As this primary season has gone along, a strange sensation has come over me: I miss Barack Obama. Now, obviously I disagree with a lot of Obama’s policy decisions. I’ve been disappointed by aspects of his presidency. I hope the next presidency is a philosophic departure.
But over the course of this campaign it feels as if there’s been a decline in behavioral standards across the board. Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply.
The most important of these is basic integrity. Think of the way Iran-Contra or the Lewinsky scandals swallowed years from Reagan and Clinton.
The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, is constantly having to hold these defensive press conferences when she’s trying to explain away some vaguely shady shortcut she’s taken or decision she has made.
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Obama and his wife have also mostly attracted and hired people with high personal standards. There are all sorts of unsightly characters floating around politics. This sort has been blocked from team Obama.
Second, a sense of basic humanity. Donald Trump has spent much of this campaign vowing to block Muslim immigration. Obama, meanwhile, went to a mosque, looked into people’s eyes and gave a wonderful speech reasserting their place as Americans.
Third, a soundness in his decision-making process. Over the years I have spoken to many members of this administration who were disappointed that the president didn’t take their advice. But they almost always felt their views had been considered in depth.
Obama’s basic approach is to promote his values as much as he can within the limits of the situation. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, has been so blinded by his values that the reality of the situation does not seem to penetrate his mind.
Take health care. Passing Obamacare was a mighty lift that led to two gigantic midterm election defeats. As Megan McArdle pointed out in her Bloomberg View column, Obamacare took coverage away from only a small minority of Americans. Sanderscare would take employer coverage away from tens of millions of satisfied customers, destroy the health insurance business and levy massive new tax hikes.
To think you could pass Sanderscare is to live in intellectual fairyland. Obama may have been too cautious, especially in the Middle East, but at least he’s able to grasp the reality of the situation.
Fourth, grace under pressure. I happen to find it charming that Marco Rubio gets nervous on the big occasions – that he grabs for the bottle of water, breaks out in a sweat and went robotic in the last debate. And I happen to think overconfidence is one of Obama’s great flaws. But a president has to maintain equipoise under enormous pressure. Obama has done that, especially amid the financial crisis. After Saturday night, this is now an open question about Rubio.
Fifth, a resilient sense of optimism. To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation.
No, Obama has not been temperamentally perfect. Too often he’s been disdainful, aloof, resentful and insular. But there is a tone of ugliness creeping across the world, as democracies retreat, as tribalism mounts, as suspiciousness and authoritarianism take center stage.
Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.
David Brooks writes for the New York Times.