How, in a nation based on slavery and genocide, did a black man like Obama get elected president?
That’s the question I’m left with after reading Ta-Nehisi-Coates masterful essay on race entitled–The First White President.
Coates central assertion is that the foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the repudiation of Barack Obama’s legacy. He goes on to assemble a powerful argument that, contrary to many post election class-based analysis, race was the central factor that led to the election of Trump.
There is much that is true in Coates essay about the pernicious role that race plays in America.
However, the whole race/class thing in America is incredibly complicated, and trying to understand where one ends and the other begins seems to be a fools errand.
Let’s say that both contributed to the election of Trump.
I’m more interested in who is allowed to be president by the elite that control our country, and what they are expected to do once in office.
In my opinion, after the colossal fuck-up of the privileged, white Bush and his administration of arrogant neoconservatives, our elite needed something totally different. The misadventures in the Middle-East, followed by the Wall Street crash had deeply discredited the traditional powers that be.
Enter Obama, who was elected at this critical junction of American history.
Since the early 1970s corporate elites have abandoned the postwar class compromise and sought to radically restrict the scope of economic fairness. Essentially, what capitalists grudgingly accepted during an exceptional period of postwar growth and rising profits, they would no longer.
The past forty years have witnessed an ideological and political war against the labor movements and the welfare state they helped build. This bipartisan class-war advocated for the tenets of neoliberalism: deregulating the economy, decreasing progressive taxation; decreasing the scope of public goods; and decreasing the power of organized labor.
Obama’s mission, which he gladly signed up for, was to maintain this neoliberal status quo. He continued the foreign policies of Bush, while bailing out the bankers who caused the crash, leaving millions of American homeowners impoverished in the process. Indeed, the whole thrust of policy by the entire political class, Obama included, was devoted to preserving the financial sector. Obama’s real skill was to co-opt left-wing policies and maintain the power of the elite political and economic class that rules America.
Coates wants to blame persistent racism and the obstructionist Republicans who simply wouldn’t work with a black president, but this seriously distorts the historical record. We know from Ron Suskind’s, book–Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, that Obama, having ridden into office partly on a wave of popular anger at Wall Street and the bankers, called a meeting of the nations top 13 financial executives in March of 2009. Instead of siding with those who’d been most harmed by the crisis–workers, minorities, and the poor–Obama sided unequivocally with the bankers.
“My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” Obama said. “You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help…I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Suskind puts it, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas FDR had, during the Great Depression, pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said “I welcome their hate”, Obama was asking “How can I help?” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”
The real tragedy of Barak Obama is that he had the opportunity to be a transformational president, and advance race relations on a monumental scale. Imagine how Americans of all races, minus the 1%, of course, would have viewed him had he taken on Wall Street and advanced economic policies that began to reverse the inequalities brought on by 40 years of neoliberalism. Imagine if he would have put forth Medicare-for-All, healthcare reform instead of the neoliberal Affordable-Care-Act.
But, that was always out of the question for Obama. His values are that of meritocracy. He saw people like Jaimie Dimon not as criminals who’d wrecked the country but as the smartest guys in the room that he went to Harvard with and socialized alongside.
Update: This sums up our recent presidential succession perfectly.
“America was spoonfed a boatload of lies in order to force the election of what the US oligarchs perceived as a more reliable pro-establishment candidate to protect their assets. Anyone who’s looking at the situation clearly can see that Trump isn’t extremely awful because of the few ways he’s differed from other recent presidents, he’s extremely awful because of the things he’s got in common with them. By far the most evil things that he has done haven’t been new horrors unique to his administration, but continuations of Bush and Obama’s neoconservative civilian-slaughtering foreign policy, oppressive neoliberal domestic policy, and Orwellian surveillance policy. After all the fearmongering and freakouts, we’ve seen conclusively that Trump is essentially a Republican Obama, who was himself essentially a Democratic George W. Bush. If anything, Trump is just more personally obnoxious about doing the things his predecessors did.”