Obama’s presidency and the superhero frame


Jan Blommaert

At the heart of any high-stakes electoral campaign there is a lie: the suggestion that the candidate is a superhero who will change everything when elected. This superhero frame is the reason why widespread dissatisfaction, disappointment, disgust and cynicism capture the electorate after elections.

Barack Obama got elected to the US Presidency in late 2008 after an overwhelmingly enthusiastic campaign revolving around the slogan “yes, we can”. He was not the first African-American presidential candidate, but like Jesse Jackson before him, he was, of course, a long shot at the outset of the campaign. His election, therefore, was experienced in large parts of the globe as a watershed, a profound change in how the US would be governed and how the country would relate to the rest of the world. His Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 underscored the great expectations provoked by his election.

The Nobel Committee applauded Obama’s diplomatic efforts towards nuclear nonproliferation, as well as the “new climate” in international relations he had caused, notably by reaching out to Muslims worldwide. This was, note, within the first year of Obama’s term, and therefore more a promissory note than a reward for goods delivered. Obama followed the notoriously war-happy George W. Bush, who deployed his troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, who had created the Guantanamo prison camp and sanctioned diverse forms of torture and drone-delivered death as part of his War on Terror. The same reason had, domestically, led to the Patriot Act and its spin-offs in global surveillance and privacy restrictions.

Hopes were high, and Obama was seen as holding the promise of radical change. He had made many promises himself, of course. Guantanamo would be closed; wars would be ended; the US economy would be boosted; the American poor, native as well as immigrants, would benefit; education would be promoted and supported; democracy and human rights would be restored and Americans would get – at long last – a mandatory healthcare system. Obama was the superhero who would bring the US back on track, back to the days of prosperity associated with the presidency of Bill Clinton and the Great Society associated with that of Lyndon Johnson.


Two terms in office later, the score sheet can only be disappointing. Guantanamo is still in use; US troops are still active in wars across the globe and Obama’s terms actually saw an increase in the use of drones as weapons of targeted destruction, as well as the killing of Osama Bin laden by American special forces in Pakistan; race relations in the US have dropped, because of incidents in Ferguson and many other places, to a historic level of acrimony and violence; Obamacare in practice is a faint shadow of its original plan; the Patriot Act is still in vigor; US international policy remained status quo, with enemies remaining enemies (with one semi-exception: Iran) and friends remaining friends; and poverty and unemployment levels peaked during Obama’s Presidency.

The latter, of course, cannot be entirely blamed on Obama. Just weeks before his election, and as an effect of a debt bubble created by banks and supported by Greenspan’s Federal Reserve, Lehman Brothers went down. The Clinton-Bush bubble burst and caused a worldwide recession rarely seen since the legendary crash of 1929. The US GDP dropped by more than 6% overnight. And unemployment shot up from 5% (2007) to 9.5% (2009), with African-American and Hispanic communities getting a particularly raw deal, and with the expected economic effect of dropping wages across the US labor market. In addition, millions of US citizens, often middle-class and fully employed, lost their houses and were thrown into the precariat. Eight years on, the US economy has still not completely recovered from the crash of 2008.

Obama, thus, had to enter the game with a poor hand of cards dealt to him. In his inaugural speech of January 2009, he made an appeal for “a new era of responsibility”; invoked solidarity across parties and segments of the population; referred to the “greed and irresponsibility of some” that caused the crisis; called for a choice of “hope over fear”; and he pledged to restore America’s greatness through daily and unrelenting efforts – the latter an electoral motif running through presidential campaigns from Kennedy to Trump.

Looking back, he got nothing of that. The “some” who caused the crisis were never punished for their “greed and irresponsibility”, for instance. On the contrary, the post-2008 era saw an unprecedented rise to power for global financial behemoths such as Goldman Sachs, as well as the consolidation of neoliberal market ideologues, and now carries the danger of further financial cataclysms over to the next President. As for “greatness”, Obama’s Vice-President Biden made a trip to Beijing in which he publicly begged China to make direct investments in the US – read: to buy American assets and extract profit from them. I saw his speech on Chinese TV and realized that US economic hegemony had come to an end. And the Chinese were happy to oblige: the US economy is now based on debt massively financed by China and has, thus, lost much of its autonomy.

As for solidarity among Americans: Obama had to enter fight upon fight with perhaps the most outspokenly hostile Congress since the days of Wilson. The Republicans gave birth to the extremist Tea Party, who brought unprecedented levels of aggressive and utterly destructive populism to the American public sphere. Amidst the Republican candidates running for the Presidency in 2015-2016, Bush would have been a moderate – which explains why George W.’s brother Jeb was sidelined early on – and this bunch got Donald Trump as a worthy champion.


The Congressional Democrats, by contrast, remained as much a “non-party” as before Obama. And their eventual champion Hilary Clinton, recall, was Obama’s main conservative opponent in the previous election. The fact that her leading primaries challenger, Bernie Sanders, was initially seen as an oddity on the left fringes of the Democrats reveals a lot about the disunity in the party, and about the alienation of large chunks of the electorate craving for a far more substantial change than the one promised by others.

So if Obama intended to bring America together behind shared ideals of prosperity, freedom and democracy, he got the exact opposite: a political field more polarized than ever, and less inclined to compromise and cross-party reconciliation. This hostile division ran through debates on every major social issue. Obama’s healthcare plans were branded as “communist”, and even the extreme frequency of public shootings could not coerce the gun lobby towards a more complacent attitude vis-à-vis restrictive gun possession legislation. The Presidential campaign saw a hike in publicly stated racism and sexism, with Trump insulting about every possible minority and promising a Great Wall on the US-Mexican border to keep the thieves, drug dealers and rapists out. American society, at the end of Obama’s tenure, looks more dangerously divided than ever, and the next President will, like Obama, have to start office with a nasty hand of cards.

Finally, when we look back at what the Nobel Prize Committee saw as grounds for awarding Obama his prize, we notice that there, too, very little has been delivered. Nuclear weapons are still stockpiled in the US and elsewhere, and a new collision course with Putin’s Russia – for which Obama cannot go uncharged – holds no promise of improvement. The détente with Muslim countries, as well, has not materialized. Unmitigated support for Israel (with the usual hostile effects across the Muslim world) remained a fixture of US international relations, as did the support for regimes of doubtful record such as the Saudi monarchy. The role of the US in the Arab Spring, and especially in the Lybian civil war, remains contested as well and has not improved US-Muslim relations at all. Obama got a Nobel Peace Prize for very little effort, one can remark.


In every high-stakes electoral campaign, candidates easily slip into the superhero frame. They articulate the problems and frustrations of their electorate, acknowledge them and boldly promise drastic and radical change. Elect me and I shall save the world – that is the baseline. And the more we see such campaigns being captured in scientifically doctored media formats, the more radical such promises become and the more focused on the extreme uniqueness of the individual candidate – the first African-American, the first woman, the first I-don’t-know-what. Along with the dirt poured over the opponent (and the 2016 campaign also shifted benchmarks in that respect), such extreme projections of individual competence, power and agency have become the bread and butter of political campaigning.

They are extreme in just one sense: extremely unrealistic. For politicians have to operate within a highly complex system in which nothing of any magnitude can be reduced to the will power of an extraordinary individual. Obama – the first African-American President of the United States of America – was individualized to an unseen degree. While his presidency can be viewed, in actual fact, as an example of the apparatchik-President, someone whose room for manoeuver and individual initiative was reduced to almost nothing, leaving the US after his presidency in very much the same way as when he entered the White House. In spite of promises of radical change, unusually grand even by American standards.

The sobering observation in 2016 is: he proved to be incapable of subverting the real power brokers; in fact, his presidency made them stronger.

And the electorate? I can imagine that not-too-many African-Americans are under the impression that Obama’s high office has profoundly changed their predicament when statistics show that their community still represents about one third of the prison population in the country, that young African-Americans have become more not less likely to be hurt by police bullets, that unemployment among them is about 5% higher than in the US white population and that the average wealth gap with the white population remains unchanged.

In a broader sense, the astonishing success of the Bernie Sanders campaign demonstrates that at least a large part of the Democratic electorate is fed up with the kind of politics professed by Obama. Remember that calling oneself a socialist turns one into an even longer shot than being an African-American or a woman Presidential candidate. And Sanders ran a non-formatted, anti-glamorous and content-focused campaign, demotic but not populist – something which must have triggered, at least initially, roaring laughter from the professional kingmakers of Washington DC.

Obama’s legacy will, thus, forever be unfavorably measured against the superhero role he articulated and embodied. He fell victim to his own frame, and others will too. A superhero who, after all, turns out not to be able to fly and save the world can only be a disappointment. Once the flimsiness of the format becomes understood (and this may take a couple of elections more) the electorate will tend to prefer more realistic, down-to-earth, less stellar politicians. And, perhaps, that is when real change may happen.

Pending that, Obama’s legacy is now in the hands of Donald Trump. One superhero was replaced by another one. Who looks dead set to demolish whatever the previous one claims to have achieved.


Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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