Why We ♥ Obama, the King
Even though we may not agree with every decision he made
Okay, let’s get real. President Obama didn’t do everything “right.” Or, at least, he didn’t do everything the way that you would have done, had you been the president. He launched covert drone attacks in too many a foreign land, killing innocent people. His signature healthcare initiative was a half-measure (my words, not yours), a strange compromise that made no one happy and resulted in higher premiums for most of us. And with him in office, Democrats outside the White House suffered the largest losses in power in decades. Through the lens of policy and party, the Obama presidency remains a 50/50 proposition for most of us. Well, maybe 60/40 or 70/30. And yet, we love him. Why?
His presidency beautifully illuminated the dual role of the office that the nation rarely considers in public conversation — a duality we must consider in this election year and beyond.
When the founders set out to design our democracy, remember, they were framing a structure in direct response to the one they had just left, opposed in outward rebellion, and won a revolution against. As the founders wrote the Constitution, defining our new government and its head, King George III was fresh in the minds of all the new “Americans.” But do you know who was prime minister during the American Revolution? Likely not. In fact, I had to look it up myself to write this. It was Lord Frederick North, a British statesman whose name is lost to history, one who surely didn’t make it into the plot or lyrics of Hamilton (of course, the real measure of whether you were important or not at the time). You don’t know him because, in the American psyche, the leader of a country is one singular person. The Brits call that person the “king.” We call that person the “president.” But, in truth, when the founders designed our government, they created the role of the American president by combining not one but two British leaders: the king and the prime minister.
The prime minister, in the British system, is the head of government. She or he runs the day-to-day affairs of the land. While Boris Johnson fumbles through those affair for modern Britain, the role has historically been filled by such formidable leaders as Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. (We can debate their successes and failures at another time.) The British people know their prime minister as the head of 10 Downing Street, the government seat in the City of Westminster, London. Thinking only of this role, our American equivalent is the president’s position as the head of our executive branch. This is the policy seat he or she fills, executive of the laws the legislative branch passes and the judicial branch upholds. He’s basically the boss of all the federal agencies neither you nor I can name. He, hopefully someday soon in the U.S. “she,” runs the government.
The king or queen, on the other hand, is the head of state. In Britain, she runs the royal family, which, for good or for bad, means she oversees the monarchy itself and all the goings-on of the House of Windsor. She is the moral voice of the land, the keeper of tradition and decorum, the visible symbol of steadfast service and the steward of the spirit of the people. Acting as such, it is no surprise that Queen Elizabeth, at 94 years old, addressed her kingdom and the world just weeks ago in a stylish green dress and broach to declare that after the coronavirus crisis “we will meet again.” As elegant as ever, she said that she hopes “in the years to come, everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.” In perfect British form, she left out talk of policy or government action. Instead, she focused on the emotional state of the citizenry. Funny enough, the queen even praised the power of meditation. Liz is very modern.
These two roles — prime minister and king/queen — were combined into one when the founders of the United States of America created the role of the president. And so, for over 200 years, we have looked to our leader for all of the above: sound policy, smart thinking, a superior ability to execute, as well as moral authority, an empathetic voice, and a charm and knack for inspiring the best in our people. This is, without a doubt, a tall order. Some of our presidents have filled one shoe or the other, but rare is the president who has well filled both. When the critics said, aloud, that Hillary Clinton was a “policy wonk,” they meant that she would fill the role of prime minister brilliantly but the people just didn’t like her enough to be queen. Unfortunately, the same can be said of Elizabeth Warren and her illustrious plans. We get that she would lead the bureaucracy well. We just weren’t convinced, en masse, that she deserved the crown. Flip this thinking around, and we see that Pete 2020 was a charismatic, almost Kennedy-esque young leader, but no one really thought he had the executive chops (yet) to lead the policy shop.
Barack Obama filled both roles with great strength. It is why, I suggest, we loved — and continue to love — him so. If you outline all of the policy initiatives that he promised, advanced, and executed, each of us (at least those of us on the left) would likely praise a majority of them — not all, but a lion’s share. He trained and equipped the Afghan army, he ended the use of torture, he created new financial regulations to protect consumers, and he expanded hate-crimes statutes. To the gays (this writer included) and those who saw marriage equality as the next frontier of the fight for civil rights, he promised and delivered, cleverly “evolving” while the country came along with him. As head of the executive branch, he did a commendable job; most would agree with his major policy efforts. To be fair, even the most liberal among us would reasonably find that he failed in some other major ways. He didn’t close corporate loopholes, he didn’t raise the minimum wage, and he didn’t create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He was, by no means, the perfect progressive, nor even a progressive at all by some measures.
What he did do brilliantly well, though, was lead the state. He filled the role of king with great charm, a buoyant and inspiring voice, and, frankly, with incomparable style. His articulate oration defined a generation. His paternal grace restored respect to the White House. And his hopeful spirit raised that of a nation who had fallen on hard times. Let us not forget that his first charge in office was no less than this: fix the economy now; go! With Michelle Obama at his side, he gave us a light to look toward, an anchor to find strength in, and a friend among the powerful. And so when we consider policy decisions that we may not have agreed with, we were always able to say, “I know he’s a good man and a good father. I may not agree with him, but I trust he’s making the best decision he can.”
President Obama remains a man of many gifts. And all of those gifts were on display tonight as he addressed the Class of 2020. In a classic blue blazer — no tie, elegant bookshelves — Barack Obama called on the graduating class to use their power, to rise to the occasion, and to face our country’s hardest truths. He reminded them that, “Our society and our democracy only work when we think not just about ourselves but about each other.” And he left them — and all of us — with three pieces of advice: (1) Don’t be afraid, (2) Do what you think is right, and (3) Build a community.
What Barack Obama understood, and continues to understand, is that when the leader speaks, everyone listens. Like the queen, he is the leader of the national conversation. And in a country, and a digital landscape, so inextricably connected, that conversation can be shaped very easily. He merely needs to use the words honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect, and millions of people will repeat them and discuss. Donald Trump understands this, too, but he uses this power to divide, to disempower, and to amplify hate. It is no wonder that tonight we saw the former king in all his glory — full sentences and all — a dearly missed presence on the national stage. One only needed to hear a minute or two to feel deeply sad that he is not the one leading us through the darkness of the covid era.
We love Barack Obama because, of all the presidents who have lived in that white house in our lifetimes, he best embodies the intention of our founders: a combination of executive and visionary, of governor and people-whisperer, of wonk and friend. He was both prime minister and king, the two roles our founders married into one: president. It is why we miss him. It is why we loved him. And it is why so many of us continue to follow his work. As we look toward the November elections, and to all of those elections that follow, let us consider a new way to evaluate our candidates. Can they fill both roles? Can they be both people? Are they prime minister and queen? Can they preside over and lift from under? Can they guide and galvanize? Can they manage and also inspire? American leadership, by design, calls for both. And a modern America needs all the leading it can get.
You can watch Barack Obama’s commencement address at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta5anRPf8rQ