The Great Despair of Barack Obama

This weekend, President Obama headed to New Jersey to deliver the commencement address at Rutgers University. He spoke for forty minutes. Yet one aspect of his speech stood out. Obama did not give the usual platitudes one might be expected to confer on young people beginning their formal entry into adult life. Instead, without mentioning names, he delivered a fiery sermon condemning the current state of American politics.

“Ignorance is not a virtue!” he intoned. “…that’s not ‘challenging political correctness’. That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about. And yet we’ve become confused about this!”

His address was filled with similar laments. He raged against the rejection of scientific consensus on the issue of climate change. He protested the idea of building a border wall or banning Muslim entry to America.

Though the President clearly attempted to remain stoic and stately, there was a quality to his tone and features that has rarely broken though in a public setting: The President of The United States was terrified.

The President of The United States was terrified.

At no time has the weight of eight years in office shown so clearly, etched in the every line of his face. At no time have his eyes shone with such great sorrow. And at no time has his vocal delivery, usually so finely crafted that it has been a source of jokes at his expense since his 2008 campaign, been so halted and broken. This was the presentation of a man who knows that his time is up, and that there is nothing he can now do to stem the tide of polarization and ignorance that has consumed our country.

“When our leaders express a disdain for facts,” Obama said emotionally, “When they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem.”

Obama’s pleading tone is to be expected, of course. This is a man who ran on a platform with the simple but effective slogan of “Hope,” and who now sees the opposite of that rising to prominence in Trump’s “Make America great again.” It is a man who spent eight years in office dealing with reflexive resentment and outright hatred from an increasingly unyielding Republican Party. Now, in his last year of governance, he has come to the realization that his accomplishments may be wiped away before he has even had the chance to settle into retirement.

Even in the campaign of Bernie Sanders, Obama sees a misguided call to arms.

“None of these changes happened overnight. They didn’t happen because some charismatic leader got everybody suddenly to agree on everything. It didn’t happen because some massive political revolution occurred. It actually happened over the course of years of advocacy, and organizing, and alliance-building, and deal-making, and the changing of public opinion. It happened because ordinary Americans who cared participated in the political process.”

I have looked into the soul of President Barack Obama as he addressed my generation. I have seen the fear, and the terror, and the pain in his eyes. I have witnessed the despair etched into the lines of his forehead. And I, as well, feel his dread; for when the lion runs scared, so too should the rabbit.

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