Lessons of Obama’s Presidency Should Not Be Saved for Farewell Address

Kyle Seasly

When George Orwell first arrived in Barcelona in 1936, as described in “Homage to Catalonia,” he believed he had witnessed a legitimate and profound social revolution.

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Illustration by Sophie Cooper-Ellis.

“Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized … Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted;’ everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou,’ and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos días,'” he said. The social revolution, however, collapsed months later and the people of Barcelona returned to their old ways. The opportunity, Orwell insisted, was missed because the government of Spain insisted on moderation rather than pushing revolution.

Revolution was first met with broad enthusiasm, yet moderation was emphasized because the Spanish Republic feared that revolution would distract from winning the war. Instead, the Spanish government seemed to represent the status quo (which had led to a military coup), rather than pushing for revolution. Unrest and apathy continued among the many leftist groups who were supposedly united against Franco. The Spanish government denied both a war and a revolution, implicitly denying itself the mobilization of millions of workers in Spain and around the world, and it was defeated three years later with the help of Italian and German fascists.

President Barack Obama seems to be in the same conundrum as the Spanish government. He was elected in 2008 to shouts of “change,” while riding on the general resentment of the Bush years, and he soundly defeated his opponent in the U.S. Electoral College and the popular vote.

Obama himself had gained the spotlight at the 2004 Democratic convention by opposing the war in Iraq and delivering messages of hope to the alienated Democratic Party.

Yet Obama’s residency in the White House has been met with frustration. His opponents paint him as a “socialist,” yet I don’t see enough calls for change. His parallels with the Bush administration are far too many to truly experience the change that he called for; they include the Patriot Act, the continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his drone policy, his Guantanamo policy, his lack of backbone against white-collar crimes and the National Security Agency.

Matt Taibi, the Rolling Stone political correspondent, commented on this in “Spanking the Donkey.”

“I’ve become so disenchanted with the Democratic party … what it offers … is a series of positions … tax policy, balanced budgets, educational spending. None of the proposals are ever fundamental changes … the candidates therefore become buffoons straight out of Voltaire: crusaders for change, campaigning on a platform of minor improvements to this best of all possible worlds,” he said.

Indeed, the dynamic between the Democratic and Republican parties has for me been a choice between a Hindenberg and a Hitler. Hindenberg represents the status quo, which is bad but seems the only way to defeat Hitler, who would be much worse.

I don’t want to have to make that choice. Obama perhaps missed his opportunity for change by pursuing a moderate course because that is what the mainstream media paints as electable. His chance in 2009 was squandered, but he has three more years to make changes. The NSA and healthcare debacles threaten to make his greatest legacy “cash for clunkers,” but I think there’s still time. Obama is still learning, and perhaps the best lessons of the presidency are saved for the farewell address, like Washington warning against political parties and Eisenhower speaking against the military-industrial complex, but people rarely listen to these lessons.