On a holiday when many Americans may feel less thankful as they consider the nation’s future, it is worth recalling again how much we should appreciate the service of Barack Obama. The profound gratitude that we owe him is only underscored by the prospect of the next president, whose name I frankly hesitate to mention on this hallowed occasion. And as he looks forward to leaving the White House, Obama remains keenly focused on how best to serve his country in a moment of unexpected peril.
In Hamilton, the hit Broadway musical that recently delighted the incoming vice president, one of the show-stopping numbers is “One Last Time,” in which George Washington explains why he will step down from the presidency to teach the new America about orderly democratic succession. The spirit of that wonderful song, whose message is essential to our way of life, lives in Obama as he seeks to prepare his woefully unready successor for the rigors of the presidency.
Amazingly, the fact that this individual spent years abusing him with calumnies, lies, and disrespect, in an ugly racist style, has not discouraged Obama from showing him and his family every courtesy – or from attempting to educate him about the gigantic challenges that await him in the Oval Office. Obama’s painstaking efforts to provide a presidential education have been so tactful and so kind as to evoke expressions of astonished praise from the pupil — an uninformed egomaniac who apparently believed, until lately, that he knew everything.
Now that he knows Obama a little, perhaps he is learning a little more about how wrong his assumptions have been about many other matters, from the Affordable Care Act to the Iran nuclear agreement. For the moment, we can only hope.
The president is more popular today than he was at many times during his tenure, presumably because people better understand both his considerable achievements and his innate decency. As we contemplate the coming period of misrule, it is worth reflecting on how much worse our situation might be today if one of Obama’s partisan opponents had been in control of events since January 2009.
For much of that time, a mindlessly negative attitude colored assessments of him and his presidency. More flawed than his most zealous supporters would ever have admitted when he first ran for president, he left many of them disproportionately disappointed. From his first day in office, he never benefited from the “fair chance” or “national unity” that his partisan opponents now demand for his successor. Certainly he made regrettable mistakes in both policy and politics, and suffered declines in public confidence that injured his image and the fortunes of his party. But there will be many reasons to remember him with admiration, and they are sure to loom larger when he is judged against those who follow him.
The undeniable truth is that Obama righted the nation in a moment of deep crisis and set us on a better course, despite bitter obstruction by conservative extremists who were eager to sink us rather than see him succeed.
So we should be forever thankful that Obama was president at the nadir of the Great Recession, rather than a Republican who might have insisted on austerity and rejected the stimulus spending that saved us from economic catastrophe. While not large enough to prevent grave suffering, that spending was sufficient to bring recovery more rapidly than most countries have recovered after a major panic. The proof lies in a record of growth that outpaced every other industrialized country in the world – a record that seems even more impressive because the crash began here, as a consequence of irresponsibility and criminality in American financial markets.
We should also be thankful that Obama – a politician who respects science and knowledge — was president as we began to encounter the frightening reality of climate change. Under his guidance, the federal government has acted against excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, required automakers to double their fuel economy by 2025, ordered agencies to achieve sustainability in operations and purchases, and invested tens of billions in smart electric grids, conservation, and clean fuels. And he — along with Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, among others — brought the United States into the Paris global climate agreement that, with luck, his successor will not attempt to unravel.
We should be thankful, too, that he pushed through the most extensive and generous reform in American health care since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act – which now protects millions of Americans. It is a mark of that legislation’s landmark success that the Republicans, now empowered to repeal it, are promising to preserve many of its important benefits. Whether they can fashion a viable alternative remains to be seen, but it will be instructive to watch them try. Meanwhile health care costs have slowed, Medicare’s solvency has improved, and millions more of the country’s poor and working families are covered by Medicaid, in spite of Republican legislators and governors who would, quite literally, let them and their children die.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has remained admirably cool in the face of vicious attacks that would madden most people — notably including the incoming president. This president has refused to imitate the mindless and often revolting conduct of his adversaries. Not for a moment has he abandoned American values of shared responsibility and prosperity, of cooperation and community, of malice toward none and charity for all.
Those ideals were epitomized by this national holiday’s presidential founders – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. We will work toward the day when we have another leader who seeks to uphold that legacy.