Former President Barack Obama recently spoke at civil rights hero John Lewis’s funeral, and if you read Slate you will learn his eulogy was literally “perfect.” Back in the real world, Obama raised a lot of eyebrows for using a funeral service to deliver a political jeremiad.
While Obama previously earned some measure of respect from his political opponents calling out “woke cancel culture,” what Obama said at Lewis’s funeral was a full-on endorsement of exactly the kind of left-wing radicalism that seeks to discredit and bully opponents rather than persuade them.
The big news from Obama’s speech was that Obama came out in favor of eliminating the filibuster. This is a politically questionable move in itself. Democrats want to eliminate the filibuster because they know they’ll never pass a radical agenda that includes things such as D.C. and Puerto Rican statehood to possibly give their party a permanent electoral advantage in Congress.
However, the real problem is how Obama chose to frame his opposition to the filibuster. Speaking about the prospect of passing a voting rights bill named after Lewis, Obama said: “And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.”
Framing the filibuster as explicitly racist doesn’t appear to be an accident, either. Obama’s words were carefully considered and already it appears that it’s part of a broader messaging campaign.
It’s About Power
On Friday, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s foreign policy guru who is notorious for bragging about his media manipulation strategies, tweeted: “The filibuster is a tool of structural racism. Get rid of it. It’s time to stop playing by rules that work for the wrong people.”
If the filibuster is an example of “rules that work for the wrong people,” the Democratic Party, currently a minority in the Senate, seems to be successfully using it a lot these days. It was instrumental to Democrats in negotiations over coronavirus response that were ongoing when Obama gave the speech. Although the filibuster could be eliminated with a simple majority vote, the GOP has chosen to keep it while holding control of the Senate since 2014 even though it’s been a serious impediment to their agenda.
If you want to call it a “tool of structural racism,” well, African-American Sen. Tim Scott might be more inclined to agree after Democrats used the filibuster to kill his recent police reform bill. Obama also didn’t just avail himself of the filibuster when he was in the Senate, he gave a powerful endorsement of it in 2005: “Everyone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster — if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate — then the fighting and the bitterness and the gridlock will only get worse.”
Obviously, the filibuster isn’t racist, it’s just a legislative tool that’s not discriminating in who it advantages. So if you have a halfway decent understanding of American history, you might ask yourself why Obama is calling it a “Jim Crow relic”? Before long you’re certain to hear cable news talking heads who scanned the Wikipedia article in the green room informing you the idea was cooked up by notorious racist John C. Calhoun.
In reality, the filibuster has no direct connection to Jim Crow or structural racism other than it existed as a legislative mechanism at a time racism was legally sanctioned, which is why Obama was endorsing it as a force for good 160 years later. The Bill of Rights also existed back then and the meaning of various amendments was at times also tortured and stretched to defend slavery. By Obama’s logic, the Bill of Rights could be declared racist if one or more of those pesky amendments is judged to impede the Democratic Party’s 21st-century legislative agenda.
Obviously, Obama can’t just come out and say he’s now in favor of eliminating the filibuster so Democrats can cement power by creating structural electoral advantages for themselves, although that goal is not really in dispute because Obama endorsed statehood for D.C. and in Puerto Rico in the same speech. So to justify his dramatic flip-flop on something that he once claimed ameliorated “fighting and bitterness” in Washington, he up and called it racist.
Also consider the optics of how Obama chose to do this: America’s first black president delivering a eulogy for one of America’s biggest civil rights heroes. Who’s going to challenge Obama on this? Under normal circumstances, the media is loathe to even note the existence of criticisms of Obama. Nope, this speech was “perfect.”
Obama is still a canny politician, and on the future of progressive politics he has clearly seen which way the wind is blowing. This was an extraordinarily confrontational and divisive rhetorical move, because once you’ve declared something racist there’s no arguing about it.
By using racism as a shield for an obvious power grab, he foregoing any attempt at persuading voters and throwing his lot in with the critical theorists who think racism is the beginning and end of all political discussion. And by framing the argument in historical terms that are strained at best, Obama is endorsing the cultural arsonists at The 1619 Project, who are willing to manufacture false historical narratives to blame everything on racism, up to and including Atlanta’s traffic problems.
As previously noted, understanding how Obama’s argument is toxic requires a halfway decent understanding of history — which Obama just helped speed along the process of rewriting. But aside from Obama disavowing the legacy of his fellow Democrat John C. Calhoun, this is probably more about trying to retcon the spectacular Democratic Party failures of recent decades.
For instance, the current thinking on the left isn’t that Obamacare was an unworkable mess Obama brazenly lied about to sell to a public that consistently hated it. Rather, the public hated it because it wasn’t radical enough to begin with, because it had to be watered down to get 60 votes in the Senate. It couldn’t possibly be that voters were so desperate to escape the mendacious and rolling technocratic policy disasters of Obama’s presidency that they voted for a figure as absurd as Donald Trump to undo the mess.
Similarly, when former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid revised the filibuster rules and employed the so-called nuclear option, he was repeatedly warned it could backfire on Democrats if Republicans took back the Senate. That’s exactly what happened, and Mitch McConnell has taken advantage of Reid’s rules change to cram judicial appointments down Democrats’ throats.
So you will not be surprised that Adam Jentleson, one of Reid’s top aides, has a book coming out early next year about how “white supremacists forged the filibuster, turned it into a supermajority threshold and convinced America the Senate was meant to be this way. Now a minority of white conservatives uses it to impose their will on America.”
Should Jentleson’s tendentious reading of history take hold, it’s not coincidental that broad acceptance of the “filibuster is racist” will go a long way toward resuscitating the reputations of Reid and Jentleson, whose abandonment of the filibuster did immeasurable damage to the Democratic Party’s political agenda.
Don’t kid yourself. Obama’s eulogy for Lewis was a brazen attempt to preempt objections to any radical legislation that will be pushed should Democrats soon find themselves in control of the White House and Congress. The filibuster isn’t racist, and Obama had other political goals in mind when he claimed that it was.