How I miss Barack Obama.
And I say that as someone who worked to defeat him: I was a foreign policy adviser to John McCain in 2008 and to Mitt Romney in 2012. I criticized Obama’s “lead from behind” foreign policy that resulted in a premature pullout from Iraq and a failure to stop the slaughter in Syria. I thought he was too weak on Iran and too tough on Israel. I feared that Obamacare would be too costly. I fumed that he was too professorial and too indecisive. I was left cold by his arrogance and his cult of personality.
Now I would take Obama back in a nanosecond. His presidency appears to be a lost golden age when reason and morality reigned. All of his faults, real as they were, fade into insignificance compared with the crippling defects of his successor. And his strengths — seriousness, dignity, intellect, probity, dedication to ideals larger than self — shine all the more clearly in retrospect.
Those thoughts are prompted by watching Obama’s speech in South Africa on the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. I was moved nearly to tears by his eloquent defense of a liberal world order that President Donald Trump appears bent on destroying.
The first thing that struck me was what was missing: There was no self-praise and no name-calling. Obama has a far better claim than Trump to being a “very stable genius,” but he didn’t call himself one. The sentences were complete and sonorous — and probably written by the speaker himself. (Imagine Trump writing anything longer than a tweet — and even those are full of mistakes.) The tone was sober and high-minded, even if listeners could read between the lines a withering critique of Trump’s policies.
Obama denounced the “politics of fear and resentment,” the spread of “hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories,” and “immigration policies based on race, or ethnicity or religion.” Gee, wonder who he had in mind? He rightly noted that “we now stand at a crossroads — a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and minds of citizens around the world.” He then rejected the dark vision propagated by Trump and the dictators he so admires.
“I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision,” Obama said. “I believe in a vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln. I believe in a vision of equality and justice and freedom and multiracial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal, and they’re endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible and that it can achieve more peace and more cooperation in pursuit of a common good.” Even though I was thousands of miles away, I felt like cheering those stirring words.