Pining for Obama

 
Posted7/20/2016 1:00 AM

By Richard Cohen

Calvin Trillin, the Mark Twain of our times, once wrote that sooner or later in a new administration, he starts to miss the preceding one. I know precisely how he feels. I already miss the Obama administration.

 

I am not being precipitous. The next president of the United States is going to be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Neither one has Barack Obama's political gifts in combination with his measured judgment. Neither one can give an Obama speech, reach out in these days of racial strife and anxiety and speak for the whole nation. Neither one, to reduce this to numbers, has his approval ratings -- about 50 percent at last glance.

Neither Clinton nor -- certainly not -- Trump could have given the speech Obama delivered in Dallas last week. He spoke as a black man who knows from what he's "experienced in [his] own life" the racial progress that America has made and, by strong implication, what a traffic stop feels like to someone who looks like him. He acknowledged the racism and brutality of the occasional cop but also the danger of "some of the communities" -- a "context" that had to be acknowledged.

Maybe Clinton could have said those words -- possibly not the part about dangerous communities. But however nice her words, she would have been handicapped by a scratchy speaking style and a vapor trail of lies and fibs as well as a frequent lack of forthrightness. She would make a worthy White House chief of staff. It is as a president that I wonder.

As for Trump, he immediately thrust himself forward as the champion of aggrieved whites. Following the killing of three cops in Baton Rouge, Trump took to Twitter: "President Obama just had a news conference, but he doesn't have a clue. Our country is a divided crime scene, and it will only get worse!" he offered in an innovative plea for unity.

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Earlier, Trump had said, "We are TRYING to fight ISIS, and now our own people are killing our police. Our country is divided and out of control. The world is watching." And still earlier, he had demanded that the U.S. declare war on the Islamic State and repeated his usual ban -- albeit modified -- on Muslims. He did not go as far as Newt Gingrich, who suggested that all Muslims who believe in Shariah law be deported. If you combine the essential Gingrich with the essential Trump, you could get the waterboarding of recalcitrant Muslims who refuse to reveal their religious beliefs.

Trump's juvenilia stands in stark contrast to Obama's measured words. But both Trump and Clinton stand in contrast to the president's record of utter probity. Despite GOP efforts to sully him, Obama's administration has been shockingly free of scandal. He has conducted himself with dignity, and even his daughters have refrained from the usual antics of White House kids. You would think that certain commentators, fixated on dignity in the Oval Office, would swoon for Obama and revile Trump. Not so. Ideology blinds.

Obama's has hardly been an exemplary eight years. He's made a botch of the Middle East -- the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't Syrian red line was both catastrophic and illustrative -- and he normalized relations with Cuba without insisting it free its political prisoners and try a little democracy. He pivoted to Asia, but China, unimpressed, does what it wants anyway and he reset relations with Russia but Vladimir Putin seized Crimea and invaded Ukraine, doing his own version of a reset. He may reset the Baltics next.

Back home, Obama squandered the opportunity to fund the massive infrastructure program the nation sorely needs, creating bridges, roads and such but lots of good-paying jobs as well. Obamacare remains his major domestic achievement, but it will require substantial premium hikes right before the election. Clinton will have to answer for that.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

I don't know if history will adjudge Barack Obama a great president, but he has been a necessary one. In Dallas, he noted the continuity of history -- that it is not in the past, but lingers. When he explained that "Black Lives Matter" doesn't mean that other lives don't, but "that there's a specific vulnerability for African-Americans that needs to be addressed," he is speaking of a history of the present -- ours, of course, but his own as well.

It is sad but true that Hillary Clinton lacks the political gifts that a president needs and it is simply tragic that Trump's gifts, while considerable, are used to advance dark and deranged causes. This, though, is our future. It is never too soon to miss Obama.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

© 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

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