An Elegy for Obama

Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

I am in mourning.

As the presidency of Barack Obama draws to a close, I keep thinking about a piece I wrote for The Root eight years ago when he was sworn in for the first time.


Back then, I couldn’t stop singing anthems of joy and patriotism, grounded in what now seems like a preposterously naive idea: that our country might at last have grown up enough for a black man to lead it and to be, as he so often reminded us he wanted to be, a president for all the people.

But that was not to be, as some of the people set out to discredit Obama from his very first day in office because of who he was, not what he did. In the bitterest of ironies, the blustery demagogue who, more than any other single person, sought to question his legitimacy as an American will be his successor.

So these days, I’m singing the blues—not just because Obama is leaving, or for what might have been, but because of the ugliness that seems to be in store for our country.

At 70, and as a professional journalist for nearly 50 years, I am old enough to have witnessed the triumphs of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and its aftermath.

The backlash that followed it brought us two of the worst presidents in American history. Now, in the wake of our greatest electoral triumph, history seems to be repeating itself, recycling the racism, mendacity and authoritarianism of Richard Nixon and the backward-looking bigotry of Ronald Reagan in the singular person of Donald Trump.

Which means that my grandchildren and their generation will have to refight battles over issues that I hoped had been settled during the tumultuous days of my youth. As Obama reminded us in the thoughtful farewell address he delivered last week in his adopted hometown of Chicago, “The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back.”


When future historians reflect on our era, they will credit Obama with achieving remarkable things despite the fierce irrationality of his foes: pulling us back from economic disaster; enacting health care reforms that provided coverage to more than 20 million people; hobbling Iran’s atomic-weapons program without firing a shot; legalizing gay marriage; restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba; and recognizing and taking steps to combat the threat of climate change.

But those scholars will also recognize the noxious impulse that fueled his opposition: the urge to strangle in its crib the new, more diverse America symbolized by the multiracial coalition that swept Obama into the White House. In Trump, they found a champion who promised to “make America great again.” Just as the pharaohs who came after King Tut tried to erase him from history by extirpating his name from every monument in ancient Egypt, Trump and his minions will try to turn back the clock to the good old days that never existed outside the febrile swamps of their imagination.


In this, Obama’s enemies will fail even if they repeal and replace every law and executive order that was promulgated during his presidency. That is because, paradoxically, Obama’s legacy lies less in what he did than in what his foes most resented: his identity as an unapologetic black man who believes in the American dream. He and and his family brought boundless grace, intelligence, dignity and resilience to the presidency. They demonstrated by sheer example—their eight scandal-free years in the White House—what a better America could be.

That is a vision of America that Obama, almost incredibly, still embraces despite the irrational frustrations and disrespect he encountered. As he reaffirmed in his farewell address, “the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.” Like many of us, he believes in America more than America believes in herself.


There is, to my ear, something very black about the faith that Obama clings to. It harks back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous admonition that the moral arc of the universe is long but bends toward justice. From the day our ancestors arrived here four centuries ago, it has been our duty to remind America of the gap between what the noble words in our founding documents promised and what was actually delivered.

Our struggle has helped to make America an unimaginably better country. If America was ever great, it was in large part because of people like us and our allies, not people like Trump, who stood in the way of every stride that we took toward freedom. Just as our movements of the past brought us step by tenuous step closer to the “fair, just, inclusive America” that Obama evoked in his farewell speech, we will evolve new movements to survive and to overcome the challenges that lie ahead.


A day from now, it will become clear to everyone except Obama’s blindest opponents how much he meant to us. The grasping coarsening of our political discourse, the inevitable scandals, conflicts of interest, pettiness, duplicity and downright meanness reflected in Trump’s attack on our sainted hero, John Lewis—all of these will remind us what a good man we have lost. In his last address to the country, Obama promised that he “will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days” as we confront the evil that awaits us. I hope so. We’re going to need him.


Thank you for such a beautiful elegy. It is so heartbreaking to see Obama leave office. One of the lines that stuck out for me from your piece is that generations after you will have to refight your battles.

It feels like we took them for granted. That we truly didn’t appreciate the blood, sweat, tears and lives lost. And now we will lose our own lives in order to gain them back. I think this is what makes me the most distraught. Perhaps there is more that I could have done. Have I, have my peers, truly sacrificed ourselves to ensure that our rights be protected and that our children won’t have to do the same as us? I do not know. It is very scary. I can’t help feeling that I failed.

As Obama leaves the White House, a certain sense of dread and despair takes over me. Who else do we have? Who else is out there?