I am the last of the Obama Republicans. But I still have hope for lasting change.
We need a deep, abiding commitment to the transcendent ethos of hope and change that Barack Obama once represented.
I sometimes wonder if I'm the last Obama Republican. In saying this I have to qualify: I was no big fan of President Barack Obama's economic policies, have doubts about the wisdom of much of his foreign policy, and think he took liberties with the Constitution in ways that might feel shocking if we weren't fresh off the presidency of Donald Trump.
Yet, a young Sen. Obama proved that one could call out to the better angels of our nature and still succeed at the highest levels of American politics. Obama circa 2008 set a bar for grace in the grit of campaigning that inspired a generation of Americans to believe in a better sort of discourse. I was one of them.
Now, in 2022, we need that spirit back more than ever.
Obama's remarkable moment in Denver
It is remarkable how things fade from memory. The night Obama gave his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination, to thunderous approval from adoring supporters at Denver’s Mile High Stadium, I can remember Brit Hume on Fox News taking to the air to say that, while his network was critical of the newly minted Democratic nominee, the historic nature of the moment was something they joined the country in celebrating.
When Obama, our first African American president, ultimately did prevail on Election Day, the veteran conservative commentator praised the president-elect’s oratory and his team’s effectiveness.
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When Vice President-elect Joe Biden strode forth to shake Obama’s hand center stage, Hume had kind, if qualified, words for him as well: “We were all sitting here thinking that if Sen. Biden were allowed to make a speech now too that we could all probably go home and the morning team would be there to pick it up when he was done. Friendly fellow, we’re all fond of him, but he is a bit loquacious.”
Hume’s style as a commentator evinced echoes of sportscasters like Chick Hearn or Vin Scully – one knew they were rooting for the home team, but they never failed to say something good about the other side.
Today, however, it would be hard to find a mainstream conservative broadcaster willing to say anything like “we’re all fond” of Biden. Rather the euphemistic chants of “let’s go Brandon” erupt at political rallies and sporting events, spewing from the mouths of those whose contempt for a president they believe has contempt for them has overwhelmed the traditional boundaries of public decorum.
This isn’t Biden’s fault. Nor is it the fault of the ordinary Republicans who revile him. We live in a moment in American life where the incentives governing political society are perverse to the point of metastasization.
Yes we had four years of a President Donald Trump who (even those who love him will agree) was the most willfully divisive president in American history. But that itself is a reflection of a reality Trump exploited and exacerbated, not one that he created.
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An America already embroiled in cultural civil war sought gladiators to sweep aside the stifling decorum of gentler ages to exact vengeance on their political foes. In retrospect, Trump met the moment. He stepped into the arena of media sensationalism and cultural warfare and mercilessly swung the biggest sword.
Obama's vision inspired America
Yet in 2004 – a time that could only have been considered reasonable by those who could see 12 years into the future – the newly elected junior senator from Illinois was already lamenting the divisions of our age and warning against the cynicism that would lead us to accept them.
As he wrote in "The Audacity of Hope": “Maybe the critics are right. Maybe there’s no escaping our great political divide, an endless clash of armies, and any attempts to alter the rules of engagement are futile. Or maybe the trivialization of politics has reached a point of no return. … But I don’t think so. They are out there, I think to myself, those ordinary citizens who have grown up in the midst of all the political and cultural battles, but who have found a way … to make peace with their neighbors.”
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I was not watching when Obama burst onto the scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to speak what to this day are probably his most famous words. Addressing those “who would seek to divide us,” Obama declared, “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America! There is not a Black America, and a white America and Latino America, and Asian America, there’s the United States of America!”
But going back and watching this speech as a politically disenchanted 20-year-old on the eve of Obama’s presidential run moved me toward believing in politics again. Revisiting this moment on CNN’s YouTube channel as I write this article, I note the top-ranked comment left only a year ago was from a man named Lucas: “I’m a Republican, but this speech made me proud to be an American. I wish our country was united again.”
I was a liberal Democrat when I worked as a canvasser for the Obama campaign in 2008. Years later, I would shock my Democratic friends and family by becoming a Republican and running for Congress – only to shock my new Republican supporters when I told them I still believed in the Obama vision of hope and change.
But going door to door in 2008, I met many Republicans and John McCain voters who felt the same way.
Former president reflects on his tenure
Today, former President Obama has retired from regular public view, as is generally appropriate for former presidents to do. One has the sense of a man content to believe he did some good in office while long ago resigned to the notion that his earlier idealism was never going to be enough to prevent the escalation of our partisan warfare in ways few of us could have imagined.
In his post presidential memoir, "A Promised Land," Obama reflects upon the consequences of having raised Americans’ hopes so high and the failure of their efforts to sober expectations. The context was questioning whether this left the country ill prepared to contend with the painful realities of the financial collapse: “…maybe it was for the best that people couldn’t hear those cautionary notes. … Maybe what was needed was a burst of energy, no matter how fleeting ... the kind of high that could provide just enough momentum to get us through the most treacherous part of the journey.”
The journey has only become more treacherous since then. We need more than a burst of energy. We need a deeper, abiding commitment to the transcendent ethos of hope and change that Obama once represented. It is up to we the people ourselves to revive this spirit. But I would welcome the former president to join us in hope again.
John Wood Jr. is a national leader for Braver Angels, a former nominee for Congress, former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, musical artist and a writer and speaker on racial and political reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnRWoodJr.