Obama's Squandered Opportunity
with John McWhorter
In this excerpt from the latest episode of The Glenn Show, things get a little heated when the subject of Barack Obama comes up. Okay, I get a little heated. But I cannot help but look back on Obama’s presidency and see wasted potential. I cannot help but look back and think that if he had shown a little more guts, if he had refused to tolerate the lawlessness of the worst protests of his second term, he might have stopped a lot of the rioting, looting, and intolerance that we see today before it started.
As long as the police carry guns in this country, they are going to end up shooting people. Some of those people are going to be black. That is a lamentable fact. When the shooting is unwarranted or malicious, the cop should be brought to justice. But we shouldn’t have to worry that a city is going to burn every time it happens.
I think Barack Obama, as the first black president, was in a unique position to set the tone and let violent protestors know they would be punished for their actions. He chose the easy way. He pandered. He deployed Al Sharpton. And now what is his legacy? He left the Democratic Party in shambles, the country in the hands of Donald Trump, and the black community no better off than he found it. Meanwhile, he repaired to Martha’s Vineyard to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in book and media deals. He could have made different use of his unique status. Instead, he’s truly become what his critics always accused him of being: Just another celebrity.
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GLENN LOURY: John.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Glenn.
The last post at The Glenn Show Substack page was “A Walk Down Memory Lane” from the archives of The Glenn Show, in which we decided to put up the very first conversation that you and I had under the Bloggingheads umbrella.
Was that the very first one?
The very first one, I'm told by my man Mark Sussman, who is the newsletter editor. I didn't actually go and check. It looked like the first one.
It was from ‘07.
You have one of these phones up to your ear. That's how we were communicating, over a telephone line for the audio. And the year is 2007. It's October of 2007.
That's when we started.
Obama has not even won the Democratic nomination yet. You and I started Bloggingheads conversations 14 years ago. And here we are. That seems to warrant some kind of commemoration.
You liked Hillary, and I liked Obama. Have we already figured that out?
Yeah, I liked Hillary. What can I tell you? I liked Hillary. I thought Obama was a grifter and a con man and a carpetbagger. I'm from the South Side of Chicago, and I thought Obama was full of it. I thought he was a Houdini. He had somehow hoodwinked and hypnotized the polity. “Hope and change”? It seemed ridiculous to me. That was a presidential campaign vision? “Our time has come.” “We are the ones we've been waiting for”? Do you remember the slogans from then?
In retrospect, don't they sound absolutely vapid?
Yes. I'm not gonna admit it, but yeah. Yeah, they do, damn it. But you know, there's something that we couldn't know. And this is not me trying to sidestep it. That's me sitting there, looking 17, and I'm all into this Obama phenomenon. And part of it was the gut rather than the head. But what we didn't know, sitting there talking over the telly-o-phone, it was a different technological moment. Neither one of us at that time knew what a Twitter was. I know that in ‘07, that year I asked somebody, “What is this fucking Twitter?” And everybody laughed.
It took me another five years.
Yeah. It's just, what is that? And Facebook in 2007 was just beginning to be something that people beyond college students did. I think I got on it in ‘07 and then didn't really start using it until ‘08. And so it's a whole different world. And Obama coming in, I still believe, could have created a whole new consensus about what race means in America. If it weren't for that a Twitter and a Facebook, could magnify what happened with, first Trayvon Brown and then ... Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Brown and Michael Martin [laughs]. Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.
Because those things galvanized this sense of race issues being primarily about we black people's relationship to state sponsored violence, so to speak. And it's around then that Ta-Nehisi Coates becomes a superstar. If it weren't for Ferguson, I think he would occupy a very different place. Not to say that he doesn't deserve what he got. But that changed everything. And it meant that any sense that we were going to think about race on the basis of Obama or anything he said or represented just got flushed.
And here we are. As you and I both know, and you're not supposed to say this, but you and I both know that the Trayvon Martin story was nothing like what we were told back then. We both know that.
In 2012, if I'm not mistaken.
2012. More people know, but just don't want to talk about it, that Michael Brown, that story was nothing like what we were told. And so in a sense, too, it's tragic that those two boys are dead, but two hoaxes ended up forming the basis of what is now considered the proper woke conversation.
What has this got to do with Obama?
Meaning it distracted from what could have been a whole new mood about race. I think we were on that path in ‘08 and ‘09. And then in ‘09, everybody gets on Twitter and Facebook. It was those years. And by ‘12, something can happen in Sanford, Florida and it becomes a national phenomenon that no one would have heard of outside of Sanford, Florida if it weren't for the new media. And that's also true of Michael Brown. It just wouldn't have had that impact. Nothing but roughly Amadou Diallo had that kind of punch of that sort until then.
So I think that it distracted America from thinking more sensibly about race. Instead, everybody started zeroing in on this frankly overwrought and often exaggerated version of what goes on between black men and the cops. It ruined what Obama could have done culturally in that way, even as a symbol.
Now, you and I are going to have to agree to disagree. Rather than seeing it as a constraint on the great possibilities of Obama who was hamstrung by the unfortunate occurrence of these technological and political events, I see it as a failure of the former president Obama, having been presented with an opportunity to lead the country, not just to perform his shtick. To lead the country in a time of peril by standing up for law and order. He should have done that.
He should have given Trump-like speeches about people getting their asses off the street and into their homes, about them attacking police officers: “We're going to find out who you are with facial recognition. We're going to hunt you down.” About them looting and arsoning. There's no excuse for it. When the stepfather of Michael Brown stands on top of a car and says, “Burn this bitch down,” the President of the United States should have been seeing about having him indicted for the incitement to violence.
He should have told the country and black people what they needed to hear after Freddie Gray, you didn't mention, in Baltimore and so forth and so on, which is that there's no justification whatsoever for your contempt for civility and the rules that allow all of us to live here in this great country together. “I trust the institutions of government and law enforcement in this country,” the President should have said, “because I'm in charge of them.” Rather, he hemmed and hawed, split the difference with these mobs, mobs around the courthouses, said stupid shit like, “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon,” which is blatantly false. No son of Obama would have looked anything like the Trayvon Martin that you and I know about from Joel Gilbert's exposé of Trayvon Martin.
He sent Al Sharpton out as an ambassador to Black America. A huckster ambulance-chasing antisemite. This is what Barack Obama did. He sent Eric Holder to try to clean up the mess, because, although there was no "hands up, don't shoot" truth, they were going to find a poetic truth in the systemic injustice of Ferguson, Missouri, which begs the question.
So no, Obama had an opportunity to lead the country. No, he wouldn't have been written up in the scriptural references of the woke. He would have been vilified for being a black conservative if he had done something like that. But the country needed a black conservative. Why bother electing a black man to the highest office in the land if when he gets there, he's going to perform the same shtick that any hustling political operative who claims to be representing black people would perform. I offer you the post-presidency of Barack Obama as evidence for the case that I'm making. Absolutely vapid.
Are you about to mention this 60th birthday party?
No. I don't have to mention it. Everybody knows he had Michelle are billionaires. Everybody knows it's all about Netflix deals and whatnot. Everybody knows where Martha's Vineyard is. Everybody knows how connected he is to the very people to whom he was appealing. “Our time has come”? Can't you remember those posters? Martin Luther King's photo here, Barack Hussein Obama's photo there, and the caption being, “He had a dream. Now the dream comes true.” I actually lived those years. I remember what that phony-ass campaign was about. So sorry, but that's how I feel. Okay. So now, you know, go ahead.
Now Glenn, this is a genuine question. You accurately sussed out that in me there's a little bit with Eric Adams of, I don't know if I would want him over to dinner. I hate to admit it. That's about 5% of it. Why do you hate Barack Hussein Obama so much?
Do you really think that he's a canny operator? Is that really the type of person he is? Isn't he a little sober for that? Isn't he a little bit the lawyer? Is he really that cynical?
If I come further along the line that I've already laid down for myself, I'm the only one that's going to get hurt by it. Barack Obama is untouchable. Nobody gives a damn what I say about him. In fact, your very question, which is not a refutation of the argument that I made, but rather an ad hominem reference, “Why are you saying these things about our great Barack Obama?”
I didn't ask that. I said, what are the things about him that elicit this level of contempt? Because it seems like it's a little bit more than anything he did.
I mean, I'll just repeat myself. He ran on the historic campaign. He made the thrill run down Chris Matthews' leg, the idea that there was going to be a black president. He was Kennedyesque, Camelot come again.
Well, he was.
He did symbolize that.
Well, he symbolized it, but he wasn't.
Because how was Kennedy more X than Barack Obama? Kennedy wasn't that good.
Here's what I know. I know that when he began, he had control, the Democrats, of both houses of Congress and of the majority of state houses. I know that when he left town, Donald Trump was getting ready to be president, they lost control of everything, and the Democrats took a bath in half the country. That's what I know. I know race relations got worse after the first black president was appointed.
That was social media's fault. That was Twitter and Facebook's fault. I truly believe that.
I think it was a failure of leadership from the top. In part, it was also a consequence of [social media]. I made the case that I made about “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.” Al Sharpton? I'm sorry! I'm sorry.
Glenn, you know, it's because you are more of a contrarian than I am. When Obama said that about Trayvon Martin, that was a sacrosanct case. Before we knew not only the facts that we know that nobody will ever admit, but a lot of it started falling apart about six months after it became a celebrated cause.
But for about ten minutes, it just looked like this poor boy had been shot by this overzealous little neighborhood detective. And with the whole country thinking that and Obama not in a position to know any better, it was really so bad that our black president expressed a visceral kind of sympathy with the murder of that boy?
But he wasn't murdered, John.
But we know that now.
He was killed in an act of self-defense. A jury deliberated over the facts. They found George Zimmerman innocent of that claim. And yet still, and with respect, it's possible to say “murder” about that event in part because the President of the United States, instead of saying, “Let's keep our powder dry everybody. Let's be cool. These cases come and they go. We know that the facts will be fully determined in the fullness of time. I'm going to reserve judgment about what happened down there, rather than jump on a bandwagon and send an antisemitic ambulance chaser out to represent my administration.”