On Tuesday, in a 12-minute video, former President Barack Obama re-emerged from his primary season dormancy to formally endorse Joe Biden, his former vice president and his party’s presumptive nominee. Millions tuned in online, nostalgic for the ballast of his familiar cadence. Many huddled at home as a global pandemic — one that in 2014 he warned could arrive — wreaks havoc, taking lives and evaporating livelihoods. The endorsement had the air of a warm-up; an act one, scene one in the effort to “make the case for Biden that Biden has had trouble making himself,” as Politico recently put it.
Biden has particularly struggled to generate enthusiasm among the young and the progressive — groups that were at the heart of the Obama coalition. Some might assume that Obama’s return will help address Biden’s generational challenges. But the former president has also had his own complicated relationship with young people since he became the nation’s leader in 2009.
Many progressives who came of age during the Obama presidency — myself among them — became disillusioned with its caution. Too many of us took for granted Obama’s uncanny ability to make sense of contrasting truths: the give and take of liberty and fairness in an economy; “the goodness of our nation” and its “original sin of slavery.” And as Republicans blocked him in bad faith while inequality soared, we grew weary of his earnest civics of solidarity — the way he wove competing policy ideas into a narrative in which all of us were imperfect protagonists.
I am not sure the young voters dealing with the second deep recession of their lives, who fell out of love with the 44th president, will fully believe Biden when he says he wants to do more than Make America 2015 Again.
Many of us feel our critiques of the Obama years remain valid. But now we are older, and living through a deadly pandemic with a leader who embodies the antithesis of Obama’s empathy and rationality. Suddenly an Obama-style civics and the bipartisan-minded, competent technocrats of the Obama administration would be a godsend. Instead, we have the fumbling leadership of Donald Trump, a man who attempts to ignore or erase all realities inconvenient to him and who seeks gain through bluffing when division, his first instinct, fails.
My high school and college years were precisely synchronised with Obama’s two four-year terms. Most everyone my age back home in New Orleans — a blue Southern city in a deep red state — was an Obama fan: He was black, pretty cool for a politician and his slam-poetry-like lines, such as those at the 2004 Democratic convention, that “we worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States; we coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States,” rang true to our lives.
I was better known in high school as a “soccer bro” than as a news junkie. But I had been a news addict ever since, as a first grader, I was captivated by the fiasco of the 2000 election. So like plenty of teens who couldn’t vote in the aughts, I found myself charmed by Obama’s rise and the sense of national community in the face of crisis he garnered.
Trust and expertise in the times of Trump and Obama
Alas, the prose of governance never sounds as good as the poetry of campaigns — and many young people quickly lost faith in Obama. Sometimes the very desire for balance, for buy-in from sceptics and critics, which powered the Obama candidacy, hamstrung the “Yes We Can” ambition of his presidential agenda.
Obama’s deference to the Wall Street and Washington elites that my colleague Paul Krugman calls “Very Serious People” led him to settle for an inadequate stimulus package amid the Great Recession, then embrace harsh austerity measures that mainstream economists now say were counterproductive. In his Biden campaign endorsement on Tuesday, Obama may have tacitly admitted some of this. “If I were running today, I wouldn’t run the same race or have the same platform as I did in 2008,” he said. “The world is different.”
Still, while the solutions devised by the technocrats Obama trusted may have been inadequate, he at least respected and relied on their expertise. That came in handy not only during the H1N1 pandemic and the Ebola epidemic, but in the strengthening of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and in the creation of a consumer protection agency, too. The societal costs of having a leader who relies on his gut and random members of his family rather than on bureaucratic and medical experts now seem clear.
Recently, I spoke to Obama’s former speech writer Jon Favreau, who in 2008 helped shape a message that excited both millennials and their more moderate parents. “On the Obama campaign,” he told me, “Every single day, every single speech we thought, ‘How do we make sure we are speaking to the anxieties people have about the economic inequality in this country while also speaking to the desires they have to pull ourselves together as one country, even though we disagree on a lot of things?’”
He praised Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on the first count and gave an A for effort to Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden on the second, but added, “I don’t know if any of the 2020 Democratic candidates have effectively spoken to both of those anxieties.”
For all of his much-debated flaws, Obama mastered a way of simultaneously validating people’s fears and anger while encouraging optimism and togetherness.
Video that sparked nostalgic tweets
Perhaps because of that skill, Obama’s endorsement video sparked countless nostalgic tweets. And last week, HBO’s Bill Maher and former vice-president Al Gore fantasised about Biden naming Obama as his principal pandemic adviser. There is an obvious, if implicit, dig here — that even with the entire Democratic brain trust behind him, the former vice-president may not be up to this moment.
I’m not sure he is, even now with Obama as his “super surrogate” on the campaign trail. And I am not sure the young voters dealing with the second deep recession of their lives, who fell out of love with the 44th president, will fully believe Biden when he says he wants to do more than Make America 2015 Again.
I am sure, however, that if Obama or the avuncular man now attempting to restore his legacy were president, then instead of asking whether the live presidential daily briefings were disinformation campaigns, many of us, young and old, would eagerly await them — siloed in our homes, TVs centred on an empty podium, looking for an update or just a bit of inspiration.
— Talmon Joseph Smith is a member of the editorial staff of the Opinion section.