Does "Obamaism" Exist? An Analysis of Ideology and its Place in the Obama Era

By Elliott A.S. Memmi
2015, Vol. 7 No. 02 | pg. 2/3 |

Unraveling: Losing Control of the Narrative

If we look at 2012 where Obama was primarily able to win based on the gaffes and indecisiveness of his opponents, the difference is stark. Where he was youthful and inspirational in 2008, he was more weary and weighed down in 2011. His advisors warned him from the start that they would not be able to win 2012 the way they had won 2008.19 It was not just the matter of transitioning from the energetic outsider to the experienced incumbent. Movements like the Tea Party thrived off of spreading or at least encouraging discontent and misinformation on Obama’s tenure in office.20 Obama spent most of the campaign not so much forming great messages but defending his actions from the Republican candidates, who battled each other over who could best stoke the fires of far-right anger and discontent.

Perhaps from the very beginning the media was setting up Obama as a public disappointment. In 2008, TIME magazine released an over the top cover page that practically equated Obama with a resurrection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.21 “I am who the media say I am. Progressive pundits who thought they perceived a fundamental political realignment would naturally feel let down when they encountered the administration Obama had always wanted to implement: centrist and seeking broad national consensus. This bipartisan drive even became a source of open scorn, a good example of which would be John B. Judis’ article in the New Republic, openly accusing Obama of allowing the right to “define the terms” of the recovery, contrary to his hopes of a liberal resurgence.22 Writers like Robert Kuttner would write that the Obama presidency was “shaping up as one of American history’s epic missed moments.”

This was a man who prior to the election wrote that Obama was poised to be a “transformative progressive president.”23 So even with Obama’s highly organized message and storytelling machine 2008 provided, progressive observers heard the criticism of Bush and the word “change” and then somehow phased out almost the entirety of what Obama tried to express both in Audacity and his grand uniting speeches. Pundits also ignored that while Obama may have been serious about his progressive programs, not all members the Democrats in Congress were. The natural sluggishness of Congress lawmaking with the backdrop of the increasingly serious recession would for an impatient media began to translate as a failure on the part of the president.

Indeed, 2009 marked the end for when Obama could ideologically connect with the American public in any meaningful way and this coincided with his heavy plunge in approval ratings.24 From that year on, the Democrat party under his leadership would have to survive the backlash of 2010, endure scrambled communication of their actions and accomplishments by the media, and accept that by 2012 Americans voted just as much (if not more) out fear of the increasingly ludicrous far-right as out of sympathy for Obama. Where Obama was hesitant to inject issues of class into his speeches in 2009, he was now quick to sign off David Axelrod’s rapid shift towards attacking Republican opponent Mitt Romney on his out-of-touch nature to average Americans.25 This move was greatly facilitated not only by Romney’s known record of major changes of opinion on issues, but by the fortuitous appearance in 2011 of Occupy Wall Street and Romney’s rapid characterization as a poster boy for the vilified “1%.”26

While giving in to Axelrod’s new strategy of more negative campaigning, Obama also backed off from the rousing rhetoric he had been known for in his first campaign. To Obama, emotional appeals were for getting votes, not discussing government. This made him very ill-suited to a media he criticized as too “sound-bite” oriented.27 Headlines naturally require catchy phrases and for months there was a struggle to find words that stuck. The “relationship” and story-telling aspect of campaigning that came so naturally started to become something he struggled with this time around. Obama in an interview with Charlie Rose said, “The mistake of my first couple of years was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right, and that’s important. But, you know, the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.”28

In liberal media, there was already the criticism that Obama’s presidency had no “narrative.” The best explanation for this was that since 2008, Obama had become allergic to sound bites and far more mistrustful of a media he felt was not adequately covering the slow moving but existing accomplishments (such as the withdrawal from Iraq) in favor of quick snappy politics.29 Insularity became the frequent critique of the president within his own party. Democrats who gave their support felt taken for granted. Congressmen resented how little they were invited to talk to the president or even how little they ever actually spoke to him.30 Obamaism by 2012 suffered because it had become constrained to a small core.

But even this small core was not necessarily safe. Greg Craig, a loyal Obamaist within the White House counsel, was removed within year for trying too hard to push for a stronger break with the abuses by the CIA under Bush. Where Obama’s “rivals” in government were concerned, such as Petraeus or Clinton, Obama tolerated dissent as a virtue that many opinions were being heard in his cabinet. Other high-ranking officials however were subject to the “Greg Craig” rules— they were removed from their positions if they took similar initiatives that ground against the preferred harmony within the cabinet.31

Ideology requires performance. But even the performance aspect was totally eschewed by Obama in 2012. Rather than cast the broad net that he had in 2007, he was now more insulated than ever. His inability (or perhaps his refusal) to bend to the needs of a fragmented and partisan media made communicating to the public very difficult. This was apparent during his first debate with Romney: his aversion to sound-bite oriented style debates (“a circus sideshow”) meant that he was at his poorest in these environments (though to be fair this was also fairly evident when he squared off against Clinton in the early 2007 primaries).32 His demeanor was not inclusive but “aloof.” Though he succeeded in picking himself up in the end and calcifying his message around one that was conveniently provided by Occupy Wallstreet— that Republicans were only going to perpetuate a growing divide in opportunity within America— his victory can be principally attributed the overestimation by the Republicans of their national support and the outward disdain Republican candidates displayed towards key populations of struggling Americans.33

Institutionalized: Realism and Idealism in Obama’s Foreign Policy

Obama did lose the ideological connection he had created in 2008 but in a democratic system this is to be expected, perhaps even encouraged. It is natural that with each election the candidates face fresh critical scrutiny. However, Obama in a position of power could begin to rearrange the system in a way that better suited his outlook on America and the world. The application of an ideology through a state apparatus can take place much more subtly than what is needed in an election campaign and without the same scrutiny by civil society. For this to succeed, there needs to be a reproduction of the ability of the ruling ideology to exploit its power— to ensure the mastery of its practice by the institutions and their functionaries.34 With the legislative branch, imposing an agenda can be quite difficult. Indeed presidents tend to find it easier to make distinct policy regarding international affairs than with domestic ones.

From the Bush administration, Obama’s entering cabinet inherited two financially costly and unpopular wars and a world whose view of America was rapidly souring. Obama even before his speech at the DNC Boston in 2004 was quick to establish his position: that the war in Iraq was “dumb,” that the focus should be Afghanistan, and American needed to work harder to redress its image the international community.35 Three things colored Obama’s policy: multilateralism, soft pushing of democracy, and the employment of “smart” military strength.36 In many respects, Obama inherited important principles from Democrat predecessors and thinkers before him. It can however, be argued that he modified and bent these principles to the existing circumstances.

The Democrat party experienced profound changes in the latter 20th century concerning foreign policy. This was markedly true concerning their outlook on America’s role in the world. During the Nixon presidency, the anti-war movement in the late 60s and early 70s brought to the Democrat party new ideas that challenged the virtue of America’s role in international politics— was America really acting as a beacon of democracy or was it acting as violently and cynically as any imperialist power? This was the question the presidential candidacy of McGovern was trying to bring center-stage.37 And though it ultimately failed, many future Democratic figures cut their political teeth in his campaign: Hillary and Bill Clinton, Greg Craig (future counsel to Obama), and Dennis Roth (future advisor on the Middle East to Obama).38

The Democrats in congress during the 70s moved to remove the draft and investigate the CIA. However, the creation of this anti-war wing within the party came with a major drawback and this was acquiring the damning label of being “soft” or “weak” on foreign policy— a boon to Republicans who found they could easily win votes with patriotic messages that rebuffed liberal “elites.” From that point on, the American public seemed less sure about trusting the Democrats with handling the Cold War and other crises affecting American security.39 This was only worsened by Carter’s mishandling of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979.

But the 70s also saw birth to a few key ideas that took center stage in Obama’s political outlook. A central one would be “interdependence” with other nations. There was also America’s “indispensability.” This was a word used by Carter’s advisor Zbignew Brzezinski, who would also come to influence the idea of multilateral cooperation with allied nations.40 American indispensability was an ideal that was especially embraced by the Clintonians in the 90s.

This Clinton era saw a definite resurgence of willingness to use military force by Democrat leaders. Clinton’s handling of the Bosnian and Kosovo Crises as well as three military actions against Iraq showed renewed value given to the uses for military force.41 The major contrast between Clinton and Obama would be the former’s desire to be in the lead role where Obama was content to take a back seat to other allies. Indeed, those who served in Obama’s administration viewed those nations that would have been “rising powers” in Clinton’s day as more established ones. “What we’re trying to do is preserve our leadership,” observes Ben Rhodes (one of Obama’s foreign policy speechwriters since 2007 and now White House Chief of Staff). “We’re not trying to preside over America’s decline. What we’re trying to do is to get America another fifty years as leader.”42

During the campaign, Barack Obama characterized the choice as one between change and continuity. He made sure that when Democrats across the country voted for him, that they had the impression of a fundamentally different approach to the world.43 His discourse was dominated by this idea of an old guard in Washington too out of touch with reality and that he, Barack Obama, would reinvigorate America’s role in the world. He turned his inexperience into a virtue— it was the image of a young and energetic outsider unfettered by the cynics in government and unburdened by the baggage older Democrats carried. “Washington groupthink,” “the foreign policy elite,” “conventional thinking in Washington,” these were all terms that came out of the Obama campaign to distinguish Obama from other Democrats.44

This makes it all the more strange when one considers how quickly Obama was persuaded to keep many hallmarks of the previous Bush era. While keeping Robert Gates as the early secretary of Defense was more of a practical consideration, Obama need not have accepted the extension and expansion of the Patriot Act. He also continued indefinite detention without trial or sentencing of suspected terrorists, and most famously expanded “targeted killing”— especially the use of drones. The “war on terror” was dropped only as a moniker. John Brennan, Obama’s appointed head of the CIA, remarked: “Not only has he approved these operations, he has encouraged us to be even more aggressive, even more proactive and even more innovative, to seek out new ways and opportunities for taking down these terrorists.”45 Like Clinton and many Democrat presidents, Obama made it clear he was no dove. The sole distinction from Republicans when it came to war and terror was his belief that Republicans had handled things in an incompetent fashion. Obama’s advisers began to accustom themselves to the idea there could be continuity between Bush and Obama and maintained that Obama’s understanding of the issues had evolved in such a way that this continuity was something he was “comfortable” with.46

This is not to say that this drift to “realism” (if that is the right word) was not resisted. It was the members of his adviser team that most admired the idealism of Obama’s public speeches on democracy and human rights that began to feel the most isolated. But these members, which included Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and Michael McFaul, continued to persist against the realist strain.47 One of their key victories would be to push for the recognition of the democratic movements occurring during the Arab Spring in 2011. Where Obama heeded the realists by ignoring the Green Revolution in Iran, he was gradually moved by the idealists to persuade Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign. He even castigated members of his foreign policy team that publicly declared continued support for Mubarak’s regime.48

Diplomacy is where interdependence and multilateralism come into play. On June 4th, 2009, Obama stood before Cairo University and the Arab media not just to reassure the Middle East of its sovereignty and cultural integrity but also to announce that the US would “broaden” its engagements and fight stereotypes of America as a “self-interested empire.”49 This air of accommodation was applied in many situations. In a significant change from the aggressive posturing of Clinton and Bush, Obama’s representatives to China were more acknowledging of Chinese power, avoiding talk of human rights issues and focusing primarily on trade-related matters.50 In his National Security Strategy, a frequent word is “rebalancing,” meaning a reliance of priorities from overreliance on the military to greater focus on diplomacy and international trade.51 Rather than bomb Iran for instance, Obama negotiated to make sure every key nation was involved in imposing the sanctions on Iran and its nuclear program.

Obama’s close circle of advisors involved in foreign policy reoriented the US to a more humble demeanor with greater recognition of the new complexities of the world. But it also especially meant withdrawing energy from external policy to a more domestic focus. That was the other meaning of “rebalancing.”

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