But left unsaid in all of these accolades is an inconvenient question that’s grown even more urgent after a tumultuous year marked by persistent racial divisions, an insurrection at the US Capitol and a partisan divide over wearing masks during a pandemic that’s killed at least 618,000 Americans:
Will we ever believe a political leader who talks about hope and change again?
The fragility of a new America
It’s an inconvenient question, because it’s far easier to celebrate Obama’s legacy than to consider that many of us abandoned the vision of America he embodied. The nation’s first Black president was living proof that the nation could transcend its original sin of racism, that its citizens could find common ground.
It was Obama who said in arguably his greatest speech that “America is not some fragile thing” that can’t tolerate citizens demanding change.
But what happens when a large segment of White America stops pretending it even cares about democracy? What happens when these Americans refuse to accept the results of a presidential election, praise foreign dictators and pass a new wave of voter restriction laws?
These are the nagging questions that lurk in the background of all the recent nostalgia surrounding Obama.
Obama may be the political version of the Last of the Mohicans — a charismatic leader whose soaring rhetoric about transcending our differences now seems as outdated as a Blockbuster video store.
The multiracial elation we saw in Grant Park may be the last time in many of our lifetimes we witness such unified joy.
Our politics will get even uglier
That’s a brutal thought to contemplate. But consider some of the events of this past year — even this past month.
A major political party is passing a wave of laws across the country that may restrict voting by racial minorities and other groups that don’t tend to vote for them.
One can envision a future where White politicians and partisan judges double down on voter restriction laws and appeals to racism in a desperate bid to hold onto power.
In such a future, there may be no leaders who talk about seeking common ground. There will be no stirring oratory about how America doesn’t have red or blue states. It’ll be a war of attrition where both sides seek only to turn out their bases for elections.
I foresee this future as a distinct possibility. Leaders will keep speaking to people’s fears instead of their hopes. There won’t be any poetry in politics, just trench warfare.
Even Obama, who embodies the idea that the US is a work in progress toward a more perfect union, sounded a note of skepticism in his recent memoir, “A Promised Land.”
“Except now I found myself asking whether those impulses—of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others—were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain,” he wrote.
“For they seemed to lie in wait everywhere, ready to resurface whenever growth rates stalled or demographics changed or a charismatic leader chose to ride the wave of people’s fears and resentments.”
A different type of hope and change
Some say there will always be an audience in America for idealistic leaders who offer visions of hope and change.
“If I didn’t believe that I might as well resign from my job, live off the grid somewhere and prepare for the coming race war.”
She says the US has repeatedly shown the ability to “course correct.” The Obama era was a glimpse of a country whose arc, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., bends towards justice.
“I rely heavily,” she says, “on the Winston Churchill quote: ‘You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.'”
“American history is a record of small groups of people who keep remaking this country over and over, and who reveal to us all that the perpetual remaking is the greatest statement of fidelity to our creed and our national purpose, which is not to be like Russia, white and stagnant and oligarchic, or like China, monoethnic and authoritarian and centralized, but to be more like America, hybrid and dynamic and democratic and free to be remade.”
Liu says it may be good if Americans don’t swoon over a leader the way they once did over Obama — and for those on the right, former President Trump. He says change comes from the bottom up. It’s part of the message he preaches around the country to encourage civic knowledge and engagement.
Determining America’s future
The massive protests that followed the murder of George Floyd seemed to vindicate Liu’s emphasize on citizen power, not charismatic leadership. It was driven by ordinary people hitting the streets.
Ours will be a future Obama warned about in his memoir, when the impulses of violence, racism and intolerance will be too strong for any democracy to contain.
If that becomes our future, some may look back and regard the images of Black, White and Brown people sharing tears of joy in Chicago’s Grant Park as quaint and naïve.
And when another charismatic politician says, “There are no red states or blue states, just the United States,” people won’t cheer and rush out to vote.
Most won’t even listen to such lofty rhetoric anymore.
Is this our future? Or will enough people still believe that “America is not yet finished” and commit to becoming the vibrant, forward-looking multiracial democracy that Obama embodied?
It’s a question that Obama can’t address. He’s done his part.
Only we can answer.