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David Brooks: the 2016 election is already making me miss Barack Obama

Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Despite his self-identification as a conservative, David Brooks has long been considered the Obama White House's favorite columnist, becoming a regular at off-the-record events and dinners. Even when he's criticized the administration he's stayed in its good graces. In 2009, when he criticized Obama's spending plans, the White House sent him a chart debunking his claims on which Obama himself wrote, "Dear Comrade Brooks."

So it's perhaps unsurprising to see Brooks return the favor in his column Tuesday, titled, "I Miss Obama." Brooks contrasts the president's restrained, cerebral demeanor (one of "good manners") with that of the 2016 presidential field and finds his potential successors lacking:

Donald Trump has spent much of this campaign vowing to block Muslim immigration. You can only say that if you treat Muslim Americans as an abstraction. President Obama, meanwhile, went to a mosque, looked into people’s eyes and gave a wonderful speech reasserting their place as Americans.

He’s exuded this basic care and respect for the dignity of others time and time again. Let’s put it this way: Imagine if Barack and Michelle Obama joined the board of a charity you’re involved in. You’d be happy to have such people in your community. Could you say that comfortably about Ted Cruz? The quality of a president’s humanity flows out in the unexpected but important moments.

Brooks's loathing of Ted Cruz is intense and longstanding, but even considering that, this is a harsh burn. He also notes that unlike Hillary Clinton and her team or Chris Christie, Obama doesn't even have the taint of scandal around him. One can dispute how fair this is about Clinton herself — the email scandal is arguably overblown, as were many of the "scandals" in Bill's administration.

But Brooks is right that there's a marked contrast between her continuing to surround herself with figures like Sidney Blumenthal, Mark Penn (who's recently started offering advice again through Bill Clinton), and her legendarily dickish communications guru Philippe Reines, and Obama's tendency to appoint people who keep their mouths shut and their heads down and just do their jobs. "There are all sorts of unsightly characters floating around politics, including in the Clinton camp and in Gov. Chris Christie’s administration," Brooks writes. "This sort has been blocked from team Obama."

The most interesting bit of praise Brooks offers is for Obama's optimism. "To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true," Brooks writes. "We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth."

That's true, but Obama's optimism actually extends beyond the US. In his interview with Vox, Obama told Matt Yglesias, "The trajectory of this planet overall is one toward less violence, more tolerance, less strife, less poverty. … There's just not going to be a lot of interest in a headline story that we have cut infant mortality by really significant amounts over the last 20 years or that extreme poverty has been slashed or that there's been enormous progress with a program we set up when I first came into office to help poor farmers increase productivity and yields."

He's right. On a whole variety of metrics — life expectancy, child and maternal mortality, poverty, school attendance, deaths from war, etc. — the world is a much better place than it was even just 10 years ago, and these trends show little sign of abating. It's not surprising that candidates running for president (apart from maybe Clinton) want to convince voters that a change is necessary and they're the ones to offer it. But that doesn't mean their pessimistic orientation is correct.