His election was a historic moment, he campaigned on a platform of hope, but did President Obama deliver? Leading authors have their say
Joyce Carol Oates
Brilliant and understated, urbane, witty, compassionate, composed, quietly fuelled by an idealism born of the legacy of civil rights America in conflict with the old white-nationalist America, Barack Obama is a unique human being and has been a unique president. In some ways (as many have observed) not really temperamentally suited to an office that demands an almost daily scrimmage with opposition politicians in Congress as well as continual conferences with members of his own party Obama has behaved with dignity and restraint that might be mistaken for aloofness; while he has shown an astonishing generosity in attempting to compromise with opposition politicians whose fury at the very election of a black man to the presidency has never been tempered, it is clear that, for all his virtues, and for all his idealism, the bitterly divisive politics of our time made it impossible for him to fully realise his political mission. If each American president represents a predominant style, Obamas is coolness the coolness of grace under pressure, a refusal to rise to the race-baiting tactics of political opponents.
The world may justly recoil in surprise, disdain, derision and alarm at the election of President Obamas successor a uniquely unqualified white-nationalist demagogue elected by a minority of American voters, through an archaic electoral college system put into place to placate slaveholders, in a gesture some have interpreted as white repudiation of the first black president but the fact remains that, in 2008, the American people were wise enough, and fortunate enough, to have put an individual of the quality of Obama into office. We will miss him. So much.
Soon the face of the United States will change. For eight years, we have been represented by an elegant, well-spoken, funny, highly educated, moderate, morally upright, preternaturally calm black man. The son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, he embodies a part of the long and tortured story of race in America, that potent historical fiction that continues to ravage the country. The mantra that race is not a biologically real category is a truth, but that doesnt mean our president wasnt assaulted daily by grotesque lies and by racist imagery, by the watermelons and monkeys that dogged his time in office, vile attacks that came from obscene regions of that public stage we call the internet, but which only rarely found their way into the mainstream media until now, that is. The vicious language of Breitbart News and the cruel policies of the far right are moving into the White House. The ugly new face of the US may be white but its actual complexion is best described as a vehement orange.
No, I did not agree with all of President Obamas policies. I was mortified by ongoing drone attacks and upset by his administrations surprising secrecy. I had hoped for national healthcare, not insurance exchanges. Obama has been criticised harshly by some in the black community for not speaking out enough about racism in its many insidious institutional forms. For years, he sought compromise with Republicans in Washington, and it seems obvious in hindsight that he may have hoped for too much for too long from an intractable Congress.
Obamas legacy? We are too close to know. I suspect his importance will only grow, and if our republic survives the next four years (by which I mean, if its very foundations are not eroded beyond recognition) and perhaps even if it doesnt, Obama will stand for a politics of human dignity, not a politics of shameful trumpery, hatred and rage.
It may be the wrong way to say it, but at least a partial marker of Obamas effectiveness and of representative governments effectiveness, when it works has been his capacity not to trivialise being president by confusing his ego with the job. Because he hasnt done that, he has been able with some success to be not one constituencys private messenger (mine, for instance though I wouldnt have minded it), but to be all constituencies messenger. That hasnt always worked perfectly, and as a strategy it has had a tendency to round off extremes, both wished for and not. But it is by far a better and more respectable aspiration than making America great (again?), which clearly promises to leave a lot of people out. To some observers, this aura of balanced impartiality has made President Obama seem austere and professorial. Aloof. But not to me. To me, his demeanour is of a serious adult whose office makes arduous demands on him, requiring an answering ardour, resolve and discipline, along with a sublimation of the purely personal. I guess thats boring. Though well soon learn more about boring.
Conservatives, of course, dont like Obama because hes too liberal. And lots of liberals are disappointed because he hasnt precisely toted their water, either. (You know youre doing something right when liberals are disappointed in you and conservatives hate you.) But rather than being all things to all people, President Obama has seemed to be just one thing to all people which, to my mind, is what our president ought to be. This cold morning, when I think about Obama, immersed in what must be a decidedly mixed brew of emotions mixed about his deeds, mixed about his effects on the US, decidedly mixed about our future Im confident he is thinking, right to his last minute in the office, as the president, and not much about, or for, himself. Thats what I expected when I voted for him that hed be a responsible public servant whod try to look out for the entire country. He did that. It wont be long before we are all going to miss him.
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