The Paradoxical President
Obama’s inexplicable identity shouldn’t go unchallenged
Four years after his Panglossian crusade for hope and change was slugged by the realities of a dysfunctional Washington, President Obama emerged reinvigorated from an arduous campaign and delivered a second inaugural address that boldly staked a progressive agenda for his second term. But despite his recent posturing, the disquieting evolution of President Obama’s puzzling political identity troubles me.
At the outset of his first term, an overcautious Obama squandered considerable political capital on tepid stimulus and healthcare bills due to a baffling inability to command the bully pulpit. Mired in the minefields of increasingly radicalized Republican obstinacy, the administration’s myriad concessions and omissions rightly disheartened the president’s supporters.
To the glee of many of his supporters, the president delivered a full-throated defense of the social safety net, declaring that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security “do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Jabbing at climate change deniers, Obama asserted, “some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
The first president to ever use the word gay in an inaugural address, Obama most poignantly underscored the motif of equal rights for all people by grouping Seneca Falls and Selma with Stonewall, succinctly linking the women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights movements.
The recent inaugural address revealed a bolder, more bellicose president who, no longer fearful of re-election, eschewed the traditional highfalutin, hollow rhetoric of inaugural addresses for an unapologetic liberal agenda. It was an eloquent rethinking of the American Dream through the progressive collective action embodied in the address’s refrain: “We the people.”
And the speech contained many points that Republicans ought to rally behind rather than impulsively dismiss as an unnatural return to liberalism, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did. Obama channeled the quintessentially American ideal of self-reliance in articulating skepticism towards government as panacea, a call for tax code reform, and a warning to reduce the size of the deficit.
Seeing that the House of Representatives remains under intransigent Republican control, it’s unlikely that the president’s emboldened rhetoric can affect actual change on the policy front. But Obama has begun his second term in the right tone: one that is a marked departure from the seemingly weak-willed tone of the first term’s negotiator.
But while the administration is in the throes of renovation, I cannot help but feel uneasy about the president’s identity (and not in the nonsensical birtherist way). After four years of pessimism with the way the president has authorized the National Defense Authorization Act and drone strikes and expanded the police state, I must ask—who is Barack Obama?
He’s certainly not the liberal messiah that the 2008 campaign hailed him as. There’s a striking cognitive dissonance between candidate Obama and his actions as president. This is evident when one looks at his administration’s continuation and bolstering of controversial Bush-era practices like warrantless wiretapping, kill lists that sanction the extrajudicial killings of American citizens abroad, increased reliance on drone strikes in Pakistan employing questionable tactics like double taps (follow-up strikes that target first responders) and signature strikes (unidentified victims fitting a certain description are counted as combatants). All liberals should be vehemently opposed to these policies, perpetrated by a one-time constitutional law professor, which so flagrantly infringe the Bill of Rights. The chorus of opposition to President Bush has sadly fallen silent.
One might try to prove him faithful to his campaign pledges by pointing to his first term “achievements.” But many of these were watered down to the point of irrelevance by a dysfunctional Congress, including the healthcare law, the rescue of the financial and auto sectors, and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Perhaps the question of Obama’s political identity is best answered by the man himself: "The truth of the matter is that my policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican,” the president said in an interview. It’s certainly true when one recalls that Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, Ronald Reagan increased the debt ceiling 18 times, and the individual mandate central to the Affordable Care Act was an idea promoted by the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank.
I worry about possible Democratic complacency as the Republican Party demagogues itself into obsolescence. Citizens should not embrace the false dichotomy of Democrat and Republican—the imprimatur of a self-identifying liberal president should not allow his controversial actions to go unchecked and unchallenged. The president and the establishment Democratic Party have drifted so far to the right that too many political debates are between center-right and far-right positions, leaving the center vulnerable.
As Yeats cautioned, when “the center cannot hold, things fall apart.”
Idrees Kahloon ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Weld Hall. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.