Ask countless young African American children to envision the president and they’ll see someone who looks a lot like them. They have known nothing but Barack Obama. At this point most Americans may take him for granted, but for people of color his sitting in the Oval Office remains a huge, very personal, deal. That was so when he took the oath on January 20, 2009 and remains so. I feel the same way. For those of us with roots planted deep in the civil rights movement, who listened intently to the dreamers of the 1960s, the idea that we would see his presidency in our time seemed impossible, fanciful. He described his own rise and election as “improbable”. In the coming years, Donald Trump and company may try to erase his memory and undo all that he accomplished. They will fail.
I believe history will judge Obama well but, like his predecessors, he is a mortal. Along with many significant accomplishments, he has made sometimes wrong or costly decisions, taken actions that ran counter to our expectations. He has tried hard to keep us out of wars (stupid stuff), out of occupations and nation building. But, despite heralded troop exists, Afghanistan and Iraq remain unresolved and the region is in turmoil. He resisted entering the Syrian conflict (and has taken much heat for it), but has authorized lethal drone attacks in numerous places with the usual “unintended” consequences. Innocents have perished, something that he bemoaned in his recent NPR “exit interview” with Steve Inskeep. Obama opposes Trump’s espoused plan to deport all the undocumented, but his administration has deported many. Obama has been surprisingly hostile to whistle blowers – he should pardon Snowden, but won’t.
For all but two of his years, the president has faced a hostile Congress, one that tried to subvert his every move, most effectively and outrageously his third Supreme Court nomination. He has been the object of derision and irrational hate – denials notwithstanding, much of it racial. This year’s unexpected presidential vote and outcome has been subjected to much analysis (including my own). More will come including the predictable pundit and academic books. The story of 2016 is complex, but in the end perhaps it all adds up to just one word: backlash. Obama campaigned on change. Some of his supporters feel disappointed, contend he’s fallen short of what they expected. Even so, I’d argue that he has brought about enough change to produce the tentative backlash of 2010 and a more definitive one in 2016. All elections are reactive, confirming or opposing the status quo. Voters are often looking for some correction. Real backlash elections are rare. The changes that you and I may consider evolutionary and progress are seen by others as radical, disruptive and thus deeply unsettling. They cast their votes in November to reject – not merely to modify but to replace what they perceive has been done “to them”.
Nothing tokens the change they reject more than Obama himself. His (along with his wife and daughters) taking up residence in the “White” House is its visualization, its personification. The euphoric myth of post racialism gave way almost immediately, if not before he was even inaugurated. With his every appearance, many in the once assumed invincible “majority” were reminded that they were losing ground. It reminds me of the “white flight” brought on when the first Black families moved into my middleclass neighborhood in Newark New Jersey. The feeling-dispossessed majority just packed up and moved knowing they had somewhere to go, another enclave where they would be surrounded by people like themselves. At the time, not a single African American held significant public office, Latinos were a non-factor and gays hid “safely” in their anguish-laden closets. The perceived “threat” was local and containable, could be distanced, made purposefully invisible. After 2008 all that changed. Things seemed out-of-control with “that man” in “our” White House. “Real Americans” were losing their rightful place of supremacy, expected to accept, even if they didn’t embrace, a new reality. After endless years of pointing fingers at others, fingers were now pointing at them and their “outmoded” thinking and ways. That simply wouldn’t do, couldn’t be left to stand. Change was too much, backlash was in order and, for the moment at least, it rules the day.
Barack Obama won’t be exiting the White House head held down. His insistence on a smooth transition in the face of what might be seen by some as a repudiation reflects an understanding that only someone like him can have. He, as a student of history, is unsurprised – disappointed for sure, but not surprised. Backlash isn’t new. He will let history judge him in part because he knows it will, but also because he remains confident that what’s happened in these last eight years has been progress. As he told Inskeep, “the country is a lot better off now than it was when I took office in almost every dimension.” In the end his most meaningful accomplishments will win out because, as we know from other instances of unresolved conflict, conditions on the ground matter. The ACA may come under another name, but its reality can’t easily be undone. Marriage Equality is here to stay. A person of color can always be considered for the highest office in the land and, after Hillary’s nomination, it stands to reason a woman will occupy the oval office. Donald Trump will ultimately be judged as president not as candidate. He will be measured against Barack Obama but also past incumbents from both parties: the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Americans have become accustomed in these past eight years to a classy president and first family; the Trumps have a hard act to follow and must measure up.
Timothy Eagan wrote a wonderful New York Times column in late November entitled, Farewell to the Comedian-in Chief. It was a tribute to Obama’s funny side, his ability to deliver and to take humor. While most pointedly on display at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, the president’s full-toothed smile and funny, often self-deprecating, comments ran through his tenure. They will be sorely missed, most especially in contrast to his successor. Donald Trump is perhaps the most humorless political figure to take center stage in a long time. His attempt to make a funny speech famously ran flat at New York’s Al Smith dinner and in fact evoked booing from the assembled black tie crowd. He certainly can’t take jokes directed at him, never having forgiven Obama for the zingers so directed at correspondents dinner he attended 2011. Alec Baldwin’s SNL impersonation drives him crazy. There are many reasons to have concern about his upcoming presidency, but being without humor may be close to the top of the list. Thin-skinned narcissists clothe themselves in armor to no one’s advantage.
In the weeks ahead, the new Senate will come into session and begin vetting Donald Trump’s cabinet appointees. Given a GOP majority, most and probably all, will be confirmed. But the process itself will be something new for the man who has always had the last unquestioned word in the Trump empire he ruled. Democrats certainly, but also some Republicans, will be asking some tough questions, making some demands. Conflict of interest and past positions and records will come into play. For two years at least the incoming president will benefit from his party’s hold on both houses of Congress and what is likely to be a strong conservative majority in the Supreme Court. But a mid-term election can change all that, just ask Barack Obama. The scary thing about Trump is that he comes to office as the most inexperienced president in history and, the most unpredictable in part because he has no record and also because of his mercurial personality. Scary for us, but this will also represent a huge test for him. The Americans who voted for him may have cheered his often over-the-top promises, but, like the rest of us, they expect orderly and, yes predictable, government. During the campaign he talked a big game, now he must deliver. Late night or early morning tweets won’t do it.
The Constitution provided us with three branches of government to ensure checks and balances. When one party essentially controls all three we can expect less vigorous checking and less of a balance. But the founding fathers didn’t stop with government, they put citizens in the mix giving us, at least with the Executive and Legislative branches, the final say. Votes count and voters count, so do our voices. The next two years will be a test for the new president and for his fellow office holders. It will also be a test for us. Let’s hope we are up to it and will do our part.