The last time Barack Obama spoke to a large crowd in a Chicago park, he’d just been elected. Literally.
It was election night, 2008, an eerily warm and inviting eve in Grant Park, a night of triumph for the Chicagoan who was chosen president and his pumped-up followers. As he speaks again today at the groundbreaking for his presidential center in Jackson Park, I can’t help but reflect on what’s become of his legacy, both good and bad, in an America he changed—but not enough.
Clearly Obama revived the country after the subprime mortgage collapse that hit with stunning vengeance. He passed national health insurance, aka Obamacare, which only now is being fully appreciated by the public for being as transformative as it was. He ended the Iraq war. He proved to Black and Latino kids that anything was possible. His administration provided funding for new runways at O’Hare International Airport, $1 billion to rebuild the Chicago Transit Authority’s Red Line, and lots more.
But those successes, particularly Obamacare, came at a cost. The 2010 off-year elections were a disaster for the Democratic Party nationally and in statehouses from coast to coast. The Dems still really haven’t recovered.
What’s most striking is the utter difference in tone. “Hope” and “Yes we can” have been replaced by bitter and ever-deepening partisan divisions. We no longer live just in different states but, effectively, different worlds.
“We have never been just a collection of red states and blue states. We have always been the United States of America,” Obama told the crowd that night in 2008. “In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people.”
Obama went on that warm evening to praise the man he’d defeated, GOP nominee Sen. John McCain. “We are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader,” Obama declared.
Jump forward to today. Can you imagine Donald Trump saying that about Hillary Clinton, or Joe Biden? Trump’s political strategy was always the opposite: not to inspire Americans to participate in their government, but to divide them and drive down turnout so that only the right kinds of people vote.
If it was just Trump, I wouldn’t be concerned. Con artists come and go. But it’s that he’s persuaded so many people to follow him. As former Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady puts it, “He’s a master manipulator.”
Ergo, polls show that most Republicans believe Joe Biden stole the election, despite the recent Arizona audit findings. Many people are reluctant to impose even the most mild of remedies to curb the deadly COVID-19, strutting their “freedom” even though that “freedom” could cost some else their life. Abortion doctors now face bounty hunters.
At a minimum, Obama didn’t end that kind of enmity, even though he possessed the world’s biggest microphone. He made mistakes that gave Republicans ammunition. But, in my view, whatever Obama’s errors against civility, they were a speck compared to Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to even give Lincolnwood’s Merrick Garland a hearing when Obama nominated him for the Supreme Court. The message was clear: Winning is the only thing that counts. At all cost.
The result: a nation involved in what amounts to a low-level civil war. As in the remap games that partisans in both major parties are playing this reapportionment season. The public be damned.
Obama himself, in a webcast with his former campaign manager, David Plouffe, pretty much admitted the problem. “Trend lines are of great concern,” he said. “We’re more tribal . . . with more doubts about our democratic institutions.”
He tried to end on an optimistic note, arguing that the antidote to public distrust is more democracy, the rebuilding of democratic institutions.
“Progress does not travel in a straight line,” he said. “Sometimes it zigs and zags.” But it will come, he said.
I hope so. Barack Obama’s task and promise does not end with building a presidential center. The country is troubled, seriously. Here’s hoping he and others can point a way out.