I still remember election night in 2008 like it was yesterday. I was then a first-year university student who, like virtually everyone else I knew, had spent the past year swept up in Barack Obama–mania. Even from outside the United States (I was studying at the University of Toronto), the events of that evening felt like they carried an epochal weight. The moment CNN projected an Obama victory, it was as if some invisible barrier separating the present from a future of unlimited progress had been shattered. Suddenly, after eight years of George W. Bush and decades of political retrenchment, everything was possible again.
In feeling this way, of course, I wasn’t alone. And while it’s certainly embarrassing to revisit the naive earnestness of November 2008 more than ten years on, it’s also worth remembering the extent to which Obama and his campaign quite deliberately stoked expectations and communicated their mission in transcendent terms. In retrospect, some of us probably should have known better. But the conservative course charted by the president and his administration from the very outset genuinely did come as a surprise. While Democrats throughout my lifetime had rhetorically aligned themselves with progress, no figure in the mold of a John Kerry or a Bill Clinton had ever spoken quite like this:
The journey will be difficult. . . . [But] if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that, generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless. This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal. This was the moment when we ended a war, and secured our nation, and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment, this was the time when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves and our highest ideals.
To paraphrase something the late Tony Judt once said of Tony Blair, there is nothing contrived about Barack Obama’s inauthenticity — he appears to come by it quite honestly. The former president’s brand of evangelical centrism has, after all, always seemed perfectly at ease with the marriage of progressive language and status quo politics. Thus, in Obama’s world, there is still nothing duplicitous about having once promised to stop the rising of the oceans and boastfully taking credit for America’s oil-and-gas boom after leaving office, just as there’s nothing hypocritical about the alumni network of what was once Hope and Change Inc. fanning out to lucrative corporate perches at the likes of McDonald’s, Uber, and Amazon.
Despite eight years of decidedly conservative and managerial governance, and several more worth of paid speeches to Wall Street and outings with billionaires, the former president has never ceased his habit of speaking in the register of idealism and progress — nor given up his tendency to direct appeals toward the young. Thus, at the recent COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Obama returned to the same sweeping tones that first propelled his meteoric rise to the top of American politics, even urging younger generations to push their leaders into bold action:
Collectively and individually we are still falling short. We have not done nearly enough to address this crisis. We are going to have to do more. . . . The most important energy in this movement is coming from young people. And the reason is simple. They have more stake in this fight than anybody else. And that’s why I want to spend the rest of my time today talking directly to young people who may be watching and wondering what they can do to help. For most of your lives, if you’re in that generation, you’ve been bombarded with warnings about what the future will look like if you don’t address climate change. And meanwhile, you’ve grown up watching many of the adults who are in positions to do something about it either act like the problem doesn’t exist or refuse to make the hard decisions necessary to address it.
Though perfectly emblematic, it’s nonetheless remarkable to hear the man who once appointed BP’s climate change–denying chief scientist to his Department of Energy — and who got on the phone to rally his party’s machinery against the most popular youth candidate in modern history — posture as an ally of the young in the fight against climate change. His appeals to the young notwithstanding, Obama also couldn’t resist a characteristic dig at those to his left: “Don’t think you can ignore politics. . . . You can’t be too pure for it. It’s part of the process that is going to deliver all of us.” It’s a line he’s taken up before, and one that’s particularly cynical in light of his own record. As Kate Aronoff wrote of Obama’s remarks in a recent piece for the Guardian:
Who precisely is “we” in this scenario? The young people who were children when Obama took office did not clear the way for a 750% explosion in crude oil exports, as he did just a few days after the Paris agreement was brokered in 2015. Nor did they boast proudly about it years later, as ever-more research mounted about the dangers of continuing to invest in fossil fuels. Speaking at a Houston, Texas gala in 2018, the former president proudly took credit for booming US fossil fuel production. . . . To hear Obama tell it, if enough people come together to raise awareness about the climate crisis and consume smartly, they will change enough hearts and minds to keep warming below 1.5C. That would be a lot easier if Obama, in his time as leader of the free world, hadn’t made the task so much harder for all those inspiring, passionate young people.
Among the many lessons since learned by the generation of politically aware young people who rallied to Obama in 2008, one is that the kind of activism acceptable to the liberal mainstream cannot deliver progress or prevent the degradation of the planet. Young and old alike are still crying out for the vision of transformative change many believed was coming thirteen years ago. And it’s now clear to more of them than ever that it will never come from a figure like Barack Obama.