“May you live in interesting times.” This curse, attributed tenuously to ancient China, bespeaks a preference for order over change.
We now live in interesting times and Americans are hungering for change. Yet, surprisingly, President Obama enjoys increasing popularity as he heads into the final days of his presidency.Why is the president the most popular politician in America (outside of Bernie Sanders)? As he put it, to be elected with popular majorities twice with the name Barack Hussein Obama, something has to be going right.
And something has. He inherited an economy in free fall, losing hundreds of thousands of jobs a month. Wall Street was on the verge of collapse. The auto companies were about to close their doors. Bush left an annual budget deficit soaring above $1 trillion.
Millions were at risk of losing their homes, and millions more were losing their shirts as their homes went “underwater” — worth less than the debt owed on them. The U.S. had suffered the worst foreign policy debacle since Vietnam in Iraq. The nation had been shamed as it watched Americans left to suffer after Katrina hit New Orleans.
Obama was elected because he represented change and hope. He passed the largest stimulus plan in history — and staunched the free fall in jobs.
He saved the financial system and began putting sensible regulations back on Wall Street. He rescued the auto industry that has now enjoyed its best years in history. He revived competence in government. He passed comprehensive health care reform — a flawed compromise plan but one that as provided health insurance to 20 million Americans.
He raised taxes on the rich and lowered them on the working poor. He pushed a reactionary Congress to begin addressing the real and present danger of catastrophic climate change.
The results are apparent. The deficit has been more than halved. The recovery has been slow and halting, but we’ve enjoyed private sector job growth for a record number of consecutive months. And now, with unemployment down around 5 percent, workers are starting to be in demand and wages have just begun to inch upward.
The president has governed with grace. His rhetoric informed and lifted us. His family provided admired role models. He suffered insult and obstruction with patience and dignity.
As he would be the first to admit, none of this is sufficient. Our politics remain polluted by big money. Our economy is still rigged to favor the few. Our trade deficit remains extreme.
The banks are still too big to fail. Workers still don’t capture a fair share of the profits and productivity they help to produce. The tax evasions of the corporations and rich reach grow ever more obscene. People of color were the biggest victims of Wall Street’s housing frauds, with many yet to recover.
The racial wealth gap keeps growing. Workers — white, people of color, the young and women — all struggle against the odds. Stunningly, the life spans of white male workers are declining, as drugs, despair, sickness and suicide take an increasing toll. The U.S. is still mired in wars without victory across the Middle East.
We still invest too much in making smart bombs and too little in developing smart children. The climate grows more dangerous as global warming accelerates. The president who hoped to bring us together instead was hit by the bitter racial enmities that still divide us.
Now we’re nearing the end of a presidential campaign marked more by scandal than by substance, featuring more insults than ideas. Donald Trump captured the Republican nomination by stoking fear and anger. Both candidates have been plagued by scandals, real and invented.
Contradictions result. The country hungers for a change in course but is fearful about what comes next. The two candidates for the presidency offering change are looked on with unprecedented disfavor, while the incumbent president enjoys rising popularity.
President Obama has suggested that a president is something like a sprinter in a relay race. No one racer can determine the outcome. Your job is to run your part of the race as well as you can — and then hand on the baton to the next. It’s more complicated than that, of course. The best presidents change the direction of the race to insure that their successors have the wind at their backs.
One thing is clear today. Barack Hussein Obama came to office facing harsh economic and political tempests. And he will leave office handing the baton to a successor with the wind at her or his back.
More and more Americans are beginning to appreciate that now. And we will appreciate it even more in retrospect.