There was a time before Barack Obama was the president when things made sense. The world may have been a chaotic and unruly place, but the political world was orderly underneath. Inside the beltway, a problem was a problem, a scandal was a scandal, and a gaffe was most certainly a gaffe. Administrations came and went as eventually power corrupted and it was time for a change. Those on top seemed invincible—until they weren’t. Those were the rules, and we all abided by them.
The pol from the Pedernales allowed the Great Society to devolve into the Vietnam War. The awkward loner heralded the southern strategy as a permanent realignment, but then Watergate. An optimistic athlete couldn’t be pardoned for a pardon. A boyish farmer’s promise stagnated into malaise. An actor’s morning in America staggered confusedly into twilight. The patrician and loyal soldier dared us to read his lips while he checked his watch. The kid from Hope’s unparalleled prosperity was overshadowed by a ruthless Congress and a young intern. This was what happened when ambitious men were trusted with great power. Triumph and failure while the rest of us watched, alternatingly bemused and angry, wishing for a better politics free from self-interest and petty recriminations.
When George W. Bush took office in January 2001, he promised “to restore honor and dignity to the White House.” He brought back incompetence and indifference instead. His administration was a hallmark of bumbling disasters (Iraq, Katrina, and the meltdown of the entire economic system come to mind) and the elevation of rigid ideology over common humanity (withdrawn funding for stem-cell research, attempted privatization of social security to name a few). To his credit, there were no sex scandals. In their place were big lies. He sent his snarling vice-president to the TV networks to connect Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda when no such link existed. In his 2003 inaugural address, he delivered those sixteen fatefully false words: “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” He left the country in shambles, sinking further into war and depression.
It was into that mess that the president arrived.
He burst onto the scene in 2004 assuring us that we were not as divided as we seemed, and when that turned out not to be quite so true, four years later he promised to bind us back together. That didn’t work out so well either, but four years after that (while campaigning to keep the job so many had waited so long for someone like him to get) he took the stage in Charlotte and delivered his least heralded but most present convention address. “You know, I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention,” the wiser, grayer leader reflected. “Times have changed, and so have I. I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the president.” And he was.
In his first term, the president stanched the massive waves of job losses through a fiscal stimulus package, saved the auto industry, and set in motion the eventual withdrawal of the nation’s military from Iraq. Not satisfied, he kept going. He ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He rolled back tax cuts on the wealthy and reduced the deficit. He passed the first real financial reform bill in decades. And despite furious opposition and wavering allies, he pushed through a momentous health care reform law that would drastically reduce the ranks of the uninsured while slowing the growth of health care costs. He did all this as the howls of a rabid and dishonest movement cloaked in patriotic colors and colonial garb insisted on his illegitimacy and demanded his impeachment, or worse.
Meanwhile, an opposition party used to, and hungry for, scandal and bloodletting got to work. The president refused to give them much to work with. The volume was still there, with sexy names like “fast and furious” and eerie ones like Solyndra. There was the IRS tax caper and wait times at the VA. There was that time his mother planted a fake birth announcement in a Hawaii newspaper in 1961 and forged his long-form birth certificate, clearing the way for her infant child to seek the presidency forty-seven years later.
No question there were setbacks and mistakes. He was too trusting of congressional Republicans, permitting John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to delay and obstruct in his misguided hope of reaching common ground on healthcare and taxes. He gave in to debt ceiling extortion, exposing the nation to the embarrassment of the “super committee” and the damage of the sequester. He ignored those who urged him to bail out homeowners like he had the banks and car manufacturers. He naively dismissed the calls to prosecute Wall Street fraudsters, both as a deterrent to future abuse and to quell the populist anger bubbling up in devastated communities. Perhaps most painfully of all, he stood tearful and helpless as a heartless Congress ignored his calls to action after one mass shooting after another.
Yet, there was great dignity in the way he acknowledged these failures and took on his critics without stooping to their level. He never stopped speaking to the whole country—to police and protestors in times of domestic strife, Christians and Muslims in moments of fragile peace, Democrats and Republicans though partisan media had driven them seemingly irreparably apart. He did it in the face of delegitimizing and dehumanizing opposition; obstruction just for obstruction’s sake.
The American people wanted a president, and they finally had one. And then, when it came time to wish the president well, tired and term-limited, they chose a narrow-minded, mean-spirited, rage-filled, and truly small man. Beyond the bad policies, broken alliances, civil rights violations, and reactionary judges to come, this is the most visceral indignity of the 2016 election. The same American people who hungered for a president and got him, turned to a man like this. So, there they sat, together in the Oval Office two days later. The president spoke calmly and graciously at what had to be a devastating moment. Just hours later the man next to him would take to Twitter to complain falsely about “professional protesters, incited by the media.” This president and that man. That’s who we are.