The morning after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Barack Obama summoned staff members to the Oval Office. Some were fairly junior and had never been in the room before. They were sombre, hollowed out, some fighting tears, humiliated by the defeat, fearful of autocracy’s moving vans pulling up to the door. Although Obama and his people admit that the election results caught them completely by surprise—“We had no plan for this,” one told me—the President sought to be reassuring.
“This is not the apocalypse,” Obama said. History does not move in straight lines; sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backward. A couple of days later, when I asked the President about that consolation, he offered this: “I don’t believe in apocalyptic—until the apocalypse comes. I think nothing is the end of the world until the end of the world.”
Obama’s insistence on hope felt more willed than audacious. It spoke to the civic duty he felt to prevent despair not only among the young people in the West Wing but also among countless Americans across the country. At the White House, as elsewhere, dread and dejection were compounded by shock. Administration officials recalled the collective sense of confidence about the election that had persisted for many months, the sense of balloons and confetti waiting to be released. Last January, on the eve of his final State of the Union address, Obama submitted to a breezy walk-and-talk interview in the White House with the “Today” show. Wry and self-possessed, he told Matt Lauer that no matter what happened in the election he was sure that “the overwhelming majority” of Americans would never submit to Donald Trump’s appeals to their fears, that they would see through his “simplistic solutions and scapegoating.”
“So when you stand and deliver that State of the Union address,” Lauer said, “in no part of your mind and brain can you imagine Donald Trump standing up one day and delivering the State of the Union address?”
Obama chuckled. “Well,” he said, “I can imagine it in a ‘Saturday Night’ skit.”
Obama’s mockery of Trump began as early as the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, largely as the result of Trump’s support of the “birther” conspiracy theory, which claims that Obama was born in Africa and so impugns the legitimacy of his office. Into the final stretch of this year’s campaign, moments of serene assurance were plentiful. A few weeks before the election, Obama went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and performed a routine in which he read one insulting tweet directed at him after another. Finally, he read one off his phone from the Republican candidate: “President Obama will go down as perhaps the worst president in the history of the United States! @realDonaldTrump.”
A short, cool pause, then Obama delivered the zinger: “Well, @realDonaldTrump, at least I will go down as a President.” And then, like a rapper dropping the mike, Obama held out his phone and let it fall to the floor.
For tens of millions of Americans, Trump was unthinkable as President. It came to be conceded that he had “tuned into something”: the frequencies of white rural life, the disaffection of people who felt overwhelmed by the forces of globalization, who felt unheard and condescended to by the coastal establishment. Yet Trump himself, by liberal consensus, was a huckster mogul of the social-media age, selling magic potions laced with poison. How could he possibly win?
Still, his triumph, or the idea of it, was not beyond prediction. The fissures and frustrations in the American electorate were nothing new, and some commentators were notably alert to them. Before and after the election, a passage from Richard Rorty’s 1998 book, “Achieving Our Country,” circulated on social media. Rorty, a left-leaning philosopher, who died in 2007, predicted that the neglected working class would not tolerate its marginalization for long. “Something will crack,” he wrote:
The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. . . . One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. . . . All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
A man of inherited fortune and a stint at the Wharton School was an unlikely champion of the rural South and the Rust Belt—this was no Huey Long—but Trump was shrewd enough to perform his fellow-feeling in blunt terms. “I love the poorly educated!” he told the crowd after winning the Nevada caucus. “We’re the smartest people, we’re the most loyal people!”
When I joined Obama on a campaign trip to North Carolina just four days before the election, Hillary Clinton was hanging on to a lead in nearly every poll. Surely, the professionals said, her “firewall” would hold and provide a comfortable victory. David Plouffe, who ran Obama’s 2008 campaign, said that Clinton was a “one hundred per cent” lock and advised nervous Democrats to stop “wetting the bed.” In battleground states, particularly where it was crucial to get out the African-American vote, Obama was giving one blistering campaign speech after another.
“I’m having fun,” he told me. But, thanks in part to James Comey, the F.B.I. director, and his letter to Congress announcing that he would investigate Clinton’s e-mails again, the race tightened considerably in its final week. When Obama wandered down the aisle of Air Force One, I asked him, “Do you feel confident about Tuesday?”
“Nope,” he said.
But then, in Obamian fashion, he delved into a methodical discussion of polling models and, finally, landed on a more tempered and upbeat version of “nope.” He was “cautiously optimistic.”
There were reasons to be so. His Presidency, after all, had seemed poised for a satisfying close. As recently as early 2015, the Obama Administration had been in a funk. He had underestimated isis; Putin had annexed Crimea; Syria was a catastrophe. His relations with the Republicans in Congress, especially since the crushing 2014 midterms, were at an impasse. Then, in a single week in June, 2015: the Supreme Court ended years of legal assaults on Obamacare; the Court ruled in favor of marriage equality; and, at a funeral following the murder of nine congregants at a black church in Charleston, Obama gave a speech that captivated much of the country. Rather than focus on the race war that the killer had hoped to incite, he spoke of the “reservoir of goodness” in the living and the dead and ended by singing “Amazing Grace.” [cartoon id=”a20432″]
A sense of energy and accomplishment filtered back into the Administration. Long before Election Day, books were being published about its legacy: an economy steered clear of a beckoning Depression, the rescue of the automobile industry, Wall Street reform, the banning of torture, the passage of Obamacare, marriage equality, and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the end of the war in Iraq, heavy investment in renewable-energy technologies, the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Iran nuclear deal, the opening of Cuba, the Paris agreement on climate change, two terms long on dignity and short on scandal. Obama’s approval ratings reached a new high. Clinton’s election as the first female President would complete the narrative, and Obama, his aides suggested, would be free to sit in the healing sun of Oahu and contemplate nothing more rigorous than the unrushed composition of a high-priced memoir.
Air Force One landed at Fort Bragg and the motorcade headed to a gym packed with supporters at Fayetteville State University. In shirtsleeves and with crisp, practiced enthusiasm, Obama delivered his campaign stump speech. His appeal for Clinton was rooted in the preservation of his own legacy. “All the progress that we’ve made these last eight years,” he said, “goes out the window if we don’t win this election!” He revived some of his early tropes, cautioning the crowd not to be “bamboozled” by the G.O.P.—an echo from Malcolm X—and recited the litany of Trump’s acts of disrespect toward blacks, women, Muslims, the disabled, Gold Star parents.
I was standing to the side of the stage. Nearby, a stout older man appeared in the aisle, dressed in a worn, beribboned military uniform and holding a Trump sign. People spotted him quickly and the jeering began. Then came the chant “Hil-la-ry! Hil-la-ry!”
Obama picked up the curdled vibe and located its source. “Hold up!” he said. “Hold up!”
The crowd would not quiet down. He repeated the phrase—“Hold up!”—sixteen more times, and still nothing. It took a long, disturbing while before he could recapture the crowd’s attention and get people to lay off the old man. What followed was a lecture in political civility.
“I’m serious, listen up,” he said. “You’ve got an older gentleman who is supporting his candidate. . . . You don’t have to worry about him. This is what I mean about folks not being focussed. First of all, we live in a country that respects free speech. Second of all, it looks like maybe he might have served in our military, and we’ve got to respect that. Third of all, he was elderly, and we’ve got to respect our elders. . . . Now, I want you to pay attention. Because if we don’t, if we lose focus, we could have problems.”
That night in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Trump informed his supporters that in Fayetteville Obama had been abusive to the protester: “He spent so much time screaming at this protester and, frankly, it was a disgrace.” Either Trump was retailing an account he’d found online in the alt-right media or he was knowingly lying. In other words, Trump was Trump.
As the plane headed to Charlotte, I sat with Roy Cooper, the attorney general of North Carolina and its Democratic candidate for governor, and David Simas, Obama’s political director. Cooper, who had worked in the tobacco fields as a kid, now seemed as disconnected from the Trump voter in rural North Carolina as any pointy-headed quote machine in the CNN greenroom. “I’m as perplexed as the next person,” he said.
Simas was more analytical. He was the numbers guy, who knew every twitch of voter movement in every county, or hoped he did. He was nowhere near as sanguine as Plouffe, and, as he went through the early-vote tallies in Florida, North Carolina, and Nevada, he was concerned about the somewhat modest African-American turnout, though emboldened by a “tsunami” of support from Hispanics. Meanwhile, he said, “the so-called hidden Trump vote” was not showing up in any outsized way.
I asked Simas why he seemed more confident than Obama. He smiled and said it was a matter of roles: “I haven’t been the President of the United States for two terms and now looking to confirm my legacy.” Yet Simas, too, knew that there was potential trouble ahead. “Within ten days of the Republican Convention, Trump consolidated the Republican base faster than Romney did in 2012,” he said. “The base of the Republican Party is also different from what we thought. For movement conservatives, the assumption is that Democratic or Republican voters are ideological on issues. The Trump candidacy shows otherwise. They rally around the team and the antipathy to Secretary Clinton.”
What frustrated Obama and his staff was the knowledge that, in large measure, they were reaching their own people but no further. They spoke to the networks and the major cable outlets, the major papers and the mainstream Web sites, and, in an attempt to find people “where they are,” forums such as Bill Maher’s and Samantha Bee’s late-night cable shows, and Marc Maron’s podcast. But they would never reach the collective readerships of Breitbart News, the Drudge Report, WND, Newsmax, InfoWars, and lesser-knowns like Western Journalism—not to mention the closed loop of peer-to-peer right-wing rumor-mongering.
“Until recently, religious institutions, academia, and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse, and it ranged from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to policy,” Simas said. “The continuum has changed. Had Donald Trump said the things he said during the campaign eight years ago—about banning Muslims, about Mexicans, about the disabled, about women—his Republican opponents, faith leaders, academia would have denounced him and there would be no way around those voices. Now, through Facebook and Twitter, you can get around them. There is social permission for this kind of discourse. Plus, through the same social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable. This is a foundational change.”
That day, as they travelled, Obama and Simas talked almost obsessively about an article in BuzzFeed that described how the Macedonian town of Veles had experienced a “digital gold rush” when a small group of young people there published more than a hundred pro-Trump Web sites, with hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers. The sites had names like TrumpVision365.com and WorldPoliticus.com, and most of the posts were wildly sensationalist, recycled from American alt-right sites. If you read such sites, you learned that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump and that Clinton had actually encouraged Trump to run, because he “can’t be bought.”
The new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true,” Obama told me later. “An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
That marked a decisive change from previous political eras, he maintained. “Ideally, in a democracy, everybody would agree that climate change is the consequence of man-made behavior, because that’s what ninety-nine per cent of scientists tell us,” he said. “And then we would have a debate about how to fix it. That’s how, in the seventies, eighties, and nineties, you had Republicans supporting the Clean Air Act and you had a market-based fix for acid rain rather than a command-and-control approach. So you’d argue about means, but there was a baseline of facts that we could all work off of. And now we just don’t have that.” [cartoon id=”a20504″]
That night in Charlotte, Obama was even more energetic at the microphone. There was not one visible Trump supporter to divert him or the crowd. He unspooled the usual litany of Trump’s violations of fact and human dignity. The race was personal to him, it seemed, and not merely because Trump threatened his legacy.
“Every day, this is a candidate who has said things that just four years ago, just eight years ago, twelve, we would have considered completely disqualifying,” he told the audience. “I mean, imagine if in 2008 I had said any of the things that this man said. Imagine if I had behaved in the way this man behaved. Imagine what Republicans would have said! Imagine what the press would have said!”
On the way out of the pavilion, Obama signed a few books, posed for some pictures, and seemed distinctly pleased with the way things were going. “I’m like Mick Jagger,” he said. “I’m old, I’m gray, but people still turn out.”
In the car, riding back to the Charlotte airport, Obama slumped in his seat and read a few e-mails on his phone. Then he brought up a video of the White House Halloween party.
“Check this out,” he said, holding the phone up to me. On the screen was a toddler with slicked-back hair and a Superman costume. The child’s superpowers extended to an unusual political knowledge: he called Obama “potus,” which seemed curiously precocious, until I learned that he was the two-year-old son of Josh Earnest, Obama’s press secretary.
As we rode toward the airport, Obama talked about Trump. “We’ve seen this coming,” he said. “Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. What surprised me was the degree to which those tactics and rhetoric completely jumped the rails. There were no governing principles, there was no one to say, ‘No, this is going too far, this isn’t what we stand for.’ But we’ve seen it for eight years, even with reasonable people like John Boehner, who, when push came to shove, wouldn’t push back against these currents.”
I asked about Trump’s capacity to eliminate serially a long string of Republican contenders. “Donald Trump beating fifteen people said less about his skills and more about the lack of skills of the people he beat,” Obama said. “But, obviously, he tapped into something. He’s able to distill the anger and resentment and the sense of aggrievement. And he is skillful at challenging the conventions in a way that makes people feel something and that gives them some satisfaction.”
Obama noted that many of Trump’s supporters had voted for him—in Iowa, in Michigan and Wisconsin, in Florida and North Carolina. Part of the reason, he said, was that he had the good fortune to appear on the scene before the collapse of the old media order. In the late nineties, when he was a state senator representing Hyde Park, on the South Side of Chicago, he started making trips to the southern counties of Illinois with a white political operative named Dan Shomon. As a legislator, Obama had never before been south of Springfield. Michelle Obama was at home, pregnant, and Obama figured that this was his last chance before the baby arrived. As he headed south, he came to realize that he was now in a place that was closer in character and outlook to Tennessee and Arkansas than to Chicago. He met with people on factory floors and at the local Maid-Rite. In Du Quoin, he learned about the problems posed by an all-white branch of the Chicago gang called the Gangster Disciples; in Old Shawneetown, he learned about farm life from people like Steve and Kappy Scates, who are friends to this day. “What those trips proved is that he appealed to rural white people,” Shomon once told me. “They would vote for him, they liked him.” In 2004, Obama won a seat in the U.S. Senate, defeating in the primary a sitting state comptroller and white Party regular named Dan Hynes, who had had the support of nearly every county chairman in the state.
“People didn’t see me coming,” Obama said as we drove through the night. “In southern Illinois, in those counties I won, I was at V.F.W.s and fish fries hearing people’s stories and talking to folks, so that they knew me. They weren’t getting me through Fox or Rush Limbaugh or Breitbart or RedState.
“In ’08, they saw me coming, but I was a guy named Barack Hussein Obama coming up against the Clinton machine, so no way! So they weren’t focussed on me, and I established a connection. Then came the stuff: Ayers and Reverend Wright and all the rest. What I’m suggesting is that the lens through which people understand politics and politicians is extraordinarily powerful. And Trump understands the new ecosystem, in which facts and truth don’t matter. You attract attention, rouse emotions, and then move on. You can surf those emotions. I’ve said it before, but if I watched Fox I wouldn’t vote for me!”
Obama will go down in history as the first African-American President, and he derives immense pride from that, but he never fails to insist on the complexity of his story. “I’m half Scotch-Irish, man!” he said. “When folks like Jim Webb write about Scotch-Irish stock in West Virginia and Kansas and so on, those are my people! They don’t know it, always, but they are.”
Now, on the eve of the election, nothing was in the bag. “What’s powerful is that ideas can change on a dime,” Obama said as we pulled up to Air Force One. “Public attitudes can be shaped and shift so radically. Two years ago, Hillary Clinton’s popularity was at sixty-five per cent, and people were contrasting her popularity with mine. There was all this talk about how she was going to need to find ways to distance herself from me. Now, suddenly, she has problems with public opinion. Part of it is, I’m less the focus. But it all happens so fast. This is a puzzle I’m going to be thinking about a lot. I have complete confidence in the American people—that if I can have a conversation with them they’ll choose what’s right. At an emotional level, they want to do the right thing if they have the information.” And yet in an age of filter bubbles and social-media silos, he knew, the “information” that reached people was increasingly shaped by what they wanted to be true. And that was no longer in his hands or anyone else’s. [cartoon id=”a18703″]
Obama’s final appearance, on the eve of Election Day, was at an outdoor rally next to Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, alongside Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, and the Clintons. But it was preceded by visits to Florida, Michigan, and New Hampshire, where he travelled with Maggie Hassan, that state’s Democratic candidate for the Senate. As Obama later recounted to me, he found himself reminiscing with her about the tense magic of a campaign’s conclusion: “I love the stillness and the mystery of the day or two before elections, because in a lot of ways everything goes radio-silent. Nobody at that point is really listening to an argument. The infrastructure is set. And now it’s this weird alchemy that’s taking place in the country, and you just have to kind of wait and see how it works. But there’s always this mystery to it, this possibility.”
“Which, in some ways, is powerful and affirming of the humanity of democracy, right?” he said to me. “It’s not mechanical. It’s not a formula. It’s not set. It’s not fixed. There is always the possibility of surprise. And in that sense it’s a little bit like sports. It doesn’t matter what the odds are. Weird stuff happens. And that makes it scary if you’re rooting for one team or the other, but that’s the drama of it.”
On Election Night, Obama was upstairs in the White House residence. Tens of millions of people turned on televisions and started checking their phones and laptops long before the polls on the East Coast closed, but Obama did not. “I generally don’t start paying attention to returns until, like, ten o’clock,” he said, “because, first of all, I got a lot of people who do that for me, and, second of all, there’s really nothing there, so it’s all a bunch of speculation or anxiety that’s playing itself out, and people are attaching themselves to various numbers.”
Obama said he had thought that the race was going to be very close. The negatives for both candidates were remarkably high, and there was so much volatility that whichever candidate was in the news most lost ground. “And for reasons that you’re well aware of”—Obama-ese for Comey’s letter and the acid drip, by way of Russia, of WikiLeaks—“Hillary had been in the news a lot for a week going into the election. And that was going to create, given the dynamics of this race, some challenges.”
At around 7:30 p.m., Obama heard from David Simas that there were some “surprising numbers” coming from rural counties in Florida. Trump was ahead by a much bigger margin than the models had anticipated—“and, in fact, a larger margin than Romney had beaten me in these areas, or McCain had beaten me in these areas.”
Even by ten o’clock, Obama said, “I’m still not watching television, which is just a general rule that I’ve maintained for the last eight years, not watching political television.” Not watching, in the Obama household, he said, “is part of how you stay focussed on the task, as opposed to worrying about the noise.” Michelle Obama removed herself even further from the tumult. “The First Lady, by about 10 p.m., goes to sleep,” Obama said. “She decided she didn’t need the stress.”
By then, it was clear that the models were wrong and that Clinton was going to lose North Carolina and Florida—and that the difficulties she was having in the South were showing up in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Obama is hardly as cool and bloodless as advertised, but he will not perform, or even recount, his emotions on command. When I kept prodding him for a reaction beyond sheer fact and discernment, he stayed in that calm zone he likes to inhabit, the analyst of even his own gut. His story was ending in calamity, and yet he watched it from the outside in.
“Look, how am I reacting to it?” he said. “I had told people ahead of Election Day that I had an experience like this. This is part of politics. And that was in New Hampshire”—where he lost to Clinton, in the 2008 Democratic primary. “We had come out of Iowa on this rocket ship and the last poll internally that we had taken in New Hampshire three days later showed us up ten. And I still remember Axelrod and Plouffe and Gibbs knocking on the door, as I’m getting ready to go downstairs, and they’ve got this kind of sheepish look on their faces. And I said, ‘What’s going on, gentlemen?’ And they said, ‘Well, I think this may not work out the way we expected.’ ”
He went on, “There is deep disappointment. In New Hampshire, when I lost, it was only the second election in what proved to be an interminable primary season. And people forget that was actually the night I gave the ‘Yes, we can’ speech. It was in the face of defeat, not victory, that we talked about ‘Yes, we can.’ And I remember flying down to Boston. We had a fund-raiser and I had to speak to a bunch of supporters down there the next day. And Axelrod was surprised. He was, like, ‘You don’t seem that upset.’ And I said, ‘You know, I think this is right. I think this is how it should be. I haven’t earned this yet.’ You don’t go from being a first-term senator, no matter how popular, winning one caucus, and suddenly you’re anointed. The American people are showing some wisdom here in saying, ‘You know what, we got to take this thing out for a spin, we’ve got to get a better sense of how this thing navigates the curves, because that’s what a President is going to need.’ ”
I found this curious—the comparison between Obama’s temporary setback in New Hampshire and Donald Trump’s ascension to the Presidency. But he seemed to catch up with the disjunction.
“In this situation, the consequences are much higher,” he said. “It’s terminal. It’s the end of the road on the election. You can’t recover from the election. And obviously my feelings about the country and where these election results might lead the country are more serious. And in some ways it’s also more frustrating, because it wasn’t my campaign, so it’s a little bit like a parent watching a kid in a sporting match, and you don’t feel like you have as much control over it.”
My longest recent conversation with Obama came the day after he first met with President-elect Donald Trump, in the Oval Office. I arrived at the West Wing waiting area at around nine-thirty. There was a copy of USA Today on the table. The headline was “rise in racist acts follows election.” It was accompanied by a photograph of a softball-field dugout in Wellsville, New York, spray-painted with a swastika and the words “Make America White Again.” The paper reported other such acts in Maple Grove, Minnesota, at the University of Vermont Hillel Organization, and at Texas State University, in San Marcos, where police were trying to determine who had distributed flyers reading “Now that our man Trump is elected and Republicans own both the Senate and the House—time to organize tar & feather vigilante squads and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this diversity garbage.”
Below that story was an account of Obama’s encounter with Trump. Obama had steeled himself for the meeting, determined to act with high courtesy and without condescension. His task was to impress upon Trump the gravity of the office. He seemed to take pains not to offend the always-offendable Trump, lest he lose what influence he might still have on the political future of the country and the new Administration. Obama was also trying to engage the world in a willing suspension of disbelief, attempting to calm markets and minds, to reassure foreign leaders and, perhaps most of all, millions of Americans that Trump’s election did not necessarily spell the end of democracy, or the rise of an era of chaos and racial enmity, or the suspension of the Constitution. This is not the apocalypse.
And yet even in the West Wing few could put up the same front. That much was clear when, the morning after the election, Obama and Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, had met with groups of staffers. (The two acted “almost like grief counsellors,” one source said.) Obama told his staff not to lose their spirit, to keep their eyes on “the long game.” Soon after the election had been called for Trump, Obama told them, Ben Rhodes had e-mailed to say that sometimes history zigzags. Obama seized on that.
“A lot of you are young and this is your first rodeo,” Obama told the staffers in the Oval Office, a source recalled. “For some of you, all you’ve ever known is winning. But the older people here, we have known loss. And this stings. This hurts.” It’s easy to be hopeful when things are going well, he went on, but when you need to be hopeful is when things are at their worst. That line reminded one senior aide of Obama’s last speech to the U.N. General Assembly, a defense of the liberal order that was willfully optimistic at a moment when illiberal currents were coursing all over the world. Now, in his own home, Obama sought to buck his people up and get them into a professional frame of mind. He praised the Bush Administration, which he had criticized so sharply throughout the 2008 campaign, for the generosity and efficiency with which its people had assisted in the transition, and he told his people to do the same, to be “gracious hosts” of the most well-known address in the United States. He asked them to make sure that even their body language radiated a sense of pride and coöperation.
But there was little that could soften the blow, either inside the White House or in the great world beyond. Trump’s victory did not merely endanger Obama’s legacy of progressive legislation or international agreements. It unnerved countless women, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and L.G.B.T. people, as well as professionals in national security, the press, and many other institutions. (And this was before Trump appointed Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, as his senior counsellor.)
The outcome of the election was also a blow to those who anticipated major advances for the Democratic Party: it wrested over-all control of just one additional state legislature, and remains a minority in both houses of Congress, having gained only a handful of new seats in the House of Representatives, and only two in the Senate. Democrats saw a net loss of two governorships, leaving fewer than a third of the states with Democratic governors. The party of F.D.R. and Robert Kennedy was at its weakest point in decades and had been cast as heedless of the concerns of white working people.
Nor was there any secret why Vladimir Putin and the Russian political élite were so tickled by Trump’s ascent. Yes, Trump represents, to them, a “useful idiot,” a weak, discombobulated, history-less leader who will likely be content to leave Russia to its own devices, from Ukraine to the Baltic states. But Putin may also think of himself as the chief ideologist of the illiberal world, a counter to what he sees as the hypocritical and blundering West. He has always shown support for nativist leaders such as Marine Le Pen, in France; now he had a potential ally in the White House. Suddenly, Germany, led by Angela Merkel, was the lonely bulwark of Europe and Atlanticism. And even she faced a strong nativist challenge, for the sin of admitting thousands of Syrian refugees into the country.
The White House was, as one staffer told me, “like a funeral home.” You could see it all around: aides walking through the lobby, hunched, hushed, vacant-eyed. In a retrospective mood, staffers said that, as Obama told me, Clinton would have been an “excellent” President, but they also voiced some dismay with her campaign: dismay that she had seemed to stump so listlessly, if at all, in the Rust Belt; dismay that the Clinton family’s undeniable taste for money could not be erased by good works; dismay that she was such a middling retail politician. There was inevitable talk about Joe Biden, who might have done better precisely where Clinton came up short: in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio. And there was the fury at James Comey, who had clearly stalled Clinton’s late momentum, and at the evidence that Russia had altered the course of an American election through a cyber-espionage mission that was conducted in conjunction with Julian Assange and warmly received by the Republican candidate.
Three days after Trump’s victory, Obama was scheduled to go to Arlington National Cemetery and deliver the annual Veterans Day address to thousands of vets and their families. The President’s limousine, the Beast, and a long line of black vans and security vehicles were lined up and waiting on the south drive of the White House. It was hard not to see it, considering the mood of the previous few days, and the destination, as a kind of cortège.
The official line at the White House was that the hour-and-a-half meeting with Trump went well and that Trump was solicitous. Later, when I asked Obama how things had really gone, he smiled thinly and said, “I think I can’t characterize it without . . . ” Then he stopped himself and said that he would tell me, “at some point over a beer—off the record.”
I wasn’t counting on that beer anytime soon. But after the sitdown with Trump, Obama told staff members that he had talked Trump through the rudiments of forming a cabinet and policies, including the Iran nuclear deal, counter-terrorism policy, health care—and that the President-elect’s grasp of such matters was, as the debates had made plain, modest at best. Trump, despite his habitual bluster, seemed awed by what he was being told and about to encounter.
Denis McDonough strolled by with some friends and family. The day before, the person Trump sent to debrief him about how to staff and run a White House was his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. They had taken a walk on the South Lawn.
I asked McDonough how it was going, and he gave me a death-skull grin. “Everything’s great!” he said. He clenched his teeth and grinned harder in self-mockery. McDonough is the picture of rectitude: the ramrod posture, the trimmed white hair, the ashen mien of a bishop who has missed two meals in a row. “I guess if you keep repeating it, it’s like a mantra, and it will be O.K. ‘Everything will be O.K., everything will be O.K.’ ”
Although Obama and his aides had long been alarmed by Trump’s disturbing rhetoric and loose grasp of policy, they decided that the best path forward was to assume the mask of decorum. It was a matter of amour-propre, but—again—also of tactics. To have any chance to influence Trump, they had to avoid any trace of the contempt that had once been so pronounced. [cartoon id=”a20493″]
Perhaps the more acute personal sadness for White House staffers was the vision of Obama and Trump sitting side by side in the Oval Office. A President who fought with dignity to rescue the country from economic catastrophe and to press for progressive change—from marriage equality to the alleviation of climate change—was putting on a mask of generous equanimity for a visitor whom he had every good reason to despise, an ethically challenged real-estate brander who had launched his political career by promoting “birtherism,” and then ran a sexist and bigoted campaign to galvanize his base. In the Oval Office, the President was quick to comfort the young members of his staff, but he was, an aide told me, even more concerned about the wounding effect the election would have on the categories of Americans who had been routinely insulted and humiliated by the President-elect. At a social occasion earlier this year, someone asked Michelle Obama how it was possible for her husband to maintain his equipoise amid so much hatred. “You have no idea how bad it is,” she said. His practiced calm is beyond reckoning.
Those closest to Obama at the White House say that he copes by quietly, sarcastically deflating the attacks—like letting the air out of a balloon slowly, one said, the better not to make too much noise. He never loses his capacity to be the scholar of his own predicament, a gently quizzical ethnographer of his own country, of its best and worst qualities. In private, Michelle Obama gives clearer voice to the frustrations, and, not least, to a concern about the racism that is apparent to them both. In public—in one of the most memorable speeches of the campaign—she spoke out ferociously against Trump’s misogyny.
There is no denying the depths of Obama’s humbling. He fully grasps the nature of the bigotry and the nihilism that Trump has espoused in the name of working-class empowerment. Obama’s way is to keep cool while insisting on, and embodying, a faith in institutions.
“Look, by dint of biography, by dint of experience, the basic optimism that I articulate and present publicly as President is real,” he told me. “It’s what I teach my daughters. It is how I interact with my friends and with strangers. I genuinely do not assume the worst, because I’ve seen the best so often. So it is a mistake that I think people have sometimes made to think that I’m just constantly biting my tongue and there’s this sort of roiling anger underneath the calm Hawaiian exterior. I’m not that good of an actor. I was born to a white mother, raised by a white mom and grandparents who loved me deeply. I’ve had extraordinarily close relationships with friends that have lasted decades. I was elected twice by the majority of the American people. Every day, I interact with people of good will everywhere.”
Obama is a patriot and an optimist of a particular kind. He hoped to be the liberal Reagan, a progressive of consequence, but there are crucial differences. For one thing, Obama does not believe in the simplistic form of American exceptionalism which insists that Americans are more talented and virtuous than everyone else, that they are blessed by a patriotic God with a special mission. America is a country that was established on the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers and improved upon not merely by legislation but also by social movements: this, to Obama, is the real nature of its exceptionalism. Last year, at the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, he stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, and defined American exceptionalism as embodied by its heroes, its freedom fighters: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, John Lewis, the “gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York”; its Tuskegee Airmen and Navajo code-talkers, its 9/11 volunteers and G.I.s, and its immigrants—Holocaust survivors, Lost Boys of Sudan, and the “hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande.”
Now Obama had begun the transfer of power to Donald Trump. The President insisted to the press that they’d had “an excellent conversation.”
Obama got in his car and the motorcade pulled out of the White House gates and sped south through the streets of D.C., over the Potomac and into the green grounds of Arlington. I was packed into a van filled with officials from the Pentagon. They were gossiping softly about the election and its aftermath, but, once we were through the gates, passing thousands of tombstones, listening to the thud of ceremonial cannon fire, they went quiet.
After a while, someone remarked that Obama was about to leave for a weeklong foreign trip, beginning with Greece. “Birthplace of democracy,” someone else said. “Hard to take after this week.”
After speaking at the Memorial Amphitheatre, Obama returned to the White House for lunch and a few meetings. I saw him in the Oval Office afterward. In shirtsleeves but with his tie knotted high, he sat down in the chair where he had met with Trump the day before and ordered some tea.
Throughout the campaign, he had told his audiences that if Trump—“uniquely unqualified” and “temperamentally unfit” to be Commander-in-Chief—were to win, eight years of accomplishment would go out the window. I asked him if he still believed that.
“Now that the election is over, no, I don’t believe it,” he said with a sharp, dark laugh. “Not because I was over-hyping it. I think that the possibility of everything being out the window exists. But, as a practical matter, what I’ve been saying to people, including my own staff, is that the federal government is an aircraft carrier, it’s not a speedboat. And, if you need any evidence of that, think about how hard we worked over the last eight years with a very clear progressive agenda, with a majority in the House and in the Senate, and we accomplished as much domestically as any President since Lyndon Johnson in those first two years. But it was really hard.” Obama said that he had accomplished “seventy or seventy-five per cent” of what he set out to do, and “maybe fifteen per cent of that gets rolled back, twenty per cent, but there’s still a lot of stuff that sticks.”
He went on, “Obviously, the Affordable Care Act, I think, is most vulnerable, because that has been a unifying bogeyman for Republicans over the course of the last six years. In the minds of a lot of the Republican base, it is an example of a big government program designed to take something from them and give it to someone else who is unworthy.” But he said that, while the Republicans would have to make some attempt to deliver on that, they had to proceed with care, because the program’s twenty-odd million beneficiaries included many Trump voters, “even if they don’t make the connection.”
If the Republicans “tinker and modify but still maintain a commitment to provide health insurance for the people who received it,” he said, “then a whole bunch of stuff hasn’t gone out the window.”
Obama has a similar view about the Iran nuclear agreement, despite Trump’s regular denunciations of it. “We actually have over a year of proof, and you’ve got the Israeli military and intelligence community acknowledging that, in fact, it has worked,” he said. The agreement has not changed “some of the more obnoxious behavior of Iran,” but it has insured that Iran does not now have “breakout capacity,” the ability to build a weapon in a short window of time. “So, given that proof, I don’t think that it is inconceivable that Republican leaders look and they say, ‘This thing worked. Obama is no longer in office. This is not something that our base is hankering to undo, and we may quietly leave it in place.’ ” [cartoon id=”maslin-2003-08-04″]
This kind of talk has led some to think that Obama was deluded in his quest to provide reassurance. James Hohmann, a columnist in the Washington Post, suggested that Obama had reached only the first stage of grief—denial—in the five stages that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross set out in her book “On Death and Dying.” Anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance were still to come. Yet Obama argued coolly that Trump’s record of shifting positions without losing his supporters might be a curiously hopeful fact.
His formulation of this thought was, of course, excruciatingly diplomatic. “I think that the President-elect has shown himself to be able to make a connection with his supporters that gives him much more flexibility than the normal candidate to take a variety of approaches,” he said. “They seem to trust him, separate and apart from any particular thing that he says or does. And, as a consequence, I think we have to wait and see how, in the face of the realities of governance, he reacts to it. Another way of putting this is that what has been true for some time is that if I proposed something that was literally word for word in the Republican Party platform, it would be immediately opposed by eighty to ninety per cent of the Republican voters. And the reason is not that they’ve evaluated what I said. It’s that I said it. Well, the reverse then becomes true.”
At the same time, Obama refused to interpret Clinton’s—and the Party’s—loss as a personal repudiation. “Some of this is really simple and it’s the thing that Mitch McConnell figured out on Day One of my Presidency, which is people aren’t paying that close attention to how Washington works,” he said. “They know there are lobbyists, special interests, gridlock; that the powerful have more influence and access than they do. And if things aren’t working, if there’s gridlock, then the only guy that they actually know is supposed to be in charge and supposed to be helping them is the President. And so the very deliberate strategy that Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party generally employed during the course of my Presidency was effective. What they understood was that, if you embraced old-fashioned dealing, trading, horse-trading, bipartisan achievement, people feel better. And, if people feel better, then they feel better about the President’s party, and the President’s party continues. And, if it feels broken, stuck, and everybody is angry, then that hurts the President or the President’s party.”
Obama was convinced, accordingly, that Trump won less as a champion of working people than as an anti-establishment insurgent. “The President-elect, I think, was able to make an argument that he would blow this place up,” he said. “Hillary may have been more vulnerable because she was viewed as an insider. And the reporting around the Goldman speeches”—speeches given to Goldman Sachs executives—“might have reduced her advantage, the normal Democratic advantage, in the eyes of working people, that we were standing for them. I don’t think it was fair, but that’s how it played itself out.”
He picked up the thread of what he had been saying in the car back in North Carolina: that, before the rise of the new-media universe, he had been able—even as a black guy “with a really weird name”—to meet people where they lived, and convey a sense “that I cared about them, that I could relate to them, that I didn’t condescend to them, and that maybe I was in this for the right reasons. . . . So it’s not just, like, the gushing San Francisco liberal hugging me that makes me optimistic. It’s that I’ve seen great decency among people who may, nevertheless, have some presuppositions or biases about African-Americans or Latinos or women or gays. And the issue is, constantly, How do we break through those barriers?”
I reminded Obama that, eight years ago, when I was interviewing him about race, he had been somewhat elusive throughout our official session but afterward had tracked me down in the building to remind me how complicated it was for him to talk about the subject. A stray word about race could be as explosive as a stray word about the financial markets. He remembered.
“There are certain things we know,” he said. “We know that when there is a conversation about the police and African-Americans, and conflict between those two, everybody goes to their respective corners. That is an area that just triggers the deepest stereotypes and assumptions—on both sides. The biggest drop that I had in my poll numbers in my first six months had nothing to do with the economy. It was ‘the beer summit.’ ” That August, a fifty-eight-year-old black Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., had been arrested and handcuffed at his own door by a white police officer. An uproar ensued when Obama seemed to take Gates’s side, and, hoping to quiet the storm, the White House arranged a sitdown over beers between the professor and the policeman. “Among white voters, my poll numbers dropped, like, I don’t know, ten per cent or something,” Obama continued. “If you don’t stick your landing in talking about racial issues, particularly when it pertains to the criminal-justice system, then people just shut down. They don’t listen.”
He thought back to that fateful day in August. “I thought that it would be fairly innocuous to say, ‘I don’t know all the facts, but if you’ve got an elderly black gentleman—even if he’s being obnoxious to a police officer—handcuffing him probably doesn’t make sense if he’s on his own porch. I thought that would be viewed as a pretty common-sense proposition. It was a pretty visceral reaction. Now, what we also know is that, when we are talking about family or service or sports or popular culture, there are all these categories where people’s stereotypes rarely pop up. And, when they do, the majority of people are offended by them. And so the question for me, over the course of my Presidency, during the course of this election, has always been, How do I strengthen the better angels of our nature? And how do we tamp down our tribal impulses?”
Even in the midst of what he can only see as a disastrous turn of history, Obama retained the uncanny capacity to view his quandaries as if he were drafting a research paper. “A President who looked like me was inevitable at some point in American history,” he said. “It might have been somebody named Gonzales instead of Obama, but it was coming. And I probably showed up twenty years sooner than the demographics would have anticipated. And, in that sense, it was a little bit more surprising. The country had to do more adjusting and processing of it. It undoubtedly created more anxiety than it will twenty years from now, provoked more reactions in some portion of the population than it will twenty years from now. And that’s understandable.”
How did he speak with his two daughters about the election results, about the post-election reports of racial incidents? “What I say to them is that people are complicated,” Obama told me. “Societies and cultures are really complicated. . . . This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop. . . . You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”
For the Democratic Party, these questions have a strategic dimension. After Obama and Clinton, the Party bench is thin. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are hardly young. Obama insisted that there were gifted Democratic politicians out there, but that many were new to the scene. He mentioned Kamala Harris, the new senator from California; Pete Buttigieg, a gay Rhodes Scholar and Navy veteran who has twice been elected mayor of South Bend, Indiana; Tim Kaine; and Senator Michael Bennet, of Colorado.
And Obama related the Party’s losses this year to previous setbacks—and recoveries. “Some of my staff are really young, so they don’t remember this,” Obama said. “They remember my speech from the Boston Convention, in 2004, because they uploaded it on YouTube or something, but they might have been fifteen when it happened. Well, that’s the election that John Kerry lost. George Bush was reëlected. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, was defeated. The Senate went Republican. The House was Republican. Me and Ken Salazar, of Colorado, were the only two Democrats nationally who won. It was a very similar period to where we are right now. Two years later, Democrats had won back the Senate; I think they had won back the House. And four years later I was the President of the United States.
“So this notion somehow that these irreversible tides have been unleashed, I think, surrenders our agency. It’s easier than us saying, Huh, we missed that, we messed that up, we’ve got to do better in how we organize. We have to stop relying on a narrow targeting of our base turnout strategy if we want to govern. . . . Setting aside the results of this election, Democrats are well positioned to keep winning Presidential elections just by appealing to the base. And, each year, the demographic improves.”
To put it more bluntly than Obama did, the nonwhite percentage of the population will continue to increase. “But we’ll keep on getting gridlock just because of population distribution in this country,” he went on. “As long as California and Wyoming have the same number of senators, there’s going to be a problem—unless we’re able to have a broader conversation and move people who right now aren’t voting for progressive policies and candidates. . . . All of this requires vigilance in protecting gains we’ve made, but a sense, yes, of equanimity, a sense of purposeful calm and optimism, and a sense of humor—sometimes gallows humor after results like the ones we just had. That’s how ultimately the race is won.”
Not long before the election, Valerie Jarrett, the senior aide with the closest relationship to the Obamas, asked the President, “Don’t you sometimes wish you could run for another term? I’m sure you could win, and there’s so much more to do.”
Obama had no appetite for superseding the Twenty-second Amendment. “I said no, because, look, at some point you lose touch,” he recounted. “By being in this room. At some point, you get worn down. At some point, you start getting into bad habits. I told her, ‘We’re playing on house money here. We weren’t supposed to be here. For us to have had this opportunity and to be able to make this much change, as much as we wish that we could have gotten everything done, it’s remarkable.’ ”
The Trump era confronted the outgoing President with obvious questions. Who was now the leader of the opposition and of the Democratic Party? What if there were violent racial incidents? Would he step in as a spokesman, a moral voice? Because of the demands of the transition and the tradition of discretion, Obama seemed unwilling to address these issues head on, but, at least in general terms, there was no question that he was now seeing his post-Presidency in a new, if dimmer, light. “I think that if Hillary Clinton had won the election then I’d just turn over the keys,” he said. “We’d make sure the briefing books were in order and out we go. I think now I have some responsibility to at least offer my counsel to those who will continue to be elected officials about how the D.N.C. can help rebuild, how state parties and progressive organizations can work together.”
Trump had triumphed in rural America by appealing to a ferment of anti-urban, anti-coastal feeling. And yet Obama dismissed the notion that the Republicans had captured the issue of inequality. “The Republicans don’t care about that issue,” he said. “There’s no pretense that anything that they’re putting forward, any congressional proposals that are going to come forward, will reduce inequality. . . . What I do concern myself with, and the Democratic Party is going to have to concern itself with, is the fact that the confluence of globalization and technology is making the gap between rich and poor, the mismatch in power between capital and labor, greater all the time. And that’s true globally.
“The prescription that some offer, which is stop trade, reduce global integration, I don’t think is going to work,” he went on. “If that’s not going to work, then we’re going to have to redesign the social compact in some fairly fundamental ways over the next twenty years. And I know how to build a bridge to that new social compact. It begins with all the things we’ve talked about in the past—early-childhood education, continuous learning, job training, a basic social safety net, expanding the earned-income tax credit, investments in infrastructure—which, by definition, aren’t shipped overseas. All of those things accelerate growth, give you more of a runway. But at some point, when the problem is not just Uber but driverless Uber, when radiologists are losing their jobs to A.I., then we’re going to have to figure out how do we maintain a cohesive society and a cohesive democracy in which productivity and wealth generation are not automatically linked to how many hours you put in, where the links between production and distribution are broken, in some sense. Because I can sit in my office, do a bunch of stuff, send it out over the Internet, and suddenly I just made a couple of million bucks, and the person who’s looking after my kid while I’m doing that has no leverage to get paid more than ten bucks an hour.” [cartoon id=”warp-2011-02-14″]
The sense that, on the level of politics and policy, there was work to be done (“I know how to build a bridge to that new social compact”) infused the post-Presidential role that he sketched for himself. “I’ll be fifty-five when I leave”—he knocked on a wooden end table—“assuming that I get a couple more decades of good health, at least, then I think both Michelle and I are interested in creating platforms that train, empower, network, boost the next generation of leadership. And I think that, whatever shape my Presidential center takes, I’m less interested in a building and campaign posters and Michelle’s dresses, although I think it’s fair to say that Michelle’s dresses will be the biggest draw by a huge margin. But what we’ll be most interested in is programming that helps the next Michelle Obama or the next Barack Obama, who right now is sitting out there and has no idea how to make their ideals live, isn’t quite sure what to do—to give them resources and ways to think about social change.”
He seemed to be returning to the days when he was a community organizer in the Altgeld Gardens housing project, on the South Side of Chicago. “The thing that I have always been convinced of,” he said, “the running thread through my career, has been this notion that when ordinary people get engaged, pay attention, learn about the forces that affect their lives and are able to join up with others, good stuff happens.”
Every ex-Presidency is marked, of course, by the Presidential memoir, and Obama acknowledged that the genre has been vexed. “My observation in reading Presidential memoirs is that they are very heavy on ‘and then this happened, and then that happened,’ ” he said. He noted that he hadn’t managed to keep a diary in the White House and marvelled at the “remarkable discipline that Jimmy Carter apparently had where each day he was describing what he had for breakfast and what happened here and what happened there.” He admitted that as a writer he could never be as free as he was in his first book, “Dreams from My Father.” “Some of it is just by virtue of decorum,” he said. “If you have meetings with people that they’ve assumed were private and suddenly you’re just spilling the beans, it’s a little bit like telling on an old girlfriend about something.”
Shortly after four, following nearly two hours of conversation, Obama got up to call it a day. He would get some rest over the weekend—he played golf on Saturday and Sunday—then leave for the trip to Europe and South America on Monday. Along the way, he knew, his job was to keep offering reassurance, to deny the prospect of apocalypse, just as he had with his staff. This would require some doing, as his successor’s transition team already showed signs of chaotic infighting and of favoring many of the reactionaries, climate-change deniers, and heroes of the alt-right in their midst. On his first stop, in Athens, Obama would give a speech about populism, nationalism, globalization, tribalism, and, by implication, the ominous rise of Donald Trump.
Walking out the gates of the White House, I thought about the morning at Arlington. The weather was sunny, crisp, cool; dried leaves, russet and umber, skittered across the walk. It reminded me of Election Day eight years ago, in Chicago. Obama had voted near his house, on the South Side, and then accepted victory that night, flanked by his wife and daughters, in Grant Park. “While the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight,” he had told the crowd of nearly a quarter-million people, “we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.” And he cited words that Abraham Lincoln spoke to “a nation far more divided than ours”: “We are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Obama, graying now, more exhausted than he admits, carried the wreath at Arlington to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God.” As a bugler played Taps, the realization came that in the coming year it would be Trump, formerly of Trump Taj Mahal, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Donald Trump, formerly the host of “Celebrity Apprentice” and the owner of Trump University, in the Situation Room. At 10 Downing Street. At the Élysée Palace. At the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
In the speech at Arlington that morning, Obama managed to deliver a political message. And this time he went beyond the call for orderly transitions and praise for “excellent” meetings. He delivered a distinct paean to values that Trump so often dismissed.
“Veterans Day often follows a hard-fought political campaign, an exercise in the free speech and self-government that you fought for,” he said. “It often lays bare disagreements across our nation. But the American instinct has never been to find isolation in opposite corners. It is to find strength in our common creed, to forge unity from our great diversity, to sustain that strength and unity even when it is hard.
“It’s the example of the single most diverse institution in our country—soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coastguardsmen who represent every corner of our country, every shade of humanity, immigrant and native-born, Christian, Muslim, Jew, and nonbeliever alike, all forged into common service.” His sober cadences gave resonance to words that could have been rote. So did the awareness that just seventy days remained of his Presidency.
Here was the hopeful vision of diversity and dignity that Obama had made his own, and hearing these words I couldn’t help remembering how he began his victory speech eight years ago. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” he said, “tonight is your answer.” A very different answer arrived this Election Day. America is indeed a place where all things are possible: that is its greatest promise and, perhaps, its gravest peril. ♦