August 10th, 2020


Before the president says farewell, there's disappointment

John Kass

By John Kass

Published Jan. 12, 2017

Remember these sorts of photos, this one from Reuters?

For all the gooey talk about President Barack Obama's legacy, it can probably best be described in four blunt words:

Disappointment. And Donald Trump.

What we can't measure, not completely, not yet, is the inspiration he's given to millions of people -- particularly to African-Americans -- who years ago couldn't dare dream that a black man would ever be elected president.

And we can't measure what his presidency has triggered in the minds and imaginations of the young. It's all part of his charm that offered hope for future generations, and the long lines of proud families waiting to see him speak Tuesday night in Chicago are testimony to that.

But Americans have an obligation to assess the past, before the historians rewrite it all. And if you look back, you might remember that he was an unknown, presented to America as a transformational figure from Chicago who was somehow unsullied by Chicago politics.

His mouthpieces from Chicago politics -- straight from City Hall and the Daley machine -- promised that his election would transcend the broken politics of the past.

And they offered him up as a messiah, though later his White House helped keep the Democratic machine in power in Chicago and Illinois, to run the failing city in the failed machine state.

And now, eight years later, consider:

Chicago's president of so much hope leaves a Democratic Party in absolute tatters. Democrats have lost not only the White House and Congress, but a horde of state legislatures and governorships.

And Trump will be the next president, having won a remarkable election in state after state by running an anti-establishment campaign of referendum, first against the Bush Republicans and later against Obama and his proxy, Hillary Clinton.

You can talk about Obamacare as his legacy, although that will be undone. You can talk about the symbolism of his politics, but that will fade, at least in Washington.

But there is a part of his legacy that is just beginning: Trump.

Donald Trump is Obama's true legacy.

Obama prepared the ground for him, watered and fertilized it with his failed and questionable policy, like Obamacare, which, according to Obamacare guru Jonathan Gruber, was built on lies.

And all the shrieking by the talented Meryl Streep and other theatrical personalities of the wounded left won't change this.

Disappointment follows him, too, a sense of things that could have been, but weren't, an understanding of promise unfulfilled.

Yet I don't think that's entirely all his fault. He had a willing partner in the American news media.

Mr. Obama understood what he was doing. His strategist, David Axelrod, knew messianic politics, having helped Harold Washington become Chicago's first black mayor before hopping on to the Daley machine.

And so Obama played the political messiah to defeat Clinton in 2008. And journalists were his apostles. All that pent up white liberal media guilt and childlike yearning was perfect for him and he knew it.

Yet with so many thrills running up and down the legs of American journalism, it all became just too much. A messiah wouldn't disappoint. But a man couldn't help but fall short.

And was Obama not compared, in glowing terms, to Christ?

"Some princes are born in palaces. Some are born in mangers," began an Obama profile written by Nancy Gibbs in Time Magazine in 2008. "But few are born in the imagination, out of scraps of history and hope."

That Jesus Obama business wasn't an outlier, but typical of the media attitude. Messianic Obama became the theme. The thrilled crowds in Berlin and the throngs in Grant Park, the weeping. And some thought the Kennedys and Camelot were over the top.

Even Obama's pectorals were gushed over, as if he were a sea god on the sands of Hawaii.

"The sun glinted off chiseled pectorals sculpted during four weightlifting sessions each week, and a body toned by regular treadmill runs and basketball games," wrote Eli Saslow in The Washington Post on Christmas Day 2008.

Chiseled pectorals. Jesus.

No one could live up to all that, and to the president's credit, he understood this more than most.

Yet for all the media holy oil drizzled over his forehead by the high priests of American journalism, the fact was that Obama's passive-aggressive nature, honed in the Chicago Democratic politics of bosses and clout, didn't exactly prepare him for the presidency.

You could see it when he'd bow low to the emperor of Japan and the Saudi king. You can see it in the misery in Syria (where he drew that red line in the sand and then forgot about it) and the failed state of Libya that he ignores, and the aggression of Vladimir Putin, who was encouraged by Obama's passivity.

He could have done more for the inner cities, but that wasn't in his political DNA. He wasn't about to threaten Democratic Party institutions, like big city public education, even as it fails the very children he would otherwise inspire.

And he wouldn't challenge Chicago's corrupt politics. When he left Illinois, a Daley was mayor and Boss Madigan ran the state. And as he leaves Washington, his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is the caretaker mayor and Boss Madigan still runs the bankrupt state.

Barack Obama might not have been the worst president in history, but he certainly wasn't the greatest. He wasn't a messiah. He wasn't a sea god.

He was a man from Chicago who tried and failed and disappointed some, like all presidents. But unlike many, he's not going away quietly.

He's still in the game.