Publisher's Note — July 11, 2018, 11:08 am

The Enemy Within

“Obama [and nostalgia for him] is still running the risk of suffocating reform and encouraging the reelection of Donald Trump.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on July 3, 2018. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Nostalgia for Barack Obama is in full swing. With each passing day, Donald Trump’s insults and general nastiness are making people increasingly regret the absence of a president who behaved like an adult.

Certainly, the restoration of dignity to the White House is devoutly to be wished. Nonetheless, I find myself more and more irritated with the analyses of the former President’s character by anti-Trump journalists. As a very early critic of Obama, I often came up against my colleagues’ lack of awareness, particularly at the start of his spectacular rise to prominence in 2006. At this late date, I would have wished for rather more insight on their part.

But now we have Maureen Dowd, getting it wrong once again. Dowd subscribes to the idea of a celestial Obama who wanted to remain above the sordid political fray. According to this scenario, Obama was too idealistic for raw politics and at the same time too arrogant and condescending to appreciate the realities of Middle America and the grassroots work a professional politician must do. Citing a new book, The World as It Is, by Ben Rhodes, Dowd seizes on something Obama is alleged to have said shortly after Trump’s election: “Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.” And later: “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early.”

These statements by Obama do in fact sound like an indication that he considers himself exceptional. Dowd, however, is surprised at his ability to ignore what she calls “the hunger for revolutionary change” that was so much in evidence at the rallies for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—a hunger born of “the fear” felt by many ordinary people that they had sunk out of sight, into the void, forgotten by Washington. How was it that the outgoing president, the beneficiary in 2008 of the same desire for a clean break after eight years of Bush, could in 2016 support “the most status quo, elitist candidate,” Hillary Clinton? In Rhodes’s view, this is an acute irony, because in the final analysis Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016 conveyed essentially the same message: Hillary Clinton is “part of a corrupt establishment that can’t be trusted to change.” For Dowd, the answer to Rhodes’s question lies in Obama’s lack of interest in working with the activist wing of the Democratic Party. He wanted to be, Dowd says, “the man alone in the arena,” and he “did not like persuading people to do what they didn’t want to do,” which is “the definition of politics.”

My God, how are we going to awaken from the Trumpian nightmare if our press has so little understanding of American politics? Obama was and remains a pure politician, a member of the country’s most powerful and corrupt political faction, the Democratic Party of Chicago. Having left his work as a community organizer in order to attend Harvard Law School, he returned to his adopted city, law degree in hand, and proceeded to associate with the local political barons and thus to prepare his future. Along the way, he literally married the Democratic machine: as the daughter of a precinct captain, Michelle Robinson Obama had not only grown up in the milieu dominated by the party’s reactionary “boss,” Mayor Richard J. Daley, but was also indebted to him for her economic survival. Her father, Fraser Robinson, worked in the city water plant, where the machine’s soldiers were practically guaranteed employment. It was through Michelle that Barack, in 1991, met Valerie Jarrett, who was at that time the deputy chief of staff for Mayor Richard M. Daley, son of Richard J. and heir to the family fiefdom. In the Illinois Senate and elsewhere, Obama performed favors for his patron, and in December 2006 the boss repaid him handsomely by announcing his support—very early in the electoral cycle—for Obama’s presidential candidacy.

A single event exemplifies the close ties between Chicago’s political boss and his disciple: in October 2009, in the midst of the country’s financial crisis and while engaged in a crucial battle for the reform of the national health care system, President Obama went to Copenhagen in a vain bid to secure the 2016 Summer Olympic Games…for Chicago.

Why did Obama support Hillary Clinton at the country’s expense and in contradiction of his own supposedly progressive and reformist values? Doubtless because Hillary conceded the 2008 presidential campaign in exchange for a promise that she would be appointed Secretary of State and would obtain Obama’s backing for her candidacy in 2016, when it would be, at last, “her turn.” These days, Obama, far from being isolated somewhere up in the philosophical clouds, continues to dirty his feet in the electoral mud, chiefly in order to prevent the allies of the insurgent Bernie Sanders from occupying important positions in the Democratic Party. In his role as overlord of the former regime, Obama is still running the risk of suffocating reform and encouraging the reelection of Donald Trump.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note March 8, 2019, 5:00 pm

The Living Dead

Publisher's Note February 6, 2019, 1:05 pm

The Wall War

“I can see nothing but a missed opportunity to inform the broader public about economic realities in our increasingly stratified country.”

Publisher's Note December 20, 2018, 5:05 pm

The Yellow Fault Line

The crisis in France is gnawing away at what’s left of the lower classes’ pride and possessions

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

April 2019

Works of Mercy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Like This or Die·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Alex and Wendy love culture. It’s how they spend their free time. It’s what they talk about at dinner parties. When they go jogging or to the gym, they listen to podcasts on their phones. On Sunday nights they watch their favorite new shows. They go to the movies sometimes, but they were bummed out when ­MoviePass went south, so now they mostly stream things. They belong to book clubs that meet every couple of weeks. Alex and Wendy work hard at their jobs, but they always have a bit of time to check their feeds at work. What’s in their feeds? Their feeds tell them about culture. Their feeds are a form of comfort. Their feeds explain things to them that they already understand. Their feeds tell them that everyone else is watching, reading, listening to the same things. Their feeds tell them about the people who make their culture, people who aren’t so different from them, just maybe a bit more glistening. Alex and Wendy’s feeds assure them that they aren’t lonely. Their feeds give them permission to like what they already like. Their feeds let them know that their culture is winning.

Article
Destined for Export·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Five years ago, Jean-Sebastien Hertsens Zune went looking for his parents. He already had one set, a Belgian church organist and his wife, who adopted him as a baby from Guatemala and later moved the family to France. But he wanted to find his birth mother and father. When Zune was a teenager, his Belgian parents gave him his adoption file, holding back only receipts showing how much the process had cost. Most people pay little attention to their birth certificates, but for adoptees, these documents, along with notes about their relinquishment, tell an often patchy origin story.

Article
Whisperings·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Once, in an exuberant state, feeling filled with the muse, I told another writer: When I write, I know everything. Everything about the characters? she asked. No, I said, everything about the world, the universe. Every. Fucking. Thing. I was being preposterous, of course, but I was also trying to explain the feeling I got, deep inside writing a first draft, that I was listening and receiving, listening some more and receiving, from a place that was far enough away from my daily life, from all of my reading, from everything.

Article
Setting the World to Rights·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

All his life he lived on hatred.

He was a solitary man who hoarded gloom. At night a thick smell filled his bachelor’s room on the edge of the kibbutz. His sunken, severe eyes saw shapes in the dark. The hater and his hatred fed on each other. So it has ever been. A solitary, huddled man, if he does not shed tears or play the violin, if he does not fasten his claws in other people, experiences over the years a constantly mounting pressure, until he faces a choice between lunacy and suicide. And those who live around him breathe a sigh of relief.

Article
Works of Mercy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Thirty-two years ago my newborn daughter was discharged from Boston Children’s Hospital after an operation to repair a congenital birth defect and a lengthy period of recovery. Her mother and I had prepared for this—we knew the diagnosis from the ultrasound, had done the research you could do in 1986, asked the questions we could learn to ask—and got a good outcome. We went home to the western end of the state to raise twin daughters, one with a major disability (“our third child,” her mother says), and found ourselves in a system whose existence we hadn’t known of: Early Childhood Intervention. Physical therapists, psychologists, licensed practical nurses, and the state and public–private agencies that supplied and paid them. They cared for our child, but more than that, they taught us how to, and the teaching was as much mental and emotional—call it spiritual—as it was practical. They taught us to watch, to observe, to learn this particular child; to have patience, not to see too much and fall into useless anxiety, not to see too little and miss the signs of trouble. Close watching actually changed our experience of time. I learned what mindfulness meant, even if my practice of it fell short.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

In California, a 78-year-old patient and his family were informed that he would die within days from a doctor who was communicating via video call on a screen mounted to a robot on wheels.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today