By Edward-Isaac Dovere
He sang. He wept. He cheered. And many say they finally saw the man who inspired them in ’08.
This came very close to being the worst week of Barack Obama’s presidency, and, effectively, the last: a possible repudiation from both Congress and the Supreme Court, from his own party, from a country struggling with the same racial tensions he’s approached with a caution that’s often come across more like muted fear.
He would have been a failed president. He would have been a failed promise.
Instead, Obama finished the week in Charleston singing, really singing, and returned to a White House lit up like a rainbow that people who wanted to celebrate just felt drawn to. Hours after the partying stopped, they stayed late into the night, just sitting and staring at the building and thinking about how much had just changed.
What Obama first represented as a half-white, half-black man of a new generation, with the middle name Hussein and all the rest, seemed to have actually arrived in America — that guy America voted for in 2008 seemed to suddenly (and to a lot of his supporters, finally) show up. So did the country they voted for.
And Obama’s voice broke through in a way that it hasn’t, maybe, since the 2004 keynote address that introduced him to America. A week that started with the media obsessing over one charged word he said ended with the country glued to his whole 25-minute eulogy in South Carolina on how the country is a whole lot more racist but also a whole lot more hopeful than it likes to admit, reverberating and replaying on the news, on iPhones and on YouTube all through the night and weekend.
Obama often talks about his presidency as just trying to write his paragraph in history.
The past week, said Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, is “an exclamation point on already historic and satisfying paragraphs.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Friday captured the frustration of those who feel the country’s changed too much and too quickly under their feet, calling the Supreme Court rulings “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history,” in a radio interview with Sean Hannity.
Even inside the White House, the rush of change is almost overwhelming.
“The country is emerging in a way that is interesting and different — and we’re all taking it all in,” said a senior White House aide. Obama’s “voice and his role in a lot of these issues were important for him personally, and for his presidency.”
When an Ebola panic set in, when Baltimore rioted, when American hostages were killed in yet another stumble against ISIL, the country demanded he respond. This week, however, Americans really wanted to hear what he had to say.
Obama and his aides are determined to seize this moment, though they’re still not quite sure what that will mean beyond getting him and his voice out more.
“What we did this week was very intentional,” the White House aide said. “This is what he wants to do.”
The singing, though, wasn’t in the script.
The Obama White House is a superstitious place, where meetings often have to pause for everyone in the room to knock on wood (or whatever the nearest conference table is made of) when anyone does. There was a lot of extra wood knocking at the beginning of the week: court decisions on health care and gay marriage that they couldn’t control but they knew could damage the president’s legacy, a nagging nervousness about the last few steps on fast-track trade authority, warily eyeing the discussion about race in the wake of a vicious massacre, worries about whether the eulogy would hit the mark that they knew America needed it to.
“There was a sense of tension,” said Plouffe, who dropped by the White House on a trip through Washington earlier in the week.
By Edward-Isaac Dovere