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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. 

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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