Obama blasts Trump as ‘chaotic disaster’

Trump attack: “The biggest political crime in American history, by far!” © Shepard Fairey

Will there ever be another Barack Obama? A new row has exploded between the former US president and Donald Trump. It has left many yearning to find “a new Obama” to help heal the world.

Former President Barack Obama has delivered a blistering attack on Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, calling it “an absolute chaotic disaster”.

Obama’s remarks came in a leaked call as the former president exhorted members of his administration to rally behind presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The comments were perhaps the most scathing criticism Obama has yet delivered of his successor in the White House.

Trump responded with a flurry of social media posts and retweets on Sunday, accusing Obama and his aides of engaging in a criminal effort to undermine his presidency.

For many, the return of Obama to the fray was a deeply reassuring moment.

During the pandemic crisis in the USA, Trump has dominated the airwaves. Very few other politicians have managed to get any attention. Until now. But having already served two terms, Obama is barred from standing again.

It has, however, led many to revisit Obama’s record – and to find it eerily prescient.

In 2014, the former president spoke about the threat of “an airborne disease that is deadly”. He warned of almost exactly the disaster that has now unfolded six years later. The video of that speech has now gone viral.

It was not Obama’s only moment of foresight.

In the same year, he said that climate change “will mean more extreme and frequent storms, more flooding and rising seas that submerge Pacific islands”.

His speeches on development would often build up from a single fact, that the “best indicator of whether a nation will succeed is how it treats its women”.

Political historians point out that his approach is pragmatic in both substance and style. Obama places his emphasis on results, not on conflict. Trump, on the other hand, loves a fight.

It prompts the question whether, in a battle between a calm pragmatist like Obama and an angry populist like Trump, the calmer voice can ever win?

Take Pete Buttigieg, who ran in the Democratic Primary this year, hoping to take on Trump. He seemed to model himself on Obama. Even his voice was uncannily similar at times. He lost badly.

So, could there ever be another Obama?

Divided states

It’s just a matter of time, say some. This current crisis and the failures of populism have triggered a longing for politicians who can bring people together, rather than stoke division. Biden says he wants to honour Obama’s legacy as a unifier, even if his style is different. The appetite for an Obama is still there – we’re just waiting for someone with the charisma and brains to repeat the trick.

Young American voters, in particular, seem to have rejected compromise, backing the radical Bernie Sanders in the recent Democratic race for a presidential candidate. This may be because they noticed how polarising Obama himself was. Many people refused even to accept his legitimacy as president. Anyone who talks as good a game as Obama did about unity will have to talk an even better one about how to achieve it.

You Decide

  1. Should headteachers have to be elected? If so, what would they need to offer for you to vote for them?
  2. Do you think that in politics there are such things as irreconcilable interests?

Activities

  1. Barack Obama had more of them than many presidents, but songs about politicians have a long history. Research one that you like and rewrite the words to be about someone you admire.
  2. Have a look at the article by Corey Robin in the Expert Links, which is heavily critical of Obama. Try to make a counter argument about what you think is the defining achievement of the Obama presidency.

Some People Say...

“The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.”

Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), German political theorist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that Obama is still very popular among Democrats. According to YouGov, he is the second-most highly regarded man in the world. Bill Gates beats him, but Michelle Obama tops the women’s list. No wonder some argue she should run for president. However, the coalition Obama built to win first his party’s nomination, then the presidency, has fragmented. Voters were starkly split by age in the recent Democratic primary, for example. The USA is growing ever more politically divided.
What do we not know?
The most interesting area of debate is about the role of conflict in politics. Americans claim to want less of it – yet most paths they advocate to reduce it have to go through an opponent. If you claim to oppose populism, you’re still pointing to an enemy. Obama was uniquely good at appearing to square that circle, but whether all conflicts can be resolved through compromise remains to be seen.

Word Watch

Exhorted
Strongly encouraged (someone) to do something.
Presumptive
Presumed in the absence of further information; theoretical; unconfirmed.
Prescient
Able to predict things or know them in advance. Both prescient and scientist come from the Latin “scire” (to know).
Pragmatic
Dealing with things sensibly and realistically, in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations. Politicians who describe themselves as pragmatic take their cue from an American school of philosophy, of whom the most eminent member is John Dewey.
Populist
The term comes from the People’s Party, which operated in the USA in the 1890s. Now, it is often used to refer to any movement that makes a distinction between the “people” and the corrupt “establishment”.
Uncannily
In a strange or mysterious way, especially one that is unsettling. Sigmund Freud said that uncanny things unsettle us because they remind us of all the disturbing things that we have become used to in our everyday lives.
His legitimacy as president
Throughout Obama’s presidency and afterwards, certain opponents (collectively known as the “birther movement”) questioned his religion, birthplace, and citizenship. The movement falsely asserted that Obama was ineligible to be US president because he was not a natural-born citizen of the US, as required by Article Two of the constitution.

Subjects

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