A Farewell Address
Many presidents are remembered not as men, but as myth, legend, something altogether surreal. Washington: the father, the temple of virtue. Lincoln: the Abolitionist, the martyr. Theodore Roosevelt: the Rough Rider, the man with the Big Stick. Franklin D. Roosevelt: the Traitor to His Class, global democracy’s Commander in Chief. John F. Kennedy: the young maverick, the Cold Warrior. Those presidents are rarely discussed within the context of their own times, their own political drudgery. They’re discussed with baited breath and soaring rhetoric. The Founders are invoked time and time again across the political landscape, for they — now mythical — represent the pillars of egalitarianism, courage, and whatever that quintessentially American thing is that we all know. Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are the exemplars of their respective parties, two titans of not only American history but world history. By in large, those great presidents are remembered not for the content of their character but for their grandiose, their role in great and worldly affairs. They are remembered as Great Men in the Greek and Roman vein, the tragic and heroic vein.
Barack Obama will likely not be remembered that way. That conviction brings me great relief. I assert that Barack Obama will be remembered not for some otherworldly ability or historic response, but for his quiet dignity, his categorical decency. Those qualities are ones that young people can aspire to match and surpass, that don’t ring as dusty virtues of history texts, but as realistic goals and standards. Barack Obama led the country through historically turbulent times. I don’t wish to recite his own sound bites, but he inherited a country in crisis, a crisis of home and world economy, of foreign wars, of domestic turmoil, of political rancor. He was elected president as a young man and grew old in front of the cameras of the world. It was his administration that ensured the permanent halt of Osama Bin-Laden. It was his administration that brought uninsured rates to record lows, oversaw the longest string of consecutive months of job growth in American history, reduced our country’s dependency on foreign oil, increased our investment in alternative energy, and exhausted political capital by ramming through crucial life-support for the economy when it needed it most. Only a fool would claim he was a perfect president, for he was not nor did he ever claim to be. Perhaps, down the road from now, he will be ranked amongst the political disappointments such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Come what may, what cannot in good faith be denied is that Barack Obama did one of the world’s hardest jobs with candor, grace, and goodwill, more than can be said for a great many of our nation’s past commanders in chief. It’s easy and exciting to tout a legendary leader’s CV highlights, but it’s far more rewarding to consider the man’s quality of character, his steady hand, the feelings he inspired in others. Those sorts of things will rarely be discussed on CNN or Hardtalk, but, fortunately, what is popular isn’t the absolute arbiter of what is right and what is worth valuing. It seems to me to be most prudent to value something rather than worship anything.
Perhaps I sound sentimental, and I am. I rarely am so readily, so I hope you’ll allow me a moment of deviation from the beaten path. It’s proven quite hard, as I know it has for so many, to accept that Barack Obama is leaving the Oval Office at this most crucial of moments. One can’t help but think that if only he had waited to run in 2016 instead of 2008, things would’ve turned out so differently. If only the goddam Constitution wasn’t such a downer with its term-limits and its rule of law. Such conjectures are silly and a waste of breath, but people are frightened, is all. I don’t blame them in the least. I was born during the latter portion of Bill Clinton’s presidency; I went to elementary school during the George W. Bush presidency; I came of age in the Barack Obama presidency. My fortunate and good timing was impeccable, for I don’t shy away from the assertion that I am a better person today for having grown up with Barack Obama as my president and as my role model. I can say the same for a great many of my friends and peers who’ve shared in that privilege.
What bothers me more acutely than a great many things about the incoming administration is not the policy and rhetoric, for those have yet to take shape in full, but is the lack of inspiration in the hearts and minds of those just younger than me. When I was in middle school and high school, I had Barack Obama to look to. Those in middle school and high school now will look to the new president and see a man who has bragged about sexual assault, a man with the character of the spray tan he wears so poorly. My heart sinks at the thought of the example that will be set for those kids, for even if his presidency proves a success in one way or another, the psychological toll the country has been put under cannot be undone; it can only be suppressed.
The plain fact of the matter is that nobody knows how things will look in four years, eight years, or tomorrow, for that matter. I haven’t a damn clue about any of that. Perhaps everything will come to a head, and the country will be torn asunder. Perhaps another 1968 is in the cards. Perhaps all will be well. But what I know to be absolute is that the president leaving office in just a few days never embarrassed the office he worked in, the country he served, or the supporters he championed. In a world that makes a habit of letting you down, that damn near takes joy in bayonetting your hopes, I can hardly express how proud it made me, and how fortunate I am, to have had Barack Obama as my president.