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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

President Obama’s America

President Obama at times appears less a person than a phenomenonthrough a unity of acuity, poise and elegance, he captivates and inspires. For all his skills, accepting the presidency of the United States is not just accepting the toughest job in the world, but the collective weight of history and the aspirations of the world all at once. And, in reality, he couldn’t have been more prepared, because Obama embodies the character and spirit of modern America.

In many ways, present-day America has increasingly been defined by numerous internal contradictions and external persuasions, with her burgeoning cultures, races, religions, products, ideas. For many, this discordance and capriciousness are overwhelming. But Obama is the perfect expression of this state. At once he transcends the resplendent mosaic of class, race and ideology. He is part Hawaiian, Indonesian, Kenyan, black, white, Harvard, inner-city Chicago. He is America’s first true postmodern president.

Yet he also thrives in America’s sometimes difficult politics not merely because of what his life narrative ishe succeeds also because of what his life narrative isn’t. In many ways, Obama is the antithesis of the qualities that characterized the last eight yearsthe Bush administration’s juvenile nihilism and the Congressgross incompetence. For many, conditions and circumstances demanded a genuine leader. Obama was one.

In politics, the smallest details define the biggest moments. For Obama, he chose to meet his most dangerous challenges with the finest responses. When his political candidacy previously threatened to implode, he didn’t shy away from the novelty that challenge presents. Instead, reassured with remarkable courage, he delivered a speech on race in Philadelphia, now universally acclaimed for its honest, vivid examination of the complexities of racial relations. He transformed a moment that could evoke hurt and pain into leadership, not denying and abdicating responsibility but providing us all a moment for reflection and discussion.

America tomorrow is also a time when traditional political labels will matter less, displaced by common sense pragmatism and mutual resolutions. The public’s faith in the government has dramatically crumbledin his last year Bush often had an approval rating hovering around 20 percentthus electing a man who built his reputation as a conciliator. For many, blind subscriptions to political constructs damaged our capacity for reason and tolerance. They worried that excessive partisanship harmed the country, and, wanting to reclaim the promise and power of the American Dream, united behind Obama.

Most importantly, America appears to have regained her desire for renewal and reinvention at a moment when she is facing her greatest crisis in identity. Present-day America confronts her greatest challenges in decadesthe multi-polar world, the crumbling financial system, the constitutional violation, the climate change, global terrorism. These tasks are extremely daunting.

So, when America’s status is in deep peril, when the world no longer views America in the same way, when America’s promise has been distorted and her ideals besmirched, Americans collectively chose action over inaction, electing Obama and, by implication, dismissing the endless political gridlock and Boomer-Vietnam-60s infatuation. In record numbers, Americans turned out to elect a candidate who is post-Boomer, post-civil rights, post-Vietnam. They wanted an America premised not on the past, but on the future. This is modern America.

At a time when the qualities and reality of modern-day America appears confused, fraught, fragmented, divergent, Americans decided to unite and save our nation. They engaged actively, and, in the end, channeled their hopes and worked to elect our new presidentPresident Barack Obama.

ZACH HAN is watching the inauguration replays, and will share some with you from zklhan@ucdavis.edu.

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