Keep It About Trump
Why Barack Obama Is Right to Play It Quiet for Now
It’s understandable that his partisans want him to throw down. But that will just make it about him. And it isn’t. It way isn’t.
Barack Obama has not disappeared. But if he had, I wouldn’t have blamed him.
On Inauguration Day, he waved goodbye to the presidency from the steps of Marine One, leaving the country in the hands of Donald Trump, the birther-in-chief, who had risen to political prominence by slandering him mercilessly. As Obama took the break that he’d earned, he clearly paid attention to how Trump set about disassembling his legacy with abandon, targeting everything from the Affordable Care Act and the nuclear deal with Iran to lesser-known regulations and executive orders. The former president, one always to measure his words, raised his moderate-yet-forceful tone when Obamacare was under threat—but he didn’t talk over anyone. Thus far, this has been a common theme. Including the rare political comment and occasional endorsement, Obama has focused upon empowering those who would follow him in the fight.
Still, that’s a lot quieter guy than the rousing political prodigy who spoiled us with his eloquence for more than a decade. I suspect that this was always the plan. Even if Hillary Clinton had been his next-in-line, I imagine he would’ve been similarly quiet, following in the tradition of former presidents who refuse to interfere with the term of his successor. But his ability to inspire is, arguably, the primary reason why his voters miss him. It’s why, in the first post-presidency of the social media era, Obama may seem more invisible than he actually is.
His rhetorical absence is more conspicuous in this fresh and terrible time. This new president isn’t just attempting to eradicate any trace of Obama’s legacy, wallpaper and all. Trump is defecating on the office to which Obama brought a new, modern dignity. Trump’s reckless words and cruel actions are depressive, emotionally and otherwise. It’s understandable, then, why Caroline Randall Williams wrote an op-ed for The New York Times editorial page last week pleading with Obama to resurface.
Williams, a NAACP Image Award-winning poet and author, doesn’t seem to want Obama to lead so much as decipher and comfort, using his constitutional law expertise and experience in the White House to “help unpack this madness.” (She wrote this prior to Trump bursting open a piñata of intolerance last Friday night, instituting the transgender ban for the military and pardoning ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt when he wouldn’t stop racially profiling people.)
Williams’ argument is that his public commentary on the chaotic Trump era would soothe the anxiety of the tens of millions of Americans who never asked for this. “We need your voice,” she adds. “There is not a saner, more trustworthy opinion that many of us would rather hear.” Considering Obama’s continued popularity, many undoubtedly feel this way. His oratory can be intoxicating.
But I’d argue that it’s time to sober up. For all of the fascinating interrogations of race Obama conducted as a candidate and in office, he presided over a time when racial animus became increasingly raw. We can’t blame the first black president for the racism of others, but we should recognize how little those speeches changed. Would a more public, forceful Obama than the one we’re getting do anything more than make a lot of folks feel better? The last thing we need in the Trump era, with all of its naked hatred and wanton cruelty, is a salve. We need to feel every bit of this pain, lest we forget for a second how urgent this all is.
Our current president gives quarter to white extremists, undermines the very public works he has the power to maintain, and spends inordinate time on Twitter praising himself—even while, as was the case last weekend, Houston drowns in Harvey’s waters. Our sad reality only feeds the tempting fantasy of a straight-laced Obama, loosed from the political binds of the presidency, spending the rest of his public life as a Malcolm X or a Fred Hampton, making use of his grandiose gifts at an even higher volume, bending the ears of power brokers inclined to ignore activists and organizers.
That many of us African Americans, especially, dared dream of a more liberated, thus militant, Obama likely says more about us than it does about him. Throughout the Williams essay runs a thread of unearned familiarity. Despite all the speeches we’ve seen and media we’ve consumed, most of us don’t truly know the man. It’s difficult to speculate just what he’d say—or whether the Obama in the White House was somehow inauthentic. His graying hair testifies to the stress of two terms, but who is to say that he never said what he meant before now?
What if his personal conception of liberation doesn’t match that shared by the younger, energetic liberal base? Herein lies the danger of the mythological Obama: the same guy who many Americans, full of abundant hope and expecting more change than he could possibly deliver, voted for in 2008 and 2012. A black president was never going to be a magical Negro, but many still believed. They voted for a ghost, and today they wonder when that apparition will appear.
Leaving that daydream behind for a moment, what would a more vocal Obama actually accomplish? His Milan speech in May about climate change and food insecurity hinted at the possibility of a proxy presidency, stepping in to fill the American leadership role that Trump abdicated from the start. While an improvement, theoretically, a former president subbing in for the present one is still a bad look overall for the United States. It also isn’t good for the Democratic Party. Trump already blames everything on him, and it does Obama no good to get into the president’s trough. Doing so could backfire, and not because Trump and his base would get their feelings hurt and whine about it. For one, his relative silence is working.
Look at the Obamacare fight. That was won by the emerging activists and engaged voters whom Obama always hoped to inspire to better American politics. Granted, he issued March and June statements defending his signature legislative achievement against Republican efforts to repeal it. But he largely stayed out of the way as an insurgent movement took hold amongst voters of every stripe. I never in my life thought I’d see white Republican voters in Arkansas passionately defend Obamacare to their senator, but it happened.
A more outspoken Obama wouldn’t have moved the ball any further than those folks did. In fact, a more vocal Obama may have taken attention away from that grassroots uprising to defend the ACA. Imagine him doing a barnstorming tour to defend it. What may have been an inspiring or enjoyable spectacle might have ended up with him playing defense and promoting himself. Instead, Obama let Trump and the Republicans self-immolate. He knew that the resistance was doing fine on its own, and trusted that his accomplishments would prove more resilient than Trump ever anticipated.
Williams’ argument is a sympathetic one. If Obama can help guide activists through this time, by all means he should. But that won’t happen in a speech or a quickly consumed soundbite rebuke. The last thing this resistance needs at this moment is coddling. Obama cannot be a father figure, reading us comforting words that will help assuage us. He is not our psychologist nor our priest.
Obama often employed the June Jordan line “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” a prebuttal of sorts to Trump’s “I alone can fix it.” It is a call for participatory democracy, nor for prayers. No one should turn away his efforts to help any resistance to Trump, certainly. But he already did his share of the work. By insisting he return to lead us, we risk missing a key lesson of his presidency: He is no savior. Rather than waiting for his political resurrection, Americans should get busy figuring out how to save one another.