The Passion of the President: On the Legacy of Barack Obama

In 1984, the legal scholar and philosopher Roberto Unger published Passion: An Essay on Personality to explore the relationship between the individual and society. He tried to reconcile what he saw as the great human dilemma of wanting to establish oneself as an individual while also wanting to be a part of a group or movement. The need to both define ourselves and simultaneously connect with others is defined by our passions. He identifies nine: lust, despair, hatred, vanity, jealousy, envy, faith, love, and hope.

Anyone who has witnessed the last nine years in American politics knows how potent hope has become, thanks to the presidential campaign and subsequent two presidential terms of Barack Obama. By turning Hope into a rallying cry for a generation, Obama unleashed a wellspring of passion into our global political and social world that truly has changed the course of contemporary history.

However, Hope has come at a price because passions are not piecemeal. When they come to the fore they come all at once, and with sometimes brutal force. Hope brought with it all of the other eight passions and we would do well to keep this in mind as we consider the administration that prepares to take the reins in one week. The hope that Barack Obama inspired has also brought with it despair and yes, hatred, because when we allow ourselves to make politics into a passionate exercise, we relegate reason and judgment to the back bench.

To be fair, reason and judgment are not as exciting; they simply do not feel as good as passion. Something happened along the way towards Barack Obama’s ascension into the realm of the sacred and the profane; we forgot that this was just a politician, just a man. A good man, yes. A smart man, absolutely. But a man, nonetheless. Indeed, we forgot this whether we loved or loathed him. If you ask anyone their opinions of Obama they will almost certainly point to one extreme or another but it will also almost certainly be based not on what he did or failed to do but on who he was or wasn’t, what promises he broke or fulfilled, whether he broke hearts or lifted them.

His victory in 2008 transcended politics, as so many said. Perhaps, that is the problem. To be sure, the fact that a black man could enter the White House was humbling on such a basic level that it made politics feel like an intimate moment, a therapeutic breakthrough on a nationwide scale. But as much as we needed a symbol we also needed a statesman, a bureaucrat, a lawmaker. It is not that Barack Obama was incapable of these things as well; indeed I would argue that he was more suited to the latter than the former. But we didn’t want that; we didn’t desire that. With our hope also came our lust, our rapturous craving for an idol. That thirst was unquenchable.  

Thus it should come as no surprise that the man who was no mere mortal should disappoint, because we did not elect him for his mortality. We elected him for his hope, and from our passion. It’s neither his fault nor our own, really. After eight years that saw both sides of the aisle polarized and deflated by the Bush administration, we needed a feel good story. We needed to believe, and believe many of us did. But hope led to despair for many, jealousy for some, and hatred for many others.

That hatred festered, first in the fringes and then slowly but surely bled into the mainstream. Donald Trump’s unparalleled ability to take a match (or perhaps a blowtorch) to that kindling gave rise to the same passions that had swelled eight years previously: hatred turned to hope, despair turned to faith for those who had not been inspired by seeing the Obama family rise to their mythic status. But they had been roused, and their passions soon began dictating their politics just as they had done eight years before.

Apart from the fact that it is inaccurate, it is too trite to say that the Obama presidency allowed a Trump presidency to happen. Democracy is rarely that simple, nor should it be. That said, Barack Obama’s presidential legacy will be inextricably linked to Donald Trump’s rise and eventual conquest, not least because of the almost cinematic contrast between the two men and their characters. The unraveling of the norms that have come to define the American political culture under Donald Trump will be thought of as having reached their zenith under Barack Obama, regardless of whether they did or not. Our hindsight will be governed by the nostalgia that passion leaves in its wake.

This is unfortunate because it will prevent us from considering the concrete policy changes that Obama succeeded in making along with those that he did not. His rise in popularity in the wake of Trump’s victory obscures his continued use of drone strikes, his failure to close Guantanamo Bay, and his inability to secure bipartisan cooperation. It will also overshadow President Obama’s unquestionable intelligence, and whether his post-presidency efforts at combating gerrymandering are successful or not, they will always be seen through the rose-colored lenses of Hope.  Rapturous once again, Barack Obama is the fodder for our passion.

To be fair, there’s been no lack of trying: time and again, President Obama has tried to remain a voice of reason and understanding and to explain complicated political concepts to the general public in a way that felt accessible without being diluted. He has reminded people that the duties of democratic citizenship are considerable, and that in dreams of a better world begin responsibilities. His legacy may well be this: a president at once admired and abhorred, idolized and vilified, yet ultimately misunderstood- profoundly misunderstood.

As Barack Obama takes his leave and the American political arena navigates its further course, perhaps we will finally learn how to find a place for passion in politics that does not relegate reason to the background but instead operates in concert with it. Maybe this is our last, and best, Hope.

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