Barack Obama, failed conservative
The former president was deeply passive in the face of revolutionary change
Toward the end of Ronald Reagan's first term, a 22-year-old college senior wrote a letter to his girlfriend. The letter itself is a typical specimen of its kind — confused, half-educated, ponderous, almost painfully earnest — and, despite what some have argued since, it is instructive not as literary criticism but because it tells us something about its author, who would later become the 44th president of the United States:
Remember how I said there's a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—[T.S.] Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it's due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance.
I thought of these lines when I read a recent interview with Barack Obama in The Atlantic, in which the former president admitted that he remains sympathetic to certain tendencies that might be broadly described as "conservative." This rings true for a number of reasons, some of them superficial. In his public manner Obama was probably the most reserved president since George H.W. Bush, if not since Nixon. His best speeches were masterpieces of rhetoric that belong, perhaps even more than the barnstorming of the current occupant of the White House, to democracy's oral past. The care that he has always taken with his words — he remains a gifted writer — remind us that he is someone whose imagination draws upon sources that would now be considered unfashionable. Even the would-be sartorial controversies during his administration involved his adherence to traditional norms surrounding summer attire.
But there is another, more important sense in which Obama should be recognized as a conservative: his passiveness in the face of revolutionary change that he not only did not instigate, as our stupidest reactionaries have always insisted, but appeared not to notice.
In January 2009, smartphones were a novelty item unusable outside of major metropolitan areas. People watched films using DVDs or on television, which had only recently abandoned traditional antenna-based broadcasting. Google was a search engine resorted to by people whose homepages were supplied by their internet service providers — millions of them accessed it via dial-up connection. Amazon was the online version of Barnes and Noble. Same-sex marriage was opposed by virtually the entire leadership of the Democratic Party. The price of gasoline was higher than it is today. More than twice as many journalists were employed by newspapers than are today. The epidemic of opioid abuse and suicide in rural America was just beginning and would proceed apace for a decade without even arousing comment in national media. This country is all but unrecognizable now.
A decade earlier, George H.W. Bush had entitled his own memoir A World Transformed, an acknowledgement of the extraordinary metamorphosis the world had undergone during his own administration and in the ensuing years of the immediate post-Cold War era. For all the transformations that our economic base had undergone since the 1970s, the world on the eve of Obama's first term, one in which Google and Amazon and Apple and Facebook were worth trillions of dollars less than they are now and vast areas of human life were not augmented by digital technology, still resembles the four decades preceding it more than it does the one we inhabit today.
The decline of the United States into techno-oligarchy appears to have passed by Obama more or less imperceptibly. His limited interventions on the subject both in and out of office — see his comments on social media — have been grouchy but avuncular. At times he seemed to buy into the argument that digital technology, so far from being the solvent in which all of our institutions, traditions, and commitments would dissolve, was a broadly positive force. (Tasked with defending the contributions of recent immigrants to American life, he singled out the co-founder of Instagram.)
What would a saner response to the upheavals of the new century have looked like? It is difficult to say. Long before Obama was elected, the machinery of American government had already been rendered useless; the gulf between the so-called marketplace of ideas to which he and other liberals were committed and the government research corporations whose anonymous functionaries are tasked with implementing thousand-page pieces of ad-hoc legislation was unbridgeable. The deep internal logic of neoliberalism — allowing capital to follow its own unchartable course in remaking the world — had already taken hold of virtually every institution in this country. No one was in charge.
Any attempt to arrest, much less to reverse, these developments during the eight years Obama spent in office would not simply have been considered unconstitutional; it would have been unthinkable, in the sense that no one save a handful of leftist intellectuals and Luddite paleoconservatives even questioned the ascendancy of globalized capital in the form of technology platforms. All of it was very new and exciting (and besides, were there not recalcitrant Tea Partiers and rogue Supreme Court justices to be lectured for their uncivil remarks?). It is probably asking too much to imagine him or any president having the wisdom and prudence to envision what the world would look like after a decade of inaction, much less being able to exercise the necessary power to prevent it.
In this sense it is fair to say that, despite what his critics on the left have said to the contrary, Obama did succeed in his stated ambition of fundamentally transforming the United States, albeit through inaction. Every bit as much as the conservative public intellectuals of the last two decades, Obama's failure was not the result of Eliotic fatalism but (to quote his own letter) of ignorance. Even today he resembles them in his instrumentalization of religion, as a tool that will "restore a sense of meaning" to public life rather than as the activity of a body of believers undertaken for its own sake, as a divine mandate.
Unlike the poet about whom he wrote nearly four decades ago, who saw much of what was wrong with the world during his lifetime and guessed at further horrors (Eliot's little-regarded comments on television are remarkably prescient), Obama was not resigned or world-weary but almost painfully optimistic. For all that, Eliot is a more consoling figure. He was hopeful not in the possibilities of this world, but in the promise of another.