President Obama would never endorse Bernie Sanders on the eve of the Democratic primary. But he definitely should. And, in a way, he already did (recent half hugs to Clinton notwithstanding). While such a move for a sitting president would be almost unprecedented, Obama the political operative may very well be pulling a few strings from far behind the scenes to make a Sanders presidency a reality. Some readers of Dreams from My Father would be inclined to see this move as a return to the ‘real’ Obama. This is the mythical unspoiled Obama. The one believers claim existed before Republican obstructionism, political expediency, and Obama’s own pragmatism and congeniality got in the way. This camp would cry that something deep within Obama the community organizer still yearns to make good on his promises of hope and change. Maybe.
Yet there is also a much more obvious case to be made for an Obama endorsement of Sanders. It doesn’t require stooping to this kind pop-psychoanalysis that so many soon-to-be-poorly-written biographies of Obama will undoubtedly attempt. It simply requires thinking about how historians will likely judge Obama in the face of either a Sanders, a Clinton, or a Trump presidency—while doing so against three possible political cultures. Let’s go.
Trump and Others
The Republicans, while disastrous for the country, might actually not be the worst thing for Obama’s legacy (assuming that’s all one cared about). Here Obama would likely come across as a well-intended martyr who—through no fault of his own—fell victim to a brutal Right-wing backlash. Presumably, this scenario would coincide with an even further slide into the vast oblivion of the Reagan Era abyss. At its worst it could also mark an even sharper super-Right turn. But one could just as easily imagine a one-off Trump, Inc. presidency taking place. It may very well inspire an even more dramatic counter-turn to the Left. If this were to happen, Trump would be responsible for that eventual (and some would say inevitable) Left Turn. Here, Obama may be remembered as inadvertently causing the cause of the Left Turn. While not the most flattering legacy, it’s not a particularly damning one either.
On the other hand, in a politically neutral do-nothing American political landscape, Trump would likely just end up being a more charismatic version of Bush II. In this context, Obama would look ridiculously competent and rational when sandwiched between two genuinely ghoulish figures. All the drone strikes, unlawful surveillance, Wall Street friendliness, failures on racial justice, and insurance company give-a-ways might even be forgiven by biographers (who should know better) if the deck truly stacks against democracy in a Republican dystopia. In a Trump victory, Obama is the calm that got murdered by the storm.
Clinton Part II
The good thing is that we know exactly how Clinton will govern. We’ve seen it before. Neo-liberal extraordinaire with a flair for mediocrity. This kind of presidency is simply the worst possible scenario for the Obama legacy (again, assuming for a moment that this is all you care about). In addition to putting the breaks on any genuine Left insurgency that might be taking shape, Clinton will also sap any remaining mystique and revolutionary potential that the Obama ascendancy might have once signaled. With Clinton as his successor Obama becomes a Bill and Hillary sandwich—just another neo-liberal/neo-con happy to keep things essentially as they are. Obama’s dreams of hope and change will be seen as failed projects at best or the insincere, cynical gestures of a masterful campaigner at worst. The most likely political culture to align with a Clinton presidency is, of course, a status quo stagnation. If large segments of the population continue to drag things to the Right, Obama will simply look all the less impressive and even more impotent with Clinton as a successor.
If, on the other hand, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and the Sanders/Warren block of the Democratic party continue in their ascendancy, Clinton may very well go along for the ride in her first term (remember, getting re-elected is her full time job at that point). But rest assured, in classic govern-from-the-center fashion she will almost certainly reverse course and sell out these movements at the first possible moment to her corporate overseers. If the Left Turn sticks, however, she will be forced to deploy her characteristic Clinton opportunism. She, not Obama, will swoop in to claim credit for the Left turn while picking through the bones of Obama’s legacy in order to fiendishly nourish her own. In short, if you love Obama, Clinton is public enemy #1.
Now things get interesting. If Peter Beinart is correct and America is finally turning Left again, serious historians assessing the Obama presidency thirty years from now (and who came up with that rule anyway) will almost certainly judge both Sanders and Obama kindly. Obama will be the hope. Sanders will be the change. Prophecy and prophecy fulfilled. Yes, Sanders and Warren are merely the sanitized institutional remnants of the Occupy Movement who will now have to be continually drug along by Black Lives Matter. As is often recounted, their brand of American ‘democratic socialism’ places them firmly to the center-Right in any European conception of a political spectrum (never mind in the political lines of the Global South). But they are also the only viable alternatives to the corporate plutocracy currently governing America. If the Left turn really happens and coincides with a Sanders presidency, Obama will be one step closer to political sainthood. The “Age of Obama” will become exactly that. Currently, the term is used with less precision than can be found in a typical Sarah Palin speech.
Conversely, if Sanders inaugurates something of an Obama backlash 2.0, historians will likely write about both Obama and Sanders in nostalgic and romantic terms—now a pair of fallen heroes who were crushed by the weight of their own idealism. If instead Sanders shifts course and governs like a Clinton (or a Clinton-esque political climate accompanies his presidency) then he, not Obama, will be seen as having the failed presidency that over-promised and under-delivered. Sanders will take the fall and Obama can still be memorialized as the window of hope. He opened the door and his predecessors failed to walk through it.
The Black Left
Make no mistake. The black vote will decide this Democratic primary. Black voters currently have the power, in their collective hands, to nominate Sanders over Clinton. Just as allegiances in the 2008 primary shifted when black people dumped Clinton in mass to support Obama, so too can this happen for Sanders. But it won’t just happen. For those single issue voters who care primarily or even exclusively about Obama’s legacy, they should not wait another moment and just #FeelTheBern at once.
Thankfully/hopefully, most black voters have other concerns besides Obama’s legacy. Here the gesture becomes much more dicey as Ta-Nehesi Coates has recently pointed out and as Robert Green’s excellent reading list on the black Left also makes clear. Sanders’s policies on race, gender, and sexuality are not nearly as progressive as his articulations of class. In his political calculus, I’m sure he’s determined that supporting something like a nationwide program of black reparations would lose him more white votes than it would gain him in black votes (certainly the case in the general election). One unscrupulous move for Sanders would be to wait until after Iowa and New Hampshire, claim to have seen the light of Coates’s critique, offer a vague program of reparations to gain the black primary vote (and undoubtedly the nomination), and then run to the center in the general election without making it seem like he’s throwing black people under the bus too much. I’d like to think that Sanders has more integrity than to play with something so monumental, but stranger things have happened. His inability to move beyond the practical and into the possible signals that any case for reparations is going to have to begin with a popular mobilization. As I plan to argue in an upcoming piece on the Hawai’ian sovereignty movement, it may also have to skirt the federal government and electoral politics altogether and take on a more decentralized approach rooted in hyper-localism and community-based politics.
If nothing else, the Sanders candidacy lays bare the race/class intersection (which must also, of course, include gender and sexuality). This space has presented a conundrum for black intellectuals from T. Thomas Fortune, to W.E.B. Du Bois, to Lucy Parsons, to Marcus Garvey, to Pauli Murray. While Sanders’s class-first program may not in the short term prove better for black people than a Clinton machine-styled system of patronage/plantation politics, in the long term, most on the black Left now seem to agree that the Sanders trip is worth a ride. I mean, come on ya’ll, when Killer Mike, Lil’ B, AND Cornel West are all feeling the Bern, the jury has spoken (I only half kid). This doesn’t mean anyone should be supporting Sanders uncritically or discard a more intersectional approach. It just means that the project of developing a truly intersectional 21st Century black Left is currently facing a golden opportunity (however pale and imperfect it may be). All movements have to start from somewhere and they rarely finish where they begin. If a BlackLivesMatter/Sanders coalition can start to take shape (both within and preferably outside of partisan politics) then the logic of slave-racial-capitalism and the fodder of a broken political structure may just encounter its final breaths. That the conversation is actually happening is perhaps even more improbable than Obama’s initial election itself.
For those unflinching supporters of Sanders, however, the black intelligentsia is not currently your most urgent problem (but we will keep coming at you). Convincing, everyday black voters between now and February 27th when South Carolina chooses a candidate (and certainly by Super Tuesday when Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia do the same) is of the utmost importance. While intricate policy debates and high end political theory are already taking place on everyday black porches, stoops, and back-yard BBQs throughout the South, there may be an easier way. With Obama’s approval rating among African Americans still stubbornly hovering around 90%, those solely interested in getting Sanders the nomination might just consider a simple slogan: #FeelTheBern or #ObamaGetsBurnedpermission.