Analysis

On Eve of Elections, Obama’s Swan Song Was More of a Roar

Notwithstanding the unrelenting assault by his rivals, Obama leaves behind an America that is safer, stabler, freer and more prosperous than the one he inherited eight years ago.

Hillary Clinton and U.S. President Barack Obama wave to the crowd during a campaign event prior to Election Day, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., November 7, 2016.
Charles Mostoller, Bloomberg

Unless Michelle Obama pulls a Hillary Clinton and decides to pursue the presidency some day in the future, this was Barack Obama's eighth and final campaign. The outgoing U.S. president, officially a lame duck as of this morning, campaigned four times for the Illinois State Senate, losing once in the Democratic primary. He ran successfully for U.S. senator in 2004 and twice for the presidency, in 2008 and 2012. In recent weeks he has campaigned no less vigorously for Clinton, against Donald Trump and to make sure his legacy is fostered and developed after he leaves office, rather than defiled and destroyed. 

Obama did so with the same enthusiasm and talent that marked his previous campaigns, perhaps with even more. Since this was a campaign in which his personal future did not hang in the balance, Obama allowed himself to be more spontaneous and less calculated than ever before. Since the thought that Trump might succeed him tormented him both personally and on a national level, he was more frank, assertive and demanding than in the past. His refrain “go vote” sounded at times less as political plea and more as a direct order from the Commander in Chief. Some of his fans wondered why he hadn’t been this forceful and direct throughout his two tenures.

When Obama is on the road and speaking to thousands, he is in his element. He delights his crowds and draws energy from them in return. His speeches are similar to each other, though not identical, and like any gifted speaker he manages to sound as if he is uttering his words for the first time. In this regard, Obama is the exact opposite of Clinton, at least in the eyes of those who used to be his critics and her admirers: He may not know how to get things done but he can hypnotize millions. She may be a top rate chief executive but her listeners often need speed to keep them from dozing off during her speeches.

Obama drew large crowds in all of his 17 campaign appearances. His popularity is peaking at levels not seen since the week before the 2012 elections and his first year in office. It was reported this week that he’s more popular today than Ronald Reagan was at the end of his two terms in office and just a few points shy of record-holder Bill Clinton when he was about to leave office in 2000. It seems that some of the stubborn opposition to Obama has started to melt away as his term winds down: nostalgia for his presidency appeared before he actually leaves the White House. Obama is also the beneficiary of the lowly image of the contenders for his throne: compared to the immensely unpopular Trump and Clinton, Obama suddenly seems just right. 

Many American have finally come to terms with the fact that whether they agreed or disagreed with him, Obama was a role model, not only when compared to his would-be successors, but to his predecessors as well. He is articulate, reserved and highly intelligent but he knows how to poke fun at himself. He is up to date on all the sports news, can talk about the latest gadgets and trends, takes an interest in Twitter and Snapchat and can even compose playlists on Spotify for his musical fans. This week he recorded a get-out-the-vote message on Spotify, which was streamed to millions of followers. And it will certainly be a long time before another president will be seen as the epitome of cool.

Obama comes out of his eight years in the White House squeaky clean: no significant scandals or tales of corruption stained his name. Despite the rumors that swirled from time to time, he was a picture perfect family man, never shy about expressing love for his wife in public or allowing himself to play the fool as doting fathers often do with their beloved daughters. If he had not represented the liberal ideology they detest – and, for some, if he hadn’t been – Evangelicals could have used Obama as their poster boy for idyllic family life.  

Israel missed out on Obama too. Israelis didn’t appreciate his singular personal qualities or perhaps they didn’t care and maybe they too were influenced by the color of his skin and the insinuations about his deep ties to Islam. Obama was depicted as seeking to harm Israel after he tried to jumpstart a peace process with the Palestinians during his first term and after he signed the nuclear deal with Iran in his second. Even though his positions would have placed him somewhere between Meretz and Labor in Israeli politics, he was portrayed by the American and Israeli right as an Israel-hater who is suspected of anti-Semitism as well. Over the years some people said this was a double standard, since views such as Obama’s were tolerated in Israeli politics, but that may no longer be the case: when a professional reporter like Ilana Dayan, who is far from being a leftist, can be described by the prime minister’s office as a radical bordering on the traitorous, as she was this week, than Obama can definitely be listed an enemy of Israel as well.

From the moment he started to run for president in 2007, Obama was subjected by the right in Israel and America to a malicious and deceptive campaign of defamation. According to his detractors, Obama wasn’t just a bad president, he was an illegitimate one. He wasn’t simply a political opponent trying to carry out his policies but an evil dictator out to subdue his critics by any means possible. He wasn’t just pursuing erroneous goals, he was deliberately trying to weaken America. And while claiming to seek a just solution for the Palestinians, he was hell bent on getting Israel to its knees.

Trump, who became the self-appointed leader of the so-called Birther movement, was a main cog in the fight against Obama. So was Netanyahu, out of his own concerns or because he was goaded on by his billionaire ally, Sheldon Adelson, one of Obama’s fiercest opponents and funder of some of the more atrocious propaganda hurled at the president. Netanyahu, who was already a hero to many on the American right, became a demigod when he was perceived as challenging Obama head-on, inflicting damage on his image and contributing to his delegitimization. He poisoned Israeli public opinion against Obama, incited American Jews to oppose him and turned Israel into one of the few countries in the world in which Obama was not admired. 

It’s hard to tell whether Obama intends to take any form of revenge on Netanyahu during his lame duck term, though the thought is certainly preoccupying the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. But Obama was certainly seeking some form of payback against Trump and the Republicans when he enlisted in Clinton’s campaign against them. Unlike the famous Bedouin saying, Obama apparently likes to take his revenge when it is hot and scalding.

Obama also reaped benefits from the GOP’s mindless campaign to besmirch whatever he did: it immunized him from more reasoned criticism by independents and from within. The Affordable Care Act certainly has its defects but what Democrat is going to take them on when the Republicans portray Obamacare as the worst thing that’s ever happened. Obama can certainly be faulted for allowing the Middle East to spin out of control and many Democrats believe that his cardinal mistake was not making good on his promise to punish Syria for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013. But Obama’s allies have no choice but to stand by his side as conservatives hypocritically blame him for the carnage in Syria and the refugee flight plaguing Europe while forgetting that the entire mess was precipitated by Republican Bush’s war in Iraq.

Still, notwithstanding the unrelenting assault by his rivals, Obama leaves behind an America that is safer, stabler, freer and more prosperous than the one he inherited eight years ago. He knows, however, that if the historiography of his presidency will be in the hands of his political enemies, his legacy will be portrayed as a complete failure. Stung by the gross injustice of it all, Obama decided to try and meet the threat head on, working feverishly, emphatically and even aggressively in the final days of the campaign. On the eve of officially turning into a lame duck, Obama borrowed from the name of one of Clinton supporter Katy Perry’s greatest hits: his final performance isn’t so much a swan song as it is a roar.