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If things go the way Donald Trump wants, Obama may be better remembered for his jokes at correspondents’ dinners than his policy accomplishments.
In all fairness, Obama’s jokes were hilarious. His comically inspiring speeches cheered at least half of the country and his warmth endeared him as “one of us” to the rest of the country. Here was a hilarious, hip-hop loving, hoops shooting president who took joy slumming it with the ordinary folks. His passionate pleas after national tragedies inspired tears and his public addresses inspired optimism. Fandom over his bromance with Joe Biden and his bromance with his Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau is certain to linger for a while longer.
Obama was a natural showman. He seemed to understand that the key to wooing millennials is not just promises of free college but also surprise appearances in popular shows like Jimmy Fallon or the Colbert Report. Take an already charismatic president and let him stand tall on shoulders of television celebrities—the Obama family stole several nights’ limelight. Everything he did had half the country cheering behind him.
I learned about Obama when I was in my formative years in Nepal. For a little boy from a country with rampant corruption that had just ended an armed civil conflict, Obama’s message of unity and hope resonated with and inspired my young psyche. His charisma and energy transcended national boundaries—my little school was electrified when he won the presidency eight years ago and was reelected four years later. For the next five years, I, together with many others, reveled in his inspirational presence delivered through appearances on shows and meticulously crafted speeches.
It was only after spending a year in the US that I began to realize that despite the confidence and optimism of his rhetoric, his years in office had disappointed not just detractors on the political right but also his ardent supporters on the left. While the little boy in me still marvels at his charismatic character, my enthusiasm for change has long since been tempered.
Behind the veneer of a candid president, journalists saw the emergence of a very opaque administration. When he was campaigning for president in 2008, he slammed the secrecy of Bush’s administration and pledged for a more transparent government. In the eight years of his presidency, he not only continued but broadened the secrecy he inherited from Bush. Some even go further to claim that the precedent set by Obama in curtaining transparency will empower Trump to target the press and journalists.
In retrospect, it is a surprise to anyone why Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Obama, the anti-war candidate, leaves a legacy of active combat for two full terms. The details of his expanded covert operations are unknowable. Having inherited drone technology from Bush, Obama put it to use in a way that wouldn’t appease those who were hoping for a more pacific administration.
The crown-jewel of Obama administration, the Affordable Care Act, helped millions but also earned disapproval even from the left who criticized him for not being progressive enough. The Democratic Party eventually fractured over these disappointments — the zeal that earned Obama the presidency was largely tempered towards the end of his presidency. And during that period, Democrats would lose over a thousand federal and state seats, weakening the Democratic power in government and paving the way for Donald Trump.
Obama, the eternal showman, foreseeing the dissents behind him, spent the final years of his presidency trying to secure his legacy by repeatedly asserting his modest accomplishments, be it by slow-jamming on Jimmy Fallon’s show or by publishing in scholarly publications. In October 2016, he published a piece in the Economist outlining his aspirations for the national economy. He writes for Medium, the blogging platform en vogue. He is even published in Science, the celebrated science journal, and the Harvard Law Review. For once, academia, which remains largely neglected by politicians, enjoyed attention from the land’s highest office. This short-lived relationship was unprecedented in recent memory and, perhaps, unlikely to be repeated in the near future.
It must have been clear to him that it would be impossible to please everyone. Throughout his presidency, he rode high, fraternizing with a pantheon of pop culture celebrities and publishing in scholarly fashion. Half of the country loved him for it, and the other half resented all of it as mere displays of East Coast elitism. It seems that at some point, he just gave up trying to persuade the other side. The readers of Science are unlikely to be the same demographic of Breitbart. The demographic of Medium is fairly young, too, and viewers of the Colbert Report and Jimmy Fallon were already on his side.
These links with pop culture and academia weren’t instruments to expand his political reach but rather half-desperate measures to make sure that those who were behind him when he started would be with him when he left — to ensure that, in light of the Trump presidency that threatens his major works, his efforts were remembered. As Michelle Obama might have said, “When they go low, we make sure our high gets credited.”
This was indeed a presidency of contradictions. The emblem of racial progress who leaves office with race-relations in a precarious state. The Peace Prize-winning president who was complicit in unknown numbers of unaccounted deaths. The voice of reason who witnessed the utter defenestration of reason from public sphere. A president who inspired millions worldwide but couldn’t inspire confidence in his own work.
It cannot, however, be denied that Obama, an optimistic leader with a great deal of showmanship, will for long be a role-model for millions of children worldwide. Now, with his flippant successor in office in his stead, his pragmatism, zeal and optimism will be missed. Farewell, Mr. Obama!
Pradeep Niroula ’18, is a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Quincy House.
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