This piece is part of a series on Obama’s legacy that The Huffington Post has been publishing over the past week.
WASHINGTON ― When I first met Barack Obama, in January 2005, he had just arrived in the U.S. Senate. He was 43 years old, but looked 33. A Sinatra-like black suit hung loosely over his lanky frame, and he flashed an enormous smile that lit up the Capitol hallways.
He had “president” written all over him and everyone in the place knew it, most of all ― and quite evidently ― Obama himself. He was a class act, and he knew that, too, and was determined to maintain his dignity. That sounds like a small thing but it was and is not, in a society full of noise, stupidity and accusation.
He had risen fast, but not via lots of elections or by passing lots of legislation, or detailed agendas and platforms. He had done it through eloquent language largely about himself.
His story and lively presence were his own proof of the healing virtues of American struggle and hope. He told all of this in a precocious autobiography published in 1995, and in an electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
Now, newly elected and arriving from Illinois, he was a magnet for senators and even reporters, who sidled up to him for photo ops.
I was one of them. “I know who you are,” he said genially. “I read you, I watch you. Come on over to the office once I get things set up.”
Later, I did. His sunny Hart Building office vividly displayed the unique, ambitious and fantastically salable persona he had on offer to the Democratic Party and the country: paintings and portraits of Muhammad Ali, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois cornfield and degrees from Columbia and Harvard on the resume.
He was full of energy, optimism, ideas ― and hope ― in the gloom of the post-9/11 presidency of George W. Bush.
“We have to bring the country together,” he said at one point. “Not red America, or blue America, but America.”
The loud implication: I can do that because I am that beyond-division America. And it was not only plausible but real. He had the temperament to make it happen.
At that very moment, I knew, Obama’s office was the hub of his nascent 2008 presidential campaign, with press secretary Robert Gibbs hard at work from behind lowered blinds and media guru David Axelrod back in Chicago working the phones.
“This is the One,” Axelrod, whom I had known for decades, told me on the phone time after time.
At least as far as winning the presidency, Axelrod turned out to be right.
Now we know how well the Obama Answer worked. The bottom line: moderately well in domestic affairs, less well in the world, in a presidency that is likely to be regarded more as transitional than transformative, and that feels oddly more like the end of an era than the beginning of the one he promised.
The Obama Ledger
First the good news.
Obama’s Mr. Cool persona calmed the roiling markets in 2008, even before he took office. Like a good emergency room surgeon, he did what he had to do stop the bleeding, even if that meant violating perceived Democratic Party orthodoxy.
He gave the big money center banks what they needed. He boldly shored up the auto industry, rightly calculating that, if they failed, they would take the Midwest with them. (No good deed goes unpunished in politics, as the 2016 election showed.) He pushed for as much of a throw-it-against-the-wall stimulus package as he could push through Congress — again, rightly figuring that federal cash was more important than precision. Time was of the essence, and he acted.
Eight years later, all of that is a distant memory. The economic vital signs are strong overall: housing starts, unemployment rates, etc. Widening income and wealth inequality is a global phenomenon, but the American economy as a whole is in decent shape ― and “No Drama Obama” deserves the credit. Even Obamacare, as controversial as it is, has had a stimulative effect by putting money in low-income hands.
The Obama Administration was accused of being too easy on greedy big banks, but it was remarkably free of traditional corruption scandal, even if Republicans tried to make an issue of a few funky energy loans shoveled out as stimulus. Obama ran a clean operation.
Personally, in “This Town,” Obama and his family were seen as rather aloof, keep-to-themselves types. But the reasons in good measure have to do with devotion to family. They liked and needed to be with each other, and who could blame them?
In the face of unimaginable provocation, Obama and his family have acted with grace and class every moment of every day in public. Being president is hard enough; being the first African-American president is a monumental task of social tightrope walking. Obama’s step has been as surefooted as a mountain goat virtually every step of the way along. He slipped at times, but never fell.
The Obamas are devoted parents, and their children have stayed out of trouble as they have grown from little kids to near-adults. This is no small achievement.
The Obamas’ devotion to the arts, to healthy living, to intellectual life in Washington and the country, are worth noting, too ― easy to dismiss as trivial, but only by those who don’t realize just how valuable the role-modeling of a president and first lady can be.
The Obamas have lived a truly multicultural and multiracial public life in Washington, and in the world ― finally (and logically) opening doors to Cuba after 60 years, traveling extensively in Africa. Controversially, Obama even reached out to Iran, not out of naivete, but in hopes of reconnecting with what was once a great civilization and bringing it back into the world conversation.
A tech nerd by nature, Obama largely has left Silicon Valley alone to do what it does. He rode the rise of Facebook to the presidency, and his own experimentation with other forms of social and digital media have been good for what America does best: communicate.
The Drone President
But there is another side to the Obama ledger.
For one, he has enhanced and perfected a theory of distant cyber war that separates the American people from the consequences ― and even the sight of ― the hell we are creating and dealing with elsewhere.
Obama has been the Drone President, cutting back on troop deployments in favor of ultra-targeted drone killings on distant battlefields. Cool can become callous in such circumstances, and there is something chillingly clinical about it all.
He has cracked down in unprecedented ways on leaks in this same time ― but leaks in this new cyber era are the inevitable consequence of the secret, invisible way he has chosen to wage our wars. How else but through WikiLeaks and others is the public to know?
Yet, at the same time, it’s hard to know if the U.S. is winning the cyber wars raging with China, Russia and others. Judging from what happened in the U.S. election, it doesn’t seem like it. Obama’s administration has seemed too easy to penetrate.
In foreign affairs, Obama started with astronomical hope. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 11 days after taking office. He won it that October, four months after he delivered a speech in Cairo advocating outreach to the world of Islam. It seems never to have occurred to him to politely turn it down until he had accomplished something concrete. His acceptance said more than he realized.
And indeed as he leaves office today it is hard to argue that the world in general ― or the Middle East in particular ― are any closer to peace. In fact, the tectonic plates of international affairs are shifting at an accelerating and dangerous pace, and he seems at the mercy of events, not in any way in control of them.
Despite a supposed “pivot” to Asia, China is aggressively asserting itself in the region, including the South China Sea. Russia largely ignored and defied Obama’s modest efforts to rein in Vladimir Putin for grabbing Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine ― and Putin now has President Donald Trump to sanctify it all. NATO and Europe are living in fear of Russian expansionism and threats. And, if anything, Israel and the Palestinians are farther apart than ever on any kind of regional solution. Turkey is rapidly becoming a theocracy, and the theocracy that already exists in the region, in Iran, has not ended its ambition for Cyrus-like dominion just because it signed a nuclear non-proliferation deal.
Leaving Washington Divided
As for the other unbridgeable region in the world ― Washington, D.C. ― it is more divided than ever. It’s redder than ever, and bluer than ever, but not much in between.
Obama’s caution and dignified self-regard, however worthy as a way of carrying himself in public, made him precisely the wrong character to deal with the denizens of the Congressional Casbah.
He wasn’t much of a serious legislator during his relatively brief time in the Illinois state legislature ― the place bored him. He was a stone skipping across the lake during his four years in the U.S. Senate. More important, he was no fan of ― and not good at ― the naked horse trading of deal-making. He was closer in spirit to Woodrow Wilson, professor and teacher, than he was to, say, Lyndon Johnson or Harry Truman.
From literally the first minute of his presidency, Republicans and conservatives declared their intent to stick fistfuls of spokes into the wheels of the Obama presidency. The proud Obama tried his hand at deal-making with them; they flatly refused. Worse, they were contemptuous and dismissive ― and there is nothing that Barack Obama despises more than to be disrespected.
His response was to firebomb Congress from afar (“YOU have a drink with Mitch McConnell,” he said drily), and pressuring the only people he had the power to pressure, Democrats, via his foul-mouthed chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel. He also relied on professional Democratic arm-twisters of a Congress that was, at the start of the Obama presidency, entirely in Democratic hands.
Everything from the stimulus package to Obamacare was passed on straight party-line votes ― as though America ran on an English-style parliamentary system, rather than the cross-cutting give-and-take of a presidential and congressional one.
The result was the Tea Party explosion of 2010 and the diminishment of the Democratic Party ever since. He leaves behind a party weak, divided and confused at the end of his presidency. But he never really cared about the party. He was above all that.
Obamacare has by some measures been a great success. If you spend a lot of money expanding Medicaid and offering subsidies for insurance, you are going to add a lot of people to the health care rolls. But the tax hikes to pay for it all are only now being fully phased in ― that was on purpose ― and Obama has set it up so that Republicans will have to cut benefits or agree to those hikes.
It was a clever, technocratic and political strategy, sold inside the Beltway by a new wave of policy nerds who could follow Obama’s strange mix of GOP theory (marketplaces) and LBJ-style government “progrums.” But the final result ignored two things: the GOP’s willingness to cut benefits and their furious opposition to any new taxes.
Since he was relying solely on Democrats anyway, perhaps Obama should have tried to sell a more sweeping reform, as suggested by the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Perhaps he should have landed with both feet on the banks after bailing them out
Probably yes, but that was never who Obama was. He didn’t want to risk losing it all on any one hand of poker. His dignity had to remain intact. And to the extent he was an ideologue at all, it wasn’t on policy matters such as these. In fact, he wasn’t a hell-for-leather progressive at all; he cared less about ideas (though he was one of the most intellectually adept presidents ever). He cared about winning, and in the end, he won far less than he thought we would.
That’s why his presidency has the feel of the end of an era ― the era of relatively accommodating, market-oriented Clintonism that took over the Democratic Party in 1992 with Bill Clinton’s election after the Ronald Reagan years.
Obama said he admired Reagan, but his presidency looks a lot more like that of George H.W. Bush who, in one of those cinematic symmetries of history, lies ill in a Houston hospital bed.
Some kind of movement of the 99 percent is going to follow Obama now, and Obama won’t be leading it.
The End Of The Road
In his final speech and press conference, he said that he is depending on a rising generation of Americans ― more tolerant, more varied in background ― to carry America to the next step in social and economic progress.
But in the meantime he is leaving behind in the White House a man who has taken Obama’s own personal/personality approach to politics and tripled down on it in a dangerous way.
Donald Trump’s approach to politics makes Obama’s seem modest in both senses of the word. Trump doesn’t need a Shep Fairey poster; he has buildings everywhere with his name emblazoned on them, and a Twitter stream that never stops. He doesn’t need professorial rationality; he has the big brag.
Had he been able to run for a third term, Obama said, he would have won ― a highly debatable notion, but one that springs from his massive self-confidence.
Calm and collected to the end, Obama talked like a wise dad at his last press conference. He said he told his daughters not to fret about Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton last fall. “The only thing that’s the end of the world is the end of the world,” he told them.
“We’re going to be OK,” he assured America and the world.
The somber, almost world-weary man I saw on the stage in the White House press room, now looking older than his years, was a far cry from the meteor I saw flash across the Senate sky 12 years earlier.
But it was good to see Barack Obama finish the job as he had begun: as a class act, on a stage that he owned, with a story about himself that was worth telling.