By Ken Trainor
Six days before the next commander-in-chief takes over, I find myself thinking more about Barack Obama, the best president in my lifetime — not only the best in my life until now, but likely the best in the rest of it. I don't expect to see anyone better.
As for the new guy, based on his conduct in the campaign and transition, I expect a textbook catastrophe to unfold over the next four to (God forbid) eight years.
But that cloud can't overshadow my appreciation of the past eight years. I feel sorry for conservatives (and even some liberals) who were too closed-minded or narrow-minded and completely missed the best president in their lifetime as well. Maybe someday they'll come to appreciate him.
I've written many columns about Barack Obama over the past 12 years, as you would expect with the best president in my lifetime. The first, titled "Obama's choice: Politics of cynicism or of hope," ran on Aug. 11, 2004, shortly after his now-famous speech at the Democratic National Convention. Here's an excerpt:
"Let's face it. Almost everyone these days is cynical or disillusioned about politics and politicians, but for 15 minutes that night, Obama brought democratic ideals alive again. A remarkable achievement. …
"In this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and commitments, to hold them against the hard reality and see how we are measuring up — to the legacy of our forebears, and the promise of future generations. And, fellow Americans — Democrats, Republicans, Independents — I say to you tonight: We have more work to do. ...
Alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga — a belief that we are connected as one people. ... It's that fundamental belief — I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper — that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. ...
There's not a liberal America and a conservative America — there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America. ... We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.
In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?"
Cynics will contend that Obama failed to unite this country, but he didn't fail. We did. It was always up to us. And now we're reaping the consequences of that failure: with a president and party in power who practice the politics of cynicism, who are, in fact, masters of it — and mastered by it.
By chance, I met Obama in 2004 in Denver, Colorado at a hotel where I was attending a friend's wedding. Already highly regarded, he was invited there to campaign for another candidate. Mr. Obama sat in the passenger seat of his car by the curb, door open, legs extended out as he pored over some paperwork.
We had a short conversation, but I didn't say what I really wanted to say — and finally did say in my column on Oct. 20, 2004:
"You're about to be swept into a cauldron of fame and power and the distorted reality that is Washington D.C. Hold onto your humanity. A lot of us are rooting for you. We want you to fulfill your promise, and perhaps even become this nation's first biracial president someday. But you have to hold onto your humanity. We need someone to unify this country, heal our cultural divorce, create stepbrothers and stepsisters where once we were antagonized fragments. You are a symbol of the unification we desire, but you can only unite the rest of us if you hold onto your humanity."
His greatest achievement was doing precisely that, sustaining his humanity for the next 12 years. He proved it's possible. As his wife, Michelle, the most admired person in America, put it, "Being president doesn't change who you are; it reveals who you are." And President Obama's character, fully revealed over the last eight years, was not found wanting.
The presidency will also reveal the true character of the man about to succeed him, and, based on his behavior thus far, he will almost certainly be found wanting. The contrast with the best president in our lifetime, I predict, will be stark.
My next encounter with Barack Obama came in June of 2006 at Northwestern University's graduation, where he delivered the commencement address. In my June 21, 2006 column, I wrote:
"… It's no secret a lot of people hope he ends up in the White House — not just liberals. His gift is his ability to talk to Americans across the political divide. He doesn't leave anyone out of the conversation.
"He also comes along during a near-total leadership vacuum nationally. In such a void, a politician who tells the truth stands out. Lincoln arrived on the scene during a similar vacuum. So did FDR. There's no way to know if Obama is capable of greatness, but he is certainly a fine speaker. ...
"It's easy to see why Obama appeals. He connects with his audience, doesn't project an air of superiority, does project an air of quiet confidence and intelligence, speaks simply and directly, and doesn't B.S. Since there is no one else on the national scene who shares these qualities, people respond.
"Will he end up as president someday, fulfilling all that promise and our high expectations? I've learned never to count on anyone when it comes to politics, but after two years in the spotlight, I have to say ...
"So far, so good."
The title of the column was "Obama hasn't disappointed us yet."
And from "Making the world safe for idealism," Nov. 12, 2008:
"On Election Day, one of the first things I saw was a cellphone ad on the side of a Pace bus: 'Believe in something better.' That pretty much sums up idealists. We believe in something better — and never quite give up on making it a reality. …
"And now we've elected one."
Actually, it turned out President Obama was not an idealist. He was a "critical realist," as defined by Rev. Vic Clore, a longtime Catholic pastor in inner-city Detroit, whom I interviewed in 2012.
"Realism, in its grossest sense," he told me, "is a kind of materialism where you don't have broader principles. You just live in the most pragmatic way. Critical realism, on the other hand, is when you subject your insight to ongoing lived experience; then you keep talking with one another until you come to what is a reasonable judgment about what we should do now, or what is the truth about the matter."
That pretty much characterized Obama's approach to the presidency: Seeing the world as it is — through other people's eyes, not just his own — then trying to move things forward, together.
He succeeded in some ways, and would have succeeded in many more were it not for the closed minds of the disloyal opposition — but legislative successes and failures are not the true measure of a presidency. One thing he did not do is disappoint. His many significant accomplishments (e.g. saving the country from a second Great Depression and bringing health care to 20 million Americans) will be recognized by historians, and he will be judged in the upper echelon of presidents. But I measure his presidency in terms of the challenge he issued back in 2004:
"Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?"
A large portion of the electorate this year was mired in the politics of cynicism and despair, but the portion that still embraces Obama's politics of hope, believing we can improve the lives of all Americans, was 2.8 million voters stronger, and that majority will continue to grow.
As Vic Clore put it, talking in 2012 about the Catholic Church's lack of progress (before Pope Francis came on the scene): "Am I dismayed? Yes, I'm dismayed. Am I hopeless? No, I'm not hopeless. Gradually, things will move forward. I take a pretty long view of history."
I take the long view also, but at my age I don't take a long view of my life, which is why I don't expect to see another president who combined high character with real results the way Barack Obama did.
Because of him, I embraced the politics of hope.
Thanks to him, I still do.
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