Obama: the toughened veteran of a turbulent first term who finally 'gets it'
As I prepare to leave Washington for Paris after four years in the US, I consider Barack Obama, the pragmatic idealist about to start his second term
Over the next three days, as Barack Obama’s first term ends and his second begins, a chapter of my own life closes.
After spending virtually my entire adult life in Europe and the Middle East, I returned to the US in 2009 because I wanted to cover the Obama presidency for The Irish Times. For three and a half years, he’s been the central character in the narrative I wrote. When they tidy up Washington after the inaugural balls, I’ll begin packing to go back to Paris.
Several Barack Obamas inhabit the American psyche. I’ve found elements of truth in all of them, except the paranoid, right-wing vision of a foreign-born Muslim Marxist who is hell-bent on transforming the US into “socialist Europe”.
Jaded political observers see Obama as a cool customer whose image is fashioned by PR executives choreographing teleprompter speeches. To many of the 66 million Americans who re-elected him in November, Obama is a fundamentally wise and good leader, struggling to deliver America from its demons.
In recent days, a fourth Obama has emerged: the toughened, street-smart veteran of a turbulent first term who finally “gets it”. That “make my day” Obama this week warned Republicans against taking the US economy hostage in the next round of fiscal chicken. Presenting the first serious gun control initiative since 1994, he urged the public to ask Republicans in Congress “what’s more important? Doing whatever it takes to get an A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?”
Ultimately, we judge our leaders by the emotions they provoke in us.
I know of no other living politician who can move audiences as Obama can. For me, the speeches that stand out are Cairo in 2009, Dublin in 2011, Chicago on election night last November.
He gives us hope, which he defined in Chicago as “that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us”. He calls us to a better self, to “a generous America, a compassionate America, a tolerant America”.
A campaign photograph of Obama hugging his wife Michelle became the most tweeted image in history. On Monday, we’ll see the Obamas with their two beautiful daughters on the Capitol steps. That tightly bound family unit is part of the emotional contract that Americans have with him.
When Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009, detractors, and even some supporters, said he won it for making speeches. His more pedantic addresses have put me to sleep. Some angered me.
He accepted the peace prize with a contorted apology for war. In September 2011, before the UN General Assembly, he acknowledged having called the previous year for “an independent, sovereign state of Palestine” to be admitted to the UN. Then he rescinded that promise, saying, “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations.”