American News

Obama Pushes the Envelope Before Sealing It Shut

As democratic elections ape sporting events and hyperreality confines reality to an increasingly obscure background, Barack Obama plays the oracle ready to reveal the secret of winning elections.
Barack Obama, Barack Obama news, news on Barack Obama, President Barack Obama, Obama, Obama news, winning elections, US elections, 2020 elections, Democrats

Barack Obama in Charlotte, NC, USA on 7/5/2016 © Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock

November 21, 2019 14:34 EDT

Writing for MSN News, journalist Dave Goldiner can’t contain his enthusiasm for what he calls former US President Barack Obama’s “rare advice to the crowded field of 2020 Democrats.“ 

Goldiner focuses on this oracular pronouncement of the twice-elected former president: “Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality. The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Rare advice:

A euphemism for banal thoughts promoted by the speaker as an example of special wisdom or insight

Contextual Note

Goldiner begins his article by underlining the literally “unimpeachable” quality of the “rare advice” Obama has offered his public: “Take it from the guy who knows: Presidential politics is all about winning.” 

Goldiner is absolutely right. Just like the sporting events that US politics has come to be modeled after, elections have nothing to do with governing. They’re “all about winning.” What happens afterward amounts to nothing more than the exercise of power, not the mission of democratic governance.

In the same speech, Obama the oracle revealed what, thanks to his preternatural insight, he knows to be true about the American people as a whole: “They want to see things a little more fair, they want to see things a little more just.” In other words, the average American, contrary to what fast food marketers believe, doesn’t want to be supersized. They are happy with the meal they are served, but would like to have access to a little more mustard, ketchup or chili pepper (the recognition of diversity). 

Is that how he interprets Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, as an expression of the hope that Trump would make things “more fair” and “more just”? Does that explain the opioid crisis, since opiates are one way of acquiring at least the feeling that things are better than they were in the absence of any real improvements? Does that provide the clue to saving the planet from the effects of climate change, through the hope that the next government will find ways of making hurricanes, floods and droughts only “a little more” severe than what the scientists forecast?

Obama does offer a clue concerning the average American whose deepest desires he claims to understand. He calls them “persuadable voters.” This is the language of Madison Avenue, not Pennsylvania Avenue. For the occasion, Obama, “the guy who knows,” has slipped into the role of the Don Draper in the TV series Mad Men.’ He’s the “hidden persuader” who can explain: “There are a lot of persuadable voters and there are a lot of Democrats out there who just want to see things make sense. They just don’t want to see crazy stuff.” In other words, be very careful with the design of the packaging.

Context always helps us to understand the meaning of words and ideas expressed. The New York Times comments: “The fact that Obama offered his reassurances at the annual meeting of the Democracy Alliance — a club of wealthy liberals who donate hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to recommended political organizations — only underscored the intended audience of his message. In recent weeks, establishment-aligned Democrats, top donors and some strategists have expressed fears that the party lacks a strong enough candidate to defeat President Donald Trump.”

Yes, Goldiner is right, but his analysis is incomplete. “Presidential politics is all about winning,” but it’s also about funding, which ultimately means doing the bidding of those who put up the money. There is nothing “rare” about the advice Obama is giving, especially with this audience. Obama is reiterating his long-standing belief that the Democratic Party will remain the party of “wealthy liberals,” who adore things that are “a little more” fair and just. His aim is to stave off the “crazy” people who may have been troubled by the unfair and unjust means, through which many of the wealthy donors have not acquired wealth alone but especially the power of wealth — a power they are invited to exercise in meetings such as this one. 

Therein lies the key to the entire debate about billionaires that currently fascinates the media, who have turned into a circus of complaints about billionaires, followed by counter-complaints of the injustice of “vilifying an entire demographic.” What the progressives are attacking isn’t wealth per se, but the power exercised by wealth in a system that claims to be democratic but has redesigned the processes and mechanics of democracy to permit the wealthy to consolidate and concentrate their power.

Returning to Obama’s rhetoric, the expressions he uses reveal some other key aspects of his intentions. According to the Grammarist website, the accepted meaning of the expression “to push the envelope” is “to extend the boundary of what is possible.” The phrase has its origins in a novel by Tom Wolfe in which aviators used the metaphor to express their attempts at “challenging speed records and other aerial feats.”

Embed from Getty Images

Obama approves of the idea of pushing the envelope, but only so long as it remains verbal. He approves announcing a “bold vision,” so long as it exists in the form of an imaginary visualization that appears real but has no substance. These are the working principles of hyperreality. It provides a specific role for rhetoric while carefully sealing off the spillover from rhetoric to reality.  

The former president sees both sides of the decor. That’s why he insists that “we also have to be rooted in reality.” The key to understanding his meaning lies in the word “also.” It reveals that both the pushing of the envelope and the bold vision belong squarely to the realm of hyperreality, the facade offered to the public that separates a superficially perceived political belief system — built on abstract notions of justice, fairness and equality — from the reality that guides political action.

When Obama says “also … rooted in reality,” the reality he is referring concerns the way decisions are made, in contrast with the way bold policies are imagined and presented to the public. Everyone in the room where he was speaking knew that the reality Obama was referring to is synonymous with the power of wealth.

Historical Note

Barack Obama’s words could be interpreted as a gloss on his “change and hope” strategy that worked so effectively in 2008. Although it would surely be the opposite of his intention in this speech, the former president offers us a brilliant lesson in the tactics behind successful political rhetoric. It’s well worth looking at the rhetoric Obama uses today to understand his rhetorical strategies of the past.

In 2008, Obama launched his pair of tropes — “hope” and “change” — as concepts designed to create the impression of what he now defines as “pushing the envelope” and advertising a “bold vision.” His message or “rare advice” appears to be this: Successful politicians should create expectations but avoid the kinds of promises that may commit them to action. In other words, focus on the objective and obscure the substance. Winning is the objective, governing is the substance. Once you win, you will be free to govern while respecting the constraints that exist. And all that is left to be done is to propose minor adjustments to make things appear “a little more fair … a little more just.”

In the fever of campaigning, the reality of governance remains secondary. A wise politician avoids evoking reality. This is especially within a system that now provides a mountain of constraints on politicians and effectively governs itself. The US has become a system that some refer to as the “deep state.” As someone who has consistently upset the intelligence apparatus of the US government, President Donald Trump has distorted the meaning usually given the term “deep state,” making it even more difficult to discuss and analyze the center of power within the US political system.

It might be more appropriate to call it, very simply, the “complex,” or even more accurately, the “imperial industrial complex.” It is no longer the classic military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned about and briefly described in 1961. The military and industrial components that are still present provide the central driving force of the entire system. But it now prominently includes and consolidates global finance, civilian technology (including a growing role for big data and artificial intelligence) and commercial media. Then as now, it is guided by the powerful, invisible, unaccountable and ever more powerful intelligence apparatus.

That, as so many astute observers have highlighted but which the popular media avoid mentioning, is the reality in which everything is rooted in the current version of American democracy.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member