Attytood readers, you and I have been through a lot of ups and downs these last few years. There were nights when I fell asleep wondering whether the Daily News would be here the next morning. Heck, there were nights when I worried that America wouldn't be here...at least not as we've known it. Through it all, in the back of my mind, was the one column that I dreaded writing, even though I knew eventually this day would come. And now it's finally here. It's time for me to say goodbye...
...to President Barack Obama.
Had a couple of you going there, didn't I? Actually, I, too, am saying goodbye -- but only for two or three weeks. (Read my Blogger's Note at the end of the post.) Since I won't be in this space between now and some unknown date after Jan. 20, this will be my last post/column/whatever of the Obama era. And so how to make sense of these last eight years in America?
Every once in a while, I try to remember how it felt on January 21, 2009, the first full day of Obama's presidency. Other than the massive crowd, his inauguration had been oddly underwhelming -- his speech less memorable than hoped for, and then there was that weird flub with Chief Justice John Roberts, which my increasingly paranoid mind has come to believe wasn't an accident.
But now the 44th president was officially "on the job" and -- for someone with dreams of a more progressive America, "walking the walk" on human rights -- it all seemed like a dream. For his first official act, Obama was signing an order that would close the embarrassing symbol of an era of national shame, the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. After two terms of Bush and Cheney, here was a commander-in-chief endorsing the rule of law, talking the first step toward restoring America's image on the world.
But you know the old line...when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Here we are, almost eight years later, and the American gulag at Gitmo is still in business. Indeed, the story of Guantanamo is kind of a metaphor for Obama and his presidency. His instincts and his morals were good. But his execution was flawed and naive. In spite of that, he soldiered on -- so that there's fewer inmates in the prison camp than when he took office. But in the end, he faced currents even stronger than a president of the United States.
The years 2009-2017 will be remembered as the era of America's first African-American president -- but also as the time when an American political party learned there was no penalty for complete obstructionism, or for sometimes even flouting its constitutional duties. It was a time when a U.S. commander-in-chief could win the Nobel Peace Prize, and yet in the last year of his administration drop 26,171 bombs around the globe, in nations where the average citizen doesn't even know who we're fighting or why. It was a time when the trends that have truly come to define our lives over the last half-century -- income inequality, racing technological advances, globalization and automation, and possible climate devastation -- kept churning. Just as they did when the occupant of the Oval Office was named George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, or Ronald Reagan.
In the face of all that, how can we even begin to define President Barack Obama?
Personally, I'll say this: Obama is the 11th president of my lifetime, although my memories of the Ike years (I was born in January 1959) are a tad hazy. I'll state unequivocally that Obama has been the best of those 11. And a lot of that is what he accomplished in the face of all those obstacles. Passing the legislation that brought health insurance -- and peace of mind -- to 20 million Americans who weren't covered before the Affordable Care Act. In the wake of a crisis that devastated the world's economy, overseeing 75 months of uninterrupted job growth. Ushering in an era of once unthinkable progress in LGBTQ rights. Taking steps to reduce America's carbon footprint. Raising (before this year's election, anyway) America's image in the world.
And yet despite those things, Obama's popularity -- with an approval rate of about 53 percent, which is pretty remarkable in such a generally polarized country -- seems less a function of what he did than, simply, who he is. On the macro level, it's impossible to recall a presidential administration that was so free of either petty scandals or unseemly power grabs. On the micro level, Obama showed the world it's actually possible to be "the leader of the free world" and be a good husband and a good dad at the same time. In fact, he almost made that look easy, with good humor and grace. Recently I had a chance to see the outstanding movie "Jackie," which, in the end, centers on the creation of the myth of a "Camelot" in the Kennedy White House.
But Barack Obama's brand of "Camelot" wasn't even a myth.
And yet, there was so much that the best president of my lifetime got wrong. Obama promised the most transparent presidency in U.S. history -- and then his administration tossed whistleblowers in jail while ignoring the Freedom of Information Act. By failing to prosecute the war crimes of his predecessors and in fact locking in the Bush-Cheney overreaches on spying, drone warfare, and the ever-growing power of the presidency, he made it easier for, ahem, the next president to abuse power. His naive belief that compromise was possible with the political throat-slashers of Capitol Hill meant some missed opportunities in the first years of his presidency, and later occasionally brought the country to the brink of disaster. He was titular leader of the Democratic Party in an era when Democrats lost clout and key offices from coast-to-coast.
Some of Obama's errors were unforced and unfortunate. But much of what wrong -- and what set the stage for the small-d democratic meltdown that appears to be happening right now -- is the result of something that most Americans are loathe to admit. For a nation that once rejected monarchy, we are obsessed with the modern presidency, from Saturday Night Live skits to social media to all those tired family arguments over the holidays. And yet no matter how much power we bestow on our imperial presidency, there are social and political currents that are so much stronger than the occupant of the Oval Office.
Obstructionism: Here. Obama and his presidency was boxed in from Day One. Why? The president and his close advisers know that Obama had captured the White House by being "No Drama" Obama, by shunning any stereotypes of "the angry black man," and by clinging to his "Kumbaya" message from 2004 Democratic convention. The truth is that a man who's been savaged by his right-wing critics for saying that "if they bring a knife, we bring a gun" actually showed up for the real political gun fight with Monty Python's "comfy chair." But the ingrained fear by Obama and his fellow Democrats of "sullying the brand" by playing political hardball against the GOP has had disastrous consequences, including the loss of a Supreme Court seat.
Militarism: Until the Glorious Peoples' Revolution ushers in the co-presidency of Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn (OK, OK, I'm joking), it's pretty unlikely we'll see a president as interested in curbing U.S. global militarism as Obama has been. And yet he scarcely made a dent. There are even still U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, if not nearly as many as the Bush years. And America still sends its Flying Death Robots to kills suspected terrorists -- and more than a few innocent civilians -- all over the globe. The National Security State -- the CIA, the NSA, the Pentagon -- barely budged during the Obama years. That's because it's always stronger than the presidents who come and go every eight or four years.
Automation, etc.: Never before has there been such a disconnect between economic numbers and our economic emotions. As noted earlier, job growth has been in the right direction, and the official unemployment rate of 4.7 percent is fairly low, historically. But wages only budged recently, millions of Americans -- from latte-serving Millennials to 50-something former factory workers -- are grossly underemployed, and Obama's policies did next to nothing in tackling record income inequality. In the 1950s, industrial barons needed a big workforce -- often a unionized workforce with actual clout -- to make a profit; today, the ease of outsourcing and, increasingly, automation has largely decoupled the profit factor from the employment factor. A president, or even a president-elect like our current one, can save a few jobs by yelling at a corporation -- literally drops in an unmanageable ocean.
Cultural polarization: This is the most abstract of the cultural movements that beat hard against Obama's presidency, and yet it proved the most powerful. It was really a swirl of disparate forces -- unfocused anger over America's loss of industrial might and declining global prestige (as discussed above), the gap between haves and have-nots that somehow morphed from an income discussion to cultural snobbery and so-called "political correctness," and the blurred lines between entertainment and reality -- that created a revolution that toppled Obama's overly-thought-out Jenga after only a handful of pieces were in place. Indeed, when I reported extensively on the Tea Party in the early days of Obama's presidency, I picked up less resentment of Obama for being black as for being an out-of-touch elitist from Harvard Law School. In 2017, America is a land taken over by instant gratification, and the only two things that we really crave are entertainment....and revenge against the know-it-alls. That created this crazy world were 53 percent of us can approve of Barack Obama even as we're placing the Acme dynamite sticks under anything he accomplished. Obama's legacy didn't deserve this -- but we probably did. In the end, Obama was clearly the right man...for the wrong time.
And yet Obama beat on, a boat against the current, trying to save national monuments or giving cheerful media interviews, right up to the final hours. I can't tell you just how much of Obama's legacy will be set ablaze in the coming weeks or months, or how much carnage will ensue. In the end, there's only one thing I can say with near certainty about our sometimes magical and occasionally maddening 44th presidency and the man who made it all happen, Barack Obama.
We're going to miss him.