A reflection on Barack Obama's presidency
Barack Obama's presidency lurched between idealism and acrimony but some of his accomplishments will endure
The Economist | Dec 24th 2016 | CHICAGO, HONOLULU AND WASHINGTON, DC
1 “A skinny kid with a funny name”
Watch it again. He is unusually stilted at the beginning, as you might expect of a debutant on the autocue and the national stage. But soon he finds his rhythm, those crescendos alternating with electric pauses, ecclesiastical notes chiming with his scholarly charisma in a musical voice. Grippingly, he recounts the story of his life, in his telling a parable of unity in diversity—a moral he was still pushing 12 hard, disillusioning years later. “We are Americans first,” he urged in the Rose Garden on the day after Donald Trump was elected.
In fact, by the standards Barack Obama subsequently set—in a presidency defined by its speeches, and perhaps to be best remembered for them—his turn at the Democratic convention in 2004 was mundane. But his ascent will still be dated from the moment he loped onto that stage in Boston, with the rangy gait that became as familiar as his smile: an unknown politician from Illinois, soon to be the country’s only African-American senator, before, in short order, becoming its first black president. The paean he offered to America, a country that had embraced him as “a skinny kid with a funny name”, was also a kind of dare; the self-deprecation camouflaged a boast, since many in his audience saw the obstacles he faced as clearly as he did. “I’m the African-American son of a single mother,” Mr Obama reportedly told Binyamin Netanyahu when, years later, Israel’s prime minister lectured him on the world’s hazards, “and I live here, in this house. I live in the White House.”
His presidency will be counted in speeches because its trials proved harder to overcome than the barriers he scaled to attain it. Often he spoke as no other president could, becoming, through his identity and eloquence, a receptacle for the hopes of Americans and of—and for—the world. Think of his speech in Berlin in 2008, when he extolled multilateralism and the rule of law, or his now-defunct conciliation in Cairo the following year. Think of his eulogy after the Charleston killings. Yet posterity might score him higher on a broader metric had he been as effective in the more intimate persuasions of Congress, as consistent in projecting empathy as at exhortation, or more resolute abroad; had he been as adept at championing legislation or facing down tyrants as he could be at stirring hearts.
He proposed bold reforms, but some were never enacted, while others seem set to be undone; his flickering diplomatic bravery was offset by a sort of rash timidity. He was an incarnation of racial healing, yet at the end of his tenure the civil-rights triumphs of the 1960s seem more remote, to some African-Americans, than the civil war of the 1860s. Preternaturally though typically calm (too calm, for some tastes), the ratiocination almost visible in his composed features, he was obliged to welcome into the Oval Office a successor who, by spearheading the “birther” movement, had contested his right to occupy it. His critics called his an imperial presidency, and he did indeed govern more by executive authority than he would have liked and than others have before. But in truth his presidency demonstrated the erosion of that office’s power, and maybe of the power of America itself.
2 “Inaction tears at our conscience”
Barry Obama, as he was then known, practised relentlessly on the outdoor basketball courts at Punahou, the idyllic private school he attended in Honolulu. “He loved the game of basketball as much as any player I’ve ever had,” says Chris McLachlin, his coach. He made the all-conquering team less than he hoped, but when he played, says Alan Lum, a team-mate and now a teacher at the school, he was “a fighter”. Arne Duncan, his longtime education secretary and a regular in White House games, agrees. “He plays to win,” Mr Duncan says. “He might have a nice smile, but he’s a killer at heart.” The court is “one of the few places he could be Barack Obama, and not be the president.”
The escapism of basketball, and the tenacity he brought to it, are not the only continuity between his presidency and his old Honolulu neighbourhood, where the modest apartment he shared with grandparents, his school, the Baskin Robbins in which he once worked and the hospital of his birth are bounded by a few blocks, but the views sweep out over the city below and the mountains beyond. His Kenyan father’s absconsion, and the extended absences of his adored Kansan mother, left him prematurely self-reliant. He developed, says Maya Soetoro-Ng, his half-sister, “an air of independence which is misinterpreted as aloofness,” a strength and liability which was another of the traits that he carried on to the mainland and into office. As one former White House official observes, he “doesn’t need or show a lot of love”.
As unlikely an origin as any modern president’s, this was an upbringing at once blissful and claustrophobic, privileged and marginalised. It was worldly in its Asian components yet sheltered from the harshest aspects of America, including, for the most part, its racism—even if, in Mr Obama’s recollections, Hawaii’s live-and-let-live multiculturalism was less accommodating of his blackness than his peers assumed. As with many driven outsiders, this alienation supercharged his ambitions. His background also shaped the internationalist world view that guided him after those ambitions were realised.
By virtue of his age, Mr Obama was less influenced by the second world war and the cold war, and less devoted to the alliances they nurtured, than were his immediate predecessors. His sense of the wideness of the world was extended by a childhood spell in Indonesia. Both time and place, then, made him a man of the Pacific. That orientation was manifest, in office, in the pivot towards Asia that he hoped would be a centrepiece of his foreign policy—though he failed to deliver its central element, America’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. An ingrained sympathy for imperilled, maritime places was manifest in his concern for climate change—though the international deal on carbon emissions that he finalised in Paris is in jeopardy too.
Any president elected in 2008 would have been subject to certain inexorable forces: a shift in global heft to China; a popular demand for retrenchment after George W. Bush’s adventurism. But, more than others, Mr Obama looked aslant at American power, seeing a need, as he put it in his first inaugural address, “for the tempering qualities of humility and restraint”. “If you are willing to unclench your fist,” he told America’s foes, “we will extend a hand.” And he did. He shook Raúl Castro’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, and restored relations with Cuba. He patiently negotiated sanctions on Iran, then courageously closed a deal to constrain its nuclear programme—a pact that could, at a minimum, delay a military confrontation and may stand as his biggest achievement. These moves helped to revive the world’s opinion of America, which the Pew Research Centre’s surveys suggest is warmer in many countries than when Mr Obama came in.
What is it good for?
What will survive of him otherwise, though, are the wars that he reluctantly fought, and the wars that he declined to. He was awarded the Nobel peace prize in the first year of his administration; in his second inaugural address he declared to applause that “A decade of war is now ending.” But on his watch his country has fought ceaselessly.
The great unknown unknown of his presidency was the Arab Spring, which helped ensure that the wars were inescapable. He had opposed the invasion of Iraq, and as he had promised he brought the troops home from there, perhaps prematurely, in 2011. But the subsequent inferno has sucked them back in. As Islamic State metastasised, he tried—and failed—to make his countrymen see it in a long perspective which, to many of them, seemed naively otherworldly. The “just” war in Afghanistan also proved interminable. In 2016 America has bombed seven countries, often from unmanned drones, his preferred instrument of destruction.
“Inaction tears at our conscience,” he said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “and can lead to more costly interventions later.” Yet, over Syria, that is what Mr Obama chose. The crunch point came in 2013, when he decided not to enforce the “red line” he drew the previous year to deter Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Mr Obama didn’t miss his chances in Syria, his admirers say; he didn’t dither. Rather he turned them down. This, after all, is the man who approved the raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden—a gamble that might have ended his presidency, as the botched rescue of the Iranian hostages holed Jimmy Carter’s. (As Leon Panetta, a former director of the CIA and defence secretary, says of Abbottabad, “there was a certain attraction to just blowing the hell out of the place.”) Mr Obama believed that bombing Syria for the sake of credibility was dangerous and “dumb”, and that further involvement would enmesh America without saving civilians. He still thinks that. One former adviser predicts he will regret what he did in Libya—helping to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi, but replacing him with chaos—more than what he refused to do in Syria.
No one knows what might have been. What is clear is that the Middle East, convulsed by Mr Obama’s blundering predecessor, is even more wretched after his tumultuous reticence. A terrible war, millions of refugees: Admiral Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, describes Syria as “Obama’s Rwanda”. And into the Syrian void stepped Vladimir Putin, the anti-Obama who has shadowed his presidency, profane, unrestrained by scruple and supremely unilateral. Some trace a direct line from that unenforced red one over chemical weapons to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and to China’s island-building in the South China Sea. As Mr Panetta says, the episode “raised questions about whether or not the United States would stand by its word.”
Martin Indyk, a former ambassador and envoy for Mr Obama now at the Brookings Institution, sees, as an underlying rationale, a switch in emphasis from traditional geopolitical rivalries to global concerns such as climate change and nuclear proliferation—which require co-operation with the likes of Mr Putin or China’s Xi Jinping. Mr Obama’s successful, and thus overlooked, handling of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa fits into this category. He beseeched other nations to jointly address these borderless issues, by agreeing and observing enlightened worldwide rules.
But his allies wavered, while his adversaries saw in his yen for collective action an admission of American retreat. And perhaps, in a way, they were right. His record does indeed imply a humble view of both America’s interests and its influence: a fatalistic accommodation with what he sees as a tragically intractable world. A more introverted (if snarling) America, and a more uncertain, leaderless global order, may be part of his legacy, too.
The simplest explanation of his wariness abroad is that he wanted to concentrate on his domestic policies and the change they could bring. “The problem”, says Mr Panetta, “was the world wouldn’t allow him to do that”. As it turned out, his opponents at home showed just as much reluctance.
3 “Sing it, Mr President”
“He fought for that,” says Cheryl Johnson, pointing to the bigger library that in the 1980s replaced the titchy one in Altgeld Gardens—a low-rise housing project on Chicago’s far South Side, polluted then and still by landfills, industrial sites and shoddy construction. Barack Obama is remembered as a young organiser whose grit overcame the wariness caused by his Olympian bearing, the air of a person born to more privilege than he was. He helped to get rid of the noxious fibreglass insulation in the project’s attics, Ms Johnson recalls, collaborating with her mother Hazel Johnson, founder of a pioneering community group, People for Community Recovery.
In Chicago, thinks Reverend Alvin Love, pastor of Lilydale First Baptist Church and an old friend and ally of Mr Obama, he “became the person he was meant to be.” Landing there after student stints in California and New York, he met and married his wife and, later, cut his teeth in politics, including an improvingly failed run for Congress. He found his faith and joined a congregation, immersing himself in the black church and the civil-rights tradition it incubated, such that the cadences and motifs of both thereafter suffused his rhetoric. In Chicago he faced doubts over whether he was “black enough”, a question that overlapped, in a complicated way, with the poisonous and more enduring allegation that he wasn’t truly American. “Chicago is his real birth place,” Mr Love says.
Some Obamaphiles bristle at the idea that he should be thought of principally as a black president—assessed in a segregated category of one. Yet race has been essential to his career, as well as to his finest oratory. The emergency remarks he made, in 2008, after the circulation of radical comments by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, anticipated his address on the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. In both he advanced a dialectical view of history that transmuted racial traumas into occasions for collective progress, the landmarks of black liberation into milestones in America’s pursuit of perfection. If the story of race is America’s story, his trailblazing role in it must rank among his most lasting contributions.
In “Dreams from my Father”, his memoir, Mr Obama wrote that on leaving Chicago for Harvard Law School he planned to bring the power he would acquire “back like Promethean fire” to communities like Altgeld. And he has—too much for some tastes, not enough for others. His Justice Department strove to protect voting rights (with no help from the Supreme Court). Punishments for cocaine and crack offences were made more proportionate. He pushed for policing reforms. Well before he took office, however, he had eschewed most explicitly race-based policies. “White guilt has largely exhausted itself in America,” he wrote in his second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” an insight amply corroborated by recent events. He believed the best way to help struggling African-Americans was to help strugglers everywhere.
He helped them, vitally but to little recognition, in his handling of the crisis he inherited. The bail-outs and stimulus implemented in his first, fraught months in office not only averted economic catastrophe, saving the banks (eventually at a profit) and the car industry: the slant towards tax credits and welfare spending arrested what might have been a gruesome rise in poverty. David Axelrod, Mr Obama’s long-term adviser, laments a “collective amnesia about just how perilous these times were”: the most dangerous circumstances for an incoming president, he thinks, since Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1933. The changes Mr Obama oversaw, says the White House, will by 2017 have boosted the after-tax income of the bottom 20% of Americans by around 18%, relative to the policies that obtained at the start of his presidency.
The Affordable Care Act helped, too. Without it, says Ms Johnson in Chicago, “I wouldn’t be able to afford my blood-pressure medicine.” Before, she didn’t have health insurance; many people in the neighbourhood used the emergency services as their basic care. “It was a blessing.”
Nonetheless a visit to Altgeld suggests the Promethean fire sputtered. Not far from that library, etched into the crumbling wall of a shopping precinct, is a long list of locals who, Ms Johnson explains, have died at police hands or of environment-related illnesses. “There goes another black brother,” concludes the inscription. All the shops bar the liquor store have closed. “Don’t nobody have nothing to do,” says a reformed troublemaker from elsewhere on the South Side, except “standing on the corner selling drugs, or gangbanging.” Those careers end two ways: “You either gonna get caught, or you gonna get killed.” “Hopelessness,” thinks Ms Johnson, “is a mental illness.”
The black experience in America is as multifarious as the white one, and there is no racial monopoly on poverty; most poor Americans are white. Nevertheless, African-American communities continue to suffer disproportionately from the sort of problems that afflict parts of the South Side. For all the improvements in America’s schools, they are still one of the places the trouble starts.
After knowing the president in Chicago, says Mr Duncan, “if he would have asked me to come and take out the garbage at the White House, I’d have said, ‘I’m in’.” As it was, his long spell as education secretary saw many more minority students go to college, more generous student aid and improved early-childhood provision. The gulf between black and white high-school drop-out rates narrowed (from 5.1 percentage points in 2008 to 2.2 in 2014). But, as Mr Duncan acknowledges, “the achievement gap is still unacceptably large,” not least because, under the prevalent localised funding model, “the kids who need the most, get the least.” Among hard-pressed families, de facto school segregation is rising: the number of students attending schools in which over 90% of students are Latino or black, and over 90% are poor, doubled between 2001 and 2014.
The disparities widen in adulthood. Blacks still earn less than whites, even in similar jobs and with comparable qualifications. They are around twice as likely to be poor or unemployed. The net wealth of a median white household is 13 times higher than a black one, reflecting the particular havoc wreaked by the housing crunch on black families, who tended to have lower home equity. Black men remain wildly over-represented in prison.
Many African-Americans expected faster progress. Some folks, says Mr Love—whose church is in a Chicago neighbourhood where 54% live below the poverty line—thought Mr Obama would ensure their economic rights, as Martin Luther King secured their civil rights. The disenchanted anger has been fiercest over police shootings of young black men in dubious circumstances: an old outrage, but now widely publicised by cell-phone footage, and denounced by a generation of black activists who grew up with the seeming reassurance of a black man in the White House. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling—their names form a litany which, along with the protests their deaths inspired, has been part of the soundtrack of the Obama years.
“None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight,” Mr Obama said at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, a victim of the racist massacre in Charleston in 2015, before unforgettably leading the mourners in “Amazing Grace.” (A microphone captured the moving entreaty, “Sing it, Mr President.”) To some activists, he seemed to have swallowed what MLK called “the tranquillising drug of gradualism”. As a result, the kind of implacability Reverend Wright once espoused is more widespread now than when Mr Obama was elected.
Some white Americans, meanwhile, are irked by the persistent talk of discrimination, believing, as Carol Anderson of Emory University paraphrases, that “You got a black president, there is no racism,” and that African-Americans’ misfortunes stem from their own failings. Thus for all the elation about race relations that Mr Obama initially encouraged, the share of Americans who worry about them “a great deal” has almost doubled since 2008. Surveys by Pew record the bleakest outlook among blacks; whites, conversely, are far likelier to think race receives too much attention. In Dallas this July, in what may have been the last great display, in office, of his amphibious rhetorical power, Mr Obama grieved the murder of five policemen in terms that resonated more widely. It felt, he said, as if “the deepest fault-lines of our democracy have suddenly been exposed, perhaps even widened.”
Amid the gloom, though, are reasons for optimism; because it bespeaks high expectations, the disappointment may even be one of them. One view, advanced by Mr Love, is that race relations are “not worse but more visible,” Mr Obama’s presidency forcing Americans to grapple cathartically with their prejudices. And, from a historical perspective, change of the kind he represented was always liable to rile those who, as Ms Anderson puts it, “see American society and its rights as a zero-sum game.” Mr Obama, remember, was a symbol of change as well as its agent: not just a black president but the harbinger of a demographic shift that will relegate non-Hispanic whites to a minority in the country by the middle of the century. In 2009 talk-show hosts ranted about black retribution. Many people told pollsters they were afraid—a fear which, in a generous interpretation, has always been an inverted form of guilt.
The bloodshed that followed emancipation in the 19th century, and that accompanied the civil-rights movement of the 20th, suggests a backlash was unavoidable. That halting pattern, which retards but does not cancel progress, may have been on Mr Obama’s mind when he spoke, after November’s election, of the zig and zag of American history. As Reverend William Barber, a latter-day civil-rights leader in North Carolina, says of reactionary schemes to rig his state’s voting rules: “A dying mule kicks the hardest.” Sometimes it kicks very hard indeed.
4 “A hard particle of reality”
As a teenager, says Eric Kusunoki, one of Barry Obama’s teachers, “he was a very good listener,” skilled at negotiating the schoolyard cliques. From there, to Harvard Law School, to the Illinois state senate, his polymathic intelligence and flexible, Hawaiian charm neutralised adversaries and forged alliances. Literary critics admire his summer reading selections, musicians his playlists, scientists and tech entrepreneurs his acumen and curiosity. He is a talented wrangler of small children. Yet despite that wide-ranging appeal, his presidency has been among the most divisive in American history. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle,” he said in his second inaugural, “or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” He was already too late.
Listening to politicians in Washington account for the rancour of the past eight years is like documenting irreconcilable sides of a terrible war. “I don’t wake up in the morning, ever,” insists Bob Corker, a Republican senator, “thinking that my goal that day is to stick it in their eye.” The trouble, he reckons, was that the Democratic majorities Mr Obama initially enjoyed in Congress bequeathed a “tremendous laziness” over bipartisan outreach (though he stresses that when the president did dabble in persuasion, he did an “exemplary job”). “It was, ‘Here’s the cake, eat it’,” complains Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican congressman. “It wasn’t, ‘will you help me bake the cake.’” Mr Obama, he thinks, “holds Congress in contempt.”
Some Democrats, disappointed with Mr Obama’s communication with them, too, admit he could have been more affable. But others echo Steve Israel, a now-retiring Democratic congressman, who cites “the poison the Republicans injected into the atmosphere on day one.” In this telling, Mr Obama solicited Republican input on his fiscal stimulus, but they rejected his plan out of hand. The president “extended an olive branch,” says Mr Israel, and they responded “with a baseball bat.”
This is the more convincing version. After all, Mitch McConnell, now the majority leader in the Senate, said in 2010 that his party’s top priority ought to be seeing that Mr Obama served only a single term. Some Republicans came to believe that defaulting on the country’s debts was a legitimate tool in their campaign against him, kamikaze tactics that presaged the wrecking ball of Trumpism. One speech of Mr Obama’s will be remembered less for what he said than what a listener did: the time, in 2009, when a congressman yelled “You lie!” during a presidential address. “No other president in history has given a speech to Congress and engendered that kind of reaction,” says Mr Axelrod.
Republicans didn’t like the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation bill. They thought Mr Obama antagonistic to business. (Noting record-high share prices and strong corporate earnings, one official jokes wryly that “In our efforts to destroy the stockmarket, we failed miserably.”) Above all, they loathed Obamacare. They loathed it so much that, in 2010, not a single Republican voted for the Affordable Care Act; so much that they have tried more than 60 times to repeal all or some of it; so viscerally that, in 2013, some engineered a partial shutdown of the federal government in a quixotic bid to undo it. Some Republican governors turned down the federal money it made available to expand Medicaid in their states.
Again, accounts of this reaction diverge. Senator Corker criticises Mr Obama’s timing. The early months of his presidency were, he says, “a hair on fire moment”, at which health reform was a mistaken priority. Mr Obama, he says, brought the Tea Party insurgency in the mid-term election of 2010, and the implacable mood of Congress thereafter, on himself. (Mr Axelrod says waiting would have meant Obamacare never happened: “If it didn’t get done in the first two years, it wouldn’t get done.”) Then there are the flaws and frictions intrinsic to a mash-up of a private health-care market with state subsidies and mandates. In a mildly redistributive system, some premiums are rising; adverse selection has led some insurers to withdraw.
Most of these glitches are fixable. None makes Obamacare the un-American, socialist anathema of Republican imaginings. Meanwhile, as Mr Obama often points out, the law provided health insurance for around 20m people who, like Ms Johnson in Chicago, didn’t have it. The proportion of Americans without coverage is now the lowest in history—though many seem fated to lose it again. The ferocious antagonism was less a reasonable critique of an imperfect scheme than a self-interested bid to squish his presidency, gratifying the incandescent Republican base even if doing so harmed the nation.
The limits to power
Many democratic leaders leak political capital as they govern, their clout declining in office even as their proficiency improves. Republican election victories and recalcitrance meant that, in Mr Obama’s case, that process was rapid and costly, for him and for the country. America’s finances were patched rather than mended. Immigration remains unreformed. Gun regulations were not tightened, even after the slaughter of children at Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012—for Mr Obama the worst day of his presidency. Each new, avoidable massacre elicited condolences from him that escalated in tearful fury before towards the end subsiding into despair. (“He has to make the speech,” says Reverend Love, “but he can’t make the law.”) The oubliette at Guantánamo Bay remains in operation, despite the closure order he signed on his second day in the job and a last-ditch rush to depopulate it. On Mr Trump’s watch it may fill up again, just as the torture Mr Obama repudiated may be revived.
Unable to pass laws, Mr Obama turned to executive decrees and regulations much more frequently, notes one old acquaintance, than he would have countenanced in his days as a constitutional-law professor. He used them to advance transgender rights and gay rights: after it was legalised, his support of same-sex marriage was emblazoned in rainbow lights on the White House façade. He used them to improve the lot of federal workers, protect consumers and shield some undocumented immigrants from deportation. He needed them to implement America’s commitments under the Paris climate-change deal, limiting emissions from power plants and cars. Benign as these edicts often were, this path was doubly risky. Many will be undone (some have stalled in court); and they set a precedent for President Trump.
Did the colour of Mr Obama’s skin sharpen Republican resistance? Race has infected discussions of public expenditure in America so insidiously and for so long that it is fair to wonder whether Obamacare would have aroused the same passions had its progenitor been white. Mr Obama was not really an American, a few Republicans maintained, so never really the president.
Nonsense, insist most of his opponents, in what, without prying into their hearts, must be an insoluble debate. In any case, wider factors contributed to the bitterness. Every statesman’s record is a compound of leadership and events, his own decisions and external trends he strives to harness. Mr Obama identified one that would define his own presidency a decade ago, in “The Audacity of Hope”: the way a canard “hurled through cyberspace at the speed of light, eventually becomes a hard particle of reality.” He was the first president of the Twitter age, in which the bully pulpit shrank, partisanship intensified and Americans settled into separate intellectual universes, immured in adamant opinions and, ultimately, discretionary facts.
At the same time he governed through the fallout of the financial crash and the ongoing derangements of globalisation, with the rising feeling it induces, as he put it in the same book, “that America seems unable to control its own destiny”. Those forces have unbalanced economies and polarised politics across the world. He met them with the same analytic reasonableness which helped him navigate many crises soundly. That was not always the demeanour the country looked for in its therapist.
5 “That was me”
Like all presidents, Barack Obama has aged in public. Americans have measured his years in the White House, and perhaps the passage of their own lives, in the greying of his hair. Still, at 55, he leaves office 15 years younger than his arriving successor. He has plans. He will continue to be involved with My Brother’s Keeper, a public-private initiative that aims to steer disadvantaged youngsters away from trouble and into work. (“Guess what?”, Mr Duncan recalls him saying, on school visits, to pupils from broken homes. “That was me.”) He is writing another book. His family will stay in Washington until his younger daughter finishes high school in 2019; his library and foundation will be in Chicago. But according to the capital’s scuttlebutt he longs to spend more time in Hawaii—eating the icky shave ice which is a local delicacy, bodysurfing with the daredevils on Sandy Beach. “He didn’t want the job to be his whole self,” says his half-sister, Ms Soetoro-Ng, who still lives there. He is, she says, “remarkably unchanged.”
Given the Democratic Party’s denuded leadership and Mr Trump’s agenda, he might feel obliged to intervene in politics more than he intended. The startling trajectory of his approval ratings suggests that many Americans will listen. He and the obstructionism he endured disappointed some, others never embraced him; plainly the affection he commands was not transferable to Hillary Clinton. For all that, and notwithstanding the anti-incumbency mood, he is twice as popular as George W. Bush was at the end of his second term, and roughly as well-liked as Ronald Reagan; the only two-term president in recent history to leave office more popular was Bill Clinton. “The last time I was this high,” Mr Obama joked at his last White House correspondents’ dinner, another forum in which his versatility shone, “I was trying to decide on my major.”
The uptick in the economy doubtless helps: median incomes are finally rising; the unemployment rate is below 5%. But so must the absence of scandal in his White House, an exemplary probity that may seem even more of a recommendation in the years ahead. So does his unfeigned devotion to his wife and children, a commitment by no means universal among politicians, and which, say those who know him well, is a reaction to that childhood loneliness. Then there is his civility, even when insulted or traduced—another virtue burnished by comparison—plus his generosity. In 2008 he told Coach McLachlin, who he thought left him out of the basketball team too much, to look him up if he came to Washington. Mr McLachlin assumed he would be too busy; the president saw him five times. He wrote to Mr Kusunoki when he retired, and when he lost his wife. Unpublicised loyalty to old acquaintances is a fair indicator of character.
And maybe the standards applied to him have, as Mr Axelrod puts it, been “rightsized”. He tells a story of the campaign of 2008, in which, arriving at a rally, Mr Obama worried that he could not bear the weight of expectation he had inspired. There is wisdom in the adjustment from hero-worship to realism, but there is also sadness. On the night of his first victory he spoke of “unyielding hope” in “a place where all things are possible.” Yet for all his achievements, his intellect and his grace, his eight years in office imply that even the most powerful leader in the world—a leader of rare talents, anointed with a nation’s dreams—can seem powerless to direct it.
From the ruins of Syria to the barricades in Congress and America’s oldest wounds, sometimes nothing has been the best he could do. Sometimes it was all he could do. The possibilities seem shrunken. After its collision with history, so might hope itself.