Monday, July 16 , 2018, 11:41 am | Fair 71º


Jamie Stiehm: Barack Obama Made America Cool Again

The euphoria explosion at President Barack Obama’s inauguration eight years ago flew in with the January wind. Never had the capital felt so arctic cold and yet so warm.

Here was a president to be proud of in public — every day.

Yet he kept us at an elegant distance. The greatest leaders capture the hearts and minds of the people, like Winston Churchill. Obama fell short of being a man of the people. Even Democratic allies in Congress felt distanced by the solo artist sitting in the Oval Office, a beautiful stranger.

So that thrilling togetherness vanished suddenly from the scene. Republican leaders were partly to blame, spitefully refusing to cooperate with Obama.

But remember, at first, Obama made America cool again, like President John F. Kennedy, black and white blended. He made hope and history rhyme. We dared ask, were our hearts and minds destined to be his forever?

Here’s the writing on the wall I’ve stared at since 2009: Obama’s soaring rhetoric was much stronger than his ground game in office. And he sure is cool — more dispassionate than we knew.

When Obama goes on long vacations, he finds bliss and solace in islands: Martha’s Vineyard, Hawaii. Far from the madding crowd of citizens. In temperament, our man is an island.

Obama’s legacy makes pure intellectual sense, but do you feel it? The economic recovery seems soft, cool to the touch — nothing like the peace and prosperity of the 1990s.

When it comes to his signature Obamacare, some flaws were harbingers of what was to come. It took too long to pass; Obama waited months on moderate Republicans who were never going to join him; he fired the best expert helping hand in town, his friend and former senator Tom Daschle, over a trifle; and he abandoned the public option, the linchpin in the legislation’s affordability.

Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., finally put the crying baby to bed — the flawed law — for the rookie president with growing pains.

Don’t get me wrong. If I met Obama, his brilliant smile would work its magic. I respect his reason, memoir, vision, lyrical words. But I never came to love him — as I did the beguiling President Bill Clinton, a grown-up Tom Sawyer, or as the English loved Elizabeth I, the Renaissance monarch who spoke often of her love for her “good people.”

The President Roosevelts — Teddy and Franklin — had the rare political talent to reach hearts and minds. President Ronald Reagan won hearts even when their minds disagreed, and for that Obama admired the master’s art.

In waging wars in the Middle East, Obama had the burden of winning the Nobel Peace Prize. He never fully owned it or acted upon it, even after all his criticism of the Iraq War — which became a breeding ground for ISIS on his watch. Afghanistan is a shipwreck with an American military presence.

While Obama made good on a pledge to kill Osama bin Laden, he opened up a whole new kind of warfare, drones, to hit terrorist targets in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. These secret CIA strikes were precisely trained on human targets he signed off on.

“It turns out ... that I’m really good at killing people,” Obama told aides.

About 2015, a more seasoned Obama got a good deal done, worthy works that soon may be undone. In a way, that’s his fault. Few presidents leave their legacy undefended on an open field — to a hostile House of Representatives, Senate, U.S. Supreme Court and White House.

The president’s imprimatur on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal are as vitally important as they are vulnerable.

The 2016 election was not only a loss for Hillary Clinton — who also appeals to minds, not hearts. Obama came up short on voter enthusiasm. It’s a hard failure to face. Building party political infrastructure was never his strong suit.

President-elect Donald Trump’s emotive, familiar and crude style of speaking to people at rallies (and tweets) sharply contrasted to Obama’s ethereal way with words. Crude is here to stay awhile.

With a few exceptional scenes, as when he sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of nine murdered churchgoers in South Carolina, Obama’s persuasion aims to connect with minds — sweet reason — more than hearts.

And will we ever miss him when he’s gone.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. The opinions expressed are her own.

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