I am writing this late in the evening before Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States. But this column is not about Trump. It is about President – as he still is, as this is written – Barack Hussein Obama. It is customary among professional historians to wait a decent interval, usually on the order of at least a generation, before attempting to assess the legacy of any President … or any scientist … or any military leader … or any artist … or any philosopher … or … etc. There are good reasons for this, having to do with avoiding the "tyranny of the recent" by allowing for the growth of some historical perspective. But my purpose is not to assess the legacy of the President. My purpose is to assess the man himself, and delay can dull memories and dim recollections to the point that one ends up assessing a wraith, a faded and fading mental daguerreotype of a living human being. And in any case, I am not a professional historian, and so do not consider myself bound by the conventions of The Guild. So here goes …
As much as I admire the President, I freely acknowledge that he did suffer from one tragic flaw: he was, and is, a doggedly, indefatigably, insistently, incorrigibly, and tenaciously rational man who believes in facts and data, who defers to science, who is bend-over-backwards religiously tolerant, who is always predisposed to be (at times, to me, exasperatingly) charitable toward his political and ideological adversaries – and who, for all those reasons, is committed to the principle of formulating public policy with reference to the prefrontal cerebral cortex and not the amygdala and endocrine glands. This is not in any way to insinuate that the President is a “policy Terminator,” a Commander-Data-like wonk devoid of emotion, who has no more affect than a table of logarithms. Anyone who saw him at “Mother Emanuel” as he sang “Amazing Grace”, anyone who saw him weep for the children slaughtered at Sandy Hook, anyone who heard his moving tribute to Mrs. Obama and his daughters could never believe that. But it does most emphatically mean that his primary engine for formulating and articulating public policy is his capacity for a rational appraisal of the national interest, not an emotion-driven, shoot-from-the-hip spasm originating in the gut. That’s OK. That’s quite fine. Same was true of the Founders of the Nation and of the men who framed its Constitution. The same could be said of Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, George Mason, Hamilton, etc., etc., etc. They and the President share great expanses of common ideological and intellectual DNA.
For both they and the President were, and are, brazenly, blatantly, and unapologetically men of the European Enlightenment, in particular, the British and Scottish Enlightenment.
Problem is, the President -- it may well be in his zeal to ascribe the best motives to others until proven wrong – believed the same of congressional Republicans. I am easily old enough to remember when such a belief would have been amply justified in the days of Eisenhower, Ford, Rockefeller, even Ronald Reagan, i.e., the Reagan who could sit down with Speaker O’Neill and hash out their differences over a good bourbon. Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson in two consecutive campaigns for the Presidency, but one has extreme difficulty imagining them as enemies, a la Trump and Mrs. Clinton. For some time after Reagan – exactly when matters not a whit – the GOP experienced a hostile takeover on the part of people – the TEA Party – who, originally populists opposed to Big X (where X may be “Pharma”, “Oil”, “Insurance” … etc.), ended up being co-opted and turned into the servants of the very interests the TEA Party once opposed. In the halcyon days, the late William F. Buckley could have on his literate, urbane, and witty – for so conservatism was back then – talk / debate show Firing Line guests like Prof. Arthur M. Schlesinger, with whom Buckley disagreed on just about everything. Everyone understood Firing Line was a metaphor, a trope. Not so in the post-TEA-Party universe of right-wing talk radio, take-no-prisoners rhetoric, and shouts of “You lie!” during presidential addresses to Congress, where the quality of discourse more closely resembles the rancorous exchanges between Buckley and Gore Vidal of later years.
I honestly believe that the President did not understand, until far too late and perhaps not even then, the radical, antipodal difference of temperament separating him from his Republican (not merely political) adversaries. There is a certain endearing innocence in that, even so, but it proved to be a fatal innocence. (Seriously now: I still wonder if the President has a cynical bone in his entire body.) Add in that which I will pass mercifully over – being already depressed enough – namely, the infusion into the TEA Party of extreme right-wing, conservative, often fundamentalist, religious passion, which dislocates its shoulder waving the Flag with one hand even as it seeks to de facto repeal the “establishment” clause of the First Amendment with the other, and you have about as un-Enlightenment and un-Obama an environment as can be imagined. And – again, seriously now – it is into this environment that the President, especially after the disastrous 2010 elections, ventured to sell infrastructure legislation and to nominate a moderate, even right-of-center, and eminently qualified (even by avowed Republican standards) jurist, Merrick Garland, to occupy Justice Scalia’s old seat on the Court? Really? Truly? Honestly? Of course, yes, granted, the President had to be the President, which meant nominating someone to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat, sending to Congress an infrastructure package -- not terribly different from its Trump counterpart that met with Republican adulation -- that was, as the President must have known, as DOA as last week's oatmeal. Etc., etc. The President, to his credit, did his duty. But one can as easily imagine Frodo and Sauron initiating a "peace process" about the conflict in Middle Earth; or Aquinas negotiating with Augustine; or Augustine with Pelagius; or Voltaire with Rev. John Hagee; or Carl Sagan with Jerry Falwell (and Falwell fils); or Giordano Bruno with the Inquisition; or Charles I with Oliver Cromwell. Or a constitutional-law professor confronting the Balrog with a copy of Justice Joseph Story's Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States.
Too late the President realized that he was attempting to deliver a Gifford Lecture on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason to the inmates of the old Bedlam mental hospital in Victorian England. And now the patients seem to have seized control -- we fervently hope temporarily -- of the hospital.
As for President Obama -- for such he still is as of this writing -- we can say of him what Shakespeare's Hamlet said of his late father: He was a man, take him for all in all, [we] shall not look upon his like again.
James R. Cowles
Stethoscope ... PixaBay ... Public domain
"Declaration of Independence" ... John Trumbull ... Public domain
Portrait of James Madison ... John Vanderlyn ... Public domain
President Obama ... White House photographer Pete Souza ... Public domain