Cool, classy. That’s the Obama I’ll miss

A girl touches the world's largest beaded photo mo­saic of U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, whose legacy will likely in­clude his pow­er­ful pres­i­den­tial sym­bol­ism, on dis­play in front of the White House in 2009.

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - GLOBE FOCUS | OPINION - MAR­GARET WENTE mwente@globe­and­mail.com

That wide-eyed, giddy feel­ing of hope in 2009 sure beats the feel­ing I have in the pit of my stom­ach right now

It’s

hard to for­get the gid­di­ness so many of us felt at Barack Obama’s in­au­gu­ral. A bril­liant, grace­ful and com­pelling can­di­date had come out of nowhere to trounce the party’s old guard and win the pres­i­dency of the United States. He was the con­sum­mate mer­i­to­crat. He was self-made. He was black. His vic­tory – it wasn’t close – seemed like joy­ous news that Amer­ica was well along the road to racial heal­ing. His story re­as­sured us that even in a coun­try whose pol­i­tics was be­com­ing more and more bro­ken, a good guy could still win. He was, as a bonus, as hand­some and en­gag­ing as JFK. If this man could be elected, I thought, then Amer­ica was in bet­ter shape than we thought.

We needed a dose of hope. Mr. Obama in­her­ited the worst mess since the De­pres­sion – a sick econ­omy, a world on the brink of fi­nan­cial col­lapse, a dys­func­tional Congress, a coun­try that was des­per­ate to ex­tri­cate it­self from stupid, costly for­eign wars. Given those grim re­al­i­ties, he played his hand pretty well. He was prac­ti­cal, not hys­ter­i­cal, about ter­ror­ism. And – let’s face it – his vic­tory was flat­ter­ing. The elites loved him be­cause he’s one of us.

Most politi­cians leave of­fice the hard way – re­viled for their fail­ures and re­pu­di­ated by the vot­ers. Mr. Obama leaves of­fice as one of the most pop­u­lar pres­i­dents in years. Even peo­ple who voted for Don­ald Trump think well of him. No mat­ter what you think about his poli­cies, he’s clearly a class act – steady, thought­ful, un­cor­rupt. He was cool. He had safe hands. He up­held the dig­nity of the of­fice (sorry, Bill Clin­ton) and ceded power to his suc­ces­sor with re­mark­able grace. He knew the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion is more im­por­tant than he is.

And yet, the party he led is in smok­ing ru­ins. You can ar­gue that Hil­lary Clin­ton lost the elec­tion by a se­ries of flukes, and won more votes than Mr. Trump, but the plain truth is that that the Democrats were slaugh­tered at ev­ery level. Two-thirds of state leg­is­la­tures are now un­der Repub­li­can con­trol, as are both houses of Congress. Re­cov­ery will take years.

Mr. Obama’s fate was to be a clas­sic lib­eral Demo­crat at a time when lib­eral democ­racy has en­tered a pe­riod of sclero­sis. The United States has suf­fered two gen­er­a­tions of in­dus­trial de­cline, and no­body has a clue what to do about it. The worst prob­lem is au­to­ma­tion, not free trade – but that doesn’t make it any eas­ier to re­solve. You can slap tar­iffs on im­ports, but you can’t ban ro­bots. The prob­lems that plague the white work­ing class – the col­lapse of re­li­gion, com­mu­ni­ties and sta­ble fam­ily life, the ram­pant drug epi­demic – are as much so­cial and spir­i­tual as they are eco­nomic. The tech­no­cratic class, of whom Mr. Obama is the bright­est and best ex­am­ple, has no an­swers for these woes. They couldn’t even pre­vent the world fi­nan­cial or­der from near-col­lapse. As Alan Greenspan, the for­merly revered guru of the U.S. Fed­eral Re­serve, put it del­i­cately, he had dis­cov­ered there was “a flaw” in the model of mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism.

Glob­ally, the tec­tonic plates were shift­ing, too. The old world or­der, where U.S. global in­flu­ence reigned supreme, is slowly and mess­ily giv­ing way to some­thing else. The Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion has­tened the de­cline of Amer­i­can power with a ru­inous war. Mr. Obama thought Amer­ica’s loss of power was in­evitable, and prob­a­bly good. But he was more op­ti­mistic about the arc of progress than he should have been. No­body has fig­ured out how to man­age the new world dis­or­der, and I doubt the next ad­min­is­tra­tion will ei­ther.

Some parts of Mr. Obama’s legacy (the Paris cli­mate deal) will sink with­out a trace. Some will stick, at least in part (Oba­macare). Yet, per­haps his great­est legacy will be the pow­er­ful sym­bol­ism of his pres­i­dency. Al­though a pos­tra­cial Amer­ica was be­yond his power to de­liver, the page he turned in his­tory can never be turned back. Barack Obama was a prin­ci­pled and able pres­i­dent who gov­erned in rel­a­tively peace­ful times. Who knows when we’ll be able to say that again?

No won­der I feel so nos­tal­gic for 2009. Our giddy ex­pec­ta­tion for hope and change may have been naive – but it sure beats the feel­ing I am hav­ing in the pit of my stom­ach now. We’re poised at the top of a roller coaster with a crazed 12-year-old in con­trol, and we’re about to head full-tilt down the slope. All we can do is hang on tight.

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