Presidential nominee Barack Obama was everything the United States needed at a time when it didn’t really know what it needed. The conventional wisdom was that the next president ought to be the kind of experienced, gritty, long-in-the-tooth captain who could steer America through the raging, tempestuous squall that the George W. Bush administration had summoned upon the nation with its unimpressive handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and its failure to recognize the warning signs of an impending financial crisis. The most obvious choice to fill that role? Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But then a young and savvy Senator Obama stormed out of the gates in Iowa, took home the gold in South Carolina, and managed to outlast Clinton in a tightly contested, drawn-out presidential primary bout that felt a lot like the final fight in the first Rocky film. Except in this version of the story, the underdog bested the champ and then proceeded to score a decisive victory over yet another more experienced and seasoned opponent in Republican Senator John McCain.
To hear some Republicans tell it, Obama only won because of McCain’s many missteps. There were some who said McCain was simply too ordinary, too old, and too moderate to inspire conservative voters to show up to the polls. Others argued that his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, had embarrassed the campaign on so many occasions that not even a distinguished and tested politician like McCain could maneuver his way out of the public relations mess she had created.
The truth is that neither McCain nor Clinton ever stood a chance. Obama brought with him the unique ability to not only make people feel that a better future was possible, but to make people feel that a better future was inevitable. America’s mood was unquestionably sour, and he counteracted that by introducing something much more palpable and substantive to the national discourse than a catchy campaign slogan; he introduced a vision, one that foresaw conservatives and liberals exchanging their torches and pitchforks for seats at the negotiating table, and white folks and black folks trading in their cynicism and mutual distrust for a new era of race relations marked by patience, forgiveness, and a newfound willingness to let bygones be bygones. Against all odds, he convinced America that such a future could be willed into existence, and he was rewarded with the responsibility of guiding the nation on that all-important mission.
Unfortunately, all the optimism in the world wouldn’t have been enough to foil Lady Luck’s sinister plot against the global economy. As the full weight of the fallout from the financial crisis came crashing down on the American working class, Obama’s popularity began to decline fairly rapidly. That decline was compounded by his flip-flop on the health insurance mandate included in the Democrats’ controversial Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The growing discontent culminated in a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010. After that, it was back to politics as usual. By 2012, the “hope and change” President Obama had campaigned on felt more like a quixotic childhood dream than a feasible political objective.
It’s tempting to interpret the disintegration of Obama’s utopian aspirations as a cautionary tale, but that would be the wrong takeaway. Had it not been for the once-in-a-lifetime financial crisis, the narrative that took shape in Obama’s first term would likely have been very different. But as the unemployment rate crept closer and closer to double digits, the administration had no choice but to hunker down and shift its focus almost exclusively to a dying economy that would eventually yank Obama down out of the clouds and into the partisan mud.
Before that happened, Obama had managed to construct a remarkably diverse coalition of supporters that encompassed portions of virtually every demographic imaginable. Young people flocked to him in unprecedented numbers, and he won a higher percentage of the independent vote than either of the previous two Democratic Party nominees for president: Al Gore and John Kerry. His appeal was so broad and his disposition so seductive that he wrapped up his first week in the Oval Office with an impressive 41% approval rating among Republicans.
That being said, Obama’s success as a presidential candidate had more to do with the issues — the economy, most especially — than his personality or charisma. And the Bush administration’s dismal approval rating almost certainly gave the campaign a significant boost all by itself. Still, there was no denying that the overwhelmingly positive response to the tone and tenor of the Obama campaign had revealed a blossoming and expansive desire for a more unified and more civilized America, one in which people of different races, different faiths, and different political beliefs could indulge themselves in a peaceful coexistence sustained by a shared set of values that had been rendered impotent by years of bitter partisan bickering.
In retrospect, such a goal sounds exceedingly idealistic, especially considering how the last ten years have played out. At the time, though, it certainly didn’t feel like an impossible goal.
And to Michelle Obama, it still doesn’t feel like an impossible goal, which is why she openly pushed back against recent comments from Hillary Clinton and former Attorney General Eric Holder. During a campaign event in Georgia, Holder suggested that Michelle Obama got it wrong when she claimed in 2016 that Democrats should “go high” when Republicans go low. “Michelle always says, ‘When they go low, we go high,’” he said. “No. No. When they go low, we kick them.”
Hillary Clinton seems to agree. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Clinton said, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.”
Not surprisingly, Republicans haven’t responded kindly to Holder’s and Clinton’s comments. But neither did Michelle Obama. During an appearance on Today, she rejected the notion that it was time for Democrats to give civility the boot:
“Fear is not a proper motivator. Hope wins out. And if you think about how you want your kids to be raised, how you want to think about life and their opportunities? Do you want them afraid of your neighbors? Do you want them angry, do you want them vengeful? We think of the values that we try to promote to our children.”
Hope wins out. Few political figures understand that as well as Michelle Obama. Standing by her husband’s side throughout the course of the 2008 election, she watched as scores of young people, white folks, black folks, moderates, centrists, and independents coalesced around her husband’s vision for a more prosperous and harmonious future. She recognizes not just the intrinsic value of hope, but also its practical value as a unifying force. That’s why she’s so keen on a Democratic Party that prioritizes civility. The moment that the party abandons civility is the moment it says to the nation that it has also abandoned any hope of finding an amicable solution to the partisan toxicity that has gripped this nation.
Michelle Obama is right to resist the approach of such a moment. The nucleus of the movement that she and her husband started was a fusion of liberal principles that stand in stark contrast to the strategy Holder and Clinton are proposing. Barack and Michelle Obama’s Democratic Party was supposed to be a tolerant, forward-looking, big-tent party that wasn’t too proud to break bread with its political rivals and embraced the notion that disagreement, debate, and compromise are natural and necessary. That was the party that emerged victorious in the 2008 presidential election, and it’s the party that could prove to be more than a match for President Trump and the GOP in the months and years to come. The question is, is that the party that Democrats want to be? Only time will tell.