I was going to start this column with a joke. How could I not? Just minutes before Barack Obama was about to give his last address as President of the United States, his successor Donald Trump was angrily denying accusations he had paid Russian prostitutes to pee in front of him.
But Obama’s speech is over. He and Vice-President Joe Biden have hugged and walked off the stage. And I can’t muster a laugh.
Regardless of what you think of his presidency, Obama will be remembered as one of America’s great orators. His speech in Chicago was a stirring call to value and safeguard American democracy. It was both graceful and melancholy, and a warning that people need to work harder, to engage more, and to listen better if the United States is ever going to achieve its promise. It was a sombre farewell.
He warned that progress is not a straight line. “For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back, but the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion.” And, to be fair, the last eight years has seen a great deal of that forward motion.
When he came to office in 2008, after all, both America and the world were slipping into the Great Recession. The United States and its allies were mired in Afghanistan and Iraq, and seven years after 9/11, the threat of Islamic terrorism seemed greater than ever.
Now, leaving office in 2016, the stock market has tripled, unemployment has been halved, household net worth is 50 per cent higher, and the economy overall is 11 per cent larger than its pre-Obama peak. The troops have mostly come home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Osama bin Laden is dead.
Obama can’t take credit for all of this, but there is no denying he helped. He recapitalized the banks and brought in reforms to stabilize the financial sector. His administration rescued the auto industry, and increased exports. Obama passed the Affordable Care Act, providing medical insurance to over 20 million Americans who had previously gone without. He championed the Paris Climate Treaty, dramatically expanded renewable energy, and protected vast tracts of wilderness.
Nonetheless, right now, it doesn’t feel like progress. The prison in Guantánamo Bay is still open. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq go on, and new ones in Syria, South Sudan and Ukraine are metastasizing. North Korea claims it has an intercontinental nuclear warhead, and the Chinese are building “significant” naval bases in the South China Sea. Every week, there is another mass shooting. Hate crimes are on the rise. The Arctic ice sheets are melting.
And Donald Trump is about to be president.
Right now, there is a sense that Trump is Obama’s legacy: that the 44th President didn’t support Hillary enough, or engage white Americans enough, or reach out to Republicans enough. But Obama didn’t elect Trump. Obama was not responsible for the rise of the Tea Party, or the collapse of the moderate right. The paradox is that the same people who voted for a liberal black man with an Islamic name also elected a conservative Kremlin apologist with a compulsion for lies and insults. Democracy doesn’t always make sense. The electorate’s moods shift and double back. The people change their views and their votes. As the American poet Walt Whitman wrote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).”
Nonetheless, the fact remains, as Obama was about to take the stage in Chicago, allegations surfaced that Russia is blackmailing Trump with videotapes of him and prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room. Earlier in the day, news broke that five of Trump’s cabinet nominees had given more than $100,000 in donations to the senators running their confirmation hearings. Just before that, his nominee to be America’s next attorney-general had to repudiate his support of the Ku Klux Klan. And a few hours before that, the president-elect met with an infamous vaccine denier about joining a committee to look at vaccine safety.
I know that there is a joke in here, somewhere. I am sure of it. But tonight, right now, this all feels more like a tragedy than a comedy.