to create an education system that inculcates civic values as well as skills and knowledge. No person should leave school or university without a strong understanding of why racism, misogyny, xenophobia and religious intolerance are always to be condemned. None of these aspirations are straightforward to fulfil, but we do have an obligation to try. Democracy will remain far too fragile if we don’t.
Crucially, we should also be more exigent in the qualities we demand of those seeking elected office. Obama’s constant emphasis on unity had its drawbacks, often leading to watered-down policy proposals. Yet despite its virulent efforts, the Republican Party could not defeat him in a presidential election nor could it block all of his legislative proposals, because he was genuine in his desire for change and nuanced in his political judgment, avoiding most of the trappings of power. In every election, from seemingly trivial ones at school and university to local and national ones, we need to encourage the truly intelligent, humble and sincere to put themselves forward. Elected office should not have to be the prerogative of those who thrive on polarization, division and visceral politics.
Obama’s legacy is undoubtedly in danger, partly because of his own failures, but his lifelong efforts to advocate for hope, empathy and civic responsibility still resonate profoundly. They can guide us in our own efforts to fight against the illiberalism of demagogues that besets our democracies. Trump’s election is a dark moment, but it will only make our efforts to consolidate progressive values more resolute than before. There is no time for complacency or indifference. As Leonard Cohen beautifully wrote,
“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”