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Obama's Mistake

Politics is about power. When we lose sight of that, we lose.

Barack Obama's farewell speech was basically an awards-show medley of his greatest hits. He spent most of Tuesday evening playing the riffs and hitting the notes that we've become accustomed to over the past 13 years or so — fragments of sepia-toned American mythos, paeans to its democracy and people. (It's one of the ironies of his presidency that Obama was so often accused of disliking what was distinctive about America when he's so obviously in love with it.) Aside from a brief, atypically explicit rejection of the idea of post-racial America, there wasn't much to mark this speech as different from many others he's given. It's a speech that reflected Obama's political identity — and his fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of politics that led to many of his failures.

Obama is right when he says that "democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one." The problem is that Obama seems to think that this "we" is always America as a whole. It's not. It can't be. When you get down to the actual business of governance, it's obvious that there is almost never such a thing as a win-win situation in politics. Most policy decisions have winners and losers. Even the rare policy choice that is truly "good for everyone" creates political victory and defeat: If Obama waved a magic wand that gave everyone a free ice cream well in their backyard, this would be bad news for the GOP (and the ice cream lobby). Politics is often defined by irreconcilable differences and inevitable conflict rather than shared values and common interest. This means that the practice of policy and governance is about the pursuit and exercise of power.

Obama often seems a bit perplexed by the very existence of his political opponents. "How can elected officials rage about deficits," he asked in a telling passage of the speech, "when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, but not when we’re cutting taxes for corporations?" The answer to this rhetorical question seems obvious: Elected officials think that cutting taxes on corporations is more important than the deficit, and federally funding preschools is not. Instead of taking the obvious divergence in values seriously, Obama speaks as if these politicians hold the same values he does and ascribes disagreement to bad faith or hypocrisy.

Politics is often defined by irreconcilable differences and inevitable conflict rather than shared values and common interest. This means that the practice of policy and governance is about the pursuit and exercise of power.

This penchant for substituting his own values, principles, and assumptions for American ones is part of why liberals see speeches like Obama's farewell address as conciliatory and inspiring while conservatives see them as condescending lectures. There's nothing wrong with this as a conscious political tactic, but Obama does it so constantly and seemingly unconsciously that it's hard to escape the idea that he believes it to be literally true. This probably explains Obama's tendency to frame even deeply ideological problems in apolitical, technocratic terms, as when he said of his embattled signature legislation: "And if anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system — that covers as many people at less cost — I will publicly support it." It makes very little sense to engage in a debate with deep disagreements about issues as fundamental as "What is health care?" as if it is a bidding war for a government contract.

Obama's attitude toward political conflict is also the reason that his favorite way of telling the American story is as a struggle to close the gap between the American ideal and the America that exists — the pursuit of the "More Perfect Union." This is a convenient narrative framing because it turns politics into an abstraction with no opponents, a game of solitaire. When there is a "we" participating in struggle, there is also a "them" struggling against us — whether their struggle is just and righteous or not. Obama invoked the Selma march as an example of "we, the people" showing "the capacity to change" and striving "together to achieve a greater good." And it is true: Those who marched from Selma were America, and their dissent was in the American tradition of dissent and rebellion. But those who swung clubs and cracked skulls on the Edmund Pettus Bridge were also America, and they laid claim to another American heritage. The victories won by those marchers weren't about consensus, about "our" decision to change; they were about one vision of what America should be confronting and defeating a competing vision. "We, the people" wasn't all of us. It seldom is.

At its core, politics is about power: who wields it, and to what end. The rest is supplemental. That’s not to say that we should ignore rule of law, that we shouldn't treat political opponents with basic human dignity and respect, or that we should trample what's left of democratic norms. These values are still important. But we need to recognize that these things are ground rules, and that our foes may ignore them. This lesson, that politics is about power, is one I don't think Obama ever fully internalized. But if we want to have any hope of surviving Donald Trump's presidency, it is one that we have to know in our bones.