On Tuesday night, along with millions of Americans and millions more abroad, I watched our exiting commander in chief, Barack Hussein Obama, give his farewell presidential address.
As is characteristic of the speeches made during his two terms (and prior), the address was a study in charisma, eloquence and elegance; made all the more poignant in contrast to the demeanor of the man who will succeed him in a brief seven days. And while I was in tears by the end of his address, I was quickly reminded that not everyone is sad to see him go.
Like all presidencies, Obama’s tenure unquestionably had its share of disappointments and shortcomings. Nevertheless, even in our unmet expectations, he has indisputably raised the bar for what the presidency should represent. His mere presence came with expectations not foisted upon any other American president; the expectations of not just a country, or the world at large, but also of an entire race; a race still mired in a twisted and tortured centuries-long relationship with the country he was elected to lead.
But as he stepped off the podium Tuesday night, it was hard to escape the feeling that this was not only the end of a presidency; it was also the end of a particular level of poise and dignity in the White House. As Malkia Cyril, activist and executive director of the Center for Media Justice stated:
“I know all he did/didn’t do, but still: there is a grace I can’t deny.”
Indeed, it takes unfathomable grace to manage the presidency as deftly as Obama has; let alone hand over the seat to a coarse, volatile and morally challenged upstart who audaciously and repeatedly questioned his predecessor’s legitimacy to hold the office he was elected to—twice.
And if there is a perverse irony in Obama’s love of country compelling him to play de facto mentor to the man who most passionately sought to discredit his citizenship, there is an even deeper paradox in the rhetoric that has now garnered that same man the Oval Office. In keeping with the huckster he is, Donald Trump sold a good portion of Americans—albeit not an official majority—on entitlement to a facade of the American dream. His version conveniently ignores the true origins of economic disparity, while scapegoating minorities, social and technological progress and “American elitism” (read: intellectualism) as the root of all evil, rather than a means of economic mobility.
But while this has been the type of rhetoric used to pacify and condescend to the lower and working classes of “hardworking” (read: white) Americans for decades, it simultaneously promotes the myth of the “model minority”—you know, those who “behave,” work hard and “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” And this is the crux of both the paradox and right-wing hypocrisy itself: because aside from overwrought Asian stereotypes, who better embodies the model minority than Barack Obama?
After all, Obama is a biracial man born to a young mother and an immigrant, primarily absentee father at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America. He was raised in large part by middle-class grandparents—his grandfather a veteran of World War II—hailing from the same part of the oft-romanticized “heartland” as the fabled Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.
A hard worker, the young Obama earned admission and eventually degrees from some of the top academic institutions in the country, eventually working as a community organizer to uplift and advance from within—as model minorities are expected to do.
His wife of 25 years, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the South Side of Chicago,” as he so lovingly referred to her, is a descendant of slaves, raised in a Christian, middle-class household by two parents. Encouraged to achieve through education, both she and her brother attended Princeton, and she’d subsequently earned her law degree from Harvard the year her future husband enrolled. And with her enviable degrees, she, too, chose to work in the public sector for years before becoming a mother and eventually accompanying her husband to the White House, where they’d raise their children in a family-centric and scandal-free environment as the nation’s first family. Talk about work-life balance.
Both Barack and Michelle Obama have done everything the American minority is admonished to do: defy the odds, work hard, and give back to their communities. Are these not the type of values the Republican Party—and its president-elect—claim to uphold? And yet, it would seem that the education they achieved in the process was grounds for disqualification from identifying with “hardworking Americans.” As blogger and novelist Daryl Sturgis writes:
“We are told that they are not like us. They don’t like people like us. People who get up and work everyday. People who have our values…(S)omehow our nation has been convinced that people who are hard-working and follow the rules are somehow the elitists who want to destroy America, and a preening narcissist who only cares about himself and acquiring more and more wealth and power will be looking out for the little man.”
Because, let’s be honest: In reference to Barack and Michelle Obama, “elitist” is code for “uppity”—and an uppity Negro has always been a liability in America. To compound the issue, enough of that criticism has been leveled from within the black community to create a zero-sum game, because while we unabashedly adore our first lady, we, too, held Barack Obama to a higher standard than any other American president ... because he was supposed to be ours, first and foremost.
So, let’s also be honest about this: In seven days, America will swear in the most willfully unqualified president in its history. Donald Trump is a man who embodies the worst of both the American ego and entitlement, and has spent a lifetime coasting on both. This man could no sooner relate to the average, hardworking American than he could one of the likely immigrant employees who clean his gold-plated toilets daily.
But for all of the hypocrisy of the far right, it has won this round; sacrificing what was left of its storied values for a excessively overblown example of white male mediocrity at its helm, flying in the face of all it claims to hold dear. Seemingly, no amount of scandal—true, hacked or raining down on them like a golden shower—will change that fact. They are wearing their hypocrisy on their sleeves—indeed, waving it gleefully in our faces—simply for the sake of winning a prize that is losing value even as I write this.
On Wednesday, along with millions of Americans and millions more abroad, I watched the incoming commander in chief, Donald J. Trump, give the most unprepared press conference in presidential history.
Much has been made of the legacy that Obama will leave on Jan. 20. It would be easy to point out employment statistics, the capture of bin Laden, or the passage of the Marriage Equality and Affordable Care acts. It would be equally easy to reference deportation statistics, drone strikes, respectability politics or reported incidents of police brutality. But as I watched the PEEOTUS bluster and BS his way through his first press event as president-elect, it was clear: Obama’s greatest legacy may very well be the last vestige of logic, poise, or any semblance of sanity and integrity.
Because what we are now watching is the glorification of hypocrisy. We are watching the end of grace.