In a week, Barack Obama is stepping down. Only once in a generation a nation can be blessed with a leader of the moral and intellectual stature he consistently held.
His record at the White House includes a consistent record of growth, a blooming of technological and scientific progress that make America unique, and a recovery from the huge disaster he inherited. For at the start of his first term, an age ago in 2009, the world was on fire. A massive mortgage crisis that started in the United States was threatening to bring the global economy down.
Inevitably, finances have not healed yet. But it no longer looks like a second Great Depression is around the corner. And following a war-mongering administration, the world welcomed him as a breath of fresh air. So much so, that shortly after becoming the 44th president of the United States, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was a puzzling reward for a man who still had not made any contribution in that field. Yet it was an expression of hope for better times to come. Was it a fair prize for a man later ensnared in the bloody conflicts of the Middle East? Every bomb that falls in Aleppo would be a reason against bequeathing the honor to a leader that, at the very least, stoked the fires.
But he is also the man who finally made a nuclear deal with Iran, an intractable issue for decades. He normalized relations with Cuba after more than half a century, and became the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima. He did not apologize to the Japanese people —that would be too controversial. Yet he was also fully aware that actions speak more than words, and that there are ways of saying things without compromising policy. Thus, in his speech to the Turkish parliament in 2009, Obama addressed the issue of the Armenian Genocide, without using the “genocide” word but repeating, as he had overtly done in his campaign—urging Turkey to recognize it—that “his views had not changed.”
Yet all politics is local. And more than anything, Obama will probably be remembered by many as the first black president of the U.S. That something as completely irrelevant as the color of the skin would compare to his achievements as a leader says a lot about a society. As he recognized in his farewell speech, “race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.” That he made it to the White House speaks volumes about improving race relations in the country, but there surely is much more room for improvement.
The other two threats he saw were rising economic inequality in the country and a growing tendency to sectarianism: “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.”
Yet as he said in his farewell speech, “politics is a battle of ideas.” And in him it had a noble warrior, akin to the modern equivalent of the Roman peasant-soldier, a Cincinnatus of our day. The day Nelson Mandela passed away in 2013 a comedian joked that he was the only politician whose death has made people cry. While Obama is still with us, as many millions of people are hurting to see him leave the White House. That both Mandela and Obama are black is as irrelevant as the color of anybody’s hair or eyes. Or it just confirms that racists, on top of bringing disgrace upon themselves and the community, got it completely wrong.
Ever a man led by a sense of duty, before retiring Obama penned an article in Science magazine, entitled “The irreversible momentum of clean energy.” And he became the first sitting U.S. president to author such a piece. “We have long known, on the basis of a massive scientific record, that the urgency of acting to mitigate climate change is real and cannot be ignored,” he wrote. The most moving part of his essay, however, is at the bottom, in the footnotes, where he humbly, like a good student, quotes the sources.
“Yes, We Can,” was his slogan as he stirred Americans’ imagination and faith in him with a message of hope. He was simply, masterly, rewording lines written before, which he quoted in his farewell address:
“It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.”
Yes we did, and yes we can. We still can, and we will.