When, in the words of biographer Robert Caro, President Johnson’s aides told him “the presidency has only a certain amount of coinage to expend,” Johnson replied, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” Obama has now been in office longer than Johnson was, and the question remains, Gary Younge writes at The Guardian: “What the hell’s his presidency for?”
His second term has been characterised by a profound sense of drift in principle and policy. While posing as the ally of the immigrant he is deporting people at a faster clip than any of his predecessors; while claiming to be a supporter of labour he’s championing trade deals that will undercut American jobs and wages. In December, even as he pursued one whistleblower, Edward Snowden and kept another, Chelsea Manning, incarcerated, he told the crowd at Nelson Mandela’s funeral: “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
...It was obvious what his election was for. First, preventing the alternative: presidential candidates in the grip of a deeply dysfunctional and reactionary party. His arrival marked a respite from eight years of international isolation, military excess and economic collapse. He stood against fear, exclusion and greed – and won. Second, it helped cohere and mobilise a new progressive coalition that is transforming the electoral landscape. Finally, it proved that despite the country’s recent history Americans could elect a black man to its highest office.
So his ascent to power had meaning. It’s his presence in power that lacks purpose. The gap between rich and poor and black and white has grown while he’s been in the White House, the prospects for immigration reform remain remote, bankers made away with the loot, and Guantánamo’s still open. It’s true there’s a limit to what a president can do about much of this and that Republican intransigence has not helped. But that makes the original question more salient not less: if he can’t reunite a divided political culture, which was one of his key pledges, and his powers are that limited, then what is the point of his presidency?