He was not a perfect president.
For evidence, you need look no further than the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. As a senator, the camp’s existence was a point of criticism. As a candidate, its closure was a campaign promise. As president, following through on that promise was one of his very first courses of action.
Yet for the next eight years, the camp would defy all attempts to shut it down, and despite a significant depopulation and defanging, it remains open to this day. And if the rhetoric of the president-elect can be trusted (a significant question for the next four years, to be certain), the horrors of Camps X-Ray and Delta will be back with a vengeance before long.
In many ways, the Guantanamo detention facility encapsulates much of his presidency: seemingly lofty goals bogged down by bureaucratic and partisan cruft, hyperanimated by fears about his ethnic background and his more nefarious intentions, muddled in the convergence of executive privilege and legislative power, and eventually abandoned in the face of public disinterest and in favor of the day-to-day minutiae of heading off more immediate, if no less important, crises and concerns. Even the words “detention facility” serve as another microcosm of his administration, a constant reminder that his trademark eloquence was hamstrung by a need for specificity.
So Guantanamo stays open, and barring a midnight miracle, it will remain that way by Friday at noon when he formally leaves office. He somehow managed to agitate both sides of the metaphorical aisle; the left for supposedly endorsing and supporting one of the more shameful legacies of the War on Terror, and the right for bothering to try at all, supposedly unleashing all manner of terrorists and killers back into the world in the process.
In this matter at least, one of the many that an occupant of the Oval Office must consider during their time there, it is difficult to imagine what more could’ve been done to achieve success. And while he would undoubtedly concede that he could’ve been a better president in many respects, one wonders how much better he would have had to be in order to have done so here. All the same, the weight of political promises being what they are, it is impossible to look at Guantanamo and not see some semblance of failure. And the burden of perfection being what it is, even the slightest measure of failure renders it forever beyond reach.
So, yes. Barack Obama was an imperfect president, and will be remembered as such. That should have been obvious to anyone with the maturity to temper their expectations, which a certain 15-year-old boy from Chicago most definitely did not. But like many obvious qualities, pointing them out likely says more about the people who feel the need to do so than it does about the people or things to whom the qualities apply. And saying that Barack Obama was not perfect is often deployed as an excuse for his shortcomings, or a negative qualifier for his successes. I write this piece (which only gets much longer from here) to do neither, but to try and take him for what he was and what he represented, to me and to this country. In all of its imperfections, or perhaps because of them, the legacy of the 44th president is something that has gripped me for nigh-on thirteen years now. It is all the more important to me knowing that the 45th will, in many respects, be his antithesis. And I imagine it is something that will continue to have a hold on me for many more years to come.
Failing perfection, was he a great president?
Who can even say? If there is one thing that this hellstorm of a campaign has done, it has utterly savaged any concept of “greatness” in American politics or society. I have long bristled at the notion of American exceptionalism for fear that it alternately fostered jingoism, bred complacency, and ignored history. Greatness, however, was a concept I could grasp on its own. I had always associated American greatness with courage, with strength, with forthrightness and with ingenuity. It seems that in our new age, greatness means cruelty, pettiness, and a flagrant disregard for reality far beyond the typical ken of political untruths. Where once greatness was a dare to reach for the best that America could be, it now seems to be a waiver to excuse and embrace the worst it has ever been. The opinions of a talking tiger hawking sugary breakfast cereal now seem as valid as anyone’s when it comes to greatness, and if one judges by the standards of his successor and his more vocal supporters, I would consider it among the highest of compliments to yield that Barack Obama is not great.
Was he a good president, then, at least by the standards of his historical peers? No doubt several already think him the very best or the absolute worst, but the early rankings from presidential scholars seem to comfortably slot him in the second quartile, anywhere from the middle to high teens. Not Rushmore-worthy perhaps, but respectable. Doubtless there will still be monuments in certain communities of the country.
But even with the historical greats whose surnames became mononyms for state capitals and schools of political thought, or whose acronyms immediately call a different era to mind, that same caveat again resurfaces: they were not perfect.
Washington and Jefferson have long been admired for their central roles in guiding the colonies through the Revolution into independence, and their seminal writings on what the nation should aspire to and should avoid (to say nothing of their recently unearthed skills with a mic). But their personal profiteering from slavery and failure to confront the institution head-on, even out of political necessity, give the lie to the lofty ideals of freedom and equality of opportunity they spoke, failings that haunt the country to this day. For all his military and foreign policy prowess, Eisenhower’s approval of a CIA coup inadvertently sowed the bitter seeds of America’s foes in a post-Islamic Revolution Iran. Despite having once been patron saints of their respective parties, the legacies of Reagan and Clinton are now under assault, inside and out.
Abraham Lincoln, shrewd politician, skilled orator, and legendary statesman that he was, had a tendency to overextend presidential power in the name of preserving the Union, to say nothing of his less-than-enlightened racial views. Long before the latest president began a turf war with the press, the legendarily pugnacious Teddy Roosevelt did the same. And long before Republican senators assailed the integrity and balance of the Supreme Court for nakedly partisan ends, and long before Republican presidential candidates flirted with the idea of placing American citizens in internment camps for the crime of their ethnic identity, Democratic champion Franklin Delano Roosevelt attempted both, was narrowly thwarted in the former, and shamefully succeeded in the latter.
However they stack up against each other, there is a tendency to consider many of our presidents great men for a given value of greatness. But great men, for their size, have an unfortunate habit of casting long shadows. In the annals of the American presidency, those shadows seem to only grow the darker the deeper you look into them. Perhaps the same could be said for our country itself, and for its people. Perhaps there is an Actonian truth to the executive branch, something inherently corruptive about the highest office of the most powerful country in the world that affects those that step inside. Or perhaps the advancements of the world have outpaced our democratic ideals. Perhaps the magnitude and necessity of the American presidency in a world with ever multiplying threats, balanced against an increasingly fractured legislature, mandates moral compromises far more profound than trading new taxes for spending cuts.
Whatever the case may be, with mere hours left in this presidency, all I can do is try to make as much sense of it as I can.
For a man who is not an American citizen and never cast a vote in his life, my father has always had a voracious appetite for American politics. His bookshelves are as much lined with biographies of statesmen and various historical accounts as they are with reports and research pertaining to his work as a chemical engineer. One of the many quirks of my childhood was his insistence on changing the channel to C-SPAN during commercial breaks, both to shield me from the corrupting influence of pop culture and to let him know when something interesting was on. Once politics became effectively locked in as an intellectual and occupational pursuit of mine (often to our mutual consternation), it became a conversational mainstay of ours. In one of our many talks about the current state of American affairs, I remember him telling me that if people on either sides of a politician are upset with the course they are taking, it is a good sign that they’re on the right path, or at least attempting to walk down it.
Now, of course there are immediate and counterexamples that came to mind in hearing this, particularly as a superhero nerd. On the one hand, I imagine Batman, the vigilante dancing over the letter of law in the pursuit of justice while hounded by cop and criminal alike. On the other hand, I think of the Anti-Monitor, an eldritch abomination bent on destroying all of reality and so unites all of creation, good and evil, against him out of sheer self-preservation.
Clearly, these are the most appropriate analogies.
All the same, I did and do understand his underpinning sentiment. The far left and far right have tended to remain sealed outside the hallways of power, present circumstances notwithstanding. But lately, it seems as though the center has become where statesmen and would-be national leaders go to die, a graveyard for Blue Dogs and supposed RINOs alike. “Pivoting to the center” after primaries of whipping up the base now seems to be a political necessity as much as it is a cardinal sin, to the point that the political animal in me cannot help but be slightly impressed that the president-elect succeeded without ever having done so. Conventional wisdom, then, suggests that it is safer to remain somewhere between the center and the spectrum’s edges, only moving in either direction when political necessity dictated it.
For the most part, that didn’t seem to be Barack Obama’s preferred modus operandi. To be certain, he was a Democrat, and he was a liberal, and his policies and pursuits were born from those identities. But in defiance of what seems to have become conservative orthodoxy, and much to the chagrin of those further to his left, the president sought to split the difference where he could, often to a fault.
Take the passage of the Affordable Care Act as one example. The prevailing mythology now seems to be that it was a law ramrodded by a Democratic majority, with no consideration for bipartisan concerns and forced through so quickly that no one knew what was in the bill (a sentiment derived from a deliberate mischaracterization of then-Speaker Pelosi’s words). That is not true. Whatever the flaws in the legislation and its implementation, and there is no denying that there are flaws with both, the fact is that the ACA was deliberately modeled with liberal and conservative elements to win votes from both wings of Congress; votes that never came from the right because of the prescient prediction that opposing the legislation would yield dividends in the future. But the individual mandate that became a sticking point for Republicans had been a staple of conservative proposals in the past, and the broader framework from the ACA had been cribbed from a Republican governor’s similar plan, “one that he called a model for the nation.”
There is still a leftist contingent who would have preferred a single payer system, and who knows? That may well have been the best course of action. But even in his liberality, Obama generally seemed willing to break bread with the opposition. It’s the same underpinning ideology that led him to pursue a “grand bargain” with John Boehner in 2012 to resolve the debt crisis that ultimately fell apart. Before his apparent shift to leading via executive order (a tactic that, however controversial, he has relied on less than past presidencies, including conservative icon Ronald Reagan), Obama demonstrated a willingness to play ball that deserved more consideration from those who wished he hadn’t and more credit from those who yet believe he didn’t.
A bleeding heart with no interest in border security would not have overseen 2.5 million deportations, including many who had committed minor non-violent crimes or none whatsoever. A callous government official hell-bent on tearing undocumented families apart would not have instituted DACA, in lieu of a DREAM Act deferred by Congress.
A deep cover jihadist agent would not have decimated the command structure of al-Qaeda and other terror groups, with a brutality and breadth of scope unmatched by his predecessor. A gleeful butcher of Muslim children would not have opened the nation’s doors to refugees fleeing violence in Syria, their religious beliefs be damned, and would not have risked the domestic political fallout of a failed tactical insertion in Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, when a bombing run with collateral damage would almost certainly have done the job.
A conniving endorser of Israeli “apartheid” would not have been a thorn in Benjamin Netanyahu’s side from beginning to end for his excesses in the ongoing conflict with the Palestinian people. A raging anti-Semite with dreams of seeing the Jewish state eradicated by Hamas and Hezbollah would not have authorized billions of dollars in military aid to Israel.
A saber-rattling warmonger would not have negotiated a deal that greatly stymied Iran’s nuclear ambitions, after years of warnings that his policies would guarantee the development of a weapon within mere months. A feckless appeaser would not have continued to hang sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
This isn’t to suggest that the middle road is always the best to take, or that positive effects from action on one side of an issue somehow cancel out the negative consequences from steps taken on the other, or that one gets brownie points for trying to be a centrist. Sometimes not fully picking a side is worse than picking the wrong one. But it is to say that the full totality of Obama’s actions defy the easy description of radical leftists or the reactionary right, and that suggesting otherwise does history a disservice.
To be certain, there are what I’d consider clearer shortcomings. Mistakes less attributable to Republican obstructionism or racial dog-whistling, even as someone inclined to side with the President in more things than not. Much of this stems from foreign policy, which in a massive turnaround from 2012, may well be the weakest component of his legacy entering the final days. Russia’s resurgence after Vladimir Putin took back the presidency from Dmitry Medvedev shook the world even prior to their apparent involvement in the election. Somewhere, Mitt Romney is holding a sign saying “I told you so.” President Obama did not start the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, or indeed conflicts in other countries like Libya and Yemen. And yet, he leaves office with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the route forward in almost every American theater, after having come into office with a pledge to end them. After campaigning to restore war-making powers to the legislature, at any given point it was never clear whether that was the standard he intended to adhere to. By all accounts, the tide seems to be turning militarily against ISIS, even as it continues to claim responsibility for spasmodic acts of violence all over the world. But having once described them as the “JV team” to al-Qaeda’s varsity, one wonders what might have been the case if the threat they posed had been addressed with more immediacy. And the muddled messaging on Syria, between red lines and Russian cooperation and congressional approval and executive power, is at least privately being admitted as one of the administration’s greatest failures by those inside it. It is difficult to argue otherwise.
There are domestic Ls as well. For a candidate who ran on transparency and openness, the administration has been secretive towards journalists and evasive about its reliance on the vast domestic surveillance apparatus Obama so criticized under George W. Bush. As will be pointed out ad nauseam, the national debt is considerably higher now, although the effects of the recession hitting as he stepped into office all but guaranteed that would happen. And from a purely political perspective, the Democratic Party is in tatters across the country. It’s said that Obama detested the glad-handing and hobnobbing of politics, but would that he would have embraced it more for a few more blue spots in the red seas that washed over his presidency.
And of course, there are the drones. If Guantanamo’s detention and torture practices were an egregious overreach of power, I wonder what we will make of drone strikes in years to come.
From a purely military perspective, the reliance is easy to understand; with increasing precision, drones are able to target and eliminate terrorist leaders, and a are able to do by minimizing the risk to American troops. Nevertheless, between the push and pull of drone strikes saving the lives of infantrymen and taking those of extremists, scores of civilians are caught in the crossfire, and I don’t think that’s something the administration ever fully accounted for. In many respects, it calls to mind the debates over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seventy years ago. While I do not envy the commanders-in-chief who have to make such decisions, or the military members who would have to bear the burden if those decisions are not made, I am wary of the ease with which we decide that the civilians of another country are acceptable losses for the actions of combatants nearby, of the higher premium we place on one life over another, of the moral calculus it takes to decide that foreign lives lost now are worth the possibility of American lives taken in the future. I wonder how many more terrorists we created in doing so. And while few tears will be shed for the likes of Anwar al-Awlaki, the precedent established for the extrajudicial targeting and killing of an American citizen by drone strike is chilling, all the more so considering the perfunctory legal justification offered.
When people spoke of the imperial presidency in the past and the ever-encroaching ways in which the executive branch subsumed the powers of the legislature, there always seemed to be a collective comfort in the notion that the person at the helm appeared to be somewhat benevolent in their intentions; to varying extents it was said of both Presidents Bush and Obama, and had she won, I imagine it might have been said of Hillary Clinton. But the guardrails were intended as a bulwark against a decidedly less disciplined and more erratic leader. I imagine President Obama, as a scholar and professor of constitutional law, was aware of this threat. And if the president-elect begins to wield this power with less consideration, it will have been President Obama who left the door open for that to happen.
On the other hand, the successes of this presidency on many other matters stand for themselves. The thaw of relations with Cuba, and an overall improvement of diplomatic relations, with perhaps a glaring counterexample in Bibi Netanyahu. Criminal justice reform with more commutations than his last eleven predecessors combined, including that of Pvt. Chelsea Manning. People can go back and forth on whether the recovery from the recession was strong enough, or whether or not it could have been stronger. However, by most metrics, the economy is stronger now than it was when he took office, regardless of how people might feel. Unemployment is lower overall, and the wage gap is closing. There are the series of environmental protections and bulwarks against climate change. Health care premiums are rising, but they almost always have. Since the ACA’s passage, they are doing so at a lower rate than they have historically. Despite all its flaws, millions more people have coverage than they did prior to the ACA’s passage. Imagine if “repeal and replace” had been “reexamine and repair.” What a world it might now be.
Being that it came at the hands of a Supreme Court ruling, the president cannot assume full credit for the establishment of marriage equality. Beyond nominating Justices Kagan and Sotomayor and directing the Justice Department to file briefs supporting such an outcome in Obergefell; after decades of work in this matter and others by LGBTQ activists, it would be a mistake of Roland Emmerichian-proportions to suggest that he was the one to turn it all around. Indeed, it took the president a while before he would support it publicly, even as it later came to be revealed that he had completed his “evolution” sometime prior but held back for political purposes. But even before that fateful summer day, Obama left the Defense of Marriage Act for dead in the water, and scuttled the DOD’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. He signed orders defending transgender students in schools and barring discrimination against queer citizens in the workplace. It may well not have been enough; being outside the community and a poor ally by most metrics, I can’t say. But it was there.
The exposure of the injustices of the Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago police departments certainly owe more to the seemingly boundless energy of young activists, but I can hardly imagine a Bush or Trump Justice Department shedding an official light on what black America had been screaming for decades. Far from being anti-cop and anti-order by giving voice to black concerns about policing in America, both violent crime and violence against officers dropped overall under his tenure; if anything, his denouncement of a Massachusetts police officer for “stupidly” arresting a black professor outside his own home was as bad as it would ever get for LEOs. While many, myself included, thought him far too cautious on racial matters, to avoid the sensibilities of those who would have hated him for anything he said, when we needed his voice most, he was there.
In many respects, the presidency of Barack Obama was the epitome of the Whitmanian ideal. It contradicted itself; so be it. He contained multitudes, like the many he was entrusted to lead as President. I wish he had recognized the signs and depths of Republican intransigence earlier on, and done a better job at communicating that to the people when the time came to punish them for it at the polls. But for what we were handed, with a few glaring exceptions, I am content.
I confess; much of what I’ve already written is merely buying time for myself to avoid grappling with the end of this presidency on a more personal level. The world does not seem as keen on the political and historical analysis of a twenty-three year old as I would like (although the omnipresence of Tomi Lahren might suggest otherwise). I wanted to detach my perception of Barack Obama as a politician, and my perception of him as a person. Criticizing the former through an objective lens is any citizen’s duty; attempting to criticize the latter is an exercise in folly.
I have often said of myself that my loyalty is not easily earned, but even less easily lost, whatever changes the subject holding it undergoes. As a result, Barack Obama would have had to have been historically atrocious or actively malicious for him to have lost my admiration. Having fallen short of either standard by all but the most histrionic of conservative analyses, the sentiment holds, and it holds as much because of who I am as it does who he was or what he did. Identity politics, to be certain; or as it’s called by those whose identities are actively leveraged in political rhetoric or threatened by policy, politics.
I remember that over the course of the ’08 general election and in the run-up to the inauguration, many people expressed feeling certain emotions for the first time. For some, it was the first time they felt proud to be an American in a country that always seemed ashamed of them. For others, it was the first time they found engagement and opportunity within a political process that seemed intent on denying them for two centuries. For me, the ascension of Barack Obama was the first time I felt secure in my blackness.
Much of that stems from my upbringing, the child of immigrants almost two decades removed from my eldest sibling. Growing up in a majority white neighborhood that morphed into a majority black one after a swift suburban exodus at the turn of the millennium. A generational divide from my Haitian heritage, reinforced by my inability to speak Kreyol. Going to a majority white preschool, then a multicultural elementary school, and slamming back into a majority white world in high school. By sheer necessity of the eye test, blackness was the suit that fit me best, but for much of my formative years, it fit me poorly.
There was blackness as I was born into it, which seemed off for many years and which my black peers never let me forget. Not learning to properly dap someone up until I was a teenager. Preferring soccer to football, a limited basketball repertoire that mostly amounted to blocking shots, yelling, and having my ankles broken (both metaphorically and literally). Having an anemic grasp of the canon of black film, television, and especially music. Learning to master the smoothness of an “–a” as opposed to the harshness of an “ — er” when breathing the n-word, almost a necessity for the linguistic code-switching I learned to adopt for different social settings. Daring to have an unrequited crush on a white girl in a social setting where black girls were present. Mockery for my maternally-curated conservative fashion, for reading books recreationally, and for otherwise acting or talking “white” — a phenomenon which, however overstated for its effects on black education, was very real to me on a personal level.
Then of course, there was blackness as it was thrust upon me by a whiter world, which made the stinging jabs from within the black community seem like slaps on the wrist in comparison. Lazy jokes about if I knew where my father was, or about what gang I belonged to. Faux-shock about my seething distaste for watermelon. The unsubtle switching of a purse from one hand to another on public transit, or the tightening grip on belongings on the street. Being told that I was an affirmative action admission to my high school by a white classmate. The unwavering gaze of shop owners, the stops and questions by police officers that thankfully never escalated any further. The back-handed compliment of being “well-spoken.” Having a crush on a white girl again, only to run into the cold disapproval of her parents rather than the gentle ribbing of our classmates. The surprise from classmates on learning that I’d never smoked weed and never intended to, the reluctant admission from a close friend that they likely would have thought worse of me from the outset if I did. All this, of course, against a ceaseless establishment sermonizing about the failings of black culture to foster success in its citizens, the scourge of black on black crime, and the corrosive effects of hip-hop and saggin’ pants.
I harbor no delusions about the ways in which my parents’ methods in raising me, restrictive and overprotective though they may have been, shielded me from the worst that a black boy in Chicago (or indeed Haiti) could face. Even so, during the formative years in my life, I felt lost because of it, cut off from the country of my ancestry, and never fully feeling accepted within any of the micronations of the country of my birth.
Barack Obama changed that, almost singlehandedly and almost overnight. It was an evolution that was furthered by the works of King and X, Du Bois and Baldwin, Ellison and Angelou and Hughes, of Morrison and Coates, and it is an evolution that yet continues. But Obama was the spark; Iin him, I felt the call of commonality like never before.
Here was another history and politics junkie, a self-styled cerebral comic-book nerd who liked to show off with long words. Here was a big-eared book-lover with a weird name. Here was someone who had to forge his own American identity, away from the traditions of his parents. He was all of this, and he was black; unapologetically, unyieldingly black, even as people continuously called the authenticity of his blackness into question because of his opinions, upbringing, and mannerisms.
I couldn’t look away, even If I wanted to. And I never wanted to.
I couldn’t stop teasing out the similarities over the years. We both studied political science with a leaning towards international relations, as well as English. Were it not for financial and familial twists of fate, I also would’ve done so in New York at Columbia University. During my time living in Hyde Park, I spent an inordinate amount of time eating at Valois, and also briefly worked in the office of State Senate District 13. Even amid my deepest antipathy towards the University of Chicago, there was always a jolt in realizing that at any given moment, I was possibly walking where he walked, playing pick-up basketball on the same courts he did, sitting in a classroom he might have lectured in.
Just as my admiration amplified my frustration with what I perceived to be his political shortcomings, with all the wisdom of a fifteen to twenty-three-year old, so too did it, it also amplify my rage towards the disrespect, insults, and outright lies fired his way; slings and arrows that a hypothetical lighter-skinned politician named Barry O’Brien with the same political stances would never have had to suffer. Yet he endured them with coolness and composure. Through his self-assuredness, assuming the suit of blackness in all that it entailed was all the easier. Even as it might yet itch from within and without, to the point that I catch myself empathizing with Dave Chappelle’s desire to get “out of the game” from time to time, Barack Obama’s presence has helped me embrace the most immediately evident aspect of myself.
Barack Obama also matters to me as a Chicagoan. Not since Michael Jordan hung up his wings have we had so prominent an avatar. While many people with ties to Chicago have them by origin or economic necessity, a far cry from the oft-derided urban bubbles du jour, Obama was not born there, sent there by a job or political organization, or drafted there by a professional sports team. He chose us. The Hawaii kid who spent time in Indonesia, went to school in Los Angeles and New York, chose Chicago. Even when lured to the august halls of Harvard Law in Massachusetts, he chose again to return to Chicago.
Chicago; not Wilmette or Winnetka, not Berwyn or Bolingbrook, not any other township or village or suburb that could claim the city’s sports and skyscrapers when convenient and discard them all when the scorn of a nation grew white-hot, but Chicago, in all its grit and grime and turbulent glory. He’s said before that certain pockets of the city, even in the black community, were slow to trust him because of his outsider status. But by the time he formally announced his candidacy in 2007, there was no more doubt; he was one of us, and would be forever. There are barber shops and salons and food joints and restaurants up and down the city that will never remove his picture, certainly not to replace him with his successor. Whenever the city’s violence or corruption was thrust into the national eye to be hung as an albatross around his neck, usually whenever the buzzing about police brutality or gun policy grew to a fever pitch and right-wing media needed a pivot, Obama never disowned us or leaned away. He was loyal to the city, and in turn, the city was fiercely loyal to him. There have always been grumblings from those in black Chicago that felt as though he turned his back on its problems as president, or merely paid them lip service. Yet in my experience, there seemed to be a broader understanding that the city’s problems long predated him, and a tacit acceptance that even the most powerful office in the world could not make them go away so soon, particularly with the political realities of the Oval Office and the additional shackles placed on its first black occupant.
Most of all, Barack Obama matters to me as a writer. With every passing day, I find that many of the fantasies of the things I’d hoped to achieve and the person I’d hoped to become by now are already long gone. Professional athlete, soldier, doctor, astronaut, Blue Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, and first black President of the United States, fittingly enough. But the desire to write, to do it well and often enough that was all I needed to do to survive, has somehow survived nearly twenty-four years of humblings and humiliations, of recalculations and reconfigurations. Seeing his success, which was built on a lifetime of work but largely shaped from a single historic speech thirteen years ago, was as clear an example as any that great writing could take you far in life, and that great writing at the right time could change the course of history. That with a little luck, and a few thousand combinations of twenty-six letters, you can write your way into — or out of — any room in the world.
I’ve said that Obama influenced me, but it’s only know at the end of the presidency that I can acknowledge how much. Would I have become so engaged in American politics in high school and college without his presence? Would I have taken a flyer on a speechwriting internship in Washington on the off-chance that I could marry the worlds of policies and writing as he did? Would I have remained there after it ended, in a tiny apartment trying to squeeze out every last dime I owned for a chance to jump back into the political fray as possible knowing that his successor was Donald Trump? The truth, to quote another president, is self-evident.
Of course, it was not just that he wrote and spoke well that mattered. It was what he wrote and spoke about.
A recurring theme in tributes of the past weeks have praised his eloquence and classiness, but almost always with the introductory disclaimer of “whatever your politics are…”. It’s a well-meaning sentiment, but one that I’ve bristled at. Some political differences are matters of opinion, of experience, of setting and of upbringing, and the kinds of things that can and should be talked out. Others are deeply personal, and I’ve found there is no extricating some political opinions from the core identity of the people who hold them. So it was with Barack Obama. Yes, he was eloquent and suave and looked good in a suit, but if, say, he had the same opinions and proposals as Donald Trump, he’d be little more than an ethnically diverse Bond villain. The cool externalities were window dressing for the themes that lay at the core of his messaging, themes that rang true even when he felt short of meeting them; especially when he fell short of meeting them. Themes of aspiration, of responsibility, and above all, accountability.
That the words we say matter. That what we say, when we say them, how we say them, to whom they are said matter. That what we choose not to say can speak as many volumes as what we do. That we will be held to account for what we promise, and that we are expected to answer for it if we fall short. That in a world where it increasingly seems as though there are no standards left, the only standards that matter are the ones we hold ourselves to.
And that is something that no one, certainly not the 45th president and his legion of sycophants, can change or take away.
Everyone whose feelings to the president are anywhere north of ambivalence, I suspect, has their favorite Obama moment. Any of his four convention speeches, either of his two inauguration addresses. His formal campaign announcement, a little less than a decade ago now. The stoicism of the State of the Union speeches, the silliness White House Correspondent’s Dinner remarks (though for obvious reasons, the 2011 edition has soured considerably in the past two months.) The somber reassurances after yet another violent tragedy in the country, both those perpetrated by individuals with apparent ties to foreign jihadists and those fueled by an unrelated yet equally virulent disdain for humanity that somehow attracted less hand-wringing attention. Goofing off with comedians, chilling with celebrities, bringing hip-hop into the mainstream of power like no one before. For fans of irony, welcoming the Cubs into the White House as a Sox fan, welcoming the Packers into the White House as a Bears fan, or welcoming LeBron James into the White House not once, not twice, but three times as a Chicago Bulls fan. His defense of the potential necessity for force in the name of a greater peace when accepting an (admittedly undeserved) Nobel Prize, and stepping into the lion’s den at the House Republicans’ winter retreat (both criminally underrated and forgotten performances, in my opinion). The debates. Watching him interact with children. His final farewell given last Tuesday in Chicago.
There are many contenders. But in the end, I always come back to a speech he gave before his presidency, at a time when his election seemed as unlikely as it ever would be at the height of the Jeremiah Wright controversy. I come back to the speech delivered on a mid-March morning in Philadelphia in 2008, formally titled as “A More Perfect Union,” and colloquially, almost insultingly, known as “the race speech.”
Not for the actual racial elements contained in the speech, mind. As forcefully and eloquently articulated as they are, the ideas themselves are not especially revolutionary, at least for those who had bothered to listen to black America in the past few decades. And for all the incendiary and disagreeable rhetoric spouted by Chicago’s Jeremiah Wright, I am as amused now as I was then that somehow his words were so far beyond the pale of discourse and taste in the American political arena that they necessitated the address, as though his message was more a perversion of traditional Christian grace than that of the late Jerry Falwell. The idea that Obama had to leap through many hoops to disavow Wright seemed all the sillier in the knowledge that many of the same people forcing him to do so would be all too happy to excuse far greater transgressions in Donald Trump’s language a decade later, proving once again that when it comes to the standards of respectability of different races, the difference is truly black and white.
Indeed, I find much of the speech almost unbearable to listen to now. Recalling the faux-fawning conservative responses from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee, knowing that their apparent consciousness on racial matters would immediately be cast aside the moment they believed it possible they could unseat him. Hearing the optimistic appeals for a brighter future built on racial reconciliation, knowing that he would continuously repeat those appeals for a decade to no avail. Hindsight, as they say, is 2020, which is fittingly enough the soonest year I think I can rewatch this speech and not feel ill. I could never fault Obama for his optimism, consistent as it has been and as genuine as it has always seemed to be. But knowing what lies at the end of his presidency, and what looms ahead, almost every word and every expression of faith in a better future now feels betrayed by what the country would alternately choose or excuse years later.
Almost every word, except for fifty-seven towards the end.
“This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation — the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history.”
Those words, that thinnest of slices from a lifetime’s body of work, a mere paragraph from the thousands of pages he has spoken and the thousands more he will speak before all is said and done, have haunted me for a decade. It has inspired my personal philosophy, working mentality, and ultimately, a paradoxically imperfect brand of American patriotism that lies at the core of my being.
The patriotism of Donald Trump, which he in no way created, asserts that America was once great, but that greatness was taken away by a litany of enemies both foreign and domestic and lost underneath a tide of timidity masquerading as civility. Such perpetually-undefined greatness, then, could only be reclaimed by inflicting all manner of retribution upon them. In contrast, the patriotism of Hillary Clinton as told at the Democratic National Convention, was an expression of the (evidently apocryphal) de Tocquevillian ideal that America already was great, because America was intrinsically good. That for all our failings, there was always something at the core of the country that would keep us on the right path.
The patriotism of Barack Obama was something else; simple, but subversive in its simplicity. It was that goodness, greatness, and certainly exceptionalism is beside the point. The only thing that mattered was being better. Always improving, always moving forward, always seeking the next challenge and tackling it. It is the timeless cliché of every taciturn sports coach after every non-championship win, that the team’s only goal was to get better. But in Barack Obama’s telling, in the telling of a man who harbored no delusions about this country’s history and the many sins undergirding its mythology, I believed it like never before. That the true genius of America was to never stop running the race, but continuing to pass the baton forward; to throw up a series of ever-escalating alleys for an oop that might occur in our lifetimes. That the pathway to perfection was in recognizing that it likely could not be achieved, and yet pursuing it anyway. It is almost as though even then, he knew his presidency would at least partially disappoint those who were so inspired by his candidacy, and was already calling on them to learn from his mistakes, stand upon his shoulders, and reach ever higher when it was over.
I believed it then. And in spite of everything to suggest I was a fool for having done so, I believe it now, in large part because Barack Obama does. It’s not because of who he is a person; though he is exceptional in many ways, I feel as though much of his aura stems from being in the right place in the right time, and doing enough of the right things to stay there.
It’s because Barack Obama has much reason as anyone to give up.
There is an immediate absurdity, perhaps bordering on perversity, in writing those words I can already hear the unspoken counter, and in large part I agree. After all, in the ever-expanding grid that is American privilege bingo, Barack Obama checks off most of the boxes that matter, with only one glaring blank (two, if you count his left-handedness). He is possessed of good health for a man of fifty-five, both physically and mentally. Despite ceaseless rumors to the contrary, he is a Christian, in a majority Christian nation that yet believes that Christianity is under assault. Whatever becomes of the legislation that came to bear his name, he and his family will likely never want for access to life-saving healthcare. He is a cisgendered straight man whose marriage looks unassailable by any force on the planet, let alone the machinations of a legislature or a rogue county clerk. He is well-educated, well-connected, and wealthy. And though the burden of blackness and its attendant abuses in America never truly go away, the overzealous officer or disgruntled citizen who would bring its full weight to bear would have to get through a squad of Secret Service agents to do so first. Of the people immediately poised to suffer in the next four years, the most damage that Barack Obama will have to endure will be to his pride.
I say it because for almost a decade, he was the focal point for the collective ire of America’s right-wing id. I think of how his successor lashes out against the slightest of criticisms, 140 characters at a time. I think of how the president-elect’s supporters, his sycophants, or even supposedly objective bystanders complain that he isn’t being given a chance, that the deck is being stacked against him, that the abuse and insults aimed his way are unpatriotic and unfair.
And I wonder if (less than) half of the country has suffered a collective amnesiac break.
Because I remember images of this president being burned in effigy, of washed-up rock stars threatening to kill him, of militias and ex-congressmen ruminating about armed insurrection against him. I remember a major news network asking if a celebratory bump with his wife was a “terrorist fist jab.” I remember his wife being called a tyrannical zealot for encouraging schools to promote healthy eating habits at times, and constantly being compared to an ape at others. I remember pundits insisting that he was “not my president” long before it became a hashtag appropriated by activists in the streets. I remember political opponents repeatedly questioning not only his fitness or his qualifications to serve, but his very identity as an American at all. I remember sitting congressmen and Presidential candidates alike who could not bring themselves to say that he was born in America and denounce anyone who suggested otherwise. I remember conservative media fearmongering over his signature legislation so efficaciously that they fooled their own base, some of whom are only now realizing that the scourge of Obamacare they dreaded and the service of the Affordable Care Act they relied on are the same thing. When a legitimate debate in some circles is whether you are the devil himself, the Antichrist, or merely a lesser demon chained to their will, you have won a lifetime trump card over anyone who complains about unkind treatment, pun recognized and fully intended.
Surely, the counter comes from some, this was from wingnuts. The fringes. The reactionaries, the extremists. It is unfair to tar the entire right-wing, the entirety of conservative and Republican America, with consequences of their invective, especially considering how unfair it might be if the standards were applied to the vast spectrum of the left. That would be a fair sentiment… if one forgot that with few exceptions, these people all swore allegiance to Donald Trump, and that even if I restricted myself to what Donald Trump alone said and insinuated about Barack Obama, they’d still have no leg to stand on. Questioning his birth, his faith, his intelligence in asking after his college records. Insinuating that he was a plant for ISIS, after openly calling him the founder. Peddling conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory about him for over half a decade; let it not be forgotten that before his short-lived stance of principled opposition, Mitt Romney sought out Trump’s endorsement and blessing when he was at the height of his conspiratorial frenzy, and the other sixteen Republican rivals held back from criticizing him out of the misguided belief that they could absorb his electoral support. And if Trump had such a problem with people questioning the legitimacy of an election’s outcome, perhaps he shouldn’t have done the exact same thing four years ago when Barack Obama won reelection.
Barack Obama is still being held to account for his comments that economic anxieties fueled bitterness in rural voters that manifested in them clinging to guns and religion as wedge issues; considering the rhetoric deployed in this election and its outcome, it was an astute observation. In the eyes of some, Obama is still tarred by his connection to Rev. Wright, who beyond the plainly inflammatory call of “God damn America,” still displayed an incisive insight into the heart and history of this nation. Obama walked a tightrope between America’s racial gap in speaking the truth of black America in the softest of ways to assuage white audiences, and yet people claimed that he singlehandedly divided the country racially more than it had ever been. Literally ever, as though slavery, Reconstruction, redlining, and the Jim Crow South were figments of our collective imagination. Unlike his successor, Obama did not have the luxury of saying something and inspiring arguments that he should be taken seriously instead of literally, or literally instead of seriously, or that his words could be safely ignored as exaggerated remarks by an unpolished neophyte. No, every word needed to be weighed perfectly, because every word would be taken and parsed and driven to extremes. To tell things as they were — like bluntly identifying political wedge issues, or speaking openly about manifestations of racism — would invite all manner of histrionic reactions and counterfactuals, such as the idea that he sought to eclipse Jesus Christ by opposing poverty or the notion that he would not care about a white teenager who was murdered in the same vein as Trayvon Martin.
Meanwhile, Trump’s toadies cannot stop stumbling over themselves to excuse his own language, let alone that of those with whom he has been affiliated over the years. Many more are merely adopting the tactics of VP-elect Mike Pence, hoping that with a shaken head and a wan smile, they can gaslight the entire country into thinking we’d hallucinated all the racially divisive things he’d said.
Between Trump and Obama, the old adage of being black Americans needing to be “twice as good to get half as far” has never felt realer, and on some level, it is hard not to see this election as a personal rebuke. And if Barack Obama decided to fly to Hawaii and remain there for the rest of his life, or defect to Canada, or reveal that he actually was an alien and fly to his home planet Krypton or Vulcan, he’d be justified in doing so.
But somehow, to my unending bewilderment, Barack Obama still believes. Despite all he has seen, all that was said about him and done to him, all that potentially lies ahead, Barack Obama somehow still believes America’s best days are yet ahead. Beyond the affectations of a peaceful transition, beyond the necessity of niceties, Barack Obama still believes in the America that never was — yet must one day be.
It makes no sense to me that he believes this. And yet, in the face of unsettling uncertainty, it is in that belief that I find my own.
As I write this retrospective, a wholly unexpected and decidedly undeserving person comes to mind: Glenn Beck.
In the wake of Trump’s ascendancy, Beck emerged as a surprising critic, and to his credit, stayed the course in that criticism in a time that saw nearly the entire right wing eventually fall under Trump’s thrall, #NeverTrumpers and all. But the surprises kept coming, culminating in an interview where he praised the First Lady’s speech against Trump’s particularly odious sexism, and added that President Obama has “made him a better man.”
I immediately hated him for it, as much as I had hated him for anything he said at the peak of his cultural relevance earlier this decade.
How dare he.
For much of Obama’s first term, Beck was on the vanguard of attempts to stigmatize and delegitimize him. In Beck’s telling, Barack Obama was a racist who “had a deep-seated hatred for white people and white culture.” In Beck’s telling, the words “empathy” and “social justice” were coded paeans to Nazism and communism. It was Beck who violated one the few inviolable standards in partisan politics by mocking a then-11-year-old Malia Obama, Beck who co-opted the imagery and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington for his “Restoring Honor” rally on the Mall, Beck who regularly regaled his Fox News viewers with apocalyptic warnings of what Obama was truly planning behind the scenes. All of this, of course, was continuously couched in a Pontius Pilatesque hand-washing of making any hard accusations; Beck was only asking questions for his viewers to explore. As he tearfully explained, he was doing so not out of malice, but fear for the country he loved so much. Perhaps the only conspiracy theory Beck didn’t peddle in was the birther movement that effectively made Trump a viable conservative candidate in the first place.
All the same, as much as anyone, I blamed Beck for fostering the environment that made it possible for Donald Trump’s candidacy to exist, and all the apologetic profiles in the New York Times or the Atlantic or tête–à–têtes with Samantha Bee in the world couldn’t get me to forgive him. He opened Pandora’s box and propped the lid up for years, benefiting rather nicely from having done so with his own media enterprise after leaving Fox News, and it was only now that he and his ilk had unleashed a thin-skinned narcissist upon the republic he professed to love so much that he saw the errors of his ways?
I would rather that he had just caved and kissed Trump’s ring like the rest.
And in Beck’s penitence and the creeping acceptance he seems to be finding in the media, I grew even angrier, an anger that has been building since the shock of election night wore off, I began to hear echoes of all the hand-wringing and moralizing about how the blame for Trump’s success lay not at his supporters’ feet, or at the feet of the Republican leadership who fell in line behind him, or the people who for years fanned the racial anger of the Tea Party and excused birtherism because there was political power to be gained in it, but in the people who opposed it. That in caring about civil rights for LGBTQ citizens, we were ignoring the economic hardships that straight people had been facing for years; as though economic hardship is exclusive to sexual orientation or gender identity. That by living in cities, we were isolating ourselves from the voices and perspectives of real America; as though rural communities were somehow less insular, and as though for many people of color, their so-called bubbles weren’t the only places in the country they were allowed to live in a modicum of peace. How economic realities weren’t as important as economic feelings. That in calling out a man’s bigotry, and tangentially tying a tacit acceptance of that bigotry to his supporters, we were being abusive to an equal and opposite extent of bigotry itself, and thus drove people to vote vindictively as a result. And most of all, that the white working class felt left behind by the ravages of globalization and trade agreements, as though Hispanic and black working classes did not exist, were doing even more poorly, yet somehow escaped notice.
The imbalance was bewildering. For years, we’d heard that black drug addicts suffered because of poor culture and life choices; now we heard that white drug addicts were owed government compassion. For years, we’d heard that Black poverty stemmed from a lack of educational drive; now we heard white poverty stemmed from governmental neglect. Black reliance on government assistance was the welfare state run amok, white reliance on the same was just a leg up. All across the spectrum, people were being asked to empathize with the white working class; a decidedly worthy goal in itself, but a transparently toothless goal considering that calls for the same consideration to other groups had been swatting away as “political correctness.”
But now, what we needed to do was to come together. To talk, to have a conversation, to swap readings of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. To break bread, to find common ground, to move past the caricatures we had made of each other.
Spare me. As illustrated in his farewell address, Barack Obama had been making those calls for understanding and good faith for years, and all it won him, all it won any of us, was the opportunity to have his legacy ripped apart by his antithesis.
This wasn’t even strictly on Beck anymore, at least not solely. But in his supposed remorse and calls for unity, I seethed at the injustice and imbalance of it all. Even as some small part of me fairly asked what else Beck could possibly have done to atone for his actions that would have merited forgiveness, the bile rose within me until I thought I would choke on it. The man who once tied empathy to the Third Reich had the audacity to ask for it now?
No. Damn him. Damn them all.
And then it sunk in.
Barack Obama flipped Glenn Beck.
Against all odds, despite all evidence suggesting such a thing was impossible, Barack Obama flipped Glenn Beck, at least partially. Somehow, he won over a man who styled himself his archnemesis.
It is the most symbolic of victories, considering that both men are now past the prime of their political relevance. And as a friend recently pointed out, Beck’s old brand of lunacy has long since passed him by; perhaps playing conservative peacemaker is the only way he can stay relevant in a world where the Ben Shapiros and Milo Yiannopouloses of the world make him look like Will McAvoy in comparison.
But all the same, Barack Obama flipped Glenn Beck, and in doing so, provided one significant example to his enduring belief that the right words, be it a beer summit in the gardens of the White House, a negotiation with the Speaker on the links, a closed-door meeting with a man whose entire political identity began and ended with undermining and insulting him at every step, or an eight-year monologue until a former shock jock saw the error of his ways, could somehow make a difference. That in conversation, there could be change, and that in hope, there could be healing.
And as is my wont, I am reminded again of the enduring wisdom of superhero comics; that it’s only villains who try to change the whole world all at once.
I’ll close with one final anecdote.
When I participated in the traditionally grueling gauntlet that is the Chicago Metro History Fair in grade school, I chose to research the rise of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first black mayor. Even then, it seems, I was attracted to stories of black executive power. As I was collecting the books for my project in the rooms of the library that bears his name, I met an older black woman who, when she learned what I was doing, kindly sat and spoke with me about what it was like to live in the city in Washington’s time. What it meant to black Chicagoans, the sense that their concerns would finally be addressed after the division of the senior Daley’s years, and their certainty that Washington would be a long-standing figure atop the city after the racially-charged Council Wars finally ended in Washington’s favor; mayor for life, as he called it. The heartbreak she and others felt when he died of a sudden heart attack, and the weary resignation when another Daley took over in City Hall.
Much of that conversation has faded from my memory, but her closing words are fresh: that there would never again be another black mayor in Chicago. That the power brokers within and without the local Democratic party would retool patronage jobs and voting locations to neuter black voting power, to ensure that as long as Daley wanted to be mayor, he would be. And that whoever his successor would be, of whatever race, the next “Hizzoners” of Chicago would never again be attuned to the voice of its black community.
With that, she departed.
I haven’t about that conversation in years, but it swims to the fore of my mind at the end of the Obama era. Of the many fears black people had about the Obama presidency, assassination chiefly among them, there was always a lingering suspicion that somehow, 2008 was a fluke. This country was never intended or envisioned to have a black president, and one way or another, the football would be yanked away. Such fears were eased by the results of the 2012 election, and then resurfaced with a vengeance four years later. It wasn’t so much the defeat of Hillary Clinton, nor the prospect of victory by any standard Republican candidate, but that fact that candidate was someone as particularly odious to so much of black America and its interests as Donald Trump. That blowback, that “whitelash,” seemed as sure a signal to some black Americans that their time in the sun was over, that much like Chicago, there would never again be a chief executive with a finger on the pulse of black people.
I doubt it. For all the finger-wagging and tut-tutting aimed at my generation for its many moral failings and supposed weakness (most annoyingly from some within it) I’ve been fortunate enough to bear witness to people forged from steel. They were formidable and dedicated before Trump’s ascension; aside from an escalating series of boycotts by NBA championship teams, seeing their continuing evolution during his presidency promises to be the most positive aspect of the next four years. One of them, one day, will make it to the room where it happens, and even if they themselves are not black, I have faith that the creeping multiculturalism of the Millennial generation will manifest itself within them. This may well be it for us, but I don’t think it will be.
But if it is, if this is the only champion that black America will ever have in that Whitest of Houses… what a one to have. Flaws and all, shortcomings and all, what a one to have.
So was he a great president? A good one? A decent one, a competent one, a passable one, a mediocre one, a bad one, a terrible one, the literal worst in the history of the republic?
I don’t know.
I don’t care. These are questions for wise men with skinny arms, and I am neither wise nor skinny.
All I know is that for the last eight years, he was the president. The commander-in-chief, the lead diplomat, the foremost face of a nation, the ostensible leader of the free world. In a way that none of his predecessors, I suspect none of his successors, and certainly not the president-elect will be able to replicate, he was my president. Of all the seemingly impossible things I was lucky enough to have witnessed in my -brief lifetime so far, I am most grateful to have been alive during the eight years in which that was the case. And whatever the future holds in store, I cannot wait to see what he has planned for a third act.
Being that this is written on the internet by one of those pesky urban Millennials of color, and within walking distance of a Starbucks no less, tradition dictates that there is only one appropriate way to finally end this. So I shall.
Thank you, President Obama.