President Obama gave a speech Tuesday at the National Archives that stood in almost perfect counterpoint to the Republican presidential debate that took place that evening in Las Vegas: Against the rising GOP tide of anger toward immigrants, Obama anchored himself among the historical documents that define American tolerance.
Obama’s speech was a homily to American values. He welcomed new citizens from 25 countries to the fellowship defined by our Constitution and Bill of Rights: “You don’t look alike. You don’t worship the same way. But here, surrounded by the very documents whose values bind us together as one people, you’ve raised your hand and sworn a sacred oath.”
Obama delivered a blunt message to those who are embracing Donald Trump’s counternarrative of nativism and intolerance: “The truth is, being an American is hard. Being part of a democratic government is hard. Being a citizen is hard. It is a challenge. It’s supposed to be. There’s no respite from our ideals. All of us are called to live up to our expectations for ourselves — not just when it’s convenient, but when it’s inconvenient. When it’s tough. When we’re afraid.”
As Obama prepares to begin the last year of his presidency, he stands in an unusual position on the national stage: He is the rationalist, a creature of intellect rather than emotion. Dry as a bone, often disdainful of politics, averse to selling his policies (and also not very good at it), he is sometimes his own worst enemy. But compared with our other recent two-term presidents who stumbled as they neared the finish line, Obama seems to be gaining strength.
Certainly this was a year in which the president delivered on the rationalist’s agenda, against intense emotional opposition. He achieved an Iran nuclear deal that was bitterly opposed by Israel and the GOP; a Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade rejected by much of his own party; a normalization of relations with Cuba that broke a national political taboo; and a climate change agreement that triumphed over a right-wing cult of rejecting scientific evidence.
This was a good year, you might conclude, for fact-based governance. But watching the swelling movement symbolized by Trump, you might think otherwise. It’s a paradox that Obama can have so many successes, and yet be seen by some at home and abroad as weak.
Obama’s political education has been expensive, for him and the country. He came into office believing that good ideas would prevail. He disliked the messy, boisterous work of salesmanship and retail governance. Perhaps he worried deep down that some of the opposition to his policies was rooted in prejudice against him as an African American. Perhaps he was right.
From his first year in office, Obama encountered a raw rejectionism from the Republican right; it wasn’t just criticism of his policies but a challenge to the very legitimacy of his presidency. Many details were fabricated, such as the allegation that he was secretly a Muslim, or that he had been born outside the United States. Yet these themes were repeated so often on conservative talk radio and cable news that they began to constitute an alternative reality.
It’s hard to know what a better counterstrategy might have been, but Obama’s cool public posture (while he was smoldering inside) didn’t work very well.
The rise of Trump has surprised most pundits, but it doesn’t seem to shock Obama. Trump is a crystallization of the angry rhetoric that Obama has been facing from the GOP since he took office. Trump is just louder, more shameless and more charismatic. He’s the marriage of P.T. Barnum and Rush Limbaugh.
It would be good if Obama were better at projecting the rationalist’s faith in this moment of irrational politics. One of his heroes is clearly Pope Francis, who conveys with every action his rejection of fundamentalism and absolutism. Perhaps the pope gives lessons.
Obama has made skepticism about easy answers and quick fixes the cornerstone of his foreign policy. In the Situation Room, he is said to quiz his advisers about unintended consequences — to ask what Iraq or Syria or Ukraine would look like in the months after a proposed action. Those are the questions the country should want asked, but Obama hasn’t found a way to make them sound like good leadership.
Obama has a year remaining in which to craft his message better, so that it reassures and galvanizes a frightened country. That’s his biggest challenge — governing in the age of anxiety.
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