Barack Obama
Credit: Pete Souza/Flickr

Not many people have been more articulate than Adam Gopnik in describing the particular threat posed by the presidency of Donald Trump. That’s why I feel the need to at least take him seriously when he prescribes something that he thinks would mitigate the damage, as he did in his most recent column.

Will Obama step forward to help lead the opposition to Trump?…

What the dissenting, or “resisting,” side needs is exactly what Obama can help supply: principled leadership from as close to a universally respected figure as one could hope to find. At a moment when the leadership of the congressional Democrats is desperately uninspired, and the next generation of liberal voices has yet to emerge or remains uncertain of purpose, the opposition is in need of real leadership, meaning what real leadership always is: a voice of reason lit by passion.

I thought of that when I read what Martin wrote recently about how the only thing less credible than Trump is everything else. It’s true that there are no elected Democratic leaders that the majority of the country is willing to embrace as the alternative to Trump. But Gopnik is right, Obama fills that bill. Even as Republicans chose to fight him every step of the way, he managed to show what competence in the White House and federal bureaucracy could look like. Few of us have forgotten all that and the temptation to compare the current administration unfavorably to that record is only growing by the day.

I spent almost the last decade studying Barack Obama. My efforts were not so much about defending him as they were an attempt to try to understand him—something I thought that most pundits failed to do. So when I read what Gopnik wrote, I once again tried to approach it from the standpoint of “what would Obama say in response to that suggestion.” I can’t claim to know, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts.

The first thing to keep in mind about Obama is that he doesn’t engage with the world via the drama triangle.

In other words, he wouldn’t buy into the idea of playing the rescuer to protect us from Trump, the persecutor. As Obama once told David Remnick, “at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.” It might sound harsh, but as recently as last May he said that “you get the politicians you deserve.”

The second thing I consistently noticed about Obama is that he maintains an unassailable optimism about the democratic process as a foundational principle that guides almost everything he does. That was essentially the point of James Kloppenberg’s book titled “Reading Obama,” in which he placed the former president in the tradition of this country’s philosophical pragmatists.

Between college and law school, Obama spent three crucial years working as a community organizer in Chicago, and observers unsurprisingly take for granted that there must be a difference between what he learned on the streets of the far south side and what he learned in the seminar rooms of elite universities. To a striking degree, however, the lessons were congruent: Democracy in a pluralist culture means coaxing a common good to emerge from the clash of competing individual interests. Bringing ideals to life requires power. Balancing principles and effectiveness in the public sphere is hard work, an unending process of trail and error. No formulas ensure success.

People on the right have consistently accused both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of being acolytes of Saul Alinsky. As Clinton wrote in her thesis about the community organizer, there was some truth to the idea that he was a revolutionary.

If the ideals Alinsky espouses were actualized, the result would be social revolution…In the first chapter it was pointed out that Alinsky is regarded by many as the proponent of a dangerous socio/political philosophy. As such, he has been feared — just as Eugene Debs or Walt Whitman or Martin Luther King has been feared, because each embraced the most radical of political faiths — democracy.”

That is the radical ideal of democracy that Obama has always embraced. It is so foundational to him that it supersedes any attachment to a particular ideology. Perhaps that is because it goes to something Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about him years ago:

Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined — in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost.

A third characteristic always demonstrated by Obama is that he plays the long game. That was best articulated by his wife, Michelle.

And in those moments when we’re all sweating it, when we’re worried that the bill won’t pass or the negotiation will fall through, Barack always reminds me that we’re playing a long game here. He reminds me that change is slow — it doesn’t happen overnight.

If we keep showing up, if we keep fighting the good fight and doing what we know is right, then eventually we will get there.

We always have.

To the extent that Rev. William Barber is right and the question on the table is whether or not Americans can demonstrate the kind of unity that will be required to maneuver through the Third Reconstruction, that is a long game that will require everyone to show up…and keep showing up. Rather than being dependent on one leader, it will require the proverbial “we” that the former president so often talked about.

Let’s take those three things together: Obama doesn’t see himself as a rescuer, he has an unshakeable optimism about the democratic process and he always plays the long game. What do you think that says about how he would answer Gopnik’s suggestion that he engage as the leader of the resistance? If you think it makes that possibility unlikely, then I agree with you.

Obama has made his post-presidency plans pretty clear. Some of them are simply practical and others demonstrate the way he will continue to hold fast to the person he’s always been. The first thing he’s doing is writing a memoir of his time as president. That will not only be a fascinating read, it gives him time to engage in his first love: writing. He has also signed up to work with Eric Holder on ensuring that Democrats are prepared for the 2020 redistricting process, something that will affect that party’s prospects over the next decade.

But the major commitments Obama has made are to continue his work on things like the My Brother’s Keeper initiative (preparing youth of color to be our next generation of leaders) and how to boost citizen engagement. Both of those are visions for the long term—especially the latter.

Over the last few weeks I have been reminded of the speech Obama gave at the 2012 Democratic Convention. It was panned by the pundits (especially after Bill Clinton knocked it out of the park as the “explainer-in-chief). But I have always thought that it was one of the most important he ever gave. The entire speech was devoted to the topic of citizenship.

We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

I can imagine that Barack Obama very vividly feels the crisis that is presented by Donald Trump’s presidency. But I can also imagine that he sees beyond the person who occupies the White House and takes in the big picture of what led to his election in the first place (in the Electoral College if not the popular vote). He knows that the way forward is “through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.” Right now, this country’s level of civic participation is not up to the task. It might be enough to defeat Donald Trump, but not to repair the deeper issues that we face as a country. That is the challenge Barack Obama has taken on as his next task. I’ll be anxious to see how he tackles that one.

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