Barack Obama’s legacy is being systematically unraveled even before he leaves office, with The Wall Street Journal scoffing that he “has been a historic president but perhaps not a consequential one.”
Historians will also note that the Democratic Party is in far worse shape today than when Obama took office: It has lost its House and Senate majorities, as well as 13 governorships and more than 900 state legislative seats.
More broadly, the sunny Obama optimism of “Yes, we can” has faded into a rancorous miasma of distrust and dysfunction. One example of that rancor is unfolding at the Woodmont Country Club outside Washington, where hawkish pro-Israeli members are campaigning to deny Obama membership – even though there’s no official indication he will even apply.
Yet here’s my prediction: America and the world will soon be craving that Obama Cool again.
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Voters are fickle and promiscuous, suffering an eight-year itch for a fling with someone who is the opposite of their last infatuation. Sick of Bill Clinton, we turned to a Texas governor who was utterly different. Eight years later, weary of George W. Bush, we elected his polar opposite, a liberal black law professor. And now we’ve elected Obama’s antipode.
Polls suggest that voters are already souring on Donald Trump, in ways that may soon create nostalgia for Obama. Newly elected presidents usually enjoy a honeymoon, but Gallup says Trump’s approval is at the lowest level the pollster has recorded in a presidential transition.
Mostly, I think we journalists overdo the personal and pay insufficient attention to policies – such as those that led Obama’s presidency to enjoy the longest streak of consecutive private-sector job creation in the 78 years the statistic has been recorded. But while Obama’s policy legacy is being whittled away, he also has an important personal legacy that Trump inadvertently burnishes.
A president inevitably is not just commander in chief but also a role model, a symbol of American values around the world. We won the Cold War not only with American missiles but also with American “soft power,” and one element of our soft power arsenal is a president who commands respect and admiration at home and abroad. We want our children and the world’s to admire our president – and that is where Obama is strongest and Trump weakest.
Trump spews emotional tweets impetuously and vindictively, lacing his venom with misspellings or grammatical mistakes. We'll be craving Obama’s prudence, intellect and reserve.
The personal differences between them aren’t just that Obama was an African-American son of a single mom, while Trump was the scion of a real estate tycoon. It’s more the behaviors they model. Trump has had five children by three wives, has boasted of his infidelities, has shrugged at conflicts of interest and is a walking scandal.
“He will never, ever, let you down. … Donald is intensely loyal,” we were told at the Republican convention – by his third wife. In contrast, Obama has the most boring personal life imaginable and is the rare president who got through a second term without significant scandals.
That seems to be because of extreme caution. When Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, he solicited a 13-page memo from Justice Department lawyers verifying that there was absolutely no conflict in accepting it. And then he donated the money to charities.
Whatever our views of Obama’s politics, we should be able to agree that he is a superlative family man. For eight years, this family has made us proud. The graciousness that the Obamas displayed toward the Trumps, even as in private they must have been beating their heads against the wall, exemplified class.
When Obama gave his farewell address in Chicago this month, he was accompanied by Michelle and his older daughter, Malia, but 15-year-old Sasha was missing. Twitter was abuzz, and #WheresSasha was soon trending. It turned out that she wasn’t in a drunken stupor or staying away in an angry teenage sulk. Rather, it seemed that the Obamas had Sasha stay home to study for an exam the next morning.
If I were Sasha, I’d be annoyed: “C’mon, Dad! You coulda written me a note!” But I’m proud of a first family that so values education and is so averse to asserting privilege.
We can argue about Obama’s policies. For my part, I deplored his passivity on Syria. But even on issues that I disagreed with him on, I never doubted his integrity or intelligence, his decency or honor.
Trump may dismantle Obamacare and pull out of the Paris climate accord. But he cannot undo Obama’s legacy of dignity and old-fashioned virtue, and the impression he made on all of us.
And if, as I fear, we see the White House transformed into a bog of scandals flowing from an unprincipled narcissist, we as a nation will be more appreciative of a first family that set an impeccable example for all the world.
Nicholas Kristof can be reached at Facebook.com/Kristof or at Twitter.com/NickKristof.