The Durability of Hope, or, What I’ll Miss Most About President Obama
Peaceful transitions of power are a remarkable testament to America’s style of democracy.
They are also difficult, particularly for those who have lost. This is true even when a “traditional” candidate takes power. Trump, as we all know, is far from “traditional.” There is a palpable sense of loss, a witches’ brew of anxiety about what lies ahead and full heart sentiment about what is being left behind.
The sense of loss is even more pronounced in this transition. The contrasts between President Obama and Donald Trump are too stark. Both became president-elect as “change agents”, though with irreconcilable packing. President Obama was the forward-looking candidate of hope and change, an aspirational candidate who shouted “Yes We Can” meet the challenges ahead. Mr. Trump’s “Make American Great Again” theme a fixed and longing gaze into the past, an implication that America’s best days were behind it absent his election.
I’ve thought about these contrasts a great deal since Election Day, grappling with the prospects of a Trump presidency and what that means. There are a multitude of anxieties and questions and conclusions still waiting to be fleshed out, but one overrides all others.
Most of all, I’ll miss President Obama’s relentless and unflinching optimism. His genuine belief in people to do what is right is inspiring.
Cynics have called it naïve. Maybe that’s right. Maybe, in an era of cable news wars and social media and the fracturing of information and exploding confirmation bias, there was or is no room for a presidency that promises to unite the polity. Maybe faith in institutions is ultimately misguided and I only believe in it so adamantly because institutional reform has been the work of my brief professional life. Maybe, as longtime San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich opined in the election’s aftermath, “We are Rome,” in an era of decline and post-truth where cynicism and fear have won. Still, I’ll miss his optimism the most.
Given what President Obama inherited from his failed predecessor: an economy on the brink of global collapse, an automobile industry in ruin, unemployment in double digits and a “Delusion Points” Wolfowitz-doctrine foreign policy that had eviscerated American credibility abroad- hope was genuinely audacious, optimism brave.
I will also miss his decency.
A scandal-free administration defined by a sobering, technocratic approach to work; a family that conducted itself with incredible integrity in the face of unprecedented obstruction and consistent vitriol. Those contrasts, above all the policy differences, will represent the starkest contrast between President Obama and his successor, a temperamental opposite guided largely by intuition and fear.
Mr. Obama leaves office with an approval rating of 61 percent. Only Reagan, Bill Clinton and FDR ever saw such high marks.
And yet, as he leaves office, many progressives ask why he didn’t do more, or lament that he didn’t rescue the marginalized from this affliction or that malady. Progressive angst with President Obama has become its own cottage industry, think piece after think piece questioning his progressive bona fides and isolating failures. The merits of the “Obama as progressive savior, to blame for his movement’s failures” trope is amusing, both in the way they gloss over the political obstruction he faced and in the way they fundamentally ignore his consistent directive, which was that to effectuate the change they seek, people needed to organize, mobilize and fashion coalitions.
Ulysses S. Grant, another President that presided over a frightful and polarizing time, once wrote of his mistakes that they were errors of judgment, not intent, noting good-faith and reason had informed his choices, whatever their ultimate outcomes. This is well-stated, and applicable to President Obama, who while not flawless, exhibited strength of character and prudence in judgment during his eight years in office. There is grace in sound moral leadership, even when it has its own shortcomings.
And yet in the end, America elected Trump, and President Obama’s presidency polarized the country in a way we have never seen. Blue states became bluer and red states redder. Maybe that’s the ultimate indictment, or validation, depending on your perspective, of President Obama’s notion that we can love each other despite our differences and disagreements.
I agree with conservatives of many stripes, from David Frum to Glenn Beck to National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., who called Trump a narcissist and a demagogue, when they argue that Donald Trump’s administration is likely to test the durability of American democracy in a way it has not been tested since Grant presided bravely over Reconstruction.
Trump and his rapid-fire Twitter thumbs are the real thing- a narcissistic id machine straight out of Beowulf but perhaps more boastful, less ashamed. Existential threats are cast aside in the name of conspiracy theory and junk science. Anti-intellectualism and a rejection of academia embraced. Straw man arguments like the “liberal bubble” and 140 character tirades color arguments where reasoned debates about policy should be. Already, there are signs that dissent will be suppressed and the weak targeted. A polarized nation threatens to fracture.
In place of simple political debate and discussions, I’ve found myself defending progressive ideas against accusations of the “liberal bubble” from not just colleagues, but my own family members, which is both disheartening and astonishing. It isn’t simply that the argument is ludicrous: of-course there isn’t a “liberal bubble”, though a SNL skit nearly convinced me it exists somewhere between Brooklyn Heights and Red Hook. What’s more frustrating is that the terms of the debate have been formulated before the topics have been chosen.
Liberalism has been associated with being insular, aloof and unaware, and this is a fact insisted upon, regardless of merit. The truth, of course, is that most working-class voters opted for Hillary Clinton, and most progressives have lives very much adrift from the espresso and latte-sipping caricature of a coastal elite. Many are like me. I work a full-time job and have a part time one on the side, all to make minimal progress on student loans and last year’s medical bills and a mortgage and to pay for a five year old’s gymnastics and swimming and dance classes. On a great day, I’m a tremendous lawyer. And I almost agree with my father, who taught me I wasn’t entitled to anything. What am I entitled to? I’m entitled to repudiate your conception of a progressive bubble.
Why has the left had so much trouble defining the terms of political discourse and debate? One reason might be that the dynamics have changed before the power structures have. The next battle will be over how to map the terrain between. What will the new structures look like? How durable will they be? Who gets excluded? What gets privileged?
What that means, I think, is that even if you view the result of the election as at least partially a repudiation of Obamaism (a reasonable reading), the coming challenges of a Trump presidency ultimately validate President Obama’s notion that “we rise and fall as one.” Democracy, as Obama put it, does “not require uniformity.” But it does require basic understanding and solidarity.
Do we participate in a politics of cynicism and fear, or do we participate in a politics of optimism and hope? Is our hope grounded in the change we seek? Is it relentless despite obstacles: the lost job, the bad grade, a bad interview, a sick child, the loss of health care, a stern sentencing judge? What do you do when you lose? How do you react when disappointed?
In those moments- the handful of days where the trajectory of your life changes- I’ll miss President Obama’s uncompromising decency and unflinching hope. And why I’m glad the departing President, only 55, has so much work left to do and so much more to offer, having graciously decided to stay active and speak up.
Hope is audacious, sure, but it’s also durable. It functions and intercedes through sadness and despair.
Hope is why, as a young law school graduate, I decided to work so hard with so many others to play a small role in helping Barack Obama get elected in 2008. But it is more than that.
Hope is born of kindness, mostly, and openness of spirit.
Hope is why Walt Whitman, profoundly and forever affected by the ravages he observed during the Civil War, continued to write poems exulting “the eternal, exhaustless freshness of each morning,” urging readers to “keep their faces towards the sunshine,” no matter the shadows and uncertainties ahead.
Hope is about possibility.
It’s grabbing a clipboard because climate change is too important to leave to the next generation and mobilized, there’s hope it isn’t too late. It’s driving an elderly person to the polls or signing up for that voter registration drive. It’s attending that meeting at the church or synagogue or mosque or wherever when you get home tired and it would be easier to just Netflix.
Hope is cooking a meal for a homeless man or woman, or giving them a winter coat, or an umbrella in the rain. Hope is investing time in the Wounded Warrior Project, befriending a PTSD vet or reading at a children’s hospital on a Friday night.
Hope seeks out alliances. It’s calling your Senator you so often disagree with and thanking them when they do something right. It’s grabbling lunch with your “Republican” friend or the “liberal” you work with.
Hope was the touchstone for Barack Obama’s politics, and embracing it will be of use in the transition ahead.
Hope is the reason I’m so grateful Barack Obama was my President.
And it is the reason I’m fired up and ready to go.