There have been scores of black presidents in history. But America only had one. It will never have another like him.
On the last day of Barack Obama’s presidency, I don’t look back embracing all of his policies—some were good and some were not. But I strongly embrace his character. His leadership. His representation of my country.
During the campaign season that led up to his election, people told me, lamentingly, that the United States would not elect a black man to the highest office in the land. They said we weren’t ready.
I never believed that.
Perhaps there is a generational element to it. Millennial Americans are far more global in their perspectives and multicultural in their mindsets. We are not perfectly diverse, nor fully escaped from the clutches of our own prejudices, but we grew up with the understanding that candidates’ race and gender ought not swing elections the way they have for so many decades and centuries in our country.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a stirring essay on Obama’s presidency and what follows it. The piece on the cover of The Atlantic is called, “My President Was Black”.
Not “only half black” or “not black enough”, as were labels proffered early in Obama’s presidency.
My president, too, was black. Full stop.
What is more, my president was good.
Now, I always thought the President’s skin color was a nice, groundbreaking fact of his presence in the office of the Leader of the Free World. Something historic. Something cool. But his blackness was never defining for me. I always judged him on policy, on action, on the content of his character, and for that gave him praise. Coates’ remarkable tribute, however, demonstrated to me again that the color of the POTUS’ skin, in this nation, was not merely incidental. What he did for the black community cannot be understated. He shattered a ceiling. He flipped stereotypes. As Coates writes, “He walked on ice and never fell.”
The presidency is a tightrope no matter who holds it. How much more with a house divided. How much narrower the rope and slicker the ice when, from the evening of his inauguration, his opponents went about devising blockades, if not his downfall.
Yes, my president was black. Today, he still is. But that is not why I feel so strongly about him.
His policy, too, was at times stellar. I was in college when Obama took office, but I remember clearly the fear inspired in talks of the faltering economy. The economy is stable now. This president was a job-reviver, if not a job-maker. Remember cash for clunkers? He led the country back from the edge of extreme danger. In health care, the Affordable Care Act is not ideal, but it is far closer to the ideal than anything we have had before. Abroad, we had nearly 200,000 American boots on the ground in the Middle East when Obama moved into the White House. Now we are down to one-tenth of that number. His maneuvering of the Arab Spring was not particularly agile, but it was a direct rebuttal to the invading, nation-building that Americans had defaulted to in the past. And, perhaps above all, I credit Barack Obama for his common sense calls on gun control—measures supported by 90 percent of the populous—even though they were quashed by a Congress beholden to lobbyists.
His policy, at times, also stained his legacy. He watched Bashar al Assad cross “the red line” and answered weakly. I remember him in Cairo and I was so happy, so hopeful, but the Arab Spring could not be kept from the biting chill of winter. Obama could not maneuver the complexity of Libya and Syria well—backing resistance movements, but not enough for them to prevail. He was the Deporter in Chief. To his credit, he fought to stall climate change, but not enough. And, perhaps most disappointingly, he could not close the gap between the One Percent and the rest. Wage inequality is still horrific and getting worse.
But apart from his historic place as the first African American president, and apart from his policy—up and down as it was, stifled by an opposition-dominated legislature—the thing I loved and will continue to love most about Barack Obama is the very thing Dr. King told us we should look at in people of all colors.
I love the content of his character.
Put aside his skin color. Put aside his mandates. Put aside, even, for a moment, his ideas.
Our President, today, is a very decent person, even as he is an exceptional politician.
He won on the strength and wisdom of his words as much as anything—and it is a gift he never lost. There has never been a politician I wanted to listen to more. I wanted him to speak to me, to teach me. Not because I always agreed, but because he spoke with beauty and passion and reason. Have we had such an incredible orator in Washington since Lincoln?
Obama was unwavering in his kindness to people. His respect for those with whom he disagreed. Perhaps this has only become clear to me in the scalding glow of the Trumpian aura, but Obama is simply a very decent human, father, husband, professor, commander, diplomat, and leader.
In my memory, he did not bully with words, even if he did with legislation. But that is politics. He did not shame, except where shame was due—and even there he was generous. He did not demean, nor deride, nor discriminate.
Whatever we think of his politics, Barack Obama was and remains a role model for all Americans. This is how you treat people. This is how you represent yourself. This is how you represent your country.
That, perhaps, is what I will miss the most. His ability to represent well.
I like the idea that Obama represented my country to other world leaders. I like it that he represented our country after school shootings, at funerals for soldiers and police officers, at state dinners and negotiation tables. He respected others and in turn earned respect. He could give a eulogy, give a lecture, give a prayer, give a brief, give a killer speech, give even a song.
What we need now–what we have always needed–is a leader who can do those things.
Finally, to me, Barack Obama is one of the funniest politicians we’ve had. Perhaps even funnier than W, and for different reasons.
And that smile.
He was classy. He was dignified. He spoke like Apollo and with Athenian sagacity. He was charming. I wholeheartedly and unashamedly believe that Barack Hussein Obama is a great man, a great American, and a great leader.
Perhaps it is a mathematical fact that the greatest men must be followed by lesser ones. Was it inevitable that the aftermath of our first black president would see his office made the inheritance of a politically-unaware bully, a Hollywood-ized caricatured quack, a diet racist?
From the evening of Obama’s inauguration until now, I have liked him. Even when I did not vote with him, I liked him. The country liked him too.
For three elections in a row, the popular vote went in favor of the Obama Doctrine. Today, on his last day in office, he leaves with a 60 percent approval rating.
Maybe one of the silver linings of a Trump presidency is that we’ll see just how incredible Obama was.
We were lucky to have him. I hope we remember that before the end.
I miss him already.