I watched President Obama’s last State of the Union address with the same mix of awe and frustration that has defined my relationship to his presidency. He’s the first president I ever cast a vote for, and the history of the moment has never escaped me. I grew up believing there would never be a black president of the United States. Not only was I proven wrong, but it happened when I was just barely old enough to legally buy liquor, melting away some of the cynicism that had shaped my political identity up to that point. The country had changed. We made progress. President Obama is a symbol of that progress.
My frustration with Obama’s State of the Union, and the last seven years of his presidency, was recognizing that progress is painfully inadequate and symbols are disappointing. Obama did what he does best: He told a story of the America in which the country is always becoming better. “We made change work for us,” he said, “always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more people.”
“In fact, it’s that spirit that made the progress of these past seven years possible,” Obama continued. “It’s how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations. It’s how we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector; how we delivered more care and benefits to our troops and veterans, and how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.” Some of these accomplishments are undeniably good (though the reinvention of our energy sector is more aspirational than actual). There’s a real record of achievement that the Obama administration can be proud of. But there’s also a real record of mass deportation, drone strikes, and the placating of big banks. The embrace of certain immoral positions that ensure the continuance of the empire is a prerequisite for being an American president, and it’s something Obama’s symbolism could never overcome.
Because symbols, as powerful as they can be in some respects, are largely a distraction. They allow us to pretend things are better than they are, that we aren’t measuring progress against the our ideas of fascistic catastrophe, as opposed to a noble vision of freedom, justice, and equality. Symbols are seductive. President Obama perhaps even more than usual, because his symbolism as the first black president made the country even more unwilling to deal with its legacy of racism, having satisfied itself with the progress made by electing Obama. Even as we lived the backlash of the Tea Party, the birthers, and Donald Trump’s racism, we could pretend it wasn’t as meaningful as having made the big leap in electing a black man to the office of president.
None of this has anything to do with Obama himself. Any black person who entered this office at this time would have produced a similar effect. What’s frustrating about Obama is he has more often than not acted as though he, too, believes his symbolism is enough, as if his election healed America’s most significant racial wound and there wasn’t much left for the country to address. Those who argue for the power of symbolic politics often say that a political leader who represents a marginalized community is more likely to prioritize their needs, but the Obama presidency produced more rhetoric about rising tides lifting all boats than redress around specific racist injury. We were told this would be more effective. We needed a movement to wake us up from that delusion.