In 19 days, Barack Obama will not be president anymore. Half the country will greet this news with profound sadness. The other half will greet it with glee.
Eight years after he took office, he remains a sometimes surprisingly polarizing figure. I say “surprisingly” because, despite being a mild-mannered, wickedly humored politician inclined towards the professorial, the conspiracy theories about him floated during his two terms — that he was a Kenyan Muslim Socialist Usurper; that he was going to revoke the Second Amendment and take away everybody’s guns; that he was gay (and his wife was a man) — all of these, on their face, were literally unbelievable. And yet millions of people — including some in Congress (and, yes, the incoming president) — couldn’t merely disagree with his politics or policies; they believed the conspiracy theories, too.
It’s because he’s the Other, of course.
A black man, obviously. But also a Hawaiian. The son of an American woman and a Kenyan man. An outsider who has had the self-discipline and the distance to look at himself with dispassionate eyes and choose his peers — that is, his tribe — instead of being born and loyal to a particular group. This has been both his achievement and, to some extent, his burden, Ta-Nehisi Coates observes.
For the past few weeks, Coates’ Atlantic story about Obama — “My President Was Black” — has been among the most-viewed on the magazine’s site. Its popularity is deserved, because the observant Coates has the ability to see Obama from a more varied perspective than the cliched, dismissive tropes of Maureen “He’s Spock” Dowd or Alex “He’s a Demon” Jones. His piece is my Sunday read.
In the essay, Coates notes how unlikely Obama’s story is:
Obama was born into a country where laws barring his very conception—let alone his ascendancy to the presidency—had long stood in force. A black president would always be a contradiction for a government that, throughout most of its history, had oppressed black people. The attempt to resolve this contradiction through Obama—a black man with deep roots in the white world—was remarkable. The price it exacted, incredible. The world it gave way to, unthinkable.
He contrasts Obama’s optimistic personality with his own:
What Obama was able to offer white America is something very few African Americans could—trust. The vast majority of us are, necessarily, too crippled by our defenses to ever consider such a proposition. But Obama, through a mixture of ancestral connections and distance from the poisons of Jim Crow, can credibly and sincerely trust the majority population of this country. … He stands firm in his own cultural traditions and says to the country something virtually no black person can, but every president must: “I believe you.”
And he laments that Obama, with his optimism, too often looked past the divides that rose up in response to his presidency. It wasn’t just that the GOP refused to work with him, whether in 2009-10 or after his 2012 re-election. It was also that the beast of racial and cultural prejudice never went away.
Coates references a sobering statistic: “Studying the 2016 election, the political scientist Philip Klinkner found that the most predictive question for understanding whether a voter favored Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was ‘Is Barack Obama a Muslim?’ ”
I met Barack Obama in 2004, a few hours before he gave the Democratic Convention keynote speech that made his name. As we rode in a minivan from a rally back to Boston’s Fleet Center (now TD Garden), I was struck by his deliberate consideration of my questions. When you interview politicians, you can often hear stump-speech tape recordings playing through their mouths, but that didn’t seem the case with Obama. He actually thought about what he was saying.
That willingness to think things through cuts both ways, of course. His deliberate manner as president has sometimes driven me nuts. At the same time, I appreciate his reasoned approach, even if playing the long game rarely earned him points in an instant-gratification country (and, increasingly, an instant-gratification world).
He leaves office with the country, by many measures, in better shape than he found it. Now he’s also leaving it with Donald Trump, a man who’s his opposite in every way, the Billy Martin to his Walter Alston. (Which may be giving the unpredictable Trump too much credit as a tactician.)
Coates has something to say about that, too. While talking to Obama adviser David Axelrod a few weeks before the election — when it appeared that Trump was melting down and taking the GOP with him — Axelrod told Coates, “They rode the tiger. And now the tiger is eating them.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Coates added to Axelrod’s observation.
“His words proved too optimistic,” Coates writes. “The tiger would devour us all.”