Law in Contemporary Society

Moving Forward: Reflections on the Obama Administration and Myself

-- By BeulahAgbabiaka - 22 Apr 2016

I. Why I Cared So Much

Several facts converged to make President Obama’s election and administration especially interesting to me. As a result of my increased attention to the politics taking place, and the expectations I had of the Obama Administration in the wake of the election, it made this administration especially disillusioning. When President Obama was campaigning I was in complete awe of a Black person coming from an experience that paralleled my own in several key ways who was able to effectively motivate young people about politics and give out hope like Oprah gives out cars on her “My Favorite Things” episode. To start at the beginning, when I was in 5th grade, my teacher told me, “Beulah, I think you’re smart enough to be the President and you need to go to law school.” I was incredibly pleased with myself and with Mrs. Willis’ comment, but I also thought lawyers and police were bad people despite my genuine enjoyment of watching Law and Order SVU with my Auntie Liz. (I thought Detective Stabler, Detective Benson, Ice Tea and Munch were exceptions to that rule.) I took Mrs. Willis’ words to heart, but I didn’t know what to do with them at the time so I just put them in my pocket until I figured out what I thought my life plan would be. So the first fact is that I thought I wanted to be the President of the United States of America for longer than I care to get into the specifics of. The second fact that converged to make me so interested in the 2008 election and the Obama Administration was that President Obama was Black-American with a Kenyan father who didn’t play a significant role in his upbringing. While my absentee father is Nigerian, at the time I thought it was absolutely incredible that while I was trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do as a sophomore in high school, someone was making a difference in politics like I wanted to. Someone who also felt that their identity was shaped much more by the absence of one parent than the very brief periods of presence. The third fact that contributed to peaking (piquing) my special interest was being at an age where I could better understand and appreciate the nuances of the election in a family that followed politics pretty closely. This was the first election that I felt I could really participate in (yes, I phone-banked for the Obama ‘08 campaign). Because I felt like I could make a real contribution to politics through this campaign, I thought I was making one. And because I could see more of this President in myself, I felt a strong sense of ownership over the Obama campaign. When it came time to vote for him in the fall of 2008, my mama took my sister and I (me) in the voting booth with her, let me mark her ballot, and then we all nervously smiled at each other before we went home to wait for the results with the rest of our extended family.

II. Deep Disillusionment

Now that you have a small glimpse into how meaningful the election was to me and how much weight I placed on the Obama Administration, it is possible to start to understand my disillusionment. If someone had asked me who would win in a fight between President Obama and Superman when I was in high school, I would have been ready to put money on Obama. I contributed to his campaign and was on every list serve they facilitated, so I received a laminated palm card in the mail that detailed President Obama’s accomplishments in office leading up to the Nobel Peace Prize and a little bit after. I put that card in my wallet and carried it around like freedom papers. Obama was worthy, and I was worthy by proxy. While I carried President Obama like a badge of honor, I struggled to reconcile the problems I had with his administration. Both the lack of gains in the areas that I expected, and the problematic policies his own administration put forward left me wondering what I was supposed to do with all of the hopes I had riding on my president. And because his presidency was so personal I couldn’t blame him, or I would be blaming myself.

When I started college and nearly all of the people I associated with in the student of color activist community had nothing but criticisms for President Obama I was crushed. Then when I brought those criticisms home to my mother, sister, and extended family and they intimated that I was a sell out who had forgotten my roots I was left in a catch-22. I needed to find a way to bring criticisms against the President and articulate my profound sense of loss at recognizing that I would probably not be able to make the systematic change I wanted to see, and alter the American zeitgeist about the way we treat people and consider humanity in others in federal or high-level state politics. Understanding that newer, more positive laws on the books don’t necessarily mean ability to change unjust application of old ones, that many laws are too problematic to salvage, and that horrific judicial precedent ruins everything else was foundation shaking. All of that was also wrapped up in the Obama Administration for me. Falling back on criticisms of Congress and disrespect of President Obama was an easy way out. I could look at the record-breaking number of filibusters during President Obama’s two terms, and the legislation he proposed that was quickly quashed along partisan lines without a true review of the merits of the law and its potential for positive impacts on the lives of the American citizenry to cope with my personal pain at being disappointed. And I did.

The first draft captured a feeling of anger, while this captures two feelings: aspiration and disappointment. It is, I think, a stronger draft than the first as writing to capture your emotions, but I think it is still a missed opportunity to take the emotions as feelings, and go further.

This is the first president with whom you specifically identified, and—as a potential future holder of the office—you began to experience the involvement in his decisions and their consequences, having opinions of your own about what should have been decided, and both rational and emotional responses to how things turned out. The great contemporary political theorist Michael Walzer refers to this as "vicarious participation," which he sees an elemental component of democracy: the people each individually putting themselves in the position of those who govern.

Another form of vicarious participation in political or social events is the reading of history and biography, which—at their rather different bests—also allow us to see how states are governed, or armories are run, or any other social process is conducted, from within the documented perspectives of the women and men who did the work. But when we read history we are unlikely to experience the same intensity of mobilized emotion—whether anger, aspiration or disappointment—with which we endow present vicarious political participation.

If you want to learn how to be president, however, more analytical and less emotional forms of vicarious participation will aid learning. How much of the history of American government in the last eight years justifies disappointment with the president himself? To what extent did his way of doing the job contribute to what you regard as his failures? These questions are subjective in their answers, of course, but the effort to think them through contributes to learning how to be president, or perhaps more literally to your understanding of practical politics in any setting. Not differently in essence, I think, no matter how very different in detail, than asking the same questions about John Quincy Adams, Richard Nixon, or Franklin Roosevelt, however. Asking such questions about Indira Gandhi, or Charles de Gaulle, or the Emperor Hadrian would also contribute to your own understanding, and more than likely to your way of acting for the good of society, whether you ever become President of the United States or not.

So thinking about Obama rather than being disappointed in Obama, or angry at those people who placed themselves for racist reasons (conscious or unconscious) against Obama will be most valuable to you. These two efforts seem to me together to have cleared the field for where you might instead wish to go.


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r4 - 26 May 2016 - 16:34:28 - EbenMoglen
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