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Thanks, Obama: We won't know what we had 'til it's gone

Informed Dissent



At noon Friday, we embark on a brave new era of the American experiment, one that will see a billionaire developer-cum-reality-TV star claim the most important office in the world, having risen to this political pinnacle on a wave of conspiracy theories and racial grievances, of outlandish rhetoric and shamelessly impossible promises, of proud ignorance and prouder mendacity, of shameless gaslighting and open authoritarianism. This is a frightening moment in our history, set upon us by an anachronistic electoral system, Russian (and FBI) meddling, a cowed media that too often prized access over truth-telling and, let's be honest, a large swath of the electorate that failed to realize it was being played.

Yes, we're living in a Black Mirror episode. Yes, it's terrifying.

But before we get there, I wanted to reflect on the legacy of the president Donald Trump will replace – and, more personally, what Barack Obama means to me. And there's no better way to do that than to compare the two men, and no better way to do that than to look at a 24-hour period starting last Tuesday evening.

Early that evening, Jan. 10, CNN published a report indicating that intelligence officials had briefed both Trump and Obama on claims that the Russian government may have compromising information on Trump. A short while later, Buzzfeed published a lurid, 35-page dossier of that alleged information compiled by an ex-British spy, all of it with a titillating admixture of the salacious and the unverified. (Any Trump-related document with the words "Russian prostitutes" and "golden showers" is guaranteed to make Twitter lose its shit.)

As everyone fixated as the president-elect's purported kinks and/or revenge fantasies, the underlying point got buried: The intelligence community was taking at least somewhat seriously claims that, not only did Russia interfere in the election to boost Trump, but Trump surrogates may have been communicating with Russian officials throughout the campaign. Later came reports from the BBC and The Guardian that said U.S. intelligence operatives had repeatedly sought – and, in October, apparently secured – FISA warrants to look at potential links between Trumpland and the Kremlin. The next day, the director of national intelligence released a statement confirming CNN's report, while lamenting that it leaked.

Trump responded as Trump does – petulantly, on Twitter, raging about "fake news" and Nazi Germany. The next day, he held a press conference – his first in months – in which he declined to take a question from CNN while calling on the white-nationalist propaganda outfit Breitbart, refused to release his taxes or divest from his business empire, showed a stunning ignorance of basic policy matters, and patted himself on the back for turning down a $2 billion foreign business venture, all while his staffers served as an applause section.

Whatever presidential looks like, this ain't it.

And then there's Barack Obama, the first black president, who over the last decade has been accused of – among many other things – faking his birth certificate (by Trump) and murdering someone to cover up that fakery (also by Trump); been subjected to all manner of open contempt from conservative groups, officials and media outlets, much of it tinged with racism; and whose administration was obstructed at every turn by power-mad GOP leaders and right-wing ideologues. And yet he handled all of this with uncanny grace, undeniable dignity and unsullied optimism, with nary a significant scandal anywhere in his orbit. For this, he's been rewarded with high approval ratings and a legacy that will soon be dismantled. Sigh.

Obama went to Chicago last Tuesday night to give a farewell address, a long, poignant, emotional speech. There was self-aggrandizement, sure – an extended riff on his administration's successes to the adulation of an adoring crowd. And there were some not-so-subtle rebukes to Trumpism and its inherent derision of the other. But most of the speech was a love letter to democracy, a bookend to his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech: America's potential, he said, "will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of our party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now."

"Our Constitution," he continued, "is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it's really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation and the choices we make. Whether or not to stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured."

It was a call to action, a call to vigilance, a call to engagement – a call to the best parts of our natures to fight to preserve the best parts of our union, to think critically and put ourselves in other people's shoes, to rise above reflexive ideology and pervasive incivility. It was stirring and affecting and, well, fundamentally decent. That's the thing about Obama that's stuck with me over the last eight years, that I suspect we'll soon all miss: As much as I sometimes disagreed with, say, his tendencies toward secrecy and surveillance or his Charlie-Brown-kicking-the-football obsession with the bipartisanship unicorn, there was always an underlying decency about the man.

That's not to say his presidency wasn't accomplished. He took a country fractured by two long-running wars and an economic crisis and slowly rebuilt it. On virtually every metric, the country is stronger today than it was eight years ago. It's healthier, wealthier and more respected. And while there are still mountains to climb – economic inequality and criminal justice reform, for starters – Obama did, in a very real sense, make America great again. (Sorry, Donald.)

Obama wasn't a perfect president, but he was sometimes a great one – and he was always a good man. We won't be so fortunate with the next guy.

@jeffreybillman on Twitter


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