Barack Obama had almost made it. Closing in on the final month of his presidency, he had managed against considerable odds to maintain a public attitude of belief in the genuine goodwill of the American people.
Even when he was angrily denouncing the refusal of Congress to pass gun control laws in the wake of yet another school shooting. Or taking on the consoler-in-chief role after another unarmed black man was shot dead by a police officer. Or, more recently, trying to help bring the country together after a remarkably ugly election, his message was consistent: The United States is better than this.
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Note the use of the present tense. Obama’s message wasn’t that the country could be better than what Americans saw on their TV screens every night, but that it truly already was.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a penetrating profile of Obama in the most recent edition of The Atlantic, describes the president as possessing an “innate optimism and unwavering faith in the ultimate wisdom of the American people.”
In a series of interviews before the presidential election, and a final one a week after it was over, Coates found that Obama remained convinced that the United States and its people are fundamentally decent and well-meaning, despite having endured years of racist abuse from detractors. That includes the current president-elect, who took point on the effort to delegitimize Obama’s entire presidency by manufacturing “proof” that the president was born in Africa.
Obama, Coates writes, “is unfailingly optimistic about the empathy and capabilities of the American people. His job necessitates this: ‘At some level what the people want to feel is that the person leading them sees the best in them,’ he told me.”
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Even a week after the election, when Republicans were gleefully planning the wholesale destruction of his legacy, Obama remained positive in their final interview:
I asked him how his optimism was holding up, given Trump’s victory. He confessed to being surprised at the outcome but said that it was tough to “draw a grand theory from it because there were some very unusual circumstances.” He pointed to both candidates’ high negatives, the media coverage, and a “dispirited” electorate. But he said that his general optimism about the shape of American history remained unchanged. “To be optimistic about the long-term trends of the United States doesn’t mean that everything is going to go in a smooth, direct, straight line,” he said. “It goes forward sometimes, sometimes it goes back, sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it zigs and zags.”
Obama clung to his positive vision for the future in the Economic Report of the President, published by the White House Council of Economic Advisers on Thursday, writing in an introduction, “Over the past eight years, our country has come back from a once-in-a-lifetime economic crisis and emerged even stronger. For all the work that remains, a new foundation has been laid. A new future is ours to write. I have never been more optimistic about America’s future, and I am confident that this incredible journey that we are on as Americans will continue.”
That’s what made his year-end televised press conference on Friday so remarkable. It was like watching the scales fall from a man’s eyes in real time as the president confronted the possibility that he has always avoided in public: That maybe we’re not better than this, after all.
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The press conference took place just as news reports claimed that all U.S. intelligence agencies had agreed that not only had the Russian government sponsored computer hacking that interfered with the presidential election but that they did so with the intention to help Donald Trump and to hurt his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.
What seemed to trouble the president more than the Russian hacking itself was the public response. In the world of Obama’s speeches, Americans may have strong political differences, but they share a fundamental belief in the country and will always come together when it is threatened.
Surely, there couldn’t be a better time for Americans to prove Obama right than when faced with a foreign government actively undermining the process of selecting a president?
But the American people did not prove Obama right. Quite the opposite. Lines were quickly drawn, but for a disconcertingly large share of the population, it wasn’t Americans lining up against Russia, but Republicans lining up against Democrats.
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A poll released by The Economist and YouGov this week showed that in the months after Russia’s interference in the election was first reported, Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings among Republican voters underwent a remarkable improvement. The Russian strongman had a net approval rating of -66 just a few years ago among GOP voters. In recent post-election polling, his negatives were only -10, with 37 percent of Republican voters expressing a favorable view of him.
“What I worry about more than anything,” Obama said Friday, “is the degree to which, because of the fierceness because of the partisan battle, you start to see certain folks in the Republican Party and Republican voters suddenly finding a government and individuals who stand contrary to everything that we stand for as being OK, because that's how much we dislike Democrats,” he said.
Citing the Economist/YouGov poll, he said, “Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave. And how did that happen? It happened in part because for too long, everything that happens in this town, everything that's said is seen through the lens of ‘Does this help or hurt us relative to Democrats, or relative to President Obama?’ And unless that changes, we're going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence because we've lost track of what it is that we're about and what we stand for.”
Obama kept returning to the issue, like a man itching at a scab. How, he asked finally, has the country moved away from “the basic decency and goodness of the American people” to become “so polarized and so nasty that in some cases, you have voters and unelected officials who have more confidence and faith in a foreign adversary than they have in their neighbors?”
Obama didn’t offer an answer, and a few minutes later, he offered the Hawaiian Christmas greeting, “Mele Kalikimaka,” as he left the podium for the place that would get him as from the White House, Washington, and the bulk of the American electorate as he could be without actually leaving the country.