Commentary: A Deep Dive into Barack Obama’s Creation of the Modern Democratic Party and

by Michael Ginsberg


Barack Obama succeeded.

He promised his presidency would fundamentally transform America. And it did.

Understand, it gives me no pleasure to write these words. As a dyed-in-the-wool free marketeer and someone who is fiercely individualistic and innately skeptical of mass social movements, I much prefer the downsized presidential ambitions of Calvin Coolidge or Ronald Reagan. But credit where it is due: the election and presidency of Barack Obama unleashed forces within the United States that have permanently turned this country and its citizens in a leftward, statist direction.

Today we debate whether men can give birth, whether drag shows are appropriate for elementary school children, whether statues of Washington, Jefferson and other Founding Fathers should be displayed, and whether biological males should be permitted to compete as females in athletic competitions. People now claim to see the hidden hand of white supremacy in demands to reopen schools during the COVID pandemic. People contend with a straight face that America is committing genocide against transgender people.

Tennessee StarAll of this most definitely represents a fundamental transformation from 2008.

How did we get to a point where states openly define themselves as sanctuary states for transgender surgeries – even for minors without the consent of their parents? How did we reach a point where social justice demands corporations bend the knee to organizations like Black Lives Matter and ESG investing became de rigeur?

How did we get here? How did America’s social debates leap so wildly to these extremes?

Quite simply, it was the election and presidency of Barack Obama that is the genesis for all of the culture wars raging today. Modern Democrats always fancied themselves the party of civil rights, but their monomaniacal focus on race and identity began with Obama’s election and grew and metastasized into today’s obsession with identity following the election and during the presidency of Donald Trump.

In a sense, Obama’s election is the central pole of a Grand Unified Theory of Democratic and Progressive Politics of the last 20 years.

As the first black nominee for president, Obama’s candidacy offered something powerful to Americans: the exorcism of America’s original sin of slavery. Electing Obama would be an act of national redemption. It was the last great crusade of the civil rights movement, the breaking of the highest and hardest glass ceiling of all. For boomers, it offered a dose of 1960s nostalgia. For those too young to have partaken in the original civil rights movement, the Obama campaign allowed them a little of the frisson their parents experienced. Electing a black president would allow Americans to demonstrate they had moved beyond the racial divides of the past.

Obama and his campaign aggressively leaned into this rationale. In his speeches, he regularly reminded voters that he had a “funny name” and didn’t look like the other presidents on the currency. He recognized that progressives around the world viewed him in the same light, as an avatar of human progress, and that they wanted to be a part of this movement, culminating in his campaign speech in Berlin.

To leave no doubt about the connection of his campaign to the civil rights movement of yore, Obama deliberately accepted the Democrats’ presidential nomination on the anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech in front of Greek temple columns in Mile High Stadium, the speech having been moved there to accommodate a larger crowd.

Commentators also viewed Obama’s mixed-race heritage as heralding a sea change in human relations. The commentator Andrew Sullivan stated it forthrightly in a December 2007 Atlantic piece that made the racialization of politics explicit:

What does [Obama] offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial – it’s central to an effective war strategy …

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man – Barack Hussein Obama – is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

Obama gave every indication of buying into this messianic view of himself. He saw his heritage as a unique entrée into serving as a bridge between the U.S. and the non-Western world, from giving his first speech in Cairo to offering Nowruz greetings to Iran to his endless search for rapprochement with the Iranian mullahs. He viewed himself and his unique heritage as the deus ex machina that would bring Iran out from the cold and reorder national relationships in the Middle East.

Sullivan went so far as to state that only one candidate – Obama – could “transcend” the questions dividing American politics in 2008. He made the implicit view of Obama’s supporters explicit: that electing the first black president would be an act of transcendence.

What, after all, was the rhetoric of “Hope and Change” about? Obama offered little original policy. His was a platform of warmed-over 1930s New Deal and 1960s Great Society statism, expanding existing social programs and continuing the march toward government-controlled health care. It was garden-variety liberalism, old wine in a new bottle. Even today, it is not clear that Obama ever had an original, innovative, unpredicted policy thought in his political career.

No, the “Hope and Change” of Obama’s platform was bound up entirely in his person – that electing a black president would be a redemptive act, that there was hope for America to move past its racial history and into the broad, sunny uplands of a post-racial society. That his election would represent cultural change for the better. An admirable goal, to be sure, but one based on emotion, feelings, and culture, not policy.

One particular moment stood out during Obama’s acceptance speech. At one point, the camera caught the face of the actor Matthew Modine. He was gazing at Obama as if looking upon a god, a higher deity. He probably knew he was on camera and was putting on his acting face, but nevertheless, it was a startling way to look at a politician. The Roman Coliseum setting, the Greek temple backdrop, and the heroic gazes of the audience: this was not a mere acceptance speech. It was a messianic event.

Another standout moment came after Obama’s election in 2010, at a ceremony at which, of all things, Obama awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song to the legendary musician Paul McCartney. McCartney said that getting the prize would have been good enough, but getting it from “this president,” he said, nodding and pointing at Obama, made it extra special. In McCartney’s own words, it would not have been as significant for him if Reagan, Bush pere, Clinton or Bush fils had given him the award. The obvious messianic undertones – that Obama’s giving him the award imbued it with even greater significance – was impossible to miss.

The Obama campaign and its surrogates were also not above weaponizing race when it suited their purposes. During a debate, when John McCain pointed to Obama and said “that one” had supported a particular piece of legislation, Democrats and commentators immediately pounced on this as a racist moment. Noting Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright’s indisputably anti-American sermons was declared off-limits. And the media buried a picture of Obama warmly greeting Louis Farrakhan, the viciously antisemitic leader of the Nation of Islam.

Obama’s election was an undisputable, genuine mark of progress. America became the first Western country in history to elect a black head of state. Even Americans who opposed him on policy grounds felt pride in the accomplishment. The losing candidate, John McCain, and his party, the Republican Party, accepted their loss with grace and dignity. There were no calls for resistance or insurrection because a black person had been elected president. There were no riots in the streets, no refusal to accept Obama’s election. It was, in all respects, post-election business as usual in America.

A gracious political party and movement would have allowed everyone to share in this moment, to acknowledge in a very real way all of America had achieved a degree of racial harmony unthinkable 50 years earlier. That Dr. King’s Dream had, in many respects, come true.

The Democrats were not that political party, and the progressives were not…

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