By Jim Nelson
Something is dawning on us—it’s almost too soon for us to admit, but it’s there, a half-considered thought only now blooming in our brains. Maybe we dismiss it with one of those quick cognitive fly swats. Nah, too early to say or I hate that guy. But the truth is coming, and it sounds like this: Barack Obama will be inducted into the league of Great Presidents.
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.
Ironically, one of the lock-ins to his Hall of Fame Greatness was originally supposed to be his Achilles’ heel, the shallow thing critics loved to smear him with: his eloquence, his “reliance” on speeches and teleprompters (Sarah Palin once famously screeched, “Mr. President…step away from the teleprompter and do your job!” while herself reading from a teleprompter), as if addressing the country as a whole, trying to unify or inspire people, were a superficial thing. But pivotal words at pivotal moments are not only how we come to admire great leaders, it’s the primary way we remember them. The first thing most people can recall about Lincoln? The Gettysburg Address. FDR? Fireside chats. George Washington? His amazing Snapchats. (George was first with everything.)
With Obama, each thoughtful step of the way, from his soaring acceptance speech (“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep…”) to his epic speeches on race and religion, his responses to the shootings in Tucson and Newtown, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the opening of Cuba (“Todos somos Americanos!”), and countless other momentous occasions, he knew how to speak to our better angels at a time when it was hard to locate any angels.
Lastly, there’s the arc of history, bound to bend downward. As our unity becomes more frayed, more tenuous, and the ability for any politician to get anything done more unlikely, the job of president will become less LBJ tactical and less FDR big-dealer. The job will largely be to preside. To unify where and however we can. In this way, too, Obama pointed the way forward.
It may be hard to imagine now, but in the face of rising chaos, we’ll crave unity all the more, and in future years whoever can speak most convincingly of unity will rise to the top. (It’s also hard to imagine many beating Obama at the game.) This year’s carnival election, with Trump as a kind of debauched circus barker, only makes the distinction clearer. The absurdity and car-crash spectacle of it all have already lent Obama an out-of-time quality, as if he were a creature from another, loftier century. Whatever happens next, I feel this in my bones: We’ll look back at history, hopefully when we’re zooming down the Barack Obama Hyperloop Transport System, and think: That man was rare. And we were damn lucky to have him.
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