Being Barack Obama, being us

In November 2012, I wrote why I voted for Barack Obama when I didn’t four years earlier. More than four years later, with Donald Trump in the White House, Clio will look kindly at Barack Hussein Obama’s tenure as Chief Executive. Historians, conservative by training, sift through dust and records. It’s possible Obama will look like Harold Wilson: a steward of a vision, fragile and mistrusted by citizens most dependent on its beneficence, whose lifespan relied on almost a century’s worth of mythologizing. Coalitions are by their nature ephemeral, reliant on a single robust force at its center.

About ten years ago I resisted the tug. Aloof by the standards of a DC culture that since the time of Dolley Madison learned to separate comity and manners from genocide and destabilization, he relied on words, the singularity of his origins, and a confidence in his intelligence to take the Democratic nomination from a candidate whose origin story was absorbed into a public self that projected the virtues of stolidness, hard work, and mastery of policy detail — also the price. Because she was the first woman who earned more than her husband the president, Hilary Clinton had to suppress the vulnerabilities to which men can succumb but in women are disqualifications; she was a careerist when career women were made to look mercenary. Barack Obama paid his own price. The most humiliating moment of his presidency was when the Beltway elite for which he had such contempt decided he had to atone for saying what you and I might have if asked at a party what we thought about Henry Louis Gates, Jr. — or any man — had been arrested for giving a cop lip on his own property. When Ferguson happened, the backlash his remarks inspired was predictable insofar as the “beer summit” had already demarcated the limits to which a black man as Chief Executive can stretch when discussing the embarrassments and much, much worse that 13.2 percent of our fellow citizens endure daily. Because I know men and women who will not say an act is racist unless Dylann Roof kills twelve worshipers or a black man isn’t strung up on a tree.

His tragic flaw has been his instinct to believe in our better natures; he believes a polity, in possession of the facts, can overlook its differences and make rational choices. His enemies understood his folly before the American public did. Americans may rally behind a president during wars, but even Franklin Roosevelt understood that the New Deal he offered his fellow citizens would be loathed by them too. We like enemies. He relished pointing them out. Sometime after the farrago of 2011’s “grand bargain,” I realized Obama was not that kind of man; it was like asking George W. Bush to figure out cosines. But in my lifetime I’ve never seen a president more self-possessed, less attached to the presidency — hell, serving as president may have atrophied his rather good prose. Ronald Reagan had some of these qualities, but he needed no one and nothing. He was a smiling nullity, animated by a couple of principles.

After a decade in the public eye, I’m not sure what principles Barack Obama believes in except persuading Americans to aspire to Barack Obama’s virtues: patience, respect for dissent, erudition, faith in the good intentions of neighbors. Christian virtues, I suppose. Liberal virtues too. He wants Americans to be like him. The most expansive kind of self-regard — it’s forbearance hiding as self-regard, a Wildean paradox he would appreciate. For all our belief in his Olympian detachment, I don’t think it explains his signing an order vaporiing al-Alawki and his son or encouraging the prosecution of leakers. Reading Marilynne Robinson taught him how to age drone warfare in the Middle East, I suppose. Being Barack Hussein Obama means becoming the greatest product of its elite institutions: of Columbia and Harvard, of CIA and NSA briefings, of the ghosts who walked the Situation Room.

Institutions are Potemkin villages without men and women heading them, defining them. Barack Obama is the best president I’ve had in my lifetime because as an institutionalist he has believed in the EPA, OSHA, the federal court system, and a vigorous Justice Department. The insensate rage he provoked in enemies is tribute to what he has done to have woven gays, women, and blacks into the fabric of American life. White men and women too — their children can stay on their health insurance, enjoying Medicaid expansions that don’t discriminate from pre-existing conditions. Until noon, January 20.

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