Barack Obama is often hailed as one of the greatest orators in modern politics. While he had undeniable gifts in that department, as someone who attended a number of his speeches in person, I never quite understood all the praise. Setting aside his career-making “red states, blue states” speech at the 2004 Democratic convention — a plea for political moderation he spent his time in office repudiating — the only memorable things Obama said were either campaign pablum such as “hope and change,” or remarks that were unintentionally revealing.
In the latter category, my personal favorite remark was this comment about congressional Republicans from 2013: “We’re going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country,” he said.
“Permission structure” is a phrase that’s been used by marketing executives for many years, and was apparently in common usage at the Obama White House. The idea is “based on an understanding that radically changing a deeply held belief and/or entrenched behavior will often challenge a person’s self-identity and perhaps even leave them feeling humiliated about being wrong. … Permission Structures serve as scaffolding for someone to embrace change that they might otherwise reject.”
While there’s more overlap between politics and marketing than anyone would like to admit, the naked use of jargon that comes from the world of consumer manipulation betrays a remarkably egotistical approach to politics. There was no need to address honorable disagreement to Obama’s policies, which were politically extreme and consistently opposed by voters. The White House just needed to create, with the help of a slavish media, narratives that could help people admit they were wrong and come around to his way of thinking.
Ironically enough, I thought of the “permission structure” remark reading David Samuels’ interview in Tablet with Obama biographer David Garrow, which is shaping up to be perhaps the most discussed piece of journalism of the year. That’s because the entire article is a really effective “permission structure” for a lot of Obama voters and moderates to finally admit he’s an entirely overrated, largely failed president who was far more radical than he ever let on. He’s also obsessed with celebrity and not very loyal to the people who helped him along the way.
In other words, he’s pretty much the guy his critics on the right said he was all along.
MLK vs. Obama
To be clear, that’s my gloss on it, and while I don’t think it’s an unfair summation, I wouldn’t want to claim to speak on behalf of Samuels or Garrow. But I think it’s undeniable the article does real damage to Obama’s reputation because the many criticisms in the piece are rooted in factual revelations about Obama’s past and the considered opinion of Garrow, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his biography of Martin Luther King Jr. (In addition to decades of work as a civil rights historian, Garrow is a major historian of abortion.) Garrow was considered an important enough scholar that Obama sat for eight hours of interviews with him while he was still president. And it’s clear his opinion of Obama is somewhere between dismissive and contemptuous.
Worse, Garrow’s opinion is all the more devastating to Obama because, throughout the sprawling 16,000-word interview, Garrow keeps reverting back to his extensive knowledge of MLK and making explicit comparisons between the two men to reinforce his unflattering judgments about Obama. At first blush, being compared to MLK would be an impossible standard for almost anyone to be held up to. However, as a historian Garrow is notable for deftly exposing MLK’s considerable character flaws — the degree of MLK’s womanizing and alcoholism are decidedly worse than the public wants to know — while still burnishing his historic accomplishments. It’s clear throughout the interview that Garrow is not so reverential toward MLK he can’t think objectively about him, yet he still considers him a great man.
And in fairness, Obama invited this comparison upon himself. He rode into the White House encouraging supporters to frame his election as the fulfillment of MLK’s legacy, and further invited comparisons by appropriating MLK’s rhetoric.
Speaking of memorable Obama rhetoric, I’d be willing to bet that millions of Americans are under the impression “the arc of history is long and bends toward justice” is an Obama quote rather than an MLK quote (and it appears MLK borrowed it from a 19th-century Unitarian minister). Nonetheless, Obama has used the phrase “arc of history” more than a dozen times since his first presidential campaign.
The “arc of history” soon transmogrified into another oft-used Obama phrase, which was invoked by Obama and his staff many times throughout their triumphal bullying of political opponents for being on “the wrong side of history.” Obama’s abuse of the “right” and “wrong” side of history was so absurd that even The Atlantic took a break from acting as a court stenographer to run an article fretting this language “suggest[s] a tortured, idealistic, and ultimately untenable vision of what history is and how it works.”
It’s just as well people attribute that quote to Obama, because while this progressive and Hegelian understanding of history is perfectly in sync with American liberalism, it’s not exactly compatible with common sense — history is full of injustice that comes out of nowhere and sets righteous causes back quite a ways. King himself eventually recognized this and rejected the sentiment in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
“Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills,” King wrote. “Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.”
At the same time Obama expressed arrogant certitude about his own role in history, he rejected the aspects of King’s idealism that were actually productive. In 2020, Obama gave an interview to Atlantic editor and Obama superfan Jeffrey Goldberg where he said, “America as an experiment is genuinely important to the world not because of the accidents of history that made us the most powerful nation on Earth, but because America is the first real experiment in building a large, multiethnic, multicultural democracy. And we don’t know yet if that can hold.”
So America is the most powerful nation because of accidents of history — not because of our historically unprecedented founding commitment to human rights and limited government. It’s telling how the arguments about being on the right side of history are casually discarded here, even though they might make sense to use retroactively. As Garrow observes, “What I could never understand was Obama’s contempt for the idea of American exceptionalism. … Why would the president of the United States feel the need to disabuse his countrymen of the idea that they are special?”
Regardless, that’s hardly the most revealing part of that quote. MLK offered Americans “a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Well, I don’t exactly know what Obama’s offering in response to King’s vision of the future is, but it sounds pretty pessimistic to say you’re not sure America can survive as a “multicultural democracy” — especially coming from a guy so famous for having his likeness emblazoned next to the word “HOPE” that the poster has its own Wikipedia entry.
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect America ever to stamp out racism (or any other sin for that matter), but King’s call to a virtue-based vision of equality was nonetheless deeply taken to heart by most Americans. Otherwise, the fact it took just 40 years for America to go from assassinating civil rights leaders and turning firehoses on peaceful black protesters to electing a black president is just another “historical accident.”
Maybe we still have a long way to go, but the progress made on civil rights in this country is still worth celebrating — and there’s no good evidence we should abandon the belief that progress was made because, in King’s words, “this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” That it’s hard to tell whether America’s first black president believes that racial progress in America is because of, not in spite of, American ideals, well, that isn’t exactly reassuring for ordinary Americans looking to validate the trust they placed in him.
Of course, lots of other black leaders harbored doubts about King’s hopes for the future. Which brings us to the other startling aspect of the interview between Samuels and Garrow, where we move from the abstract realm of character judgments to disturbing historical facts. In Obama’s ballyhooed first memoir, Dreams of My Father, Samuels summarizes his description of the breakup between Obama and Sheila Miyoshi Jager, one of his serious girlfriends before he married Michelle Obama: “In Dreams, Obama describes a passionate disagreement following a play by African American playwright August Wilson, in which the young protagonist defends his incipient embrace of Black racial consciousness against his girlfriend’s white-identified liberal universalism.”
But Garrow, who started writing his Obama biography well into Obama’s second term as president, tracked down Jager — now a professor at Oberlin with a formidable academic reputation — and asked her about her relationship with Obama. (That the credulous journalistic establishment was totally incurious about digging into Obama’s inconsistent and self-serving life story is a thread running throughout the interview.) According to her, what really happened was this:
In Jager’s telling, the quarrel that ended the couple’s relationship was not about Obama’s self-identification as a Black man. And the impetus was not a play about the American Black experience, but an exhibit at Chicago’s Spertus Institute about the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann.
At the time that Obama and Sheila visited the Spertus Institute, Chicago politics was being roiled by a Black mayoral aide named Steve Cokely who, in a series of lectures organized by Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, accused Jewish doctors in Chicago of infecting Black babies with AIDS as part of a genocidal plot against African Americans. The episode highlighted a deep rift within the city’s power echelons, with some prominent Black officials supporting Cokely and others calling for his firing.
In Jager’s recollection, what set off the quarrel that precipitated the end of the couple’s relationship was Obama’s stubborn refusal, after seeing the exhibit, and in the swirl of this Cokely affair, to condemn Black racism. While acknowledging that Obama’s embrace of a Black identity had created some degree of distance between the couple, she insisted that what upset her that day was Obama’s inability to condemn Cokely’s comments. It was not Obama’s Blackness that bothered her, but that he would not condemn antisemitism.
While it’s hard to land firmly on one side of a he said/she said account of a romantic break-up, Jager has an outstanding reputation; she’s a professor at Oberlin college. She hasn’t been outspoken about Obama on much of anything, much less publicly critical of him. She doesn’t seem bitter about a relationship that ended decades ago, where Obama asked her to marry him twice and she rejected him.
If Jager is to be believed — and I think she is, as the rest of the Samuels-Garrow interview is full of criticism of episodes where Obama has obviously fictionalized aspects of his memoirs and life story — then this just really puts an exclamation point on the narrative established by this landmark interview. Americans thought they were electing a guy who had tacitly, if not explicitly, said he would fulfill Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, a man who, in Garrow’s considered words, “did not buy into identity politics.” Instead, they got a guy invested in defending Louis Farrakhan’s vision of race in America.
Being a president in the mold of King would entail evaluating leadership failures as a matter of the content of your character and judgment. Following Farrakhan would entail blaming… well, it seems hard to believe Obama would embrace antisemitic conspiracies, but certainly there’s ample evidence that Obama and his defenders do dodge accountability by blaming a more socially acceptable villain of shadowy cabals of racists and Republicans. (On the other hand, if Obama is hoping for favorable assessments of his famously antagonistic relationship with Israel, he’s not helped by Jager’s anecdote or the fact that he had his kids baptized at a church run by a guy who even Ta-Nehisi Coates admits spews “crude conspiratorial antisemitism.”)
‘He Loses Interest’
For those of you who may think this is a little too harsh and/or a Manichean take on Obama’s nuanced worldview, I have good news. The interview is also a springboard to debate Obama’s sexuality. And large portions of the interview are also consumed with discussions of whether Obama is a “celebrity-obsessed would-be billionaire, or … a would-be American Castro, reshaping American society.”
Garrow and Samuels’ conclusion on that last dilemma seems to be that the shallow narcissism of the former neuters a lot of the impulses related to the latter. Garrow concedes Obama, who frequently touted his credentials as a law professor, would be a terrible Supreme Court justice because Obama himself admits he’s “fundamentally lazy.” Elsewhere Garrow sums up much of his political career by saying, “Some things are meaningful to him, but then he loses interest.”
Samuels, however, doesn’t have Garrow’s scholarly restraint in describing Obama’s post-presidency. “I remember thinking, imagine telling Harry Truman, ‘Hey, why don’t you sell that old house and buy three or four huge mansions in Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii and Washington, D.C., and rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in sweetheart deals with big corporations while you’re vacationing on rich people’s yachts?’” Samuels tells Garrow. “He’d probably sock you in the jaw.” (For what it’s worth, the yacht vacations with Bruce Springsteen, Oprah, and Tom Hanks appear pretty nauseating.)
In order to keep the Secret Service at bay, let me say for the record that neither the ghost of Harry Truman nor anyone else should sock Obama in the jaw. But it’s been seven years since the guy was in the White House, and the judgment of history is starting to come in. I think we at least have permission to say he was a bad president.