America is more divided than ever. So why is Obama optimistic?

Watching his convention speech, one couldn't help feeling that the 2016 election has completely vindicated Clinton's 2008 criticism of him

Obama's rose-colored perspective.
(Image credit: AP Photo/John Locher)

"I'm more optimistic about the future of America than ever before," President Obama said Wednesday night at the Democratic convention. It was an effective address, with fun, trolly touches, such as when he noted that the Republican convention "wasn't particularly Republican," and "sure wasn't conservative." Or when he pit Ronald Reagan's optimistic rhetoric against Trump's. And it's going to be hailed as one of his best speeches, one that gracefully hit all the marks. He attacked Trump as an unprecedented threat, he looked very comfortable giving a full endorsement to his one-time rival Hillary Clinton, and he gave soaring valedictory notes. Besides, the press has always liked Obama more at the podium than in the White House.

But one couldn't help feeling that the 2016 election has vindicated Clinton's 2008 criticism of Obama.

It's worth remembering the way they disagreed over the nature of politics. Beyond promising the seas would recede, Barack Obama's 2008 campaign contained an explicit promise to heal American divisions, along political and racial lines. "We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing each other down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate," he said. "It is the poison that we must purge from our politics, the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

And he took his own election as a sign that America was healing. Really. At his first inaugural, he proclaimed of his own election, "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics." Has a man ever gotten away so easily with flattering his country by complimenting himself?

Nearly eight years later, Obama's vision of himself as America's healer hasn't aged well. And the much-jeered criticism that Hillary had offered during the campaign rings truer. She made fun of him then: "The skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect... Maybe I've just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be."

Democrats will be giddy from the speech, but their belief in a transformational presidency was robbed from them by an unprecedentedly hostile Congress. And some of them hold Obama's aloof style with Congress responsible.

And what is the state of our politics at the end of the Obama era? The divisions are worse, in part because partisan differences are filtering down to every cultural experience. They show up in what movies, music, and athletes we like. More troublingly, in the last eight years, reactions to incidents like George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin, or the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, became much more partisan than they had been before.

Four years ago, Obama believed that the obstructionism he faced in Congress was a Tea Party-induced "fever" and that his re-election would break it. Ha! The Republican Party's last president, George W. Bush, ran to the soft middle, on compassionate conservatism, improving education standards, and empowering faith groups to do more social services. He would shrug affably during debates with Al Gore, explaining that his policy goals amounted to "just a difference of opinion."

That party has been eclipsed by a candidacy that promises a wall, threatens the reinstitution of tactics "worse than waterboarding," and demands a blanket ban on Muslims entering the country. So much for the Republican fever passing. America is far more divided now than it was in 2008.

Democrats too, flashed some hot divisions at their convention. The young left views Obama as a failure. He entrenched drone warfare, leaves Guantanamo Bay open. His health-care reform was a compromise — not with Republicans — but with drug and insurance companies. This younger left foreshadowed the trouble they would inflict on a President Clinton who strikes them not as a spineless waffler of the left like Obama, but a corrupt imposter.

The speech had its hypocrisies too. Obama rightfully criticized Trump's proclamation that he alone could solve our problems and the spirit of looking for a savior. He praised the rule of law and the virtue of rules. And yet, the Obama administration created a drone strike policy that was "all exceptions and no rules," while Obama's men were making the decisions according to their personal judgments and conscience.

Obama's performance of the presidency has had two modes. On the stump and the campaign trail, he is all soaring rhetoric and optimism. With reporters and in the Oval Office, he is all his grave realism, his Solomonic calm and wisdom. He knows his audiences well.

But to proclaim himself optimistic at this date, one wonders if he ever really knew the mood of his country.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Michael Brendan Dougherty

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.