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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: In word and deed, Obama set a unifying example

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

He helped stave off a depression. He opened the doctor’s office to millions of Americans, changing the country’s fundamental expectations about health care. He got Osama bin Laden.

As the country’s first black president – the first African-American elected to lead a country whose history is tightly interwoven with slavery – he presided over an era of expanding civil rights for LGBT people, as well as a time of contentious and necessary debates about the police and people of color. He used power to help people at the bottom, and asked more of those at the top.

And he did it against a headwind of unyielding opposition that was often disgraceful (“You lie!”), dishonest (“Bette from Spokane”), unprecedented (stonewalling Merrick Garland), and clouded by racist dog-whistles (birtherism and the “war on whites.”)

For these reasons and more, Barack Obama’s presidency will stand as one of the most remarkable in the country’s history. And his legacy will improve over time, I think, polished to a shine by daily, disheartening comparisons to the guy replacing him.

In addition to the things he did, there is another reason to celebrate his presidency: the things he said. At his best, Obama was a peerless political communicator, a figure of Lincolnian eloquence, intelligence and inspirational potency.

In the way he spoke to the country of his “abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation” – the way he expressed American values and perceived American problems, his temperate response to intemperate critics, his continued belief in the country’s shared destiny – he found a powerful political language of common purpose.

In the way he spoke about his own story, his own background, about his wife and his daughters, about his critics, about the issues of race, he was calm, humane, respectful and well-reasoned.

He was the adult in the room, setting a good example.

I’m not suggesting he was perfect in word or deed. His presidency was marked by major problems against which he seemed impotent: gun violence and terrorism come to mind. His dream of D.C. bipartisanship evaporated quickly, though most of the blame doesn’t lie with him. In the face of congressional stalemate, he used executive powers in a way that no liberal would want from a conservative president.

To some, his silver tongue was a drawback. Conservatives mocked it as empty stagecraft, and liberals sometimes wished he would be more politically combative. I’m reminded of something a friend said: Obama always showed up to a knife fight with an elegant speech.

Fair enough. But political speech is not a trifle. Language connects the electorate to the elected. To most of us, the way a politician speaks is who they are. It’s the way we decide who and what to support, and the material from which we try to create a sense of national coherence. At his best, Obama was a master.

This is part of the reason he’s beloved among many on the left, bound for political sainthood among his tribe a la Reagan. But – also like Reagan – a key part of his appeal is the fact that he won supporters in the middle through rousing, unifying language. He leaves office with an approval rating of 58 percent, and I suspect that he will cast forward a significant influence on politics in the years to come.

One of the most striking themes of Obama the speaker has been his faith that Americans are one united people – despite evidence to the contrary. Obama’s insistence on this point might be wishful, but it’s a necessary message for our times and he has not wavered from it.

In his first speech on a national stage, a captivating address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Obama sounded this theme.

“I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me and that in no other country on earth is my story even possible,” he said.

Later, he added, “Alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga: A belief that we’re all connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs and having to choose between medicine and paying the rent, that makes my life poorer even if it’s not my grandparent.”

The belief that we are one people and that our fortunes are linked remained a constant for Obama, in word and deed, right up until his farewell speech, which was a cogent, articulate – and long – assessment of the dangers we face now.

“If every economic issue is framed as struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves,” he said. “If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.”

Words matter. The truth of them matters. The values they reflect matter. They can be used sincerely to unite, and cynically to divide. We are being treated to a continual stream of crude, verbal emptiness from the incoming president – words that bear no relationship to facts, tantrum-words, words void of dignity, words deployed like rusty blades spreading political tetanus.

Some see this as a positive, I guess – the unrepentant nature of the insult-tossing blusterer. But the national discourse is getting a national downgrade, and that’s more than a shallow consideration.

We will miss the adult in the room.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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