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WASHINGTON, D.C. - Americans are lucky to have Barack Obama as president and we should wake up and appreciate it while we can.
I have said this before, a year ago in a column headlined, “Mr. President, on behalf of an ungrateful nation, thank you.” I want to say it again before the next phase of this wretched campaign commences with the bizarre spasms of political marketing that the national party conventions have become. I am afraid it will be a time when it’s even more difficult to see a glimmer of class or honor in politics. It does exist, though.
In the year since I wrote that piece, it has become ever obvious that our political system and culture is in worse shape than most everyone thought, pessimistic me included.
We’re reminded ad nauseum of the nauseating: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, in that order, are by far the most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history. That isn’t a fluke. It isn’t a coincidence that both parties produced profoundly disabled candidates; it happened because our civic metabolism is unwell. In this extraordinary context, Barack Obama’s accomplishments and leadership are all the more impressive.
It also has become clear this year that the world’s other large, rich democracies have similar but more severe fractures. England is the prime example, of course, but France, Germany and other European countries are all struggling to cope with stagnant economies, globalization, mass immigration and terrorism. Trump’s nationalist scapegoating is echoed all over Europe. America’s economy, however, is the strongest and Obama should get some credit for that — but he doesn’t.
Throughout the past year, the country has been reminded of how deep and enduring racial conflicts and resentments are and will be. Obama’s election was a genuinely hopeful summit, but high expectations of fast change were naïve and doomed. Some blame the president for making relations worse, which is absurd. It is painfully clear as his terms wind down that prejudice and racism were more insidious burdens for the first black president than we thought and hoped in 2008, obstacles no prior president has had to confront.
The country neared a boiling point on that front in recent days. President Obama again reminded us again of what we’ll miss when he’s gone. After atrocities in Orlando, Baton Rouge and Minnesota, Donald Trump was destructive and divisive; after Dallas he was silent. Throughout, Hillary Clinton has been well spoken and well intentioned, but largely unheard and uninspiring. It isn’t so easy to do the right thing, even when it’s obvious.
“We ask the police to do too much, and we ask too little of ourselves,” Obama said at the Dallas memorial service. The same can be said of presidents. The expectations we have for presidents are juvenile. Problems are always the fault of someone else, some other group, some other party, some other part of America other than ours.
The last three two-term presidents – Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – were shackled by scandals and inquisitions by the end. Congress is the least trusted major institution in the country, the polls say. Mere survival is difficult at the top in the modern public arena. For many reasons, we diminish and then devour the people we elect. I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Obama has not only survived, he has done it with dignity, discipline and purpose. His administration has been remarkably free of scandal and corruption. The Affordable Care Act is likely to be the most enduring, important legislative accomplishment since the creation of Medicare. The U.S. economy recovered from the Great Recession better than any in the world.
None of that means Obama is popular or appreciated, which is sad. I am confident that he will be deeply appreciated and respected as time passes and historians look back. He has faced unprecedented obstacles at a precarious moment in history.
Obama’s approval ratings have been ticking up over the past few months. But the posse of truly rabid Obama haters isn’t shrinking. They have been systematically and relentlessly stoked by a Republican Party that is now facing an existential crisis named Donald Trump.
Helping defeat Trump and Trumpism will be Obama’s final challenge as president, and one of the most important.
The coming campaign is likely to be even more disheartening and disillusioning, if that’s possible. So before it all gets any uglier, it’s a good time to say, Mr. President, on behalf of an ungrateful nation, thanks again.
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