Barack Obama is no longer seeking elected office. His speech at the University of Illinois (my undergraduate alma mater) last week reflected this reality; he talked about his intention to follow a norm that ex-presidents should “exit the political stage.”
But in another way, Obama is right in the space where he does best; he was more popular as a candidate than as president, and many of his finest moments have come in talking about unity. In April 2008, he talked frankly about the racial divide while citing common values. In his acceptance speech after winning the presidency later that year, he promised those who didn’t vote for him that “I will be your president too.” And in the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention — the one that turned him into a truly national figure — was all about finding common ground and defying stereotypes about partisan divisions.
The kind of speech where Obama levels with his audience, dispassionately delivering hard truths won through careful observation, is really his rhetorical home turf. It’s his equivalent of what empathy was for Bill Clinton, or talking about salvation and evangelical religious beliefs for George W. Bush.
Obviously, things have changed. We could read Obama’s speech as a change in his approach, though it still reflected some of his familiar themes, like civic duty and civic action — even though these may not be precisely the right appeals for the moment. But I’d also argue that it bookends his 2004 speech in a different way, showcasing the changing relationship between authenticity and partisanship.
Political scientists are rightly skeptical of authenticity. Richard Skinner, Seth Masket, and Brendan Nyhan have written about authenticity’s emptiness as a concept. I’ve written about how I think it has gender and race implications. Scholars in the communications field are even sharper in their critique, pointing out that politicians who come off as authentic are almost always engaging in theatrics.
It’s a frustrating concept, like populism and mandates (two things I’ve thought a bit about). It seems unlikely that it would operate in a way that’s accurate and meaningful at the same time; it derives its definitional power in its absence.
As with mandates and populism, authenticity is part of the popular lexicon of politics, and political scientists ignore it at our peril. This is especially true in light of our slowness to fully grasp all that was going on in the late years of Obama’s presidency.
It’s also important as we try to understand the nature, causes, and manifestations of institutional distrust that inform so much of US politics at the moment. Like populism, authenticity exists in contrast to the conventions and structures of politics.
Specifically, authenticity in electoral and especially presidential politics has rested on the idea of transcending partisanship — artificially imposed divisions that reflect the “mess in Washington” rather than the authentic realities of ordinary life. It’s what made Obama’s original rhetoric powerful.
In a 2015 piece about the superficial authenticity of Chris Christie — a former New Jersey governor and briefly the chair of the Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission in the current administration — John Dickerson points out a list of politicians who have been praised for their authenticity. In addition to Obama, the modern politicians on the list are John McCain, Jimmy Carter, and Bernie Sanders — all figures who defined themselves as being outside of, or at odds with, standard party politics to varying degrees.
Not surprisingly, this is complicated in the world of contemporary politics, where partisanship increasingly shapes attitudes and behavior. Partisanship mattered, research shows, for perceptions of authenticity in the 2012 race. And Obama’s speech last week in Urbana, Illinois, drew on his old authenticity tropes, suggesting a reluctance to enter the political arena but a willingness to frankly describe the country as he saw it. This time, this description came in the form of a critique of the Republicans and the administration, and an explanation of Democrats’ “good old ideas” and “good new ideas.”
Presenting oneself as a partisan still has costs; Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov demonstrate how many Americans see partisanship as undesirable and hide their partisanship accordingly. Embracing it in a raw and unapologetic form is in line with low self-monitoring — in other words, with presenting oneself authentically. But this goes against previous norms in which politicians striving to be authentic would attempt to shed the artificial trappings of party and partisanship.
None of us — not you, the reader, nor me, the writer, are going to get out of this piece without thinking about Trump. Obviously, perceptions of authenticity have been part of his political persona, and these appeals are tied up in his rejection of “PC” and perceived willingness to “tell it like it is” about particular groups in US society.
It’s unlikely that Trump is responsible for this shift in what authenticity means. Partisan polarization was reshaping presidential politics long before he came on the scene. But it is possible that he’s helped to link authenticity with expressing negative views.
To the extent that authenticity can now include genuine expressions of partisanship — dislike for the other party, but also esteem for one’s own party — this is probably a positive development. The idea that conflict is a natural occurrence in politics is a good one for us to grasp and grapple with.
Still, such a sharp transformation in a concept like authenticity illustrates how much the intersection of presidential politics, party polarization, and political communication has changed in a relatively short time.
On Politics: Democrats Continue to Gain as More Midterm Races Are Finalized
Good Wednesday morning. Here are some of the stories making news in Washington and politics today.
• What seemed like a mixed midterm result for the G.O.P. has turned more grim as Democrats continue to pick up seats in the House and narrow the Republican hold on the Senate. Read about the stronger Democratic gains.
• President Trump is considering firing Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security who has long been a target of the president’s displeasure, according to three people close to him. Read about the staff shake-up.
• There were conflicting reports on Tuesday on whether Mira Ricardel, a deputy national security adviser, had been fired. But there is no question that the first lady, Melania Trump, no longer wants her at the White House.
• Mr. Trump issued a blistering personal attack against President Emmanuel Macron of France, and sought to defend his decision not to visit a cemetery of American soldiers while in France because of rain. Read more on his comments.
• With a recount underway in the Florida governor’s race, Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee, is back on the campaign trail a week after conceding the election. Though the outcome is unlikely to change, Mr. Gillum has made it clear he is not going away.
• Representative Kyrsten Sinema’s victory marked the first time a Democrat has been elected to the Senate from Arizona since 1988. Read more about Ms. Sinema, and here are six takeaways from her historic race.
• On an otherwise bleak election night for North Dakota Democrats, Ruth Buffalo became the first Native American Democrat elected to the state legislature, unseating the architect of the very law tribes had feared would disenfranchise them.
• As freshman orientation for new members of Congress began, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez led activists in a protest in Nancy Pelosi’s office. The move is an early notice to Democratic leaders that the new House may be divided.
• Despite a dismal election last week, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California looks set to become House minority leader. Read more about Mr. McCarthy — and his chances of securing the new role.
• For weeks before the midterms, Mr. Trump warned ominously about the threat from a caravan of migrants streaming toward the United States border. But only a week after the election, he has dropped the issue almost entirely.
• An independent bipartisan commission concluded in a sharply critical report that strained forces and budget shortfalls have cast doubt on the Pentagon’s strategy to confront global threats, in a challenge to Mr. Trump’s commitment to support a strong military.
• Mr. Trump’s trade war is stoking an internal fight among his top economic advisers, with officials sparring over the White House’s approach to dealing with China and other trading partners. Here’s more on the feuding.
Today’s On Politics briefing was compiled by Margaret Kramer in New York.
Check back later for On Politics With Lisa Lerer, a nightly newsletter exploring the people, issues and ideas reshaping the political world.
Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brexit deal: Tory ministers meet to decide fate of agreement – Politics live
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The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: Putting on Ayers
Today in 5 Lines
President Donald Trump is reportedly considering replacements for several senior-level administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Chief of Staff John Kelly. One name being floated as Kelly’s replacement is Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s current chief of staff.
CNN filed a lawsuit against Trump and several White House aides, after the administration suspended CNN journalist Jim Acosta’s press pass last week.
Trump named Neomi Rao, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, to fill the seat vacated by Brett Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Hate crimes in America increased by 17 percent last year, even while overall violent crime fell very slightly, according to newly released data from the FBI.
At least 44 people are dead, and more than 200 people are still missing, as the Camp Fire—now the most destructive fire in California history—continues to blaze through the northern part of the state.
Today on The Atlantic
This Is a Problem: President Trump appointed Matthew Whitaker to replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week. The move is unconstitutional, argues former deputy assistant attorney general John Yoo.
‘A New Kind of Centrism’: Even though they had some high-profile losses, progressives still see last week’s midterms as a victory for progressive thinking. (Elaine Godfrey)
Young and Blue: The House of Representatives is an “unfriendly environment for rising talent,” reports Elaina Plott. Why is it so hard for young Democrats to get leadership roles there?
Doomed Policies: President Trump reportedly plans to fire Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen for weak enforcement of his immigration policies. But Nielsen isn’t the reason why they’re failing, writes David A. Graham.
Becoming Michelle Obama: The former first lady’s new memoir is a strikingly intimate look at life as a political spouse. (Hannah Giorgis)
What We’re Reading
Oops: A poorly designed ballot might have swayed the midterm elections in Florida. Here’s how. (Dana Chisnell and Whitney Quesenbery, The Washington Post)
Bigger Than They Thought: With all the votes counted, the Democrats had a larger win this year than Republicans did in 2010. (Matthew Yglesias, Vox)
A New American Revolution: Revolutions have always shaped American society, starting in 1776. In 2018, the left has tried to stage a new revolution—one modern America doesn’t need, argues Victor Davis Hanson. (The National Review)
Mapping Fire: California’s wildfires are still raging. Keep track of them. (Lauren Tierney, Laris Karklis, and Tim Meko, The Washington Post)
We’re always looking for ways to improve The Politics & Policy Daily. Concerns, comments, questions, typos? Let us know anytime here.
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