Here’s an easy prediction to make: The historic election and two-term presidency of Barack Obama will provide endless material to future academics, journalists and commentators. Many books will be written examining every aspect of the first African-American president’s campaigns and years in the White House, with few agreeing on anything except the fact that President Obama did, indeed, make history. He and his policies will be loved, loathed and everything in between.
But you get the feeling that the information flood will somehow miss certain Americans, including those leaders who shared those Washington years with Obama, and spent many of them in denial. In the American history books Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, chooses for his library shelves, will the Obama years be mysteriously missing?
To listen to the rhetoric on the Republican debate stage, you might wonder if Obama was ever the president of the United States.
The highlight, or perhaps lowlight, of disrespect shown over the years was the demand, among others from GOP front-runner Donald Trump, that Obama show his birth certificate — his “papers” — having to prove his very legitimacy. That proof is still deemed insufficient by die-hards.
You’d think congressional leaders would know better, but though they haven’t signed on to every slight, they’ve benefited from the general sentiment. As South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson learned, a well-timed “you lie” at a joint session of Congress can yield fund-raising dollars.
Those who would claim amnesia for the years 2009 through 2017 should remember that they, too, will be part of that history. Twenty, 30, 100 years on, how will their legacies hold up? While President Obama will take credit and knocks for economic results and foreign policy decisions, the Obama family’s White House demeanor won’t find many detractors. The “angry black man” and “angry black woman” tropes once placed upon them were never a very good fit.
That’s a good thing, too, as angry faces and hostile words are magnified when viewed through a historical lens. Why, our descendants might wonder, was everyone screaming?
It’s the present, though, in the midst of a contentious political season with the presidency and Senate and congressional seats at stake. It’s understandable that history is not on the minds of many, not when hostility to President Obama can be currency. That could explain McConnell’s statement, following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, on how the president and Senate should proceed: “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
The words seem clear only if you adopt a narrow definition of presidential duty and “American people.” Do the millions of American citizens who did their civic duty and voted in 2008 and 2012 — the ones who didn’t pull the lever or push the button for John McCain or Mitt Romney and instead supported President Obama for two terms — matter? No one, not even Obama, said the Senate should act as a rubber stamp for any name the president puts forward. But the immediate repudiation and rejection of Obama and any unnamed court candidate by so many Republicans in and running for office was sadly predictable.
The president will name a court candidate, expect the Senate to evaluate and vet the nominee, challenge and question him or her, weigh everything from qualifications to temperament and vote yes or no. President Obama, a constitutional scholar himself, said: “These are responsibilities that I take seriously, as should everyone. They’re bigger than any one party. They are about our democracy.”
But nothing will happen. The president is pronounced a “lame duck,” when that term is not usually used until after a November election of a new president. At least that is one of the kinder things President Obama has been called.
Consciously or not, everyone thinks about legacy, what family and friends will think about words and deeds, hoping the positives in the life ledger outweigh the rest.
The president is already thinking about it. He has acknowledged he could have done more to heal partisan divides. It is “a regret,” he said earlier this year, and that regret will be part of his historical record. Yet when compared with the vow of Trump’s new best buddy, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to kick Obama’s “rear end out of the White House,” the president’s wistful wish for a do-over, as well as the goal of making government work, seem almost quaint. Christie should envision what his tough talk will look like under a caption of his warm New Jersey greeting of Obama after Superstorm Sandy.
That will live in history, too.
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