STATESBORO, GEORGIA – In his last scheduled address to the American people, President Barack Obama briefly highlighted the achievements of his campaign and surprisingly admitted what he called one of his biggest disappointments.
“One of the few regrets of my presidency was the division and rancor,” he said, striking a subdued tone before unleashing his trademark bombast for the climax and conclusion of his speech.
It was a rare glimpse into the private thoughts of a man who will, a year from now, be free of the cage that is the modern American Presidency, a job so vile and so vexing as it offers all of the powers necessary to change the world and none of the opportunities.
Despite seven years of purgatorial command, a period that showcased his ongoing and never-changing war of attrition with the obfuscating Republicans and his spineless allies on the Left, the president used his speech Tuesday night to forward a remaining agenda that is, on its surface, composed of issues both sides of the aisle should be able to compromise on, including the eradication of cancer, bettering and modernizing the economy, and solidifying America’s role of leadership in the world – “People don’t look to Beijing and Moscow,” he said, obviously relishing his military successes – but underlined his plans with the confession that will dominate headlines and bylines tomorrow.
What won’t appear in the articles though is that tonight we saw every facet of Barack Hussein Obama, everything from candidate Obama touting his “Two Americas,” a rhetorical construct that paved his way into the consciousness at-large, to one of the most naturally gifted speakers to ever hold the office, including Lincoln, to President Obama, a strange amalgamation of all those things with just a hint of compunction constantly airing in his speeches. This is a man who believed in One America, who spoke to the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and inspired a generation to dream beyond the diseased remains of the Bush Administration, to look beyond the trappings of September 11th and Us and Them, but rose to the highest office in the world and found the job before him to be so much more and so much less than he could’ve ever imagined.
It’s telling that, following his concession that he’d failed to change the tone of Washington, he provided a list of possible cures to the disease. He advocated an end to gerrymandering, a practice everyone knows is both corrosive and undemocratic, and practically begged Congress to reform fundraising and campaign financing, an appeal he all but admitted was fruitless. In doing so, he stared into the camera and begged the American people to affect the change where their representatives would not.
But the sickness is many-fold. The rot that is modern American politics is understandable and treatable, if only the people who can treat it would find their courage to do so. The plague that that rot has loosed on the world, primarily the itching antipathy and seething anger saturating the electorate and fueling modern strains of fascism, or as it’s known now as “Trumpism,” whatever in the hell that means, is only solvable if both sides of the aisle, both being revolted and terrified, shove it back into the box from which it birthed and vanquish it from the face of this country.
The president warned of the consequences of punting this task. Without mentioning the Republican frontrunner, President Obama cautioned that speaking ill of other people and other religions would only hurt America and make it less safe. It was a repudiation of the plague, but also an unspoken concern that this legacy he has built, which is on as shaky a ground as any presidential legacy seeing as it has been built on foundations of executive orders and long-past Democratic majorities, can be wiped away with the next election.
Those who aren’t lying to themselves understand that that legacy will be revered and treated better in future generations. Historians will look back on this time period and teach their students and write in their books that ideological Republicans stood in this president’s path and never allowed him the carte blanche the presidency is supposed to enjoy. As he said in the first half of his speech, America has never moved forward by fighting change. Right now, that change, which the president called “extraordinary” tonight, is moving forward with the constant march of time, but it’s going to be a matter of what happens in this president’s wake, and whether this divisive and rancor abates, whether this boiling, mad fever breaks, or if it continues to burn, burn, burn. A matter of whether this is seen as the beginning, or if this is just the beginning of the end.
Photo by Steve Baker