Nov. 4, 2008, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was elected president of the United States over U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Obama was the first African American to be elected president. He was born to an American mother and a Kenyan father in Hawaii.
Although he would graduate from Harvard Law School, Obama had a background in community organizing in Chicago. He became a state senator in 1996 and earned a reputation for working well with Republicans as well as his own party. In 2004, he moved on to the U.S. Senate.
In 2008, Obama beat Hilary Clinton in the Democratic Primary to become the nominee for president. He ran a strong grassroots campaign and was the first candidate to effectively use social media. As we have seen, polarization was well underway in American, but Obama captured some Republican strongholds (Virginia, Indiana) and key battleground states (Florida, Ohio) that had been won by Republicans in recent elections to win the White House. How did an African American Democrat do this?
McCain, the Republican candidate, was battling the right wing of his party who were unenthused about his campaign. He tried to placate them by nominating Sarah Palin, who was extremely unpopular with mainstream Republicans. Unlike Obama, he was not a strong or particularly exciting campaigner.
But the major reason Obama was able to win in states like Indiana, I postulate, was his message. In bad economic times, many Americans wanted change. Wages had been stagnant since the 1970s. Reagan’s trickledown economics had not succeeded in improving the lives of many working class people of all races. People wanted change. They wanted bold ideas and a vision. Obama campaigned on this, (his slogan was “got hope?”), as well as on traditional Democratic ideals like raising people out of poverty.
Obama did not provide this change for a number of reasons. His election coincided with the rise of the Tea Party. The Tea Party movement is composed of a loose affiliation of national and local groups that determine their own platforms and agendas without central leadership. Funded by the ultra-wealthy Koch brothers, it is nonetheless seen by most to be a genuine grassroots movement. Although the Tea Party did not have an actual national agenda, it advocated lower taxes, less foreign intervention and small government. Some Tea Party groups also advocated for social issues such as making abortion illegal and opposing gay rights. Other parts of the Tea Party took their cue from the libertarian Koch brothers and did not make social issues central.
The Tea Party was mistrustful of mainstream Republicans and government in general, as well as all Democrats. Along with the Newt Gingrich wing of the party, the Tea Party moved the Republican Party rightwards. It would soon be impossible for centrist Republicans to compromise with Democrats about anything and maintain the good will of Republican voters. Like most centrists, Obama wanted compromise. He didn’t get it.
Fox News and other right wing media outlets were instrumental in spreading the Tea Party message. Opposition to Obama became the center of their movement. Opposition to his health care legislation was a central manifestation. The final round of debate before voting on the health care bill was marked with vandalism and widespread threats of violence to at least 10 Democratic lawmakers across the country. In addition, Obama’s stimulus package drew their ire as “government bailout.”
Another hot button issue, especially after the Sandy Hook school shooting, which took the lives of 20 children, was gun control. Obama and the Democrats were unable to get the Republicans on board with any legislation, and their attempts fueled resistance and anger from many.
It was very difficult for Obama to push any legislation that might have tackled social injustice or income inequality without being tagged as a socialist. Climate change and environmentalism were important to the Obama administration. Identification with these causes became associated with liberalism.
Race is central to any discussion of the Obama presidency. He did not push major legislation aimed at eliminating racial injustice. Obama wanted to be a unifier. The “birther” theory, which advanced the idea that Obama was born in Kenya, was embraced by, among others, the previously apolitical Donald Trump. This kind of attack was rooted in the idea that African Americans are not “real Americans” and therefore should not be leaders. His presidency ignited fears about “multi-culturalism” and the loss of white privilege in American society.
Simultaneously, Obama represented the liberal establishment. Like Bill Clinton, Obama is a neo-liberal and his coalition, which included Hilary Clinton and Joe Biden, embraced a belief in the global economy and the free market’s ability to bring increased prosperity to all, in spite of the inequities it fostered. Like Bill Clinton, Obama doesn’t have an upper-class background, but is now firmly a member of the highly educated ruling elite, a group many feel does not represent their interests.
In spite of his messaging, Obama was unable to deliver on his promise to bring about a better future for many Americans. If asked the question “got hope?” in 2016, the answer for many, especially white working class voters in rural areas, was “nope”.
Next time, I’ll talk about the rise of Donald Trump and his successful presidential campaign of 2016.