And I say that as someone who worked to defeat him: I was a foreign policy adviser to John McCain in 2008 and to Mitt Romney in 2012. I criticized Obama’s “lead from behind” foreign policy that resulted in a premature pullout from Iraq and a failure to stop the slaughter in Syria. I thought he was too weak on Iran and too tough on Israel. I feared that Obamacare would be too costly. I fumed that he was too professorial and too indecisive. I was left cold by his arrogance and his cult of personality.
Now I would take Obama back in a nanosecond. His presidency appears to be a lost golden age when reason and morality reigned. All of his faults, real as they were, fade into insignificance compared with the crippling defects of his successor. And his strengths – seriousness, dignity, intellect, probity, dedication to ideals larger than self – shine all the more clearly in retrospect.
Those thoughts are prompted by watching Obama’s speech in South Africa on the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. I was moved nearly to tears by his eloquent defense of a liberal world order that President Donald Trump appears bent on destroying.
The first thing that struck me was what was missing: There was no self-praise and no name-calling. Obama has a far better claim than Trump to being a “very stable genius,” but he didn’t call himself one. The sentences were complete and sonorous – and probably written by the speaker himself. (Imagine Trump writing anything longer than a tweet – and even those are full of mistakes.) The tone was sober and high-minded, even if listeners could read between the lines a withering critique of Trump’s policies.
Obama denounced the “politics of fear and resentment,” the spread of “hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories,” and “immigration policies based on race, or ethnicity, or religion.” Gee, wonder whom he had in mind? He rightly noted that “we now stand at a crossroads – a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and minds of citizens around the world.” He then rejected the dark vision propagated by Trump and the dictators he so admires.
“I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision,” Obama said. “I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multiracial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good.” Even though I was thousands of miles away, I felt like cheering those stirring words.
No, I haven’t forgotten the shortcomings of Obama’s administration, but I’ve gained a new perspective on them.
Can you believe that an Obama-era scandal was that the president wore a tan suit or put his feet up on the desk? (Actual Washington Times headline from Sept. 4, 2013: “Obama’s foot on Oval Office desk sends shockwaves around the world.”) Oh, to have those days back again – before we had a president who was involved in indecent relationships with a Russian despot and (allegedly) a porn star.
What was supposedly the worst abuse of power committed by the Obama administration – the IRS investigations of conservative organizations – has been revealed as “fake news”: It turns out that the IRS was also investigating liberal organizations. By contrast, evidence continues to accumulate about Trump scandals, from alleged campaign collusion with Russia to violations of the emoluments clause. Obama may have told a few fibs, like any politician, but he was not a pathological liar.
Conservatives accused Obama of hating America and going on an “apology tour.” Obama never claimed, however, that poor relations with Russia were the fault of “U.S. foolishness and stupidity” rather than Russian wrongdoing. Obama may have been naive in trying to “reset” relations with Moscow, but he did not say that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “fine” person – and he did not endorse the Russian’s lies over the truths unearthed by the U.S. intelligence community. The Iran nuclear deal was flawed, but it was infinitely stronger than the nonagreement Trump reached with North Korea. Obama even looks like a fiscal conservative compared with Trump, who is ushering in trillion-dollar deficits.
It can be depressing to think about our current predicament under a president whose loyalty to America is suspect but whose racism and xenophobia are undoubted. However, Obama’s speech gave me a glimmer of optimism – and not only because he cited Mandela’s “example of persistence and of hope.” He reminds me that just 18 months ago – can you believe it was so recently? – we had a president with whom I could disagree without ever doubting his fitness to lead. We can have one again.
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