Think of this as Volume 16, Number 42 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
He has the class of a great entertainer and lives his values more completely than most religious leaders. He can seem introspective and cold, but so have all America's greatest leaders. He writes in a way that makes you cry. He inspires but can laugh at himself. We are lucky to have him.
There's a scene in “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,” the 1967 Spencer Tracy vehicle, that always makes me cry these days. Sidney Poitier, playing a version of his “magic Negro” character from the period, wants to marry Tracy's daughter, played by Katherine Houghton (Hepburn's niece). They met, yes, in Hawaii. Tracy has just told him about the discrimination they'll face, that their child will face. “She wants him to grow up to be President,” says Poitier, “but I'd settle for Secretary of State.”
In conventional terms, Barack Obama was totally unqualified for the office he sought in 2008. He had only been in the Senate for a few years, and had only one memorable speech to his name. His Illinois career had been lackluster, and he'd failed to win a race for Congress in 2000 because he wasn't “black” enough.
But he was, and is, a man for his time. His oratorical gifts are unmatched for his time, and his skill as a writer – both his books were best-sellers – had already made him a small fortune by 2007. Financially, however, he may be the least wealthy President we've had since Truman. By the standards of conventional politics he's a poor man, although he constantly points to himself as wealthy, when he's trying to make a political point.
I have written before that America had four existential crises in its history, before the 2008 collapse. The first was in 1860, when the union itself was threatened. The second was in 1896, when the economy was on the brink of greatness or dissolution. The third came in 1932, another economic crisis, and the fourth came in 1968, a generational civil war sparked by Vietnam.
Each crisis gave us a similar type of leader. What Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon had in common was that they were less than their supporters wanted them to be, that they were products of opposition to a dominating Thesis of the previous generation, that they had supported its Anti-Thesis, which had flowered briefly and then been blown away by events. Lincoln followed Clay, McKinley followed the Mugwumps and other Republican reformers, Roosevelt followed Wilson and Nixon was Eisenhower's VP.
Similarly, Barack Obama's politics are to the right of what his supporters want, and stem from the Clinton Anti-Thesis to Nixon's assumptions. Clinton was a “yeah-but” President, a man who tried to moderate the Nixon era's demands on social, economic and foreign policy issues, and who used Nixon-like rhetoric to suggest that Nixon's opponents had learned some things, accepted some assumptions, but could simply manage things better.
Upon seeing just how bad the situation was during the campaign, Obama modeled his cabinet on those of Lincoln and FDR, appointing a serious rival as his Secretary of State, and seeking other cabinet members from the GOP. He also brought in technocrats, like Stephen Chu, people with real expertise in the problems they were dealing with. And then he generally left them alone.
Meanwhile, he played the hand he was dealt without complaint. The Bush people lied about how bad the situation was in late November 2008, so the stimulus he suggested was too small, but he has yet to even acknowledge that. He saw that Republicans were as obstinate as Confederates in opposing him, yet he somehow got a health care reform bill through the Congress. He was hammered as badly as Harry Truman by the off-year elections, but he kept smiling, kept pushing for bipartisanship, and acted on his own only after proving there was no other way forward.
What liberals (like me) hate about this President is that he's accepted Bush-era premises on terrorism, on drone strikes, and in law enforcement. But he has gotten more done, costing far fewer lives, than his predecessor. Bin Laden isn't the only enemy of America who is dead. So is Gaddafi. Chavez and Ahmadinejad are reeling. Even the “false friends” of our recent past have been done away with, Mubarak is gone and Assad is going. We've ended one war and committed to ending the other. A peace dividend is on the way, if we just have the courage to take it.
Have liberals noticed that suddenly we're winning on the social issues, and that things we couldn't talk about for years – abortion, immigration, gay rights – we're now on the offensive on? Have we noticed that Democrats are now supported by the people (if not by Wall Street) on the issues of the economy, and deficits? Has anyone noticed renewable energy doubling, and doubling again?
And through it all he laughs. He actually laughs. Lincoln never laughed. McKinley barely cracked a smile. FDR laughed, a little, but it was usually for effect, a political laugh. (Don't get me started on Nixon.) This guy laughs with a full heart, with a huge smile. Instead of getting angry over his recent debate performance, he makes jokes about it. He doesn't yell at his crowds, he engages in conversation.
Yes. Barack Hussein Obama is our first African-American President. But with another four years others may acknowledge something I've long thought possible, that he's our best President. Period.