As President Barack Obama prepares to leave office, CHRISTOPHER JACKSON looks at his administration from the perspective of an observer in the UK, and explains why we’ll miss him.
I have been recalling the day when Barack Hussein Obama was elected president of the United States. The reflection is of a strange kind: a pleasant one that also engenders melancholy. It might be that the world is always losing a portion of some original innocence. 2008 felt at the time a sober moment compared with, say, the 1990s when the world had time to pause and debate the sex life of Bill Clinton, and not everyone had yet heard of Al-Qaida. At the time of Obama’s election, with the Iraq troop surge and the onset of the financial crisis, we felt in need of some Great Leader to come and fix things. But with Donald Trump, the possible unraveling of the EU and the deeds of ISIL uppermost in people’s minds, 2016 seems of another seriousness altogether.
2008, London. I recall the three of us — my sister, my girlfriend now wife, and a younger version of me — all crammed in our Pimlico living room. We had pledged to stay up all night — as long as it took to experience the Historic Moment. We had determined to make it through until at least Obama’s victory speech.
It was a near landslide — even Indiana had turned blue! — and Obama walked out at about 5 a.m. GMT with his young family to address what we already thought of as a new America.
There in London, we were all — and the same went for everyone I knew — unusually emotional about this distant plebiscite. There was the sense that U.S. presidential politics had dashed across the Atlantic to alter one’s own self: This was the case even though Obama hadn’t pledged to alter our health care system or even to right our economy. Why was this? There has long been a feeling among the U.K. electorate — certainly ever since Franklin Roosevelt gave Winston Churchill such vital assistance in World War II — that the identity of the U.K. prime minister is of less consequence than the identity of the U.S. president. This is entirely a function of power. Power, which whether you like it or not, is alluring. Power, which really can alter your life and the life of your children. The American president makes the weather of the times. His or her identity is a marker about who we are and where we’re heading — it helps us navigate our way through the confusions of modern reality.
The Obama election was the ratification of that feeling: It really did seem as though one human being might solve the world’s problems.
A pesky amendment to the U.S. constitution
To fast forward eight years is to discover in the U.K. not disappointment, but the fact that such emotions die hard. For most of us today, the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution makes for unhappy reading:
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of President more than once.
And the reason it makes grim reading in the U.K. is because it is precisely this clause that bars Obama from another four years in office. Over here, we would like that very much: One says this not as a personal opinion but with some confidence that it has its roots in objective reality. I recognize that we inhabit the age of the discredited pollster, but according to a recent YouGov survey, 72% of people in the U.K. think Obama has done a good job, versus a mere 16% who don’t. Such polls, if translated into electoral terms, wouldn’t wholly disappoint Vladimir Putin in a Russian presidential election. Obama has similar popularity in France (83%), Italy (77%), and Germany (73%). Without the 1933-1945 reign of FDR — the only president ever to serve more than two terms — perhaps there would have been no swell of need ever to pass the 22nd Amendment during Harry Truman’s administration, and we might now be talking about Obama running for a third term. There is also a sense that Obama wouldn’t mind staying on himself. At the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on July 28, 2015, the president ad-libbed during his speech:
I actually think I’m a pretty good President — I think if I ran I could win. But I can’t. … There’s a lot that I’d like to do to keep America moving, but the law is the law. And no one person is above the law. Not even the President.
Even a relatively level-headed man like Obama feels the addiction of power. He certainly could have won against Donald Trump — probably at a cakewalk. But if everyone in the world had a vote, he would win by a landslide more or less indefinitely. So why is Obama so popular? Put it another way — what has Obama ever done for us?
A scene from Monty Python
In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a raging John Cleese, in the walk-on part of Reg, asks rhetorically what the Romans have ever done for the citizens of Jerusalem. It turns out that they have done rather more than Reg expected. Just at the moment he most thinks to find his rage confirmed, it is undermined. The Romans have built aqueducts, roads and bridges, and much more. It is a marvelous reminder of the unheralded nature of achievement in politics: Improvement is rarely showy, and people tend to take it for granted. Here is the culmination of the scene:
Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace!
Reg: Oh peace? Shut up!
Obama’s comparative unpopularity in his home country can seem to those of us who have watched his administration from afar, somewhat like this.
What has Obama ever done for us?
- There’s the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which upgraded 42,000 miles of road, 2,700 bridges, and 6,000 miles of rail, and cut middle-class taxes.
- There’s the small matter of universal health care, which keeps coming in ahead of the gloomy economic predictions of the right.
Yes, but apart from the Recovery Act and Obamacare.
- There are the Dodd-Frank reforms, which have done much to rein in the excesses of Wall Street: the best indicator of their importance is the $1.3 billion that the Chamber of Commerce has spent in trying to stymie their introduction.
Okay, apart from that.
- There’s the immigration executive orders, the Paris climate change agreement, the nuclear agreement with Iran, real attempts to move the dialogue on gun control, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
- Unlike Xerxes, one cannot cry out that Obama has brought peace, but we can see certain gains in that direction: the refusal to be involved in any invasion of Syria, and his attempt — albeit somewhat more staggered and protracted than he would have liked — to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Of course it’s not quite that simple. Obama’s international popularity is also a function of our not being so much involved in living through the domestic problems he has attempted to address.
Indeed, one can imagine that for those Americans who are less than impressed with Obama’s government, the Europe-wide affection for him must seem a function of distance and ignorance. I believe this is largely false and that Obama’s achievements will eventually warrant the gratitude of history. But it doesn’t mean that there is no basis for it: Politics is so complex that unanimity of praise is rightly held in suspicion. For instance, global polls show that Obama’s popularity lessens where his policies have had most direct impact. A 14% approval rating in Pakistan is in large part a resounding rejection of drone strikes. His 15% rating in the Palestinian territories is an indication of the miserable condition of a people to whom help has not come in the last eight years, nor shows any particular likelihood of coming soon. In the U.K., you will find very few people who love, for instance, the nuclear agreement with Iran, or even the landmark Paris agreement on climate change. But you will find plenty who love Obama himself.
Why is Obama loved?
One aspect of this love is grief at his departure. It might possibly be that there is the sense that his presidency fell short not because of his own failings but because of Republican obstructionism. This gives his presidency an unusual sense of latent potential though it is nearing its conclusion. Imagine what he might still achieve, one thinks, without Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan there to block everything he wants to do: a cap-and-trade climate change bill, legislative action on immigration, consequential steps toward the alleviation of inequality. There is the sense that he isn’t done yet.
It must also be observed that Obama had a larger pool of goodwill to draw from in the first place. Here was a man of obvious kindness and good humor. It is now difficult to remember the George Bush years, and even the Bill Clinton years before them — how redolent the former was of gaffe and bloated confusion, and how the latter had the whiff of scandal and compromise about it. The Obama presidency has retained, in the eyes of the wider world, this impression of benevolence, and even fun, without losing its integrity. Is it that we have turned too much of a blind eye to Obama’s failings — to Libya, his uncertain response to the Syrian civil war, and to drone strikes? Have we placed too much emphasis on his media appearances such as on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, or his excellent appearances at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner? The British sense of humor is one of our chief exports; our prime ministers have never been able to tell jokes as well as Obama.
But if Obama’s media appearances have been a factor in his popularity here, he has long since staved off criticism of superficiality by the historic nature of his election, and then by the substance of his achievements. I can think of no figure who has made himself appear historic in such short order. Being historic usually means that one comes to embody things — certain qualities, sea changes, even an era. What was it that Obama embodied, or made himself embody? In my new book, The Fragile Democracy, I argue that in the context of replacing Bush, Obama represented the resurfacing of intellect and an Enlightenment view of the world at the presidential level. This impression was bound up with his articulacy. I remember hearing his announcement for his presidential run in Springfield, Illinois on February 10, 2007:
I recognize that there is a certain presumptuousness in this, a certain audacity to this announcement. I know that I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington, but I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.
I experienced a frisson at the word “presumptuousness,” and then another at “audacity.” Here — in the political arena, where one would least expect to find it — was manifest love of language. In time, Obama became the writer-president, his turn of phrase endorsed by Toni Morrison and Philip Roth. Zadie Smith would later write an admiring piece called “Speaking in Tongues,” in which she praised Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father:
Obama can do young Jewish male, black old lady from the South Side, white woman from Kansas, Kenyan elders, white Harvard nerds, black Columbia nerds, activist women, churchmen, security guards, bank tellers…
This is another thing about him — his obviously eclectic nature. Obama came to us as a Black Christian — the offspring of a White Kansas mother and a Kenyan father — who had spent time in Indonesia as a boy, and who also referred to the Old Testament as an important intellectual and emotional resource. Might it not be the case that someone with such widespread sympathies could govern more sympathetically than had been the norm? Perhaps he would be able to step back from the interests of any one culture or race, and find compromises that others might not manage. It was the promise of a tremendous kindness soon to be unleashed, which would have its origins in a new open-mindedness. This benevolence would be undertaken in the international language of the Enlightenment: There would be a commitment to reasoned analysis and grown-up debate. This is why we felt so invested him. He seemed to be as intelligent and rounded an individual as one could ever expect to be elected president.
In that sense, his presidency was an experiment in what was possible if you put the best human material in White House. We felt that excitement here.
The voice in the mosque
The project has proved sufficiently compelling, at least in the U.K., for that excitement to remain. True, you will sometimes hear it said that the president has been a disappointment. And not everyone was delighted by his intervention during the recent EU referendum, in which he stated that a post-Brexit U.K. would be at “the back of the queue” on trade. But the majority of people in the U.K. see a country that has been moved in the right direction, against the protest of retrograde Trumpian elements who seem to want to make America less diverse, less cheerful and less good-natured — an America less like Obama.
The most striking thing about the Obama presidency is its unity. Few presidents have arrived in the White House with such intellectual preparedness as Obama. For instance, his visit to a Baltimore mosque in February came at a time when Trump was seeking to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment.
A lot of Americans have never visited a mosque. To the folks watching this today who haven’t — think of your own church, or synagogue, or temple, and a mosque like this will be very familiar. This is where families come to worship and express their love for God and each other.
This might just as easily have come from his famous 2009 speech in Cairo, when the president had sought to reset relations with the Arab world. It might equally derive from the then-Senator Obama’s 2006 memoir The Audacity of Hope. We shall miss this voice, these flexible tones. It is the voice of inclusion: It can be the voice of good, and then veer without difficulty into the voice of good humor.
What has Obama ever done for us in the U.K.? I would say that it is precisely this voice as heard in that mosque, which can speak from anywhere with the same ease and calm, and the same celebration of the diversity of life. It is a voice that refuses fear and basks instead in nuance. It is capable of being serious when seriousness is required, but it doesn’t take itself seriously: It only wishes to address with maximum sincerity the problems of others. Obama did not come to us only as someone who wished to fix a health care system, or draw down troops in Iraq. He came to us to place emphasis on the common nature of human experience. He felt it as an absolute truth that all faiths are valid provided they lead their adherents toward a generous outlook. It was — and always will be — a simple idea that claims its power from being obviously true. Other presidents have felt it, but Obama has always appeared unusually steeped in this idea and therefore better able to sustain behavior that might reflect it. As he walked into that Baltimore mosque, or as he navigated the meeting-rooms of Washington, London, Brussels, Jerusalem and Tokyo, one felt that it was a belief that was sufficient in him, and we got that belief from his words. Of course, simple ideas are notoriously difficult to translate into reality, and Obama has sometimes experienced the frustration of that. In the U.K., we are inclined to emphasize the vast good of that attempt: It is my expectation that the view from here, at an ocean’s distance, might mimic the view of history when it comes to be written at a distance of years.
Tony Blair used to say that he was leaving Downing Street precisely at the point when he most understood how to do the job; I expect Obama feels the same. The 22nd Amendment was a wise piece of legislation that nevertheless doesn’t always give rise to the right result: Very occasionally, the best person for the job really will have been doing it for the last eight years. The strange thing is that greatness has a way of communicating itself across time and space: We guessed it back then, in the Pimlico flat. It was why we stayed up all night.
This article appears in the Summer/Fall 2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.
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