With less than a year remaining in Barack Obama’s presidency, many observers are already focusing on the substantive elements of his legacy: ending the Great Recession, bringing affordable health care to millions, rescuing the American auto industry, restoring the nation’s international credibility, and so on.
But every president is judged not only by what they accomplish in office, but also what they bring to the presidency itself. What kind of people were they? What kind of leadership qualities did they demonstrate? How did they conduct themselves in one of the world’s most difficult jobs?
The New York Times’ David Brooks, in the midst of a mild panic about what’s become of his Republican Party, devoted his column today to an under-appreciated facet of the Obama era: the president’s capacity for dignity and grace. The center-right columnist, not surprisingly, makes clear he disagrees with many of Obama’s “policy decisions,” but Brooks says he’s going to miss this president anyway.
[O]ver the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board. Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply. […]Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.
Brooks’ compelling case highlighted the president’s (1) “basic integrity” and ability to maintain a “remarkably scandal-free” administration; (2) sense of “basic humanity”; (3) “soundness in his decision-making process”; (4) “grace under pressure”; and (5) “resilient sense of optimism.”
It’s a welcome assessment, not just because it’s a Republican pundit praising a Democratic president, but because Brooks is entirely right about this aspect of the Obama era being taken for granted.
Though, once he leaves office, that’s likely to change.
At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner a couple of years ago, Obama directed a joke at a certain cable news network: “Let’s face it, Fox, you’ll miss me when I’m gone.” The point, of course, was that the Republican-friendly network has taken great pleasure in attacking the president, and once he’s left office, those opportunities will have passed.
But that line stood out for me because Obama might as well have been talking to the political world overall – because quite a few folks are likely to miss the president once he’s left the stage, for more reasons than one.
I include congressional Republicans among them, by the way. Sure, GOP lawmakers have nothing but contempt and disgust for the president, whom they hate with the heat of a thousand suns, but whether they realize it now or not, Obama has gone to almost comical lengths to compromise with them, meet them halfway on contentious issues, search for common ground, avoid questioning their motives or patriotism, and offer policy measures that were designed to appeal to the mainstream of both parties (before the radicalization of Republican politics).
I can’t say with any confidence what will happen on Election Day 2016, but I can say if President Hillary Clinton or President Bernie Sanders is inaugurated next year, his or her attitude towards Republicans will probably be less accommodating and less deferential than the current president’s.
More than a few GOP leaders on Capitol Hill might want to refer back to David Brooks’ column when they find themselves saying, “Maybe Obama wasn’t such a bad guy after all.”