When Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States in 2009, he put his hand on a Bible and repeated the Oath of Office being clumsily administered by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts.
When he pulled back his hand, he was holding what might charitably be described as a bag of elephant dung left for him by his good-natured but bumbling predecessor, George W. Bush.
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Among the contents of that sack were two wars in far-off lands (one of which was clearly unnecessary); the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; a health care system that left a significant share of the public without coverage; a broadening gulf between the haves and have-nots that put a laser focus on America’s income inequality; a housing crisis that was foreclosing the dream of home ownership for millions of Americans; the need to bail out the big banks that brought the economy to the brink by greedy, reckless behavior; and the impending demise of the fabled U.S. auto industry.
Eight years later, Obama hands his successor the imperfect closure of one war in far-off lands and the failed closure of another; a humanitarian crisis spilling out of Syria; an insanely blood-thirsty band of radical Islamic terrorists (on the run but not defeated); a health system that is troubled but still providing medical care for upwards of 10 million citizens (depending on how you count) previously without coverage; the second-biggest drop in unemployment during a presidency since the New Deal; a housing market well on its way to full recovery; big banks not just stabilized but for the most part thriving; a robust auto industry with an exciting future; and a stock market that has seen the Dow Industrial Average rise from just over 8000 on the day he was inaugurated in 2009 to just under 20,000 today.
President Obama may not have been forceful enough in concluding the foreign adventures of Bush and his taciturn handler Dick Cheney. He may have made grave mistakes in not carrying through on threats to the gory regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and in letting Libya erupt into chaos. He may not have done enough fast enough to shut down ISIS. But perhaps we have forgotten how weary America was of ground wars overseas that were sending stretchers of maimed warriors home with lives shattered for no clear reason.
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What Obama did domestically, though, was make America much greater on his watch than it was when he took charge.
But his cool, steady hand is not what we will miss most.
What we will miss is what Obama and his First Lady restored to the White House: a level of dignity, grace and style not seen since another young American President presided however briefly over the Camelot Years.
Yet even JFK -- who supposedly asked at a post-Inauguration party, “Where are the broads?” – and Jackie did not demonstrate the real set of family values that the Republicans are always babbling about and that Barack and Michelle Obama and their daughters embodied.
Yes, Ronald and Nancy Reagan had the dignity, grace and style befitting the highest office in the land, but their example and that of their successors, the Bushes, were more formal, less relatable.
The Clintons ushered in a trailer-park presidency, and nothing further need be said. And while George and especially Laura Bush were respectful of their roles and were fine parental role models, no one could ever accuse W of grace and style. A goofy charm maybe, but that doesn’t wash the blood off his hands.
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And unlike all of those presidencies, the Obama’s have had no major scandals, no squalid behavior.
All that must make it achingly depressing to be handing the country over to a successor with all the dignity, grace and style of a boardwalk barker who can’t stop looking at himself in the funhouse mirror. It’s kind of like the Queen being replaced by a lap dancer from Toledo.
Still, there is something encouragingly American about what distinguishes the mixed-race kid with a single Mom from the lucky-sperm-club billionaire with the Tower on Fifth Avenue because it’s something you can't buy: class.