What a series of days in American life, full of savage mayhem, uncommon forgiveness, resistance to forgiveness, furious debate, mourning, and, finally, justice and grace. As President Obama led thousands of mourners in Charleston, South Carolina, in “Amazing Grace,” I thought about late 2013 and early 2014. Obama’s Presidency was surely dwindling, if not finished. His mood was sombre, philosophical—which is good if you are a philosopher; if not, not.
Obama described himself to me then in terms of his limits—as “a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history.” More than a few columnists believed that Obama was now resigned to small victories, at best. But pause to think of what has happened, the scale of recent events.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court (despite an apocalyptic dissent about “pure applesauce” and “interpretive jiggery-pokery” by Justice Scalia) put an end to years of court cases and congressional attacks against the Affordable Care Act, which means that millions of Americans will no longer live in a state of perpetual anxiety about health costs.
On Friday, the Supreme Court (despite a curiously ill-informed dissent about Kalahari, Aztec, and Han mating rites by Chief Justice Roberts) legalized same-sex marriage nationally—a colossal (and joyous) landmark moment in the liberation of gay men and lesbians.
Meanwhile, throughout the South, governors and legislatures are beginning to lower the racist banner of the Confederate flag. Cruelty on a horrific scale—slaughter committed in the name of racism and its symbols—has made all talk about the valuable “heritage” of such symbols absurd to all but a very few. The endlessly revived “conversation about race” shows signs of turning into something more serious—a debate about institutional racism, and about inequities in the criminal-justice system, in incarceration, in employment, in education. The more Obama leads on this, the more he sheds his tendency toward caution—his deep concern that he will alienate as many as he inspires—the better. The eulogy in Charleston, where he spoke as freely, and as emotionally, as he ever has about race during his Presidency, is a sign, I think—I hope—that he is prepared, between now and his last day in office, to seize the opportunity.
Finally, in recent months Obama has also, through executive action, made solid gains on immigration, wage discrimination, climate change, and foreign-policy issues, including an opening, after more than a half century of Cold War and embargo, to Cuba. These accomplishments—and potential accomplishments, like a rigorous, well-regulated nuclear arrangement with Iran—will help shape the coming election. In no small measure, Obama, and what he has achieved, will determine the parameters of the debate.
One can just as easily point to issues that remain of tremendous concern—the consequences of painting (and revising) “red lines” with Syria and the early underestimation of ISIS, among others. But the idea that Obama would play out his Presidency as a professorial lame duck turns out to be without basis. And that gives a certain weight to his remarks in early 2014.
“I have strengths and I have weaknesses, like every President, like every person,” Obama told me. “I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity, and I think I’m pretty good at keeping my moral compass while recognizing that I am a product of original sin. And every morning and every night I’m taking measure of my actions against the options and possibilities available to me, understanding that there are going to be mistakes that I make and my team makes and that America makes; understanding that there are going to be limits to the good we can do and the bad that we can prevent, and that there’s going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that tragedy occasionally, but that, if I am doing my very best and basing my decisions on the core values and ideals that I was brought up with and that I think are pretty consistent with those of most Americans, that, at the end of the day, things will be better rather than worse.”
“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he continued. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have. … But I think our decisions matter. And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that, at the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
It turns out that this was not, for Barack Obama, a rhetoric of resignation at all, but a kind of resolve.
source: newyorker.com BY DAVID REMNICK