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We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.
—Barack Obama, October 30, 2008
By traditional metrics, Barack Obama’s presidency was mostly a failure. The economy, in a new first, never hit annualized growth of 3 percent. His signature domestic policy—Obamacare—caused chaos. Millions lost their coverage and doctors, and paid far more in deductibles and premiums. The stagnant recovery after the 2008 recession was the worst in 50 years.
Myriads of new regulations, higher taxes, and socialist jawboning vegetated the economy. Scandals at the IRS, Department of Veterans Affairs, FBI, CIA, National Security Agency, Justice Department, General Services Administration, and National Security Council abounded. Obama weaponized the federal government by punishing opponents through the IRS, monitoring suspect reporters, scapegoating and jailing a video maker, and using the deep state to exonerate Hillary Clinton from serial wrongdoing and to sabotage the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.
Abroad, a diplomatic “reset” empowered Vladimir Putin’s Russia from the Crimea to the Middle East. The Iran deal legitimized Iran’s ascendant Middle East hegemony. Chinese trade cheating was of no concern. ISIS was but a “JV” terrorist clique. North Korea freely pointed nuclear missiles at the West Coast. Israel and the Gulf monarchies and Egypt were no longer close allies. Outreach and deference instead were shown to Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. “Lead from behind” bombing of Libya led to a disaster. Nonexistent “red lines” in Syria, flexible nonproliferation “deadlines” issued to Iran, and rhetorical “step-over” lines given Vladimir Putin all eroded U.S. credibility. And on and on.
Yet in terms of culture, Obama clearly won.
“White Privilege” Goes Mainstream
He institutionalized radical cultural shifts by creating entirely new rubrics of privileging race and gender. The old idea of due process and the rule of law were subordinated to identity politics, whether in matters of sanctuary cities and non-enforcement of immigration law or campus charges of sexual assault. The larger culture made the necessary adjustments and followed suit.
Before the Obama administration, the sloganeering about “white privilege” was confined mostly to shrill and irrelevant university academic departments. Indeed, race prior to 2009 was becoming less important a half-century after the Civil Rights movement. Americans were increasingly multiracial, and welcomed assimilation, given increasing intermarriage and the frequent inability to calibrate race by superficial appearance.
Inasmuch as there were tens of millions of impoverished whites in rural and rust-belt America, the notion that skin color ipso facto any longer denoted privilege was a hard sell. Many ethnic groups enjoyed higher per capita incomes than did those whites. Certainly, no one thought an out-of-work coal miner in Appalachia had an edge on black NFL players, or that the children of the Rust Belt were given preferences in college admissions.
By the same token, even radical feminism still operated within the realm of Western jurisprudence. Charges of sexual assault, like all other allegations of criminal behavior, were to be adjudicated by evidence, testimony, and cross examination. What outraged the nation about the purported victims of Bill Clinton’s sexual assaults was not that Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey were freed from citing evidence in pressing their claims, but rather that the Clintons’ (both Bill and Hillary) power and influence had pruned the likelihood of Bill’s victims ever obtaining a fair hearing.
Yet most everything changed with the Obama election, and we have felt Obama’s legacy on matters of race and gender ever since. From the very beginning of his tenure, Obama sought to fulfill his promise of fundamentally transforming the country. On matters of race, he had easily defended—to media indifference—his racist and Antisemitic personal pastor Jeremiah Wright (“I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother. . . ”).
Obama supporters never objected, even when Obama employed terms like “typical white person” of his own grandmother who had sacrificed to ensure that he could afford attending a tony prep school. In office, Obama quickly injected himself into the Professor Henry Louis Gates psychodrama to brand the police as inherently biased. His commentary on the Trayvon Martin case was reduced to reminding Americans that the president and the late Martin shared an African-American identity. His 2008 “clingers” speech was the model for Hillary Clinton’s later “deplorables” rant; “get in their faces” and “bring a gun to a knife fight” boilerplate were welcomed as progressive challenges to the old order.
Obama invited to the White House rappers whose lyrics were often patently racist and misogynist. His favorite, Kendrick Lamar, had just released an album cover that displayed a dead white judge with his eyes crossed out, as rappers toasted his corpse on the White House lawn. Kendrick’s lyrics often expressed hatred for the police (“And we hate the popo”).
Attorney General Eric Holder referred to African-Americans as “my people” (the sort of a racially chauvinist reference that would have gotten any other Attorney General fired) and intoned: “in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.” (I supposed Holder was including in his “always been” and “nation of cowards” the 1.5 million who died, were wounded, or were missing in the Civil War, especially the 600,000 Northerners who were casualties of a war to end Confederate slavery.) The racist and Antisemite Al Sharpton was a regular visitor to the White House. And a 2005 photo of Obama posing with the abject racist and Antisemite Louis Farrakhan was suppressed until after the Obama presidency.
“Diversity” and Division
Yet the main racial legacy of the Obama Administration was the institutionalization of a new binary that had transcended past notions of affirmative action aimed at rectifying the historical discrimination of African Americans.
What replaced the construct of affirmative action became known as “diversity.” In reductionist terms, that mean “white” and “non-white,” rather than “white” and “black,” and, more importantly, it made irrelevant all prior notions of class or real historical grievance.
Suddenly, one could cross the border illegally from Oaxaca and instantly become a “minority,” simply by reason of an antithesis to the “white” majority, with all the resulting grievances and reparations that accrued. Immigrants from India, the Arab world, or Latin America, regardless of their wealth, appearance, and status, likewise were lumped together under the doctrine of “diversity.” Immigration itself was weaponized. Notions of legality, meritocracy and diversity in adjudicating immigration gave way to welcoming in as many as possible who might empower the Obama political agenda of ethnic tribalization.
Salad-bowl immigration policies also fueled polarization, as a new bond of being “nonwhite” brought together Asians, Latino, Arabs, blacks, and almost anyone who could claim to be “nonwhite,” again regardless of the circumstances of their birth, their own experiences in America, their actual racial ancestry, or their wealth and class.
Instead, the necessary slogan “white privilege” justified the new divide: a wealthy immigrant from Paraguay “counted” as a minority deserving of special consideration in a way the son of a white Youngstown, Ohio clerk did not. The facts surrounding the individual cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Trayvon Martin in Miami Gardens, or Freddie Gray in Baltimore were irrelevant—given all three deaths were leveraged for wider grievances against the so-called white majority community. (Had the half-Peruvian defendant George Zimmerman just ethnicized his name and adopted his maternal surname, and thus reinvented himself as Jorge Mesa, the case would have incurred little media attention).
Race and, to a lesser extent, gender now replaced class, as the grievance to govern almost everything in America from NFL pregame National Anthems to the speeches at the Emmys and Oscars.
The New Ideal
By 2016 actors, celebrities, and politicians felt no hesitation in using the word “white” in an almost exclusively derogatory fashion, especially given the new recalibration of “demography is destiny” and the increasing alienation, self-destruction, and pathologies of impoverished and lower-middle class whites in the deindustrialized heartland.
Dividing the country by white and nonwhite made sense to the Obama Administration, because the divide promulgated the idea that Obama had been elected by a record non-white bloc voting (in fact, Obama in 2008 would get a higher percentage of the white vote than had John Kerry in 2004). Obama’s model for other Democrats was that, in the future, immigration, tribal voting and demography changes would only accentuate that trend. The Obama paradigm would become the new electoral legacy of the Democratic Party, to be intensified as it was successfully passed down to each new generation of progressives.
Blue-state, and overwhelmingly leftwing, California became the new ideal of what was now possible. California’s non-white population was heralded as the new majority, given both massive illegal and legal immigration, along with the infusion of trillions of dollars of global profits and investment into progressive Silicon Valley, together with punitive taxes on the shrinking and soon departing middle class.
A subtext of the Obama era new dichotomy of white/nonwhite was not necessarily privilege versus lack of privilege, or racists versus victims of racists. Instead the message was of an unspoken and disappearing tribe being replaced by ascending tribes—and therefore everyone for their own careerist advantages should make the necessary adjustments to a society obsessed with identity. And for those without the necessarily correct DNA, racial rebranding could become a construct of self-identification, as in case of Ward Churchill, Elizabeth Warren, or Rachel Dolezal.
Obama’s Only Real Legacy
In matters of sex and gender, the Obama administration also looked to the campus for guidance. The Department of Justice’s new rules on sexual assault, particularly at colleges and universities, seemed to be imported in toto from the Gender Studies department and ignored the Bill of Rights.
New Department of Justice guidelines essentially did away with due process and created a Star Chamber academic court. Here, the accused (if male) was denied the right to face his accuser (if she was female), to producer counter evidence, to exercise the right of cross examination, and to assume the tradition of being presumed innocent until proven guilty. If there had been no Duke lacrosse cases, no Rolling Stone frat boy investigations, and no iconization of “Mattress Girl,” they all would have had to be invented—given the new atmosphere where an accuser, if of the right gender or race, must be believed, and where the accused, if of the wrong gender or race, must be condemned as guilty. The current Kavanaugh confirmation circus is the logical expression of the Obama Administration’s eight-year subversion of due process in matters of accusations of sexual assault.
Finally, another cultural achievement of Obama was to destroy the last vestiges of a Democratic workers’ party of Hubert Humphrey, John F. Kennedy, or even Bill Clinton and to replace it with a pyramidal party of the poor dependent on government entitlements and reparations, and a small, rich, and hip elite at the top.
Obama institutionalized the idea that a Silicon Valley hipster billionaire could and should play act being left-wing, if only he would pledge to use his wealth and power to promote progressive causes, whose consequences he cynically would be able to avoid by virtue of his influence and riches.
Hollywood celebrities, Wall Street schemers, and techie billionaires all entered the public square demonizing “white privilege” that the rich enjoyed by fobbing it off on those poorer who had none of it. The substitution of race and gender for class, then, was Obama’s truly signature achievement.
It was no accident that in the days after he left office, the Obamas cut nearly $60 million in book and film deals, while Obama himself took off to millionaires’ yachts and islands to deplore the Trump Administration, whose policies were beginning to help the unemployed that had been most left behind by his own boutique environmental and regulatory policies so cherished by the affluent.
By 2017, these fundamental transformations were clear. Americans now scrambled to find their proper tribe (and on occasion gender), either for careerist advantage or for perceived protection, from the government. And the very rich had found a way to be the very cool, by virtue signaling their superficial embrace of tribalism, just as in private they continued to live their mostly apartheid existences. Shouting from the rooftops that one “celebrates diversity” meant that behind the enclave wall he didn’t need to.
The agenda of balkanizing America into tribes, and white/nonwhite binaries, and galvanizing the rich and poor against the middle class was Obama’s only real legacy. But it is a legacy that nonetheless fundamentally transformed America.
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Photo Credit: Eric Thayer/Getty Images