It’s a feeling that’s grown over the last year, every time Barack Obama’s called on to speak to some serious issue. Last night, at the Democratic National Convention, he delivered the best president-to-candidate handoff in living memory, framing the moral stakes of the election, giving context to this Democratic Party, needling Donald Trump and celebrating the country and Hillary Clinton.
There was that feeling again, stronger than the last time: Christ, I’m gonna miss this guy.
Not everything about his presidency, of course. If there was a tonal fault to Obama, it was that the ease of his aspirational oratory made every shortcoming seem even more strongly like a betrayal, and there was no shortage of them.
He didn’t budge the deep state and conducted record prosecutions under the Espionage Act. He dragged his feet on Guantanamo. He signaled a willingness to mess with Social Security until Harry Reid literally burned his proposal. He extrajudicially assassinated American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. Even as you’re reading this, we’re likely prepping to drone-frag a Muslim at one of half a dozen points around the globe. This list is not complete.
It sucks, it’s enraging and it’s a blot on his record. You can fight to correct these things — you should — and it will be a long slog. But, in the meantime, to borrow an Obama rhetorical trope, you can shrug your shoulders, laugh and ask, “Whaddaya gonna do?” Because life is life, and frustration is eternal.
It’s a trope that Obama alone gets away with among politicians, drawn both from his identity and a hysterical opposition determined to make attempts at political change even more futile: the gradual elaboration of a kind of ironic presidency, one that couples high aspirations with the depressing meathook reality of political probability — the latter somehow heightening the nobility of the former rather than annihilating it. Like his soaring preacher-like tone, he possesses a whole other gear that almost no one else can switch into.
And it’s not as if the DNC lacked for good speakers. It’s something of an oppressive curiosity that political speeches are so uniformly bad. Speakers sprinkler-head from left to right and back again, dividing their sentences evenly in half and raising their voice at the end of each part. They employ language that no one is ever in danger of feeling anything strongly about one way or another. So it’s almost nutty that America’s two greatest living political orators are Democratic presidents, with Joe Biden not far behind, on a good day.
(In the interest of fairness, here is where we mention that Ted Cruz is an immensely talented public speaker hamstrung by the fact that everything Ted Cruz is and believes in is viscerally repellent.)
Last night, Biden came out and after two days of mostly bad speeches (Michelle Obama’s excellent address offering a rare exception) reminded everyone that the virtue of a mic is that you don’t need to yell constantly. You can go soft, and quietness has its own intensity. You can feel different things over the course of 20 minutes: shock, rage, hope and resolution — not just inoffensive affirmation. Biden channeled white working-class revulsion at Trump’s entire shtick as if he were simultaneously a disappointed parent and a teen riding a bike down a street with a key out to his side, gouging a long fuck-you line across the length of a double-parked limousine.
The night before, Bill Clinton totally rewrote the spouse-endorsing-a-spouse script, retelling a familiar biography opaquely and seemingly at tangents before tying everything around Hillary’s lifetime of public service. (Underrated highlight: watching half of Twitter’s politics wonks expecting a policy speech pan this one, until the realization gradually dawned that Bill was reinventing the Loving Wife Loves Husband introduction.)
Bill’s talent as an Explainer-in-Chief is by now legendary. Trail journalists who are old enough all have stories about him succumbing to a pathological need to get everyone in a tool-and-die plant to understand and endorse some new policy. He deviated from his 2012 DNC speech to permanently fuck Paul Ryan on the subject of Medicare, just because he could. There’s a reason why Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton impression on Saturday Night Live has never been quite as great as Phil Hartman’s, when a jogging Bill dropped into McDonalds and explained Somali warlords by eating everyone’s food. The escalating food gag aside, that was Bill Clinton’s compulsive desire to convert the unconverted, perfectly realized.
Obama’s always preferred to work on a higher plane, not only because he lacks Bill’s ability to personalize policy abstractions but because he could count on Bill’s surrogacy. That, and it seems both more fun and more dangerous.
Staking out the aspirational American ground would seem to be the easier gig, but if that were the case, we’d all be witnessing a 12-way race for the presidency among Republican candidates who all equally look emotionally overcome when describing Ronald Reagan describing John Winthrop describing America as a “shining city on a hill.”
Obama described it as such last night, too, but his biography above all — a half-black kid from a broken home, raised all over the place, only to become president of a nation still riven by racism — argues for the truth of that image. He thrived in that contradiction: He never pretended that racism did not exist, yet for 30 minutes could induce even the bitterest social critic to believe in seeing the promise of diversity realized in their lifetimes. The sick joke of the last eight years is that nobody better embodied conservatives’ solemn liturgy of self-made achievement, and nobody hated him more for it.
Had it happened to any other president, they might very well have gone insane. Probably only a minority — probably only a black man in America — could have coped with ascending to the highest station in the land via such immense personal talent only to face such ferociously mad obstructionism. Imagine the effect on someone who was not already accustomed to a society that possesses a second set of arbitrary and unwritten rules designed only to thwart and demonize someone like him.
Instead, Obama began shrugging his shoulder, the comic timing of his pausing and looking to his side as if to ask, “Can you believe this shit?” growing longer and more deadpanned, the irony baked more and more into his half of the national dialogue. He was the most powerful man on the planet, who couldn’t even travel 10 percent of the distance on gun control that Europe more or less achieved between lunchtime and naptime on some unremarkable day last century. He was the guy who had to listen to conservatives calling him a race-baiter in between declaring racism over and smearing him as the thug food-stamp president.
So there he stood last night — again wearing the broad grin that any other president would have lost or abandoned at a roadside somewhere in 2011 — almost tickled that he had to explain to anybody that Donald Trump is a paper tiger, an empty suit and the screaming voiceover on a Spike TV commercial break touting the 100 percent effectiveness of herbal topical dick cream. That ironist’s appreciation for and compensatory delight in the stupid has always lain at the root of whatever shade he throws. There are no histrionics, and there is no rage; it starts somewhere at disbelief, stops a little while at appreciation for the fact that something so stupendously broken-headed can exist in this world, then ends somewhere at encouraging America to help him work around the idiot standing obdurately in his way.
Thus you saw his small satisfaction last night in the fact that he would have to explain Trump’s demagoguery and his calls for American supplication and fealty to a strongman, in spite of the fact that it should be comical on every level. To borrow another Saturday Night Live analogy, it was like the Jon Lovitz-as-Dukakis moment of “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy” reframed as, “I can’t believe we still have to talk about this asshole.” For anyone else, that might have been the whole argument, or at least the start of one conducted in outrage. Instead, it stood as counterpoint to the life’s work of an often dull candidate and led into that aspirational celebration of the American experiment — not undermined but tempered for the ridiculousness that assails it.
Obama will have the rest of his life to apologize for the shortcomings — crimes, in some cases — of his record. It will be our duty to always remind him, just as booking an overseas trip on Expedia always reminds Henry Kissinger to check a given nation’s extradition policy. He was not perfect, and the only people who regularly took to the airwaves to condemn him for an insufficiency of perfection were themselves lunatics. For most of the rest of us, there was the shoulder shrug and the sense of awe that someone could walk through the most unwelcome vindictive job experience in history, on the largest stage, and still articulate a vision of what America could become with something like grace.
It has been a remarkably lucky eight years. That we had two men, Clinton and Obama, of such talent within a single generation is astounding. The one wasn’t supposed to follow so closely on the heels of another. We were supposed to endure a long fallow period before the second came along. And if Obama has thrown off the universe’s schedule of rare unnatural political talents — if each new version of The Natural is meant to appear decades from the last — then the rest of our lives is going to be a very long time.