16 Jan An Open Letter to President Barack Hussein Obama
Dear President Obama,
Aww, hell. Are we going to miss you! It was going to be so perfect—following you, the first African American: the first woman. One barrier after another falling.
But it wasn’t just the barrier breaking, although that was historic and cleansing and vibrant with hope. It’s that it was going to be that particular woman, stupendously well-qualified and progressive—just as you haven’t been simply the first African-American president; you’ve been Barack Hussein Obama in all his brilliance, his no-drama calm.
This, then, is to thank you. In 2008, I voted for Hillary in the primaries, and then voted for you—twice, and have never regretted that. But not until it was too late did you ever toot your own horn, so now I will.
Hello, America? Anybody home? The jobless rate is down to 4.6 percent, which almost qualifies as full employment. The economy is now significantly larger than it was before the Great Recession, which you inherited your first day in office. You signed into law the Lily Ledbetter act, another step forward to equal pay for women. The stock market is at an all-time high. More importantly, the high-school graduation rate is at an all-time high. Crime and healthcare inflation are near historic lows, and so are oil imports—meaning we’re less dependent on foreign fuels. Abortions are also at an all-time low, due to greater availability of contraceptives and to sex education. Carbon emissions are falling. So is illegal immigration. But renewable power is rising, and retirement assets and auto sales have both skyrocketed. America? Hello?!
The once fragile Medicare trust fund has stabilized. Because of your willingness to change, and to use your bully pulpit, same-sex lovers now have marriage equality. We’ve drawn down the troops from wars we shouldn’t have entered to begin with and seem unable to extricate ourselves from now. You had the temerity and the smarts to invite Hillary Rodham Clinton to be your first Secretary of State—and she had the temerity and smarts to accept. Together, you set the stage for the Iran nuclear agreement, and for the Paris climate agreement. Together, you got Osama bin Laden. You opened up relations to Cuba, sensibly noting that to keep repeating the same unsuccessful strategy over and over is one definition of insanity. America? Anybody home?
You preserved more natural land and sea territory via the national park system, safe from development and mining, then any president since Theodore Roosevelt. You welcomed the Dreamers and tried to protect the immigrant community, imperfectly, yes—but better than anyone had done previously. Time and again you came to the microphone with tears in your voice to comfort families blasted apart by the epidemic of gun availability and violence. You gave us one of the most memorable moments in American history, breaking into song—”Amazing Grace”—at the memorial service for victims of racism and gun violence at Mother Emmanuel Church. You lived on a tight rope, continuously, relentlessly having to balance between your honorable pledge to be the president of all Americans, and the pressures, internal as well as external, to be the voice of still suffering black Americans who looked to you as their superhero. And you accomplished what seven US presidents had tried and failed to pull off: however flawed and attacked, and however it may be gutted or even destroyed in future—you gave this country the beginnings of a national healthcare system that has already saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Somewhere in all this—oh my god!—you managed to stop smoking.
But you started lots of other things. You grew into the office and it into you. You stood at the lectern with the Presidential Seal, pointed to yourself, and proclaimed to the world, “This is what a feminist looks like.” You were open about your love and reverence for the arts, and you brought massive past and present contributions of black American artists into high relief. A fatherless kid, you made it clear that being a father, that parenting, was central to your chosen identity. Simply by embodying America’s first family for eight years with such grace, you, the remarkable Michelle Robinson Obama, and your daughters Sasha and Malia changed consciousness forever, redefining beauty, power, race, class, and family itself. I confess that it was delicious to imagine that on one of those nights after a Kennedy Center Awards Gala or a state dinner where you and Michelle looked gorgeous and danced together and seemed to actually enjoy yourselves; to think that the first couple, still young and with a twinkle in the eye, might actually go upstairs and make love in the presidential bed (not all that common an occurrence in the White House, I would think). On your watch, we became again the world’s richest, most powerful, nation. On your watch, we regained the respect of the rest of the world.
That, America, is what was.
What will be now?
This past week gave us a side-by-side comparison of two men, one in a speech by a president and commander-in-chief about to leave office, the other at a press conference by a man denouncing legitimate press as “fake news,” while he enters office as a fake president, a fake commander-in-chief.
We’re familiar with the concept of contempt of court, and the concept of contempt of Congress. But we have not until now encountered someone exhibiting contempt of the Presidency, and we hardly expected it from a so-called president-elect.
The difference in body language alone tells the story. Trump: stocky, stiff, overweight, lurching forward as he walks, his gestures and twitches punctuating yet disconnected from the content of what he says; hectoring and bullying, repetitive, ungrammatical, contorting the meaning of words, and spewing comments soaked in lies and bile, defensiveness, ignorance, self-obsession. This was the image that shockingly followed your farewell address the night before: you, Mr. President, slender, lithe, a man at ease in his own skin, casually loping onstage with that understated, slim-hipped, cool swing of yours; a man who spoke with wit and eloquence, substance and dignity, a man who still dared, audaciously, to hope—and a man who was unashamed to cry openly when speaking with grateful love about the sacrifices his wife made for his presidency, and about his pride in his daughters.
That was more than a model of a president. That was a model of manhood.
So thank you. When we met and shook hands, I looked up at you, craning my neck at your tallness, and said, “Don’t let the bastards get you down, Mr. President!”—and you laughed and promised you wouldn’t. You haven’t.
Go sleep for a month, as you said you long to do. But don’t take too long because we need you on the frontlines, fighting for and with us. We need your intellectual elegance and your gritty, irrepressible capacity for faith in this Republic. Besides, you’ve already been the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, the first black President of the United States (for two terms yet!), and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and you’re only 55 years old—so what are you going to do now that you’re a grown-up?
Barack Hussein Obama, I hope you have the most active and constructive post-presidency in the history of this nation, and I’ll see you on the barricades with the rest of us.
With love and gratitude to you and your family,