Friday, January 20, 2017

Is This the Change We Needed?: A Reflection on the Obama Presidency

The Obama administration has come to an end. To some, this is a great tragedy especially with the inauguration of Donald Trump as his successor who promises to undue much of what Obama accomplished in his eight years in office. To others the day could not have come soon enough. Our nation is so divided that most are either clearly on one side or the other.

As a believer in Christ, who reigns from his glorious throne above, I cannot and will not put my hope in armies and princes. Therefore inauguration day is a significant day in the life of the nation I love, but in the grand scheme of things, it is the Lord who is sovereign over the nations. Nonetheless, this should not prevent us from reflecting on the Obama administration and certainly a few words are worth sharing on this day.


1. The Criteria Obama Should Be Judged

President Barack Obama was thrust to the scene in 2004 during the Democrat National Convention which met to officially recognize John Kerry as its candidate. Obama, himself running for his first (and only) term in the US Senate, promised to be a different kind of politician. He presented himself as a uniter who, mixed in race, could bring the various races together and lead us beyond America's history of racism. We are, as he told us, not Blue America or Red America, Black America or White America but the United States of America.

Four years later he ran for the nation's highest office under the mantra of "Hope" and "Change." It was the perfect slogan for the time as many, including conservatives and Republicans, were exhausted from the Bush administration. The Iraq War drained the American conscience and Hurricane Katrina was a microcosm of the Bush second term. America was hungry for hope and change.

Yet Senator Obama never clearly defined the terms relying instead on his own charisma and ability to read from a teleprompter. The rhetoric of "hope and change" became comical even though the electorate ate it up. In his nomination victory speech in early June 2008, Obama assured us:
The journey will be difficult. The road will be long. I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment - this was the time - when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals. Thank you, God Bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.
This produced the "Obamessiah" meme on the conservative side. During the 2008 campaign there were endless pictures of halo-like pictures of the candidate to go along with the promises.

In short, Obama promised everything and represented all the hopes and dreams of America. He was the incarnation of American Utopianism and it could all be yours if the speech was right. Little substance was offered, just the rhetoric. As such, Obama and his campaign were able to shield the means and their ends. While promising hope and change, they never fully showed how it would come about.

Regardless of what one believes about the Obama administration, his eight years in office should be judged by the promise of "hope and change." Did he deliver? I think not. The economy continues to stagger, we are somehow more divided as a nation, the national debt doubled, world affairs is a worse mess than before, terrorism has increased, racial harmony remains a dream, the federal government was used as a weapon against dissenters especially Christians and conservatives, and on and on it goes.

After eight years, Obama must be judged by the standard he set for himself. Much has changed, but is this the change we hoped for? Is this the change we needed? We are not better off than we were a decade ago by any measure. At the end of his administration, it is difficult to imagine that this is the hope everyone hoped for.


2. The Campaign That Never Ended

There is a very real possibility that President Trump will unravel much of President Obama's legacy. Much of what Obama "accomplished," especially in his second term, was primarily through executive orders. Those can easily be repealed. In fact, President Obama achieved less legislatively than his predecessors including the one-term Jimmy Carter.

Yet perhaps Obama's most enduring legacy will be the politicization of presidential leadership. Americans suffered through both a lengthy 2008 and 2016 presidential campaign yet between them, there was daily dose of campaign leadership from the Oval Office. Obama was always running against someone or at least the opposing party and their constituents. Republicans want children to starve, Paul Ryan is giving in to special interests, talk radio is guilty of spreading lies, the Tea Party is full of racist bigots. Instead of transcending the gutter of politics, the President was often the instigator of it thus contributing to the ongoing divide of the country. For eight years (ten if you count his first run for the presidency), Obama never ceased campaigning.

The strategy, one could say, was a smart one. By constantly campaigning, Obama kept the focus on the failures and miscues of Republicans and his predecessor. According to the 2012 election exit polling, most Americans still blamed Bush for the stagnant economy even though Obama had spent a trillion dollars in stimulus and promised that better days were ahead. To this day the economy remains dull. How often, especially in the first term, were we told that the mess was bigger than he anticipated and that his administration had to do all the mopping (signifying he's cleaning up the mess of Bush and the Republicans), etc.?

Such a leadership style, if one wants to call it that, accomplishes little and manages to demonize one's opponents over one's enemies. Case in point is President Obama's rhetoric following the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015. Before it was presented to Congress, Republicans made it clear they did not support it. The President then said (and later doubled down on):
I realize that resorting to force may be tempting in the face of the rhetoric and behavior that emanates from parts of Iran. It is offensive. It is incendiary. We do take it seriously. But superpowers should not act impulsively in response to talks… Just because Iranian hardliners chant ‘Death to America” does not mean that that’s what all Iranians believe. In fact, it’s those hardliners that are more satisfied with the status quo. It’s those hardliners chanting “death to America” who’ve been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican Caucus.
Such rhetoric is unbecoming of the presidency yet was too common in the Obama administration.

Obama's political gift is campaigning, not leadership and thus a constant campaign was his leadership style. As a result, he accomplished less and divided us more. It is easy to blame the division of America exclusively on Trump but that is a narrow view. In many ways, Donald Trump is President Obama's child.


3. Racism Increased

Obama came on the scene promising an end to racial strife in America and was the hope of most Americans including staunch conservatives. Eight years later, however, the racial divide is worse. Obama understood that his identity as the first Africa-American president was a political advantage. The Democrat Party has since become the party of demographics as the 2012 presidential election illustrated. Under his leadership, Americans were defined by their love of country, but by their demographics. Now we are black voters, female voters, white voters, Christian voters, Hispanic voters, young voters, etc.

This is the issue that will likely befuddle many Americans. No doubt his election brought with it the hope of racial reconciliation yet the opposite took place. Throughout his administration, Obama showed his propensity to view the world racially. Early in his first term Obama entered into a local matter commenting on the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates thus making it a national issue. Obama's initial reaction was to suggest that the police officers "acted stupidly." Later he would repeatedly comment on open cases before all the evidence was considered presuming guilt on the non-minority persons. Add to this the actions of the attorney general and no wonder racial strife increased under his campaign leadership.

If Obama is wondering why a high percentage of Caucasians voted for Trump (I was not one of them), then he need not look past his own reflection. For many, to be a white, conservative male was to be a target of the Obama administration.

It is clear to me that when it comes to race in America, there is no other answer than the gospel of Christ which understands that we are neither Jew or Greek, male or female, but one in Christ. Hope and change will clearly not come down from the Resolute Desk.


4. Religious Liberty Threatened

President Obama's so-called evolution on same-sex marriage has resulted in the most serious threat to religious liberty in our nation's history. One can no longer be a conscientious objector to the Obergefell oligarchs without being punished, to the full extent of the law, by local, state, and federal laws, courts, judges, and executives. To be a Christian or a person of faith is to be an enemy of Obama's America.

From the perspective of many conservative Christians, erotic liberty is an idol that the state demands we all bow down to at the sound of the music. To refuse will result in bakeries being shut down, photographers being fined, CEOs fired, and forever to be branded a cultural heretic.

The Obama administration has pursued so-called bigots with a sort of focus that most wish he had toward our true enemies. Although all of this was predicable in 2008 (surely no one really believed he evolved on the marriage issue right?), few believed the speed in which the state would target its own people who still have a conscience.

Moving forward, America must rekindle a traditional understanding of religious liberty. This is more than a matter of who occupies the White House, but reshaping how Americans think on this issue.

I am officially a two-issue voter: life and (religious) liberty.


Conclusion

I have often wanted to compare the Obama administration to that of the Woodrow Wilson administration. Both presidents led America down a progressive path it never recovered from. Both Wilson and Obama are progressive radicals that many Americans still refuse to believe they are who they are. Though I believe Obama's eight years has been largely negative for America in virtually every way, one must admit that Obama has largely been free to do most of what he wanted to. What remains to be seen is if the change Obama brought (I see little hope mind you) will be lasting. The answer will come from his successor: newly inaugurated Donald J. Trump.

In the end, as a Christian I am reminded of the eternal truth that hope and change does not rule from the West Wing but from the right hand of the throne of God. That is good news indeed and it is a gospel I would rather spread than that of Obamaism or Trumpism.


For more:
What Is To Be Our Response? Living as a Christian in an Obama Administration (Published January 20, 2009) 
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