Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston was an astonishing piece of oratory. It was also a bit of sleight of hand.
Then a U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois, Obama wove his personal ancestry and biography — black and white, Kenya and Kansas, Hawaii and Harvard — into the American story of opportunity, multiplicity and solidarity. Not red vs. blue, but united. Out of many, one. David Axelrod calls the address a love letter to America. “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible,” Obama declared, his most poignant line of the night.
Two words in that sentence would matter most. Throughout Obama’s time in the White House, his touchstone would not be that singular country on Earth, whose politics he was never able to bind together. Rather, it would be the man himself. My story. This was a presidency preoccupied with Obama’s exceptionalism as much as with America’s.
Modern presidents have often become conflated with the challenges and aspirations of their times. We speak of Richard Nixon’s silent majority, Jimmy Carter’s malaise, Ronald Reagan’s morning in America and George W. Bush’s wars. But with Obama, this personal identification has been compulsive, strategic and unceasing. In his 2006 manifesto, “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama called himself “a prisoner of my own biography,” yet throughout his presidency, biography would also empower him. Whether in foreign policy, race relations, electoral politics, or even in the meaning of the hope and change he promised, Obama has turned to his life and symbolism as a default reference and all-purpose governing tool.
The personalized presidency can be inspiring. It can also feel arrogant. And it can bypass some of the very norms and institutions Obama rhapsodizes about so frequently — a dangerous proposition as the country braces for an unpredictable, unmoored successor.
Biography plays a central role in all political campaigns, with candidates deploying their life stories to buttress their arguments. During Obama’s first presidential run, however, the story did not just strengthen the message — it became interchangeable with it. This was not by accident but by design. “Barack is the personification of his own message for this country, that we get past the things that divide us and focus on the things that unite us,” Axelrod, the campaign’s chief strategist, told the New York Times in 2007. “He is his own vision.”
So much so, in fact, that when President-elect Obama endured criticism for recycling Clinton-era officials into top posts, he argued that it didn’t matter, that he was enough. “I was never of the belief that the way you bring about change is to not hire anybody who knows how things work, and to start from scratch and completely reinvent the wheel,” Obama said to The Washington Post in January 2009. “I’m the one who brings change. It is my vision. It is my agenda.”
Turns out he was the change we had been waiting for.
His effort to improve relations with the Muslim world, for instance, was premised on the notion that his personal story could make a difference. In his speech at Cairo University in June 2009, the president said that a “new beginning” was possible in the troubled relationship. “Part of this conviction is rooted in my own experience,” he explained. He invoked his Kenyan family, with its generations of Muslims; recalled his childhood in Indonesia; and cited his work with Muslim communities in Chicago. His story was supposed to dispel foreign stereotypes of a self-interested, imperial United States and show that not all Americans shared apocalyptic visions of Islam.
Obama’s personal narrative is so flexible that he has cited it as proof of his empathy for Israel, too. As the president told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, he once interrupted Benjamin Netanyahu when he felt the Israeli prime minister was being condescending, lecturing him about the dangers Israel faced. “Bibi, you have to understand something,” the president said. “I’m the African American son of a single mother, and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House. I managed to get elected president of the United States. You think I don’t understand what you’re talking about, but I do.” (Tensions between the two leaders would endure throughout Obama’s presidency nonetheless, with an animus that was reportedly both substantive and personal.)
Everyone was supposed to fall under the sway of the Obamaness. As a candidate, Obama explained the logic. “I think that if you can tell people, ‘We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese Canadian,’ then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in our lives and in our country,” Obama told journalist James Traub in 2007. “And they’d be right.”
The Obama story would also surface around sensitive matters of national security. In a 2009 speech at the National Archives, the president stressed the importance of keeping America safe while upholding our laws and values, noting that the documents preserved in that building — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights — were the foundation of liberty in America and a light for the world. And then, no surprise, it came back to him.
“I stand here today as someone whose own life was made possible by these documents. My father came to these shores in search of the promise that they offered. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn their truths when I lived as a child in a foreign land. My own American journey was paved by generations of citizens who gave meaning to those simple words — ‘to form a more perfect union.’ I’ve studied the Constitution as a student, I’ve taught it as a teacher, I’ve been bound by it as a lawyer and a legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as commander in chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never, ever, turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.”
Over time, Obama would rely on that lawyerly background to render lofty principles more malleable, with a “don’t worry, it’s me” approach to national-security powers. When the New York Times described the president’s personal role in selecting terrorists (including a U.S. citizen) to target for attack, for example, it noted how “the control he exercises also appears to reflect Mr. Obama’s striking self-confidence: he believes, according to several people who have worked closely with him, that his own judgment should be brought to bear on strikes.” After not fully establishing the limits on such powers, Obama is turning them over to a new commander-in-chief with no less self-confidence and much less self-control.
Obama drew on the personal to address the revelations in 2013 about the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance. After reassuring Americans on the extent of NSA oversight, he offered some unusual comfort. “I will leave this office at some point, sometime in the . . . next 31/2 years, and after that, I will be a private citizen,” Obama said. “And I suspect that, on a list of people who might be targeted so that somebody could read their emails or listen to their phone calls, I’d probably be pretty high on that list. It’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest in making sure my privacy is protected.”
So because Obama worries about his own future privacy, we should trust that he would never violate ours? That argument requires a generous helping of self-regard. Then again, as Henry Kissinger suggested recently, “Obama seems to think of himself not as a part of a political process, but as sui generis, a unique phenomenon with a unique capacity.” (And Kissinger seems like a guy who knows the feeling.)
Undoubtedly, it is in race relations that Obama’s personal story as the first black president has taken on the most salience. His political ascent became a source of post-racial dreams and incessant racist attacks, and rendered Obama an African American studies professor for the nation during what would become the Black Lives Matter era. In that role, his lectures leaned heavily on his biography.
When videos of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons denouncing America threatened Obama’s presidential bid, the candidate drew upon his story to deliver the most memorable speech of the 2008 race. “I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time. . . unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction,” he said at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. “. . . This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.”
Such faith may have been misplaced. Throughout his presidency, Obama staked so much on “a goodwill that his own personal history tells him exists in the larger country,” journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in the latest Atlantic, adding that “only a black man with that same biography could underestimate his opposition’s resolve to destroy him.” Obama’s frequent calls for African American communities to take greater personal responsibility for their conditions, his preference for universal efforts to improve education and opportunity for all over targeted programs to help minority populations — these, too, reflect a trust forged through his particular experience.
The controversy surrounding Wright involved Obama’s faith and relationship with his former pastor, so the personal emphasis there was inevitable. But when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in central Florida in February 2012, Obama, evocatively yet unmistakably, brought the discussion back to himself again. “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” the president remarked. After Zimmerman’s acquittal, Obama detailed the indignities and injustices black men face in America, explaining that such experiences informed how African Americans viewed that verdict. Then, as he often has, the president concluded by stressing the strides the country has made.
“Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race,” Obama said. “It doesn’t mean we’re in a post-racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But when I talk to Malia and Sasha, and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are — they’re better than we were — on these issues.” It is noteworthy that he cited his family as evidence, an individualized benchmark of national self-improvement.
Similarly, when he spoke in 2014 on a grand jury’s decision to not indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, Obama reiterated that the nation was moving forward. “We have made enormous progress in race relations over the course of the past several decades,” he said. “I’ve witnessed that in my own life.”
In his recent book, “The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America,” Michael Eric Dyson lingers over that moment. “Obama lauded the racial progress that he said he had witnessed ‘in my own life,’ substituting his body for our black bodies, his life for ours, and signaled again how his story of advancement was ours.” The problem, Dyson argues, is that despite his enormous symbolic power, Obama is an imperfect stand-in. “The ordinary black person possesses neither Obama’s protections against peril nor his triumphant trajectory that will continue long after he leaves office,” Dyson writes. “And Obama’s narrative does not answer a haunting question: If America can treat him as badly as it does . . . what will it do to the masses of Michael Browns in black communities?”
In multiple speeches, Obama has offered a distinct vision of American exceptionalism — that of a country constantly striving, sometimes struggling, to perfect itself. It is a process he interprets through his own story. In his 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” Obama tells of his hope that “the larger American community, black, white, and brown, could somehow redefine itself — I believed that it might, over time, admit the uniqueness of my own life.”
Perhaps, as president, Obama has turned so often to his story because of this belief that America was validating it. Or maybe because the inner circle of his 2008 campaign, the truest of true believers in the Obama story, exerted inordinate influence over his White House. Or perhaps Obama’s tendency fits our era of oversharing, self-obsession and first-person arguments.
Or it could be simply that he believes, as he argued in a 2006 speech on faith and politics, that Americans are missing “a narrative arc to their lives,” and he is supplying us with his own.
It certainly worked with voters when he was on the ballot. In both the 2008 and 2012 elections, Obama bested his opponents on the “cares about people like me” question in exit polls. But it was an appeal that remained with him alone. Indeed, one result of Obama’s personalized presidency is that his electoral fortunes far outshined those of the Democrats. After his two presidential victories, Democrats suffered sharp reversals in both midterms, and the party has seen its power diminished at all levels under Obama.
“Washington Democrats hated the White House for believing that the Obama brand and the Democratic Party brand were distinct, and that one was paramount over the other,” NBC’s Chuck Todd writes in “The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House,” published in 2014. “The White House did little to dispel the notion that Obama came first, over and above the party.”
When Obama did inject himself into his party’s contests, he often emphasized his legacy. “I am not on the ballot this fall,” he stated in a speech on the economy delivered one month before the 2014 elections. “. . . But make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.” At the time, the president was deeply unpopular in key states, and his personalization of the race did no favors to his party.
In this year’s presidential contest, Obama campaigned with more vigor and, at times, with arrogance. “I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election,” he urged a Congressional Black Caucus gathering. “You want to give me a good send-off? Go vote.”
That vote is now in, and the presidential candidate promising to dismantle the Obama legacy won, even while Obama still enjoys high approval ratings. Some voters who had cast their ballots for Obama, perhaps even twice, threw their support behind Donald Trump. “I don’t have an explanation for that, to put it bluntly,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest admitted.
The answer may not be so mysterious. Even in his party’s most crushing defeat, Obama remains popular because this presidency was less about particular federal programs, or the Democratic Party, or certainly Hillary Clinton, than about Obama himself.
They fall low, he goes high.
The man soon supplanting Obama in the Oval Office is even more enamored with his own story and more dismissive of his own party, and promises to remake the nation on the strength of his personality. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” Trump asserted at the Republican National Convention, “which is why I alone can fix it.” It is a more concentrated and insidious iteration of the personalized presidency.
Trump came to national political prominence on the back of “birther” lies — in essence, an effort to retroactively erase Obama’s story — and now seeks to unmake Obama’s legacy, too. A president who used his story in an attempt to uplift and empower is giving way to a leader for whom the office seems an exercise in personal brand extension.
It is a far different ending than a captivating Illinois state senator may have imagined 12 years ago. The failure to fulfill that vision of a united America, or bring us closer to it, is now part of the Obama story, too.
“The spirit of national conciliation was more than the rhetorical pixie dust of Obama’s 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, in Boston, which had brought him to delirious national attention,” New Yorker editor and Obama biographer David Remnick wrote in 2014. “It was also an elemental component of his self-conception, his sense that he was uniquely suited to transcend ideology and the grubby battles of the day. Obama is defensive about this now.”
But a new battle is coming, and that defensiveness may prove useful. Trump’s vision for America threatens to make stories such as Obama’s less likely. Will this most self-referential of presidents retreat to speeches and memoirs, or will he fight to preserve the country that indeed made his story possible? What if that’s next — the Obama legacy no one saw coming, more about the nation than the man?
It would make for a great epilogue.
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