What Hath Obama Wrought

The defeat of the Democratic Party in the 2016 election is an astonishing and unmistakable repudiation of the “transformation of America” to which Barack Obama dedicated himself as constitutional chief executive. Obama’s transformation of America disavowed the natural law principles on which the country was founded. For more than a century Progressive reformers assiduously indoctrinated Americans in the philosophy of pragmatist relativism. Faithful to the Progressive tradition, Obama appealed to pragmatism to rationalize the transformation of America. While post-mortems are being prepared to explain what went wrong, it is pertinent to reflect on how Left-liberal opinion makers understood the “once-in-a-life-time” opportunity that Obama’s election provided to achieve long sought progressive goals.

The country as a whole rejoiced over the breaking of the color line at the highest honorific level in American government and politics. The editors of Journal of Blacks in Higher Education led the way in chastising prominent conservative Shelby Steele as “the wrong-headed black scholar who said Obama could not be elected president because he was not black enough.” Steele failed to foresee the surge of white voters eager to embrace Obama’s carefully scripted appeal to the unity of multicultural diversity under the spell of identity politics.[1]

African American Studies Professor Horace Campbell saw in the election “a sign of the beginning of a revolutionary movement.” Obama’s message of change focused not only on electoral politics but also environmental justice, anti-racist consciousness, the delegitimization of militarism, and opposition to all forms of religious persecution. Although Campbell believed Obama was not “a revolutionary per se,” the people’s consciousness for change through bottom-up mobilization and decision making would create “the expectation . . . that he is required to answer the call of the people for structural change.” The transformation of America would “replace liberalist top-down electoral democracy” that excluded “ordinary people from the corridors of power.”[2]

Some radicals viewed Obamaism with skepticism. McMaster University English professor Henry A. Giroux said Obama’s election gave hope that the authoritarianism of the Bush administration was ended. Nevertheless, there were signs that authoritarian policies persisted beyond the new president’s power to control. Giroux asserted that Obama’s “inspiring call for hope has been reduced to what appears to be simply an empty performance.”[3] On the other hand, sociologist Jeffrey Goldfarb saw in the Obama campaign a new form of electoral politics. The rhetorically skilled community organizer had the ability to enlist people in a social cause that defined not only his identity but also their own. Perceiving the cult-like relationship that existed between President Obama and his young supporters, Goldfarb wrote, “I see public happiness energizing a public and its freedom.” The hope and change political movement was reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s longing for “the lost treasure of the revolutionary tradition.” [4]

An important part of President Obama’s appeal was his reputation for intellectual excellence. Psychologist David G. Winter imputed to Obama the traits of a philosopher-king. In Winter’s view, Obama “seems to have, in Plato’s words, ‘a naturally well proportioned and gracious mind, which will move spontaneously toward the true being of everything.” Winter also noted a high level of power, motivation, and involvement in Chicago machine politics that suggested the image of Obama as a polarizing, power-hungry leader.[5]

To clarify the nature of America’s transformation, political theorist Rogers M. Smith offered an anodyne image of Obama as a loyal follower of Progressive icon John Dewey. Dewey’s evolutionary scientific perspective translated into a philosophy of democratic pragmatism that precludes a return to the values of the American Founders. A fundamental change in the human situation required “reconstruction” in philosophy, science, religion, and political and economic institutions. The Founders themselves provided a linkage to Progressivism in the Constitution’s rejection of religious orthodoxy and the decision to foster a culture of scientific and commercial innovation. They inspired a public philosophy giving ultimate power to the mass of the people and valorizing democracy and change above all. Smith asserted that the Obama presidency epitomizes and marks the fulfillment of modern American liberalism.[6]

However, political opposition to hope-and-change transformation thwarted aspirations for permanent equality of wealth. According to Rogers Smith, President Obama recognized that “toleration of diversity and deliberative consensus-building have their limits,” and “some problems must be solved by actions that go beyond the boundaries of the law in order to achieve forms of justice that cannot wait.” Obama “place[s] great value on the American Constitution—but not ultimate value, and only if the Constitution is understood in a distinctive way.” Although Obama denies that constitutional interpretation amounts to “making it up as we go along,” his “personal and intellectual heritage” led him to interpret the Constitution in ways that are consistent with egalitarian civil rights values and deliberative democracy.[7]

It was apparent that the transformation of America would require sustained and far-reaching exercise of executive power. Three sources of constitutional authority were available. First was the written Constitution of 1787 as amended; second, the amalgam of sociological, legal-realist, and critical legal studies scholarship conjured by progressive theorists; and third, an amorphous body of populist and Progressive commentary expounding the idea of a “living constitution.”

In an obscure and haphazard manner, the fabrication of a progressive national health care regime—the crowning achievement of the Obama presidency—drew on this mélange of ideological sources. In the absence of congressional hearings information about the design of the health care system was not forthcoming. President Obama nevertheless issued assurances that the right of individuals to retain existing medical insurance, administrative accountability, and superior health care would be hallmarks of the new regime. However, implementation of Obamacare did not proceed as expected. When problems were identified, the president announced he would fix them by changing the health care act. In effect this claim violated the separation of powers, but in point of legal fact was justified under the doctrine of delegation of legislative power to the executive branch that forms a principal basis on which the administrative state rests.

Rationalization of Obama-style statism appears in recent liberal scholarship. Benjamin Ewing and Douglas A. Kysar propose an ingenious interpretation of the separation of powers principle. A “system of prods and pleas” is imagined in which “government branches and actors push each other to entertain collective political action when necessary.” This move is an “inversion of assumed checks and balances,” not a radical reconfiguration of the basic structural principles of American government as it might appear. Ewing and Kysar contend that “prods and pleas” will function as “limited government’s fail-safe” when “the pressures of a changing world threaten the sustainability of disaggregated governance.” Limited government will be preserved by “counteracting its potential to over-prefer passivity.”[8]

The spirit of Obama’s transformation of America is apparent in Professor Adrian Vermeule’s model of Progressive constitutionalism. Vermeule rejects the founders’ “precautionary” limited-government principles based on the separation of powers, which over compensate for low-likelihood risks and threaten dangers such as executive dictatorship or legislative tyranny. Vermeule advises a “more modern view of governmental realities” in which “the best way to regulate risk is to avoid obsessive views on risk avoidance or precautions.” An “optimizing constitutionalism” is preferred in contrast to the “myopic” and “more rigid precautionary principles” of the Constitution’s framers. The “legally constrained executive,” Vermeule concludes, “is now a historical curiosity.”[9]

Renowned political scientist Theodore J. Lowi, an expert on the history of liberalism, advances a theory of republican revolutions as a principle of American political development. Lowi tracks what he refers to as the “illegal” overthrow of republican governments in American history: from the Confederation, to the Constitution, to the Civil War and Reconstruction amendments, to the regulatory welfare state in the New Deal, and to the Great Society civil rights revolution of the 1960s. The cumulative effect of [r]evolutionary liberalism is apparent in the superseding of congressional government by presidential government. Citizens’ expectations of social democracy focused on the president, scientific polling made it possible to hold a plebiscite weekly, and the plebiscitary presidency came into existence. In Lowi’s opinion this constitutional alteration was not a good thing.

In Lowi’s telling, Democrat Lyndon Johnson embraced the model. However, Republicans Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush carried out “a true constitutional revolution” by treating the presidency as a unitary office. Whether labeled plebiscitary authoritarianism or authoritarian democracy, a bipartisan compact was legitimized. Writing in 2008, Lowi predicted that the next president would embrace the bipartisan compact on the principle that the executive must have “power commensurate with his responsibility.” Furthermore, since “there can never be enough power to meet mass expectations, the masses must be mobilized on a permanent war footing.” In Lowi’s view Barack Obama, on the basis of his behavior after his electoral triumph, “has fully accepted the transparent presidency with no awareness of its dangers, to himself, his plebs, and his patricians.” Observing that Obama “appears to have no conception of what is in store for him,” Lowi lamented, “I grieve for him as well as for us.”[10]

Given Obama’s assertions that narrative can actually shape the facts on the ground and thus the citizenry’s view of the arc of politics, it seems fitting to consider Liberal historian Max Paul Friedman’s postmodernist perspective on Obama’s transformation of America. Postmodern aesthetics posits representations that precede reality and artificially produce “a mediated world masquerading as authenticity.” The acclaim accorded Obama created a “simulacrobama,” in other words “a mediated spectacle whose message is that the United States is now a post-racial, or post-racist society, even though such representation precedes a reality that may never arrive.” Obama “deliberately participated in helping to erode the distinction between reality and representation.” He “personified the possibility of national redemption with his gentle talk of overcoming racial division and rhetorical formulas drawing on patriotic and Christian imagery.” The question now is whether new media are moving American society into “a genuinely participatory citizenry connected in the public sphere,” or whether they function as filters between the people and tangible events “replacing ever more of their experiences with representations”?[11]

Dartmouth College Professor of the Humanities Donald E. Pease adds a wrinkle to the postmodernist view of the historic moment.  Obama linked points of historical “puncture” defining the ascendancy of “a punctual presidency” that comes “just in time.” Identifying himself with people of “the homeland who quite literally had no part in the New World Order,” Obama “transformed their dream for a different America” into the cause of his presidential campaign. He “personified the sheer anomic or constituent power of what postmodern guru [Walter] Benjamin referred to as pure or revolutionary violence.” Obama inculcated the belief that whatever he was going to represent as president “would in principle represent everyone’s desire for change.”[12]

The bureaucratic regulatory state is a corruption of the federal republican Constitution of the American Founding. For over a century Progressive “living constitutionalism” has served as the platform for a succession of progressive transformations of which diversity-driven multiculturalism is the most recent. Postmodernism has not been repealed, although the clever deceits that sustain it will in due course be disclosed by agents of truth. Of one thing, however, we can certain: after the election of Donald Trump as president in the 2016 elections, Left-liberal groups and their millionaire backers will double down on agitating for the radical transformation of America that eluded the grasp of President Barack Obama.

[1] Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 62 (Winter 2008/2009), 13-15.

[2] Wazir Mohammed, “Book Review: Horace Cambell, Barack Obama and Twenty-first Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the U.S.A,” Social and Economic Studies, vol. 60 (June 2011), 216-220.

[3] Henry A. Giroux, “Barack Obama and the Resurgent Specter of Authoritarianism,” Journal JAC, vol. 31 (2011), 415-4o.

[4] Jeffrey Goldfarb, “1989 and The Not So Lost Treasure of the Revolutionary Tradition, or Barack Obama and the Politics of Small Things,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, vol. 22 (1989), 579-85.

[5] David G. Winter, “Philosopher-King or Polarizing Politician? A Personality Profile of Barack Obama,” Political Psychology, vol. 32 (2011), 1059-81.

[6] Rogers M. Smith, “‘Our Republican Example’: The Significance of the American Experiments in Government in the Twenty-first Century,” American Political Thought, vol.1 (2012), 101-128.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Benjamin Ewing and Douglas A. Kysar, “Prods and Pleas: Limited Government in an Era of Unlimited Harm,” Yale Law Journal, vol. 121 (November 2011), 350-424.

[9] Jonathan Turley, “Book Review: A Fox in the Hedges: Vermeule’s Vision of Optimized Constitutionalism in a Suboptimal World,” University of Chicago Law Review, vol. 82 (Winter 2015), 517-72.

[10] Theodore J. Lowi, “Bend Sinister: How the Constitution Saved the Republic and Lost Itself,” PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 43 (Jan. 2009), 3-9.

[11] Max Paul Friedman, “Simulacrobama: The Mediated Election of 2008,” Journal of American Studies, vol. 43 (August 2009), 341-56.

[12] Donald E. Pease, “Obama’s Rifts,” boundary 2:An International Journal of Literature and Culture, no. 39: 2 (2012), 33-70.