Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Barack Obama

A friend of ours met last week with Barack Obama at Blair House in Washington DC. She was part of a contingent of folks who either themselves or their loved ones suffer from serious heath issues. They met with the president to discuss an uncertain future under a new president who made a campaign promise of repealing the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare. Without the ACA many of these folks believe, either they or their loved ones would not have been able to afford the medical treatments that have been responsible for keeping them alive, and any kind of repeal they believe, would do nothing less than put their very lives in jeopardy.

The president told those gathered that day, to fight the good fight, to never let down, and to make their voices heard, using the motto of the State of Missouri "Show Me" as a rallying cry to Congress, demanding they present the citizens of the United States with a comprehensive replacement plan, before they dare to repeal the ACA. Obama assured them that he will do his part, whatever good that will do, to be an advocate, not specifically for the health care program that bares his name, but for any system that ensures that health care is a right that everyone should enjoy.

President Obama obviously leaves behind a very positive legacy for these people. To others however, the word Obamacare is synonymous with government intrusion into the lives of the American people. In other words, Obamacare detractors are the folks who resent having to pay money out of their own pockets to insure that others less fortunate, might be covered.

Barack Obama gave his farewell address to the American people last night. He gave that speech here in Chicago, his adopted home town where he famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view), worked as a community organizer before becoming an Illinois state senator, and later a United States senator. It may not have been a speech for the ages like the address he delivered before the Democratic National Convention in 2004, four years before he was nominated as his party's standard-bearer. In that speech he professed his deep belief in the promise of America, and the basic goodness of its people. Asserting in no uncertain terms what drives progressive ideology, he said this:
It is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper -- that makes this country work.
We often think that the crux of the dispute between Republicans and Democrats these days, is the argument over the size of government, but that's not really true. There are in fact very few honest to goodness Libertarians around, that is to say people who whole heartedly believe that government should play as small a role in the lives of its citizens as possible. Conservatives who call themselves Libertarians are all for big government when it comes to issues close to their hearts such as national defense, immigration control and law and order, including the enforcement of laws regarding things they don't like such as abortion and flag burning. Sad to say, many Republicans today strongly oppose government handouts to individuals or groups, that is unless those handouts directly benefit themselves. A good example is transportation. Republicans will fight tooth and nail against the funding of public transportation, which they typically don't use, but have absolutely no problem with government funding of our nation's outrageously expensive highway infrastructure.

The real divisive issue separating Democrats and Republicans today is the question, "to what extent am I my brother's keeper?" To Democrats, the answer on the other side would be: "to no extent whatsoever." In contrast, most Republicans would say that your average Democrat favors the assurance of cradle to grave care for all, regardless of need, courtesy of the taxpayers.

Yet there are actually few of us who would go to either extreme; the staunchest conservatives (I would hope), believe that we should care for the most vulnerable in society, while even the bleedingest of hearts appreciate at least to some degree, the value of work and personal responsibility.

But in recent years, we, (myself included), seem to have become ever more entrenched in our own ideological bubbles, scarcely giving folks on the other side the time of day when it comes to expressing their views and logic (flawed as it may be!).

Addressing the perceived ideological rift in this country, Barack Obama gave us this bit of hope, the most memorable line from that speech twelve years ago:
The pundits, like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.
Obama's speech last night didn't have any take home lines like that one, rhetorical flourishes meant to garner attention. That was after all the speech that put him on the national map. Instead last night's speech was an effort to cement his legacy, but more importantly, a thinly veiled warning of the administration that is about to take over, and an admonishment for all who despair of the upcoming four years, to work for a change.

The premise of this Obama speech was the four biggest threats, as he saw them, to our democracy. His first point directly addressed the president elect's campaign rhetoric, targeted at white underemployed blue collar workers who came out in unprecedented numbers to support the Republican candidate. Recognizing the vast number of people for whom the American Dream has become a nightmare, President Obama said:
To begin with, our democracy won't work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.
But his answer to the problem was much different from his successor's who campaigned tirelessly on the issue of bringing back jobs that were lost to other countries due to bad trade deals. Obama instead emphasized education and the encouragement of involvement in 21st century enterprises such as new technologies, health care and alternative energy, rather than raising unrealistic hopes that long lost industrial jobs will magically reappear. Obama stuck a dagger into the heart of his successor's basic premise by giving us this reality check:
...our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won't come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete.
Obama's second stated threat to democracy was racism. His detractors have labeled Obama the great divider, especially when it comes to race issues. He certainly made those people chafe yesterday when he pointed out quite rightly that:
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn't suddenly vanish in the '60s, that when minority groups voice discontent, they're not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness. When they wage peaceful protest, they're not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised. 
Obama also brought up the vital role immigrants have played in the history of this country, pointing out that the same words used to describe Mexicans, Muslims and other ethnic groups trying to enter this country today are the exact words that were used to describe Irish, Italians, and Poles immigrants over a century ago.

Conservative critics of the president's speech were quick to point out their perception of Obama's anti-white sentiment in those statements, but somehow seemed to miss this prescient bit of self reflection:
For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face -- not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he's got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen.
Bringing us back to his theme of our lack of national solidarity, President Obama pointed out that:
For too many of us, it's become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste -- all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it's true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there. 
And this trend represents a third threat to our democracy. But politics is a battle of ideas. That's how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter -- then we're going to keep talking past each other, and we'll make common ground and compromise impossible.
Notice that at no point here is Obama pointing fingers at any single ideological group. These same criticisms can be leveled at liberals as easily as conservatives. 

To both groups, Obama gives us this simple and brilliant solution:
If you're tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life.
President Obama's final stated threat to our system of government, perhaps the most insidious, is the taking of our democracy for granted. To that point, the president quoted from George Washington's own farewell address where our first president warned of the many forces that will conspire to weaken our conviction that our democracy "is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty."

If we are to lose our integrity and values, Obama implies, all else falls by the wayside. Here in perhaps his most ominous warning about the coming administration, Obama brings up American values that in our history, resisted facile solutions to difficult problems:
It's that spirit -- a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might -- that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression; that allowed us to build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but built on principles -- the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion, and speech, and assembly, and an independent press. 
While he trumpeted the gains made during his administration, Barack Obama took pains to make sure the credit for those successes went to the people of the United States, not to the guy sitting in the White House or the members of his administration. Compare that to the words we heard in Cleveland this summer when the Republican nominee for president proclaimed that only he, and he alone could "fix" this nation's problems.

In my book, there in a nutshell is the difference between the president of a republic and a dictator. Not one word out of the mouth of the president-elect has convinced me that he understands the difference, or cares.

Barack Obama, like all good presidents, all good leaders for that matter, has a strong understanding and appreciation of history, which made it possible for him to lead us eight years ago into an uncertain future. He inherited challenges that few of his predecessors faced, namely a war on two fronts and a tremendous economic crisis, not to mention a completely intransigent Congress who from the outset was committed to nothing other than his downfall.

Like all administrations, Obama's had it's successes and failures. You wouldn't know it from listening to most of his detractors who fed by whatever bug is up their ass, refuse to see the Obama administration as anything but an abject failure. Some would suggest that the irrational animosity toward Barack Obama is fueled by racism. I for one have not seen any evidence to dispute that claim. Regardless of one's personal ideology, whether you agree with President Obama's policies or not, and yes, there is plenty to criticize, any rational judgement of the man would have to conclude that he performed his job with insight, integrity, intelligence, grace and eloquence that few of his predecessors could match. Most important, I can't for the life of me believe anyone could seriously question his commitment to make life better for all Americans, regardless of their race, creed, or ideology.

I stated before in this space that Obama's legacy most likely will be split along ideological lines, but it's not that simple. People will judge Barack Obama largely on the basis of self-interest. They will ask themselves as Ronald Reagan asked the American people in 1980. "am I better off today than I was at the beginning of this administration?"

Clearly the majority of folks who voted for the Republican candidate this past election, answered no to that question. No one should be surprised by that fact alone, seldom in this country's history has one party controlled the White House for two or more subsequent administrations.

What's different of course is the man for whom they voted. With practically zero understanding of history, the next president promises to bring this nation back to a glorious past that never really existed. It's hard to tell right now whether he will lead this nation to ruin or he will merely be an insignificant burp in history.

In his speech last night, Barack Obama let us know in no uncertain terms that the work of government is the work of the people, not the work of one man. And that one man cannot destroy our nation and our democratic republic, unless of course, we let him.

Barack Obama reminded us last night that while we have a lot of work to do in the coming four years, in the end we'll be OK as a nation.

Thank you Mr. President. You have made me proud to be an American.

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