What a waste of eight years. Our first African-American president, elected in a time of war and economic crisis, he could have been the great unifier. Instead, he leaves the country weaker and more divided than any president in my lifetime. Yes, Democrats, even more than George W. Bush did.
The first time I watched Barack Obama on TV, giving that speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, I knew I was looking at the man who would be our first black president. Such soaring rhetoric, such promise. All that seemingly counter-intuitive talk on how the faith of Blue America and the tolerance of Red America shows how much we really have in common. That quote from the Declaration of Independence, those calls for national unity. It was powerful.
That would turn out to be the *only* time I ever saw in Obama what his fans saw in him. Already in my first published comment on Obama–a June, 2007 blog post on a speech he gave in Hartford (http://bit.ly/2j5slX3)–I could see what would become the pattern: the pleas for unity were not in good faith and he considered those who disagreed with him to be stupid people following cynical leaders. That is now the conventional wisdom about why the Democrats lost in 2016, but it wasn’t when I wrote it ten years ago.
Still, he was our first African-American president and I wanted to root for him too. I was totally on board when Tom Hoopes wrote a controversial piece right after the 2008 election warning pro-lifers not to set their face against the enormous good will engendered by the election of our first black president. The first political post I ever shared on Facebook was a pro-Obama AP story arguing that, as a “late” baby boomer–someone born a decade after “classic” boomers like Clinton or Bush–Obama would be less ideological and more prone to seek consensus.
Did anything ever turn out to be more untrue than that AP story? Within a few days of his inauguration Obama had overturned the pro-life Mexico City Policy, and I thought, “Ok, so no late boomer consensus presidency, then. It will be just like the Clinton presidency.” In fact, it was far worse.
But the opposition rose up almost immediately, in some of the most impressive grassroots manifestations of democratic citizenship that I have ever seen.
On one level, the Tea Party was a disappointment. They showed up the day after doomsday, after we had already lost. The real fight for our culture and for constitutional government was the fight against same-sex marriage. But the conservatives didn’t listen to Sarah Bramwell (http://bit.ly/2jCRbOQ) and the libertarians didn’t listen to Jennifer Roback Morse (http://bit.ly/2j5v4zD) and so here we were.
Yet there were worse places to be. The Tea Party was more impressive than the taxpayer groups that preceded it or the gun rights activism that followed it. It was a broad-based attempt to return our republic to limited government through citizen action and it had an effect, winning the U.S. House in 2010, the whole Congress in 2014 and, finally, the White House in 2016. Here in Connecticut seven years ago, it brought down a U.S. Senator and gave us a State Senator who is the most articulate voice for conservatism in our state. I have iconic memories of early organizing meetings with them and of confronting then-Congressman Chris Murphy at a town-hall meeting on abortion and Obamacare. (And so does Murphy. He put a photo of it in a campaign mailer.)
It would be impossible to mention everything that was wrong with the Obama presidency in one post. But two items deserve special mention.
One is the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. It was a dramatic escalation of the culture war. Abortion had been an issue for 40 years, same-sex marriage for 10 or 15. But, religious liberty? The idea that the federal government could coerce religious colleges, nuns, all of us, to be complicit in newly-minted legalized evils? In the 225 years since the Bill of Rights was enacted we’ve never seen an attack like this on our first freedom, not on this level. Even those who disagree with us on life or marriage should have spoken against these outrages. But they didn’t.
The other item was Obama’s call to his supporters to “argue with neighbors, get in their face.” I first became a conservative 20 years ago. I have friendships from childhood that survived Bill Clinton, survived George W. Bush, but did not survive Barack Obama. Some of that is the invention of Facebook. But not all of it. It is one thing to disagree with someone, another thing to assume that everyone you disagree with is evil or racist and to publicly accuse them of it. A republic requires a citizenry capable of civil disagreement. So does friendship. But calling someone a racist or a bigot in the 2010’s is like calling someone a communist in the 1950’s. It is just about the worst thing you can accuse a person of being, it can have professional repercussions for them, and it poisons the well, making friendship impossible.
Before they unfriended me, I warned old acquaintances that approaching disagreement in this way would have far-reaching consequences, that the country would eventually react against it. They didn’t listen to me and so here we are.
But that was the thing about Barack Obama. He said he would “fundamentally transform” our country and he did. He turned us into the country that elected Donald Trump.