It was in Boston, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where Barack Obama made himself known to the world with an address that came to be called simply “The Speech.” In less than 18 minutes he forcefully rejected the notion of “red states and blue states” and argued that, “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.” He insisted there aren’t many Americas separated by group identities, but only one united country, and called for a new “politics of hope.”
A nation already exhausted by political division — not knowing what was to come — responded to the little-known state senator from Illinois with palpable excitement. Mobbed by admirers, Obama could barely walk down the street the next day. The subsequent wave of history that carried him to the presidency in 2008 was energized by his repeated appeals to hope, which was in short supply amid the Bush administration’s ill-conceived war in Iraq and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Eight years later the challenges Obama confronted remain underappreciated, as do the successes he achieved. Twenty million people have gained health insurance under Obamacare. More than 150,000 troops have come home from conflicts abroad. The economic recovery is on track to be the longest in history, and Obama’s push for a climate-change accord produced a treaty signed by more than 200 nations.
Though accompanied by failures — wars still rage in Iraq and Afghanistan, inequality has worsened at home — Obama’s achievements are remarkable considered against the all-out political war planned by congressional Republicans at a dinner they held the night of his inauguration. At that gathering, party leaders committed to opposing everything Obama sought to do, regardless of its merits. As one senator put it, “If he was for it, we had to be against it.”
This decision extended the hyperpartisanship documented by nonpartisan political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who concluded,“The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier, ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; not persuaded by conventional facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
In addition to the deranged form of partisanship he faced on Capitol Hill, Obama was confronted with a racist backlash that was unique in American history because he was, of course, the first black person ever to occupy the White House. The smaller incidents included officials who circulated racist e-mails and cartoons about Obama and his family. The larger ones revolved around the so-called “birther” movement’s desire to delegitimize Obama with specious attempts to cast doubt on his education, his religion, and his citizenship. Newt Gingrich insisted Obama acted on the basis of some disguised form of African anticolonialism. This bigotry was the equivalent of saying that, as mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia was an agent of La Cosa Nostra.
Though otherized by birthers and demonized by critics, Obama performed well enough to be reelected in 2012. His policies saved the US auto industry, brought regulatory reform to Wall Street, greatly expanded renewable energy, ended Iran’s progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons, and reduced air and water pollution. Obama also restored integrity to the presidency. The president and his team faced fewer investigations or prosecutions for alleged wrongdoing than any administration going back at least to the Lyndon Johnson administration.
But as impressive as his policy achievements may be, Obama will be recalled most for the dignity he brought to his duties. This quality was most vividly displayed in his reserved response to moments of disrespect, such as Representative Joe Wilson’s shout of “You lie!” when Obama addressed Congress on health care. It was also shown at moments of crisis, as when he sang “Amazing Grace’’ during a memorial service for nine people killed by a racially motivated gunman at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
The decency and grace Obama displayed in Charleston was present throughout his presidency and may explain his failure to build a more effective Democratic Party. Obama was an able political fighter, but he was more inclined toward data and science and, in the end, believed the best ideas would prevail. Obama’s belief was rewarded by two big election victories, and the fact that his heir apparent, Hillary Clinton, won almost three million more votes than Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential contest suggests his hope for America is not misplaced.
The quirky system of the Electoral College, which advantages rural states, gave Trump the presidency and has burdened the nation with a leader who is best described as the anti-Obama. Instead of calls for hope and unity, Trump offers disdain for norms of decency, as demonstrated in his New Year’s Eve message to the country, delivered on Twitter, which said, “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”
As a man whose mind is preoccupied with personal enemies, even as he prepares to assume the most important office in the world, Trump provides continual reminders of his own intellectual and emotional shortcomings. These seem all the more substantial when compared with the outgoing president. With polls showing him to be far more popular than Trump, it seems the American public already misses Obama. With the passage of time, this feeling will only grow. The call to hope still resounds.
Michael D’Antonio is author of “The Truth About Trump.’’ His new book, “A Consequential President: The Legacy of Barack Obama,’’ was published this week.