Many thought they’d never see it in their lifetimes. But on that night in Chicago, a little more than eight years ago, there stood an African-American man who had just been elected president of the United States. People in that audience were weeping, and so were millions of Americans at home, amazed and stunned and thrilled and hopeful. President George W. Bush, who had been pretty strongly attacked by Democrat Barack Obama as a candidate, would on that night and thereafter show the class and grace that presidents are supposed to show one another — and he noted more than once the profound historic significance of Obama’s victory.
The new young president-elect had moved the country four years before, in a keynote address to remember at the Democratic National Convention. It was a nation’s first exposure to what would be eight years of eloquence that in hindsight seems almost unprecedented. Obama rose, time and again, to meet the occasion in times of nervousness and tragedy and triumph.
The country’s reaction on Election Night 2008 was interesting, uplifting — and frustrating. In a retirement community hereabouts, my mother, a Great Depression child from the foothills whose contemporaries were hardly fans of Obama, became the new president’s most aggressive champion. She’d seen people in the 1930s suffer in poverty with their dignity wounded beyond repair, and she saw the same in black people of her generation, and the next, and the next — rejected in all their ambitions and ideas solely because of the color of their skin. She’d live less than two years into Obama’s presidency, but her more conservative friends used to caution: “Don’t say anything bad about Obama around her ... she takes it personally.”
But the president had critics, lots of them. Some were no doubt well-meaning in their brand of reasonable conservatism, based in “small government” economics and the like. But some based their resentment in race, pure and simple. Some in the country had wrongly interpreted Obama’s election as a sign that the racial divide had been healed, conquered, overcome. They were wrong.
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Now it is done. Obama’s final days are here and the taxidermists of history will begin compiling their notes. The “instant historians,” the once who’ve vilified him weekly in their syndicated columns or periodic essays, will of course pronounce him a failure, in part to justify their own pontification. And the arch-enemies of his politics will never acknowledge even a tiny success.
President Obama inherited an economic disaster, and thanks to his actions, his proactive moves like stimulus and regulation, the United States came back like gangbusters, with millions of new jobs. That included an auto industry on the ropes that some of his opponents wanted to abandon to the “free market,” where it most certainly would have failed.
His foreign policy worked, though he had to do a lot of repair there, and he can look back on more peace than war. Osama bin Laden, pursued for years, died at the hand of American troops overseen by Obama, who gave credit to others.
He encountered some of the most profound tragedies related to gun violence, and he tried to do something about it, frustrated at every turn by a gun lobby that must have snickered at having Congress in its pocket, smugly rejecting even the most modest gun control proposals.
And in times of tragedy and crisis, Charleston and Newtown and too many others, Obama came to say the right things, to act as the nation’s consoler and even preacher. He exhibited in every crisis, at every visit to the families of those in military service, the right words and the right motions.
Through it all, he nurtured his family, his spectacular and popular wife and two children, and they have emerged from the last eight years as people of whom the nation is proud.
As his term was ending, polls showed the nation was proud of Obama, too.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org