After Aretha Franklin passed away, one of the video clips shared on social media showcased Aretha singing “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center with president Obama and Michelle in the audience. The association of Aretha Franklin and Obama is noteworthy because it represents something we’ve lost in the past couple of years both in the presidency and as a country, and that is, a sense of grace.
Obama had many flaws as a president. He was not a political animal. He could not twist arms like Lyndon Johnson. He was too reasonable with his opponents. When he reached across the aisle, he expected someone to grasp his hand and instead it was slapped away. Instead of withdrawing from Afghanistan as he promised he would, he consulted the generals who surprise, surprise, asked for more troops. He refused to punish Wall Street when they bet against America and won while the rest of us lost. And he turned the funds for rebuilding the infrastructure over to the states resulting in the states using the money for shovel ready projects and saving jobs rather than rebuilding the infrastructure.
Nonetheless, when we elected the first African-American President there was a feeling that we were progressing as a country. And Obama did not let us down. His Presidency was scandal free. His family was the real life embodiment of the Cosby Show. The first lady was a role model for African-American women and for all girls. There was a feeling, in listening to Aretha Franklin singing, and in the Obama’s appreciation of her, that we were experiencing a shared multi-culturalism, a richness that showed what America was capable of, to both ourselves and to the world.
Now of course we know what the anti-thesis of that experience looks like. We know what it is like to have an awkward President, a racist, sexist, xenophobic criminal who embarrasses us on a daily basis. His followers revel in all this at his rallies. Now we know what it is like to have a first lady who doesn’t care about children separated from mothers or families housed in cages. We know what it is like to have a family who use their position for personal profit.
When Obama was elected I bought a tee-shirt that said: My President is Black. My tee shirt provoked a lot of reactions. A number of African-Americans told me they liked it and asked where they could get one. A number of white people, however, reacted completely differently. “You know, he’s only half-black,” they said. This reaction proved significant when, after a few years in office, whites began turning against Obama. Could it be because they realized he was actually black?
One of the instigators of this shift in perspective was Donald Trump who in questioning Obama’s citizenship was really saying Obama was not one of us but was rather, the other, an outsider, an alien.
Obama happens to be particularly good at code-switching. He can be the Harvard grad or he can be the basketball player. He can give a brilliant speech and he can sing along to Amazing Grace. He can write his own memoirs and he can sit down for a beer with a Cambridge cop.
Trump on the other hand is always the same dude. He does not change his behavior for anyone including the Queen of England. We now know that about forty percent of Americans are fine with this. As long as the economy is humming they will accept anything Trump does whether it’s insulting heroes or assaulting women or degrading former friends or kowtowing to Putin or failing to pay his taxes or making deals with Russians or obstructing justice, or undermining democracy, or suppressing votes, or attacking freedom of the press. None of that matters as long as people are making money and feel they are valued by their dear leader.
Still, the America that elected Obama, exists. Maybe that America will show up to vote in the mid-terms and in 2020.