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So farewell, Barack Obama

Jan 22, 2017 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Photo credit: The White House (adjusted)

When Barack Obama entered the world’s most powerful office for his first term, I expressed my delight on these pages that such a rank outsider could make it to the very top. I had high hopes that he would do a stellar job of changing America for the better.

By the time he won a resounding second term, I was more circumspect. I asked for less “No-Drama Obama” and more “Barry Oh!” Meaning I wanted him to stop accommodating everyone, stop playing consensual politics and stand up for his own brand. I feared he had been nullified by Washington insiders and had failed to put his own stamp on his first term. I wanted him to kick the tyres and recreate the early “yes we can” excitement.

By the time you read this he will be gone, having handed power over to Donald Trump, a man his polar opposite in pretty much every sense.

So what do we make of President Obama’s long tenure in the Oval Office?

Let’s get the disappointments out of the way. There is a long list of could-have-beens, of course. Even his most committed supporters would admit they had hoped for more signature achievements. He often seemed to have his hands tied; he often seemed to be far more polite and courteous than he needed to be; he often failed to bring his personal human values to America’s foreign policy; and he often seemed to prefer airy rhetoric and booming oratory to actually getting things done.

But wait: what did we really expect? Obama was the first US president of colour; an interloper in a seat many thought he should never have; an outsider in a set-up that was controlled tightly by consummate insiders and stifling systems. Was it really fair to imagine that this gentlemanly figure would cause a revolution?

Don’t forget too the hatred he encountered. He may have won resounding electoral victories, but those who didn’t vote for him often seemed to have a visceral hatred of him. Part of that was just deep-seated primitive racism; and part was acute dislike of a man who stood for consensus and collective decision-making rather than free-for-all libertarianism. No establishment figure could ever have been asked to produce his birth certificate to prove it was not a fake, for instance.

So what can we thank cowboy Obama for as he rides into the sunset with his family?

First, let’s thank him for his unfailing courtesy and good manners. He was always elegant and measured in his responses. He stayed high even when the haters went shockingly, moronically low. He never lost his temper or responded in kind. That is strength, not weakness. Juvenile mud-slinging and hurling of insults is not leadership. Obama epitomised the calm and composed world leader.

Second, let us thank him for the values he carried and exemplified. He promoted sobriety, reflection and inclusivity in leadership. His family values were an example to all. He regarded his wife Michelle as an equal partner and his closest friend; and she brought an intelligence and poise to the office of the First Lady that we have not often seen. I fear we are going to miss all these things. Acutely.

Lastly, let us remember this: we might all have our criticisms based on our personal agendas or ideologies; but the man faced extreme challenges. He came in as a rank outsider when the world economy was in meltdown. He had to tackle all the repercussions of the misguided wars and invasions conducted by his predecessor. He had an army of ardent fans, but also an equivalent horde of haters for whom anything he did was poisoned, no matter how sensible.

He is a good man who did the best he could. His true legacy may have less to do with wars won and wealth created, and more to do with conduct and role-modelling. And so I am very grateful I saw an Obama presidency, and I hope to see him play a continuing role in world affairs.

Meanwhile, we now have the chance to see what a president of the exact opposite demeanour will achieve. You disliked Obama because he was too black, too cool, too calm, too thoughtful, too accommodating, too tentative? Now we have a president who’s whiter than white; who talks before he thinks; who rushes to action and judgement; and who brooks no criticism.

What will that be like? Please take your seats, the show has begun.

(Sunday Nation, 22 January 2017)

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