Obama on the Hoofbeats of History

President Barack Obama smiles during a joint news conference with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 30, 2015. The president and visiting Brazilian Pr... President Barack Obama smiles during a joint news conference with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 30, 2015. The president and visiting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff sought Tuesday to cast their nations as "natural partners" collaborating closely on critical issues like climate and regional diplomacy, glossing over recent tensions over spying that have strained relations between the U.S. and Brazil. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) MORE LESS
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I’m a fan of Glenn Thrush. For me, he is in Politico but not of it. But I think he gets this take on Obama, coming off his fractious and steely Iran deal press conference, simply wrong. The image is of a president frantically trying to cram as much legacy as he can into the final quarter of his presidency. No Drama Obama has been replaced by a man who is testy and impatient. As often happens late in a president’s term, many key advisors – the ones most able to rein in his more unlovely tendencies – have gone on to their post-presidential lives. That, I think, is a fair characterization of Thrush’s article. It’s not at all what I see.

We all remember that week last month when the country seemed to be marching with history. The Court upheld the Affordable Care Act against what is likely its last serious legal challenge, effectively embedding it deeply into the structure of American social policy. The Court then (in what was unfortunately a weakly argued majority decision) made marriage equality the law of the land nationwide. Then on the heels of these events came the President’s speech (transcript here) in Charleston, South Carolina – actually a eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims of the Emmanuel Church massacre on June 17 but in fact a commemoration and meditation on the meaning of the whole event. (James Fallows’ is one of the best appreciations and treatments of it.)

The eulogy in Charleston did not only memorialize a horrific series of murders which put the issue of racial violence and hate before the national public in a searingly uncomplicated way. As the President spoke, there was a clear subtext – sometimes made explicit in his speech – of what the reaction had been. And here we have his touchstone of grace. Quite unexpectedly, after a couple days of hedging, Gov. Nikki Haley led the entire South Carolina political establishment in declaring that it was time to end the war of symbolism over the Confederate flag and retire it to the museums as a relic of the past. Even more unexpectedly the sea change rumbled across the South, sparking decisions to ditch the flag from the most conservative Southern white Republicans – decisions which would have been unthinkable only days before.

The President said something both profound and shocking in his address, something that would have been demagogued mercilessly (perhaps not without some cause) in almost any other context of his presidency but this one, with its immense gravity and the President’s praise of political opponents who had taken the lead in recent days ending the flag’s reign over the South. Out of the horror of the killer’s attack and his wish that it would spike racial hatred on both sides of the color line, the President saw something different. “Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas. [Dylann Roof] didn’t know he was being used by God.”

Such an idea isn’t unknown in the pulpit but it is unknown and a deeply perilous idea for a president to suggest.

It was a momentous week. I had wanted to write something about it at the time. But I couldn’t quite form my views on it. It seemed more like something to take in than to talk about. In one short string of events so much of the President’s legacy which had been up for grabs, contingent and uncertain, was suddenly confirmed and driven home in ways that allowed little doubt. Not all of these wins were Obama’s of course. He did not even support marriage equality in 2008 let alone run on it. The Court’s decision and the sea change in public opinion which made it possible and perhaps inevitable were the products of decades of activism stretching back into years when no one had ever even heard the President’s name. But we’re talking here not about a single person or political leader but of the aspirations of those who elected him. And judged through this prism, the rush of events in late June come together as a unified picture.

When I look at Obama I don’t see a President desperately trying to cram legacy achievements into the declining months of his presidency. I see achievements coming to fruition that were usually years in the making but often seemed errant or quixotic and uncertain in their outcome. This is what for many was so bracing about the end of June. This has been a long long seven years. What seemed like an uncertain list of achievements, long on promise but hacked apart by mid-term election reverses and Obama’s sometimes over-desire for accommodation, suddenly appeared closer to profound, like a novel or a play which seems scattered or unresolved until all the pieces fall into place, clearly planned all along, at the end.

Whatever you think of this Iran agreement, it is not only the product of years of work but is core to the foreign policy vision Obama brought with him to the presidency. It’s as core to the goals he entered the presidency with as anything that has happened in recent weeks. He has it in view; his political opponents will be very hard pressed to block him. And he is pushing ahead to get it done.

None of this is to say that there isn’t a clear and palpable change in the President’s affect and demeanor. His presidency is coming to an end and his range of action will diminish further as the presidential election moves to center stage next year. As the budget deficit has receded from public view, Obama’s fucks deficit has come to the forefront. After six and a half years in office, he may have a small stockpile of fucks left. But he has none left to give. He is increasingly indifferent to the complaints and anger of his political foes and focused on what he can do on his own or with reliable political supporters. You can see it too in the more frequent lean-in-on-the-lectern moments during press conferences and speeches. He’s truly out of fucks to give. But it’s more a product of focus on finishing aspects of his presidency in motion for years than of cramming at the end. For most of his supporters, this was the Obama they always wanted. And he’s giving it to them. What comes off to reporters as testiness is more like the indifference of someone who’s got work to do and is intent on doing it.

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