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Obama’s Optimism Is Now the Stuff of Fiction

As the 44th president leaves office, we reconsider his faith in the great American process

(Netflix/Miramax/Ringer illustration)
(Netflix/Miramax/Ringer illustration)

When a president leaves office, and certainly when that president is turning power over to a president-elect from the opposing party, his supporters are bound to indulge a measure of nostalgia that gets them wishing for a third term. The loudest of such chants for “FOUR MORE YEARS!” resounded Tuesday night in Chicago as President Obama took the stage to deliver his farewell address to a crowd of a few thousand well-wishers gathered at McCormick Place. (“I can’t do that!” Obama replied.) At this terminal stage of his presidency, each additional interview and public appearance tends to feel like his very last. Last week, CNN correspondent Michelle Kosinski shared a photo of a moving truck parked at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, presumably the first of a fleet that will lead the Obama family’s exodus from Pennsylvania Avenue. There will be no third term.

Outside of “Obamacare,” his administration’s titular (and eternally divisive) plan of expanded health care access, it is tough for even Obama’s most tearful supporters to characterize his presidency, in practical terms, as a great series of executive or legislative achievements in the way of American life. For eight years, President Obama and his party governed from a position of relative weakness, and so Obama’s political legacy reflects the national Republican dominance. Symbolically, though, the Obamas — the first black first family — represent a final desegregation of American political power. In a 17,000-word cover story for The Atlantic, published for the magazine’s January/February 2017 issue, the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates reckons with Obama’s symbolic importance as a figurehead within black history and black culture (including hip-hop). In general, such extensive, exclusive concern with identity politics — specifically, identity politics as articulated by blacks and progressive women — has suffered backlash over the past year from the left as well as the right, most acutely in the two months since Donald Trump’s election, for being self-indulgent and myopic.

Obama’s dearest supporters, and sympathetic, liberal critics such as Coates, cling to the first family as the high-water mark in the American experience, fodder for souvenirs and Christmas cards: Obama as tchotchke, the president’s legacy as pure aesthetics, a constant visual assurance to black Americans that we’ve all finally dug our way to the bright side of this nation’s history. Obama is a pop phenomenon in this way, and he has been ever since 2007, when then-Senator Obama first cultivated the air of a so-called celebrity-in-chief due largely to Oprah Winfrey’s early endorsement of his candidacy. As president, he did little to curb this perception, swinging a selfie stick for BuzzFeed, hiking in Alaska with Bear Grylls, chowing with Anthony Bourdain in Hanoi, and inviting three generations of hip-hop royalty to tour and perform at the White House.

Since Obama is pop, I’ve lately felt inclined to reckon with the president’s legacy in terms of pop culture’s dramatic conception of him. Two recent films, Barry and Southside With You, have gotten a head start on the Hollywood dramatization of Obama’s life, opting to grapple with Obama’s legacy in the only manner that films know how to do anything these days: through origin stories.

Barry — a Netflix original drama directed by the documentarian Vikram Gandhi — follows a young Barack Obama in his first year (1981) at Columbia University. At the expense of any curiosity about Obama’s formative political action or thought, Barry instead frames Barack’s first year at Columbia entirely in terms of his identity, with each scene (and I do mean every single scene of the movie) illustrating a particular kind of microaggression: a campus police officer badgering Obama for his ID card; a black Harlem street vendor insulting him for cuddling up with Charlotte, a white girl; Charlotte’s father mistaking Obama for a restaurant’s bathroom attendant minutes before Charlotte introduces them at the dining table. In this account of his college life, Obama is only ostensibly interested in politics, as he spends his days, with and without Charlotte, grappling with his biracial identity, casting himself back and forth between black and white. It’s perhaps true to how a timid young man might be intimidated by the first year at a new school, but the characterization has the strange effect of stripping Obama of every familiar quality that might foreshadow why this particular kid would grow up to become president.

Southside With You, which opened in theaters just four months before Barry was released on Netflix, catches up with Obama in the summer of 1989, over the course of a day on which the newly recruited law-firm intern Barack begs his supervisor Michelle Robinson for a date. As sappy as that premise sounds, Southside With You drafts a relatively substantive characterization of Obama, the politician. In the film’s most illuminating scene, Barack brings Michelle to a church where several neighborhood activists regroup following the city council’s rejection of a building permit for a community center. A young organizer named Tommy leads the meeting, which quickly unravels into a pessimistic chorus of groans until the slightly more experienced Obama takes over to restore the group’s confidence. “Tommy’s right when he says we need to take a look at why they said no,” Obama says. “Not because it’s the right decision but because you’ve got to understand where they’re coming from. You’ve got to understand the city’s motivations, its self-interests, in order to align them with your own. We turn self-interest into mutual interest.” Gradually, he explains, you circumvent opposition in the cautious, methodical manner that you might navigate a maze. “We’ve got a heck of a lot of different people with a heck of a lot of different agendas,” he concludes. “If at first we don’t understand their agenda — the city council, the alderman, the state senator — we have to try our hardest to understand who they are, and what they need.”

It’s a sentiment that President Obama revisited Tuesday night, with remarks that echoed those dramatized remarks from Southside With You nearly word for word. Quoting Atticus Finch, Obama said: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” He continued: “For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face.” Despite the shock and denial that many liberals now express regarding the prospect of understanding and “empathizing” with the right-wing factions that conspired to elect Trump, Obama insists that the progressives must win power by uniting the causes and concerns of “the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.”

This empathetic intelligence — whether you agree with it or not — is classic Obama, a clarion callback to the youthful, post-partisan hope that bound many of us in the dark start of the Great Recession. It’s an intelligence lost in, and on, Barry, which grants Obama his politics of self but spares him the politics of anyone else. Here young Obama become an SNL sketch with no jokes: a froggy impersonation of a liberal-arts kid whose only goal in life is to blend into various social spaces, if only to linger without encountering yet another cause for profound embarrassment. As the more mature film by far, Southside With You does capture this core script of Obama’s strategic political sense, and so it preserves his original appeal, but it also invites Michelle — Barack’s biggest skeptic — to question whether his optimism is truly productive, or just a way for him to impress women (such as herself) and endear himself, a biracial person, to strangers.

But of course Obama’s optimism endures; it was the first, firm condition that America set for the election of the first black president, whose earliest major act of such optimistic ingratiation was his disavowal of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s dramatic damnation of the country. In his “A More Perfect Union Speech,” delivered in March 2008, Obama didn’t just distance himself from a black pastor who dared to yell “God damn America!” at the top of his lungs. He extensively rejected Wright’s “profoundly distorted view of this country,” including the reverend’s view “that sees white racism as endemic.” It bears remembering that Wright’s thesis for the sermon in question was “The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent,” a pronouncement that (let’s just say) seems no more or less correct now that Obama has finished a second presidential term. Still, Obama’s election briefly convinced many of us to squint and read his initial answer to Wright’s pessimism as correct.

And watching him approach the podium to address his final rally not far from Grant Park — where the president delivered his 2008 victory speech to a much more hopeful crowd — it was tempting to slip back into that same old hopefulness … until I realized that Obama’s remarks themselves were leaving me cold. His optimism, his assurances, his brilliance, his faith in the rule of law: none of it could account for the election of Trump, a man who addressed his nominating convention in only the most rambling and harrowing terms — not unlike Wright — as if it were the Armageddon. In the end, at least Barack’s got Michelle.