David Axelrod recently interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Axe Files, his podcast. Coates is a writer for The Atlantic and winner of a "Genius Grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. He's one of the leading writers in America, and his commentary on race in the United States is important work that more people should read.
Axelrod's interview was fascinating. They talked about President Obama and his contributions to the United States in general and the black community more specifically. Axelrod, who was a Senior Advisor to President Obama in the White House (and also played a leading role on both his campaigns), said that he regularly hears from folks who assume he must be grieving over Donald Trump's dismantling of Obama's legacy. In his essay "Donald Trump is the First White President," Coates argues that "Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own." I think about this a lot.
I think about all the work put in by so many Americans, inside and outside of government, to make a difference. I think of all the phone calls made and the doors knocked on by neighbors who give a damn about the greater good. I think about the man that Barack Obama is -- an honorable, decent man, and a constitutional scholar, and an inspiring orator who showed us light during times of darkness. A leader. And then I think of the man in the Oval Office today. In a tweet this summer, Axelrod said this: "James Buchanan-heretofore viewed as the worst president in U.S. history-must be watching today from the Great Beyond in hopeful expectation." I imagine Buchanan is now relieved.
It's hard not to be angry and cynical, even depressed. I am a little ashamed that my response over the last several months has been a quiet, albeit slight, disengagement from politics. It's hard to watch this unfold -- the incompetence, the hate, the division, the selfishness. I don't want to believe that what's happening is possible in America -- but there's a headline every day to remind me.
Axelrod, though, had a more optimistic and hopeful take.
"The goalposts have been moved and they’re never gonna go all the way back to where they were. If you believe history is an incremental thing, that is really important."
Coates agreed, and deep down, so do I. President Obama and the coalition he built bent the arch of the moral universe towards justice, and that cannot be undone. Some of the legislative victories, the executive orders -- sure, some of those are gone, for now. But they'll be back, because Obama changed many of us and our expectations for what politics should be like and what government should do.
Axelrod asked Coates a pointed question: "What did Obama leave?" He wasn't talking about policy changes or legislative achievements. He wasn't looking for economic numbers or foreign policy accomplishments. He meant what did Obama being president mean, particularly for the black community. What was the impact?
So, what did Obama leave?
"He left possibility," Coates said.
And Donald Trump can never take that away.