Coming This Fall: The Sublime Revenge Of Barack Obama

President Barack Obama speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 27, 2016. REUTER
President Barack Obama speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Most presidential campaigns are freighted with drama: colliding ambitions, revelations of character, pivotal moments which arrive without warning. But the drama of 2016 involves much more than a clash of two candidates. For it also turns on the ideals and ambitions of America's first black president, and how the trials of his tenure -- indeed, of his life -- have permeated not only the national consciousness, but his own soul.

True, much of the resolve Barack Obama will bring to electing Hillary Clinton is about legacy. But it is also about the kind of man he is, and what he wants this country to be. And that is inexorably intertwined with the entirely different man who is Donald Trump.

First, legacy.

It is not my purpose here to make the historic case for Obama's presidency. But his accomplishments bear at least some resemblance to those of Franklin Roosevelt in the early days of the New Deal, or of Lyndon Johnson before he crashed and burned in Vietnam.

He ameliorated the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He saved the auto industry. He extended health care to millions of Americans. He put two capable and progressive women on the Supreme Court. And he did so in the face of unprecedented partisanship and polarization.

In the area of foreign policy and national security, he took out bin Laden and decimated Al Qaeda. He negotiated the Iran deal, and opened a new relationship to Cuba -- controversial acts which, in the end, will likely be vindicated by history. And he helped design and negotiate an international treaty to combat climate change.

It is in foreign policy, as well, that the principal criticisms of his tenure lie. It can be argued that he left Iraq too soon, entered Libya too precipitously, and abandoned his redline in Syria for too little. But it is surely true that in the Middle East the consequences of action or inaction are as difficult to forecast as they are severe.

In the end, there is little doubt that history will view Barack Obama as a very consequential president -- perhaps even, some may argue, a great one.

That verdict lies ahead. More salient, for now, is to consider what kind of man he is.

I can't claim to know him -- I don't. But four years before he became president I got at least some insight, which the trials of his presidency bore out.

The occasion was the morning after his breakthrough convention speech in 2004 -- overnight, it seemed, he had become a prominent and potentially unique national figure. The circumstances of our meeting aren't important. But for roughly 45 minutes, Nancy and I visited with him alone.

For a number of reasons, he made a deep impression on us both. Part of this involved the difference between Obama and the numerous other political leaders I've known over time -- not to mention Donald Trump as all of us have come to know him.

Our conversation was just that -- a genuine conversation. He listened closely, attentive to nuance. It became obvious that Obama had a deep curiosity, and knew great deal about a great many things. But where another politician might work overtime to show his knowledge of whatever most concerned you, more striking was his questions and how much he took in.

My concerns were those of a more or less typical white progressive -- no surprise, then, that a smart guy like Barack Obama had mastered those subjects. But then he began probing Nancy's work as an educational consultant in underdeveloped countries -- a subject about which most Americans, including our politicians, know even less then they imagine.

Not Obama. Again, he asked great questions. More surprising, it gradually became apparent that he knew quite a bit about the context for Nancy's efforts. This, then, was not a matter of professional necessity, but genuine curiosity.

With this came a nice sense of detachment from self. Later on that summer, we went to a fundraiser for his Senate campaign. Based on our prior acquaintance, the three of us were having an amiable and nonpolitical conversation when the representative of a women's group shouldered us aside, claiming the space to assure Obama that her group had been pivotal to his rise.

As we watched, Obama responded with polite appreciation. At length the woman departed. With mock gravity, Nancy put a hand on Obama's shoulder and said, "For my part, Senator, I want to assure you that I've had absolutely nothing to do with your success."

Many a candidate would squirm at such an irony. Obama grinned, then broke up altogether, eyes alight with real amusement. Here was a politician who got the joke -- including his role in it.

Needless to say, Donald Trump never would.

But the awareness of self and surroundings was surely bred in Barack Obama from early on. To appreciate this, one need not know him -- one need simply pause to imagine his life, and what went into becoming the man who became our 44th president.

Imagine being a multi-racial kid whose Kenyan father abandoned him young. A kid whose peripatetic mother moved him to Indonesia to marry her Asian second husband before divorcing him. A kid returned to a distant outpost of America, Hawaii, to be largely raised by his white grandparents. A kid separate from the history and heritage of the Africa-Americans with whom America would group him. A kid who knew that every time he stepped into a room, others would see him as a different version of "the other."

Every fiber of Barack Obama must want to banish Donald Trump from public life. And, at last, his opportunity is at hand.

Imagine, then, the sense of caution, the gift for observation, the feeling of solitude, the awesome self-reliance the young Barack Obama would need to navigate the world. Imagine the stunning realization that, in ways few could understand, he was a person unto himself. Imagine the sensitivity to difference through which he learned to deal with differences.

Then, perhaps, we begin to imagine the man we came to know. The truly extraordinary understanding he brought to speaking of race when that necessity was thrust on him by Reverend Wright. The experience of becoming a human Rorschach test who, simply by aspiring to leadership, symbolized our psychic response to race -- for most of us, of racial progress; for a fearful minority, of displacement within a society which threatens them.

Imagine, too, the awesome forbearance it took to remain stoic in the face of the racist birtherism stoked by Donald Trump. Or the criticism of African-Americans who believed that he should speak first and foremost as a black man. Or the racist rudeness of a white southern congressman shouting "liar" at a black American president. Or the ceaseless Republican obstruction underwritten by racial animus. Or political enemies trying to convert his own wife to that racist stereotype -- angry black woman -- fueled by their own subliminal guilt and unease.

Imagine, further, the burden of knowing that, though you personified the best of America to the world, millions of your fellow Americans hated you because of race.

Imagine all that, and wonder at the extraordinary grace Barack Obama brought to the ceaseless task of both leading and representing us. Feel gratitude, as well, for a man who gave us an administration which was high in ethics, and a family so consistently admirable in leading such a uniquely unnatural existence.

But we have been lately reminded, yet again, that for any president -- but particularly this one -- race is a minefield, all the worse because of the ongoing trials of black Americans, to whose experience too many whites are oblivious, and who look to Obama to express their frustration and pain.

The tragedies in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas captured his dilemma. Blacks asserted that he been too slow to condemn police shootings of other blacks; irrational and angry whites held him responsible for deaths in Dallas simply because he expressed concern about the deaths in Baton Rouge and St. Paul; the despicable Trump accused him of dividing the country. As a fatalist, he must surely have anticipated this, just as, surely, it must have taken a toll.

And yet throughout his term, as he did again in Dallas, he has comported himself with admirable balance, speaking for all Americans without retreating from his identity as a black man, whether stating the stark and simple truth that Trayvon Martin could have been his son, to leading the mourners in Charleston by singing "Amazing Grace."

Graceful, indeed -- and hard.

So imagine how Barack Obama must feel about Donald Trump.

Some of those feelings are surely personal -- and wholly justified. Trump is the odious gasbag who tried to humiliate our first black president by feeding the racism, nativism and xenophobia of the bogus birther movement. The moral cipher who, simply to get attention, assaulted Obama with groundless lies. The opportunist who ultimately compelled our president to release his birth certificate to quell the fevered suggestion that he was not, somehow, legitimate.

Thus it was pleasing to watch Obama dispatch Trump at the White House Correspondents Dinner, turning the man's bloviations to sport for our national amusement. But his disdain for Trump is far more than personal, for the bilious billionaire is the antithesis of everything that Obama wants America and its president to be.

Obama prizes reasoned dialogue; Trump is an ignorant demagogue. Obama strives to make judicious judgments; Trumps' sputterings are mindless to the point of danger. Obama speaks to inclusiveness and generosity; Trump to suspicion and divisiveness. Obama is a man of dignity; Trump a narcissistic buffoon who would degrade our public life.

Obama is ever conscious of his responsibilities; Trump feels no responsibility to anyone or anything but his own all-consuming ego. Obama is the president who made the brave and risky decision to go after Osama bin Laden; Trump is the draft dodger who questions his loyalty and spine.

And here's the core of it. Obama has surmounted the toils and trials of race, and asked us to do the same. Trump is a practicing racist.

Trump's offenses against decency are legion. He targets blacks with racist dog whistles; Mexicans with demeaning stereotypes; American Muslims with insinuations that they are, collectively, a fifth column for terrorists. And, in doing so, he tears at the fabric of that which is most precious, and often most fragile, in our society.

Every fiber of Barack Obama must want to banish Donald Trump from public life. And, at last, his opportunity is at hand.

We have already seen the preview. In the wake of the slaughter in Orlando, Trump shamed himself by spewing self-congratulations combined with demagoguery, lies, and practical and moral idiocy -- scapegoating Syrian refugees and every Muslim abroad; suggesting that American Muslims at large were complicit in terror; labeling Obama's careful effort to distinguish between Terrace and all Muslims as weak; and, perhaps most loathsome, questioning the president's loyalty.

With palpable contempt, Obama eviscerated all this. He then reminded us that "we don't have religious tests here" and that "we've seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens, and that has been a shameful part of our history." And, by doing so, he reminded us of the ways in which Donald Trump would not only undermine our security, but our values.

But that response was the grim duty of a president faced with tragedy. At the Democratic convention, we got a glimpse of how Obama will eviscerate Trump -- for the emptiness of the man, and the stunted prism through which he views America. And after Trump demeaned the Khan family, Obama used the moral authority of his office to challenge Trump's fitness to hold it.

Come the fall, Barack Obama will be free to mount an argument in his own time and way, giving everything he has to make sure that the next president embraces, not destroys, the values he has brought to the office. And, by doing this, he will exact his well-earned reprisal on Donald Trump, dispatching him from public life with the back of his hand.

Perhaps that is the best part. Barack Obama's ultimate revenge is not simply that he will do that, but how -- with a grace and elegance beyond the power of a man like Trump to summon, or even imagine.