EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
I miss him already. Say what you like, President Barack Hussein Obama is supremely intelligent, witty, humane, reasonable, elegant, a great writer, a model father, a good husband, a decent human being. He has empathy and humor. He is sane and calm. He gave us eight years free of scandal and drama: no interns, no corruption, no jobs handed out to outrageously unqualified people (a hallmark of the George W. Bush years—remember “Heckuva job, Brownie”?). Although it’s unfashionable these days to care about dignity and decorum—we’re all vulgarians now, living inside a perpetual reality-TV show— Obama brought seriousness and purpose to an office that had been a kingdom of dimwittery and darkness for eight years. He acted as if knowing what you’re talking about actually mattered. And he did all this as a black man in white America, which went crazy whenever it remembered he was black—for example, when he spoke up mildly in support of a world-famous Harvard professor who was challenged for being in his own home by a local cop. Obama persisted, with grace, in the teeth of a Senate that treated him as so illegitimate that it even refused to hold hearings for his last Supreme Court nominee. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how he could stand it.
Now that President Obama is preparing to step down, I’m wondering why we on the left—myself included—found it so easy to attack him for his failures and mistakes and so hard to give the man some basic credit. Reviewing his actions just on reproductive rights: Yes, he dragged his feet on letting emergency contraception be sold over the counter to people of all ages, and he said some patriarchal things about being the father of daughters, and he accepted the Hyde Amendment—which bans federal Medicaid funding of abortions—as “tradition.” He could have allowed US foreign aid to be used to provide abortions in cases of rape or incest. At his first inauguration, he had the odious fundamentalist preacher Rick Warren speak. (I wrote a whole op-ed about that.) Of course we have to protest and call our lawmakers out; that’s our job. Obama’s willingness to impute good faith—endlessly—to his opponents is a great quality in a professor, but a politician needs to be pushed and pushed hard. After all, if he hadn’t appointed James Comey, a Republican, to head the FBI, we’d be living in a different world. Still, I have a feeling we’ll soon be intensely nostalgic for our overly cautious, hyper-deliberative, soon-to-be-former president.
Were we hostile to him because he raised our hopes too high in 2008? Because we imagined that a president simply needs to wave a scepter and the thing is done? We called him weak, ineffective, too deferential, too eager to compromise. Maybe some of that last one is even true: It was painful to watch him hold out the hand of bipartisanship to conservatives who despised him and insulted him, who openly said they wanted his administration to fail. Everything he accomplished was despite Republican intransigence, which only got worse over the course of his presidency. He couldn’t secure a larger stimulus; he couldn’t take in more Syrian refugees; he couldn’t close Guantánamo. The list of Obama’s thwarted plans is long. But here’s something: He managed to pass the Affordable Care Act, which has provided health insurance for some 20 million people who previously had none. It isn’t single-payer, it isn’t universal, and it famously threw abortion under the bus. All the same, our supposedly namby-pamby 90-pound weakling of a president managed to achieve a goal that Democrats had theoretically been striving for since the Truman administration, a goal that eluded even the supposedly far more politically talented Bill Clinton. For a president who allegedly accomplished little—he didn’t end the war in Afghanistan, or prevent 8 million Americans from losing their homes to foreclosure—Obama did a lot: He pulled the economy from the brink of disaster and rescued American auto manufacturing; reduced the presence of American troops around the world; appointed two excellent women to the Supreme Court; created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; regulated for-profit education and put federal student loans back in the hands of public lenders; expanded green-energy subsidies and pressed China, India, and Brazil to ratify an unprecedented agreement on climate change; thawed relations with Cuba; and reached a nuclear deal with Iran. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is modest about its accomplishments, much like the man himself. Remember when he used the stimulus to give Americans a tax cut, and all those people who complain about taxes didn’t even notice the increase in their paychecks? If I were president, every one of those paychecks would have been stamped: “This tax cut comes to you courtesy of the federal government.”
Now he and Michelle will have to watch from afar as everything they’ve stood for and worked for is ground into dust. Because, in the end, too many Americans weren’t ready for a black president, even if they voted for him. Remember that story in the run-up to the 2008 election about the white people in Pennsylvania who told canvassers they were voting for “the n——”? That little bit of cognitive dissonance doesn’t seem so funny now that some of those same people have voted into the Oval Office a racist and bigot who devoted years to proclaiming that the man they’d voted for earlier wasn’t really an American. It’s almost as if Obama really was supposed to be Morgan Freeman, put on Earth to solve their problems, and when that took longer than it did in Driving Miss Daisy—and, thanks to other people these same voters elected, in some cases proved impossible—they moved on to the next fantasy: the billionaire who would bring back their coal mines, their factories, and their cultural centrality.
Goodbye, President Obama. I miss you already.