With Donald Trump now ensconced in the White House, that makes two improbable presidents in a row. All the marchers in America can’t stomp out the fact that both Barack Obama and Trump entered office with four sizeable similarities.
Both began their quests for the presidency as political novices: Obama was a young, African-American former community organizer without even a full term as a U.S. senator under his belt. Trump was an aging real-estate mogul with a second career as a reality TV star and had never held public office.
Both owe a debt of gratitude to Hillary Clinton because the undeniable and immeasurable antipathy toward her by so many Americans won them votes they might otherwise have never received. In Trump’s case, his victory was as much a vote for a true outsider and symbol of change as it was a defeat for a consummate insider and a symbol of business as usual.
Both (plus Bernie Sanders) recognized what the Washington Establishment did not – that “It’s my turn” coronations either in primaries or the general election are a dead concept. Mitt Romney didn’t get that. Clinton didn’t get it twice. And both had the winds of audacity at their backs. In Obama’s case, it was the audacity of hope. In Trump’s, it was just unvarnished audacity.
A less politically significant similarity is that they both seem to be loving fathers, though that is not a quality in a leader to be dismissed. Beyond all that, however, Obama and Trump are polar opposites when it comes to their approach – to politics and, from what we have seen so far, to America’s challenges.
In 2009, it cannot be said often enough, Obama was dealt the worst hand of any president since FDR. Certainly, Richard Nixon was left a bed of thorns by Lyndon Johnson: the bright and shining lie of the Vietnam War, a nation torn apart and confused and a particularly weak economy.
But Nixon didn’t have to contend with two unfinished wars (one as unnecessary as Vietnam); a devastating financial crisis that threw millions out of work and homes, blew the doors off the stock market and decimated savings; plus a failing auto industry.
As inexperienced as Obama was, he looked toward the uncertain future with homegrown faith and rallied American spirits with his rhetoric.
In his first Inaugural Address, Obama said, “We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week, or last month, or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America. “
Eight years later, a visitor from the Red Planet listening in the rain to Trump’s Inaugural Address might be forgiven for thinking the economy remains in shambles, the unemployment rate is still in double digits, the Dow is dismal and Detroit is shuttering its factories.
“Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves,” Trump said. “These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public. But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
Sure, we have plenty of problems, not the least of which is a major city that should have been locked down and cleaned out years ago. But “carnage”? Really?
You want “carnage,” time-travel back eight years and take a look at the landscape of a frightened America, a country on its economic knees, blood running out of its nose, eyes pleading for hope.
To not recognize where America was then and where it is now is to dishonor the hard work and heroics of names like Paulson (Hank not John), Geithner, Bair, Bernanke, Petraeus, and McChrystal, to cite a handful.
We wanted “Morning in America.” We got “Mourning in America.”
That’s fine. Trump is not Obama. He runs hot and dark; Obama runs maybe too cool and glossily optimistic. But in crafting his grim, nationalistic call to arms, Trump’s speech writers (as identified by The Wall Street Journal on Saturday), Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, might have given the outgoing centrist president his due: Obama already made America great again.
The new president’s job is to build on that astonishing recovery and make us greater.