When I imagine having to listen to the voice of a President Hillary Clinton or a President Donald Trump for the next four years, I start to miss President Barack Obama before he's gone. So while he's still in office, I decided to get to know him a little better by watching some of his speeches on YouTube.
I began with his address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. This is the speech where I first saw him. I recalled being surprised at his background: white mother from Kansas, black father from Kenya. I remembered hearing his African name and then promptly forgetting it. I remembered the thrill of his "Red state-blue state" crescendo: "There is not liberal America. There is not a conservative America. There is a United States of America."
He was a bit nervous when he walked on stage. But when he walked off, I wanted to hear more of him. I thought: "Whatever that guy's name is, he looks presidential to me."
I next watched one of Obama's most famous speeches--one that I had missed--the "More Perfect Union" speech, and was struck by an admirable approach to conflict we rarely see from politicians.
Obama addressed comments made by his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, during the 2004 campaign that stoked racial animosity. He called out Wright's mistake: "to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality." He also criticized the other side in the conflict, accusing his white grandmother of uttering "racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe."
But his biracial experience allowed him to acknowledge the legitimacy of both black anger and white resentment. By legitimate, he didn't mean that all actions are equally right or justified. He meant that even wrong actions can be based on authentic pain.
The admirable thing about this approach to conflict--pointing to the weakness and the legitimacy of both sides--is that it's possible in disagreements over anything: religion, culture, language, ideology. It also represents the opposite of the rhetoric that makes today's political discourse so despicable.
We hear it equally from the right and the left: "The people we oppose are wrong to feel the way they do. If those people would get it and be like us--or better yet, just disappear--the world would be perfect." But in the "More Perfect Union" speech, Obama never holds out the promise of perfection. "This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected."
In this view, there is an understanding that a final complete state of balance is an impossible illusion. Any balance can always be upset, as happened in Dallas last July when a sniper shot 14 policemen, killing five. I watched Obama's address at the officers' memorial and was most impressed by his humility:
"I've seen how inadequate words can be in bringing about lasting change. I've seen how inadequate my own words have been… . And as we get older, we learn we don't always have control of things, not even a president does."
What I'll miss most about Obama are those qualities of a wise leader that are not exclusive to conservatives or liberals. Our nation would be well served by a president who was as conservative as Obama is liberal, provided that president could acknowledge the legitimate concerns of the other side, have confidence that the present is workable, and be humble about how perfect the future can be.
I think Congress would work better if all representatives--liberal and conservative--embraced these qualities.
In fact, I firmly believe that the world would be a much better place--almost perfect--if everybody agreed with me on this. I guess in that regard I'm no better than anybody else.