In these fiercely contentious times, it is a remarkable thing, if you are President, to see your approval rating go up as your term of office ends. Often the public cannot wait for the occupant of the White House to vacate the premises.
With his numbers rising steadily for months, Barack Obama left the White House with an approval rating of 59%, according to a number of polls (also here). Given the ferocity of this last election, with victory going to the opposing party, an ascending trajectory is rather miraculous.
By contrast, while newly-inaugurated Donald Trump saw his popularity soar immediately after his election, it plummeted during his two-month transition: Trump entered the White House with a 40% approval rating---lowest in the modern presidency (also here, here, and here). Usually a President enters office with highest ratings and then, after the hurly-burly of political combat and public disillusion, those ratings fall (as happened to Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, whose rating on departure was 34%).
Can it be accident that Obama’s rating ascend while Trump’s descend? These crisscrossing ratings reflect, I believe, our nostalgia-in-advance for the departing Mr. Obama and rise in direct proportion to our dread-in-advance of a Trump presidency. (Of course Trump complains his low rating is due to “rigged” polling.)
No doubt the public observed Mr. Trump’s behavior during his transition, notably his attacks on the intelligence community and the media for raising questions about his close ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, a leader who bears the U.S. no good will, as well as his attacks via retaliatory tweet against any and all critics, be it union leader, film actress, or civil rights icon---things it is simply inconceivable Mr. Obama would do---and the public had to wonder: Can this man control his hot temper and become presidential?
On this point of personal control, our nostalgia-in-advance for Mr. Obama relates directly, I also believe, to that ultimate thing---character---or Character, as capitalized by early American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson because of its moral component. Presidential approval ratings reflect not only agreement with policy and a liking for personality; they reflect---the thing hardest to command and the most important to secure---respect. Respect is the salute we give to Character.
In short: Barack Obama has it---Character---while Donald Trump is one, a character, a cartoonish one.
It takes Character, as Mr. Obama demonstrated over and over, to execute the world’s most difficult job. Recall when Mr. Obama entered office, we were on the brink of a repeat of The Great Depression, threatening America and the world with its ravages. But Mr. Obama did not quake (not publicly), nor did he waste time excoriating his predecessor. Nor did Mr. Obama lash out in attacks on Congressional Republicans who infamously conspired on the very day of his first Inauguration to oppose him in all things. With the nation on the brink of economic collapse, such opposition must have struck Mr. Obama as akin to treason, but we didn’t hear it. Nor did the GOP’s continuing obstruction throughout his eight years in office get a rise out of him.
And it takes Character of a special kind to forebear when large swaths of the public rise up to voice objection to the legitimacy of your presidency and indeed to your very being, with declarations to “take back our country”---a message it doesn’t take a linguist to translate is Dog Whistle for “Get that black man out of our White House.” How revolting now to see enter the White House, and how remarkable Mr. Obama’s grace in welcoming him, the man who promoted the scurrilous birther movement questioning Mr. Obama’s legitimacy, the man who, finally conceding birtherism has no basis---is in fact a lie---could not bring himself to apologize to the man he injured. Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Trump is completely devoid of Character.
This may be why there is little pride displayed among Republicans at Mr. Trump’s ascension---there’s the thrill of victory, yes, but little pride---nothing like the pride Democrats felt that historic night in 2008 when we, at long last, elevated an African-American to the White House and began to exonerate ourselves for the nation’s sin of slavery. Instead of pride, Republicans must finesse the fact that Mr. Trump enters office with the blot of racism on his character, as birther-promoter, among other blots (sexual predator, xenophobe, etc).
I often wondered about Mr. Obama’s inner weather, what is was like for him inside his head and his soul when the going got rough, especially when his very being was questioned, when he actually had to produce the long form of his birth certificate to placate the birthers. Surely, like every last one of us, the Furies arose in him and had to be quelled, which Mr. Obama always succeeded in doing, while we manage it far less often (and Mr. Trump not al all). We have to admire Mr. Obama’s self-control, the only exertions of which can be seen in his hair grown grey. That’s called integrity: the hanging on to Character and never sullying it or letting it go.
Appropriately, there were some few times when he loosened his self-control and openly grieved---for the little children massacred in Newtown, for the young African-American men killed by police, for the members of an African-American church gunned down by a white supremacist in Charleston, for our war dead.
This is not to say Mr. Obama never put a foot wrong. I still question his use of military drones to kill terrorists, as drones are a cheap and easy-to-assemble weapon for terrorists to use against us. I wish he’d done more for infrastructure, not only to bolster our buckling bridges and roads, but to give jobs to the working class that, disillusioned, eventually went for Trump. I wonder, given the public’s appetite for wholesale change as seen in Trump’s victory, if Mr. Obama might have gone for a wholesale reform of Wall Street, rather than the half-measure that is Dodd-Frank. And I wish Mr. Obama had spearheaded an international coalition to save Syria.
But Mr. Obama put his foot right innumerable times. Character without achievement would mean he was little more than an estimable guy. In Mr. Obama, character came with achievement: again, saving the economy---for which he is not given enough credit (but about which he does not grouse, another sign of Character); saving the auto industry, an iconic American industry; claiming healthcare as a right, not a privilege, and enacting landmark legislation, a mountain Democrats since FDR have wanted to summit; extricating us from war in Iraq and stabilizing Afghanistan; spearheading a historic international agreement on climate change, the first step toward saving the planet for future generations.
As for failing to deliver on a “post-racial” America, which absurdly some fault him for: In truth, Mr. Obama did his part, by modeling racial tolerance and pointing the way, but he alone can’t effect social change. That is on us, the society: Society must want to change. Mr. Obama is himself post-racial, but, sadly, America is not. Same goes for “post-partisan”: Again, it was Republicans who refused to work with him from Day One, despite his extended hand, thus he resorted to executive action and we remain more divided than ever.
Mr. Obama is a student of History; he understands its ebbs and flows. I imagine he has the wit to think History has a very strange sense of irony to replace him with his diametric opposite. Mr. Obama may see this diametric recalibration as a sign of his having made a mark: the bigger the action, the bigger the re-action. With Mr. Trump vowing to undo everything Mr. Obama achieved, the historian in Mr. Obama may reasonably hope for---and in his post-presidency he will actively work toward---restoration of his programs in future election cycles; at the least, during his presidency he set the template. As archetype Mr. Obama may be seen as a tragic optimist, as I wrote earlier: He does the right thing, like healthcare or climate change---even knowing that all his hard work may come to nothing. Doing the right thing is the thing. Again, this is Character.
Emerson defined Character as “the moral order seen through the medium of an individual nature.” About moral character, he wrote, “Rectitude is a perpetual victory, celebrated not by cries of joy, but by serenity,” adding, “It is disgraceful to fly to events for confirmation of our truth and worth” (something Mr. Trump does perpetually). Emerson also wrote of Americans in the main: “Our frank countrymen….have a taste for character, and like to know whether the New Englander is a substantial man, or whether the hand can pass through him.” But Emerson also said of the world, “History has been mean; our nations have been mobs.”
This past election, our frank countrymen let anger get the better of them, yielding a President who is mean and low. It remains to be seen if the American people have the Character---Mr. Obama’s Character---to right the balance and save the Republic.
For the series, “The Obama Era,” at The New York Times, see here. For the special edition of The Nation, “The Obama Years,” see here.
Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.”