President Obama's Last Stand

Even Obama's critics will soon have plenty of reasons to appreciate him

"I won Iowa not because the demographics dictated that I would win Iowa," President Obama said this week. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty

Barack Obama raised an eyebrow or two this week, when he had this to say about why the Democrats just lost the White House:

"You know, I won Iowa not because the demographics dictated that I would win Iowa. It was because I spent 87 days going to every small town and fair and fish fry and VFW hall, and there were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points. … There are some counties maybe I won that people didn't expect because people had a chance to see you and listen to you."

Ouch. There's no way to read that except as a stinging indictment of the Clinton campaign's failure to compete in "lost" territory.

In the past week, Obama has ventured some explanations for Donald Trump's rise. He pointed out that Trump had made a "connection" with his voters that was "powerful stuff."

This felt like a double-edged dig, thrown at both the rabid lunacy of Trump's crowds and Hillary Clinton's infamous (and oft-disputed) struggles on the personal-connection front.

Obama said Trump reached people who are "feeling deeply disaffected," and added during remarks in Greece that "we have to deal with issues like inequality … and economic dislocation." He noted, in the context of both the Brexit vote and Trump's win, that these issues perhaps "[cut] across countries."

Obama's remarks have been coolly received, to say the least, among blue-staters and in traditionally Democratic-friendly media outlets. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post blasted the outgoing president for his "above the fray approach." Others have wondered why Obama has not taken on a "more antagonistic posture."

There are a lot of people these days wondering if the election of the race-baiting Donald Trump will end up staining or outright repudiating the legacy of Barack Obama. I think it will be the other way around. Trump's presidency is almost sure to throw the best qualities of this unique and powerful historical figure into relief.

Trump was carried into the White House by an electorate that outlets like the Harvard Business Review tell us was obsessed with the concept of "manly dignity," but it's Obama who has been the great model for young men of his generation. And ten years from now, when the millions of young people who grew up during his presidency start to enter the workforce and become leaders and parents, we'll see more clearly what he meant to this country.

As a politician, Obama wasn't exactly without disappointments. Reporters who covered his first presidential campaign in 2007-2008 will laugh if they go back to their notes and read the promises he made back then.

In Philadelphia in April of 2008 Obama told the AFL-CIO in no uncertain terms they could trust him not to sign bad deals like the South Korea Free Trade agreement. "You can trust me when I say that whatever trade deals we negotiate when I'm president will be good for American workers," he proclaimed. Four years later he was aggressively lobbying that same deal and promising that it would create 70,000 jobs, and supported the even worse Trans-Pacific Partnership to the end.

He told us repeatedly he would never have a registered lobbyist in the White House, and practically minutes into his presidency he was making Mark Patterson, a Goldman lobbyist, the number two man at Treasury. He promised to support drug reimportation from Canada and gave up on that after a few discussions with Pharma bigwigs.

He pledged to push for "a world without nuclear weapons" at the beginning of his presidency, and was pushing for a brand-new trillion-dollar program by the end of it. He pledged to clean up Wall Street and then presided over a historic stretch of regulatory and prosecutorial inaction. The betrayals on security-state issues like drone assassination, secrecy and surveillance have been breathtaking.

On all these questions Obama seemed either to be unable to assert himself in the center of a hurricane of interests, or else he was really just a run-of-the-mill corporate Democrat regressing to an insincere mean one once Election Day was safely in the rearview mirror. 

Still, if it was the latter, the usual policy disappointments somehow felt less awful in his hands. Obama seemed also to be fighting a two-front war as president and it was the other narrative, the historical battle, where his considerable intelligence seemed more focused.

He faced an extraordinary challenge, entering the White House as the first African-American president at a time when the economy was in ruins and the culture war was spiraling out of control. His political path forward was a tightrope. A presidency weighed down by corruption, indecisiveness or personal weaknesses would have been a disaster.

Imagine the reaction if Barack Obama had been caught in Kennedy- or Clinton-style bedroom scandals, or even if he'd spoken publicly in the style of Carter's “malaise” speech, or suffered a bad come-from-ahead second-term loss à la George H.W. Bush.

Any of the above would have led to the door closing on African-American politicians at the national level for a long time, a generation maybe. This burden was every bit as unfair as the one Hillary Clinton just had to shoulder as the first woman to win a major-party presidential nomination. It was crucial not only that he win, but win twice, and convincingly, and on the power of his own charisma and resolve.

He also had to manage this while somehow not allowing himself to be rattled by the torrent of abuse he received. Think of the discipline and equanimity it must have taken to not show anger and maintain an air of positivity given the vicious absurdities he had to work through, including the ones emanating from none other than Donald Trump about his birth origin.

The birther controversy was racism and profiling elevated to a Wagnerian level: Here was a black man who'd made it all the way to the Oval Office, and a giant portion of the population still considered him to be literally trespassing.

That such an idiotic campaign may have launched Trump into the White House to succeed Obama is an incredibly bitter pill, but this story isn't exactly over yet. When Trump takes over he will immediately have to reckon with Obama's example, and this is a historical popularity contest His Orangeness seems doomed to lose.

From a personality standpoint, Obama is everything Trump isn't. He's in control of his emotions, thick-skinned, self-aware, ingratiating, strategic and temperamentally (if not politically) consistent. A striking quality of Obama as president is that he did his job without seeming to need to take credit for things all of the time, which kept the political price down on many of his decisions.

People rarely make it to the presidency without first acquiring a weakness for embarrassing self-glorifying spectacles like George W. Bush's asinine "Mission Accomplished" flight. When presidents throw parades for themselves after every tiny political win, it only makes the fall from grace hurt that much more when circumstances inevitably cycle back downward. Most of them never learn because most politicians are pathological: 99 percent of them are ruled by drives rather than thoughts.

Obama wasn't that way. To use a hokey sports metaphor, he did his job in the manner of an offensive lineman: The less you heard about him, the better he was probably doing. (Obama would appreciate the comparison. He will go down with Dick Nixon and George W. Bush as one the most unhealthily genuine sports fans to occupy the Oval Office).

His performance this week testified greatly to this quality. He didn't have a lot to say about the election results, but what few lines he did speak conveyed a lot. This is a characteristic of strong people. Contrast this to Donald Trump, who vomits out great quantities of verbiage, taking so many positions at once that no one of them has much meaning after a while.

President-elect Trump will surely talk himself into a jackpot a dozen times before inauguration. Obama hasn't done it, really, since his infamous "guns and religion" speech. Eight years is an awfully long time to go without blinking.

Obama's parting message, about how he won Iowa, was a calm admonition to his own party to not give up on those sections of the country where the "demographics" don't suggest success.

This was an extraordinary statement to make in the wake of such a massive affirmation of racist and xenophobic attitudes. At one of our lowest moments, the person at the very center of this horrible maelstrom of hate was the one urging us not to give up. Obama's detractors may not hear this message now. But history will.

Donald Trump may have won the White House, but he will never be a man like his predecessor, whose personal example will now only shine more brightly with the passage of time. At a time when a lot of Americans feel like they have little to be proud of, we should think about our outgoing president, whose humanity and greatness are probably only just now coming into true focus.

It's more than just a release for anger – taking to the streets is a necessary way to participate in democracy. Watch here.