President Obama’s farewell address came as Washington obsessed over a sketchy intelligence report alleging that Donald Trump is being blackmailed by Moscow with a tape of perverted sex acts. Somehow, it was fitting.
Obama’s presidency was tumultuous, polarizing, and consequential. He presided over the grinding recovery from a financial crisis, the controversial reshaping of America’s social safety net, the end of two wars, and a bitterly divided polity. He ran promising to bring Americans together only to find himself splitting them apart. His presidency coincided with the rise of social media and its attendant acceleration of news and fracturing of information.
All this can obscure what I think will, in the coming years, be most missed about Obama: his decency. His scandal-free administration. The seriousness with which he approached his job. The faith he had in the American political system, and in Americans.
Hope was the basis of Obama’s politics. It’s the basis, in ways I did not truly appreciate until the end of his presidency, of Obama’s personality. His political career is built on a vision of who we could be, and the absence of that vision will be felt as he is succeeded by a man whose politics are built on a nostalgia for who we were.
Obama’s chief political adviser, David Axelrod, has argued that presidents tend to be replaced by their opposites. Donald Trump is Obama’s temperamental opposite — reckless where Obama is restrained, intuitive where Obama is technocratic, insulting where Obama is respectful, and scandal-ridden even before he assumes the presidency. Shortly before Obama took the stage, Trump tweeted:
FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
You can no more imagine Obama sending that tweet than setting the White House on fire.
But Trump is Obama’s opposite in a yet more fundamental way. Obama’s politics are based on a hope of who we will become; Trump’s politics are based on a fear that we will lose who we were.
It feels bizarre that the same country that elected Obama elected Trump — and did so despite the fact that Obama remained popular to the end of his presidency. But it’s core to Obama’s idea of politics that America contains multitudes, and we are different, and act differently, depending on what is being asked of us.
In an interview a few years back, I asked Obama how he grappled with the fact that he was the most polarizing president since the advent of polling. I have thought of his answer often in recent months:
Well, there are a couple of things that in my mind, at least, contribute to our politics being more polarized than people actually are. And I think most people just sense this in their daily lives. Everybody's got a family member or a really good friend from high school who is on the complete opposite side of the political spectrum. And yet we still love them, right? Everybody goes to a soccer game, or watching their kids, coaching, and they see parents who they think are wonderful people, and then if they made a comment about politics, suddenly they'd go, "I can't believe you think that!"
This is, and was, Obama’s theory of campaigning. Politics often brings out the worst in us, but there’s no reason it can’t bring out the best.
Obama’s political rise was unlikely. He liked to joke about it: “a skinny kid with a funny name.” But that belied the odds he actually faced. He was a black man in a country barely 50 years past Jim Crow with the middle name Hussein and a last name that rhymed with “Osama” running for president shortly after 9/11 and the launch of the Iraq War.
But beginning with his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he managed to ask the right questions of the country. Did we want to feel less divided by political party? Did we want to feel less divided by race? His candidacy wasn’t just hopeful, it was aspirational — it was a statement, at least at the beginning, more about the kind of country we wanted to be than the kind of country we were.
And so, too, at the end. Obama’s presidency did not prove anything about America. It said something about who we could be, under certain conditions, but it did not settle who we were. His election did not make us a post-racial society. He admitted as much tonight. “After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America,” he said. ”Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”
Nor did Obama’s election prove, as he had suggested in 2004, that the pundits were wrong “to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states.” He was the most polarizing president on record, and on his watch the blue states became bluer and the red states redder. His farewell address was laced with a fear of our political fragility entirely absent from his early speeches. “Democracy does not require uniformity,” he said. “Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”
But he did prove, at least, that the kind of country we want to be exists within the country we are, even as the country we fear we will become lurks as well. There is an America that sees its growing diversity as a strength, that refuses to believe in the limits set by its own past, that yearns to be less divided than it is. It’s not the only America. But it’s a real America.
Obama has reacted to Trump’s election with more equanimity than most Democrats. Some of that is doubtless the weight of the office he holds. But some of it is that his sense of hope is less fragile, less simple, than it has sometimes seemed. Reading back over his 2004 speech, I’m struck by this passage:
In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope? ... I'm not talking about blind optimism here, the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don't think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it.
That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about something more substantial. It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him too.
Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope: In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation, a belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.
And listening to tonight’s farewell address, I am struck by this final exhortation, which seems precisely aimed at those who would retreat from politics after losing a race:
If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed.
There is much to be said of Obama’s record, of his ideology, of the decisions he made and the ones he didn’t. But as we enter the Trump era, I think Obama will be missed by many Americans who didn’t agree with his policies but agreed with his sense of hope about America, and his daily efforts to be worthy of the country he saw before him.