Always a spouse, never the president might be how we end up remembering Hillary Clinton, whose near-thirty-year career ended, dramatically punctuated with a period, at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Her appearance was everything we expected: the tight, frozen smile, the deep intake of breath, the clenched jaw, the eyes looking out into a sea of faces that should have been her supporters.
Clinton was mostly following tradition: All living ex-presidents and their spouses are expected to sit behind the incoming head of state as he or she takes the oath of office. Given that this had been her second failed attempt at the presidency, and that this last election season had been one of the most heated and toxic, there was much speculation that she might not turn up at her husband’s side.
But turn up she did, and the white pantsuit she wore was instantly and briefly the object of discussion among journalists and commentators desperate to turn everything mundane into a trending topic. She had worn similar outfits to the Democratic National Convention and to the third presidential debate, and her choices were mistakenly regarded as an homage to suffragettes. In fact there’s no proof of this, and her sartorial decisions were most likely simply made to accommodate present-day, media-intensive optics because white is one of the few colours that stands out against all backgrounds. Both the Trump daughters also wore white.
The Clintons had clearly hoped for a dynastic turn as a set of modern-day Roosevelts or, to look eastwards, Gandhis. In August of 2016, they bought the three-bedroom house next door to their Chappaqua home for Chelsea Clinton, clearly the start of a long-term campaign to launch her political career. (Hillary Clinton never once doubted that she herself would win.) Chelsea Clinton is married to Marc Mezvinsky, and they live in a five-bedroom apartment that is reputed to be a block long, the longest in the city. In comparison, the ranch house purchased by her parents is a mere outhouse, and was clearly designed not as guest quarters (the elder Clintons have five bedrooms and three stories), but as a much-needed address should she decide to run on a statewide ticket.
Bill and Hillary Clinton made no secret of her political aspirations during his presidency, or of the fact that she was effectively a co-president. Their unofficial slogan was “Eight years of Bill, eight years of Hill.” Hillary worked alongside her husband to bring about health care reform, a disastrously failed effort. The two enabled NAFTA, considered by many on all sides to be equally disastrous, and eviscerated “welfare as we know it” to create generational poverty for the poorest and most marginal, mostly women, mostly women of color.
Clinton was damned either way: As she stepped onto the podium to take her seat, she was booed by Trump supporters, who chanted “Lock her up!” If she hadn’t attended, she’d have been denounced as a malignant sourpuss.
But appearing may also have been a way to signal that she is still literally close to the seat of power. It’s not hard to forget the infamous photograph of the Clintons and the Trumps, at the latter’s wedding, an event she was hard-pressed to explain. As I’ve written elsewhere, this last election was a jostling for power among elites. Leaked emails also indicate that Democratic Party key players worked to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ chances at the primary.
All of that was for naught: Clinton’s political career is over, despite those who want her to run for mayor of New York City. Only days after the election came the news that the controversial Clinton Global Initiative—described by NPR’s Adam Davidson, who has even presented at its panels, as something that exists for “buying access” to economic and political power—will be discontinued. The CGI was the jewel in the crown of the Clinton Foundation, and even the latter is facing a cut in donations. The myth of philanthropy as a generator of equality is a hard one to dismantle and the Foundation has some powerful backers, but it wouldn’t be surprising if something that has seen so much criticism eventually folds.
But the end of the Clinton era (barring the emergence of Chelsea Clinton’s children as political candidates) is hardly the end of oligarchic power.
Barack Obama is fifty five, only a year older than Bill Clinton when he exited, and Michelle Obama is fifty three. They’ll soon be empty nesters in their nine-bedroom rental home, free to focus on the nonprofit Obama Foundation and the Presidential Center, as they explained in a YouTube video. They claim that this will be a “living, working center for citizenship.” What that means is unclear—“Center for Citizenship” sounds an awful lot like a “Foundation for Global Prosperity” or a “Movement For World Peace,” the sort of thing you expect from a beauty contest winner as much as from one of the most neoliberal presidents. Although he came into office with promises of changing the system, Obama has, over the years, proved adept at maintaining neoliberal structures of power—emboldening, not reforming, the banking system, for instance, and ensuring the continuation of U.S. military aggression designed to preserve American economic and political interests.
The Clinton and Obama presidencies were dominated by a massive literal and metaphorical investment in disguised neoliberal policies.
The board of the foundation consists of people like Martin Nesbitt, who’s also on the board of the Noble Network of Charter Schools. Others members include Deval Patrick, former Governor of Massachusetts and now a Managing Director at Bain Capital, and David Plouffe, formerly senior vice president of Policy and Strategy for Uber and who now occupies a similar position at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the social advocacy group founded by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. In other words, this nonprofit will be as exemplary of neoliberal values as Obama, who was raised by a strong mother and who attended prep school on scholarship—but thinks that a leading problem facing young Black men is their lack of fathers as role models and who supports charter schools.
Despite what Obama says, the Center will not be based in the south side of Chicago, a historically African American part of a deeply segregated city. It will be based in Hyde Park, which is a unique neighborhood that happens to be located on the south side, an area from which it strenuously separates itself.
Hyde Park is home to the University of Chicago, home to Milton Friedman and the birthplace of neoliberalism. The university’s relationship to the mostly Black residents of the neighborhood it occupies is a fraught one, and the presence of a historic Black elite that has both acted against racism and colluded with white elites to keep out poorer Blacks is a complicated one. The University of Chicago Police Department is one of the largest private security firms in the country, and it routinely harasses and intimidates people who don’t look like students (read: white).
Linked to this hyper-surveillance of the community is the university’s systematic gentrification of the neighborhood, and the choice of Jackson Park for the Obama Center (which will also house his presidential library) brought the issue to the fore. The choice of Jackson Park raises concerns about its rapid privatization, as chunks are leased to private entities and closed to the public; it’s one of the last such places designed by the great Frederick Olmsted, who emphatically believed that everyone had the right to freely enjoy beautiful and scenic spaces to escape into, even in the midst of urban sprawl. When Obama describes his “Presidential Center,” it’s hard not to wonder whom and what it might benefit.
There’s no doubt that Trump represents yet another, bolder neoliberal takeover of the government—this is especially evident in his choice of cabinet appointees. But while protesters of Trump fervently want to believe that we are now embarking upon a ghastly new era of unchecked greed, the fact is that the Clinton and Obama presidencies, along with the Bush years in between, were dominated by a massive literal and metaphorical investment in neoliberal policies, disguised as “citizenship centers” and “entrepreneurship” and “revitalizing neighborhoods.”
On January 20, Obama stepped into the helicopter that took him away from his life and lifestyle in the White House; Hillary Clinton stayed on till the presidential luncheon, even standing up for an ovation to Trump’s words in praise of her, and eventually faded away into the evening. Clinton lost because she never showed any sign that she cared about anything so much as power for the sake of furthering her and her family’s influence. The day after the inauguration was dominated by offshoots of the Women’s March in Washington, in cities across the world. The Washington Women’s March website did not name Clinton as among the women who “inspired” it, but her famous words from the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference formed its slogan: “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” What remains of Clinton are ghostly reminders, pale as her pantsuit, of her ability to forge words that claim a more expansive politics than she ever practised. But while Clinton’s neoliberal aspirations are gone, they live on in the empty rhetoric of citizenship echoed by Obama as well as in the plainer words of military and expansion uttered by Trump.
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