GQ columnist Jim Nelson feels much the same way that I do, that America is going to desperately miss Barack Obama when he's no longer President of the United States, and that he'll go down as one of the greats.
Wait. One of the Greatest? you ask, your thumb emoticon poised to turn up or down on me. The guy haters love to hate with their very best hate game? Like 20-Dollar Bill great? Like Mount Rushmore great?
Yep. (We just won’t build Mount Rushmores anymore.) In so many ways, Obama was better than we imagined, better than the body politic deserved, and far, far better than his enemies will ever concede, but the great thing about being great is that the verdict of enemies doesn’t matter.
In fact, and I say this as a Bill Clinton fan, I now feel certain that, in the coming decades, Obama’s star will rise higher than Clinton’s, and he’ll replace Bill in the public mind as the Greatest Democrat since FDR.
This has to do with the nature of Obama’s leadership, which is to play to legacy (and Clinton’s impulse, which is to play to the room). Bill Clinton will long be revered because he’s charismatic, presided over an economic revival, and changed and elevated the view of the Democratic Party. Barack Obama will long be revered because he’s charismatic, presided over an economic revival, and changed and elevated the view of the presidency. He’s simply bigger than Bill.
More to the point, Obama’s legacy is the sort that gets canonized. Because the first rule of Hall of Fame-dom: The times have to suck for the president not to. Civil wars, World Wars, depressions and recessions. You got to have ’em if you wanna be great. That’s why we rate the Washingtons, Lincolns, and Roosevelts over That Fat Guy with the Walrus Mustache. Like Obama, these Great Men were dealt sucky hands, won big, and left the country better off than it was before.
But it’s also why we downgrade the Jimmy Carters and Herbert Hoovers. Were they as bad in real time as we remember them in history? Probably not. But they were dealt sucky hands, only played one round, and left the country feeling worse off. Legacy Game over. (Hoover reminds me more and more of Donald Trump! Elected with little political experience, Hoover was a rich bastard whose central theme was that government was wasteful. His answer to the Great Depression was to start a trade war and build a massive project called the Hoover Dam. The dam turned out to be a giant wall that did not stop or solve larger problems. Déjà vu, thy name is Trump Wall!)
Obama has a few other edges in the long haul of history, beyond specific hurrah moments like Obamacare, rescuing the economy, and making America way more bi-curious. Being the first black president of course secures a certain legacy. But what now feels distinctly possible is that, just as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, over time he may be judged less for the color of his skin than for the content of his character. That character came across every time haters or Trumpers or birthers tried to pull him down into the mud or question his American-ness. He just flew above it all. And, luckily, he took most of us with him. He was the Leader not only of our country but of our mood and disposition, which is harder to rule. At a time when we became more polarized, our discourse pettier and more poisoned, Obama always came across as the Adult in the Room, the one we wanted to be and follow.
The "adult in the room that we wanted to be and to follow" characteristic is the one that made me appreciate Barack Obama. Yes, he's far from perfect and he's made mistakes and outright awful decisions that I've detailed numerous times here over the last seven years and change.
But Barack Obama was the person who got me involved in local and state politics, and made me want to make my country better than it was.
Reagan and Poppy Bush made me think of the presidency as something to be angry at as a kid. They sent people to wars and those people were hurt and killed. Clinton didn't make me care either way. Bush 43 certainly didn't make me believe the presidency would ever be used by anyone other than for personal gain.
Obama? Yeah. I'll miss the guy, and that's putting it mildly.