When President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address Tuesday night, the nation will implicitly consider the state of the president himself. Six years ago, he was defined by the word “hope.” He had arrived on the scene as a political innocent, and many who voted for him inevitably projected onto the blank screen of his future a cluster of aspirations that had more to do with a generation’s longing than with likely trends going forward.
Still, Obama’s slogan “Yes, we can” had come to seem both an acknowledgment of the difficult road ahead, and a savvy rebuttal to the “realists” who ruled out as impossible any actual progress toward peace, justice, or broad prosperity. Early on, the president defied the chorus of naysayers, especially as he pulled the economy back from the brink of catastrophe. His considerable success with health care reform will likely define the core of his legacy.
But six years on, in many important ways, Barack Obama has become a figure of American disappointment, with last week’s inexplicable failure to properly honor the trauma of France only a latest instance of mystifying solecism. Obama’s political and personal enemies never saw him as a force for good, yet by now even many of his once-passionate admirers admit to a profound disenchantment. The shattering of an illusion tied to a figure of such intelligence, deeply rooted liberal purpose, and evident public virtue necessarily involves a further — and perhaps dangerous — disillusionment with democratic will itself.
The two largest issues that confronted Obama when he first became president were war and race, realms in which his fabled hope was trumped by the inexorable cruelty of historic forces over which he had little control. The present state of America’s far-from-finished Middle East wars, and the recent escalations of the cross-border conflict with suicidal terrorists make the point. The president proved incapable of fully undoing the mistakes he inherited. Most importantly, the once anti-war Obama was unable to successfully rewrite the deadly narrative created by Osama Bin Laden: that the way for his ilk to advance the jihadist cause is to provoke reliably belligerent US interventions in Islam’s brutal and multi-faceted civil war. For more than a decade, even until now, Pentagon policy has inadvertently become a recruiting tool for alienated Muslim men bent on waging holy war.
Yet as recent events in France suggest, the vipers’ pit of terrorism is dug far deeper into history than anything America has caused, or can solve. The original sin generating the Middle East fury into which the hapless United States has been drawn is primordial European contempt for the “infidel,” whether Muslim or Jew, which morphed over centuries into racist colonialism and anti-Semitism — for both of which a day of reckoning has arrived. Europe stands indicted by its own history.
But as for Obama’s domestic challenge, the seething outrage of ongoing racial injustice that not even an African-American president can assuage puts the United States on the spot alone. What age-old hatred of Jews and Muslims is to Europe, slavery is to America — and no, it is not finished with, either. The fantasy six years ago was that the great promise of the Civil Rights movement — full enfranchisement of blacks — had finally been fulfilled, and in some crucial way that was true. Beyond any expectations of policy, legislation, or executive action, most Americans lionized their new president simply for being who he was, even as many others quietly reviled him for the same reason. If racial justice took a stride forward with Obama’s elevation, so, ironically, did racial resentment. What no one could know in 2009 was how broadly poisonous that resentment would be. Even prosecutors and police display it.
The Obama administration officially becomes lame duck now, and gridlock in Washington threatens as never before. The air of disappointment could readily become a cloud of national demoralization. Yet the State of the Union address is the country’s ritual of rededication, and, by definition, the event basks in promise. Obama has already let the citizenry in on “little previews” of the issues he will take up, like cybersecurity and the expansion of community colleges, but the stakes are far larger than any single initiative he can propose. The president is clearly chastened, but so is the nation. Americans must not judge him as if responsibility — for the future as much as for the past — lies with him alone. He will invite us all to seize this moment to begin again, and we should. We still can.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.