Time Out to Appreciate President Obama


President Barack Obama campaigns for Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton at Florida Memorial University Multi Purpose & Wellness Center on October 20, 2016, in Miami Gardens, Florida. 

An earlier version of this story appeared at The Huffington Post.

Could we pause from the misery of the campaign for a tip of the hat to President Obama? His approval ratings are now soaring.

And not surprisingly: Against the sheer thuggery of Donald Trump and the somewhat blemished history of the Clintons, Barack and Michelle Obama have been models of dignity and probity.

Barack Obama is possessed not just of idealism and intelligence, but a certain grace.  That’s what a president is supposed to look like.

Not the faintest whiff of scandal—no rumors of infidelity, no financial conflicts of interest—the Obamas are serious people, exemplary parents, upstanding citizens, nothing cheap or tawdry about them.

In case we forgot, the birthers and the haters have not been able to lay a glove on the Obamas because Barack and Michelle give them not a scintilla of ammunition.

And how elegant, how splendid, how affirming for our Republic, that this president is a black man. My black friends would say, well of course, what do you expect? To make it in white America, black people have to be better, often significantly better.

Black parents dread the moment when the time comes to give their kids, especially their sons, “the talk”—about doing nothing to rouse any suspicion from a cop, the importance of excelling and then some, despite the sheer unfairness of having to bend to accommodate white society’s persistent racism.

Yes, there are some blacks who perhaps derived some marginal advantage from rules requiring universities and employers to use affirmative action to overcome present effects of past discrimination. A lot of the tests used to measure supposed aptitude and merit are off the mark, in any case.

But Barack Obama is not a case of affirmative action. He’s Jackie Robinson—breaking the color line not out of tokenism but because he was unmistakably the best player on the field.

They retired Robinson’s number, 42. When Obama retires as President 44, we are going to miss him.

What a crime that this man, who came to national prominence as a young Senate candidate in 2004 with a speech calling for America to bridge divides, has been the object of the most negative and vituperative obstructionism and nihilism by Republicans, possibly of any president in our history.

He’s worked to bridge differences for his entire career, from his days at the Harvard Law Review, as an organizer in Chicago, and as a state legislator in Springfield. He hoped that his call might resonate to put aside red states and blue states in favor of the United States.

But despite his best efforts, America is more divided than ever and the right wing more poisonous. Obama deserved better, and so did we.

At the time of his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, few people outside of Chicago or of Democratic Party politics had even heard of Obama. Representative Jan Schakowsky of suburban Chicago, a close friend of the Obamas, likes to tell the story of her Obama button, the one she happened to be wearing when she attended a White House meeting with George W. Bush in early 2004 when the unknown Obama was contesting the Illinois Democratic primary.

This was not that long after the events of September 11, 2001, and a worldwide manhunt was on for Osama bin Laden. Schakowsky was a critic of his war, and Bush gaped at her button with incredulity. “It’s Obama, Mr. President,” Schakowsky grinned.

“Never heard of him,” Bush said sourly. “You will,” replied Schakowsky.

There is some buzz making the rounds on the internet that Hillary Clinton should appoint former constitutional law professor Barack Obama to the next open seat on the Supreme Court. Let the Republicans try to filibuster than one.

I’ve had my criticisms of President Obama. Early on, he made one grave misjudgment that haunted the rest of his presidency. Instead of making a radical break with the policies and economic officials whose program of financial deregulation crashed the economy, he reappointed them.

That enabled the Tea Party right to appropriate much of the populist anger that should have been directed against the Republicans. He let the deficit hawks talk him into torpedoing the second stimulus bill passed by Nancy Pelosi’s still Democratic House in late 2009, setting up an epic blowout defeat in the 2010 midterm. He never recovered the capacity to pass major legislation.

He also let himself get captured by the sponsors of trade deals written by and for corporate America, that do nothing for most ordinary people except export jobs and create sweetheart patent deals for industry.

But look at his court appointments, look at the Iran agreement, look at his willingness to incur huge risks to make gains. Look as his high principle and respect for our institutions. Missteps and all, Obama has shown real greatness.

And look at Obama on the campaign trail! His impromptu comments have been just terrific. He has brilliantly hung Donald Trump around the necks of the Republicans, with wit and verve.

If Hillary wins big, if the Democrats manage to take back the Senate, opening the door to a progressive Supreme Court, several people will deserve our thanks. We can thank a great pool of candidates. We can surely thank Donald Trump. We can thank Hillary Clinton who is finally starting to lighten up and be her best self as she starts pulling away.

But we can also thank Barack Obama. Hillary turned out to be more than likable enough. And one shattered glass ceiling deserves another.

At times, when it looks as if democracy itself is vulnerable to the demagoguery of Donald Trump and the vigilantism he tries to stir up, just having Barack Obama in the White House offers reassurance that democracy will hold. Thank you.

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