We are near the end of the seventh year of Barack Obama’s presidency, and by any measure the United States is a fractured nation. Its people are more divided politically than any time in recent memory. Personally, many are anxious, angry or just down.
Whatever Mr. Obama promised in that famous first Inaugural Address, any sense of a nation united and raised up is gone. This isn’t normal second-term blues. It’s a sense of bust.
The formal measure of all this appeared last week with the release of the Pew Research poll, whose headline message is that trust in government is kaput. Forget the old joke about the government coming to “help.” There’s a darker version now: We’re the government, and we’re here to screw you.
In a normal presidential transition year, voters would be excited at the mere prospect of new leadership. Instead, the American people are grasping for straw men.
Donald Trump declared for the presidency in June. The New York City prankster travels from state to state opening the nation’s political fire hydrants, and no one seems able to stop the result: years of pent-up political and cultural contempt pouring into the streets.
Nearly one-third of Barack Obama’s Democratic Party has migrated to aging Socialist Bernie Sanders. Sen. Sanders is evoking press comparisons to the presidential candidacy of Eugene Debs. Today there would be campus riots if a professor’s test asked students to identify Eugene Debs, a famous starched-collar Socialist 115 years ago.
Black Americans, who expected better, live in urban neighborhoods with soaring murder rates, angry marchers and confused police who are utterly alienated from the people they are supposed to protect. Young black men have the worst job prospects of any group in the U.S. The New Republic magazine’s cover this week says: “Why Hillary Clinton will do more for black people than Obama.”
Our political vocabulary is now uniformly stark. Presidential candidates in both parties have built campaigns around income gaps, a struggling middle class, immigrant phobia and back again, the war on terror. One of Mr. Obama’s claimed legacies is he prevented an economic depression in 2009. But we’re still in a depression.
Hope and change was the promise. What happened?
Screens on Kindle readers will crack paging through books explaining what Mr. Obama could have, should have and would have done. For now, the short version is enough: America and the world failed because they didn’t do what Barack Obama told them to do. For seven years, he has been instructing everyone on the “right thing to do.” If Mr. Obama seems down these days, it is because so many—from John Boehner to Vladimir Putin to the man in the street—persisted in doing the wrong thing.
Iran’s ayatollahs got the Obama message, though, and that deal is the legacy.
The other half of the non-domestic legacy is supposed to be climate change. His appearance in Paris this week was Mr. Obama’s last turn on the big global stage, barring a national crisis. Anyone watching the angular figure of the American president making nonstop pleas at the Paris climate summit this week had to be struck by a sense of what the French would call tristesse, a melancholy, even pathetic sadness.
He alone in Paris seemed to take seriously the notion that the climate windmills can be reset to less than 2 degrees Celsius above “preindustrial levels.” In the last of many public apologies for the U.S., Mr. Obama confessed that his own nation is a grievous “emitter.”
Liberals think the right is gloating at Mr. Obama’s end-of-term difficulties. No one is gloating. The nation is either furious (the right) or depressed (the left) at eight wasted, wheel-spinning years whose main achievement is ObamaCare—a morass.
Mr. Obama will go off to do something else, but he leaves behind a country littered with public and private institutions in disrepute. Whatever the cumulative causes for this, a president bears responsibility for maintaining some bedrock level of respect for institutions that are the necessary machinery of the nation’s daily life.
Instead, Mr. Obama spent much of his presidency vilifying the private sector—banks, insurers, energy producers and utilities.
The public’s low opinion of Congress is well known, but consider: The Pew study reports the favorable rating for the Department of Justice is just 46%. That not half the country respects something called the Justice Department is a travesty.
Mr. Obama has repeatedly mocked institutions he didn’t control and abused the powers of those he did. Almost always, the ridicule and condescension came in front of cheering audiences. It’s hardly a surprise that Donald Trump is exploiting and expanding the loss of public faith. Mr. Obama spent seven years softening up Mr. Trump’s audiences for him.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.