Obama nostalgia matters: He's consequential because he's good and because he asked that we be good, too

President Obama, for all his faults and our disagreements with him, challenged us to rise to our better natures

Published January 21, 2017 4:59PM (EST)

 (Getty/Drew Angerer/Alex Wong)
(Getty/Drew Angerer/Alex Wong)

This piece originally appeared on BillMoyers.com.

Now that Donald Trump’s inauguration has passed, a lot of you may be feeling what I am: Obama nostalgia.

This isn’t to say we didn’t have disagreements with him — serious ones. After the initial euphoria of having a young, intelligent and black commander-in-chief wore off, I thought of him as a passionless president, too cool for his and our own good. I would have preferred that he be a brawler who not only came out swinging but who also did so bare-knuckled. Instead, Obama sat on the stool and squandered far too much of his presidency trying to make nice with people who were determined to destroy him and the welfare state he should have been protecting. From the outset, he played to history, to the legacy he hoped to leave, which is an honorable attitude but an arrogant, self-important one that sometimes seemed to hamstring him from engaging in the momentary and often dirty hurly burly of politics. He believed enough in himself and in America that he thought he could woo Republicans into serving “the greater good.” It was too much belief in both, too much naïveté, and by the time he came to his senses, the Obama moment had passed. He should have known better. Eventually, he did. But it was too late.

And yet for all the conservative exultation over the alleged failure of his presidency and crowing over his irrelevancy — an “historical parenthesis,” the typically mean Charles Krauthammer opined in a typically brutish column — Barack Obama is in some ways more relevant than ever now that he has left office.

I think of a scene in the film "Jackie," which primarily is about how Jacqueline Kennedy, after her husband’s assassination, curated his legacy. According to the film, Jackie recognized the paucity of her husband’s political achievements. She acknowledges that the other presidents who succeed him will do more. But she also knows this: John Kennedy represented a golden moment in American history, a spirit, a pride — a hope that would, in some respects, supersede the more tangible accomplishments of his successors. JFK was a beacon. Obama may be one, too.

Politicians, even the best ones, usually pander to their constituents. “A government as good as its people,” Jimmy Carter once promised. Obama this week made a similar pander, saying the government could meet its challenges only “if our politics reflects the decency of our people.”

Obama was probably thinking of issues like gun control, immigration reform or LGBT rights, where the vast majority of Americans are far, far ahead of the majority of the governing party. This is yet another example of how our system malfunctions by prioritizing narrow political interests over the majority’s will. But there are at least as many issues, some of them foundational (like race and concern for the underprivileged), in which the government, frankly, has been better than the people; more compassionate. Though we may think that for better or worse, we get the president we deserve, there are times over these past eight years when I think we‘ve gotten a president who is more than we deserve — someone who calls us to a higher purpose, someone who shows us what is best in us. I think Barack Obama is one of those.

Of course, politicians aren’t the only ones who boast about the goodness and greatness of the American people. The American people do it themselves all the time. This is the essence of American exceptionalism, and the consequences can be pernicious — a belief in exceptionalism can breed arrogance and intemperance. When you think of your nation as superior to every other, which is the American habit of mind, you are not far from believing in infallibility, and we all know where that leads. It leads to the nation as god. I remember seeing Newt Gingrich during his short-lived 2012 presidential campaign declaiming that America was the best country in the world because it was the most democratic country in the world. In a question-and-answer session, a young man said that he was from Germany, and he wanted to know how America was more democratic than his country. Gingrich was flummoxed.

But American exceptionalism isn’t all bad. Here’s why: A sense of exceptionalism may not just speak to who we think we are, but also to who we are supposed to be. One could argue that nothing has been as important to our nation’s progress as this latter ideal. We have a history full of bigotry and bloodshed. We fail as often as we succeed. We are nowhere near as good as we like to think we are. But we know who we are supposed to be. And that knowledge, I believe, has prevented us from being worse, much worse, than we could be. At least until now.

And that is where Barack Obama comes in. Obama has not only been much better than we deserved in a country still fraught with hate, willful ignorance, self-centeredness and the materialism that warps our national soul. He was, and I think shall remain, a paragon — not necessarily for subsequent leaders, but for Americans themselves.

Whatever his failings as a politician and president, whatever diffidence he displayed in taking on those who attacked the powerless, he was unfailingly graceful, dignified, intelligent, idealistic, hopeful, incorruptible and preternaturally calm in the middle of the raging storm — the characteristic that had once driven me crazy. (Yes, I know: Black people, and especially a black president, don’t have the license to get angry. That is for whites only.)

Obama has said that he would have defeated Trump had he run against him. He is probably right, given his favorability ratings, and in spite of the contagion of hostility Trump has unleashed and legitimized. He would have won not because he was an effective president but because he made us proud. He reminded us, once again, of who we are supposed to be. For a long time, he kept the worst in us at bay. In a way, he shamed us. How important was that? Well, we now know how important that was. Obama has a quality that is in increasingly short supply. He has character.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that his opponents on the right see his commitment to others as a form of deviltry. Obama is evil, the most outspoken of them say, using a word that has gained political currency. (Hillary Clinton was evil, too. Even Satanic. How did God leave “Thou shalt not email” out of the Ten Commandments?) Some on the left also have borrowed that characterization for Trump.

I don’t think the word has much descriptive value when it comes to politics. Nor do I think it useful. I prefer the word “cruel.” We live in a worldwide torrent of cruelty. The election of Trump is one of its American manifestations. The repeal of Obamacare, leaving 20 million people without health insurance — and don’t fool yourselves; there will be no satisfactory replacement — is another. I have a strong feeling we will be seeing a lot more cruelty in the four years ahead, open and ugly. Cruelty has become a Republican mainstay on the pretext of . . . of what? They don’t even need a pretext any more. It is cruelty for its own sake.

As years pass, Obama’s warts may be exposed, just at Kennedy’s were. The purists on the left will hammer away at drone strikes and deportations. Those on the right will insist he was an inconsequential president, just a felicitous speaker, and they will do their best to undo his achievements. And as time passes, I am afraid that the forces of faux populism that Trump rode to office, and the instant technologies that elevate novelty above competence and that erode belief in authentically good leaders, will have us electing a lot more Trumps before we elect another Obama. So it may not sound like much of a compliment, certainly not as much of a compliment as I suspect it will be even a few months from now, but Barack Obama was never cruel, and he tempered the inchoate cruelty of the nation he governed.

This is what we need to remember, how we had a man of grace and decency in the Oval Office, and the example he provided is what his real legacy may be, just as JFK’s legacy was. Put simply: He is consequential because he is good and because he asked that we be good, too. History will judge his presidency. But we can already judge his character, and it is sterling. He showed us who we are supposed to be. He articulated what this country is supposed to be, too, and while we joke about our new president’s tweets, this is no joke. The difference between Obama’s soaring, inspiring rhetoric and Trump’s 140-character eruptions is the difference between a nation aiming high and one aiming low, a country suppressing its baser instincts and one exulting in them. Like “Hyperion to a satyr,” Hamlet said, comparing his late father to his scheming uncle. It is a pretty good description of the current transference of presidential power. We had a Hyperion. Many of us shall miss him terribly. But we must not forget him, especially now.

By Neal Gabler