When Barack Obama was sworn in eight years ago as the first black president of the United States, every American knew our nation had reached a turning point. Some countries boil from within over religion. Our country roils with issues of race. Many of us saw the possibility of a more equitable America and, for all the strife to come in the Obama years, we would argue that progress was made.
Nobody said it would be easy.
On Tuesday, ten days before he hands over the keys to the White House to Donald Trump, Obama will make his farewell address to the nation here in Chicago, the town that embraced him and toughened him up, and where he launched his political career. For a former South Side community organizer, he’s had a pretty good run. He will talk, no doubt, about his first and greatest challenge as president, to pull our nation back from the brink of a depression, and he will touch on his achievements, beginning with the fact that he did, indeed, save the economy.
He will no doubt gently lecture us as well, Obama being Obama, to rise above our differences and remember we are all Americans. We wouldn’t be surprised if he came full circle and reprised a line from his celebrated speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the speech that made him a national figure. Remember? There is no red state America or blue state America, said the little-known state senator from Illinois, “there is only the United States of America.”
Maybe that’s hokey now, but we don’t think so. A lot of Americans are going to miss having a president who thinks and talks like that.
Historians will judge Obama on the basis of his accomplishments and failures, as they do all presidents, but with a particular new twist — an ever-present consideration of the role that race played in everything he did and said, and in every roadblock thrown in his way. In sizing up America’s first black president, that is inevitable.
Our own first draft of history says that Obama defined himself proudly as a black man, but he defined himself in other ways as well. That was a strength. He embraced his white heritage, too (Remember how he hugged his way through Ireland?) and never seemed to forget he was a kid raised by a Kansas mother in faraway Indonesia. He brought it all to the White House.
At the same time, anybody could see that Obama’s most uncompromising detractors — by no means all, but enough — saw just one thing: the color of his skin.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama’s first chief of staff, recalled on Friday how Obama tapped into all his life experiences. At the height of the economic crisis, for example, when General Motors and Chrysler were collapsing and millions of jobs were on the line, Emanuel said, Obama’s experience as a community organizer gave him a personal feel for what was at stake.
“He approached the auto industry, talking about the story of dealing with steel workers on the South Side as a community organizer and being intimately familiar with what it means when those jobs disappear,” Emanuel said.
Big bailouts, though opposed by many in Congress, saved the auto industry. Unemployment, then at 7.2 percent, today is at 4.7 percent. A few days ago, GM projected record industry sales for 2016.
Obama can claim other notable achievements, at least in our book. He pushed through the Affordable Care Act, legislation that arguably has saved thousands of lives by now. His administration negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, which beat starting yet another war. He made civil rights a priority for the Department of Justice, and he gave younger undocumented immigrants a reprieve from the threat of deportation.
At the same time, Obama never managed to achieve even a slim working relationship with Congress once Republicans took control. How much of this is to be blamed on an undercurrent of racism? We believe quite a bit. But there is no doubt Obama’s personal style — an aloofness mixed with a dash of condescension — won him too few friends. And he burned through much of his political capital by ramming Obamacare through Congress strictly along party lines.
Obama’s foreign policy — whatever it was — never really gelled, especially in the Middle East. He was especially out of his depth when he drew a red line in Syria, warning that the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would trigger U.S. military involvement, and then failed to make good on the threat. Obama’s mistake was not in backing off the threat, but in making it to begin with.
For all of that, Obama was opposed by Republicans in Congress at every turn. Their refusal to work with him was so relentless as to beg the question of whether any other president —any other president who was not African American — would have been treated so shabbily. The manner in which Obama’s very legitimacy to be president was questioned via the original fake news blockbuster — the despicable birther conspiracy — is impossible to imagine had Obama not been black.
And yet, Obama never lashed back. He rose above it all.
Historians by the hundreds will take the measure of the 44th president. Some will call him a great success, others will say he failed. But on this, if they are honest, they will agree: Obama comported himself with uncommon grace and dignity even in the face of the most blatant bias and abuse.
We recall the night in September 2009 when Obama was addressing a joint session of Congress and a Republican representative from South Carolina, Joe Wilson, cried out from his chair: “You lie!”
Never before had we seen such disrespect for a president.
But the better part of the story is this: Obama showed no irritation or anger. He simply paused, looked over at Wilson, and coolly said, “Not true.”
America’s first black president always went high when others went low, and that was no small gift to his country.
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