It’s not that “A More Perfect Union” was insincere. Far from it. That speech captures the essence of Obama’s beliefs and his rhetorical posture, which centers itself on the essential unity of all Americans, on our common hopes and aspirations. It reflects his “unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people” and his faith in the institutions of the United States. And while the speech didn’t foreshadow any of the events of the next eight years, it offered a guide to how Obama would generally approach controversy and tackle obstacles: with generosity, political ecumenicism, and good faith.
It’s a civilized approach for a civilized time. But now, unfortunately, is not a civilized time. As Obama leaves office, he confronts a new president who seeks to cast him aside as an almost monstrous imposition on a so-called “real America.” Who stoked racial, religious, and misogynistic hatred to win power, who represents a profound threat to our liberal, pluralist democracy, a harbinger of authoritarian nationalism. In this precarious moment, Obama’s approach isn’t enough.
Indeed, you can feel the inadequacy in how Obama has approached the transition to Trump, treating him as a normal political figure with the same basic respect for process and norms. In his final press conference of 2016, Obama stressed that he would continue “cooperation” with the president-elect, and that concerns over hacking should be a “bipartisan issue,” which he hopes will be a focus in the Trump White House. “My hope is that the president-elect is going to similarly be concerned with making sure that we don’t have potential foreign influence in our election process,” Obama said. It’s true some of this is strategic, a deliberate attempt to normalize Trump and impress on him the constraints of the office. But that, in turn, reflects Obama’s belief in institutions and process, despite the real chance those institutions and processes will fail to constrain Trump’s will to power.