From the day he first stepped onto the national stage in 2004 until last night, when he began his journey back to being just another citizen, Barack Hussein Obama has been a great giver of speeches.
His farewell address in Chicago was so powerful that once again I found myself wanting to believe, wanting to wash my mind of the memories of presidential kill lists and assassinations by drone; of a Guantanamo that was never closed; of a battle for single-payer health care that was never fought; of truth-tellers imprisoned and even tortured; of dark secrets shielded from public view; of spineless attempts to compromise with uncompromising extremists in Congress; of violations of other nations’ supremacy over their own lands; of wars, wars, endless wars waged by a man who shamelessly accepted a Nobel Peace Prize; of promises unkept; of unprecedented potential unfulfilled.
Early in his presidency, I dared to compare Obama’s way with words to the writing and speaking skills of Abraham Lincoln, whose words held a nation together through a great civil war and then freed the slaves so that, one day, after many more years of tears and tribulation, a black man might ascend to the presidency.
Lincoln, expressing his great admiration for Henry Clay, extolled Clay’s “deeply earnest and impassioned tone and manner, which can proceed only from great sincerity and a thorough conviction in the speaker of the justice and importance of his cause.”
Barack Obama had that tone, that manner. But his “conviction to the justice and importance of his cause” faded in the light of his actions or, too often, his failure to act.
While he admitted that the United States in fact tortured “some folks,” he refused to prosecute those who ordered, condoned or performed the torturing, suggesting that some of them might even be “patriots” and their critics “sanctimonious.”
He placed two women on the Supreme Court and they have been excellent justices, but faced with the unconstitutional obstructionism of Senate Republicans on his third nominee, he failed to exercise his powers of a recess appointment of Merrick Garland.
Holding the “most powerful office in the world” he seemed powerless against the NRA despite Sandy Hook, Aurora, Orlando.
He urged cutting back the world’s nuclear arsenal, and yet the United States is the world’s most productive producer and seller of conventional weapons.
He led us out of a great recession but refused to try the criminals who caused it.
He brokered the Paris accords on climate change but dragged his feet on the Dakota pipeline that threatens to poison the drinking water of the Standing Rock tribe and others.
I do not denigrate the things Barack Obama did accomplish as President. Imperfect as it is, his Affordable Care Act did improve our terrible health care system. He did solve the so-called “Iran nuclear problem” through diplomacy rather than bloodshed. Marriage equality. Job creation. Osama bin Laden. Cuba. He ticked them off last night with justifiable pride.
And he did so with the now-familiar eloquence that had me wanting a Great Revisionist to recast his presidency as the bright soaring success I once believed it would be.
“Yes we can,” he concluded. “Yes we did.”
No you didn’t.