That was what Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was selling to the American people during his campaign for the presidency in 2008. And it worked.
“Because of what we did on this date, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America,” Obama said in his first speech to the nation as president-elect.
Yes, a lot has changed.
Perhaps none more so than the place where it all begins, the place we direct our frustrations to, the place Obama said he’d turn upside down — the halls and chambers of the Capitol, the heart of our government’s operations.
“We’ve got to change how business is done in Washington,” Obama once said to a Pennsylvania crowd.
While we were enduring two tiring foreign wars and an economy in free-fall, a significant reason for Obama’s ascension as a candidate was his insistence that he was the one who would transform a political system that was controlled by the rich and powerful, a system that had ballooned the influence of money in our electoral process.
Obama the president spent his tenure religiously criticizing Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. That decision helped expand the spending of dark money to spooky levels — from $5.6 million in the 2006 midterm elections to over $300 million in the 2012 presidential election — and the 2016 amount surpassed that long ago.
Yet Obama took little measures within his authority to slow the flow of dark money and, of course, used it to his advantage. After failing to get legislation through Congress, Democrats urged Obama last year to issue an executive order requiring large federal contractors to disclose their political spending, which would cover 70 percent of the Fortune 100 and serve as a valuable protection against pay-to-play corruption — a bipartisan measure that even 66 percent of Republicans in Congress supported. Such an executive order, and several others like it, was never signed. Instead, Obama did rally for support of the 2014 “CRomnibus” spending bill, which allowed a six-fold increase in the contribution donors can contribute to political parties.
In addition, during his first bid, Obama also said he didn’t want support from super PACs, saying they were a “threat to democracy.” In 2011, he repeated the same rhetoric, but it didn’t last long. Obama’s super PAC, Priorities USA Action, would raise almost $80 million for his re-election campaign in 2012. Now they’re a normal part of our elections, with Democratic super PACs raising more than $267 million for his Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Yes, a lot has changed.
And if we’re talking about “transparency,” a word the president used in his farewell address last week, it wasn’t just about money in politics. On his very first day in office, Obama issued an executive order stimulating the Freedom of Information Act, stating that “transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.” But an Associated Press study released last year found that his administration was the most secretive out of any recent president, saying that it “more often than ever censored government files or outright denied access to (journalists) under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.” It also denied fulfilling a third of all FOIA requests sent in the 2015 year.
His Justice Department was also notorious for cracking down on journalists and whistle blowers from leaking information, so much so that Washington Post Vice President Leonard Downie Jr., who worked there during the Watergate investigation, said in 2013 that Obama’s “escalating war on leaks is the most militant I have seen since the Nixon administration.”
Yes, a lot has changed.
But what changed most of all were those who make up Washington. Obama promised he could unite a broken government to help bring together a divided country. Two terms later, partisanship and government gridlock are at levels unseen in modern times. Throughout the last eight years, Republicans and Democrats have struggled to compromise (sometimes even talk), the government was shut down, budgets have failed to pass and presidential appointments stonewalled.
Now, this is where Obama and Democrats will point their fingers at Republicans for their obstruction of the president’s agenda at every turn, the amount of which is certainly no secret and cannot be overstated. There is no doubt a good portion of Obama’s tenure was thwarted by the opposition.
But Obama is certainly not blameless. If one wants to change how business is done in Washington, they have to first know how business is done in Washington, hardly something somebody who’d only been there for four years would understand. In Obama’s first two years, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. During that time, the president failed to gain meaningful relationships in Congress and was even dismissive of those in the chamber. He could’ve spent more time during those years hammering at the nation’s fiscal stress, an area that would’ve gotten him more bipartisan support. Instead, he turned to healthcare reform — his biggest legislative achievement that passed without a single Republican vote, gave rise to the Tea Party and is well on its way to the chopping block even before he walks out the door.
Sure, you can blame Congress. But Obama is actually the bigger one at fault because he set the standard for himself. He was going to be the one to bring lawmakers and the country together, he promised. And he truly believed it — something he acknowledged he wasn’t able to do in his 2016 State of the Union address — saying “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
But what Obama managed to do was expand merely the difference in ideologies that the two major parties represent. And the election to replace him exposed that expansion. Obama leaves office with both parties having revolutionaries from within, whether they be far-right Republicans or progressive Democrats, who have gained support and now power. And then there is a large portion of the electorate who is so frustrated with Washington that they don’t even want to be aligned with either party or either wing of those parties. Most obviously, the election of Donald Trump is itself the symbol of Obama’s divided America.
Yes, a lot has changed under Barack Obama, just not the change we wanted. Washington is now wealthier, more isolated from the people, more partisan and more of an absolute mess. And while it’s unfair for us to say the president is responsible for all of that, it’s not. While Obama was clearly naive to believe someone who hadn’t even completed one term as a U.S. senator could go to Washington and change it all, we were naive enough to believe that he could actually do it. So, shame on him. But mainly, shame on us.
And now that eight years of Barack Obama are all but in the past, we have to ask ourselves this: If Obama couldn’t change Washington the way we want it to, why do we think Donald Trump will?