barack obama

What I Wish Obama Had Said

President Obama said just the opposite of what I wanted to hear—and it was just what I needed.
January 11, 2017, 3:26pm
Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

I wanted him to say, Fuck you.

I wanted him to not stop his 20,000-member audience from booing when he alluded to the peaceful transfer of power that will take place next week.

I wanted him to transform into Luther from the Key and Peele skit just this once and finally let loose on all those who had spent the past eight years lying about him and passing along ugly stereotypes about people of color, who spread the bigotry of birtherism, who didn't do enough to push back against that ugliness when it showed up in their friends and families and political partners.

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Fuck you, I needed him to scream from that stage in Chicago. You tried to tear this country apart while blaming me.

I wanted him to say it was nonsensical to say he was being racially divisive by noting that if he had had a son he would look like Trayvon Martin, or that he was anti-cop for speaking against police brutality. I wanted him to point out the blatant political hypocrisy on display during his final weeks in office from people who preached morality and principles but now supported maybe the most immoral man to walk into the White House in decades.

I wanted him to be every bit as radical as FOX News and right-wing talk radio have accused him of being.

Fuck you.

That's what I wanted to hear, what I thought I needed to hear.

Alas, President Barack Obama did during his final address to the nation on Tuesday night what he spent most of his adult life doing: working to find common ground between liberals and conservatives. He did this work as the Harvard Law Review's first black editor, and as an Illinois state senator who helped pass bipartisan bills that fought racial profiling and reformed campaign financing rules. Most famously, he called for unity when he launched his national political career with his "red state, blue state" speech during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

When he talked about the love and pride he has for First Lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters, he softened me. The moment reminded me why I decided to visit a former slave plantation on the night of his first election to sit with the spirits of the enslaved, to let them know the good news: that their lives, the blood they sacrificed, had not been in vain, that the country built upon their backs was still perfecting itself deep into its third century of existence.

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"Of all that I've done in my life, I'm most proud to be your dad," he said of his daughters after wiping away a tear while thanking his wife.

It's that image—the image of a beautiful black family, of a black father publicly and unabashedly loving on his black wife and black daughters—that will stand the test of time and will resonate three centuries from now in ways we can hardly fathom today.

There will be plenty of time later to dissect his legacy on healthcare and immigration and foreign policy and the domestic auto industry and gay and lesbian rights. We'll be debating the next four years why a man like him was followed by a man like Donald Trump, and about the Democratic Party's prospects for regaining power in 2018 or 2020 and the role Obama will play in that fight.

We will no doubt discuss his frequent use of drone warfare, as well as his decision not to send thousands of troops to invade Syria—even as he got the Syrian government to declare and give up its chemical weapons stash—and why he never succeeded in closing the infamous prison at Guantánamo Bay. Did he have too much faith in white people? Or too little? Why weren't any of the main characters on Wall Street made to perform a perp walk for the decisions they made that helped lead to the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression? Why didn't we do more to help more underwater homeowners?

Those questions, for one night at least, could be put on hold. His farewell address reminded me that citing the long list of his accomplishments—or tallying up criticisms against him—won't do justice to what he meant to this country. What the Obamas represent will forever be bigger than any one data point, any single policy or political choice.

I wasn't expecting to feel that way, wasn't expecting to feel anything at all. I've been too busy readying myself to deal with the pending peaceful transfer of power to a man who has said and proposed despicable things, steeling myself to oppose the ugliness I presume will be coming in batches over the next few years. The joy I felt eight years ago has given away to a deep cynicism, one that says reaching across the aisle or beyond barriers to try to achieve the kind of unity Obama is still calling for—despite all the disrespect he had to endure during his two terms—is a fool's errand.

And yet, one last time, with soaring oratory, President Obama reminded me that when others go low, he goes high. In times like these, that may end up being his most lasting, and maybe most important, legacy.