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Photograph by Pete Souza, Chief White House Photographer.

What will we do, once he’s gone?

It will be a long time before there is another President like Obama

Hardly a day has gone by in the past eight years when at some stage I haven’t paused to shake my head in amazement and awe of the man in the White House.

Even today — less than a week before he leaves the most powerful office in the world once and for all — I still find it hard to believe we were so blessed to have had Barack Obama for so long.

Barack and Michelle Obama dance with 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin in the Blue Room of the White House prior to a reception celebrating African American History Month in February 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In recent weeks, it has become more obvious just how much we will miss him — and Michelle Obama as well, for that matter — and this has only sharpened as Trump gets closer and closer to taking his seat behind the desk that Obama has occupied with such grace and dignity for the past eight years.

It is impossible not to contrast the intelligence, wit, decency, sophistication and cool that the Obamas displayed in the White House with the crassness, bluster, bullying and egoistic buffoonery of his successor.

But to fully appreciate the magnitude of Obama’s presidency, remember that for more than two centuries, the office of President had never been held by a non-white person. That is change in itself.

(Bear in mind a significant minority of outright racists refused to accept the legitimacy of his presidency over its entire eight years and insisted he was a Muslim born overseas.)

But also also cast your mind back to the world when Obama took office at the beginning of 2009.

The United States was still entrenched in two costly and drawn-out wars with an ever-growing body count; his nation was regarded with suspicion if not outright hostility around the world; and the global economy was on the verge of collapse.

Most of all, during the eight years that George W. Bush held office, the stature and respect of the position of US President had fallen to a near all-time low.

Obama’s election was, for my generation, an epochal moment. I can think of none other that compares, and I guess, the only similar marker for an older generation would have been the victory of a fresh-faced John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Like JFK, Obama emerged perfectly suited to his times, thoroughly in tune with contemporary culture and values.

Given the deep scars that its history of slavery and subsequent race relations have left on the American psyche, this was a remarkable feat for the son of an African man with a strange, Muslim sounding name, married to the descendent of slaves, to take the highest office in the land.

Obama’s achievement is even greater when we consider a woman is yet to occupy this role. Nor a person of Italian descent, a Native American, a Spanish speaker, a Jew or a Muslim.

Obama offered hope both in the words he uttered, but also in what he represented. His election restored faith in the simple ideal which the United States is built upon: that of equality and opportunity for all. The audacity of hope.

Back in 2009, there was a genuine sense of optimism and progress, of renewal of all that is good in humankind; sentiments that are now starkly absent as we await in fear and loathing for Trump’s inauguration.

Given all that, Obama had enormous expectations to live up to.

The debate has already begun over whether Obama’s met those expectations.

Obama’s policy wins are not insignificant: the Affordable Care Act act which gave almost 20 million people access to health insurance, the brokering of a new diplomatic relationship with Cuba, the nuclear weapons treaty with Iran, the rescuing of the US economy and the automotive industry from the depths of the GFC and creation of more than 10 million jobs, action on climate change and immigration reform and labour rights. Global respect for the US was partly restored.

Throughout the eight years of his presidency, Obama never slowed down and never stopped trying. The breadth of his interests, the scope of his ambition did not diminish.

But there will always be a lingering sense of what could have been. Looking back, it seems the political capital Obama enjoyed in his first few years was wasted, an opportunity missed to fully implement his agenda, to recast the American economy, to address the inequality and economic disenfranchisement that Trump managed to capitalise on.

In the end, Obama could not stop Trump or the forces of economic and social dislocation that led him to power. At the same time, he oversaw the decline of the American empire which was a casualty of Bush’s over-reach.

Perhaps he was just too busy dealing with the many crises that were bequeathed to him by Bush.

Obama offered hope both in the words he uttered, but also in what he represented. His election restored faith in the simple ideal which the United States is built upon: that of equality and opportunity for all. The audacity of hope.

Later, Obama failed to implement firearms reform, and as he leaves the White House, black-white relations are as fraught as ever. Did he let down black Americans by not using the prestige of his office to condemn police killings and racism? Was he too even-handed? Meanwhile, the political divides that Obama pledged to heal yawn wider now than eight years ago.

He may have rid the world of Bin Laden but he failed to extricate the US from the mess of Afghanistan, and as Syria and the rise of Isis will attest, the world is no safer than eight years ago.

Obama never found a way around the blockades that were established in Congress during his first term. Let’s not forget the kamikaze budget shutdown at the end of 2013 and the behaviour of Republicans like Ted Cruz who were determined to wreck his Presidency.

How different may Obama eventually have been judged by history if he had enjoyed a supportive Congress.

Did he promise too much and talk too ambitiously at the beginning? Perhaps; alternatively, an argument can be made that his agenda was too moderate to fully galvanise public opinion Sanders-like in such a way that the Congress would have fallen into line. In his professorial, evidence-based way, Obama refused to give into populism.

Yet despite all that, even when constrained by responsibilities of office, at least rhetorically he was still most progressive President for at least 50 years.

These stalemates must have been incredibly frustrating and disappointing for Obama, but outwardly, at least, he never expressed disillusionment.

Unlike the giants that came before him, he did not usher in a new era of civil rights, as LBJ did; or deliver a New Deal like FDR; or end slavery like Lincoln. But a president’s legacy cannot be measured merely by his legislative or policy achievements.

The role of the US President must be to use the prestige of his office to provide leadership and set a tone for the nation — and the world — and in this context Obama is marked for greatness (and Trump for failure).

When we look back on the Obama presidency, what stands out most is how he broke down so many barriers by virtue of his race; and the manner with which he conducted his time in office. That is his greatest legacy, and in the end it is greater than the sum of legislative achievements.

Daily, he has given all minorities — not just Africa Americans — pride in who they are.

Obama brought to the role of US president a heightened sense of decency and inclusion, tolerance and respect for all humanity. It wasn’t faked. It was real.

Consider, for instance, that memorable photo of the President casually fist-bumping a lowly janitor as he strolled the corridors of the White House, a moment as natural and uncontrived as two men meeting in the street. Can you imagine any other President doing that?

Barack Obama fistbumps janitor Lawrence Lipscomb in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Note the dignity with which he conducted himself during the most partisan period in the history of American politics, through the rise of the Tea Party and the defamatory slurs of the Birther movement. Never once did he lose his cool. Aides say the only time they saw Obama really emotional was the day of the Sandy Hook shootings.

But when it came to the big moments as well, Obama was head and shoulders above any other President in my lifetime.

The Obama presidency has provided us with some iconic moments, and many of them are to do with the US’ tortured history of race relations.

The image of Barack and Michelle and their two daughters crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 2015, arm in arm with veterans of ‘Bloody Sunday’ will for many be a defining moment of his presidency.

To others, it will be that pindrop moment when he burst into ‘Amazing Grace’ during his eulogy to worshippers murdered in their church in Charlotte, North Carolina in June 2015. Or any of a number of soaring moments of oratory.

But to me, there is none more significant than the day when 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin came to the White House to visit. This tiny, wizened black woman held court before a black President and his black wife in a building built by black slaves 200 years ago. Obama didn’t milk the moment because he knew it wasn’t about him; he let the scene speak for itself.

That ever-present humility was another hallmark.

The Obamas march with the foot soldiers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015.
(Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

In his farewell speech in Chicago last Tuesday, Obama brought it all back home, completing a virtuous circle that began in that city a decade ago.

Perhaps, given the burden of expectation upon that one man, Obama’s central theme — yes we can — was misunderstood throughout his presidency.

The abiding message he left us was the same that he began the presidency with: our destiny is in our own hands.

It falls to each of us to be those those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. Citizen.

So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.

Get out there and do the hard work, he’s saying. Don’t get angry: organise.

As he leaves office, the irony is that Obama remains highly popular both at home and abroad. Some polls give him a 55% approval rating, well above Trump and twice that of George W. Bush at the end of his presidency. Despite his faults, there is little doubt that Obama would have wiped the floor with Trump had he been allowed by the constitution to run for a third term.

Remarkably, the Barack Obama who leaves the White House is little changed from the Obama who entered it eight years ago. He may be leaving the office of President, but have no doubt that he will not be leaving public life.

His work is unfinished: it will just continue on a different plane and a different trajectory.

But for now, we can be thankful for having been alive when Barack Hussein Obama was the 44th President of the United States.

Barack Obama and Donald Trump meet in the Oval Office on November 10, two days after the 2016 election. Obama is far more popular in opinion polls than his successor. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips

Writer, journalist & communicator based in Melbourne, Australia. Author of Radio City: the First 30 Years of 3RRR-FM.

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