Obama Begins to Say Good-Bye

Channeling LBJ, the president made it clear he expects history to render a better judgment on his performance than the public.

National Journal
James Oliphant
Add to Briefcase
James Oliphant
April 11, 2014, 7:56 a.m.

Be­cause you can find any­thing on the Web, you can eas­ily search and pull up a run­ning clock that tells you just how long, to the second, Barack Obama has been pres­id­ent. It moves in real time. It only feels like it’s speed­ing up.

Con­strained by crises over which he has little power to im­pact events, hemmed in by a di­vided Con­gress more in­ter­ested in scor­ing points with voters than in le­gis­lat­ing, and watch­ing as his po­ten­tial suc­cessor as­sumes more and more of the polit­ic­al spot­light, Obama may be re­ced­ing in­to his­tory more quickly than either he or his aides ever an­ti­cip­ated.

It was im­possible to listen to the pres­id­ent’s speech Thursday at the Lyn­don Baines John­son Pres­id­en­tial Lib­rary in Texas without hear­ing the trace of the va­le­dict­ory. Cer­tainly, it was not in­ten­ded to be so — and Obama didn’t de­liv­er it as such. (Bill Clin­ton does wist­ful; Obama may not have that gear.) But his re­marks were less a clari­on call to ac­tion than a stern state­ment of prin­ciple, his mouth fixed flat for most of the ad­dress, his face be­tray­ing the wear­i­ness of al­most six years of in­cess­ant con­flict. 

His de­mean­or matched that of his White House, dogged, hunkered down, like Butch and Sund­ance in Bolivia, sur­roun­ded by an in­creas­ingly tuned-out pub­lic, op­por­tun­ist­ic Re­pub­lic­ans, of­ten feck­less Demo­crats, and a skep­tic­al press corps. For some time now, as Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing has fallen and his polit­ic­al cap­it­al has dried up, his sup­port­ers have in­sisted that the long view will vin­dic­ate him, as if a con­tem­por­an­eous ver­dict on his stew­ard­ship can­not be trus­ted. (And again, Fri­day, he vowed out­go­ing Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us would go “down in his­tory” for her work to pass and im­ple­ment Obama­care, des­pite the fierce cri­ti­cism she faced.)

“The of­fice humbles you,” Obama said in Aus­tin. “You’re re­minded daily that in this great demo­cracy, you are but a re­lay swim­mer in the cur­rents of his­tory, bound by de­cisions made by those who came be­fore you, re­li­ant on the ef­forts of those who will fol­low to fully vin­dic­ate your vis­ion.”

Coded in that state­ment is the dis­claim­er Obama has af­fixed to al­most every ma­jor speech he has ever giv­en on the eco­nomy, that he in­her­ited a train wreck (or a car was driv­en in­to a ditch, among oth­er meta­phors) and that his ef­forts to turn things around have been sty­mied at every turn by those who couldn’t see their way clear to sup­port him. As Na­tion­al Journ­al noted earli­er this week, Obama was more ex­pli­citly crit­ic­al of the forces buf­feting him in his ex­ten­ded in­ter­view with The New York­er, com­plain­ing that John­son, for all of his le­gis­lat­ive suc­cess, didn’t have the prob­lems with Re­pub­lic­ans that he does.

Thursday, Obama fully em­braced John­son’s vis­ion of the Great So­ci­ety as his own, pla­cing both their pres­id­en­cies on a con­tinuum of change and sug­gest­ing that it may take years, if not dec­ades, for the cur­rent chief ex­ec­ut­ive to be fully ap­pre­ci­ated, even as a crit­ic­al re­as­sess­ment of LBJ’s work con­tin­ues.

“Today we re­main locked in this same great de­bate about equal­ity and op­por­tun­ity, and the role of gov­ern­ment in en­sur­ing each. As was true 50 years ago, there are those who dis­miss the Great So­ci­ety as a failed ex­per­i­ment and an en­croach­ment on liberty; who ar­gue that gov­ern­ment has be­come the true source of all that ails us, and that poverty is due to the mor­al fail­ings of those who suf­fer from it,” Obama said. “There are also those who ar­gue … that noth­ing has changed; that ra­cism is so em­bed­ded in our DNA that there is no use try­ing polit­ics — the game is rigged. But such the­or­ies ig­nore his­tory.”

It was a full-throttle de­fense of big gov­ern­ment as a means of en­sur­ing equal op­por­tun­ity to all, an hon­est dis­til­la­tion of his per­son­al philo­sophy — one that shows him to be the pro­gress­ive change agent that his sup­port­ers ad­mire and his op­pon­ents fear. It was a mani­festo more aligned with Mitt Rom­ney’s 47 per­cent. But it was also im­possible not to hear Obama draw him­self in his sketch of John­son as an im­pov­er­ished out­sider. “Depriva­tion and dis­crim­in­a­tion — these were not ab­strac­tions to Lyn­don Baines John­son,” Obama said.

“In so many ways, he em­bod­ied Amer­ica with all our gifts and all our flaws, in our rest­less­ness and all our big dreams,” said the son of Amer­ica and Africa alike, who wrote a best-seller about dreams.

Obama’s in­voc­a­tion of race as a di­vis­ive polit­ic­al force was con­sist­ent with his more open ap­proach about the sub­ject in his second term, but it also helps ex­plain why, as Jonath­an Chait de­tailed in New York magazine, it may be nearly im­possible to judge his ten­ure with­in the cur­rent polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, so freighted as it has been with ques­tions about wheth­er some of the an­im­os­ity to­ward his pres­id­ency is rooted in skin col­or. And that some cool­ing via the pas­sage of time might be ne­ces­sary.

The pres­id­ent seems to un­der­stand this — and per­haps is count­ing on it, that giv­en dis­tance and an eco­nom­ic re­bound, his achieve­ments, most not­ably the health care law in which he has in­ves­ted so much, will turn in­delible once the daily trench war­fare ends. But, as his rocky second term has il­lus­trated, that is by no means the guar­an­teed out­come. The blood­shed in Syr­ia, the threat to Ukraine, the un­even re­cov­ery, the nev­er-end­ing threat of ter­ror­ism, and yes, the Af­ford­able Care Act’s con­sequences, all may bat­ter his re­cord to the point where it be­comes un­sal­vage­able.

In the mean­time, there is a leg­acy to build — and Thursday was a step in that dir­ec­tion. If it feels a bit too early, re­mem­ber that Obama’s fi­nal two years in of­fice could be over­shad­owed by both a Re­pub­lic­an Con­gress and an as­cend­ant, me­dia-hog­ging Hil­lary Clin­ton, a real­ity in which it would be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for this White House to get its mes­sage out.

Bet­ter to be­gin the farewell tour now — and start leav­ing the mark­ers for his­tory to fol­low.

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