Nothing, not even the failed Presidency which preceded it, ennobles the presidency of Barack Obama quite as much as the one to follow.
Sure, if President Obama were turning this thing over to Hillary Clinton, we'd say nice things; he'd still be giving the inspirational talks. But much of the "you never had it so good" and "you didn't know just how good you had it" that's tinged the post-election coverage of the White House is the sound of an intellectual and media elite retreating into golden, candy colored memories of the past 8 years as an act of protection and denial. It will be years, a generation maybe, before anyone can get a good, hard look at What Just Happened, flaws and all.
Still, I wish we'd let this President go with just a little less treacle and a little more, well, honesty. He wasn't perfect. There were mistakes. We're here - facing the reversal, if not the collapse, of many things liberal hold dear in part because of an angry, dismal backlash against the man and the things he did. And while part of that, inarguably, has to do with race and prejudice, that's not all it was. And trying to do better and get back (in time) to save things will have to do with not just celebrating the recent past, but learning from it.
So let's get some of the hard stuff on the table: while this President presided over a period of remarkable economic recovery, his economic policies and choices weren't great, whether in terms of really up-ending a cycle of poverty or breaking up the status quo. Timothy Geithner was, at best, a relatively okay Treasury Secretary who resisted calls for dramatic reform, protected major banks, and stabilized markets while hurting many of those caught in the worst aspects of the foreclosure crisis. There was considerable tension creating the CPFB (which is the basis of Elizabeth Warren's unique insider/outsider cache), and allowing it to really take on the most outrageous practices of banks.The worst may well be behind us. But there is tremendous, lasting damage to the earning opportunities for many workers, a critical lack of affordable housing (especially in the urban core), and a distinct sense, still, that there is a systemic advantage for the wealthy and well connected. Democrats face a real dilemma of navigating the tensions of being the party of an intellectual, white collar elite and the party fighting for the needs of everyday working people and the poor. These are not economic interests that actually match up.
On foreign policy, the President made welcome strides to improve the role of diplomacy in international affairs, in ratcheting down our military involvements, and redefining our role as part of the community of nations, not just the dominating force. But those adjustments can't soften the fact that his approach to Syria was well meaning but incoherent. That he enabled Putin in ways that paved the way for Russia's behavior in recent months. And the President leaves much as he came in - with a war in Afghanistan that isn't over, and prisoners at Guantanamo Bay with no real end in sight. In between, the mix of cautiousness and hands off policies left Libya in collapse and Egypt in the hands of another strong armed military dictator. And while Iran seems committed to its nuclear agreements (to the chagrin of conservatives hoping for failure), solving the raft of issues around Israel and terrorist threats from the Middle East are at best, modestly controlled.
In the big picture, President Obama is a President who was brilliant at the Big Ideas and Seeing the Long View - Democrats will benefit, in ways still unrealized, from the steps this President took that were about future successes, not immediate gratification. In it's broad outlines, the Affordable Care Act has allowed millions to get the necessary insurance to access needed medical care. This is, and should be, lauded as a major accomplishment. But the ACA is emblematic of how this Administration's lofty goals were not matched to the practical, everyday processes needed to see them through: from its botched web build to the failure to control costs of care to hardening our commitment to a broken model of employment based insurance, the ACA is built on and struggles with severe flaws. And is it necessarily surprising that for those stuck in the small, but significant, problems... that their answer was to lose patience with the whole thing all together?
For those who dreamed big with the President's initial campaign of "hope and change," reality could never live up to the slogan: it was, in retrospect, sweetly naive to think our major divides and polarized politics could be solved with a few kind words. But more than that, President Obama never really squared the dichotomy within himself - for all the bromides about getting along and working together, the President was at his best, and most inspiring, giving full throated voice to the ideals and goals of the political left. To go from intense negotiations with calls to find common ground to ecstatic rallies where he stung his opponents with sharply aimed wit and cries to fight, this Presidency was not about the work of compromise; it was about the defense of the most cherished values of the American Left. And that's helpful for what we need to do next... but it's also key to what energized and emboldened an entrenched opposition.
Democrats probably need to face, harder and more painfully, the reality that this most recent election's narrow yet thorough rejection of the past Presidency wasn't just a failure of "salesmanship"; nor do the blatant appeals to the ugliest aspects of resentment and prejudice fully explain the loss. This was a presidency of soaring rhetoric, lofty ideas and grand plans that got lost somewhere on the way to our everyday lives and the corner store. It was the suggestion that we should challenge the status quo, while solidifying the hard economic realities of the very status quo that limited advancement, economic growth for individuals, and raised costs of living that were often simply too damn high to start. It was beautiful... and it was broken.
For all of it, good and bad, I neither blame President Obama nor want to overpraise him. There were major accomplishments; we still face many painful realities his policies did little to solve. He was, I think, a good but not great President, something that's hard to reconcile in the milestone of a First, like First Black President. It's not popular to say, certainly from a lifelong liberal stance, that for all the good, President Obama was flawed, imperfect, often aloof seeming to the pain and sadness of many, often unable to connect the broad themes of his impressive speeches to the day to day realities of everyday life. It's hard to say even softly, as he leaves us.
Like the President, though, I don't think all is lost. That American quality of naive hopefulness, that faith in hope and change he spoke of so well, if so vaguely, is a hopefulness i never needed to be sold. We are the change. I believe Democrats can, calmly and carefully, figure the way out of this mess. And as we resist the descent into what will surely be some dark times, we will need, no doubt, to hold on to the best of our lofty ideals, our highest moral imperatives. And if that's the piece of the Obama legacy that we can build on, then the best of his work really will not have been in vain.