THE OBAMA EFFECT
By Dennis Matanda, Emmanuel Musaazi and Ryan Elcock
Toronto/Washington/Princeton | Because of his outsider status – with a brand of antiestablishment politics, and numerous incongruities to boot – it is virtually impossible to peg America’s 45th president to a succinct policy position. The Economist says matters are muddled even further because of the ‘bomb-throwers and hardliners in Team Trump,’ including cabinet secretaries like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry who have called for abolishment of the very federal agencies they’ll run. But if Trump’s policies are a mystery, his approach to politics is not. In a Foreign Affairs article, Stephen Wertheim says Trumpism is premised on demanding a bigger and better share from globalization; with enough American hutzpah to ideally ‘grab that share from others.’ Whilst this is neither the time nor place to conflate Donald Trump’s locker room vaunts about guileless genitalia grabbing, we must hitch any discussion to how and why Trump’s anarchic and uncanny manner defied conventional wisdom, subverted American culture, and set the stage for the next 4-to-8 years of upended global politics. And this tectonic shift in the norm must not be sugarcoated: like the others that endorsed Trump’s erstwhile rival, The Habari Network has munched on its share of humble crow, and come away with three key realities: (i) America’s 45th president has stirred up a pot of white hot polarization that may turn out to be a much bigger threat to U.S. national security than Russia, ISIS and the Islamic terrorism combined; (ii) Hillary Clinton’s Electoral College loss and popular vote win may haunt the Trump presidency to its very last day in office, and (iii) Donald J. Trump probably has Barack H. Obama to thank for this presidential asterisk in the Golden Trump Life.
Why We Were Wrong
We have a simple explanation for wrongly and prematurely reassuring readers that Mrs. Clinton was on track to win the 2016 General Election. Like had materialized for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, we expected Clinton to win traditionally Democratic states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. While Clinton won the popular vote by close to 3 million votes, Trump won the Electoral College votes of Michigan’s by a slight margin of 10,704 votes; Wisconsin by 22,177, and Pennsylvania by just under 45,000. In the end, our gamble, just like Clinton’s, was that that enough white voters would accept a white candidate that gave special focus and attention to minorities. Alas, like Brian Frydenborg argues, these white voters did not want ‘another internationalist.’ Additionally, the LA Times reported that the Clinton campaign witnessed a drop-off among voters younger than 30. While these young voters mostly did not side with Trump, enough of them either stayed home or voted for third-party candidates, making the difference in the closest states.
Thank You, Obama
Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate pale in comparison to the forces of sheer white nationalism that swept a deeply flawed man into the White House. Clinton’s public service, dedication, and governance experience were no match for Trump’s recalcitrant and consistent denials of legitimacy to America’s first black president. Trump brazenly referred to America as a ‘third world country’ – something he’d never have done during the dark days of the Bush II presidency.
Alternatively, Republicans say they are opposed to Obama because of his outright political correctness; because, apparently, the Obama White House was very partisan; because the economy did not do quite well under Obama, and that Obama played a role in the unfairness of the American tax system. Obviously, many of these anti-Obama aspects are debatable.
In fact, writing for the Huffington Post, Stephen Nelson said the palpable disdain with which Republicans refer to Obama is symptomatic of something far beyond partisan politics. Senator Marco Rubio, for example, aggressively charged that Obama was trying to destroy America. It is not plausible that all this coded language is just business as usual. Many white Americans deeply resent a man of color leading the country and would have done nearly anything to delegitimize his tenure in office, illustrated, for example, by the anger with which the GOP rose to demand that Obama surrender his constitutional authority to nominate a replacement for the late Antonin Scalia on 9-associate Supreme Court of the U.S.
Outside Congress and the Supreme Court, senior Republicans, no less than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich got away with bold-faced canards like Obama as ‘the food stamp president.’ Realistically, the Economist noted that the black experience in America is quite as multifarious as the white one, and although African American communities continue to suffer disproportionately from all manner of poor people problems, there’s no racial monopoly on poverty. While the overt racial undertones surrounding the Obama/Food stamps and free stuff seem reasonable to a general audience, Gingrich knew, for a fact, that most poor Americans are white, and that these food stamps mostly benefitted white people. But who, in the Republican Party knew of these glaring truths? It mattered less that dole recipient ranks spiked during the worst recession and economic downturn to hit the U.S. since the Great Depression, and more that Gingrich could escape unscathed even when he carelessly cast aspersions around Obama’s ‘Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.’
An Empty Opposition
Nonetheless, to fully appreciate how vacuous Republican opposition to Obama, look no further than opposition to Obama’s signature program; Obamacare. On top of the program’s individual mandate being based on a Republican idea – taken from the Heritage Foundation and effectively implemented by Mitt Romney as governor of Massachusetts – congressional Republicans have, 6 years after its 2013 start-date, not devised a viable alternative to the program many of them opposed to get elected, and got elected to oppose. As at January 13, 2017, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) promised that Obamacare’s repeal and replace would happen ‘this year.’ Even then, Republicans are increasingly suggesting as series of alternative actions. GOP aides, Senators and more recently, Republican governors keen on keeping Obamacare’s federal grants to their state Medicaid programs suggest that instead of a full ‘repeal and replace’ agenda, focus should be on making regulatory changes, Trump’s executive actions, and some in legislation. Ultimately, in gutting a complex behemoth rumored to eat up to 30 percent of America’s annual budget, the Republicans must now own a healthcare system that has already reduced rolls of America’s formerly uninsured; compelled insurance companies to guarantee anyone coverage, and most of all, comprehensively provides women and children with more than barebones medical respite.
Essentially, Trump’s victory rests less on how Obamacare was, for instance, jammed through Congress without a single Republican vote, and more on the racial polarization that made Republicans zealous about making Obama a one-term president. Political scientist Jason McDaniel and sociologist Philip Cohen showed that racial animus drove support for Trump. Evan Osnos noted that in empowering and encouraging white supremacists to run for office, Trump almost ensured that once anti-Obama attitudes were let loose, they would be difficult to bottle back up. Republican antagonism to Obamacare was, per The Economist, ‘less a reasonable critique of an imperfect scheme than a self-interested bid’ to gratify their incandescent base enthusiastically keen to squish the Obama presidency, even if doing so harmed the nation. Simply, if Obama was ever for something, the Republicans were against it. The Tea Party movement came out against economy-saving federal bailouts to financial institutions and car manufacturing companies. Eventually, Republican intransigence on commonsense things like immigration reform, gay rights, gun control, and consumer protection led to government shutdowns, an unnecessary and devastating credit rating downgrade and the indignity of sequestration.
The Price of the Presidency
In 2014, Alan Greenblatt made the case that modern presidents – from Kennedy to Obama – have triggered strong negative reactions. The John Birch Society was to Kennedy what the Tea Party is to Obama, and indignities Obama has endured, including a protester waving a Confederate flag outside the White House gates and a South Carolina congressman, Republican Joe Wilson, yelling ‘You lie!’ at a 2009 address to Congress could be shelved under this section.
Race has infected public discussion so insidiously and for so long that it’s fair to wonder whether Obamacare would have roused the same passions had Biden been its progenitor. Considering the way Trump was elected, San Francisco State Professor Smith agrees with the Economist‘s assessment that while it is very possible that a President Joe Biden might have felt the fire of Republican opposition, Obama’s race added fuel to economic anxiety; with white people feeling that opportunities and resources were being transferred from their middle-income to low-income minorities. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported an ‘explosive growth of radical-right groups,’ including armed militias who threatened to commit violence to “take [their] country back” from the “tyranny” of Obama.
A Penultimate Summary
One could counter that militia movements expanded and grew during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and that there was much hatred on America’s left, crowned by a novel fantasizing about George W. Bush’s assassination. However, the distinction between Kennedy, Carter, Clinton, Bush on the one hand, and Obama on the other is that his predecessors did not have an energized Republican Party and a right-wing media machine that pandered incessant ‘untruths’ to racist reactionaries in American society, often through appeals to white resentment witnessed in the civil rights era. Additionally, Obama came to govern America at a time when globalization threatened to change America’s capacity to shape the future. These forces increased polarization around the world and in his country; launching the kind of forces that could see a man as ballistic like Trump fit to be successor to the Cool Cucumber.
To Be Continued in Part II