Short Sharp Shock, Jan. 20, 2009
ON JANUARY 20, 2009, when Barack Hussein Obama II reset the baseline of American possibility to become the 44th president of the United States of America, he became heir to a cratering economy, the stewardship of two foreign wars (one of them wholly unnecessary), and an image of America as tireless global belligerent, a nation ethically adrift and divided.
It’s the height of a cruel irony that Donald Trump, the next to occupy the White House starting on Friday at noon, is himself a beneficiary of Obama’s abiding maxim: When you believe in yourself, anything can be accomplished. Such was the nature, the all-encompassing power of a message meant for everyone.
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What’s happened since January 2009? Only everything. The economy has seen the lowest unemployment rate since January 2007, and (as of December) 82 straight months of private-sector job growth.
The nation saw an end of one war and a serious drawdown in forces in the other. The American auto industry was taken off the respirator and returned to profitability, as automakers revitalized the American brand in the marketplace with the help of an unprecedented stimulus package.
President Obama commuted the terms of 1,715 people enduring “unjust and outdated prison sentences” for drug offenses. He enhanced vehicle fuel efficiency standards, increased infrastructure spending, slashed the homeless rate of veterans, increased funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, signed legislation to curb pay discrimination against women, leveled the playing field between consumers and credit-card issuers, and made it a federal crime to assault people based on sexual or gender identification.
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HE TOOK OUT Osama bin Laden with special forces troops, he took on Wall Street with the Dodd-Frank Consumer Protection Act, averting the financial meltdown many of his supporters feared and most of his detractors had predicted; he gave new teeth and urgency and visibility to the drive for LGBT marriage equality. And with the Affordable Care Act, he got health insurance into the hands, and lives, of more than 23 million Americans.
He was a champion of technology, the first president to stream every White House event live, and the first to hold an online town hall, fielding questions direct from the public. He oversaw a major overhaul of the nation’s food safety, and signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, to boost nutrition for schoolchildren.
He signed a law that changes outmoded language that referred to some minority groups in archaic terms. He changed fair-housing laws to make home ownership an attainable dream. And he officially eliminated a Muslim registry established in the days after 9/11 — a registry that, thanks to Obama’s efforts, will be harder for his successor to resurrect.
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Everyone who was anyone showed up at or played the 1600 Pennsylvania Club, from rappers to rockers, poets to painters. Kendrick Lamar and Mick Jagger. James Taylor and Jay Z. Trombone Shorty and Esperanza Spalding. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Demi Lovato. The list goes way on and on.
playlists of his own musical favorites. It’s a little ironic: The president who publicly pushed back on identification as a black president had a personal music collection that borrowed from the best of African American music.
And other music too: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes? Fiona Apple? They won’t show up on most bruthas’ playlists at all — bet that. Barry brought them and more to his musical welcome table, in a cultural extension of his panoramic perspective of the nation itself.
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AS MUCH AS anything, Barack Obama showed the presidency how to relax, how to balance the awesome responsibilities of being the indispensable world leader with the rhythms of everyday life. The sang-froid, the emotional equipoise he brought to the presidency was no act. Jonathan Chait tapped into this more than two years ago, in New York Magazine:
“The president’s infuriating serenity, his inclination to play Spock even when the country wants a Captain Kirk, makes him an unusual kind of leader. But it is obvious why Obama behaves this way: He is very confident in his idea of how history works and how, once the dust settles, he will be judged. For Obama, the long run has been a source of comfort from the outset. ...
“To his critics, Obama is unable to attend to the theatrical duties of his office because he lacks a bedrock emotional connection with America. It seems more likely that he is simply unwilling to: that he is conducting his presidency on the assumption that his place in historical memory will be defined by a tabulation of his successes minus his failures. And that tomorrow’s historians will be more rational and forgiving than today’s political commentators.”
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on Election Night 2008: “For the first time at this nation’s highest elective level, the Idea of America has fully become Praxis and become so in a way that is, more by intent than coincidence, the single greatest act of bridging the racial divide in the history of this nation.”
Writing in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates observed of that heady time and the years that followed: “We were launched into the Obama era with no notion of what to expect, if only because a black presidency had seemed such a dubious proposition. There was no preparation, because it would have meant preparing for the impossible. There were few assessments of its potential import, because such assessments were regarded as speculative fiction. ...
“[H]e had not embarrassed his people with a string of scandals. Against the specter of black pathology, against the narrow images of welfare moms and deadbeat dads, his time in the White House had been an eight-year showcase of a healthy and successful black family spanning three generations, with two dogs to boot. In short, he became a symbol of black people’s everyday, extraordinary Americanness. ...
“He revitalized a Justice Department that vigorously investigated police brutality and discrimination, and he began dismantling the private-prison system for federal inmates. Obama nominated the first Latina justice to the Supreme Court, gave presidential support to marriage equality, and ended the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, thus honoring the civil-rights tradition that had inspired him. And if his very existence inflamed America’s racist conscience, it also expanded the country’s anti-racist imagination. Millions of young people now know their only president to have been an African American.”
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PRESIDENT OBAMA signed off in characteristic fashion twice in the last 10 days. The first of the valedictory bookends was in a rapturous reception by Chicagoans at McCormick Place:
“Every day, I learned from you. You made me a better president, and you made me a better man.
“I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s, still trying to figure out who I was; still searching for a purpose to my life. ... This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.
“After eight years as your president, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea – our bold experiment in self-government.
“It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that we, the people, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.
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“We’re gonna have to forge a new social compact – to guarantee all our kids the education they need; to give workers the power to unionize for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from the new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their success possible.
“We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come. ...
“Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power – with our participation, and the choices we make. ...
“Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.”
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AND THEN today, the day before his exit from the presidency, Obama, the president — my president — wrote a final thank you letter to the American people, dropping the mic for real, for good, until he picks it up again as a private citizen.
“I’ve seen you, the American people, in all your decency, determination, good humor, and kindness. And in your daily acts of citizenship, I’ve seen our future unfolding,” he wrote.
“All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into that work — the joyous work of citizenship. Not just when there’s an election, not just when our own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. I’ll be right there with you every step of the way.
“And when the arc of progress seems slow, remember: America is not the project of any one person. The single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We the People.’ ‘We shall overcome.’ Yes, we can.”
Thanks for the ride, homes. Godspeed, bruh. Peace. All due props.
Image credits: BHO top: Via Twitter. Unemployment rate graph: @SteveRattner. BHO onstage: Lawrence Jackson/The White House. Summer playlist: whitehouse.gov. BHO lower: The Washington Post. Lights Out cartoon panel: © 2017 Gustavo Viselner.