Americans are sickened of an “idealism that is oblique, confusing, dishonest, and ferocious,” as H.L. Mencken wrote a hundred years ago. Though Mencken was condemning President Woodrow Wilson, the same verdict could characterize the legacy of former president Barack Obama. Obama is now on a book tour issuing calls for honest government, civic virtue, and similar tripe. But Obama did more to discredit idealism than any president since Wilson.
A dozen years ago, Americans were enthralled by the newly elected president from Illinois. After the deceit and demagoguery of the George W. Bush era, Obama’s first presidential campaign with its “Yes, We Can” motto swayed Americans that he could personally restore the moral grandeur of government. Its idealism was epitomized by the famous “Hope” campaign poster that practically deified the candidate.
Shortly before his first inauguration, Obama announced, “What is required is the same perseverance and idealism that our founders displayed.” After Obama’s inaugural address, the media rejoiced as if a new age of political idealism had arrived.
Practically the entire world joined the race to canonize the new president. Less than 12 days after he took office, Obama was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize—which he received later that year. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared at a White House state dinner, “We warmly applaud the recognition by the Nobel Committee of the healing touch you have provided and the power of your idealism and your vision.” Shortly after receiving the Peace Prize, Obama announced he would triple the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Peace Prize helped insulate him from criticism as he proceeded to bomb seven nations during his presidency.
Obama-style idealism quickly became a shroud for federal atrocities. On Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 23, 2009, Obama called for “fighting the silence that is evil’s greatest co-conspirator.” Ironically, on the same day, Obama decided to oppose creation of a truth commission to vigorously investigate and expose Bush administration crimes. After Obama visited CIA headquarters and praised his audience for helping to “to uphold our values and ideals,” Obama chose not to prosecute any CIA officials who created a secret worldwide torture regime because “it’s important to look forward and not backwards.” Over the next five years, Obama administration officials vigorously fought a Senate investigation into Bush torture abuses, and Obama personally defended the CIA after it was caught illegally spying on the Senate to thwart the inquiry. The Obama administration also torpedoed every lawsuit by a torture victim in U.S. court.
In 2011, Obama draped his decision to bomb Libya by invoking “democratic values” and the “ideals” which he asserted were “the true measure of American leadership.” But terrorist groups fighting dictator Muammar Qaddafi were already slaughtering civilians. Obama was so convinced of the righteousness of targeting Qadaffi that his appointees signaled that federal law (such as the War Powers Act) could not constrain his salvation mission. In the chaos that subsequently engulfed Libya, ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed during an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. When their corpses arrived back in the U.S., Obama hailed the victims for embodying “the courage, the hope, and yes, the idealism, that fundamental American belief that we can leave this world a little better than before.” Obama’s soothing rhetoric failed to deter the proliferation of slave markets where black migrants were openly sold in Libya.
Year by year, Obama’s lies and abuses of power corroded the idealism that helped him capture the presidency. As a presidential candidate, he promised “no more illegal wiretaps”; as president, he vastly expanded National Security Agency’s illegal seizures of Americans’ emails and other records. He promised transparency but gutted the Freedom of Information Act and prosecuted twice as many Americans for Espionage Act violations than all the presidents combined since Woodrow Wilson. He perennially denounced “extremism” at the same time his administration partnered with Saudi Arabia to send weapons to terrorist groups that were slaughtering Syrian civilians in a failed attempt to topple the regime of Bashar Assad. Obama helped establish an Impunity Democracy in which rulers pay no price for their misdeeds. As The New York Times noted after the 2016 election, the Obama administration fought in court to preserve the legality of defunct Bush administration practices such as torture and detaining Americans arrested at home as “enemy combatants.”
CounterPunch readers recognized the charade of Obama’s idealism years earlier than did most Americans. Bill Blum, in a 2011 CounterPunch piece quoted by Alexander Cockburn, warned:
I believe that Barack Obama is one of the worst things that has ever happened to the American left. The millions of young people who jubilantly supported him in 2008, and numerous older supporters, will need a long recovery period before they’re ready to once again offer their idealism and their passion on the altar of political activism.”
And this was long before the Obamas bought that mansion on Martha’s Vineyard.
Last August, in his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Obama declared, “Look, I understand why many Americans are down on government.” But he has never owned up to his personal role in embittering millions of Americans who bought into his “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” shtick in 2008. Rather than restoring trust in the government, Obama’s presidency simply confirmed millions of Americans’ worst suspicions about officialdom.
In the final years of his presidency, Obama was far more likely to condemn cynicism than he was to trumpet idealism. By the end of Obama’s presidency, idealism was roadkill on the political highway. Donald Trump’s 2016 pledge to “drain the swamp” was the ultimate perverse political promise—at least according to the standards of the Washington establishment. The 2020 presidential race between Trump and Joe Biden was about as uplifting as a hemorrhoid ointment commercial.
But this is a positive development for anyone who values straight dealing in public life. Idealism has surpassed patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel. Idealistic appeals were used by Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon to vindicate the Vietnam War, by President Bill Clinton to sanctify the bombing of Serbia, and by President George W. Bush to dignify the devastation of Iraq. The mainstream media is almost always willing to help presidents shroud foreign carnage with pompous claptrap. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius declared in late 2003 that Bush’s war on Iraq “may be the most idealistic war fought in modern times.”
Idealism encourages citizens to view politics as a faith-based activity, transforming politicians from hucksters to saviors. The issue is not what government did in the past—the issue is how we must do better in the future. Politicians’ pious piffle is supposed to radically reduce the risk of subsequent perfidy.
And this could be the hook the media uses to coronate Joe Biden as a born-again idealist, thereby perpetuating the same Teflon shield it provided him during the presidential campaign. Early Americans idealized the Constitution, yet much of Biden’s career was devoted to obliterating Americans’ constitutional and legal rights. Biden was the architect of federal asset forfeiture programs that wrongfully plundered billions of dollars from innocent Americans. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden co-wrote the 1994 crime bill which The New York Times noted helped spawn “the explosion of the prison population.” Biden boasted in 1994 that “every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress… has had the name of the Democratic senator from the State of Delaware: Joe Biden.”
But Biden can probably expunge his sordid record if he champions Washington’s favorite type of idealism—one that exalts government action as the highest expression of the best within us. After Trump’s endless denunciations of the Deep State, the political establishment is striving to put the federal government and Washington back on a pedestal. As a recent Washington Post headline proclaimed, “Washington’s aristocracy hopes a Biden presidency will make schmoozing great again.” (The Post quickly changed its initial headline to “Washington’s Establishment” but “aristocracy” remained in the body of the article.) That same aristocracy hopes that idealism will provide the magic words to make the peasantry again defer to their superiors.
“Idealism is going to save the world,” President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed shortly after World War I left much of Europe in ruins and paved the way for Communist and Nazi takeovers. Nowadays, idealism is often positive thinking about growing servitude. Obama was only the most recent president to rely on “rent-a-halo” rhetoric to blur political reality. Americans cannot afford to venerate any more Idealists-in-Chief hungry to seize new power or start new wars.
+ An earlier version of this article appeared in The American Conservative.