Kehinde Wiley‘s portrait of Barack Obama is a nice addition to the history of presidential portraits. It contains a wonderful and strange double narrative. He emerges, calm and distinguished, from a wall of bushes: the Bush Era. The Bush, however, still ensconces him. It clings to his feet and begins to shroud the regal chair upon which he sits, just as the context set by George W is never too far away from the Hope and Change Obama partially realized. He is separate and beyond that Bush. But it still forms the space within which his history takes place.
Though he made strides in some human rights issues, in some economic issues, and in some issues of global policy, too much of the damage wrought by Bush and Cheney remained. And all too many Bush era policies lived on in the Obama White House. Cornel West has famously railed on the ways Obama failed to be the change he heralded. Particularly in terms of US war efforts, Obama maintained and expanded the failed, horrible strategies that have kept us stuck for nearly two decades. Sure, Obama got Bin Laden and drew down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also massively increased drone usage and attacks around the world (both issues that have been mostly ignored by the American people). He continued attacks on whistle-blowers. He continued aid to various military forces around the world known for illegitimate attacks.
We can blame Bush and Cheney for starting it, but we have to admit that Obama made mistakes in dealing with shit they started. And we have to deal with the reality that there are unfortunate continuities from Clinton through Bush, Obama, and into the Trump administration. Yes, he helped end the recession and signed Dodd-Frank. But he also bailed out the banks and auto industry, moves which were not necessarily in the best interests of the 99% of us. Yes, he spearheaded the reform of health care and a nuclear deal with Iran, but both of those – like so many of his accomplishments – have been constantly undermined and/or reversed; the solutions weren’t robust enough.
The portraits are wonderful, but the President’s is a reminder that his legacy is double. I’m certainly not negative against President Obama. I think he did a decent job with the hand he was dealt. I think he was an inspiring leader and a person who used the government to help many people. Unfortunately, he also maintained a lot of the ways and means of previous administrations. He had to work within structures that often subvert human dignity and fail to lead to lasting change, which is partly why Trump has been able to counter so many of his best efforts.
I hope that we soon have leadership who will take the best desires of a man like Obama and reject the insidious systems operating within this country that keep us from truly liberating “the better angels of our nature.”