Obama would appreciate irony: Jon Meacham on the competing American stories of Trump and his predecessor


He’s cooler than ever – the Mr. Spock of modern American politics, a man who can give the Vulcan salute with his slit fingers and sing “Live long and prosper”, a tribute to the television series “Barry” Obama watched. for the first time growing up. in Honolulu over half a century ago. For visitors and staff who call on him at his Washington offices in the capital’s West End near Georgetown, the former president’s conversations are thoughtful and varied. As he works on his long-awaited memoir (there is no firm release date) he is able to switch between timelines, free to choose from stories from his days of campaigning for the Senate in the north. from Illinois to Iowa, or from American demography to the state of world democracy. In her casual wardrobe of jeans and a casual shirt, a handy cup of tea, still subtly but surely graying, and looking even slimmer than in the days of the White House, he tends to have the most views on the state. of the nation since his successor took power. Recently, he wisely pointed out to those concerned about Trump’s age: “Things are never as good as we think they are when they are going well, and never as bad as we think they are when they are.” not.

Barack Hussein Obama has always been like this: imperturbable when everyone is beating madly, reasonable in a whirlwind of passion. Ten Years ago this month, he was elected the 44th President of the United States, a time more than a few Americans hadn’t believed they would live to see. In the weeks following Obama’s defeat to John McCain in 2008, I asked George HW Bush if he thought that an African American could win the presidency during his lifetime. “No, I didn’t,” Bush 41 replied. “But then I met him, and I fully understand how he made.”

And this is a fundamental part of Obama’s story: he is the individual who made the general possible. There is an old debate about the relative role of human action in history – a sophisticated way of speculating whether events are shaped more by larger forces (demographics, economics, geography) or by them. characters and characteristics of individual leaders at any given time. The answer is generally mixed, but there is no doubt that, say, Abraham Lincoln’s political gifts and moral compass enabled him to save the Union when others could have failed. Or that the complexities of Franklin D. Roosevelt influenced his ability to save capitalism and lead a reluctant nation to global responsibility.

These are the first days of a historic verdict on Barack Obama. But it seems safe to say that his background – as a child raised in Hawaii, the son of a white mother and a Kenyan father, as well as the hyper-vigilant care with which he approached the task of living a life. balancing disparate traditions, influences, and worldviews – was essential to his rise to the pinnacle of American power. Never a grudge candidate, he won a majority in two national elections by appealing to the future, not by exploiting the past or fueling familiar cultural wars.

Obama has always led an enchanted political life. Although the young state senator’s credit card was rejected when he tried to rent a car while attending the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, things quickly turned in his favor. . Four years later, political opponents from Illinois imploded all around him, paving the way for the United States Senate. (A rival for the Democratic nomination has been accused of physically assaulting his ex-wife, and the Republican nominee dropped out after his ex-wife said he asked her to accompany him to sex clubs. Both candidates denied the allegations.) And four years later this, during the presidential campaign, the Great Recession erupted under Republicans watch, and fate helped the speaker, peacemaker and candidate of hope and change achieve historic victory, not once but twice.

Ten years later, consumed as we are by Trump, the start of the Obama era may seem as distant as Azincourt. Did we really have a dignified, contemplative, judicious, diplomatic African-American president less than 24 months ago? We did, and now we don’t. Indeed, the personality of the current president, his urge to repeal and his wave of executive decrees have had the strange effect of dismantling Obama’s political legacy while ensuring his cultural legacy as a gentlemanly and eloquent president in a Hobbesian reality TV world.

And that’s the kind of historical irony that Obama greatly appreciates. American history and Obama love thinking in terms of history – is one of perpetual progress and reaction, followed by more of the same, a world without end. It was Obama who has long insisted that Americans focus on the Founders’ understanding of the national mission as a journey to a “more perfect Union”, not a perfect one. Informed by this Niebuhrian view of politics as a tragic enterprise – the country will never be all we want it to be, and our moral duty is to endure in the hope that our best angels will prevail – Obama is perhaps the American most equipped to put the rise of nativism, xenophobia, propaganda and fear into the broadest contexts.

Framing our own moment of fear was one of his goals during a summer trip to Africa to give a talk in honor of Nelson Mandela. Describing the backlash of globalization in recent years, Obama acknowledged the American and European movements that have “exploited the unease felt by many people living outside urban centers, fears that economic security will crumble, that their status will crumble. social and their privileges were eroding, that their cultural identities were threatened by strangers, someone who didn’t look like them or sound like them or pray like they did. The fact that he was speaking the same week that Trump hosted the NATO summit and held an eerily buddy-like press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, gave particular force to Obama’s words about the need for it. America to take the lead against strongman politics – and the “biggest and biggest lies” of authoritarians.

He also pleaded for the direct role of facts in public life. “Too much politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth,” Obama said. “We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders when they get caught up in a lie and they just double down and they lie more.”

Lately, Obama has been doing the rounds, rallying voters before his mid-term. ” There was always [a] darker aspect of American history, ”he insisted in a September speech in Illinois. “It didn’t start with Donald Trump.” He continued the next day in California: “When you look at the arc of American history, there has always been a push and pull. . . between those who promote the politics of hope and those who exploit the politics of fear.

For the most part, however, Obama lived his days outside the constant oompa of the national circus. He is deeply involved in the planning of his presidential library, which is due to open in Chicago in several years. Its foundation is focused on grassroots organization and leadership at home and abroad. (The dominant descriptor is “civic innovation.”) He and Michelle signed a huge contract to develop content for Netflix. And with the memories of the former First Lady, To become, out this month, her husband, in his private hours, focuses on his.

A night owl, he writes his first drafts by hand, staying up late at night and early in the morning. He mainly works in a sparsely decorated office in the Obamas’ house in the Kalorama section of Washington, DC, and in his wood-paneled office in the West End, where he will put an old LP on his Shinola record player while he works. (Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Duke Ellington are the usual suspects, along with a few Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, and Kendrick Lamar.) While staff members are busy researching and interviewing alumni cabinet and senior officials to help jog his memory, he mostly sits alone, writing one sentence, then another.

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