Who doesn’t love a sweet love story, especially if it’s of the most publicly visible power-couple in the world? Of course I am referring to Michelle and Barack Obama, who recently left the White House after their eight-year rent-free stint there.
Recently I watched the film Southside with You ( 2016 ), based on their first date in 1989 in Chicago. Or non-date, as Michelle Robinson, her name at the time, insisted. She was Barack’s supervisor at the Sidley Austin law firm where she worked, and he was a summer associate. As they were colleagues, she was reluctant to call it a date, but agreed to go because he invited her to a community meeting.
They ended up spending the whole day together visiting an Afrocentric art gallery, lunch in a park, attending the community meeting, watching a movie, ending with a chocolate ice-cream flavored kiss. Hmm, some non-date!
At the community meeting, he impressed her with the oratorical skills he has now become famous for, and despite her protestations, charmed, romanced and three years later, married her.
Michelle is not the only one that Obama impressed, charmed and romanced; he did the same with the American electorate and indeed, many observers worldwide. If Michele and Barack’s 24year marriage seems to have gone smoothly enough, how about his eight-year presidency?
In a marriage you make vows, in a presidency, you make (election) promises. Did Obama make good on his?
Certainly Obama secured a historic victory, being the first African-American president, the personification of diversity and even the American dream. However, most analysts agree that he has left a disappointing record. His approval rating was close to 60 percent suggesting he was a popular leader, which would indicate he achieved many of his objectives. But was that really the case?
According to The Washington Post, out of 40 promises, Obama kept 11, broke 17 and compromised on 12. Politifact did the monitoring in percentages: 48.8 percent kept, 27.4 percent compromised and 22.2 percent broken out of 533 campaign promises. So okay, his legacy was checkered. That happens.
But what if his presidency wasn’t just disappointing, but slow suicide? The fact that Obama ushered in Donald J. Trump of all people, indicates that Obama failed in his one overarching ambition, to heal his nation’s divisions: racial, economic and political. What a sick feeling he must have in his gut realizing that Trump’s ascension was because the latter could tap into a deep well of dissatisfaction in America that arose during Obama’s presidency.
Sean Hannity, the host of of a television show on the conservative Fox News network, went so far as to say that “After 100 days of President Trump, it will be like Obama was never there […] Trump can reverse Obama’s executive actions on immigration, refugees, the Iran nuclear deal and climate change regulations”.
Oh boy! How did Obama go so wrong? This was the analysis of a friend of mine, an American political scientist: “What worries me is that Democrats don’t really grasp that Republicans [especially the ascendant ones] are waging a take-no-prisoners war while their side still has a mushy ‘can’t we all get along mentality?’”. No wonder the Democratic National Convention (DNC) is ill-equipped to confront and counter the right.
By 2010 Obama had already lost control of Congress and it has been the rise of the Right ever since.
In his departure interviews Obama was still shaking his head in disbelief that Republicans had blocked the policies he drafted. As a politician, he seemed naive when he said in one of his parting speeches he believed that “all human beings are by nature good”. Oh really? Where have you been, “No-drama Obama”?
The fact is, liberals, moderates and centrists are by nature accommodative. The ideological extremists they face are the opposite. The middle is slow and ineffective in facing an energized and agitated right.
They failed to realize that this isn’t about governing, that this moment is vastly more ideological and extreme than that.
Obama started out energizing a massive base, especially of young people who were inspired by his message and his story. But Obama totally turned off the tap when he arrived in Washington. He stopped mobilizing and tried to be accommodative and bipartisan. I suppose he thought this was his way of being president for all Americans.
The Republicans saw this naive weakness and played blocker, blocking any initiative or appointment they could. Obama’s liberal stance was his Achilles heel, which resulted in his many failures. Naturally the young people who initially supported him became deflated, disillusioned and deeply disappointed.
What lessons can we learn here in Indonesia, especially given that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has been referred to as the Indonesian Obama?
Like Obama, Jokowi was an unlikely winner. Like Obama, Jokowi started a movement, the “mental revolution”, which attracted many young people, who rallied, supported and voted for him (and who are now also disillusioned with him).
And like Obama, instead of continuing to mobilize, he built his power network at the top and ignored the people who put him where he is now. Because of his elitist politics, Jokowi had to make many compromises that departed from his original campaign promises.
Trump rode in on a wave of racism and xenophobia. In Indonesia, the wave is Islamist, and it’s opportunists who are willing to ride it, naively thinking they can control or discard it. Hah!
If he doesn’t want to end up like Obama, Jokowi should learn from his American counterpart because at the moment there are startling parallels between the two nations. The US used to be in a completely different category, and now the US and Indonesia overlap in the most shocking ways.
So if Obama ushered in Trump, who or what will Jokowi be ushering in? The equivalent of the right in the United States would be Islamic extremists in Indonesia, who have built momentum from below. Even the alleged blasphemy case Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama currently finds himself implicated in, is because Jokowi slipped up.
So, Pak Jokowi, learn from your friend Obama, keep your “marriage vows” and your electoral promises, if you don’t want to leave office ushering in antipluralist and anti-democratic forces, which Islamist extremists will surely bring in!