In 2008, Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, rode a wave of hope and change into the White House. He was the first Black president, and energized a nation broken by a grueling trek through two challenging terms with George W. Bush as leader. In many ways, Obama was the darling of progressives across the country, confident he would restore government with the humanity and sanity they felt it had lost. Obama has received his fair share of praise in the last eight years. Yet many also believe Obama hasn’t lived up to his potential.
Khaled A. Beydoun, senior editor at The Islamic Monthly and an associate professor of law at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, had the following to say on Obama’s legacy.
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Given Obama’s rhetoric, which is very lofty, and his identity as a Black president that spread a campaign message of hope in 2008, there’s much reason for disappointment looking back on his administration. Obama fell short, broadly speaking, on his progressive agenda in many ways.
Surveillance and Counter-Radicalization
The Obama administration expanded the surveillance regime established under President George W. Bush after 9/11. The Bush administration is broadly viewed as being the most strident in terms of policing, monitoring and surveilling Muslim American communities, but Obama went two steps further, especially with his institutionalization of counter-radicalization.
He launched a counter-radicalization program called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in 2011. This was really critical for many reasons. One reason was that it reformed the framing of terrorism. Under the Bush administration and the Patriot Act, “terrorism” and “terrorists” were defined as a foreign actor who was Muslim, but not tied to the U.S. necessarily. So counterterrorism after 9/11, for instance, punished and prosecuted Muslim Americans if they were abetting or advancing a foreign terrorist or a transnational terrorist group.
However, counter-radicalization shifted the definition of terrorism to homegrown radicals. Instead of focusing on foreign elements, CVE shifted the focus of the primary surveillance lens to Muslim Americans, with the same presumption that Muslim identity was strongly tied to terror suspicion. This complies with the baseline understanding of Islamophobia. My research focuses primarily on domestic national security, so that was one very concerning and destructive development under the Obama administration.
Looking forward, the counter-terrorism reforms and expansions Obama made are really equipping the Donald Trump administration with the infrastructure and strategy to bring forth more nefarious counter-radicalization policing, especially since Trump buys into the “clash of civilization” ideology.
A False Hope for Muslims
There was a lot of hope with President Obama, specifically with regard to Muslim Americans. In 2009, he made that very famous speech at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where he disavowed the clash of civilizations rhetoric of the Bush administration and talked about forging a new relationship with Muslims and Muslim-majority countries abroad. That set the tone early on in his administration. People thought things might be better on the homefront and the foreign front with regard to the War on Terror.
Things didn’t happen that way domestically, for the reasons I mentioned. Abroad you had drone attacks, the sanctions extended by the Obama administration on the foreign front and the extrajudicial killings of individuals abroad without due process. You also didn’t have a material shift, policy wise, with regard to Israel and Saudi Arabia, which promotes and exports Wahhabism, which breeds terrorism.
Black Lives Matter
There wasn’t much reform with regard to civil rights, especially with regard to law enforcement in cities across the country. The Department of Justice wasn’t a very potent actor in bringing forth the kind of reforms with regard to law enforcement that have a disproportionate impact on largely of color communities. You saw that problem emerge with the Black Lives Matter movement out of Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago and so forth. There wasn’t robust intervention made by the DOJ, or the Obama administration more broadly, to curtail the violence law enforcement inflicted on largely poor Black and brown communities.
Obama also gave a speech at Morehouse College in 2013, echoing a lot of the respectability politics that is problematic with regard to talking about the marginalization and subordination of African Americans. He talked about things like pulling your pants up and speaking good English, things that frowned upon the struggles of African Americans, especially poor and working-class communities.
I don’t want to paint an entirely caricatured bad picture of the Obama administration, but his failure to act on the racial justice front needs to be critiqued. While he inspired Black people, and people of color at large, their circumstance — especially in poor communities — was not materially uplifted.
Obama as a Black president
The Obama presidency has also had really good effects, specifically on Black Americans and people of color at large. The symbolism of his presidency, the way he has inspired and mobilized a new class of Black leadership, politicians and color leadership needs to be noted. There’s something transformative about his presidency. We shouldn’t limit his presidency to policy.
If you were to ask me in 2007 if I thought there’d be a Black president, I would have said “Hell no!” Many Americans shared that belief. So, his very identity had a powerful impact on individuals. The very image of seeing a Black president within the White House presiding over that role, even for me, an Arab American Muslim, speaks volumes.
Having a Black president also polarized the country and galvanized racists and hate mongers to rally around someone like Trump, because for them it was incorrigible to have a Black president. That isn’t Obama’s fault, but it’s just a consequence of him holding that position as a Black man.
Elitism and Shallow Diversity
The Obama administration is a very Ivy League-centric, elitist, northeastern-comprised movement that embraced multiculturalism. There were Black and brown individuals in leadership, but they were individuals who reflected a higher brow, elitist culture.
Affirmative action jurisprudence right now celebrates diversity in superficial and surface terms. We have Black and brown leaders and that should be a sign of progress. The Obama administration embraced that. It doesn’t embrace, however, using that kind of racial diversity to bring about remedial action, correcting some of these structural inequities that give rise to poverty in the Black community; underemployment, discrimination, and xenophobia in the Latino communities; and Islamophobia in Muslim communities. There wasn’t that embrace of racial justice as remedial, versus just in a celebratory and multicultural sense.
His policies in large part did not help poor and working-class African Americans and people of color. President Obama, like Trump, is an elitist. He has converted the U.S. government into a bastion of well-educated, distant elites who really don’t know the struggles of poor and working-class people on Main Street, in inner cities or in rural areas. That is a segue for the kind of presidency we’re going to see under Trump, which is even more elitist. The culture the Obama administration cultivated is going to be intensified by Trump.
Supreme Court Nominations
Broadly speaking, many progressives were disappointed with Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan as a Supreme Court justice, who is very much a moderate. Obama should be lauded, however, for his appointment of Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court justice.
The Limits of the Presidency
There’s Obama the individual and Obama the president. Obama the individual might very well be a progressive who has more progressive positions on issues such as racial justice and discrimination against Muslims and so forth. But Obama the president is a reflection of the limitations and moderating effects of the office, the idea that you can’t just bring about that much progressive action as a president of the U.S. I firmly believe that.
He is the most obstructed president in American history. He couldn’t push forward a lot of things he wanted, some progressive in nature, for two reasons. One, he was dealing with a Republican majority in Congress, and two, racism. He was a Black president, and there was a lot of opposition to him because of his racial identity. You saw the vilification of him in coded racial terms, demonization of him as a closet Muslim, and so forth.
He was obstructed in a way that no other president has before. Any critique of Obama, and I obviously have many, needs to be contextualized with those two points.
*Image credit: Flickr/White House.
This piece appears in our Winter 2016/2017 print issue.