Getty
Show Hide image

Goodbye Barack Obama - 14 of the moments we won't forget

A leader of humour and grace bows out. 

Barack Obama’s farewell speech as President would be deeply emotional, even if there wasn’t a giant angry cheese puff waiting in the wings. The Orator-in-Chief told supporters in Chicago that it was “the honour of my life” to serve.

He thanked his wife and daughters, and wiped his eyes, and Joe Biden, who just about managed a smile. His speech was interrupted several times by the crowd chanting “four more years”. 

But he was also deeply serious. Defending America, he declared, meant fighting extremism and intolerance at home as well as abroad. Without naming the President-elect, Donald Trump, who coursed to victory on xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric, he condemned discrimination against Muslim-Americans.

Quoting George Washington, he warned against allowing political dialogue to become so corrosive that different Americans became alienated from each other: 

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy. Embrace the joyous task we have been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours because, for all our outward differences, we in fact all share the same proud type, the most important office in a democracy, citizen.

You can read the full transcript of his speech here.

But it was only the last in a series of moments that defined Obama’s time on the public stage. Here are some favourites from the NS team:

1. That 2004 speech

In 2000, Obama, then a state senator, was too broke to hire a rental car, and such a political nobody he couldn’t get full access to the Democratic National Convention. Four years later, while running for the US senate, he was invited to give the keynote speech. 

He used the platform to tell the story of his family history, and “the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him”. 

The speech captures Obama at his most idealistic. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” he said. His opponents would dedicate the next decade to showing him otherwise. 

2. Election night 2008

It's hard to boil this down to a moment, because Obama was beamed onto TV screens around the world, as people stayed up to discover whether the United States would elect its first African-American president.  If that wasn't significant enough, he was a progressive politician who promised to make a break with the neoconservative Bush administration. And it's easy to forget, but he was a lone voice of calm at a time when the Western world faced the worst financial crisis since 1929. 

3. Michelle Obama

Obama said to his wife in his farewell speech: "You took on a role you didn’t ask for. And you made it your own with grace and with grit and with style, and good humour." While Obama's CV might look impressive, Michelle Obama's is equally so. She is a self-made woman from a modest background who worked her way into Harvard Law School and was the breadwinner for the family during her husband's early political career. She has used her platform as First Lady to promote healthy eating and girls' education, while managing to remain above the fray of day-to-day political fighting. 

4. The puppy

Obama may have struggled to do deals with the Republicans, but his children clearly knew how to negotiate from an early age. In his victory speech, he told them: “You have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.”

Serena, who nominates this as her favourite Obama moment, says: “Doubts that the incoming president would keep one of his emotional election pledges — that win or lose his daughters Sasha and Malia would get a dog —were dispelled when in April 2009, Bo a super cute Portuguese water puppy, bounded into the White House."

The First Dog is now eight years old. 

5. Kid story #1: “Touch it, dude!”

The first in what will be a series of Obama conversations with kids  is the photograph capturing the moment when the President allowed a little boy to touch his hair.

When Jacob, the black son of a White House staffer, met the President, his question was so quiet he had to repeat it. The question was: “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.”

Obama said he should touch it and see, and lowered his head so that Jacob could reach. “Touch it dude,” he said. 

The photograph, with all its symbolism and simplicity, has become a favourite of White House staff. 

Stephen, who nominated it, says: “I think it captures a lot of Barack Obama’s greatness: his humility in letting a five-year-old boy touch his head, his symbolic potency to black America and to black people worldwide.”

6. “A big f*ckin deal”

Obamacare – aka the Affordable Care Act, as some are belatedly realising – may be controversial now, but it’s not like it wasn’t at the time.

After announcing the signing of the historic piece of legislation, which extended healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans, Biden was heard telling Obama: “This is a big f*cking deal.”

It seems to me a perfect example of the Obama-Biden double act, where the Vice-President’s bluntness played off the calm demeanour of the boss. And if you want more of the Obama-Biden bromance, click here

7. The Correspondents' Dinners

Even during the worst of US political stalemates, there was one event in the calendar bound to cheer up hacks – the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. 

Obama specially recorded spoof videos, even roping in his political nemesis, the Republican John Boehner, to play a cameo. 

Each year, Obama demonstrated a skill that I suspect we will soon miss in the US President – to poke fun at himself. In response to the birther movement, which claimed he wasn’t born in the US, he even joked that the Lion King was his birth movie. Although it’s hard not to wince with hindsight, since the butt of his next gag was Donald Trump. 

8. Kid story #2: “Lil’ Pope”

Obama was handing out sweets at a White House Halloween event, when he came across a toddler dressed as Pope Francis, and the rest is history. 

What seemed to delight the Potus more than anything was the gold and white “Popemobile”, complete with Vatican flags, in which the mini-Pope was being pushed by a man in dark shades. 

Obama was so excited he declared Pope Jr had won the “top prize” there and then. 

Anna, who nominated it, says: "I love this moment because a tiny baby dressed as a pope is ridiculously, wonderfully joyous. No one can see that and not laugh with glee."

9. Trayvon Martin

When the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin was shot in 2012 by a neighbourhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, it exposed a culture of racial prejudice and guns that had not gone away.

Obama took his time to respond, but when he did, he described the incident in personal terms:

When Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away.

Stephen says: “For a lot of his presidency, Obama has had to avoid talking explicitly about these issues, and when he does, he tends to occupy the role of explainer-in-chief, as he does here, articulating why the killing of Martin made a lot of people so angry.”

10. This cheeky wink

As already mentioned, Obama has a dry sense of humour, and it’s not just limited to dinner addresses.

Anoosh nominates this Buzzfeed video featuring a vain Potus.

She says: “Somehow, he manages to capture the essence of both self-deprecation and pure confidence, in the wink of an eye and a poke of the tongue.”

11. Kid story #3: Spiderman

Since we’re celebrating Obama’s rapport with kids, how about this snap of the President caught in a mini-Spiderman’s web?

12. The Obamas and the Queen

No one could accuse Obama of being sentimental towards British traditions - he pivoted away from the Special Relationship and towards Asia. The feeling, as far as the upper crust press was concerned, was mutual. On their first visit, the Obamas were picked apart for lack of protocol. 

But the First Families clearly got on royally well. Michelle Obama flew over to the UK specially to join the Queen for her 90th birthday, while Her Maj was persuaded to appear in a video responding to a challenge from the Obamas on the Invictus Games. 

I like this friendship simply because it is a good reflection of the Obama family's own regal presence. Indeed, when it comes to personal scandals, the Obamas' spotless record suggests the Windsors have plenty they could learn. 

13. The Rainbow House

Although back in 2008, Obama was lukewarm on same-sex marriage, by 2012 his thoughts had "evolved" to backing it. He repealed Don't Ask Don't Tell, the legislation which had forced generations of gay American soldiers to remain in the closet while in military service, and he has signed executive orders to prevent discrimination against LGBT people.

But nothing made the message more clear than when Obama had the White House lit up in the colours of the rainbow flag after the Supreme Court ruled in favour of marriage equality. 

14. Amazing Grace

During his Presidency, Obama was frequently called upon to address the issues of both race and mass shootings. One of the most moving times he did was when he sang “Amazing Grace”. Helen, who nominated this moment, continues the story: 

On 7 June 2015, white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof walked into a black church in South Carolina, sat down for 45 minutes of bible study, then pulled out a gun and killed nine people there. A couple of days later, Obama attended the funeral of one of the victims, the Rev Clementa Pinckney. His eulogy ended by referring to “amazing grace” – and then, after a long, long pause, he began to sing. When he had raised the idea beforehand with his wife and adviser Valerie Jarrett, both had been unconvinced – but told him to do “whatever the spirit moved him to do”.

It’s an amazing moment – the church leaders sitting behind him take a moment to realise what’s happening, and then they smile and stand up. The whole congregation joins in. It’s a powerful reminder that this community, which had lost so much, still had each other. It was also a reminder that although a white supremacist had just murdered nine black individuals in the hope of starting a race war, the situation for African-Americans was not universally bleak. For the first time in history, the US had a president who knew the conventions of worship in black churches, and had the confidence to lead a congregation there. 

The song choice was intriguing – Amazing Grace was written by a white man involved in the slave trade, but became a staple of the African-American spiritual tradition. Its history is complicated and contradictory, which seems fitting. It holds out the possibility of forgiveness – “I once was lost, but now am found".

On 10 January, Dylann Roof was sentenced to the death penalty for his hate crimes.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear