Fascinating contrast between the Obama farewell speech and the Trump press conference this week. The crude, crass, ineloquent retorts versus the pensive, reflective, thought-provoking oratory, rich with penetrating social analysis, evocative cultural insight, commitment to the future with gallant optimism and, above all, the pride of fatherhood. Metropolitan Americans were already looking upon Obama with nostalgic pride.
But while they were joined by middle class audiences across the northern hemisphere in shedding a tear during his marital tributes, the Obama Administration was busy executing the largest build-up of military materiel on the Polish-Russian border in a generation — one of the most dangerous acts of diplomatic brinkmanship of his presidency.
George W. Bush has a de facto monopoly on bellicosity in the public consciousness. But Obama’s foreign policy record differs only very marginally. The start of his presidency saw a significant escalation of military activity in Afghanistan, went on to oversee the invasion of Libya, and drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have been a defining foreign policy tool throughout his tenure. That is: extrajudicial assassinations in civilian-populated areas away from war zones, by remote control, to prosecute a geo-political agenda.
Doesn’t that sound a bit like something Isis would come up with?
The diplomatic record isn’t much different to Bush’s, either: endlessly blocking an otherwise unanimous international community of nations’ efforts to end (a) the Cuba embargo and (b) illegal Israeli settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories. The closest the Obama Administration has got to formally aligning with international norms is to wait until the final trimester of his term, and abstain from GA/Security Council votes on both. Abstention. Hardly the tool of the maverick pioneer for social justice that Californian celebrities sat teary-eyed in thrall of on Tuesday. The much-welcome Cuban thaw (begun only in Obama’s final term, once no more electoral victories in Florida needed to be won) amounts to the equal treatment of Cuba by the world’s superpower to roughly the same degree that Jim Crow granted equal status to African Americans.
Many will focus on the differences between the Trump and Obama addresses. Personally, I’m more preoccupied by the similarities: the obsession, of both, with style over substance. Trump’s no-nonsense attitude to policy, whilst framing no policy whatsoever. Obama’s deep connect with the American people, having spent eight years flawlessly upholding a remote establishment that remains—at home and abroad—morally ambiguous at its best, and outright Machiavellian at its worst.
The populists of today might revere the warrior kings of the past, covered in glory for their power and ambition. Those revelling in Obama’s Shakespearian valedictory address might revere the parliamentarians of the past — the establishment elites that are still mistaken as proxies for the proletariat. Magna Carta and the Provisions of Oxford were clashes of the titans, absent any champion for the rights of the many. It’s folly that the 2016 US election was mistaken by any as something different.