national news & analysis

Same Obama, different world

By Michael Jones

The nostalgia was thick in Chicago last week, and for good reason: Several alums of former President Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns and administrations descended upon the Windy City to reconnect and discuss one of his favorite topics—the fragility and promise of American democracy.

During the daylong summit put on by the Chicago-based nonprofit foundation Obama founded in 2014, he reflected on how artificial intelligence will impact the future of work and the role of economic inclusion in safeguarding and expanding global democracy.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama honored the alumni community as she looked back on the 2008 election. (The forum occurred a day before the 15th anniversary of Barack’s historic election as the first Black president in US history.) And her husband went viral for a nuanced take on the situation in Gaza in response to a question from the guys at Pod Save America.

As I read the X posts, viewed the pics, and pined for gossip from my Obama world sources, the FOMO was real. And that’s saying something considering I work from the US Capitol—a beacon of democracy where Congress meets to write the nation’s laws and presidents like Obama are inaugurated and deliver their annual State of the Union speeches.

As he held court at McCormick Place, Obama’s presence was an acute reminder that while he seems to be the same character he was when he was elected 15 years ago, the character of the country around him has changed so much.

Think about it: From the sudden rise of the Tea Party—the political movement that emerged from the conservative backlash to Obama’s election in 2009—to the surprise election of former President Donald Trump, who poisoned the political discourse with lies that Obama wasn’t a natural-born US citizen, our contemporary politics and fiercest policy debates have transpired in his shadow.

Republicans futilely spent a decade attempting to undo the Affordable Care Act despite its nationwide popularity in part because it was colloquially known as Obamacare. The thoughtful intellect the former president brought to the national conversation is now considered by many to be a liability in a culture that prefers bravado over brainpower. And although the election of the first Black president provided an illusion of a “post-racial America” for some swaths of White America, governors are running for president on their record of banning books that teach the truth about slavery.

To be sure, Obama’s legacy is alive and well in Washington. After all, the current president was Barack’s second-in-command! And Joe Biden’s administration comprises countless aides and advisors who started their careers in the Obama era. As much as things change, DC’s revolving door endures.

But Biden ran on a mission to “restore the soul of a nation,” a mantra that only resonated after four mad years with Trump at the helm. The fact that the verdict is still out on whether Biden has been successful in his cause is another proof point that the politics Obama left us are impotent almost a decade later.

I’ll concede it’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such existential threats. Trump could become president again despite more than 90 felony charges and four cascading court cases. Misinformation still runs amok on social apps that have no meaningful guardrails and are turbocharged with unregulated AI technology. And autocrats in China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are as emboldened as ever to test the resilience of the democratic world order.

But suppose cynicism hasn’t left you brittle. In that case, Obama’s resurfacing is an opportunity to embrace the audacity of hope that inspired him to run and millions to elect him in the first place. The message may need a new messenger, but the fundamentals of organizing, coalition-building and getting out the vote remain potent tactics.

And don’t take my word for it: This week provided a glimpse of that “audacity of hope.” In statewide races across the country on Tuesday, voters showed up to reject extremist candidates with unpopular agendas in favor of lawmakers and ballot measures that protect and expand the freedoms that, perhaps until recent years, Americans took for granted.

It’s worth noting, as I did on X last night, that none of this was inevitable—and it won’t be in the lead-up to the 2024 election. The electoral successes candidates and movements achieved were the result of relentless organizing and voters mobilizing to make sure democracy lives to fight another day.

I’m sure the former president wouldn’t have it any other way.

Michael Jones is a contributor for COURIER. He’s an independent Capitol Hill correspondent and author of Supercreator, a politics newsletter for the creative class.  

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